MIND GAMES AT MICHI: A PLACE OF TROPICAL NOIR DREAMS AMIDST THE JUNGLES OF UBUD, BALI by David Latta

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Sometimes the mystery is enough.

Over the span of more than 35 years as a journalist, mostly writing about the tourism industry, I’ve experienced some truly remarkable hotels and resorts. Those forever lodged in my memory have a consistent thread. They’re not the usual, cookie-cutter mass-market properties of bed, bathroom and balcony, marble vanities, 1000-thread counts, pillow menus and duck down duvets.

The truly special have a blatant disregard for the ordinary. They’re flights of fancy, balancing whimsy and imagination with an occasional nod towards function.

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The wow factor (to use that hollow phrase so beloved of marketers) is, to me, something that tilts expectations off the axis and spins them far out into the Twilight Zone. They’re usually the pet projects of truly inspired individuals, people who can only function in what the rest of us call the real world by taking their own dreams and ideals and fashioning them in bricks and mortar, stone and glass.

Some work, many don’t, for the simple reason that, all too often, that which the mind can envisage can never be satisfactorily realised in the real world. The visionary mind is an abstract; trying to fit it together like Lego compromises its very essence. Luckily, that doesn’t stop people from trying; we mere mortals can do little more than pick our jaws up from the floor upon experiencing the truly transcending.

As I did at the Michi Retreat in Ubud, Bali. I’m not sure I’d ever want to stay there but I’m sure I’ll go back, time after time, just to marvel at the audaciousness of the place, wonder at what could have been and hope it never goes away.

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The Balinese town of Ubud is said to have magical properties, a place of healing and spiritualism, and it has long attracted those seeking a different path than the rest of humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that in a place where alternative therapies, past lives regression, crystal healing, kinesiology, transformational breathing, reiki, aura cleansing, chakra realignment and dozens of different kinds of yoga are considered normal avenues for the attainment of enlightenment, that there are places to stay that complements such beliefs.

Ubud accommodation veers across the spectrum. There’s the Four Seasons Resort Bali At Sayan, which is a monstrosity or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. The Four Seasons spills down a deeply rainforested ravine with the Ayung River at the base, anchored by an ultra-modern tower that looks either like a spaceship or an airport terminal, again depending on your mood, inclination and generosity of spirit.

Further along that same ravine and river is the Royal Pita Maha, encompassing a selection of private pool villas. Owned by the royal family of Ubud, it is much more a traditional villa resort except for the long entrance driveway with some startlingly explicit statues of animals – elephants, pigs, frogs – with generously proportioned human genitalia.

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Traditional guesthouses, modern resorts, private villas surrounded by Ubud’s impossibly green rice paddies, there’s something for every budget and level of consciousness.

And then there’s the Michi Retreat.

The official website tells the story of a retired Japanese-American professor of history and sociology who built his dream some fifteen years ago. On the edge of yet another steep ravine, this time tumbling into the Wos River, the sacred river of Ubud, at the village of Jukut Paku, and opposite a rural vista of palm trees and rice terraces, he drew on a lifetime of influences to craft a rambling hotel complex where no one part is the same as any other and surprises await at every turn.

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Standing in the midst of Michi, as we did on a hot cloudless spring day, was a very different experience. There was an eerie, deserted atmosphere. The doors were open to the rooms and we wandered from one to the other, checking out the studios that evoke an ancient hillside Berber village as envisioned by Hundertwasser and the upstairs suites including one with subcontinental Indian and elephant motifs.

And the bathrooms! In every room, it was hard to tear our attention away from the bathrooms, each wildly different and supremely exotic confections.

Mosaics, stone, pebbles, mismatched ceramics, mirror fragments of all sizes; on the pool terrace, undulating concrete benches studded with jig-sawed tile pieces evoked the Parc Guell. The adjoining restaurant area postulated a fantastic pop-cultural meeting of the minds, its shabby post-apocalyptic opulence like a Eurotrash 70s disco designed by Gaudi.

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Aside from the restaurant, there were few signs of life. There were areas, dusty with neglect, that must have been, not that long ago, shops, a beauty parlour, a spa. The jacuzzi is dry, the swimming pool not quite sparkling. The villas, nestled into the wild jungle ravine at the other end of the property from the hotel, displays a spooky desolation, terraces crack, a private swimming pool drained save for a thigh-high wash of rancid water. It’s evocative enough during the day. Sweet dreams wouldn’t come easily within these walls.

There’s no reception at Reception except for leaflets announcing houses and apartments for rent within the complex on a daily and monthly basis. Amongst the facilities are listed “Kafe – Restorant”.

Where is everybody? A clue may be on a website now unavailable. It had the bizarrely honest admission that Michi’s “management is journeying through a paradigm shift”. When I last found the website, sometime in 2015, it hadn’t been updated since 2011.

