Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Barong and Kris" moments

I don’t often have trouble formulating an experience, an idea, an emotion, even something as simple as a piece of sea glass or a monk on a moped into long, elegant prose. I’ve been blessed with the fact that writing comes naturally to me. I’m not bragging. I’m simply stating the facts. And believe me, I, like most people, can come up with a longer list of skills and abilities that I do not possess than those that I do. However, writing is on the short list.

But, when I do suffer the occasional bout of writer’s block, I naturally turn to another of those short listed items that has long been a part of my life. Dance. It is not at all surprising to anyone who knows me even remotely well that dance has become the metaphor in my life. The phrase “life’s a dance” often, quite literally, seems it was coined specifically for me.

I’ve been struggling to force myself to write this blog entry not for a lack of material (as you’ll soon see, there is plenty), but rather, because I just did not know where to begin. So, of course, I have decided to turn to one of the things I know and understand best to try to begin to describe my complicated, exciting, overwhelming, stressful, amazing, turbulent life for the past three weeks.

In the last three weeks I have seen two very wonderful, very different professional dance performances. On Friday, March 12, I drug a slightly reluctant, but mostly enthusiastic Tim to his first ever professional ballet performance: Singapore Dance Theatre’s production of Perrot and Coralli’s famous classical ballet, Giselle.

A very brief and totally inadequate synopsis for those of you who do not know: The ballet is about a young, peasant girl named Giselle who falls in love with a man of nobility, Albrecht. He promises to love and marry her, but when he spurns her in front of the noble family and his actual noble fiancé, Giselle dies of a broken heart. Her spirit is forced to join the Wilis, a group of girls who have died before their wedding day and are doomed to roam the earth taking revenge on unfaithful men and making them dance until they die. In act two, Albrecht comes into the forest to pay his respect at Giselle’s grave when he is confronted by the Wilis and their queen, Myrtha. Giselle’s bond of love protects Albrecht from suffering the fate that the Wilis hope to bestow upon him, and, at dawn, when the Wilis retreat, Albrecht is still alive. Albrecht and Giselle declare their eternal love for one another; however, tragically, Giselle is destined to remain a Wili for all eternity.

The comfortable familiarity of the ballet’s movements, recognizable characters and plot-line, drama, simple yet beautiful costumes and set, grace, romance, and passion all intertwined to create a vision often described as the “quintessence of the Romantic ballet” feel to me like old friends. The slight tapping sound that is barely audible as the ballerina completes a long set of bourrees from stage left to stage right, the smell of newly taped marley floors, the sight of the long lines of the graceful prima stepping into a faultless first arabesque, the memory of the feel of pointe shoes on the one day that they perfectly mold to your feet, and the recollection of taste of the sweat as it drips from your upper lip when you rush off stage after a particularly grueling sequence – this is my comfort zone, this feels like home.

I have, in fact, had several “Giselle” moments in the past couple weeks. Most importantly, of course, was having Tim in Singapore for a two-week-long visit and all of the wonderful moments we shared and memories we created. Other “Giselle” moments include: an apartment that has lately especially started to look, feel, and smell like home, the fact that I haven’t been lost in Singapore for over two months, a kitten who would love nothing more than to spend all of Sunday morning cuddling and watching movies if that is what I want to do, an oven that I have finally figured out how to turn-on to bake chocolate chip cookies all by myself (hold the knob, turn it just a bit to the right, fire-up the gas with your free hand, turn the knob further to the right, jump back quickly and hope for fire), a hot yoga routine that I have memorized, a long Skype chat with my parents on Saturday mornings, understanding every word that the tour guide with a thick Singlish accent said at the Tiger Brewery (and translating for Tim and Kenzie), and several wonderful students, who never fail to make me laugh.

While Tim, Steph, Kenzie, Steph’s friend from California, and I were in Bali we were able to attend another, completely different dance performance: “The Barong and Kris Dance.”

Another totally inadequate synopsis, but this time not because I’m not including all the essential details, but rather because I was just not sure what was going on for part of the production and my “English” program was not always very helpful; here’s the gist: The dance-drama represents an eternal fight between the good spirit, Barong, and the evil mythological monster, Rangda. Servants of the Rangda appear and meet servants of Dewi Kunti. Dewi Kunti has been entranced by the servants of the Rangda and has promised to sacrifice her son, Sadewa, to Rangda. Feeling pity for Sadewa, the god Siwa appears and gives him eternal life before the Rangda can kill him. The Rangda sends his servant, first in the form of a boar and then in the form of a wild bird, to kill Sadewa, but she cannot. Finally the Rangda comes himself to kill Sadewa. Sadewa changes into the Barong and good and evil fight. The Barong wins with the help of some of his followers and good triumphs over evil.

