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May 28th 2008 by Tina
The Painting

Posted under Bali

Happy to be back in Ubud, we commenced our usual daily activities of trekking, reading, dining and drinking. Morning tea arrived on our patio at 7:30 sharp every day and I found myself waking naturally around seven and reading quietly in bed until the clinking of tea cups signaled the official start of the day. Even Aaron was getting into the groove of total relaxation – a marvelous feat for someone with chronic multi-taskitis. We were achieving balance with minimal effort; merely the will to succumb to Ubud’s centripetal force, pulling us gently back to the middle.

With a full tank of petrol and an itch to explore, we cruised around on the moped, revisiting some of the places to which we had walked before and dodging jaywalking chickens in the process. Every time I saw a chicken waddle across the road, I silently questioned its motives. Why did the chicken cross the road? I would leave Ubud as yet unsettled on the subject. I have enough trouble figuring people out; chicken motives remain a total mystery.

Aaron’s retainers were supposed to be ready that day and, since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to stop by the Sayan Aesthetic Institute to check the status. The same friendly attendant from our first visit informed us that the retainers were due to arrive later that afternoon and he would drop them off at our hotel. We paused to admire once again the magnificent painting that hung behind the attendant’s desk. It was an original oil by a Balinese painter; the subjects reminded us of Degas’ dancers. During the three days since I had first laid eyes on the painting, my thoughts kept returning to it and, after seeing it a second time, Aaron began to show a similar affinity. At the risk of sounding cliché, the painting spoke to us like no piece of artwork ever had. I wrote down the author’s name and snapped a photo of the painting. With Ubud being the cultural center of Bali, we thought it likely that the artist might have a gallery in the city. We did some online searches and inquired at a Balinese art museum. We found only snippets of information, indicating that some of the artist’s work had recently sold at auction in Jakarta, but the trail ended there. I resolved to put the painting out of my mind.

Aaron’s retainers were delivered later that afternoon, as promised. The attendant followed up by phone the next morning on their fit. The bottom retainer did, in fact, need some adjustment and we were invited to stop into the office in the afternoon. Our day began, like many others in Ubud, with morning tea followed by a long walk. The walking itinerary described in our guide book covered a distance of ten kilometers with a mix of urban and rural terrain. We walked the first couple of hours on paved roads, with no sidewalks and unimpressive scenery. Still, it felt good to stretch our legs and get some exercise. After hours in the hot sun, we reached the landmark – a carved stone wall hardly worthy of mention – that was supposed to give way to a trail through the rice fields, which would be the home stretch of our journey. When we reached the wall, a local gatekeeper informed us that the trail was closed to tourists for a big Balinese ceremony. This news did take the wind from our sails though we were not overly surprised as we’ve discovered that the Balinese have some kind of ceremony or celebration almost every day of the week. Wilted and weary, we backtracked a ways to the main road and walked along until we spied a narrow trail leading into the jungle. My bushwalking tolerance was fading fast and I suggested hailing a taxi to take us back to the hotel. Aaron had other ideas. “Fine,” he said, stubbornly, “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” I was hot, tired and exasperated but my curiosity coupled with the challenging tone of Aaron’s voice got the better of me and I followed my compass down a muddy trail into the jungle. The difficulty in trekking through jungle and/or rice fields is that the trails are unmarked. Even when you think that you are following written instructions verbatim and your natural compass tells you that you are heading in the right direction, there is room for error.

Grass on both sides of the narrow path made my bare legs itch as we followed it further and further down the hill and away from the main road. I tried not to think about the bugs. Aaron walked confidently ahead on the path, hopeful that we would intersect the rice field trail from another direction and find our way home. We soon came upon a lone Balinese farmer who was quite surprised to see two tourists so deep in the jungle. The farmer spoke no English whatsoever but still managed to communicate that the only way back to Ubud was back on the main road. He gestured toward a big house at the top of the hill with a metal staircase extending about halfway down the steep slope. We thanked the man and slowly made our way toward the staircase only to find it gated and locked. The only other option was to backtrack again on the trail…or so I thought. Again, Aaron had other ideas.

The property surrounding the house was fortified with fierce-looking barbed wire but there appeared to be a lightly-trodden path around the right side. Aaron led the way up the narrow, steep, mud-slick path with dense jungle on one side and barbed wire on the other. I could touch both without fully extending my arms. Morning rains had left mud everywhere and we had to take our time climbing up, holding onto tree branches, exposed roots, clumps of jungle grass or whatever we could find to keep from sliding back against the razor-sharp metal barbs. Despite these conditions and their associated insects, I managed to keep my trucker’s mouth in check…until we reached the top of the hill and discovered that the barbed wire fence extended along the top as well, leaving us no way to go but back down. After a five-second meltdown that would have to have been blipped out entirely for public television, I regained my composure and we started back down the hill. Despite our extreme caution, Aaron managed to slip on a muddy patch and cut his hand on the barbed wire. It was not a deep cut but bloody nonetheless and Aaron spent the next bloody hour as the poster child for travel vaccinations.

