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Indonesia: In Search of Walter Spies or Walking the Sidemen Road

Tabola, Sinemen, Karangasem, Bali

My first full day I walked toward the ten-thousand foot mountain that looms above me, the highest in Bali, that greets me when I look out my window–unless the clouds have disappeared it–along the mostly shoulderless road, walking on the right side toward oncoming chartreuse and red trucks, mostly filled with rocks and gravel, and weaving motorbikes, two, three, whole families aboard. I am puzzled why the Indonesians drive on the left side of the road; their colonizers, the Dutch, don’t. It must have come from the English via India.

the view of  Mt Agung from my veranda

these folks on the left are going to a celebration, perhaps a wedding, but the way they are piled on the cycles is normal

I walked into traffic as I’ve been taught, but it didn’t do much good. The Balinese incessantly pass and sometimes–but not on this narrow road–driving three abreast in two lanes. It was terrifying being in a car here until I learned to trust my driver and let go, to be grateful I wasn’t  at the wheel.

My plan was to walk to Iseh, about two miles from Sidemen or three from Tabula, just up the road from my guesthouse in the middle of the ride terraces. I wanted to see the house of Walter Spies. I first read about Spies in a book I found on the sparse Bali shelf at the library: Bali, Java, in My Dreams by Christine Jordis, a Frenchwoman who traveled here about a decade ago. She devoted a chapter to him. I was intrigued.

Spies was German who came first to Java, I think in the 20s, but was enticed to Bali where he lived first in Ubud and then in Iseh. He was an ethnographer, choreographer, film maker, naturalist and painter. He started a painting school for Balinese and profoundly influenced the arts in Bali. He was also gay and, during a crackdown in the 30s, imprisoned for it i.e. for ‘having fun’ with his underage house boys. Later he was interred as an enemy alien, shipped away in 1942 and died when the ship was torpedoed.

His house in Ubud became a center for visiting rich and famous including Barbara Hutton, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vicki Baum and even Margaret Mead. When he found Ubud too frantic–a lot of this his own making–he left for Iseh and turned his Ubud home into a guesthouse. It’s a hotel today and the original house is still intact and beautiful.

Spies house in Ubud–now part of a hotel complex

He built a house on a hill in Iseh and lived there until the authorities took him away. In Bali, Java, in My Dreams, I read that an English couple had lived in the house in the early 60s, were there when the believed dead mountain woke up with a monstrous eruption. The woman of the couple, Anna Mathews, wrote a book about it, The Night of Purnama (full moon). (Yes the first two eruptions were on successive full moons) It’s an extraordinary story of first learning to live with the Balinese and then living thru a tragic emergency–their house, up high, was safe from the lava, but not the ash, but thousands were not so lucky and died, some from the gases, some of burns, some buried. The rice fields burned, the trees. There was no food. The government was in Java and didn’t do anything for them.

When I decided to come to Sidemen to hang out for a few days at the end of my textile and art tour I knew I would look for the house. I already knew from an Internet search that the house was bought by an Italian in the 70s and remodeled, 4 bedrooms, all with bath, a pool, etc. etc. and again visited by the rich and famous, now rock stars, but this time as a rental, complete with staff. I saw a few pictures but none showing the setting, just the view, basically the same as mine, and the pool and closeups of a wall, a bedroom. Would I recognize it if I found it?

I set off at 9:15 after my sad little Western breakfast at the guest house. I’ve been spoiled on the tour by high-end hotels and resorts with choices of Western and Indonesian breakfasts (even Chinese in the 5-star’s buffet in Yogyakarta)–I’ve never been a bacon and eggs fan. But here I am staying in a tiny guesthouse, just three free-standing rooms facing the mountain with rice paddies at our feet, literally. I am watching the bird-scarer not a hundred feet away jiggle the strings strung across a nearly ripe field while I write. The strings hold what look like prayer flags but they are merely rags, mostly white with an occasional blue or yellow one. There is also a piece of metal next to the scarecrow at the bottom of the field with a clacker that can be operated from the shack at the top of the field. He jiggles, he screeches. He was here by 6:30 am and is still here when I return until after 6pm.

the guest house, my room on far left, center another room, right the breakfast room with chairs

view from my veranda, my host weeding his field

discouraging the birds

I walk up. I am prepared for up; what else can it be on the flank of a mountain? I only arrived the afternoon before and spent the day on my veranda writing and reading, only venturing out for dinner and then only a block or two down the road to a bigger guest house with a restaurant.

