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(Old) Photo of the day: The saga of the assy

Wow. I can’t believe a) I’m just now finding out I’ve had eight draft ‘photos of the day’ ready to go for the last year and never posted them, and b) how much the one from September 5, 2009, can now be seen with some seriously bittersweet irony, as it’s about my ‘biggest regret of the trip’ being not getting photos of assies and cat ovens. Clearly that is the first one to be belatedly posted. This may be just the kick in the ass I needed to start blogging again. So check it out: miandering is back! (And maybe eventually she’ll actually write something new…)

Photo of the day
September 4, 2010 (originally dated September 5, 2009)

One of the biggest regrets* of my trip (Seriously. What is there to regret, really?) is that when I was in Bali I saw but never got a photo of the Isuzu SUV I saw with a decal on the back window that said ‘ISUZU TOTAL ASSY.’

So when I saw these boxes on the shelf of the motorcycle repair shop at which I was getting my laundry done (no joke) in Rantepao, Sulawesi, I was SO happy. I went back to my hotel and got my camera, but ended up dilly-dallying too long and the shop was closed when i got back (Another regret! Why did I choose that particular moment to wash my hat?).

Motorcycle Damper Assy boxes, Motorcycle repair/laundry shop, Rantepao, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Motorcycle Damper Assy boxes, Motorcycle repair/laundry shop, Rantepao, Sulawesi, Indonesia

I texted my friend Rob, who made a joke about the danger of my getting a motorcycle damper assy in the rain. Rob had been with me on the road in Bali and known of my unfulfilled longing for a total assy photo, and now I remembered that he had coined an expression I now felt compelled to not only adopt but promote. You see, there was a guy at Tutmak Cafe in Ubud, where Rob and I often hung out because it had free wifi. This guy, however, was there more than often. He appeared to live there. Even when we stayed until closing and finally left as the staff was locking up, he was still there. He had a Mac Book Air and always sat in the same seat. We sometimes sat on the couch opposite him and my last night there there was a problem with the connection and I mentioned something to Rob about losing my Skype icon and Mac guy freaked out on me about how you’re not supposed to use Skype there because it uses too much bandwidth. He was a jerk, it was true, but I didn’t think much about it.

Shortly thereafter, when I was in Flores, Rob told me that he’d arrived at Tutmak early one morning and, very purposefully, taken Mac guy’s seat. Mac guy arrived a minute later and was apparently seething, refusing even to respond to Rob’s (pleasant, I’m sure) ‘good morning.’ When he told me this I actually thought this was a pretty rude and petty thing to do, but he’d said ‘No one is a total assy to my friend and gets away with it!’ which was sweet enough. It was only several days later that I suddenly came to appreciate the full comic and vengeful brilliance of his action.

In any case, the now-lost damper assy opportunity put me in mind of all this, resulting in my posting this Facebook status: Mia Lipsit wants you, too, to adopt her new expression ‘total assy.’ Not sure what it means but it has something to do with vehicles, as in ‘Isuzu Total Assy’ and ‘motorcycle damper assy.’ To be used as in, ‘That guy is a total assy.’

But back to Rantepao.

As luck would have it, though, my bus the next morning that I was told would leave at 8 am (“If all the passengers are here at 8, it will leave at 8.”) was, ha, actually a 9am bus (The guy who sold me my ticket refused to acknowledge he had said any such thing to me. My guide had served as my interpreter when I’d bought the ticket the day before, but still, his English was impeccable…). This left me with some unexpected extra time in town, which normally might have been an annoyance but in this case was a blessing.

My first order of business was to go back to the shop and take this photo. I was ready to be all ‘Hello I came to take a photo of your damper assy’ but no one at the shop said anything or even looked my way at all. Score. Next task was to go by another hotel to try to pick up the falling-apart copy of David Copperfield which had been offered to me by a young English woman with whom I’d failed to meet up the night before. I found her eating breakfast (and, as it turns out, she was taking the same bus as me, not only well aware that it was meant to leave at 9, but awaiting a pickup directly from the hotel. No fair!) Still…double score!

