In honour of International Women’s Day I have decided to write something about the women I most envy: the explorers.
Remember learning about Magellan? Columbus? Sturt? Flinders? Cook? The thing they had most in common wasn’t only that they explored the world, it was that they all had penises. And having penises also gave them the means to embark on their expeditions because they had wives at home to take care of all that meaningless stuff, like raising children, cooking food, and making sure the house wasn’t coated in dust or covered in mould.
Meanwhile, some very fearless women were undertaking their own journeys.
The first female explorer I heard of was Freya Stark, and that was only because she was British and I was in London at the time of her death in 1993 at the age of 100. At the time I was surprised I’d never heard of her before and the thing I remember being most reported about her was not so much her travels, but the fact that she’d been almost completely scalped at the age of 13 when her hair was caught in a machine.
I feel some affinity for Freya because, like me, she was a sickly child and therefore, like me, did a lot of reading. After reading One Thousand and One Nights she became obsessed with the Middle East and spent her life until her retirement in the ’70s travelling in the region on and off.
I have a similar obsession with the Arctic after reading about Iceland as a teenager. But unlike Freya I have not learned Icelandic or any other Scandinavian, Russian, or Inuit language. I can however say sorry in Danish and Swedish (Unskyld and Förlåt) and now automatically reply with Tak and Ja because I watch too much Scandi Noir. (Too much? Not possible!)
Gertrude Stein similarly spent the early part of the 20th Century wandering about in the Middle East. I read on Wikipedia that “History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study [at Oxford], due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time” and that “she was the first woman to graduate from Modern History with first class honours”. A terrible movie was made about her, starring Nicole Kidman. Pretty sure Gertrude didn’t emerge from the desert with flawless skin and clean, matching outfits, but I do hope she spent her evenings sitting at a table writing by candle-light with a pen dipped in ink.
My great heroine, though, is the Irish explorer and writer Dervla Murphy. Dervla was pulled out of school at the age of 14 to come home and look after her mother who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She continued to care for her, drinking a lot of whisky and chain-smoking to cope, until her mother died. By then Dervla was 31. She closed up the house, got herself a gun, and got on her bike and rode. All the way from Dublin to India. For the next 50 years she travelled by bike, on foot, on mule, with and without her daughter, and wrote 26 books. Her last Between River and Sea about her time living in the West Bank in Palestine, was published in 2015. She resigned herself, at the age of 84, to staying put. Since a hip replacement she can no longer ride a bike, she used to love swimming but now her shoulder is no good, and all those cigarettes have given her emphysema. Still, 84!
Many of the places these fearless women travelled are no longer accessible because the inhabitants are all fighting with each other. I want to go to Timbuktu. The official advice says Do Not Travel, the Lonely Planet says Mali is great but not safe to travel there at the moment, and you can’t get travel insurance (as though any of those women ever did). I actually called a guy named Phil Paoletta who runs Postcards from Timbuktu in Mali’s capital, Bamako. He told me you can’t get near Timbuktu; the soldiers will turn you around if you try. He did however suggest stowing away in a boat on the Niger river. Yeah, that’d work.
So for now I must content myself with my previous–rather pale in comparison–expeditions to Lo Manthang and the Arctic Tundra, (Inuvik! You’re welcome kids!) and look toward my next journeys into the somewhat unknown. If only, like Dervla, I could happily sleep in a puddle of freezing water!
Yesterday, I spoke to a client who casually mentioned she used to be a lawyer.
“At the age of 70,” she told me proudly, “after completing my eighth degree, I was admitted to the Supreme Court as a solicitor.”
“You must love studying,” I said.
“Well it’s better than housework,” she replied. She had gone on to practice for six years before retiring.
I thought of my own neglected house, and the tumbleweed of dust and fully formed cobwebs clinging to the corners. I, too, have better things to do than housework.
Such people are inspiring to those of us who were too busy working and raising children in our younger years to achieve other things. I marvel at anyone who is able to write and wrangle a family. Raising three children took all of my energy at the time.
A character in a book I’m currently reading—Mallachy Tallack’s The Valley at the Centre of the World—talks about growing older and how looking back starts to take the place of looking forward. I don’t like the thought that you stop having things to look forward to. Perhaps you do, but they just grow smaller.
My mother gave up at the age of about 70. She decided that she’d lived her biblically prescribed “three score and ten years” and said No to every opportunity that came along after that. “My world is finished,” she would say when we suggested she try something new. My father, on the other hand, retired at 80, bought himself a computer and found someone to teach him how to use it. He also took a flight down to Antarctica. Had my mother not been such a wet blanket, they could have had great adventures. They had money and good health, but my mother simply sat down and said No to everything.
When we were in Bali recently, I found myself thinking often of my father. Like me, he loved seeing and learning new things. He would have loved to come to Bali. If he ever saw someone interesting in the street, he would go up and talk to them. He told me about a time when he and my mother were in Moscow. He saw a queue of people so he stood on the end to see what they were waiting for. Ice cream. So he bought one too.
