Archive for March, 2013

That same afternoon on which V and I witnessed the tragic death of a dog on Sidemen Road, we sat on our hotel balcony, drinking beer. The image of the terrible accident was still fresh in our minds, but with some hours now having passed, a storm having come and gone, and several glasses of beer having passed our lips, the tension and horror had retreated somewhat. I still felt the occasional shudder when, inevitably, the image popped into my head, or I conjured it up in the perverse way one smells a bad smell again to see if it really is that bad. Yet, on the whole, we felt very calm and relaxed.

The surroundings certainly helped. Below us the pool and the maze of garden paths were empty – indeed, there seemed to be no other guests in our hotel. The hotel itself was a network of bungalows and two-story villas, terraced onto a gentle slope that steepened and dropped away into rainforest. Behind the lush trees in the mid-ground was a backdrop of wooded hills with rice paddies occupying their lower slopes. A few scattered clouds still lingered in the sky – the dark, bruised colour of storms – and the air had cooled significantly from the sticky heights of midday.

Sidemen hotel view

Both of us agreed that this place was heart-achingly beautiful, and more than that, it was serene. One might think such a place would cost an arm and a leg, yet in Bali luxury is very cheap. Our hotel cost a mere thirty-five Australian dollars a night, an astonishing bargain, but one that was repeated across the whole island, outside of the excesses of Seminyak and Kuta.

Breakfast table view

Not only is luxury cheap in Bali, it is, almost universally, surprisingly tasteful. Most “resorts” have achieved a harmonious balance of local architectural styles, modern amenities and lovely gardens. Having only spent a total of eleven days in Bali in two stints, I can hardly say my experience is comprehensive, yet judging from what I have seen, both on the ground and on the net, there is a surfeit of genuinely beautiful accommodation on the island.

Ubud hotel

Ubud resort

Self portrait by shrine in hotel grounds, Ubud - somewhat ironic as an atheist

Breakfast at Ubud

The “resorts” often mirror the arrangements of a local family compound, but on a grander scale. Behind the decorated stone and brick walls lies a cleverly landscaped mix of flourishing, immaculate gardens, pools and water features and traditional stone and brick-built bungalows and standalone two-story villas, often with high, thatched roofs.

Sidemen Road

The buildings are rarely dull and blocky as so many hotels can be, but rather they have an elegant simplicity or sport the intricate busy-ness so apparent in Balinese religious architecture. This baroque, Hindu-influenced style combines the humble commonsense of the village house with the strident decadence of a palace and blends marvellously with the colourful gardens. Even where the adornments have been stripped back to a more minimalist presentation, the effect is still a pleasing marriage of the humble and palatial.

Hotel, near Seminyak

I don’t generally like overly busy architectural or decorative styles – take the Corinthian bombast of the later Antonine Pax Romana or the garish flounce of the Rococo, or, for that matter, the overwhelming intricacy of Hindu temples – but in Bali the rendering is apposite. It has an organic, natural quality, especially in its unpainted masonry, which, whilst texturally in contrast with the limpid green of the vegetation, rises from it like a finely crafted termite mound. This organic quality is also ever-present in the woodwork and thatching.

Door, near Ubud

The floral and bestial carvings in the stone and wood – intertwined curlicues – run the eye gently round in the mesmerising manner of a celtic manuscript illustration, or indeed, an overgrowth of creepers. Inside, more often than not, the rooms lack ceilings and, rising above the high walls, the tall, pointed thatched roofs lend the rooms a sense of immense space, as well as keeping them cool in the tropical conditions.

Bedroom, Ubud 40 bucks a night

For someone who prides himself as a lefty with strong socialist tendencies (though I don’t pretend not to be a bloody hypocrite at times), such luxury usually comes with the added moral and ethical price of guilt. It is a price all people with a social conscience pay when they travel in the “developing” parts of Asia, or indeed, any country where the locals earn considerably less money and have fewer opportunities. Yet, sitting there on the balcony that evening, drinking beer and watching the sunset sky, V and I both expressed the same conclusion – that in Bali, this feeling did not take hold as it did elsewhere. What seemed different about Bali, in comparison to, say, Cambodia, Vietnam or India, was that the locals seemed far more content and most people appeared to live well. The power relationship, so often dictated by money, was still to my advantage, yet I didn’t detect the same degree of envy, jealousy or desperation in exploiting the fact that I had money to spend.

I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people in Bali who are struggling to make ends meet, nor that there aren’t people out to make a buck from the tourists, for there certainly are, yet the living standards and way of life seem adequate to allow for contentment and harmony. I come to this question from a completely amateur sociological / anthropological perspective, yet my encounters and observations suggest that generally people are happy in Bali. This might be a consequence of their religion, rituals, close family relationships and their solid, largely village-based social framework, yet I suspect it is also on account of the beauty of the place and the constant climate. That both V and I had arrived at the same conclusion independently could purely be a misleading coincidence, but it gave me some confidence that there might be at least some truth in this.

Temple guardian

When I travelled in India for the first time in 2010, I also encountered many people who seemed content in getting on with their lives. Yet there was the unmistakeable feeling of being constantly pursued and receiving constant attention. It is understandable in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is so much greater than in Bali, and where the sheer size of the population dramatically increases the competition for resources, but the end result is that simply by being there, I felt I had in some way destroyed the equilibrium of the place. Poverty is very relative and people don’t want things if they don’t know about them. They are also less likely to feel jealous or in anyway inferior or inadequate if not exposed to the wealth of others. Yet, even when travelling on the cheap with a day-pack and a pair of thongs in India the amount of money I had to spend on luxuries and services far exceeded the capacity of most of the locals and I was constantly aware of this fact. Without trying to cut too many corners, nor deny myself too much, and yet, trying to stick to a pretty decent budget, I would end up spending around twenty dollars a day – a thousand rupees then, and now almost 1200. Consider, however, that those lucky enough to get the minimum wage receive roughly 160 rupees a day for skilled labour and a mere 100 for unskilled labour, and you get some idea of the vastness of the chasm between even a poor tourist like myself and the local people.