The walk is not uninteresting. I see a woman weaving, she’s in her house but the room is open on the road side. Houses protect from rain here, not cold. Traditionally there is a space between the walls and the roof–my room is this way.

I see yarn dyed for ikat hanging on a fence, shops selling water and beer and snacks, the village temple, school children in uniform playing in the school yard even though it is Saturday, a restaurant aimed at the guests that come to the dozen or so guest houses and inns, a loom workshop. When I reach Sinemen I see the market stalls piled with fruits with names I cannot remember. I turn left toward the mountain. Soon I hear the calming notes of a gamelon and wish I could see thru the walls into the courtyard. I am not sure if this is a rehearsal or a ceremony–when I return I will have my answer–ceremony! A man will be singing and I will be able to see some of the offerings over the wall as well as hear a bit of tumult.

left, the Tabula temple, right, loom workshop

left, still in Tabula. right, peeking over the wall in Sidemen

Traffic whizzes by, creating hold-on-to-your-hat breezes. I am lucky, it’s not too hot yet. I leave Sinemen and walk by forests, sometimes there is evidence of bamboo harvesting, once a rock quarry, or rather the piles of rock and gravel that tell me that is the business. That must be where all that rock I see on the trucks coming down the mountain is going–they are mining the mountain.

bamboo is harvested along the main road

brick production–pressed and apparently not fired

nearly every home has some caged birds. on right, a tavern along the road

Now and then a woman sits with a basket of fruit or there is an actual stand selling squashes, potatoes, fruit. Now a bar, just a roof over a counter where men sit with their backs to the road drinking beer or soda. I have looked at the map and seen there are two villages before Iseh. Sometimes there is a sign with a name on it, often shops have banners with their address including the full location: town, district, Bali. I watch for Iseh. I have failed to bring the map along so I just watch out for Iseh on a sign.

People pass, I smile and say Hello, or rather Hallo, which is what they say. They smile. Buses and motorbikes offer me rides, two children ask for money and I am offended. Why is this happening here? I’ve been in much more touristy places on Bali and they haven’t begged. After a while I realize I have not seen a single Western face all day and will not until I turn onto the Tabula road at the end of my journey.

Twice I stop to drink water sitting on the little walls built where there is a culvert, once I stop to buy a fruit I like, overpaying so that she tries to give me more–less than fifty cents. I take many photos.

I come to a restaurant with an Organic Food sign perched above the view of fields and mountain and a hill with a house on top. Could this be it? But there is no town, I have only passed one town and there should be another before Iseh.

It is only 11 or so and I tell the restaurant lady I may come on my way back. I walk on to the road to the house, down it’s road and up some stairs. It is big. It could be it. I am met by a woman who does not speak English who lets me know I can’t come on the side I’m heading up to–it is rented–but directs me to the other side, different steps. What I find is the beautiful view and what looks like two very ordinary rooms. I am doubtful.

left, the lane up to the house; right, the view from the house

view from house on the other side

Back on the road, I soon come to an S curve with some shops, a bar, a restaurant. I think I ought to eat at this one rather than the one that at least wants to cater to tourists. This one looks Indonesian. But it’s still too early for lunch and I am looking for Iseh. I walk on.

Now it’s hot. I’m tired. Up, up. I see a woman making something and stop. It’s a reed for the loom made from thin strips of bamboo slipped between a larger split bamboo and wrapped with red thread. She lets me take a photo. A while farther and I notice one of those huge paper mache statues they use in ceremonies being painted. I stop to take a photo and am invited in. There are a few figures and they are extraordinary.

I walk on.

It’s about noon when I hit a T in the road. I have not remembered this on the map but since I didn’t bring it I can’t check. There are directional signs–a whole list of towns in all three directions. Sidemen 7 kilometers. Is that about 4 miles? A school girl tells me to turn right. I walk about half an hour. Ask again and am told it was the other way. I walk back and on past the crossroad and ask again. It was back towards Sidemen. It is further. I am hot, tired, not thinking clearly.

Finally I come to an Inn catering to foreigners–I go in. Deserted. I sit to rest and a man appears. He says back to the crossroads and toward Sidemen 3 km. Makes sense. That would make it 4 kg from Sidemen. I feel very stupid. He also tells me Iseh is off the road and that there is a house owned by an American or a Canadian or a European on the hill.

By now it is 12:30. Now I stop and ask everyone I come across if this is Iseh. Finally at the S curve it is Yes. I had not seen a road down but now it is there, sloping toward two hills up mountain from the smaller hill with the house I visited earlier. There are tarps with grain drying along the side of it. it is steep and a long way to the hills. I am very tired and hungry. It is 1:30. I have been walking four hours. I am too tired to walk down the road to Iseh.