It was my father who bought the set of beautiful encyclopaedias called The World and Its People that I used to pore over, sitting on the cool linoleum in his office. It was in those I first read about Iceland, leading to an obsession that finally saw me stand on the streets of Reykjavik in 1993, long before the hordes of tourists that now invade. I wonder what my father would have made of my travels in Nepal. Sadly, he had died before I went there. My mother’s only two questions were “What do they drink in Nepal?” and, “When are you going to get over going to these places?”
In May I am travelling to China for the first time. Another adventure. I have many others in mind after that. My hero, good old Dervla Murphy, published her last travel book in 2015 at the tender age of 84. She has finally accepted gracefully that her health is not strong enough for further travels, but having published twenty-six travel books in fifty-three years, I think she’s earned her retirement.
I’m starting a bit later but I have a good few years left yet.
It’s the wet season here in Bali and every day we get some rain, either a light shower or a torrential downpour. Water rushes in the deep gorge below our villa, lulling us to sleep at night, along with the frogs and the geckos. This morning I woke up with something wet on my neck: a small worm. I don’t know how it got into my bed.
Even now, as I sit in this cafe near a bridge I can hear the water rushing below. It makes me forget how dry everything is at home. Temperatures are soaring everywhere and fires burn in Tasmania of all places. The farm animal sanctuary near home is having to buy in feed. And my old wooden Queenslander sits empty. I know a fire will eventually consume it. As much as I love it and the bush that surrounds it, I know one hot, dry day, the bush will turn angry and take my home.
But here, in this tropical paradise, where everything is green and lush, it’s easy to forget. Which is partly why we go on holiday isn’t it? To remove ourselves from the mundanity of daily life and pretend for a while there is nothing to worry about. But that removal also allows one to gain some perspective. Far from the distractions of work, housework, animals, cooking, the important things are able to rise to the surface and remind us why they are important.
The day before I left to go on holiday, I did a workshop at the Queensland Writer’s Centre about making a writing plan for the year and sticking to it. I thought leaving home straight after might make me lose resolve, but it has given me the perspective I needed. I won’t be happy while I don’t move forward with my writing and the only way to do that is to commit to making it a priority.
So if I gain nothing else from my time in this beautiful place, it will be a renewed sense of commitment to the things most important to me. Just as the downpour at the end of a hot, humid day cleanses everything to start anew, this holiday will make me fresh to take on the writing challenges I have set myself for the year.
Next morning while Susan took the boys out for one final dog-sled, Neville and I drove into town for a look around. We ordered coffee in Inuvik’s only cafe, Cafe on Mackenzie, and sat looking out at the dark street. The full moon shone bright above the lights strung across the main street spelling out Merry Christmas, while a shooting star hung above a sign flashing first 10:54 then -18C. Car headlights lit up the white road. People, hunched under heavy clothing hurried between cars and buildings. It was the best coffee we’d had in Canada so far and I told the man behind the counter. He smiled and looked away.
In the silent gift shop next door I looked over the beautifully carved soapstone sculptures. Forbidden to touch the delicate stone, I had to ask the assistant to pick up each one so I could get a closer look. If I made a comment she replied with, “Mmhmm,” but gave me no information other than the price.
“Do people go crazy here in the winter?” I asked.
“They’re used to it,” she replied.
“What do they do?”
“Some people go up to their cabins and go hunting. Do you want these gift-wrapped?”
On our first day, when we dashed into town to find lunch, we sat down on the hard plastic seats in the eating area with our KFC wraps while the locals around us gave us mildly curious sideways glances. In the post office, I asked the man behind the counter how much to send a postcard to Australia.
“One dollar,” he answered with the barest hint of a smile.
Walking around Inuvik it was as though I were followed by a small child who, tugging at my clothing, kept asking, But why are the shops open at night-time? It’s not night-time, I told it, over and over.
But it did feel like I was in a post office at night, and now, having posted my card I had to go back out into the dark. No one wants to be outside in the dark. We want to be inside, where it’s light and warm. Shelter is the only thing that can protect us from the air. But it’s not actually the shelter, but the heat inside it. If this were to shut down, that air would slowly but surely seep in through the pores of the building and find those huddled inside. Perhaps it is this that takes everyone’s attention. Perhaps it’s not that they’re unfriendly so much as distracted. If you were trapped in a building under siege, you would have no time for pleasantries. Pleasantries belong in comfort and ease, two things that cannot exist for long in an Arctic winter.
Everyone seemed drawn in on themselves and I wondered if they were only like this in winter. “Not the cold but the oppression” is how Barry Lopez describes it in his book, Arctic Dreams. Warmth and light draw people out of their houses and out of themselves, but that lethal cold, I felt, and the instinct to withdraw when the dark of night descends kept the people of Inuvik turned inwards. I wondered whether if I returned at the height of summer, when there is no night, people would be more open and friendly.