India – hard slog for peanuts

On this note, I once had a conversation with a man in India where I tried to explain that although I came from one of the richest countries in the world and was far wealthier than he was in real and relative terms, back in Australia my income placed me in the bottom fifteen percent of the population and I could afford neither a house nor a car. It took some time to get the message across, but we got there in the end. Even bearing this in mind, however, which, for simple practical reasons, meant I couldn’t afford everything India had to offer, it never stopped me feeling guilty about how much easier life was for me.

In Bali, however, despite a relatively similar disparity in spending power, I never felt the divide as greatly. Again, I must reiterate, this is not because there are not poor or desperate people in Bali, there certainly are, yet their lives don’t seem anything like so harassed and stressful as the lives of poor people in India.

One thing V and I had noticed was the apparent contentment of the rural population. Despite rural areas often being poorer in real terms, in Bali the rural population appeared mostly happy. The locals certainly worked hard in the fields and in many and various other manual tasks, yet the villages were clean and organised, with good housing, nice gardens, easy access to running water etc.

Sideman Rd area

On the first trip I took to Bali with my brother, we drove through countless villages as we cruised across the island, and we were constantly impressed with the quality of the houses and how attractive these small urban environments were. So much so that I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to live in such a house for some time and write a novel.

Sideman Rd area


This was in contrast to the experiences I’ve had elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, about the difference between rural and urban areas in poorer or developing countries, is that whilst in cities people will offer services simply because they can, in rural areas, they are more inclined to ask directly for money. I first noticed this in Turkey back in the nineties, where, outside of the cities, children would often approach me and asked for what sounded like “Boom boom”, whilst rubbing the forefinger against the thumb. The expression itself might be misconstrued! though there was no mistaking the gesture. Some children actually used the word “money”, saying nothing else. “Money?” “Money?” This was repeated in Cambodia and India on many occasions, but only very rarely in Bali. It could simply be a consequence of greater comparative wealth, in which case, I’m not entirely sure what my point is, but either way, the absence of this direct appeal for money help to ease any possible sensation of guilt.

Doing alright

This was the subject of our conversation, sitting there watching the sunset. It wasn’t the most impressive of sunsets, but the beauty and serenity of our surroundings hardly needed the help of an elaborate lightshow on the horizon. It is worth pointing out that V’s observations and opinion on this front were founded on greater travel experience than my own. Having been to South and Central America five times, often for lengthy periods, having travelled extensively in Asia, India, the Middle East and the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, I trust her opinion and judgement. She had also spent more time in Bali than I had, visiting the place, as I had, just a few of years before. The people of Bali, we both agreed, had a softness, warmth and generosity of spirit that stood out.


Cycling boy, Ubud

Another difference we noticed in Bali was the high quality of customer service. Certainly at times things are a bit ad hoc – which is fine with me as I don’t like formality and fawning attention – yet nearly everyone in Bali that we had any dealings with – drivers, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff, shop assistants, ticket vendors, you name it – were polite and attentive and professional, or enthusiastically and charmingly amateurish. This seemed to be the case even when there was no direct incentive to be so – no commission, expectation of a tip, etc. One thing I was later to notice when we arrived in India was that the service varied wildly, and often veered into total rudeness and indifference, depending on the degree to which the person with whom we were interacting was to benefit from it. In the first six outlets of Café Coffee Day which we were to visit in India – so desperate were we for espresso coffee that we kept going back – the staff practically ignored us completely, even when standing at the counter, and then were surly, unfriendly and not especially professional. It must be said that we were to have a very different experience in Kolkata, where we found very lovely people who were totally on the ball, yet by this stage the damage was already done. I’m not sure what it was, but despite our cheery hellos and attempts to be friendly and engaging ourselves, the staff were almost universally indifferent and acted as though they had been massively put out by our coming into the café in the first place.

Bali Kopi, Ubud

Customer service is not the most important thing in the world by any means, and while it is unreasonable to expect a certain standard of professionalism, friendliness and politeness leave a lasting impression and have a universal appeal. The way one is treated by people makes a huge difference to how the experience is remembered; rudeness and negativity can sour the memory of a place. If there is one thing that seems to truly stand out about Bali, it’s how bloody nice everybody is when they don’t need to be. This friendliness goes a long way towards creating a much more equal relationship, rather than one that is all about extracting money, which is too often the case elsewhere and which creates a very uncomfortable situation. Some of the few other places in developing countries where I’ve had such a sense was Darjeeling in northern West Bengal and in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Worshipper, Pura Besakih

Temple statue, Sideman Rd area

Offerings aplenty, Ubud

Was it culture? Was it religion? Was it the environment? Or were their lives simply full enough and rich enough not to need much more than what they could afford and had available to them already? In these places I didn’t feel the resentment and envy that tourists in poorer countries will almost inevitably attract.

I don’t doubt that people will have had very different experiences and I repeat that these are just casual observations that are in no way scientific. It also must be said that in and around Denpasar, as in many big cities, the pace of life is faster and business a little more cut-throat, so here one might find a very different vibe.

Night markets, Denpasar

Shop sign, Sanur

It is also necessary to point out that when we went to the temple complex at Pura Besakih the day after having had this conversation, we had a pretty unpleasant experience. The Lonely Planet had forewarned us that the hawkers here were most aggressive and that tourists were often subjected to scams wherein local men would tell them that they were not allowed into the site without a guide, despite having already bought a ticket.

Cranky hustler, Pura Besakih

It seemed as though this might be quite easily gotten around, but when we arrived at the place we were not only lied to by a number of people at the entrance, but they were very aggressive about it and even tried to block our path. When we decided to ignore them and push on through they still didn’t drop the ruse, but continued to shout rudely at us. This might have been amusing if their tone wasn’t so ugly and aggressive and instead it made me so angry that it spoiled the experience of the place, which was pretty unfortunate. Though, to be honest, so far as temple complexes go, it’s not that much to write home about.

6999 Watching the ladies, Pura Besakih

6926 Pura Besakih

7080 Pura Besakih

7059 Pura Besakih

This negative experience, however, was an isolated one. During both of my visits to Bali I have found the people to be very friendly indeed, as has V on both of her trips. It is a gross generalisation, but I was left with the impression that people live happy lives and they are mostly content just to get on with things. Whilst going there in the first place is a somewhat disruptive thing in itself, so far as local balance is concerned, the overall feeling we had was not one of guilty privilege and yawning disparity, but one of more equal interactions. All of which makes travelling there more relaxing and fulfilling.