I walk on looking back for a house on either hill. There is a lot of vegetation but finally I see one building. It doesn’t look right. I take photos. I think I can look on Google Earth and maybe I will see the pool, but then I will be home and it will be too late.

Iseh from the road

I should go to the café right there but I’m so tired, so hot. I go to the organic café with the thought of indulging myself. I sit on the veranda and order a watermelon juice and chicken curry with vegetables. It is only an ordinary restaurant after all.

While I wait an old woman approaches. I mention Walter Spies. “Ah, Walter Piss, my father cooked for him.” Piss! she knows what she is talking about. I’ve been reading a novel about Spies the last few days, Island of Demons by Nigel Barley, an anthropologist and former Ethnographer at the British Museum. Barley has told me the Indonesians called him Walter Piss.

“My father’s dead now.” I ask about the house. She points at the one I’ve seen on the closest hill, the one I visited hours ago. “They tore it down and built a new one.” I ask if it is for tourists. She tells me not. I know the house called Walter Spies is for rent. I have seen the website. $900 by the night, write for details on longer or partial rental. Comes with four staff.

the house from the restaurant

By the time I finish lunch it is 2:30 and I head home. I could get a ride home. Plenty of trucks, buses and motorbikes stop and ask me where I am going but for some reason I refuse. The motorbikes scare me. I don’t want to whip around these curves helmet less, though later I will regret not having the experience just as I regret not taking a ride in the becaks of Yogya. I am in a state of thinkless exhaustion and soldier on.

I go back to my room with a view, though the mountain has disappeared into the clouds, and read the novel which I’m finding interesting, sometimes entertaining, but it is not making me like Walter Spies. What is this obsession with Walter Spies about anyway?

Sunday I rest. My feet are blistered, my knees angry, the bones of my feet ache. By Monday I am better and decide to explore Tabula and Sidemen. Almost as soon as I start down the road I see a man weaving something large from coconut leaves. I stop to look and he speaks English. His weaving is for the ceremony after I leave. He asks what I’m doing and I mention Walter Spies and Iseh. “Walter Piss, he was a painter, no?” So I ask about the house.“ It’s across from the temple you will see it.” I must go back. Tomorrow. My last full day.

That night after dark the wind returns accompanied by rain. It is so windy I have to shut my windows. Still the wind comes in under the doors, over the walls where the roof purposely overhangs and always provides circulation. It is so windy that I dream I moved to a house with no insulation and the wind is blowing thru it. Will I be willing to walk the road in this weather? The other day at the coast the windy rain blew my umbrella insideout and soaked me..

It is cloudy in the morning, threatening rain, actually sprinkling as I leave, but blessedly cooler. At least this time I know where I’m going! Leaving Sidemen there is a traffic jam as a procession of cars, motorbikes and even a dump truck full of people dressed in their best traditional clothes drive into Sidemen. The pick up trucks also carry golden objects, something for ceremonies. Later I will see them returning.

I stop and buy some rambutans. Probably over pay–5000 for 3 (about 50 cents) and then the man asks if I want a ride and then he wants me to buy him a cigarette. I am puzzled and a bit offended. Is it only because I am seen as a rich foreigner? Is it because I overpaid? I feel the same as when the children ask for money.

Though Bali is primarily Hindu, there are Muslims and the road passes along the edge of a Muslim village.

I am doing something–walking–that is not done by foreigners. I see locals walking but they are working, carrying things. Once when I stop to take a pebble out of my sandal a Dutch couple comes walking down, but they have only walked the wrong way thinking they could make a loop in Sidemen. Later, coming back I’ll see three younger people on 2 motorbikes going uphill.

When I reach Iseh I see the old woman whose father worked for Spies. I ask her about the people who lived in the house during the eruption but I can’t make her understand my question and when I think I may have finally gotten thru she says she doesn’t know.

But then I see the temple steps, 151 of them, across the highway from the road to the house. I have found it. Two little girls follow me up the steps, sisters I think, and the older one is wanting me to buy her necklaces but I just talk to them. I have not asked them to come with me. She studies English in school and speaks well. The temple is virtually abandoned. She says they don’t use it anymore. It clearly has not been readied for the ceremonies in two days. I don’t go in, too lazy to take off my shoes and the ground is too littered to want to walk barefooted anyway.

When we get back down their mother with baby is waiting for us. She has sent them on this task, it is clear. It makes me sad.