“We don’t sleep much and get all pumped up on adrenalin,” Susan told us excitedly, about the days of endless sunshine.
That sounded to me like some other kind of hell.
Before going back to the Chalet, we drove down to the Ice Road for another look in the now dim light. High above the frozen water-line sat a ship. It was once used in seismic data collection as part of research into the feasibility of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean. Since 1990 she has sat beached above the banks of the Mackenzie river and Ben, one of the volunteers at the Chalet, told us in the summer it is known as being a notorious crack den. He also told us that Inuvik had the highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse per capita in Canada. I couldn’t find statistics to back this up but the fact that in tiny Tuktoyaktuk (Pop: about 950), on the coast at the end of the Ice Road, there is a centre where people can find help for alcohol abuse, speaks of a people desperate for escape. Suicide rates are higher than in southern parts of Canada as are rates of smoking and teenage pregnancy. The findings of a government committee into the health of Canadian youth in the north found “Substance abuse problems in [these] communities are deeply rooted and of long standing. People are beset with feelings of hopelessness, despair and impotent rage. From this comes violence, suicide and sexual abuse.”
As we waited at the airport we watched two police officers in flack jackets shepherd two men in handcuffs onto a plane. As we flew out, I looked down on the chain of frozen lakes and rivers and wondered what could make me return.
Before we left for the cabin, I’d asked Susan about going snowmobiling as the boys were keen to have a go.
“Well, we could snowmobile up to the tundra to see the reindeer herd if you like,” she said in her southern drawl.
And so at midday next day, nine of us, our family of five, volunteers Ben and Hans, Susan and Bjorn, set off on snowmobiles down the road and onto the ice road. Featured in a season of the TV show, Ice Road Truckers, the Inuvik ice road is the Mackenzie River. It freezes over in October and is then groomed and maintained for vehicles to drive on it up to the Arctic Ocean. It was in its final year of operation when we were there as a land road had been almost completed that would provide access to the coast year-round.
I found the snowmobiling hard from the outset. I’d never even ridden a motorbike before. It was pretty simple, just hold the throttle down to go, press harder to go faster, but the ground was hard and rough, and at times I bumped so hard I feared I’d fall off and I had to go fast to keep up. Although Susan stopped at intervals to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, I still feared being left behind and getting lost. At first I was right behind her, but when we rode down onto the ice road, which was much wider, the others were able to get ahead of me. The constant noise of the engine meant you could hear nothing else, I was breathing fumes from the exhaust at my left foot the whole time, and it was cold. It was bitterly cold. The exhaust outlet happily kept my left foot warm, but that vicious cold bit hard at the rest of my extremities. Despite the hand and foot warmers, the thick socks, gloves, mukluks, and beaver fir mitts, they still rapidly grew cold. The thumb of my right hand, stuck out on its own, pressed against the throttle, became painful and then went numb. I tried to endure it but just couldn’t and signalled for help. Hans ran up and we changed gloves, him giving me his warmer inner glove and and extra hand warmer which he told me to shove into the thumb of my glove, right against the skin. That worked, but the constant worry about my fingers and toes would not leave me.
It would take two hours to get to our destination, we’d stop for lunch there, and then two hours back; we’d be out for about five hours in -30 degrees. I wanted to just relax and enjoy the experience, it was once in a lifetime, something I’d always wanted to do, but the anxiety wouldn’t let me. After about an hour, we stopped on a lake to gather everyone together. By this point I was desperate for the toilet.
“How much further, Susan?” I asked.
“We’re just over half-way,” she replied.
“I really need the toilet,” I said. I got the only reply I expected.
“Well your gonna have to just take off whatever clothes you need to and squat down behind the last snow-mobile.”
The others drove off the lake and up onto higher ground leaving Neville and I alone. He helped me pull off my thin wind-cheater, heavy coat, and down jacket, so I could then undo my overalls, pull them down and expose my bare arse to the frigid Arctic air. My yellow piss drilled a hole in the ice next to my snow-mobile and I laughed at the thought that it would stay there now for several months. Then it was back on with the layers and we joined the others.
The snow-coated trees gave way to stunted snow-coated bushes which grew more and more stunted until the landscape opened out in one breathtaking 360 degree expanse of ice right to the horizon in every direction. We stopped our snowmobiles and wandered, turning our heads from the tiny full moon hanging just above one horizon, to the hard orange edge of the sun just above the opposite one. Olav told us this was a mirage, the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air, cruelly teasing. The sun had disappeared below the horizon two weeks ago; it wouldn’t return for another two. At intervals across the expanse, fish had been pushed tail down into mounds of snow, frozen markers to show the way, and we now followed these, pushing on to find the reindeer.
After a short time we came across a small cabin with smoke pouring from its chimney. I hoped we were stopping here so we could go in to thaw out, but we just sat waiting on our snowmobiles while Susan disappeared. This, it turned out, was the reindeer herders’ hut where they live some of the time. Susan had gone to ask them where the reindeer were. She eventually reappeared, remounted her vehicle, and we were off again.