We finished our beers as the light vanished from the sky and the mosquitoes began to close in. Below, under a thatched canopy, on a beautiful deck beside a patch of jungle, calmed by the trickle of a fountain, the smiling staff were waiting to serve us, the only guests. It all seemed so utterly decadent and quite ridiculous for the price, but at least we didn’t feel guilty in allowing ourselves this indulgence. And, as is so often the case in Bali, precisely because there was no pressure to do so, we were happy to leave a generous tip.

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Forbrydelsen Season 1

The following review contains some spoilers…

Last week V and & finished watching the first series of the renowned 2007 Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing, written by Soren Sveistrup. I’d heard a number of anecdotal reports about what a great show this was from my parents and various others, but hadn’t quite separated its potential stand-out quality from my general dislike of crime dramas. The sheer amount of second-rate CSI-type pap out there has, quite rightly, made me extremely wary of the genre. Indeed, I’ve long been spmewhat disgusted by the pornographic and gratuitous manner in which they titillate their audiences with lurid details of rape and murder; so akin to the base and irresponsible reporting of the commercial news channels and rags we foolishly grant the title of newspapers in Australia.

From the moment we began watching Forbrydelsen, however, it was clear that something very refreshingly different was going on. If there was a spectrum of quality, measured primarily on realism and characterisation, then this show sat roughly eight miles along from the best English crime drama, with its American counterparts so far behind those as to be only detectable by their own implausibly neat forensics techniques. Forbrydelsen, it was clear from the start, was not merely good, it was the shit.

When we first sat down to watch it, we were a little baffled. Wasn’t this show Danish? If so, why did all the names sound so un-Scandinavian? We watched the opening thriller sequence in which a woman is chased through the woods to her impending, yet unseen demise, followed by an introduction to what was no doubt our blonde, good-cop female protagonist, looking strong, capable, quietly determined, fit and utterly in control of her life, out for a morning jog. Then she opened her mouth. Oh dear, this was the American version. Yep, and it showed.

A few peers and seeders later and we plugged in the USB to fire up the Danish version. Within seconds the vast gulf between quality European television and American drama was revealed. After a repeat of the frightening and chilling chase through the woods, we meet our brunette female good-cop protagonist – waking up from a disturbed sleep, tired and worn out, staggering around the house in her pyjamas, checking on her teenage son who is sleeping on the lounge in front of a static-filled television screen. A single mum, we soon meet her Swedish partner, also in his pyjamas, also waking up tired and worn out, stumbling through the dark amidst the boxes of her and her son’s belongings, all packed and ready to move to Sweden for a new life. Our protagonist, Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) smiles warmly when reassured that everything about the move will be ok, but we can see in her relief the fear and vulnerability that she carries with her; her anxiety and tension, the complexity and disarray of her domestic circumstances. None of it is glamorous, none of what we see establishes her as anything other than a real person who, like everybody else out there, has to deal with the banal and quotidian demands of real life.

We paused a moment here and let out a collective sigh of relief. Wow, how much more engaging and promising the original version seemed. Even after just four minutes of viewing the American remake, it was clear that it was going to be Forbrydelsen lite, the airbrushed, sanitised version in which its audience would not be challenged to accept that the flaws of the protagonist were not big ticket things like, for example, Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder in Homeland or the utterly contrived and unconvincing OCD of Hannah Horvath in the disappointing second half of Girls season 2, so clearly tacked on for want of a decent plotline. Instead, in Forbrydelsen, we were going to be treated to everyday pressures.

I should digress at this point to say that I found Homeland and Girls to be excellent, high quality television. Both of these shows also have great characterisation and, particularly in the case of the latter, elements of gritty realism. Yet whereas the former does this within an overtly sensational story in an airbrushed, suburban and upper-echelon America and the latter does so in an occasionally all too smug, convenient and self-congratulatory potpourri of zeitgeist, Forbrydelsen had the balls to develop its characters and story with the slow and almost painfully intimate realism that fans of quality Scandinavian cinema, drama and lit will recognise. Like a good Lukas Moodysson film or a Knut Hamsun novel, Forbrydelsen, made an epic not just of the crime investigation itself, but of the domestic turmoil that surrounds such a shocking crime and its toe-treading, home-invading investigative process.

For the uninitiated, here is a juicy detail about this show. There are twenty, one-hour episodes to cover ONE CRIME. I can’t pretend to have the numbers, but within that roughly twenty hours there must be almost two hours total spent in the homely kitchen of the devastated family whose daughter, Nanna Birk Larsen, was the victim. Their tears are real, their emotions utterly genuine, the detail of their experience is deliciously heart-breaking.

There is no one thing which makes this show so great. It is the writing, the direction, the acting, the music, the muted colours and dull uniformity of Copenhagen in November. The performances throughout are almost universally excellent. No one character is two-dimensional; all have their flaws, conflicts, quirks and idiosyncrasies, none of which seem cheaply contrived or tacked on to create some shallow show of complexity. These characters are simply convincingly real and complex, and not in the way that characters have complexity, but in the way that real people do:

Troels Hartmann, the mayoral candidate, who soon falls under suspicion, bearing up under the weight of hiding his loss and depression, is an alluring mix of ambition and self-doubt; of integrity and political game-playing.

Troels Hartmann, aka Lars Mikkelsen

Jan Meyer, Lund’s mercurial partner, whose initial rough edge is ultimately contrasted with the convincing softness of a father desperate to hold down a job and provide for his family.


Pernille, the mother of the victim, whose face is always grippingly pregnant with withheld or unleashed emotion, the longing for revenge or satisfaction, the need for answers, juggling her husband Theiss’ flaws, her children’s needs, the pressures on their removal business and her family’s apparent duplicity.

