I lived in Michigan during my twenties and that was the first time I learned what piles of burning leaves smelled like. People would get nostalgic every fall when the leaves fell and everyone raked them into piles and set them ablaze. There were a lot of leaves in Michigan. Lots of burning, and the air would fill with the thick, heavy, unmistakable scent of damp, rotting leaves on fire. Some people swore the molds sprouted in the heat of the fire and it ignited their allergies, but the majority of people would get nostalgic and smile blissfully as they inhaled deeply with fond memories,”Aah, fall.” Me, I always thought it smelled rather noxious, unnatural and was too thick for too many miles.
So I land in Bali and it hits me, this familiar smell of Asia – plastic burning, along with cooking fires and incense – mostly the former – is a very acquired smell. It’s not pleasant, even to me, one who is full of nostalgia for it. It smells unnatural as well, perhaps more-so than the Michigan leaves, but it’s associated with all sorts of lovely memories of my trips to Nepal where the smell is nearly identical, if not thicker. And this smell in Bali has an additional bit added: tropical flowers on the island breeze, so it’s sweeter, lighter and more friendly.
Call me eclectic in my Asian travel choices, but I’ve been to the Asia three times and I am quite sure that between Nepal, Seoul and Bali I have a rough idea of the place. Very rough. And by that I mean I feel like I am justified in declaring my love for the continent. Sure, it has its problems, pollution, third-world poverty and way too many people, to name a few, but I see its problems as its strengths. The culture is so incredibly rich and vast. From the Pashtuns of Pakistan (I am reading I Am Malala right now) to the pagodas of Japan and the high snowy mountains and monasteries of Tibet, to the pre-Hindu-Buddhist tropical island culture of Bali, it seems endless and vast how many peoples have lived in so much contact with each other, learned from each other and assimilated each other’s ways over millennia. And the pollution, though more visible than ours is far less prolific per capita. In the places I’ve been (save Seoul) individuals and families are responsible for handling it all themselves (no garbage man, no landfills) so they have figured out ways to minimize it – both creating and reusing. (Those of you who are thinking I have an unnatural affection for the cycle of garbage are probably right, as shown in exhibit one and exhibit two. Maybe someday I’ll be known as That Crazy Garbage Lady.) At the very least, I am enthralled with this culture already and looking at its innards as much as possible.
So now, as we drive along the eastern coast road to Monkey Forest, I am looking into the places, the people, the ways of life here and soaking each bit up as we pass it. I am sure that by day two I drove my family crazy by shouting, “oh, look that’s a…” and “ooh, ooh!” and “quick, look, look!” It’s my nature, I like to share. After they grew weary of my announcements, I began plugging our guide and driver, Wayan for information about the things we passed, place names, history, and anything else that came to mind. He did a remarkable job fielding it all. We entered the Monkey Forest, which is primarily a nature preserve with a Hindu temple from the 14th Century. We saw the first monkeys before we parked the car, and they kept appearing in herds (mobs? gaggles? Aah, I remembered… troops) along the steamy jungle walk into the forest valley. I was particularly interested in the faces on the sculptures – so ornate and emotive – that the monkeys were secondary for me. That didn’t keep me from snapping photos. I’d read ahead about their fearlessness. They are accustomed to human proximity as people feed them all the time. They mostly went about their business; males chasing each other for position, mothers caring for babies, adolescents fighting over banana scraps and males mounting females in the middle of a crowd, (you know, regular monkey stuff) as if we weren’t there. Photos of the day are below with my musings. (As always, clicking on a photo will make it larger.)