In Bali, shop till you drop

It’s true what you hear about the Balinese being a patient, smiling people. I spent almost a week on the Indonesian island before I saw my first frown. It happened while I was browsing through a rack of clothing in the Ubud market. As I pushed aside several child-size tops inexplicably marked “XXL,” I sent a tiny tray flying across the market stall, scattering its contents — pink flower petals, two mints and a Chinese coin — onto the floor. It had been balancing on the hangers, camouflaged by the festive shirts.

The two women staffing the stall scowled as I apologized and fled. I’d read that Balinese Hindus don’t really care what becomes of the banana-leaf trays after they present them as offerings to the island’s many spirits. Generally, the artfully arranged food and flowers are devoured by packs of scabby stray dogs. But unlike the hungry dogs, perhaps I was a bad omen, portending a bad business day. It probably didn’t help that I left without buying anything.

Despite that inauspicious start to my shopping spree, I returned home with a suitcase full of sarongs, jewelry, carvings and other treasures. Most tourists travel to Ubud, Bali’s cultural center, to hike through rice paddies, meditate near mountaintops and drink in a beautiful ancient culture. I crossed 12 time zones for all those things, too. But most of all, I was there to shop.

Luckily for me, the Balinese see no conflict between spiritual and material pursuits. In the Bible, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. Compare that with the Balinese belief that getting to the next world requires cremation in an elaborate — and expensive — sarcophagus.

At least, that’s what Anom Suryawan told me as he etched the image of a bird’s wing into a pale crescent of wood. One of the island’s greatest living maskmakers, Anom recently finished a set of temple masks for the royal family in Bali’s capital, Denpasar. The daughter of Indonesian president Sukarno once bought a mask from him, and folk art collectors often stop by his studio.

“He gets visitors from all over the world,” bragged Anom’s friend Maru Matthaei, an American maskmaker who spends part of each year in Bali. “Somehow, they find him.”

I never would have found Anom’s workshop without Maru’s help. I parroted her directions — “It’s next to the soccer field in the center of Mas” — to my driver, and he dropped me off on a street lined with woodcarving galleries.

Most villages in Bali have a characteristic craft; in Mas, Maru told me, it’s woodcarving. In fact, according to Anom, different districts in Mas specialize in different kinds of carvings, with one group of families making statues of duck farmers and another carving squat wooden frogs. For generations, Anom’s family has made sacred masks for dancing and for temples.

Anom, however, is an innovator. In his one-room gallery hang traditional dance masks as well as masks of his own design, such as a moon with a rocket lodged in its eye and a smirking girl with a crown of snakes and worms.

The girl with the snakes, explained Anom, is “Garlic,” the antihero in the Balinese folk tale “Garlic and Onion.” In the tale, Onion, a virtuous and kind girl, gets lost in the woods and begins to cry. Birds and monkeys comfort her by adorning her with jewelry and fine clothes and then help her find her way home. Jealous, Onion’s sister, Garlic, goes to the woods and fakes tears, and forest animals drape her with snakes and worms.

The story is a cautionary tale about jealousy and greed, said Anom, who will be taking his masks to a folk art festival in Santa Fe., N.M., in July. But still, greed isn’t always bad. In fact, a healthy hunger for new experiences and artistic inspiration is driving his upcoming trip to the United States.

“I want to go to city, to see other artists, to learn,” he said. “It’s greedy, but it’s good greedy, [because] I’m going to share my culture, to teach about Bali’s art.”

I felt a little greedy myself as I stood in Anom’s mask gallery. I wanted to take home all the masks: the white-faced monkey, the grinning old man and especially the toothy-beaked bird-king known as Garuda.

The Garuda mask would probably cost about $350, Maru had told me, but after an afternoon drinking tea with Anom, I couldn’t find a graceful way to turn our conversation to business. I was even more daunted by the fact that I’d have to bargain with him, arguing over what the hundreds of hours he’d spent carving the mask and applying 40 layers of paint was worth in dollars. So I bade goodbye to my new friend and left without buying the Garuda mask.

The next day, I returned to more familiar shopping territory: the market in Ubud. You won’t find fine crafts in the two-story open-air complex, Maru had said, but it’s a great place to buy hand-printed sarongs. Just watch out for cheap, silk-screened imitations, she’d told me. The trick to telling the difference is to look on the reverse side; hand-printed sarongs are nearly equally vivid on both sides, while silk-screened cloth is much paler on the reverse.