Pernille Birk Larsen

And of course the very excellent Sarah Lund, our struggling protagonist, whose decision to stay in Copenhagen until the case is solved puts immense pressure on her family and relationship, and whose determination and stubbornness constantly rub against those with whom she works and is trying to help. The hardness of her character is extraordinary and constantly compelling. Her rough edges, her mistakes, her clever instincts, her obsessive nature, all emerge as the convincing traits of a plausible character.

Sarah Lund in one of her excellent jumpers

In Forbrydelsen, even the cast of supporting characters is excellent. Take, for example, the Mayor of Copenhagen, Bremer, whose smug sniping and cutting quips leave the audience constantly wondering what lies behind the mask of bemused confidence. Lund’s long-suffering mother, concerned and interfering, at times bitchy and cruel, at times deserving of great sympathy on account of her daughter’s thoughtless impositions. The list goes on, but the conclusions are the same throughout. With no exceptions that come to mind, these are masterful performances by skilled and naturalistic actors working with clever, plausible dialogue.

The show is certainly not without flaws. There are holes and apparent inconsistencies in the story that are not all satisfyingly wrapped up. Why did Holck, an otherwise seemingly well-adjusted career politician commit such serious crimes to hide his potential exposure for a crime that was far less serious? What exactly was going on between Troels Hartmann’s advisor Rie Skovgaard and the Mayor’s advisor? What actually was the connection between the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen and the other girl murdered 15 years earlier? Would Troels’ campaign leader Morten really go to the lengths he did to cover up what he thought was Troels’ role in the murder? I was left with a lot of questions about which I am still thinking, questions that no amount of googling has managed to satisfy, other than to confirm that others have wondered the same things as I have. Yet, having said that, the fact that I am still thinking about this show and still feel gripped by its story, despite having reached the end of it, says bucketloads about its sheer excellence. I miss the characters, I miss the setting, I miss the details of the investigation, none of which can really be made up for by the second season which may be as excellent – I have yet to watch it – but will follow a different crime with a different cast of support characters, give or take the ones around whom Sarah’s life closely gravitates.

Enough said. If you’ve not seen it and enjoy watching a show that cooks slowly without ever being boring, then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fill the fridge, keep the phone handy to call in sick, drug the kids, close the curtains and brace yourself for a serious case of “just one more episode” syndrome. It really is that good.

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My first trip to Bali was with my brother in 2009. Apart from family trips as children and my visits to him in Brisbane and vice versa here in Sydney, it was the first dedicated holiday we’d taken together and the first time we’d hung out overseas. I was piggybacking this trip on top of five days in the Northern Territory with my then girlfriend and met my brother at Darwin airport late one afternoon.

To say we enjoyed those next five days in Bali would be a massive understatement. It was not only a great pleasure to have such an excellent trip, but also something of a surprise. Both of us had been deeply suspicious of Bali on account of its being the destination of choice for hordes of pissed-up Australians – people we snobbishly call “Bogans” and try to avoid. Once we’d booked the tickets, however, and I began to do my research, including some lengthy sessions on Google Earth, I was very excited about seeing this island.

Bali occupies quite a unique place in the region for being predominantly Hindu. Buddhism and Hinduism both took root here, most especially during the 9th and 10th centuries, with increased traffic from Javanese and subcontinental traders. The culture that developed from this period onwards is a mix of traditional Balinese culture and a local interpretation of Javanese and Hindu influences.


Ceremonial box

The structure and rhythms of this lifestyle have proven very enduring. Bali is a very religious island, yet the religion, despite its occasional ostentation, is a friendly and private affair. The observance of often quite simple religious ceremonies and practices is so intrinsic that people simply go to it with hardly a mention. All of which makes Bali stand out distinctly from the Islamic Republic of Indonesia of which it is a part.

Thus, by the time we met in the airport in Darwin, the two of us were very excited. I was especially enthusiastic about getting some good shots as I’d just been trying out my new L series 70-200mm lens in NT and was loving it.

Green-Bottomed Ant

Florence Falls

Near Nourlangie

We arrived in Denpasar quite late, got a cab straight to our hotel and went out looking for a restaurant. My brother had actually booked us into Seminyak, right in the heart of the scene, but it was a Tuesday night and not especially busy. We found a nice place on the beach front, ate fresh fish, and that was that. The only incident of note was when my brother was approached by a very large and masculine transvestite who said “Mmmm, you big strong man,” in a trés seductive voice.

The following morning we hired a car and set off relatively early, keen to get out into the countryside and see more of the landscape. That first day was largely spent getting completely lost in the warren of lanes and villages that are woven into the rice-fields. We were attempting to reach a famous seaside temple, Pura Tanah Lot, then to find the town of Ubud itself. We found the temple after many picturesque wrong turns, but when we set off to reach Ubud, we really took getting lost to a whole new level. My brother, who was driving like an absolute champion, weaving in and out of the scooter-traffic, was struggling to retain his equilibrium as we repeatedly failed to orient. The lack of signage, the apparent sameness of so many villages, the absence of vantage points from which to make sense of the landscape, all meant it was almost stupidly difficult to be sure where we were. What made it all still a bloody great drive, however, was that everywhere we went was either fascinating or astonishingly beautiful.

I was struck most of all by the lushness of the place and the wonderful traditional architecture. On that first day alone we must have passed through thirty-odd little villages, most of which consisted of a main street lined with elaborately-carved stone-fronted houses and temples, bristling with flowers and trees. The amount of quality masonry and the quaint, cosy beauty of the houses – which was almost universal – fascinated me, partly because they reminded me of the streets of stone houses I’d seen in Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum. I wondered how long these villages had looked like this – and felt I was visiting a living, ancient form of urbanisation.

Balinese lane

Architectural detail 2

Over the next five days my brother and I made our way north, first to Ubud, where we spent a couple of nights, and then on into the mountains around Munduk with its amazing views across to the volcano, Gunung Raung, on the island of Java. Every day brought new surprises and pleasures. The food we ate was almost universally excellent; the people were outrageously nice; the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. We drove high up into the misty hills, through foggy, wet farms of hydrangeas; looked down on wide, splendid vistas, visited waterfalls and lake-side temples, rode elephants through the jungle, and finally reached the north coast around Singaraja.