A fairly successful morning, I’d say. And not a bad start to a day of ten hours on an uncomfortable bus.

*The other biggest regret was not getting a photo, when I was in South Bali, of a sign that said ‘CAT OVEN.’ I actually saw another cat oven sign in Jakarta a few days ago on my way to the airport, but as I was again driving by, a photo was not possible, so this still remains but a dream. (Cat oven had long been a mystery but a few days ago I finally figured out that ‘cat’ means ‘paint,’ which I just now brilliantly verified by googling it. Oven…not so sure, but if it’s for painting cars perhaps they do call them ovens…)

Me and the monkeys, Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Me and the monkeys, Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Things got a little funky at the Monkey Forest, when the monkeys started to pull at–and then go under–my skirt.


Potato chip bag, Bali, Indonesia

Ever wondered where your potato chips come from…?

Indonesia is a vast country and home to multiple religions and ethnic groups. So while you can certainly identify elements of an overall ‘Indonesian’ culture, in some regions the distinct subculture of the people who live there is what comes across most strongly. This is true in, among many other places, Bali, the areas in and around Bajawa in Flores and the Tana Toraja region of Central Sulawesi. Intricate rituals are part of daily life in all three of these cultures, and I was lucky enough to have witnessed death rituals in both Bali and Tana Toraja. And, of course, have some pretty fascinating photos and videos to share with you as a result.

Balinese culture, as you may have gathered from previous photo albums I’ve posted, is quite unique. People refer to it as Hindu, but Balinese Hinduism differs greatly from that practiced in India, and is really a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and the animist traditions of the people indigenous to the island.

While in Bali I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a cremation ceremony—which I know may sound a bit odd. As a fellow American (who has attended numerous cremations over the years that he has been visiting Bali) pointed out to me, in Western cultures you would of course never think of inviting random strangers to the funeral of one of your family members. But funerals and cremation ceremonies in Bali (and elsewhere) are events attended by the larger community, and outsiders are welcome and even encouraged to attend. I was invited to this one because it was in the village of Nyuh Kuning, home to the Bumi Sehat clinic at which I was to volunteer, and one of the people being cremated was a member of the family in whose compound Robin Lim, the clinic’s director, had lived for many years. But as it turned out this didn’t really matter, as the ceremony was attended by a good number of tourists, many of whom I’m sure didn’t have any connection, even as tangential as mine, to the families involved.

The Balinese, in fact, are so accustomed to the presence of tourists in their lives that in several paintings I saw at museums in Ubud, scenes depicting village life and all the attendant goings-on (cow-milking, rice-harvesting, bathing in the river, etc.), also included a random Westerner or two with a camera looking on!

Cremation ceremonies are held by every village for all of their dead at once. How often they do this depends on the wealth of the village, as the ceremony is an expensive one and, as in most things, economies of scale prevail. Some villages do a cremation ceremony every year, but Nyuh Kuning holds theirs every five. The one I was to attend, I was told, was for 32 people.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Balinese cremation ceremonies and can’t even explain everything I saw, but I will tell you what I can and the photos and videos will illustrate, if not elaborate.

After someone dies there is a funeral and a burial, but it is believed that the person’s soul will not be at rest until cremation takes place. When it comes time for this, the body is dug up and the remains are taken out to be cremated. They are placed inside the body of a wooden animal that serves as a sarcophagus, usually a horse or bull, which will be burned, thereby conveying the soul to heaven.

The first part of the ceremony (which I did not attend) involves carrying the body from the burial ground to the cremation ground. When I arrived at the cremation ground I found that there was an entire hall full of elaborate offerings—flowers, clothing, intricately-folded money and many a roasted baby pig (some laid down among other offerings, some impaled on large sticks).