The light had already begun to dim when we came up a rise to see a vast grey blur in the distance, a thin fog hanging above it. 3000 reindeer huddled in a mass, grazing on the straggly bits of snow-covered growth. They are wild, but the herders protect them from bears and arctic foxes in exchange for their meat which is sold in Inuvik. As we sat huddled around the fire that Bjorn had hastily and skilfully conjured on the ice, one of the herders rode up on a snowmobile, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Susan introduced us as her visitors from Australia who’d recently come from 30 degrees above zero.
“You’re lucky there’s no wind today,” the herder said with a short laugh. “Wind is cold.”
As the cold seeped up through the reindeer pelt I was sitting on, through five thick layers of clothing, and frigid air poked at every part of me that faced away from the fire, my mind stalled trying to imagine the cold being colder, tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in a polar wind. And leaving us with that thought, the herder sped off down to the reindeer and we soon heard, one, two, three, four cracks of the rifle.
Susan had packed several toasting irons with cheese and tomato sandwiches and we sat toasting these over the roaring fire. She then handed out paper cups and produced a thermos of hot chocolate. And it would have, should have been, cosy, all huddled around the fire with our hot lunch, but the light was fading fast and the cold pressed at my back and all I could think was that I still had to survive, with all fingers and toes intact, the two-hour ride back to the Chalet. Having finished eating, Susan stretched herself out by the fire and smiled.
“Couldn’t you just lay here for hours?”
By the time we reached the herder’s cabin again it was completely dark. Again we stopped while Susan disappeared. A small pile of severed forelegs lay on a patch of bloody snow; Susan had gone to ask the herders if she could have them for the dogs. I watched the smoke still pouring from the cabin chimney and felt like crying.
When I saw the lights of Inuvik in the distance I thanked God that we were almost there, but we rode on and on. Finally we rode down and onto the ice road where Susan stopped everyone and hopping off her snowmobile indicated that we should line up next to each other. She walked up and spoke to each of us in turn so she could be heard over the engines.
“We’re gonna be kids again,” she said with glee.
And remounting her snowmobile, she dropped her hand and we were off and racing. I pressed my thumb as hard as I could on the throttle, more because I just wanted it to end than out of any desire to win, but I was quickly left behind. As we approached the turn off I slowed to make the corner. The others had already ridden up the slope and were stopped at the top. As I went to ride up and join them, my snowmobile stopped, and no matter how hard I revved it, it couldn’t gain any traction on the ice. I waved my hand to signal that I needed help. No one moved. I went to get off the vehicle so I could walk up to them, but as soon as my foot touched the ground it started to slide out from under me. I sat back on the snowmobile and waved both hands furiously. Still no reaction. Then they all remounted their snowmobiles. I screamed at the top of my lungs. It was like in dreams when you’re trying as hard as you can to call out or stop something and you just can’t. And then they were gone, and I was left sitting in the dark, completely alone.
I turned to look behind me and up and down the ice road; all was still. I crossed my arms on the handle bars and rested my head on them. “They’ll come soon,” I thought, but seconds had become hours and no one came. I felt myself shrinking as the dark and cold pressed in on all sides. Then a small truck came driving down the ice road and, to my horror, turned to drive up our road. I thought they wouldn’t see me and I’d be hit. I gave the snowmobile another vicious rev, but it wouldn’t move. The truck pulled up alongside me and a man got out. “I’m stuck,” I said redundantly, almost apologetically. And as the man was trying to push the snowmobile forward, the gang reappeared. Bjorn strode down and taking hold of the vehicle, yanked it hard to the side. Then he indicated I should ride back, circle around and then gun it up the slope. I did and roared across the ice and up onto the road speeding faster than I had all day, turned into the Chalet, pulled up next to the others and killed the engine. Then I climbed off, stamped up to my husband and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest before running inside and slamming the door. It was petulant, it was unreasonable, it was embarrassing and it was an overreaction to what was probably not even five minutes left sitting there, but the tension of those hours of trying to stay warm, trying to keep up, sheer exhaustion, and, I suspect, a primordial sense of vulnerability in such a hostile environment, bubbled over and my poor husband became the target. Because of the headlights on the snowmobile they couldn’t see me waving, and the noise of the engines meant they couldn’t hear me screaming, he tried to explain, over and over.
After much swearing, crying and recriminations that no amount of reassurance from the bewildered man could stem, I calmed down enough to realise that what I really needed was a drink, and we set off for town in silence.
Our flight from Whitehorse to Inuvik was a “milk-run”. At Dawson we had to leave the plane while it was refuelled, giving us the chance to feel what minus 40 (Celsius) felt like. That brittle air caught in our throats. We photographed the road and ran back inside. We landed in Inuvik at 1pm, the lightest part of the day. And it was light, but a weird translucent light, a predawn light, amplified by the all-white landscape that reflected it back on itself, a clear, pale blue.