We re-emerged from our failed detour, bloodier, muddier and sweatier but no worse for the wear; the farmer spotted us, and pointed to a tiered retaining wall alongside the locked staircase leading up to the house. Without further hesitation, we scaled the walls and trespassed onto the obviously private property, half-expecting someone to come charging outside with a shotgun. But this was Bali, not the Wild West, and we made it to the main road with no problem. My legs and shoes were covered with mud and grass; the seat of Aaron’s shorts and the back of his right calf were smeared thickly with mud; we were both soaking with sweat in the sticky tropical heat. This time, Aaron humored me by hailing a bemo – the light blue converted vans that serve as cheap public transport – and we rode silently back to Ubud. It was quite an adventure.

Back at the hotel, we showered and relaxed for a while before heading out for a late lunch in town. After that, we made our way to the Sayan Aesthetic Institute to get Aaron’s retainer adjusted…and to see the painting again. By this time, we had had several discussions about the painting, gauged similar interest, and tossed around some numbers between ourselves. As we dismounted our moped and walked across the parking lot, Aaron suggested that we make a bid, even if it was a lowball offer. I was pessimistic and intimidated. I am not a negotiator by nature. The attendant, excited by our interest, also suggested that we state a price that he could take to the owner and start the negotiation. Aaron and I exchanged looks, reading each other’s eyes (we’ve gotten pretty good at this by now), and after a few moments pause, I opened the negotiation.

With Aaron’s retainer satisfactorily adjusted, we continued our afternoon with some last-minute shopping in town since we were scheduled to depart from Ubud the following day. When we returned to the hotel, there was a message from the attendant that he would stop by our place later that evening. He arrived shortly thereafter and the three of us sat outside on our cottage patio. After twenty or so minutes of decidedly awkward negotiations, we actually reached an agreement! A few more moments of awkwardness passed, followed by a wave of surrealism. The attendant left, promising to see us in the morning, and Aaron and I just sat, staring at each other for a long while. Did that really just happen? Did we really just commit to buying a large and expensive painting with no house or jobs to speak of? Our hearts raced with a strange combination of panic and excitement. We could speak of little else that night until sleep finally came.


We arrived at the office around 9:30 on a gray and rainy morning and were told that our painting was in the boutique and we could complete the transaction there. The very extravagant boutique was several hundred meters up the road so we took the moped there and found the painting propped up against a display table just inside the doorway. We had requested that the canvas be removed from its wooden backing and rolled into a shipping tube. The painting had caused some excitement in the boutique that morning and there were five or six staff members collaborating to remove the staples and roll it carefully into a length of PVC pipe which had been cut for our specific purpose. The whole process took almost two hours and then we were on our way. The painting was ours! The PVC pipe and end caps fully enclosed the fragile canvas, protecting it from the rain. I held it awkwardly, because of its length and weight, on the back of the moped as Aaron navigated the wet roads. When we arrived at the hotel, our car and driver were waiting to take us back to Kuta, where we would spend our last two nights in Bali.

The ride was quick and easy and we rode into Kuta on a sunny afternoon with no hotel reservation. The driver waited in the car with our bags while we walked around looking for cheap accommodation. Kuta has many narrow lanes which are nearly impossible for a car to navigate. We found a row of four budget hotels along one of the lanes and checked into the cheaper of the two rooms that we looked at – rock, paper, scissors had worked in Aaron’s favor this time, resulting in a room with a cold shower that saved us $10/night. Both nights, we spent the savings on massages so I couldn’t exactly complain.

In a final mad dash to the finish, we rented a moped and sped through the streets of Kuta, searching for the DHL office. After a series of wrong turns, we slipped through the doors of DHL with literally two minutes to spare before the office closed on a Friday afternoon. We spent our last days in Kuta as beach bums. Aaron surfed while I caught up on some reading or listened to music, staring dreamily out to sea. At times, I thought that I was daydreaming, only to blink and discover that the dream was real.

Leaving Bali was something that I’d never really contemplated. It is an exotic destination, like Tahiti or Bora Bora, which many people add to their list of dream vacations and, if they happen to make it there during one of their two weeks of yearly vacation, divide their time equally between the posh resorts and beaches of the southern peninsula. I suspected that we would do the same but, surprisingly, we found ourselves drawn away from the beach to beautiful Ubud, where skin and sin are replaced by art, music, tranquility and rural simplicity. In Ubud, I found myself thinking almost daily, I could live here. Strangely, as we rode toward the airport in Denpasar, I was not overcome with the sad nostalgia that I have felt about other places we’ve been and gone. Most of those places I will never see again. To Bali I will return often, if only in my mind. I will be somewhere, sometime, with a happy, distant expression on my face. Someone will ask me what I’m thinking about. “Oh, nothing”, I’ll say with a smile.

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