Men at Ceremony

Into the mountains

West Bali at sunset


Temple truck

Temple drummer

Solid gold elephants

Lovina Beach boats

Munduk Waterfall

West Bali, Java Sunset

It was just a pity we did it all in a Suzuki Katana. This vehicle must have been named ironically on account of the great contrast with the refined workmanship of its Japanese sword namesake. It was a cramped and rattly piece of junk, with ill-fitting doors, ass-breaking seats and a dashboard that looked like it was a mock-up for kids to play at driving. The air-con was an epic fail and the leg-room negligible, so we sweated it out somewhat crampedly, the windows right down and the breeze blowing in more of the sticky air. Still, at a meagre cost of $92 for five days, it was indeed a bargain.

Katana at Singaraja

Without wishing to provide an exact chronology of our journey, two incidents stand out. After buying a proper Bali road map in Ubud, Matthew and I thought all our navigational troubles were behind us. Yet, as we tried to leave Ubud and make our way to an elephant sanctuary somewhere to the north, we struggled to find the road which we had decided was most appropriate on the map. The problem was that it simply wasn’t there, though at first we thought it was our mistake and that perhaps we needed to re-examine our expectations of what this road should look like. The nearest thing we found was a drive-way that ran past a boutique hotel and plunged sharply towards a gully. I became enthusiastic when we saw that it seemed to continue into the forest and urged my brother to drive down the steep hill. He did, and soon we found ourselves at a dead end on a little square terrace overlooking a steep drop into a river.

Ubud action

This might not have been such a problem if a) there had been enough room to turn the vehicle around and b) the Suzuki Katana had enough power to reverse up the hill. There wasn’t and it didn’t. Despite several attempts at backing up the very steep incline, the car just wouldn’t go. Not only was the engine pissweak, but there was no space for a run-up.

In a very short time, I was blanching with guilt and my brother was seething with frustration and rage. Feeling responsible, I looked desperately around for a solution. If we could create more turning space – perhaps by placing logs and stones along one edge of the little terrace, then we might just be able to swing the vehicle around and punch on up the hill. I set off into the forest and climbed down to the riverbank, yet there simply wasn’t the right sort of material to pull it off.

My brother tried reversing a few more times, but there was no room. He was convinced we had no choice but to get on the phone and organise a tow, which was likely going to be a lengthy and expensive process. It was at this point that I came up with the crazy idea of us pooling our strength and lifting the car to turn it. After all, we are both pretty big blokes and such a flimsy excuse for a tin biscuit box couldn’t possibly weigh that much. Matthew was keen to give it a go, and sure enough, when we braced and heaved a moment later, we got the back end off the ground and swung it around about a foot before having to drop it. A good start indeed.

It was as we heaved the thing up the second time that we heard the excited shouts from the road. Looking around, we saw three young Balinese guys running towards us waving excitedly. They had seen we were in trouble and come to offer help in that wonderful, eternally hospitable manner of seemingly all Balinese.

Friendly local chap

We laughed and shook hands and opened our arms and joked about the situation in gestures and broken English. Then the young men joined us in the heave and again we lifted and swung the vehicle. This time it turned around just enough to make the rest of the manoeuvre. Keen as ever to help, one of the men now jumped in the front and made this very tight turn, with barely an inch to spare. As soon as the car was facing the slope, he revved the engine and charged off with a screech and whiff of burning rubber. The Katana hit the hill at speed and shot on up the slope like an excited pup. After driving in the thing for a couple of days, we hadn’t exactly been confident. There was a great flood of relief as it zoomed back up the hill.

Afterwards we both felt a mix of thankfulness and embarrassment, so, unsure what to do, I pulled all the money out of my pocket and gave it to the guy who drove the car. I think he was quite surprised. As we drove off along the main road we’d hoped to avoid, we really had a very good laugh about it all.

The second incident I mention was of a less salutary nature, though with a similarly happy conclusion. Driving just north of Ubud, we passed a view of bright green rice terraces stacked across the other side of a valley. In the foreground were a few pockets of jungle with tall palm tree sentinels through which the wide curving decks of rice could be seen. The land sank deeply away from the road which lent our vantage point a taller scope. Both my brother and I had been eager to see and photograph such a picturesque scene and this stood out like a postcard.

Rice terraces

We cruised slowly until we found a wide gap and a place to pull over, then prepared to get out of the Katana. There were a few hawkers around along the roadside, and we figured it must be a popular viewing spot. One woman waved to us from the other side of the road, offering a large bunch of small, sugar bananas.

“Might get some bananas,” said Matthew, feeling peckish. Still sitting behind the wheel, he made a gesture and nodded to the woman, and she began to approach the car. As soon as she reached the window, the other hawkers, who seemed suddenly to have multiplied, made straight for the vehicle at pace. The speed with which they surrounded us was astonishing. I was still in the front passenger seat changing camera lenses when the wave struck.

In total, there must have been nine or ten people around us, roughly five on either side. The window was down and through this portal a flurry of hands was now thrust, offering a variety of artefacts. To say that these men were like seagulls fighting over chips seems undignified, and yet so it was – much pushing, shoving and shouting accompanied this keen offering of goods. A number of carved wooden objects were dropped in my lap as prices were yelled into my ear. Overwhelmed and amused, and yet slightly alarmed by this invasion of our space, I slapped the door lock and stuffed my camera into my bag at my feet.

On the other side, my brother now sat with a whole bunch of bananas in his lap and a porcupine of hands reaching in through his window. Both of us were too busy fending off the vendors to give each other much attention. Feeling the pressure and concerned that things might suddenly go very badly, I picked up one of the objects in my lap, one half of a set of carved wooden bookends, and said “Okay, okay, how much?”

The price was negligible – around five dollars – and I hoped that as soon as I’d given the guy the money I could justify closing the window and saying enough was enough. Yet, just as my brother’s interest in the bananas had sparked the initial frenzy, my apparent interest only intensified the efforts of the others and the pushing and shoving reached a new crescendo. I bent forward, feeling increasingly less comfortable with the whole business. I got the money for the bookends out of my wallet and pushed my bag as far under the seat as it would go. When I held up the notes they were promptly whisked from my hand. I smiled at the people who were all pressing in, smiling at me too, but with an odd sort of mania.