I still want to see Iseh itself so I walk down at the S curve to the bridge over the river. It is steep going and then on the other side of the bridge–which is missing a large hunk of railing–it is even steeper up and worse yet it is slippery. I have to walk in the foliage at the side some of the time to keep from falling. Why am I doing this? Coming back will be even worse. I forget to take picture!

It goes on and on, climbing, climbing until I finally reach the town. There a road big enough for cars appears. I turn north, nice houses behind walls. Along the way a group of people are having a snack and they insist I join them. I take a cracker, photos. No one speaks English so they can’t ask the inevitable questions. I walk on, they have a good laugh.

looking over the walls into compounds

taking a break  in Iseh

And then I start to hope this road goes somewhere, back to the main road so I won’t have to double back, struggle down the slippery slope. I go by farms and finally a government building.

The land has flattened out. I consult the map I have brought today and dream of reaching Salet, the town I was in on Saturday when I last turned back and then suddenly I am there, the main road appears, I turn toward the junction, I pass the inn where I finally found out where Iseh was and I am off.

It’s 1 o’clock now and I think of stopping for food. I pass one warang (restaurant) but it doesn’t look like it will have a toilet, so I press on for Iseh and the restaurant on the S curve I didn’t eat in Saturday. I am the only customer. I get tea and noodles and they are good. I watch the scene on the road, a truck has pulled over–I never figure out why–but it means everyone has to go around him and that means stopping traffic in the other direction. One of the cheroots stops and backs up to right in front of the stopped truck. The driver gets out and rolls up his pant legs. I think he’s going to help the truck but no, there is a stream next by the road and he begins to wash his bus. When I look up the truck has left but the bus is still there so traffic is still one way.

An uneventful walk home from there. I see a garbage motor bike. I haven’t walked quite as far today and it’s been cooler so I’m not nearly so wiped out. I even consider going shopping for a sarong in Sidemen but thankfully talk myself out of it. Home by 4.

And then I realize, it’s not Walter Spies I’m obsessed with, it’s Anna Mathews. It’s the volcano, the eruptions. I wanted to see the mountain from where she watched it that morning when she first noticed smoke instead of clouds gathering above it and then each day for months as she tried to predict the day’s events.

I’ve been picturing creeping lava, burning trees, ash-covered forests, people fleeing down the road I’d walked searching for remnants of an event nearly fifty years ago. But ash is good fertilizer and I can see no evidence of her disaster.

A few excerpts from Night of Purnama

p 91 A stiff breeze sprang up and whirled the particles into the house. We were obliged to empty the living-rom and retreat to the studio, whose shutters could be closed…Even so, we had no windows and dared not open even a crack in the shutters. Heads wrapped in scarves, eyes prickling, mouths gritty, nails engrained, we sat in semi-darkness…There wasn’t a single thing that didn’t feel gritty to the touch, and filthy….When at last the wind died, another horror took over. It began to drizzle. Such strange rain … as it touched the skin, it pricked like a mosquito, and burned.

P 94 We had entered a new relationship with our volcano. It had put us in our place. It had reminded us of our primitive forefathers, and what they owed to the forces of nature. Strange how the preceding few days had stripped us of our comforts, how quickly, as drops of acid had stripped the trees. We slept in our clothes, washed in tainted water, and lived in a house reduced to a roof above our heads – everything else had been packed away. The volcano had taken away our food: they dying land supported no fruit or vegetables, we had only a little rice, and a little meat – meat because people were saying their cattle were already getting thin, it would be better to kill them. We did not know what it was to sleep soundly. We were wakeful, listening to the voice of the volcano,…

P 101 On March 7th we had the first of the floods. By this time, a quantity of pyroclastic ash, sand and boulders had collected on the upper slopes of the cone. Heavy rain brought them down, a scalding-hot battering-ram of mud, carrying with it rocks and stones, and weighing hundreds of tons. The bridge at Selat was smashed to pieces,…Fortunately, by the time the flood reached Iseh, it was merely very hot muddy water

p 118 …great waves of lave were flowing, a rippling river that glowed and dimmed, glowed and dimmed, freshened and faded. The noise was pandemonium: the vast power-house was out of control.

P 119-20 … the river-bed, already filled with yesterday’s mud. In this now shallow track ramped something treacly, black, horrible. It pushed before it a flaming lip; of burning trunks of trees and bits of houses. It squeaked, plopped, bubbled. The river shrivelled up before it. There was no water. There was no river. Trees at its touch burst into flames, and it passed on, leaving bonfires flaring.

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