Of course, we can all relate to the moral of the story, but the intricate plot-line, unfamiliar characters, extravagant costumes and set, extreme theatrics, vibrant colors, mime-like and jerky movements, complicated facial expressions and elaborate hand and finger placement were incredibly foreign to me (not as much as to Tim though, thanks to my college degree) – this represents all those cultural intricacies embedded so deeply in the people in a society that an outsider, no matter how long he or she lives in the place, may never learn to understand -- this is not my comfort-zone and it certainly feels like a foreign place faraway in Asia.

This part of the metaphor, “The Barong and Kris” moments, are finding out that I have a Monday meeting during spring break vacation and during my boyfriend’s two-week visit less than a week before the meeting is to occur, standing in line at immigration for over two hours in Bali’s crowded, non-air-conditioned airport, breaking out in weird, tropical-climate induced rashes, a spring break vacation that started out in Bali quite differently than expected (audio podcast), days when I walk out of the classroom feeling like the students didn’t hear a word I said, saying goodbye to Tim, and having a solid two-day “I am so homesick, what am I doing in Singapore?” meltdown.

While at the time, I was quietly and, sometimes not-so-quietly (in the case of finding out about the meeting and subsequently phoning my mom to complain about it) cursing these “Barong and Kris” moments, I did and continue to learn about the culture, my strengths and weaknesses, and my dreams and goals from them especially. In addition, I am thankful for the valuable and comfortable “Giselle” moments that keep me sane…mostly.

So there you have it -- my life for the past three weeks, in dance metaphor form. Now for a less complicated, less artsy run-down of events:

Tim arrived late on a Sunday evening, and he and Kenzie spent Monday exploring Little India. After work, Steph and I joined them and Hannah, Jacob, and Jacob for a walk around Chinatown and dinner at an Indian food buffet. The buffet as a "pay what you want" policy, and all proceeds are donated to an organization that works to promote awareness and appreciation of Indian culture in Singapore. The evening was spent enjoying sun-downer drink specials at New Asia Bar on the 71st story, walking along the river, and capturing priceless photos with the Merlion.

After seeing the Botanical Gardens and Orchard Road on Tuesday, Tim and Kenzie came home for a dumpling feast followed by a pub trivia night with the rest of our PiA friends in Holland Village. Pub trivia is basically a quiz game, like trivial pursuit, that you play against other tables in the pub. The more varied your team’s backgrounds and knowledge the better…one point, our team.

Wednesday was a “jungle” themed day complete with a hike up Bukit Timah hill to see the monkeys, a tour of the Tiger Beer brewery, and a trip to Singapore’s famous Night Safari zoo.

On Thursday, Tim and Kenzie joined my kids and me for a learning journey to the National Museum of Singapore. Before a seafood, chili crab, and drunken prawn feast in Singapore’s red-light district, we sampled some durian; envision a scary, spiky fruit, with a texture that can be described roughly as stringy toothpaste, a smell like gasoline, and a taste similar to what I imagine rotting mango tastes like, and you’ve pretty much got it. After dinner, we settled down for some tea and lemonade in an Arab Street cafe.

Friday afternoon was spent walking along Singapore’s southern ridges for a lovely view of the city and the harbor and a treetop walk. On Friday night, Tim and I enjoyed Thai food with a view of the skyline before attending Giselle and winding down the evening with mojitos and live jazz music.

I attempted bike riding for the second time in my adult life on Saturday as we spent the day riding around Pulau Ubin, walking through the mangroves, sipping coconut water, and generally enjoying the rainforest atmosphere and 1950’s-Asia vibe that permeates the island. Tim and I had dinner on Arab Street before he taught me how to play poker at our apartment for the rest of the evening (I’m a slow learner, I guess).

Sunday was the rainiest day, and ironically, Tim and I spent it hiding under an umbrella at the beach at Sentosa. We ate Hawker Center food and packed for Bali in the evening. After work on Monday, we hopped on a flight to Indonesia ready to spend four days of fun in the sun.