Inuvik, high up in the Canadian Arctic, is home to around 3000 people. By the time we arrived in mid-December 2016, the sun had been set for two weeks. It would lurk just below the horizon for about three hours each day but it would be another two weeks before it rose again.
We were collected by Susan, who runs the Arctic Chalet with her husband Bjorn. She whisked us, with barely time to catch our breath, on to our first adventure. Judi was tall, thin, wiry, and full of energy, but her good humour could quickly tip over into petulant impatience.
“So we’ll get you ready to go out dogsledding after you get some lunch in town,” Susan said as we drove away from the airport.
“Are we going up to the cabin tonight?” I asked.
“Yes. Is that ok?”
It was getting dark again by the time we began dressing for the expedition. Neville, our three sons, and I were provided with heavy jackets, thick overalls, beaver fur mitts, and mukluks because nothing we owned would be warm enough. After a quick briefing, during which we were told to yell “chee” if we wanted the dogs to turn left and “chaw” for right, and not to let go of the sled under any circumstances, we were led out into the dark where five dog teams stood, or rather jumped and pawed impatiently, harnessed and ready to go. I stepped onto mine, Joe, one of the staff, pulled the anchor out of the snow, and with a frightening jerk, the dogs pulled me into the night, down and onto a frozen lake. Judi went ahead on a snow mobile with Kiera, another staff member, and Joe following behind, also on snow-mobiles.
It would take about two hours to reach the cabin. It was like a roller-coaster ride, but with more bumps. A foot pad worked to slow the dogs and you could stop them by putting all your weight on the brake, but they were strong. At one point I hit a tree root and was thrown off into the snow, but still held tight to the sled. At another I lost my balance, the sled slipped from my grasp and the dogs took off. All of this with only head torches for light in a vast cold darkness on the edge of the world. We bumped roughly along paths between snow-covered trees before barrelling down and into the open again as we crossed yet another lake. I wondered what the vast rumbling was I could hear in the distance and found out later that it was the ice cracking and groaning beneath us.
As we were pulled inexorably up another rough trail, the one thing that all who travel in the dark and cold crave finally came into view: the golden, warm glow through the windows of a cabin. As Kiera and Joe unharnessed the dogs and chained them up for the night, we hurried inside to the blazing wood fire. The floor became wet with the snow from our boots and jackets. Pairs of mukluks lined up by the fire to dry.
A tall man with rosy cheeks appeared and welcomed us to the “Arctic Loon” cabin. Bjorn was originally from Norway, but has lived in the Arctic for more than thirty years.
He’d been busy getting the wood-fired hot-tub going so we could do the traditional Nordic thing of sitting in the hot-tub, hopping out, rolling in the snow, then quickly hopping back in the tub.
The cabin was completely off-grid so cooking was done on a gas stove, the fridge was gas-powered, light was delivered by a gas lantern plus portable battery lanterns, and the cabin was warmed by a wood-fired stove in the living room and an oil heater in our bedroom. In the kitchen there was a container of water with a hand-pump attached for drinking water, and another for hand-washing. The toilet was a “honey bucket”, separate ones for solid and liquid, although the boys were directed to the verandah out the side for their liquid waste.
After dinner we put our swimmers on, were given a robe and a towel each, then braved the run down the steps and into the very hot tub. Where our hair got wet it instantly froze. The boys took turns jumping out, running off the verandah and throwing themselves in the snow, and, with high-pitched shrieks, making their way as fast as possible back to the tub, trying not to slip on the water that had already frozen on the steps. We thawed out with hot chocolate before turning in for the night, a night which had actually begun at about 3pm and would end at around midday next day.
The dogs needed two hours to digest their breakfast before they could pull us back to the chalet, so to fill the time we strapped on snow-shoes and went out for a walk in the pale light.
A trail led up behind the cabin, which we now saw overlooked a large, frozen lake. The light glowed pastel pink and blue, illuminating the brilliant white of the snow-coated fir trees and the vast, flat lake below. I found the snow-shoeing hard going so soon turned back, reasoning that there was only more snow and trees to see and we’d see that on our way back to the Chalet. With the others gone on I was left in the absolute silence. No birds, no wind, no sound of machinery. I had experienced complete silence in mountainous desert in the rain-shadow of the Himalayas but that silence stretched across the barren landscape, old and timeless. This Arctic silence was a muffling of sound. Anticipation was held within it because it was temporary. Summer would eventually come to thaw this landscape and for a few months life would return to break the silence. I stood still and listened; all I could hear was my breath.
By 3pm we were underway back to the Chalet. It was better to be travelling in the light, but it was much, much colder. At the cabin, the thermometer outside read minus 28. When we sledded down onto the lake the temperature dropped further. The toes on my left foot began to hurt and then they turned numb. At one point I accepted that I might just have to lose them and tried to distract myself by imagining the procedure at the hospital. In the end I raised my hand to signal that I needed help and we stopped and Joe ran up to me. Susan followed.
