Bye Bye Bali

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I have a confession to make. It’s something that I’ve been resisting for days, a reality that I’ve been pushing to the side, like a stranger who keeps walking past me but with whom I’ve refused to make eye contact. This reality finally came to an undeniable pinnacle when I landed in Kuala Lumpur last night after two weeks on the Indonesian island of Bali. As soon as I exited the arrivals gate, my pack strapped to my backside like a 30lb infant (at this point I’ve started to feel affection towards it as if it were in fact a small human, which I suspect is probably not an entirely healthy sign), sweat immediately and familiarly pouring from every inch of my body, I felt a settling and a sense of calm excitement that I hadn’t realized I was missing until that moment. What this feeling confirmed was two things. One, the simple fact that I love Malaysia. It’ll be my third visit to KL during the past two months and each time I arrive I’m increasingly excited to be back. This place is fantastic. The second thing is a fact I’d spent almost 10 days skirting around, and that doesn’t feel so warm and fuzzy: that I was a little disappointed by Bali. This is a challenging realization for me because, as silly as it sounds, I feel obligated to love Bali.

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In the world of travelers, backpackers, vacationers, and Holidasians (yep – just coined that word, very proud), visiting the island of Bali is a “must”. It’s become a place that, no matter where you are, upon mention, someone (either in or out of your personal conversation) will lean over and gush “oh, Bali…I love Bali. You must go to Bali. I was supposed to stay for five days and I stayed for five weeks! It’s the most amazing place in the world.”
Those are big words. And after spending two weeks there I have a sneaking suspicion that all the things people are crazy about in Bali have been pretty well bastardized and exploited by the insanely over the top tourist industry on that tiny island.

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Don’t get me wrong: I do get it. Bali is, in so many ways, a truly amazing place. The culture is unique and spiritual and dimensional to a point where it feels impossible to comprehend from the outside, and the people ohmygod are really some of the sweetest in the world and the colors and the temples and the beaches and the rice paddies – it is seriously breathtaking. But – and here I understand I am waltzing naked into my own privileged and jaded reality – I think we’ve pretty well ruined these things, and I don’t know if I can say it’s worth the effort and money to get there just to see it.

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During my two weeks in Bali I saw some incredible things, met incredible people and did admittedly have lots of fun. I got away from the tourism. I explored on my own. I met locals, drank bootleg liquor that sometimes makes people go blind, lounged in the ocean, had mai-tais in an infinity pool, swam in waterfalls, wandered the rice paddies, ate suckling pick and smoked duck, had dinner at a hippy cafe that I was convinced was actually a Portlandia set, zoomed around on a motorbike, went to an amazing temple-ceremony-turned-monsoon…it was great.

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But everywhere I went, I couldn’t help but feel like a total voyeur. It feels like the love affair with Balinese culture and traditions has crossed over into a zoo-like business venture. Can something remain good and pure and real after you’ve created a business around observing it? I would say not so much. As soon as anything becomes a business opportunity, the authenticity of it is compromised. That’s kind of what the touristy areas of Bali felt like, and unfortunately these days the touristy areas are a lot of the island. To be honest, Bali felt a little like Santa Fe – people migrate there with the intention of finding authentic connection and culture, only to find all the other wanderers who are doing exactly the same thing.

Of course I understand the desire for authentic cultural experiences. That is, of course, a huge part of travelling. I am always hoping for glimpses into “real” local life, witnessing family traditions, being let in on heritage culinary secrets. But these things have to be organic and spontaneous or they aren’t genuine. I’m much more inclined not to actively seek and rather discover the cultural nuances where and when I find them. And if I don’t find them, that’s just how it is. I think we all find what we are meant to find, and sometimes in seeking specific experiences we blind ourselves to everything else – all the situations, people and opportunities that are passing us by. I’m trying to get better at taking whatever comes my way and dropping my expectations of a place or person. It’s hard, but travel is a great way to do that.

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When the Balinese eat suckling pig they eat a little bit of a lot of pig – liver, blood, stomach, tripe, skin…the gang’s all here!

And I can’t lie – I did have some fantastic food in Bali. My favorite was a vegetable dish called gado gado – essentially what I think of as almost an Asian salad Nicoise. Steamed green beans, potato, squash, greens and egg, mixed with bean sprouts, napa cabbage and tempeh all doused in a spicy shrimp paste and peanut sauce, with sambal on the side. Uh mazing. I’ll be recreating that one when I get home for sure! And who can say no to a plate of green beans sautéed with fresh coconut, corn fritters, chicken satay and rice? Delicious.

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But again, I’m really glad to be back in KL. As soon as I got up this morning I headed back to the fabulous nasi lemak stall I visited with my friend Dana months ago (really just for the sambal…oh my god it’s amazing):

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And then to the famous Chow Kit food market. Ironically enough, I feel so in my element in the insane crazy, smelly, loud, overwhelming markets. Plus the people watching is pretty top-notch…

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All over Asia they remain my favorite places to be. Standing in a corner, holding a banana leaf full of steamed sticky rice with chicken and chili sauce, watching the locals do business, I feel like its really the only time I get an unveiled view of everyday life wherever I am. I love weaving through the stalls, gawking at the alien fruits and vegetables, staring into writhing piles of live catfish and crabs, inhaling cinnamon and curry powder, examining stink beans and galangal…it is such a potent example of life in every way.
And of course, wherever there’s life, death can’t be far away! The butcher found it pretty amusing that I wanted to know what the cows names were:

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Malaysian food just keeps being my favorite. I mean, yes Thailand is really hard to top and I’ll hold my final decision until the end of my trip, but again and again I come back to this cuisine. Or rather, these cuisines. Because Malaysian food is as far as you can get from one type of cuisine, and that’s what makes it so fantastic. The combination of flavors and influences is completely dimensional and makes for some incredible dishes. It seems essentially impossible to get ‘bored’ with Malayasian food.

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I want to bring this food home, which is why I’ve signed up to do a Malaysian cooking class tomorrow. I. Am. So. Excited. To have a knife back in my hand! To have a station in front of me! To put my hands on vegetables and meat and spices and fresh coconut! Oh joy. I’ll be photographing the shit out of everything and will be sure to post on that within the next few days. And then it’s off to Bangkok for some serious eats and the worlds largest water fight. Sounds ok to me!

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2 comments

  1. Betsy Brown · · Reply

    I understand what you mean about Malaysian food, my favorite restaurant in Seattle was Malay Satay Hut- yum. Teach me when you come home!

  2. Mark Swenson · · Reply

    Kato, your description of your culinary adventures are amazing. I am spellbound reading about your adventures, and am expecting to get to try some of these foods when you return. And in turn, expect to share them with my Bon Appetit world. Or maybe you can share them with our Bon Appetit world. 🙂 continue to have the best time. all i can say is WOW! and BOB APPETIT!

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