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Michi is a hotel you’d expect to find on the edge of the American desert, perhaps envisioned by Sam Shepard and directed jointly by Antonioni, Jodorowsky and Ralph Bakshi with Tarantino relegated to second unit, run by a guy who looks disturbingly like Harry Dean Stanton.

It’s a familiar theme. You don’t want to stay there, it doesn’t feel right but your car has broken down, there’s a suitcase full of cash in the trunk and the cute little blonde at your side, the one with the elongated vowels and even more elongated limbs whose humid gaze can melt metal, is the mistress of a Texas cattle rancher with no sense of humour whatsoever.

You know the movie. You’ve seen it dozens of times under a variety of titles. And Michi seems like the perfect setting, even with the rice terraces and palm trees and the slim sleek cat who guides us around like a new best friend.

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As the fantasy fades, so the realisation dawns that, quite possibly, despite the air of neglect, Michi may be as magical as Ubud is meant to be.

I’ll come back to Michi. I’ll eat in the Kafe, swim in the pool, maybe even stay a night or two. Hopefully, I’ll meet the Professor. In a 2009 magazine article republished on the website, it mentions he’s 79 years old, which would now put him in his mid-80s. He’s had an amazing life, wandered the world, made fantastic friends, appreciated the arts and turned his dreams into a potent reality. I’d really like to hear his story.

There aren’t many opportunities to understand the genesis of a place as special as the Michi. If the Universe allows, I’ll get that chance. If not, then the mystery will have to do. I just hope the Michi endures.

© words and photos David Latta 2014

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BALI – A TALE OF TWO COASTS by John Borthwick

“Behave, stranger, this ain’t your home!” cautions a graffito on Jalan Legian, the clotted main artery of Bali’s Kuta-Legian-Seminyak beach strip.

The advice comes decades too late. Ever since the late-1930s when a bizarre Englishwoman, known variously as Manx, K’tut Tantri and Surabaya Sue, built the first bamboo and thatch hotel here, Kuta’s grand sweep of shoreline has been a magnet for all sorts of strangers and misbehavers.

Balinese dancers, Nusa Dua, Bali. 2006.

Coconut groves, wayang kulit shadow puppets, morning roosters, midnight dogs, trance dancers and gamelan music – all these were common in Kuta until the late 1980s but are now mostly gone. The change was inevitable as the leisured classes of the world blew in, turned-on and stayed, seduced by Bali’s mix of exotica and art, endless surf and – let’s be frank – third-world labour costs.

With around six million annual visitors – three million of them foreigners – parts of Bali are now choking on their own excessive success. Kuta, as Indonesians joke, is now an acronym for “Kampung Untuk Turis Australi” – Village For Australian Tourists. Kuta culture, in the form of resorts, hawkers, bars, surf schools, motorbike jams and transport touts, has spread for kilometres along Bali’s south-west coast. Construction cranes and new resorts jut above the treetops all the way to Canggu – aka “Cang-gone”.

The island formerly known as “of the gods” boasts (though that’s hardly the word) a welter of alarming statistics. Bali’s governor Made Mangku Pastika predicted five million annual foreign visitors by 2015. That’s on top of an ever-burgeoning resident population of around four million. To stay mobile they need motorbikes – adding to the tsunami of existing vehicles, some one hundred new bikes are registered every day.

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The good news is that southern Bali can be a tale of two (or more) coasts, if you want. I take my leave of Kuta and head north-east to Gianyar regency. At Keramas, half an hour north of Sanur, we turn towards the sea, down a track that skirts brilliant green rice fields and the first holiday villas that, as elsewhere in Bali, will eventually engulf those fields. If the west coast seems like Paradise Googled, then this shore might be Paradise Recouped.

Keramas looks east across black volcanic sands and all-day reef surf. This is still a coast of Hindu temples and flower offerings along the shore. Villagers crouch for hours, picking tiny black pebbles from the beach to sell for garden decorations. Others sit with legs buried in the hot, dark sands to ward off arthritis. There are no beach hawkers. Instead, I see a farmer herding his fleet of 20 ducks along the sands. They rush on in a fluffy phalanx – stand in their way and it might be like being trampled by a herd of feather dusters.

Bali Duck herder Keramas

I’m staying at a new resort called Komune. Despite the name, this eco-savvy property isn’t a refuge for old ponytails and post-socialist hipsters. The clientele is mainly twenties-thirties surfing couples, here for the cranking right-hand reef wave that breaks immediately out front.

The morning of the earth here smells just like Bali mornings used to – clove cigarettes, salt spray, last night’s rain, a whiff of temple incense. A sacred volcano hangs above the landscape like a sentinel, its conical tonsure right there – and then, with a shift of clouds, suddenly gone.

