Passing Over to Bali

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I’m in Bali, and it’s better.

Back in the 1990s, I went to a World Music Institute performance by a Balinese gamelan group at Symphony Space, in Manhattan. I probably went to the concert because every time I went into one of those global craft stores and asked about the thing I liked most, it was from Bali.

I’d never heard anything like it. The climax of the show was the kecak monkey dance, which blew my mind. Recordings can’t do justice to the weird ways that the sound traveled and shifted around the room as the dancers chanted in complex, interweaving patterns. Since then, I’ve dreamed of visiting Bali, to hear the music in the place it came from.

Tonight I lived that dream. I sat in the front row at the Ubud Palace and watched a performance of Balinese dance and gamelan music, performed at a high level. It was wonderful. It capped a day that also included a visit to a jungle full of monkeys and temples, a wander through galleries of Indonesian art and handicrafts, and a lunch overlooking a river. Then we went out and had a delicious Balinese dinner, followed by gelato made with local ingredients.

A new adventure

It’s good to be on a new adventure again. Indonesia is somewhere new: new currency, new food, new languages to reckon with. Bali is still culturally connected to other places I’ve been — shades of Myanmar and especially Malaysia — but it feels distinct too. The landscape is different, and so is the culture: no more karst mountains or reclining Buddhas.

My Dutch friend, Leander, and I will spend a couple more days here in Ubud, soaking up the culture and going on a pre-dawn hike to the top of a volcano. Then we’re hoping to rent a car and drive all over the island, going wherever the road and our whims take us.

It feels good to be doing something new again. Not only is this a good place to be right now, to refresh my Southeast Asia adventure; it’s also making me feel more positive about the new life I will be creating in a few months in South Korea. A night and a day in Bali has left me feeling refreshed and hopeful.

Seder in Phuket

Backing up a bit, I should note that the Chabad seder in Phuket was impressive: some 400 people, mostly Israelis, packed a big hall at the Novotel to celebrate Passover. There were more people at the Chabad House as well. (The seder was impressive, but Phuket was not; Patong Beach was my least favorite place in all of Thailand.)

I sat at the English-speaking table with Levi Shemtov, a remarkable young guy who’s buddies with Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel from Chabad of ASU and runs a kosher restaurant in Uruguay, and I also sat next to a guy — Mark something — whose mom lives in Lucas Valley, and who has been to Chabad of Marin a few times, and who used to live in Phuket for about ten years.

I’m not very religious, but I’m grateful for what Chabad has done, which is to re-create a global network of synagogues and Jewish points of contact, something that existed across the world for centuries but was devastated during World War II. To put on a kosher seder for 400 people in Phuket is no easy feat! Indeed, the maror (bitter herbs) got held up by Thai customs, which in this case defeated Jewish customs. (Personally, I declared eggplant a bitter herb and made the blessing on that.)

The seder was what seders should be: joyous, chaotic, raucous, a confused muddle. The food was great and there was lots of it. It arrived in the wrong order. People stood up in groups for no apparent reason. Half the room was on Hallel while the other half was still eating. It was, in other words, like every good seder I’ve ever been to, writ large. And in Thailand.

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