Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Entering a New Golden Age

Selamat malam (good evening) from Bali! I hope you have had a wonderful Christmas and New Year—mine was certainly memorable. These first weeks here mark the end of my chapter in China and new start in Indonesia, complete with new music and a new language.

My departure from China stirred up mixed emotions. In Xinjiang and Xian, I thought daily of my imminent departure for the southern hemisphere with longing, nursing my omnipresent smog-induced cough and shivering under the thin wool coat I hadn’t thought I would need when originally projecting a hot climate-oriented itinerary. At the same time, as I found myself becoming increasingly familiar with the erhu repertoire and easily chattering away with friends and shop owners in Xian about their lives and perspectives, I started to realize that I had reached a level of understanding of Chinese language and culture that had previously felt unattainable. This is not to assert that I achieved any sort of mastery of Chinese music or incredible fluency in Mandarin language—absolutely not. What I can say I took away from my time in China was the increased ability to perceive how the people I was with comprehend the world around them. For the first time I found an independent sense of comfort and ease operating within the social culture of China. I felt like I was finally doing more than observing and mimicking, and actually actively participating. Despite the political aims of the central government, there is certainly not a singular, unified Chinese culture or language; in particular, my time in Hong Kong and Xinjiang made that abundantly clear. Nonetheless, in Xian I felt I hit my stride in terms of Chinese language skills, music appreciation, and greater empathy with peoples in China. Again, I’m not claiming expertise, but rather an increased capacity for experience (already that sounds too lofty). My mom likes to remind me that the phrase for “I’m sorry” in Spanish, lo siento, literally means “I feel it.” That seems to come closest to how I regard China—having glimpsed the tensions of Xinjiang and witnessed the protests in Hong Kong, and also seen the clamor of audiences for music that rings true to their cultures, perhaps I don’t know it—but I feel it.

My time in China started in Hong Kong, and so it seemed fitting for it to end there as well. I bid farewell to my friends in Xian and flew south to Guangzhou (long enough to have dim sum with my friend Haley and capture some pictures of the incessant bridal photo shoots on Shamian Island. Only my train to Hong Kong the next day did I realize that I was seeing mainland China for the last time in the foreseeable future. I feel confident I will be back (and back soon), yet only then did it sink in that I was leaving a place that, despite its idiosyncracies, oddities, and injustices, holds special significance for me. My days in Hong Kong over Christmas were a blur, though a lovely one; I saw about fifteen friends in the course of five days, making time to have a Christmas dinner with Alexis, Gloria, Paiyu, and friends, play violin/piano and erhu/erhu duets on Lamma Island with Alexis, see some Wellesley friends, and carouse with my Hong Kong University pals again.

[photo interlude]
Residents of these old buildings refuse to leave despite ongoing demolition
efforts to make way for high-rises

Shamian Island fish market

Just roll with it 
Christmas comes from Guangzhou
Christmas Eve dinner with Hong Kong friends

I am proud to say that I made this wreath myself

And in the blink of an eye, I found myself on a plane to Bali, seated next to my Wellesley classmate Poppy, who I had persuaded to trade in her high-paced corporate lifestyle in Tokyo for a few days of respite on a different island. Reunited after months apart, we regaled each other with stories of our respective lifestyles as of late and excitedly imagined the glamorous tropical adventure awaiting us. After months of gray, cold weather and surroundings, as I stepped off the plane I was overwhelmed by the wave of humid heat, as well as the lush greenery that seemed to be erupting out of every possible orifice. 
I had arranged for us to stay with Lanny, the niece of my family friends, who purportedly runs a bed and breakfast. I figured that Lanny’s place would be a convenient base for both my vacation with Poppy and Watson project. What I hadn’t realized is that Lanny’s large courtyard-style house is first and foremost an Indonesian Christian retirement home that specializes in caring for residents with degenerative diseases, where Lanny hosts tourists and visitors from time to time. I believe we were the youngest guests who had stayed there—ever. Beyond the Christian imagery plastered on the walls and doors, the religious undertones of the establishment became acutely obvious our first morning there, when Poppy and I awoke to a synthesized organ accompanying a chorus of praise songs. We couldn't help but laugh—this was the farthest thing from what either of us had imagined our Bali vacation would be like, but in its own way the "home for those in their golden age," as it is called in Indonesian, was very peaceful. On our first day Lanny offered to take us to a few scenic spots, bringing us to a traditional Balinese village, an active volcano, and some enormous rice terraces. Coming from China, where art, architecture, and natural scenery are so rigidly controlled, it was incredible to see how "unbridled" Balinese art and culture are by comparison, as well as how much people still maintain and integrate centuries-old traditions in their daily lives. (Much more on this soon.) 
Outside a Balinese temple
These chickens are real basket cases 

There are chickens (and dogs) roaming around everywhere here! This one is particularly good-looking, no?
Polygamists in this village are banished and sent to live down this jungle path.
The sign apparently reads something like "Naughty Men"
This volcano erupted last year and the valley has not recovered from the damage

Can you spot Lanny and Poppy waving?