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The day passes in a welter of great waves, although with increasing crowds in the break. Time for nasi goring or eggs benedict from the beachfront restaurant. Much later, sunset’s soundtrack is a toccata of 10,000 cicadas plus the sea’s thumping bass-line, even if it is trashed by the doof-rap-techno slam of the resort’s sound system.

“Keramas locals don’t want to see their place end-up like Kuta,” says Australian Phoebe Clarke, manager of nearby Moonlight Villa. Their wish to see their kids in local employment is reflected in the make-up of Komune’s bright young staff, drawn from surrounding villages. The resort owners, including former pro surfer Luke Egan, are focused on responsible eco-practice via their world-class wastewater and garbage systems, solar power and vegetable gardens.

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After a week of good waves, beach hikes, scrumptious gado-gado and the leisure to read two thick novels, it’s time for me to head back to the ‘Yak – Seminyak. Here, from a rooftop bar, I have a dress circle view of the cocktail sunset and all who dream or pose beneath it.

Each time I come to this coast, I like it less – and yet still love it. This contrarily glorious strand is like Heaven’s Zoo, a Fellini-esque promenade of wanderers, poodle walkers, New Age remittance dudes, joggers, gigolos and tattoo tragics, all dressed or undressed in every fashion from hijab to dental floss.

When darkness falls on the ‘Yak, diners on beanbags spill across the sands. Flood lamps and amps crank up, and the Bali Marley in front of one restaurant is soon out-shouting the Santana of Seminyak who are playing next door. The irony that K’tut Tantri named that first hotel just down the beach Suara Segara – the Sound of the Sea – might be lost on them. The ‘Yak booms on, regardless, a day-night mosh of beach hawkers and bling boutiques, nail spas, gay bars and proliferating resort and condo projects.
If my trip has been a tale of two coasts, my conclusions are similarly polarized. After all, Bali is the land of saput poleng, that symbolic, checkerboard-pattern cloth you see draped on statues everywhere, signifying that in local Hindu cosmology, the surface world can be simultaneously black and white, shadow and light.

Bali Poleng monkey

An early, long-term Bali resident, the late Australian painter Donald Friend, foresaw the juggernaut of international tourism coming to Bali and he didn’t much like the prospect. Back in 1970 he picked that a visiting team of international advisors and bankers were there on a mission to “convert villages, forests and mountains into vast, profitable jukebox alleys.” He was right on the money – and so were the bankers, literally.

Today, another long-term Australian expat, Bali cultural commentator and landscape designer, Made Wijaya, aka Michael White, views Bali’s “development” far less critically: “The Balinese have a wholesome, no-nonsense attitude towards Nature: worship it, emulate it, but don’t let it get in the way of progress.” And thus we have the Balis of both Kuta and Keramas, of black and white, shadow and light.
Bali Behave Stranger

©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

The Demon-Slayer of Kuta by John Borthwick

MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED OR COPIED

Back in the late-1970s, like a lot of people, I went to Bali. Instead of packing what everyone else “on the road” seemed to – a Swiss Army knife and a Carlos Castenada book – I threw into my bag, though for no special reason, an old insulated screwdriver.

At Denpasar Airport, a gaggle of kids shanghai’d me and my surfboard onto a bemo truck, then deposited us at a losmen guest house somewhere in that rainbow scrum of paddies and people that used to bloom halfway along the coast between Kuta and Legian. The nondescript brick building was distinguished from its neighbours by having once been the home of a Dutch colonial who’d gone, in sequence, native, nuts, then home.

“Hullo, I’m Nyoman,” said the keeper of Losmen Hanuman. “And this man,” he added, pointing to the grinning youth beside him, “is my cousin. We run the place. His name is Nyoman, too.”

“Got it,” I said. “Nyoman One and Nyoman Two?”

Nyoman Two showed me to a batik-curtained room. It was tidy and clean, although dim.

“Is there a light in there?” I asked. Nyoman Two grimaced, poking out his tongue and bulging his eyes like a Balinese Barong dancer.

“Sure, have light,” he said. “But ghosts too. Look.”

Cautiously stretching his finger towards a light switch that dangled from a twist of wiring, he flicked it on. A blue flash raced around the connections and Nyoman pulled back his tingling finger.

“Not earthed?” I said.

“No. Not Earth. Maybe Hell,” he laughed. “Bad ghost, I think. Maybe left here by the Dutchmens. I’ll bring you candles instead. They don’t make the devils angry.”

MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED OR COPIED

I took the room then hit the surf. This was my reward for months of ten-hour days building a big power station north of Sydney. Three weeks full of nothing but Kuta Reef and Ulu Watu point surf lay ahead of me. And so it was. Black rice porridge at Mades Restaurant. Hibiscus heat and dragonfly mornings. Massages on the beach. The evening ritual when everyone rolled down to the shore to look out for the fabled green flash just as the sun blipped into the sea.

