Back with a Song to Sing and so many Tales to Tell

Back at my writing desk. It feels a little strange as I step into my pre-loved Jakarta Post dancing shoes once again. The buckles are rusty, the toes are tight and the leather lacks that seductive patina that speaks of action and verbal flirtation. But beat those Brazilian drums and let the party begin.

I am back on track with sharpened brain, if not a little wine-drenched, with a super-charged laptop and a song to sing. After all, it is approaching the time for the sixth Ubud Writers & Readers Festival and other festivities and there is so much to tell you.

“There are so many stories of Ubud waiting to be told.” I was sitting next to the legendary Ibu Murni of Murni’s Warung in Ubud.

We were at the compound of my favorite priest when she uttered these words. The occasion was for a Melukad, a Balinese cleansing ceremony in which we were both participating.

I have written about this priest before. He was the one who tied the proverbial marital knot or rather Balinese thread around the wrists of Ketut, my husband, and I, 20 years ago. He has blessed our children many times and I adore him.

He is tall and stately, and shines with the kind of grace and wisdom that holy folk tend to acquire. He is rather like a character from Lord of the Rings, one of the good guys, with cosmic rings to match.

It is no secret either that Murni is one of my favorite mothers in Ubud. We are members of the same banjar or community group and often meet at ceremonies. Sitting in the shade of the bale overlooking the cozy temple grounds and knotted scented trees, we chatted about our beloved town, Ubud.

“If you visit every family in Ubud,” Ibu Murni whispered, “you will find a different story, stories about generations of life here. There are so many tales to tell. They should be written down; otherwise they will be forgotten.

“Did you know about Jalan Bisma where you live now, before it even had a name? In the early days, it was just a tiny dirt track in the middle of the rice fields. When I was a young girl, I used to walk up there in the afternoons, around three o’clock when the sun was still warm. That was the best time to collect Balinese snails and the ones from Jalan Bisma were the finest.”

Opposite us on a slatted wooden bench sat two old weather-beaten Balinese men waiting to be blessed. The story of the snails struck a chord and they nodded like twins in agreement. I love it when the Balinese discuss their favorite foods.

“The sun was warm so the snails would rise to the top and I would scoop them up and take them home for dinner. They were so delicious,” Murni continued.

The old men smiled.

Have you ever seen Balinese talk about the old days in Ubud before the streets were paved and televisions, Internet cafes or Western-style restaurants were anywhere to be seen? I watched the faces of the people around me who were gathering by the minute.

A wistful distant look crept into their eyes: dark misty pools of memories reliving an age gone by, a lifestyle that no longer exists.

Here we were, assorted locals thinking about tasty snails fattened on the happy nutrients floating in the rice fields in the days before fertilizers and modern technology, a time when bullocks churned the fields, a time of clearer skies, quieter roads and more wholesome foods.

“The eels were more delicious then too,” Murni reminisced. The men smiled again and shook their heads in agreement. Balinese chatter followed. Other village folk started filing in, sitting beside us and listening to the conversation.

There is something so all-encompassing about a discussion of food, especially flavors of a bygone era. It digs up a whole host of memories that trigger all the senses, of happy times and sad, of places, people and events. Have you ever eaten something that has stopped you in your tracks because it reminded you of your childhood?

“I imagine the rice was even tastier then,” I added quietly, hoping it wasn’t too presumptuous of me to make this suggestion, as this was not my time or place. “Yes it was,” agreed Murni. More heads nodded and the chatter continued.

I left the conversation as it wandered off into the growing of rice and the virtues of organic soil in the region of Pupuan.

The ceremony had recharged and invigorated me in a strange sort of way. Holy water had been poured over my head, the freshest feeling imaginable, and the scent of yellow cempaka was orbiting around my entire being. But my thoughts were wrapped up in snails, eels, rice fields and Jalan Bisma.

I remember when I first strolled down Jalan Bisma with Ketut, some 25 years ago. “I want to show you my land,” he said proudly. “My father bought it for me a few years ago.”

We walked in the hot afternoon sun through a stretch of bright green rice fields and passed three small lonely compounds. After 500 meters, we arrived at a long piece of land on the east side of the track that was no different to any other rice field, except that it was Ketut’s. This was before Jalan Bisma had a name.

“Did your dad have to buy property so far from town?” I whimpered beneath my sweaty brow. It seemed so distant, miles in fact from the main road, but nowadays it’s almost the center of Ubud, a stone’s throw from the hub of restaurants and swanky shops. Beyond our place, the track wound all the way to the Monkey Forest and the silent rock pools hidden nearby.

Coconut trees framed the sides of this narrow path forming a deliciously shady canopy overhead. Years later, the trees were cut down to widen the road and make way for the machinery to harvest the fields. Such is the dilemma of progress.

Nowadays, Jalan Bisma is a cement-brick road of snug compounds and small businesses that blink seductively at tourists beneath the hooded lashes of Balinese village charm. The rice fields remain, albeit more sporadically, and coconut trees have been replaced by ornamental frangipani, wild gingers and feathery plants.

Bakso sellers appear in the afternoons and nasi campur and rujak are sold in the small warungs.

And while the snails might be fewer and the eels less than perfect, I still love my little neighborhood and happy bustling street. But Murni’s story lingers in my mind and I dream of Jalan Bisma’s char-grilled snails and eel pepes, circa 1970.

Back with a Song to Sing and so many Tales to Tell