My brother, having finished his banana purchase and being similarly assaulted, turned to me and said, “Fuck it! Let’s roll.” He put his foot to the pedal and let the car jolt forward, just enough to get the message across. There was a collective gasp of alarm and a new flurry of activity as the hands collected the things they’d dumped in our laps. They were all very fast and accurate. My brother pressed the pedal again lightly, just enough for a quick lurch. Our assailants finally backed off.

“Let’s go!” I said, excited that we were all clear to make our getaway. Slowly at first, my brother got us going and the Katana, now our protector, rolled forward onto the road. A moment later we were sailing away from the scene.

It took about thirty seconds for the laughter to begin. At first it came on a great wave of relief, for both of us had felt slightly threatened by the insistent nature of the hawkers. But in a moment the sheer ridiculousness of it all became apparent as we looked to our laps and saw the big bunch of bananas and the wooden bookends. This set us off into fits of hysterics and we laughed until our eyes were flooded with tears. We laughed so hard we could barely breathe and my brother had to pull the car over again and stop a while.

I hadn’t laughed that hard in years and I haven’t laughed so hard since. It was intense, even painful – the gasping for air, the clench in the stomach – and every time I saw the bookends in my lap I just laughed harder and harder. We must have sat there for five minutes. The doors locked, the windows rolled up, emitting little gasps and piping hoots through the tears and spittle. Even once we’d finally gotten control of ourselves and started driving again, we continued to laugh. It just kept coming, bursts of laughter, eruptions of cackling, even further fits of hysterics. By the time we made it back to Ubud we were completely exhausted.

In a way these two incidents seemed to sum up the conflicting elements of Balinese life. Most people seemed relaxed and content with their lives, pleased with its rhythms and generally in good spirits. They were friendly, accommodating, polite and helpful. Yet that there were also people who were genuinely desperate was apparent, along with people who, perhaps inevitably, saw the wealth disparity between tourists and themselves and sought to tap it. It made me feel guilty that I might be a cause for envy or resentment, that perhaps in coming here at all we were destroying the balance. As it was, there was much to ponder on returning from this most excellent jaunt. And indeed, much to ponder when I returned to Bali three years later.

HatGirl, Seminyak


West Bali, Java Sunset 2

Man at Ceremony

Man at Ceremony

Self portrait, lost somewhere...


West Bali, Java Sunset


Banana ladies

Ubud, ricefields

Balinese splendour!

Ubud outdoor shower

Misty Mountain Hop

Scarecrow, Ubud

Macaques! 2

Breakfast flower arrangement

Farmer 1

Traffic between Lovina & Singaraja

Chilling on the balcony, Ubud

Kuta action

Legian Beach

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The sombre mood began with the dog. V and I were on Sideman Road in Bali, eating and taking a break from an afternoon rain shower in a roadside shop. Ever adventurous on the food front and keen to try some of the truly local offerings, V had asked the lady for “a bit of everything” in the small cabinet. We finished up this hot and sour mix of rice, vegetables, nuts and chicken, licked our fingers clean and stepped back out onto the road.

There, to the left, were the dogs. And there, bearing down on them with unstoppable momentum, was one of the many trucks that plied this narrow but busy highway. Bright yellow, yet with an almost apologetically sad face, the truck came on and the dogs began their dance. One, a matted grey-haired bitsa, made the right call immediately and sprang from the truck’s path with a deft leap. The other dog, a youngish, clean-looking, tan-coloured beauty, panicked and skipped not away from the truck to the pavement, but away from one wheel towards the centre of the road. There was a collective gasp in that long second as the truck passed directly over the dog and the dog, terrified yet unscathed, made its second mistake. Having landed on a diagonal with its back towards the rear of the truck, the dog failed to notice the approaching rear wheels and stepped directly into their path.

Tough guy

The small body of the dog, crushed under the great bulk of the truck, sprang up from the wet bitumen, impossibly contorted, emitting a series of heartrending yelps. On went the truck, seemingly unawares. I turned away in a flinch, grabbing the shocked and tearful V by the arm and pulling her with me. To look at the dog was unbearable, that it lived at all seemed both incredible and cruel. It had staggered into a sort of bent crouch, as though its body were frozen in the midst of a drying shake.

I had to get V away from the sound of it, and I had to get away myself. The image of the double wheels rolling over the dog had already fixed itself firmly, like sunglare. The temptation to look again, as if some new information might counter my worst thoughts, was too great.

We hurried up the side street, not sure where we were going, only knowing that it was away from the awful yelping.

“Someone has to kill it, they have to kill it now,” I said, wondering who might do this or just how exactly. Both of us were crying now and so was the sky. The rain began again, harder than before, hard as it can in the tropics. Fifty metres down the street we paused, the cries still audible, the rumble of passing trucks a brutal reminder.

There was nowhere to go. We were at a dead-end and on the wrong side of the road from our hotel. I didn’t know what to do, only that getting back to the hotel now seemed the only goal. We hugged, huddling under my umbrella.

“We have to go back.”

“I know. I know.”


We hurried down the lane, the dog’s cries now quieter, less frequent. How was such a tight little body, however lithe and resilient, supposed to contend with such a blow? Was anyone doing anything at all? I did not know and nor could I look as we stepped back out onto Sideman Road. We ushered each other across and into a small lane opposite. Our own turn-off was too close to the dog to risk, so we blundered on through the pouring rain, thankful of the sound on the umbrella that masked everything else.

Soon we were lost in a warren of narrow lanes. The paving was slippery with mud and moss. We rounded a corner and found a village temple. The courtyard was full of ducks. We took refuge under the gate’s stone lintel and held each other. The ducks approached making curious quacks and now, we both really started to cry.

“I hope it’s dead, I just hope it’s dead.”

“Would someone kill it?” asked V.

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

“But what would they use?”

“God knows. A knife, a sickle. A club.”

I shuddered as these images were conjured up, but they could only briefly trump the vision of the dog bending under the wheel. In fact, I could not stop thinking about it. It wasn’t merely involuntary. I had to picture it to make sense of it. Had it really happened? Did the dog really have no chance? It still seemed that perhaps if I looked hard enough at the replay in my head I’d see the dog move differently; step the other way and emerge alive and well with its little heart pounding.