Despite the extremely tranquil atmosphere of the retirement home cum B&B, Poppy and I decided to seek slightly more lively digs for the remainder of her vacation. (We got the distinct sense our current hosts would not be ringing in the New Year in any particularly memorable fashion.) For better or for worse, we went the opposite extreme and doing anything particularly We ended up going to the opposite extreme and trekking out to the beaches of Kuta, a hotbed of Australian party tourism and really the last place anyone knowledgeable about Bali recommends visiting. But, truly setting aside the Watson Fellowship’s spirit of independent exploration, we figured “everybody’s doing it” and ventured forth to a quaint seaside hostel whose primary patrons seemed to have a wealth of hair gel, tattoos, poolside booze starting from noon on, and possibly performance-enhancing drugs. Poppy admonished me for not wanting to socialize with our new hostel compatriots; frankly, I found it hard to believe that we would have much common ground. Predictably, I did not enjoy the one night of clubbing with the bros that I consented to attend (the loud noise, belligerent drunkenness, and people pushing mushrooms right and left epitomizing the sort of seediness I have sought to avoid at all costs as a single female traveler).
A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on
Still, Poppy and I managed to have a really nice time. We took advantage of the cheap pedicure and massage places peppering the area, ate some amazing food, and even rented a motor scooter and took a road trip to a more secluded stretch of beach where we stretched out with coconuts and lots of sunscreen, still in disbelief that we had made it to Bali at all. (One of my favorite moments was Poppy going into a Balinese clothing stall wearing her corporate work blouse and leaving in an entirely new brightly colored outfit of loose harem pants and a breezy crop top.) Despite going through the motions of holidaymaking, however, I found myself having trouble enjoying our vacation. Being in a completely foreign culture and unable to communicate in the local language, I was plagued by insecurity. Making matters worse, my musical contacts in Bali were not responding to my inquiries, and so I was already picturing the state of turmoil and confusion I would inevitably enter once Poppy departed (and with her, any sense of familiarity or camaraderie in a strange place). I knew on an intellectual level that even if I had to start from square one everything would work out, but nonetheless my fear of being completely lost and lonely daunted me. It was actually amazing to have Poppy there for that reason as well—her disbelief at my inability to chill out and just enjoy being a tourist counterbalanced my propensity for working myself into an angst-ridden panic.   
Gamelan ensembles at Denpasar Festival
At the hostel, besides the profane bro brigade we also met Joy, a Dutch nursing student who has been in Surabaya, a city on the Indonesian island of Java, for the last four months doing an exchange program. It was amazing to hear about how she has adapted to living in Indonesia (and in a far more unfamiliar place than touristy Bali) as someone with no previous experience here. At about the same time that I met Joy I got a very long and thorough message from a composer I had contacted, providing a wealth of advice, contacts, and supportive wishes. Between meeting Joy and receiving a veritable encyclopedia/phonebook of musical knowledge in Indonesia via email, I suddenly felt a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. I didn't need to have my entire two months in Indonesia worked out, but having the information and moral support to jumpstart my project made me feel inspired again instead of overwhelmed. And just in time for New Year’s—that evening, Joy and Poppy and I (wearing my ear plugs, I am a wimp—but it’s important for us musicians to protect our ears!) went to the beach with hundreds of others and watched the fireworks that enveloped the shorelines as far as the eye could see. I made my New Year’s resolution: take full advantage of the opportunities in the moment; live fully knowing that this time is fleeting.
A photo posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

Hot air balloon on the beach
While my New Year’s Eve was truly spectacular, the first day of 2015 was a dud—I woke up early in the morning to throw up (not due to a hangover), had a minor traffic collision on the way to return the motor scooter that resulted in scraping another bike and bruising Poppy’s leg, and then returned to Lanny’s home for the elderly just in time to develop a high fever and become a sobbing, homesick, emotional wreck. Poppy was leaving on a flight that evening, and I can only imagine that she was as thrilled to leave as I was sad to see her go. Combating my body chills and aches, I told her I wanted to send her off at the airport. 
“You definitely need to go to bed NOW.” 
I did as I was told and called my parents. Being sick far away is really hard, and that was the first time since initially starting the year of travel that I really just wanted to be at home with my family. Although they were alarmed to hear me in my semi-hysterical state, I assured them and mostly myself that of all the places to fall ill abroad, a Christian retirement home that specializes in regenerative diseases was one of the best. 

With Jonny, Fifi, and Lanny
I spent the next four days very quietly while trying to fully recover. I woke up, ate breakfast, and spent a few hours studying an Indonesian language textbook, and then the rest of the day reading or napping. In my altered state, the retirement home was the perfect place to be—everyone was pretty much on the same daily schedule, and additionally eager to let me test out my newfound language skills on them. As I started to feel better I went with Lanny and her brother and sister-in-law for small outings, during which time I became a master of making small but astute observations: 
“That building is next to your house.” “This red fruit is delicious.” “Your name is Lanny.” 
They were wonderful teachers—incredibly patient as I asked them a million and one questions about linguistic rules and cultural customs. I hope that I was able to give back to them in some way as well, even if it was just a little excitement in their daily routine. (In particular I think they were amused to take me fruit shopping. I got very excited to encounter a section of never-before-seen produce—hairy fruit, jackfruit, starfruit, snakefruit, and yellow watermelon.)

The recharge came at the right moment. Still, I realized that I would soon need to leave my own personal retirement and seek out the music.

[To be continued...! Crazy stories of music-making with hippies, Indian classical music masters, and my nutty rebab teacher to come. Some music in the meantime]