I also got a quick lesson in bargaining from my aunt, Laura Cohn. Never buy anything for the asking price, she told me. Instead, exclaim “mahal!” (“expensive!”) and offer a third of the price. Usually you’ll end up paying about three-quarters of a shopkeeper’s initial quote, she said.

Aunt Laura spent three years in Bali in the 1990s studying art, and like many expats, she supported her spiritual journey by exporting Indonesian crafts to the United States. Now she lives in Philadelphia, but she travels to Bali once a year to visit friends and buy treasures by the trunkload.

Per my aunt’s instructions, I walked past the stalls on the street — the ones selling neon beer cozies — and headed upstairs. I pushed through a wall of hanging dresses to a table piled with sarongs. They were garish, fringed numbers, and a peek at the reverse side revealed them to be silk-screened. Mass-produced sarongs, probably from India or China, filled every one of the dozen stalls I visited that morning.

I didn’t want to leave the market without haggling, however. So I pointed at a purple ballerina tutu (a potential gift for my 3-year-old niece) and asked, “How much?” The shopkeeper offered me the dress for about $20. Following my aunt’s advice, I counteroffered with the equivalent of $5. The woman looked deeply offended, and I worried that I was making a lot of enemies in this particular market. But I didn’t cave and ended up paying $8 for the dress. A bargain! (I think.)

Buoyed by that success, I went on a shopping spree, bargaining for scarves ($6 for two) and blue-tile trays ($10 for three, though only one survived the trip home). I also bought a mask of Barong, a Balinese guardian spirit with a leonine face, for $30. It wasn’t nearly as fine as Anom’s work, but I loved the feathery details in the crown and the expressive, bulging eyes.

Arms overloaded with goodies, I tried to find my way out of the market and somehow ended up in the courtyard of a small temple.

In Ubud, temples take up almost as much real estate as storefronts, and each one attracts a steady stream of worshipers bearing gifts. That little market temple, however, seemed especially beloved. On its walls, banana-leaf trays towered to precarious heights, and women tucked sticks of incense into the folds of a majestic banyan tree. The tree wore a black and white checked skirt — a symbol of good and evil in balance, my aunt had said, though to me it looked more like a picnic tablecloth hung up to dry.

In the center of the temple, supplicants bowed to a statue of Ganesha, an elephant god known for granting prosperity to merchants. Judging by the tourist buses that were beginning to fill the market’s parking lot, he seemed to be in a prayer-answering mood.

Fleeing the crowds, I headed to Hanoman Street, Ubud’s version of Fifth Avenue, to find a hand-printed sarong. After stopping in several sweltering shops, I happened upon the air-conditioned oasis of Tegun Galeri. The gallery’s owners, Kadek Gunarta and Meghan Pappenheim, collect folk art from villages across the Indonesian archipelago, including carved wooden trays from Sulawesi, masks from Sumatra and — success! — hand-dyed sarongs from Java. I pulled a shimmering purple one from the shelf and gasped at the price: $70. Mahal! But the gallery’s prices are fixed, so I traded it for a less flashy but still lovely brown and blue one that cost about $20. Perfect.

Though my arms were filled with treasures, I still regretted not buying that Garuda mask. So that night, I visited the bird king in his natural habitat, at an Ubud temple performance of the Kecak dance.

I sat at the foot of a tall temple as dozens of men wearing those checked skirts poured down the steps, a full moon their spotlight. They seated themselves in a circle and began chanting, “Kuh, kuh, kuh.” In the center of the circle, a drama unfolded: A lascivious king ties up a prince and absconds with his princess.

All the dialogue was sung in Balinese, but the dancers were so expressive that I found the action easy to follow. Enter the bird king Garuda, with hopping steps. His head tilted quizzically, he frees the prince, who charges off to save his love.

During a performance, a dancer becomes almost possessed by the spirit contained in his mask, Anom had told me. That’s why, before a performance, a dancer thanks the spirit of the mask and asks for his help. Temple masks, used only for the most sacred dances, are home to even more powerful spirits than regular dance masks. If you don’t placate them with prayers and offerings, you run the risk of a bad harvest or other misfortunes, he said. I asked about art masks: Do they need offerings, too? Anom assured me that Balinese spirits don’t usually make their homes in tourist masks.

As I packed my bags, I wasn’t so sure of that. While the sarongs and scarves seemed content to share my suitcase with dirty socks, the Barong mask glowered at me with those bulging eyes. I lifted it out, wrapped it in a scarf and placed it in my purse. With all my souvenir shopping, I wanted to take home a little Balinese spirit, but not an angry one.

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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