When the rain eased a little we stepped our way through muddy paths and bamboo groves along the edge of the rice-fields. Sideman is a largely agricultural area; farms, hills, forests, ducks, cattle, temples and the ubiquitous resorts amidst the abundance. All around was lush green life and a scattering of roosters and dogs. We stepped cautiously down the slippery road, trying to shake off the feeling of horror, trying to comfort each other. It was nigh impossible not to talk about it, yet without much to say beyond simple, shocked expressions.

“I still can’t believe it happened.”

I felt an urgent need to pat a dog. I wanted to find one of the many strays and give it some comfort; show warmth and kindness to dog-kind as a whole, reassure one of the poor wandering beasts that it needn’t face the same fate. Each dog we passed seemed more fragile and vulnerable than before. Against a truck, what chance did they have but for their wits and dexterity? Yet, cunning as they were, the dogs took so many risks; dancing across the traffic, sleeping on the bitumen’s edge. Here at least, on this rural side road away from the main thoroughfare, there were no cars.

Soon a woman came chugging along on a scooter. Behind her skipped an eager young whelp, happy for the game of chase and the exercise. Its joyous, panting face reassured me that other dogs were still okay. I realised it wasn’t the dogs I was worried about so much as myself. I wondered if I would ever be able to remove that image from my mind. The big wheels, the great weight, the little body.

We were saved by the volcano. Passing a field of chilli and tapioca, V paused a moment to take a drink of water and turned to look behind her. There, massive against the horizon, was Mount Agung, finally visible through the cloud and mist. Since arriving the day before, we hadn’t even realised it was there at all, so muggy was the atmosphere. The heavy rain had cleaned the sky and left just a few clumps of cloud floating near the mountain’s peak. At just over three thousand metres, it hardly rivalled the world’s tallest, yet still it was epic in presiding over the landscape. Both of us are very fond of mountains and we stood watching it for some time, only turning away when the horizon began to cloud over. The sight of it lifted our spirits.

Mount Agung

Later that afternoon, having swum in the pool and cooled several beers in the fridge, we sat on our balcony talking. Though I couldn’t quite stop my thoughts returning to the image of the dog and shuddering, both of us felt greatly relieved. The beer certainly helped to cushion the blow and it finally loosened our tongues. Yet it wasn’t the day’s events of which we spoke, but rather the bigger picture. Bali itself, the place, the people, and how exactly we felt about being there at all. The rawness of the dark event had opened our emotional vents, and there was much to discuss…


Local soccer, Sideman Rd area

Sideman Rd

Sideman Rd area

Tile factory, Sideman Rd area




V, Sideman Rd area


Tile factory, Sideman Rd area

Drying rice



Two women

V on the bridge

Man on roof, Sideman road area

Mount Agung

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So, it’s goodbye to Eggs, aka, Pope Benedict XVI. I can’t say I’ll miss him a whole lot, but that’s not surprising considering I’m an atheist with a strong dislike for religion and unscientific “belief” in all its forms. In the aftermath of his rather unexpected decision to resign, we’ve been subjected to the usual preliminary obituaries of his papacy, with all manner of people voicing their opinions about whether he was successful or otherwise. Today was his last day in office and now we have the rare and beautiful breathing space of an interregnum or interpontificatus (?)  as it were, during which time the papacy can choose the next man to annoy and frustrate the hell out of us secular non-believers.

"Eggs" Benedict

I have a strange relationship to the papacy, it must be said. Having done a PhD in early medieval Italian history and had a long obsession with the late Roman Empire and the cultural and religious transformation that took place during that period, I have long been fascinated by this ancient institution. It is worth remembering that Julius Caesar himself once held the title of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome, a position that came exclusively to be held by Christians in the fourth century once the Empire had made Christianity its official religion. The transition was not quite as smooth as this, but I’m not about to go into that sort of detail. Even in Caesar’s time, the position of Pontifex Maximus was already centuries old, which does lend the Papacy a certain cred for sustaining such an ancient institution.


As an unabashed fan of Roman civilization, culture and law, with apologies for the slavery and warmongering, I found a certain sympathy with the popes of Late Antiquity. With the slow decline and ultimate collapse of the Western Empire (a process by which they practically delegated themselves out of existence) the popes came to the forefront of Roman affairs, playing an increasingly important role in protecting Roman interests. People Leo I “The Great” even went so far as to confront Attila the Hun when he invaded Italy in AD 452 and persuaded him to turn back.

During the sixth century, after the devastating reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565), the papacy became the major player in the organisation and defence of the much reduced city of Rome. Presiding over the depopulated, overgrown wreck of the once-great city, with only one of ten aqueducts still functional, the popes did their best to mitigate the chaos that ensued shortly after the reconquest when the Lombards invaded to find inadequate resistance and easy plunder in the derelict metropolises of the Italian peninsula.

Perhaps the most outstanding figure of this age was Pope Gregory I, also “The Great” (c. 540 – 12 March 604) who held the position from AD 590 until his death in 604. Gregory, a Roman aristocrat with an at times almost desperate nostalgia for the long-passed glories of Roman dominion over western Europe, lamented the moribund state of present affairs and did his best to make a difference. Gregory attempted to re-energise the Church’s missionary work and to re-establish closer contact with Catholic bishops in Visigothic Spain and Frankish Gaul. He is most famous for sending Augustine of Canterbury to spread the word amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded formerly Roman and Christian Britain in the 5th century. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The culture of education and learning promoted by the church during this period, helped significantly to spread literacy and preserve much of the dwindling knowledge accumulated during the heights of Roman power and civilization. On that score, props.

Gregory I "The Great"

During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Papacy worked hard to shore up the pockets of territory it held in Italy, along with those still directly governed by representatives of the Eastern Roman Empire – based at Ravenna – against the further incursions of the Lombards who had established themselves throughout Italy. It also found itself increasingly at odds with and slowly divorced itself from the policies and administrative demands of the Eastern Empire. Indeed, there was a most curious instance in 663, during the time of Pope Vitalian (657-72) when Emperor Constans II (641-68) actually visited Rome from Constantinople, allegedly considering moving his court there in the wake of a string of Islamic conquests of Roman territory in the Middle East and North Africa. In the end he stayed a mere twelve days, during which time he stripped the city’s churches of their valuables, including the gold gilding from the roof of the Pantheon. It’s hardly necessary to say that this did not leave a good impression.