At the appointed hour the families of the dead begin to pick up all of the offerings and carry them in a procession to the area where the actual cremation will take place. The family members, one carrying a photo of the dead loved one, parade around the sarcophagus (now we know why the roasted pigs are on sticks!) and, when the procession has finished, place the offerings on the ground at the base of the sarcophagus.

It’s not a particularly somber event, perhaps because in most cases the person has been dead for several years, but the parading around the sarcophagus is probably the most solemn part. A priest is then presented with a tray full of jars and bottles containing several types of liquids (holy water and various herbal concoctions, presumably), and each is sprinkled in turn into the cloth-covered box with the remains in it. A very elaborate and lengthy ritual.

Once all of this has taken place, everyone stands back and the entire thing is set on fire and all that is left to do is watch it burn.

One thing I found strange was how small the sarcophagi seemed to be, given that each was supposed to able to hold a dead body. This confusion was compounded as I watched them cut quite a small hole in the top and place what appeared to be a very small amount of remains (wrapped in white cloth) inside. I learned later that in this particular ceremony, the bodies were not actually burned. Apparently after the last one five years ago everyone in the village got sick, so, instead of assuming that, for example, something was amiss in the lunch that followed the ceremony, the village elders decided this was a sign from their ancestors that they should no longer burn the actual bodies. Make of that what you will; as it turned out, this particular cremation was all symbolic.

You can view the photo album (which includes several videos) here.

Coming soon: Death rituals (part two)—a Torajan funeral.

Having used up my 60-day Indonesia visa, I’m currently in Borneo applying for a new one so I can return for another six weeks, this time to explore the western islands of Java and Sumatra.

So with nothing else to do and free wifi at my hostel, I’ve been a busy little photo-editing, blog-post-writing bee, and I’ve posted links to three new albums below.

By way of background: after the month I spent in Bali (doing very little except waiting for my knee to be ready to be walked on properly again), I traveled across the island of Flores, then did a boat trip between Flores and Lombok, the main purpose of which was to visit the Komodo islands to see the dragons, then headed even further east to the island of Sulawesi.

You can see the photos and read the descriptions of my Flores adventures in the albums listed below.


Crossing Flores
Komodo Island Boat Trip (includes video)

Up next: Balinese cremation ceremony post and album.

Greetings from Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi in northeast Indonesia. I left Bali two weeks ago and went to the islands of Flores and Lombok (took a three-day boat trip in between), and just landed here yesterday.

Hopefully in Sulawesi I will have more access to both electricity and internet than I have had…as well as time so that I can write a post about my recent experiences and upload some new photos.

In the meantime, I have plenty of other new photos ready for you. Three new Bali albums, including some videos from Monkey Forest, are on the photos page, and listed below. Enjoy!

Last Days in Bali
Monkey Forest

First off, I’m sorry I haven’t written any new posts in so very long. As most of you know, I’ve been recuperating from a fractured kneecap and, while you would think all that time spent doing pretty much nothing else would have made it an ideal time to write, I just haven’t been able to muster the will to do so. I’ve been pretty down, actually. Not being able to walk around and explore the few places I’ve managed to get myself to has really been a drag. But I am on the mend, and am now walking—still with a bit of a limp, but not hobbling like before—without my half-cast-thingy (called a backslap), which I wore for over six weeks after the original cast was taken off (about a week after my fall).

Now I’m in Bali and still doing pretty much nothing, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing things and have finally gotten around to editing photos and posting the albums online.

I’ve also been doing a very small volunteer project for a great organization called Bumi Sehat, which is a birthing clinic that also provides general medical services to poor folks here in Bali. They run completely on donations from individuals (and fees from those who can afford to pay), so if you’re feeling generous, do check out their website, where you can donate via Paypal. What I’ve been working on for them is a proposal to raise money to send four young women to midwifery school, a project that has its own website where, if you prefer, you can donate so that the funds go directly toward these scholarships.

