The Lady and The Lexus

The corner of Jalan Raya and Jalan Suweta could be considered the epicenter of Ubud. Heading south, alongside the Tourist Information Office, is Monkey Forest Road; the city’s sprawling main market begins here; across the street is the Royal Palace, which faces the royal temple’s pavilion (where nightly dance performances are held for the benefit of tourists).

Scores of restaurants, shops, banks and money exchange depots dot this dense chunk of Ubud’s pseudo-urban landscape. Everywhere you look: locals on motorbikes, on their way to/from school, market or temple; slow-moving, camera-wielding tourists (mainly Japanese and Australian); long-time expat residents weaving their way expertly (sometimes a tad dangerously) through long lines of traffic; tourist buses, taxi drivers, priests and others carrying offerings around town.

But if you walk past this intersection with any regularity (as I do nearly every day, sometimes twice or more a day), you discover people, sights and occurrences that might go unnoticed by those just whizzing by. Such is the case of an otherwise non-descript Balinese woman I’ve seen many times. My guess is that she’s Ubud’s bag lady. But not just any bag lady…

I first noticed her a few months ago, in bare feet, with bun and burnished skin, as she sat in front of the Tourist Information Office. Surrounded as she was with a half-dozen bags, what struck me most was how intently she read a newspaper. None of the passersby, tourist police, honking motorbikes distracted her; she kept on reading,

Since then, I’ve seen her picking through garbage and offerings after they’ve been nibbled at by dogs, roosters and the wind. One time, I saw her dragging a large garbage around, obviously alert to the auspicious day on the Balinese calendar, one on which the offerings promised more food choices: rice, crackers, candies and a wider selection of fruit.

I passed her on the road one day, offered some of the fruit I was munching on (pundung) and couldn’t help notice that one of her plastic bags was overflowing not with food or clothing – but newspapers.

A scholarly bag lady.

Why not.

Welcome to Bali.

And then, in the same vicinity, the other side of Ubud’s economic spectrum, I recently sighted something that caught my attention: Tucked into the royal family’s garage, amidst the Hondas, Nissans and Mercedes Benzs, a novel addition to their fleet – but what a conspicuous addition…the biggest, blackest, shiniest, monstrous Lexus SUV I’ve seen in many many months.

It seemed so completely and utterly out of place, so out of synch with the rhythm, vibe and character of this city that I flinched when I first noticed it. Oh no, a Lexus?! Subsequently, I’ve seen that uber-machine parked outside the roadside garage a number of times, being washed, scrubbed and sparkled on many occasions.

I often wonder: what do the locals coming to market every morning make of it? The Javanese women who carry the heaviest loads in town for a pittance? The tourists, who gawk? But mostly, the bag lady: does she even notice? Could she care less?

What a contrast. The same intersection, the same coordinates, the same city. But, behind the bags and newspapers, behind the luxury cars and fancy duds, there is an obliviousness to the existence of the others.

In this regard at least, Ubud is not so very distant from where I come…

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