Map of Italy, 7th century

When, in 726, the Emperor Leo III (717-741) decreed a new policy of Iconoclasm, banning the veneration of images, he faced revolts not only in Greece, but in the Italian territories as well. The defiant attitudes of Popes Gregory II and III soured relations with the Eastern Empire even further. Gregory II’s decision to excommunicate iconoclasts in Italy resulted in Leo’s retaliation by which he, on paper, transferred the provinces of southern Italy and Illyricum to the Patriarch of Constantinople. He further attempted to put down an armed outbreak in the Exarchate of Ravenna by sending a large fleet, but its destruction in a storm marked not only the failure of his attempts to bring Italy to heel, but also marked the final separation of the Italian territories from the Eastern Empire. From this period onwards, the destiny of all Italian territories was tied to that of the Papacy.

Likely the most significant figure of this period, however, was Pope Steven II (752-757) who first engineered an alliance with the Franks to protect against the constant Lombard threat. With the fall of Ravenna in 751, the Lombards began to look to Rome to complete their conquest of Italy. Not only did Stephen II prove himself extremely agile in negotiating with the Lombards and preventing further incursions, but he went so far as to travel to Paris to persuade the Franks, under Pepin the Short (752-768), to cross the alps in 756 and chastise the pesky Lombards in a manner they weren’t likely to forget in a hurry. The Franks forced the Lombards to surrender their recent conquests and guaranteed the lands between Rome and Ravenna should remain under the rule of the Duchy of Rome, now very much an independent entity.

It wasn’t, however, until 774, during the papacy of Adrian I, that the Lombard problem was solved once and for all. Distrustful of the intentions of the Lombards, Adrian appealed first to the eastern emperor, who was unable or unwilling to assist, and then to the Frankish King Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne saw it as a great opportunity both to obtain the support and legitimacy offered by the papacy, expand his territories into Italy, and get rid of the nuisance that was the Lombards once and for all. He did all of this and more of course, which is why his name is so well known into the present.


From here on in the fortunes of the Papacy are far too complex and lengthy to narrate, suffice to say that towards the end of the ninth century, a period of decline set in which resulted in the period between 904 and 964 being referred to as a saeculum obscurum, or dark age. One scholar went so far as to refer to the Papacy of the 10th century as the “pornocracy,” so corrupt and seedy were its affairs.

So, in a nutshell, the early medieval period in Italy saw some rather extraordinary characters fill the role of pope, some of whom had very interesting names. Consider the following monickers:

Hilarius I, 461-468

Simplicius, 468-483

Gelasius, 492-496

Symmachus, 498-514

Hormisdas, 514-523

Agapetus I, 535-536

Pelagius I, 556-561

Sabinian, 604-606

Adeodatus, 615-618

Severinus, 638-640

Donus, 676-678

Agatho, 678-681

Conon, 686-687

Sisinnius, 15 January, 708- 4 February, 708

And the list goes on. All we get these days is boring old John Paul and Benedict. Indeed, I’m desperately hoping the new Pope will have a peculiar fascination with one of these early figures and take on a name not spoken for centuries. How great would it be to have Hormisdas II giving the Christmas homilies instead of the likely inevitable John Paul III or some equally dull name?

Not all of the Popes during this period were Italian either. Some came from Syria, Palestine, Constantinople. Perhaps, should another non-Italian Pope don the mantle and pick up the sceptre or whatever they get up to, we might see a more creative choice of name.

Speaking of the future, one cannot help but keep one eye on the past. It seems ironic, considering how many popes have proven so divisive throughout history, that the title “Pontifex” has a curious metaphorical meaning. It literally means bridge-builder, on account of the fact that the position originally also included these duties. It is fair to say that in more recent years the papacy has attempted to build bridges between itself and other religions, or those who have felt themselves victimised, hurt or excluded by its policies. Of course, it moves with the pace of continental drift, although the shake up of Vatican II was, historically speaking, the earthquake that broke the Richter Scale.

Either way, I don’t hold much hope of any significant change taking place and, on this front, without wishing to sound illiberal or reactionary, I’m not entirely sure I want the Catholic Church to change at all. Not because I support their backward policies on abortion, contraception and er, believing in God etc, but precisely because I want them NOT to be relevant to the modern world. These sorry bastards have persecuted people throughout history, burning them at the stake, sending them to prison, exile, condemning the cultures and religions of whole peoples as worthless pagan shite and brutally enforcing their own dogma, how dare they turn around and say, oh, perhaps we were wrong about that? They should stand by all their sorry and misguided beliefs, especially where people have died opposing them, and be shown up for the uselessly effete bunch of medieval paedophile-protecting snobs they actually are. My fascination with the survival of an ancient Roman institution does not necessarily mean I wish to accommodate its continuation into the future.

One thing I will say about the Pope, which I do consider to be a sort of positive, is that despite the relative hypocrisy of the institution’s history, at least he regularly goes around preaching peace in the world these days. That at least, is a nice thing, and I’ve often wondered if present tensions between “the West” and Islam wouldn’t be tempered by the presence of a similar central figure preaching peace to Muslims the world over. Not to suggest that Islam is intrinsically warlike or even an aggressor, but if such a message were broadcast by a figure of equal authority who garnered an equal degree of respect and deference, then perhaps there would be a few less instances of people resorting to violence. Of course, it is important to note that considering the degree of hostility to Islam offered by Israel, the USA and various other nations including my own, Australia, the anger is justified. But still, non-violence is always preferable and allows one to retain the moral high ground. Controversial as it might sound, and in lieu of people just quitting religion altogether, an Islamic Pope might not be such a bad thing.

So, in brief conclusion, bring on Pope Hormisdas II, I say, and may you oversee a rapid decline in membership and faith in your antiquated institution.

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