“Ya know, if you’re really gettin’ frostbite, you need to take off your boots, sit opposite someone and put your feet in their armpits,” Susan said, while Joe, ignoring her, produced more foot-warming sachets and I took off my mukluks and stuck a sachet to my sock. All I wanted was to get back to the Chalet as quickly as possible, not sit on the ice with my bare feet in someone’s armpits.
“Come on we’re wasting time,” she then added.
When the Chalet finally came into view, I could have wept with relief.
When I messaged a friend who lives in Indonesia that we were going to Ubud in Bali he said, “Book a dinner at Locavore. Do it now.”
So ten days before we left I got on the Locavore website to find they were booked out for dinner for the next month, so I tried lunch and managed to book on our last day in Ubud.
To describe what we had as a meal would be to insult everything and everyone in the restaurant. What we had was a culinary experience so exquisite as to defy the laws that command the use of fire and knives.
From the moment I sipped my pre-lunch iced tea I knew we were on hallowed ground.
“It’s like you can taste all the individual flavours separately and together at the same time,” said Neville, after taking a sip. This summing up defined everything that followed.
The first “snack” came in a ceramic jug with a projection out the side like a tiny plate. In the small opening at the top sat a green betel leaf cone filled with flavours of peanut, ginger, coconut, lime, and chilli. On the projection at the side sat a tiny perfect garlic crisp. We were instructed to place this on top of the cone. The leaf had a slightly bitter but aromatic taste, something like a kaffir lime leaf that blended with the salty, garlicky crunch.
Next was a mushroom “fritter”, but to call it that would be another insult. On a large nest of twigs sat shreds of crisp mushroom formed into smaller nests. Inside each sat perfect dollops of mushroom mousse. Our waiter sprayed a vinegary topping over the nest and into our mouths exploded sweet, crunchy, mushroom flavours.
Two little “Oreos” then arrived, thin wafers of sweet potato with a mousse inside, followed by triangles of scorched pineapple topped with something salty.
Before the main event began, a palate-cleansing tomato sorbet arrived, one quenelle on a slice of tomato. Around this was poured a tomato consommé, a clear liquid with the merest hint of pink. What looked like hot water exploded with complex, tomatoey flavour. Where had they hidden those flavours?
Now began the meal proper. We had elected to have the five course meal (the alternative being seven) and I chose the accompanying mini cocktails tailored to each course.
After caffeinated fish sashimi (“coffee cured Himachi, ginger gel, kecap crème”) a large, grey plate was set in front of each of us upon which sat a lonely, crimson disc topped with crimson and green leaves and surrounded by a crimson powder. This was goat tartare surrounded by fermented cabbage powder.
Next came Triple C: crab, white corn, and coconut. A bowl of white foam was placed in front of each of us, then a plate with two small bites of puffed corn were placed in the middle. Under the foam of roasted coconut, lurked the crab meat.
After the waiter took these plates away she returned to supply us with two large daggers, announcing that the main course would be served next.
“I thought they’d have to serve something like a main course,” said my husband, “or people would go away feeling like they hadn’t been fed.”
I was skeptical. I looked out the window at people in a cafe opposite eating mere food. I couldn’t help but pity these poor philistines, ignorant of the fine art of eating, unconsciously pushing burgers into their faces, thinking about whether to get a massage after lunch or do some more shopping. In less than an hour I’d become a colossal food snob. Locavore, I was sure, would never stoop to serving (ahem) a plate of food.
What arrived next was a white plate decorated with bold swishes of brown, and tucked up against one edge was a disc of meat about two inches across, topped with little pieces of vegetables and green nasturtium leaves. I fell about laughing as my husband stared in confusion at his main course. It did need to be cut, but the wood-handled dagger was more theatrical flourish than necessary equipment. In less than a minute it was finished.
Now for dessert, but before that a pre-dessert of apple sorbet encircled by translucent wafers of apple. Actual dessert was a celebration of rosella and rambutan, “sorbet, creme, praline, gel, and spiced tea”, shades of red and crimson with dots of white and specks of black. The accompanying cocktail was “rosella infused vodka, frozen rambutan, berry shrub, and hibiscus soda”.
Would we like coffee? We would. But it must be taken black.
A wooden platter was placed on the table with a kettle, clay jug, grinder, ceramic filter holder, and a bowl of coffee beans. And so the beans were ground, the filter and jug warmed with hot water, the grounds added to the filter and more hot water delicately poured over before being strained into our cups. The platter was removed and in its place a long tray with indentations in the form of the ancient mancala game.
These were the copious petit fours, but again, to call them such seems blasphemous.
At each end a round, white delicacy on which had been piped a white cream sprinkled with green powder, called “Kemangi financier, fennel crème”. Then two by two beautiful sweet things: jackfruit gel, peanut and chocolate, rice cookie and coffee crème, miso and caramel, tamarind candy, pineapple and chocolate and chilli. Each dissolved in our mouths and was separated with sips of the smoothest coffee. Of course.