Every night there seemed to be a different temple dance: Barong, Legong and Kechuk; shadow puppets and the trance Fire Dance. Through the kampong’s black palms came the sound of galloping gamelan orchestras and bamboo sticks clacking away the evil spirits. Between performances, the Balinese appeared to be perpetually making both offerings and money, activities which seemed somehow interlinked.

The Nyomans and their families were prosperous only to the point of not caring whether they were or weren’t. Some days they feasted; on others they ate only rice and papaya. I felt free to leave my door unlocked any time. The little canang offerings of rice and incense in a woven palm frond, which the family placed in front of my room each dawn, seemed security enough for my few possessions.

“Any thieves in Bali?” I asked Nyoman Two.

“No, not in this country. But be very careful with your things.”

“Why – if there aren’t any thieves?”

“The thieves are all in another country. But some comes here from there….” said Nyoman, lowering his voice, “….Java.”

My three weeks in Bwana Nirvana slipped out to sea in an endless session of good waves, fruit salad days and gado-gado dinners. The only interruption to losmen life occurred when Didier, the languid Frenchman in the room next to mine, emerged dripping from the mandi bath and flipped his light switch with a wet hand. The sparking blue demon rushed out of the socket, up Didier’s arm and kicked him onto his bed before short-circuiting the building.

“Nyoman,” I said next morning, “In Australia, I build temples for these sorts of demons. We keep them locked up there, then we let them out only to do work for us.” I winked, hoping it didn’t sound too patronising. It did.

Nyoman One winked back. “It works that way here, too. John, I understand electricity. What you don’t understand are demons. There’s been one in this house from long before tourist times. When the Dutchman left, my grandfather had the priest carry this spirit into the sea. He even changed the name of the house so that the spirit would not be able to find it again.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“I think the priest made the wrong offerings.”

“OK, Nyoman.” I said. “I’m no priest, but can I have a go?”

“If you can get rid of the ghost, I’ll give back the rent for your whole stay here.”

“If I can do it, I’ll do it free.”

MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED OR COPIED

I began the exorcism. With a spool of electrical flex purchased in Denpasar, plus that old insulated screwdriver from the bottom of my bag, I stripped the exposed wiring from the walls and ceilings, replaced the copper vermicelli that bristled from the antique fuse-board, stapled new wires in place, screwed switches securely to walls, and then completed it all by installing a proper earth. The whole ritual took a day and a half.

When I had finished, I waited until dark, then called Nyomans One and Two, their parents and kids, plus assorted neighbourhood Mades, Ketuts and Wayans, as well as the singed Didier and the other guests. Having turned every switch in the darkened building to “on”, I waved my magic wand, the redoubtable screwdriver, and inserted a new fuse.

Losmen Hanuman lit up like a Christmas tree. With lights that stayed on. No flashes, no flicker and fade. Hamming it up now, I stepped up to a light switch and flipped it, then held on – see, no kick! No ghosts. The watchers erupted in their quiet Balinese way, clapping and laughing a great many “baguses” and “terima kasihs”, then gathered round to examine my wondrous demon-slayer, the old screwdriver. Even a couple of passing Javanese boys stopped to look at it, until Nyoman One moved them on.

Next night, the Nyomans prepared a thank-you feast. Roast pig, all the gado-gado I could eat, sticky rice and Bintang beer. Nyoman One attempted to return my rent, an offer I sidestepped by promising to come back and take advantage of next year. Four neighbours tinkled and gonged an impromptu gamelan performance and Nyoman One’s daughter, little Ketut, and her friends danced around the coconut husk fire so fluidly that I thought they must have liquid bones.

Soon it was time to leave. On my last morning, the waves far out on Kuta Reef were pumping and there were still three hours until the plane would exile me back to Sydney. I said goodbye to the Nyomans One and Two and walked down the beach facing the reef, where I dropped my bag and took the long paddle out into one of those surf sessions where nothing else counts. The waves were my own private Fire Dance. After more tube rides than I could count, I stroked, in a bliss of exhaustion, the half kilometre back to the beach.

On the sand was my bag — open. Beside it, my camera and my travellers cheques. A little further away was my passport and wallet, still containing the rupiah I had kept for airport tax. Puzzled, I upturned the bag and inspected the belongings that fell out. Two batik shirts, a kris knife from Ubud, spare board shorts, a sarong for my girlfriend, jeans and towel. All present but nothing correct.

I stuffed it all back into the bag and hopped a bemo to the airport. Somewhere over the Timor Sea, while reading an article about Java, I realised what was missing. The insulated screwdriver.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.