Our beach plans were changed a bit, as our first full day in Bali was spent locked inside the hotel because it was Hari Raya Nyepi, or the Balinese New Year (audio podcast). All shops, restaurants, and bars are closed and no one is aloud onto the beaches or streets. No need to complain though, because we spent the day relaxing by our lovely hotel pool, sipping drinks from the bar, and generally enjoying the sense of quiet calm that seemed to envelope the island.

Wednesday was, in fact, spent lazing under a beach umbrella and occasionally splashing in the monstrous ocean waves that make Kuta a hot-spot for surfers. Tim and I watched a golden, rose, and fiery orange sunset from the balcony of the Hard Rock Café before joining Steph and Kenzie for a St. Patrick’s Day dancing celebration.

Thursday was spent seeing the sights of Bali with our tour guide, Ketut. As a side note, the Balinese are named based on the order in which they were born in the family. The first child is always named Wayan or Putu, the second Made or Kadek, the third Nyoman or Komang, and the fourth Ketut. The names for the fifth through the eighth child are repeated with the word for “again” added to the back, and pre-fixes are included to distinguish between boys and girls.

The morning of touring began with “The Barong and Kris” dance. As Bali is well known for its crafts, we then visited a Batik workshop, a silversmith, and a wood carver. Batik is cloth on which designs are created by manually painting symbols and pictures and then dying the fabric. The areas where the wax is painted do not absorb the die. Regions are often known for a particular batik design. Singapore’s batik is painted on the Singapore Airline stewardess’ uniforms. In Bali, the most traditional designs included only the colors blue, brown, and yellow.

We also saw a lovely Hindu temple before lunch.

After a long, winding drive up the mountains and though small, bustling Balinese villages where children ran barefoot in their school uniforms through the streets and grandmothers sat selling the fruits of the family’s gardening labors in roadside stands, we indulged in a buffet lunch with a view of one of Bali’s active volcanoes.

The afternoon was spent visiting the rice terraces and stopping at a coffee plantation to sample the locally grown coffee including, of course, poop coffee. Poop coffee, or as it is more correctly known Kopi Luwak, is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet, a weasel-like creature, and then passed through its digestive tract. The beans keep their shape after they are defecated and are said to possess much less bitterness and more aroma than its non-pooped counterpart. It is widely known as the most expensive and precious coffee in the world.

We ended our busy day in the cultural center of Ubud by browsing through a market, visiting the monkey forest, and sharing 1-for-1 happy hour drinks. As another side note, in most places I’ve been in Asia 2-for-1 is called 1-for-1. To me, 1-for-1 seems to mean you pay for one and you get one? Let me know if you figure this out. Tim and I had dinner on the patio of the Santa Fe Bar and Grill complete with live blues music to end a lovely day.

Tim and I spent our last day snorkeling and visiting Turtle Island, a place where nearly 200 turtles are bred and released into the wild every year. The island was also home to a variety of other interesting creatures including toucans, iguanas, eagles, rabbits, squirrels, and snakes – unfortunately, there mostly to provide the tourists with interesting photo opportunities. After a quiet lunch in a garden-like atmosphere, Tim and I headed to the spa where we both enjoyed Balinese massages followed by a facial for me and an extra foot rub for Tim.

We joined Stephanie for a final poolside dinner at our hotel before catching a late flight back to Singapore. Tim and I spent his last day in Singapore doing everyday activities and simply enjoying one another’s company: packing, cleaning, eating a dumpling lunch, seeing “Alice in Wonderland” in 3D, grocery shopping, cooking a pasta dinner, and playing cards using my newly acquired poker skills, for which I definitely need to work on my poker face.

After Tim left, my life settled back into the usual routine with work, followed by a gym trip and more marking or lesson planning over dinner in the evenings comprising a typical day. I celebrated the end of a stressful week this weekend with a trip to Arab Street for tea and more paper grading on Friday evening and a night of dinner and dancing with Stephanie and Jacob on Saturday. My lazy Sunday has been spent watching a movie with Ella, running a few errands, and finally, sitting down to write this blog entry.

I am looking forward to an Easter weekend escape to an Indonesian ‘Shanty Shack’, complete with one king-sized bed, a toilet, and a mosquito net located off-the-beaten path, right on the beach. I plan to do nothing but sun, read, and maybe go fishing with the owner of the seven shacks, Lobo. I am also, of course, looking forward to all the “Giselle” and “Barong and Kris” moments the upcoming week and weekend have in store for me.

Cheers, TIA, and lots of love from Singapore,


PS -- Click on the link called "audio podcast" to hear my story for Princeton in Asia that explains more about Hari Raya Nyepi.

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