I felt like every meal I’d ever eaten up to this point had been a vulgar indulgence, where the aim of filling one’s stomach had been more important than the flavours, the textures, and the uniqueness of each ingredient. I vowed to never eat again.
We accidentally arrived in Bali on the one day when no one is allowed out on the streets.
After a few beers with mates at the pub one Friday night my husband came home and booked two flights to Bali. I had never had any intention of going to what I always considered a boring destination where bogans with no imagination to help them think of a more interesting holiday destination went to get drunk and buy cheap stuff.
“If I see cheap flights will you come to Bali with me?” my husband had been asking me.
“Mmm…maybe,” I replied. Bali. My previous trips had been to the Tibetan plateau and the Canadian Arctic. How could I now stoop to Bali? I was an adventurous traveller, not some sybaritic philistine looking to buy a cheap Rolex.
I think it was the tiny, cold, sweet lemongrass drink that began to thaw my cold-hearted cynicism. These were set in front of us as we sat at the front desk checking in to our resort, along with a cool wet washcloth to sponge our hot brows and necks. I’ve never in my life been on what many people consider a holiday, where you sit by a pool and drink cocktails and have massages and do a bit of shopping. It always seemed like a colossal waste of time and money.
As we drove from Denpasar airport to Ubud we passed monsters. These great bamboo and styrofoam creations, called “ogoh ogoh”, were everywhere, mounted on grids of bamboo so they could be carried through the streets for that night’s festival celebrating the Balinese New Year’s Eve. To the clash and clang of gamelan music (traditional Indonesian music) they paraded down the main street of Ubud. Some were so big men with forked sticks went ahead to lift up the powerlines. A group of school children carried their own mini ogoh ogoh. They ended their journey at the soccer ground where people wandered eating snacks, children carried balloons, and drones hovered overhead. Trying to get back to our hotel we were blocked by an elaborate, noisy and completely unintelligible performance being played out in the street. Orange light lit up billowing smoke as a voice thundered through a loudspeaker and the strange cadences of the gamelan rose and fell and crashed and gonged. Monsters ran at each other and away again, taunting, threatening.
The sound receded as we walked through the darkness of the monkey forest, back to our soft king-sized bed, now turned down by unseen hands, curtains drawn, and lights switched on. We made tea and went to bed.
There must have been a few tourists taken by unpleasant surprise when they discovered they were under no circumstances (except medical emergencies) allowed out on the streets next day. In case they needed reminding, men in checked sarongs patrolled the streets carrying long sticks, ready to escort escapees back to their accommodation.
For the Balinese Nyepi, the day of silence, is a day for meditation and reflection on one’s relationship to God, others, and nature. A Balinese must show gratitude to God by doing good deeds for they owe their existence to him/her. They must help others and treat them as they would like to be treated. And they must remember they are made from the same elements as the earth and that if they care for the earth it will care for them.
An article by Anak Agung Gde Agung in the Jakarta Post the previous day (no papers on Nyepi) stated that a Balinese person must:
…ask himself in silence if he can truthfully close a year of his life satisfactorily in line with the dicta required of him as a Balinese. Simultaneously, he makes resolutions as he opens a new chapter for the coming year about what he must do to make amends for his shortcomings and what deeds he must perform for his God, fellow man and natural environment for the betterment of himself, his society and the world.
We were told there would be no internet and limited TV, but even though we found there was we avoided it in keeping with the spirit of the day. We also made the most of our surroundings.
After our buffet breakfast, we both had a one hour massage, at the end of which we were served sweet cups of ginger tea and a plate of painfully sweet chocolates. The only thing to do after that was lie by the pool and read while we waited to eat lunch. After lunch? More reading and a sleep before dinner which had to be consumed by 5.30pm as no lights were allowed that night. We could put our lights on in our room, but there were no lights on around the resort and no street lights.
“Remember to look at the sky tonight,” one of the staff told us. “There’ll be lots of stars because no lights.”
Before dinner I leant on the front verandah rail and looked out on the street. The pecalang, as the street patrollers are called, still wandered up and down. A young child, followed by his mother rode his bike up and down in a small space. The pecalang left them alone, perhaps understanding how hard it must be to keep a child in all day. Another man followed an elderly man strolling along with his hands behind his back. Maybe the man had dementia and couldn’t be convinced of the need to forgo his afternoon stroll today. The pecalang left them alone too.
Nyepi began at 6am and finished the following 6am, meaning the staff at the resort that day had to stay overnight. Those finished their shifts for the day gathered by one of the pools, just outside the rooms they’d been assigned, drinking Bintang, laughing, partying.
We stood on the roof terrace and remembered to look up at the stars. We tried to find the Southern Cross but failed. Were we no longer south enough, we wondered. Except for the voices of the staff enjoying themselves all was quiet, all was dark over Bali, and I had fallen in love with it.