The need for a pay-as-you-can clinic in a poor country is, of course, quite obvious, but what I also learned in talking to the clinic’s director, an American named Robin Lim who’s lived in Bali for decades, is that the hospitals here, as well as many village midwives, will actually keep the baby until the family comes back with the money to pay for the birth. She told me of one horrific case where twins were born and the parents couldn’t pay the full fee so the midwife kept one of the twins and then sold it. (Robin got human rights lawyers involved in that one and they eventually got their baby back, but in most cases like this the families would probably have ended up with someone else’s baby. Because this was an identical twin they were able to know it was truly their child.)

I know, too awful to even wrap your head around. I’ve been to the clinic when births were happening and it is truly a wonderful, comforting place where the women are getting very good—and compassionate—care. I of course am hesitant to ask anyone I know to donate (as I told the clinic’s volunteer coordinator from the outset, I hate fundraising), but, since a very small amount of money goes a very long way in a place like Bali, I’m just putting the information here in case you feel so moved.

On a lighter note, I’ve had some very funny experiences here thus far, so I thought I’d share a few anecdotes with you. (And don’t forget to catch up on the photos of the day, as there are some good laughs there as well.)

My friend Rob and I met an American guy who studied here back in college and comes back to visit every few years. He invited us to a dinner the family he stays with was giving in his honor. After dinner, some of the kids were playing and one boy said to another, ‘You’re fat and you have no teeth.’

The other boy didn’t react at all. Apparently, here things that we would take as insults are just really statements of fact that no one gets too fussed about. Like when Brad (the American) arrived at his family’s house this year. They greeted him and said, ‘You got fatter.’

Rob and I were at a bar seeing some live music when two street dogs came in. (This itself is not so unusual. Street dogs are everywhere in Bali and are mostly ignored.) They were playing, biting each other’s faces and rolling around, and ended up right between our table and the next. Suddenly, one of them started mounting the other, which caused a big laugh among the patrons, one of whom was a young English guy who said, ‘I didn’t think this was that kind of bar!’

I was hobbling home one night (wearing my backslap, which kept my knee from bending) and passed some men sitting on the sidewalk. (There are always men sitting on the sidewalk. Sometimes they are there to call out ‘Transport?’ to you. Sometimes they are just sitting and chatting.). As I walked past, one of them said, ‘I think you are a little bit sick.’ (Sick seems to be a catch-all word here, since most people’s English is limited, so I guess it covers being hurt, injured, etc. That or he had some other kind of insight without even talking to me…)


This one is actually hearsay only: My friend Rob went to another island, Flores, where he met a really interesting man who took him on a tour of some local villages. The people in this area are Catholic but also retain a lot of their animistic traditions and rituals, including animal sacrifice (you can see Rob’s photos here). They got to talking and this man told Rob that he’d seen God several times, and started describing what he looked like: a sandal, a foot. The foot, he said, was white. And had hair on it. “Like a tourist,” he said. Which was followed by: ‘Jesus was white, right? Like the old Jews.’

I’ll leave you with that—and the photo albums, which you can check out on the photos page or use the links below where, to make things a bit easier, I’ve listed which ones are newly-posted (some of them are actually, chronologically, quite old). In the Ubud album there are a number of videos as well. And, as always, the stories are told in the captions to make up for all I’ve not been writing. Hope you enjoy!

July 2009
Ubud (includes Kecak Fire Dance)

June and July 2009
Pehrentian Islands

Cameron Highlands


The Accident

April and May 2009
Last Phnom Penh Snapshots

Buddhalicious cocktail list, Menu, Laughing Buddha, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Buddhalicious cocktail list, Menu, Laughing Buddha, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I believe I have found, without question the best-named drink in the entire world, ever. (For those who need to know, it contains arak, cranberry juice and mint. And no, sorry, I didn’t order one. I opted instead for the arak mojo (mojito). As it turns out, I should not have ordered any of those drinks, as several tourists have died recently of bad arak. Someone’s mixing methanol into it and apparently even a sealed bottle from the store isn’t even safe. Talk about arak attack… So, no more araktails for me.)