Ubud, Bali, Indonesia (Part 1) – travel writing and the pyschogeographical method

367The image of Bali as a peaceful paradise, a place of cultural and spiritual appeal, with perfect beaches, temples and nightlife is one that has made it a top tourist destination for Australians and more recently, with the advent of yoga culture and spiritual tourism provoked by the movie/book Eat Pray Love, America and Europe.

I’d always resisted going to Bali – I’d seen the news, read the stories about places packed with loud and drunk Australians and Balinese beaches and towns like Kuta swarming with obnoxious entitled yobbos.  In my mind, Bali had become a kind of symbolic real estate, a manufactured tourist landscape created by wealthy developers and the tourist industry. A spectacle of shopping malls and spiritual theme parks.

Then after a particularly crappy year, I changed my mind and decided to take a break from the corporate world and use all my savings to go on an adventure to see how other people lived – starting with Bali and then to India and America.

In Bali I planned to avoid the madness of Kuta and the west coast and urged on by friends, go to Ubud. What I found unexpectedly was a place of beauty, jungle and rice fields, connected villages, but also crazy traffic, poverty, overcrowding, pollution – and wonderful Balinese people – enacting in their everyday hard working lives Hindu myths and stories, traditional dance, sculpture, painting and music and healing.

But was it possible to represent my own pilgrimage to Bali without the corrupting influence of the tourist gaze? Could I subvert the predescribed routes mapped out by popular and banal cultural cliches? How could I write a travel account without participating in the consumerist spectacle of global capitalism that the pyschogeography project seeks to undermine?

Ajun Chatterjee in his 2014 essay ‘Reader, tourist and psychogeography today – a Categorical Imperative of Travel’ suggests that as pyschogeographical writing ” is not free from the novelty seeking approach of travel writing” – although he then goes on to mark the difference between the ‘exotic’ nature of travel writing and the derisory forms of the pyschogeographical essay – the low life, anarchy and hidden world frequently celebrated in London pyschogeographic accounts from writers such as Iain Sinclair. What follows is no radical or avant garde urban exercise. Nor do I wish to escape from the urban and suburban by fetishizing the mysteries of Asia, the wilderness or notions of spirituality.

My aim to get lost, record the experience, travel mindfully,  explore unexpected places and people and their ideas about life, death and immortality. I want to walk the countryside and town backstreets sensing landscapes, ley lines and geographic power spots, study rituals, myths and ancient healing arts, using anthropological tools, Jung and the collective unconscious, Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, to feel the viscosity between the air and the water, the horizon and pathway, the thin membrane which divides thought, skin, place and subconscious.

I turn to an inspired method from Robert Macfarlane, British travel writer, for this excerpt from his playful 2005 London centric guide to pyschogeography:

“…Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.”

Macfarlane’s own stories are pilgrimages, explorations and meditations not of urban spaces but of wilderness, mountain pathways.

I’m reminded too of why I like to travel by Rebecca Solnit, in her wonderful book ‘A Field Guide to getting Lost’: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

Next Up: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – navigating a culture within a culture.

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