A photo of Tsarang is on the front cover of my copy of Michel Peissel’s book. When I showed it to Jit he said, “I think you will see more trees now.” He was right. The village in Peissel’s picture shows numerous, bright green, walled fields but few trees, but now trees grow all through and around the village. Two buildings dominate Tsarang: the monastery and the huge, five-storey, palace.
Michel Peissel spent a lot of time in Tsarang where he stayed in the monastery at the invitation of the abbott. The abbott was the son of the Raja of Lo; he left his monastery to marry and had a son. His wife died when the boy was only four-years-old and the monk decided to return to his monastic way of life, confining himself within the royal apartments of the Tsarang monastery.
…he took a vow to devote himself for three years to solitary meditation, and to study the Tantric paths of enlightenment in atonement for his past behaviour. He also vowed that he would not eat during daylight…
The son was living there with him and about a dozen elderly monks when Peissel came to stay. That boy is now the Crown Prince of Lo, or Gyalchung, as the current Raja* has no surviving children, and while he is often described as being the Raja’s son he is in fact his nephew.
We climbed the rough stone stairs of the old palace and a monk unlocked a wooden door. It had been one hundred years or more since the Raja of Lo used this palace as a residence and it is all but a ruin. Still, the chapel has lamps lit and the seven bowls of water set before its golden gods each morning. I marvelled that it hadn’t fallen down in the earthquake and prayed there would be no tremors as we clambered up a rickety ladder and onto an internal balcony which railings were long gone (if they ever existed). The whole place was dirt, dust, and crumbling stone walls and timbers. One room appeared to have been the “bathroom”, two timber-framed holes in the floor falling the three storeys to the ground below—the traditional style toilet still used by Loba, the waste mixed with hay to become compost. I followed Jit into an adjoining room but he quickly turned and ushered me out saying,
It stunk, and not of animal dung.
The monk then unlocked a door to another small chapel filled with ancient, mediaeval-looking weapons all hanging on the wall or sitting on dusty shelves as though they’d sat there since being put away after the last battle. In 1964 Michel Peissel visited the same room and, from the way he described it, nothing about it had changed. To my amazement even the most gruesome object was still there:
Fumbling around the altar among the swords, our guide eventually gave me a dark brown object that to my disgust I recognised—by the light of the small window—as a dried up human hand!
Hanging on a hook alongside some of the other implements was indeed a black, shrivelled human hand, its dirty, yellowed nails curved, hard and smooth. Peissel was told, or assumed, that it was the hand of a thief which had been cut off as punishment, but when Jit asked the monk he had a different story.
“One who is building this, err, working,” Jit attempted to translate, “then, err, same king is thinking—this very bad thinking—same palace not other place, err, build. For that they cut so after he is not going to work other.”
“Oh, they cut off the builder’s hand so he couldn’t go away and build another palace for someone else?”
“It must be very old,” I said.
“Yes. Not less than, err, more than two centuries old.”
Very bad thinking indeed.
Neville had found a box covered in skulls and asked Jit what was in it. Jit asked the monk.
“Somethings very dead,” said Jit, and laughed.
Hanging on the wall above was a suit of chainmail and I lifted part of it. It was very heavy.
“Is iron, I think so,” said Jit.
Next to it was a helmet and then what looked like a breast plate made of some kind of thin bone.
“Yes I think so one, ee, animal,” Jit tried to explain. “What calling, err, maybe this area I don’t think so. This found, err, lower place.”
“Is it shell?” I asked
“This, you know, err, is skin. Is out of skin this kind of, err, things.”
“Like a crocodile?”
“Err, not crocodile. Other is, this kind is very similar. Is walking like the crocodile in the forest. In some place they find now also. From our village also they found also, mm, like a lizard.”
“Like a big lizard?”
“Like the, err, I don’t know so English name.”
I really had no idea. Nepal has a creature called a gharial that lives in the jungle rivers. It is just like a crocodile, but has a long, very narrow snout with a bulbous growth on the end. Maybe it was a gharial skin.
The monk told us it was too dangerous to visit the rest of the palace and anyway, Jit explained, there was not much else to see, just a whole lot more empty, dusty, rooms, but we were allowed to climb up to the next floor from which we’d get a good view of the village as long as we didn’t stay up there too long. We were now on the fourth floor and through frameless window holes we could see all of Tsarang spread out below us, its neat white-washed houses, their roofs lined with stacked timber, surrounded everywhere by green trees. We even looked down now on the monastery over on its high ridge. On the far side of the village was the large entrance chorten from the cover of Peissel’s book and, beyond this, brown plains where the wind was whipping up the dust towards the dull hills beyond. Jit told us we would be heading that way the next day. He then pointed out a hole in the floor where the earth was crumbling away, and so we quickly climbed down and out.
*The Raja of Lo (king of Mustang) sadly passed away in December 2016, aged 86.