Mind Games at Michi: A Place Of Tropical Noir Dreams In Ubud, Bali

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NOTE: This originally appeared on my main blog – http://www.davidlatta.org

Sometimes the mystery is enough.

Over the span of more than 35 years as a journalist, mostly writing about the tourism industry, I’ve experienced some truly remarkable hotels and resorts. Those forever lodged in my memory have a consistent thread. They’re not the usual, cookie-cutter mass-market properties of bed, bathroom and balcony, marble vanities, 1000-thread counts, pillow menus and duck down duvets.

The truly special have a blatant disregard for the ordinary. They’re flights of fancy, balancing whimsy and imagination with an occasional nod towards function.

The wow factor (to use that hollow phrase so beloved of marketers) is, to me, something that tilts expectations off the axis and spins them far out into the Twilight Zone. They’re usually the pet projects of truly inspired individuals, people who can only function in what the rest of us call the real world by taking their own dreams and ideals and fashioning them in bricks and mortar, stone and glass.

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Some work, many don’t, for the simple reason that, all too often, that which the mind can envisage can never be satisfactorily realised in the real world. The visionary mind is an abstract; trying to fit it together like Lego compromises its very essence. Luckily, that doesn’t stop people from trying; we mere mortals can do little more than pick our jaws up from the floor upon experiencing the truly transcending.

As I did at the Michi Retreat in Ubud, Bali. I’m not sure I’d ever want to stay there but I’m sure I’ll go back, time after time, just to marvel at the audaciousness of the place, wonder at what could have been and hope it never goes away.

The Balinese town of Ubud is said to have magical properties, a place of healing and spiritualism, and it has long attracted those seeking a different path than the rest of humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that in a place where alternative therapies, past lives regression, crystal healing, kinesiology, transformational breathing, reiki, aura cleansing, chakra realignment and dozens of different kinds of yoga are considered normal avenues for the attainment of enlightenment, that there are places to stay that complements such beliefs.

Ubud accommodation veers across the spectrum. There’s the Four Seasons Resort Bali At Sayan, which is a monstrosity or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. The Four Seasons spills down a deeply rainforested ravine with the Ayung River at the base, anchored by an ultra-modern tower that looks either like a spaceship or an airport terminal, again depending on your mood, inclination and generosity of spirit.

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Further along that same ravine and river is the Royal Pita Maha, encompassing a selection of private pool villas. Owned by the royal family of Ubud, it is much more a traditional villa resort except for the long entrance driveway with some startlingly explicit statues of animals – elephants, pigs, frogs – with generously proportioned human genitalia.

Traditional guesthouses, modern resorts, private villas surrounded by Ubud’s impossibly green rice paddies, there’s something for every budget and level of consciousness.

And then there’s the Michi Retreat.

The official website tells the story of a retired Japanese-American professor of history and sociology who built his dream some fifteen years ago. On the edge of yet another steep ravine, this time tumbling into the Wos River, the sacred river of Ubud, at the village of Jukut Paku, and opposite a rural vista of palm trees and rice terraces, he drew on a lifetime of influences to craft a rambling hotel complex where no one part is the same as any other and surprises await at every turn.

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Standing in the midst of Michi, as we did on a hot cloudless spring day, was a very different experience. There was an eerie, deserted atmosphere. The doors were open to the rooms and we wandered from one to the other, checking out the studios that evoke an ancient hillside Berber village as envisioned by Hundertwasser and the upstairs suites including one with subcontinental Indian and elephant motifs.

And the bathrooms! In every room, it was hard to tear our attention away from the bathrooms, each wildly different and supremely exotic confections.

Mosaics, stone, pebbles, mismatched ceramics, mirror fragments of all sizes; on the pool terrace, undulating concrete benches studded with jig-sawed tile pieces evoked the Parc Guell. The adjoining restaurant area postulated a fantastic pop-cultural meeting of the minds, its shabby post-apocalyptic opulence like a Eurotrash 70s disco designed by Gaudi.

Aside from the restaurant, there were few signs of life. There were areas, dusty with neglect, that must have been, not that long ago, shops, a beauty parlour, a spa. The jacuzzi is dry, the swimming pool not quite sparkling. There’s no reception at Reception except for leaflets announcing houses and apartments for rent within the complex on a daily and monthly basis. Amongst the facilities are listed “Kafe – Restorant”.

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Where is everybody? A clue may be on the website with the bizarrely honest admission that Michi’s “management is journeying through a paradigm shift” although there doesn’t seem to have been an update since 2011.

Michi is a hotel you’d expect to find on the edge of the American desert, perhaps envisioned by Sam Shepard and directed jointly by Antonioni, Jodorowsky and Ralph Bakshi with Tarantino relegated to second unit, run by a guy who looks disturbingly like Harry Dean Stanton.

It’s a familiar theme. You don’t want to stay there, it doesn’t feel right but your car has broken down, there’s a suitcase full of cash in the trunk and the cute little blonde at your side, the one with the elongated vowels and even more elongated limbs whose humid gaze can melt metal, is the mistress of a Texas cattle rancher with no sense of humour whatsoever.

You know the movie. You’ve seen it dozens of times under a variety of titles. And Michi seems like the perfect setting, even with the rice terraces and palm trees and the slim sleek tabby with high-stepping elegance who guides us around like a new best friend.

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As the fantasy fades, so the realisation dawns that, quite possibly, despite the air of neglect, Michi may be as magical as Ubud is meant to be.

I’ll come back to Michi. I’ll eat in the Kafe, swim in the pool, maybe even stay a night or two. Hopefully, I’ll meet the Professor. In a 2009 magazine article republished on the website, it mentions he’s 79 years old, which would now put him in his mid-80s. He’s had an amazing life, wandered the world, made fantastic friends, appreciated the arts and turned his dreams into a potent reality. I’d really like to hear his story.

There aren’t many opportunities to understand the genesis of a place as special as the Michi. If the Universe allows, I’ll get that chance. If not, then the mystery will have to do. I just hope the Michi endures.

http://www.michiretreat.com

© words and photos David Latta 2014

Update: 8 March 2017.

The mystery will forever remain just that.

In early March 2017, the founder of Michi, David S. Kung, otherwise known as The Professor, passed away. He was 86 years old. He was in Japan, where he’d travelled as part of a continuing book project that, as of this time, no further details are known. He will be cremated in a traditional Balinese ceremony quite near his beloved Michi on Friday 10 March.

Safe travels, Professor.

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The Tail Of Bob Fosse: A Dancer’s Dark Path From Bali To Broadway

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ACT I – OVERTURE

Bob Fosse knew, from a very early age, that he was different. While his friends were happy spending their days playing in the forest, carefully combing each other for fleas and flinging their own excrement around with wild abandon, Bob wanted more. Much more.

He knew he wasn’t cut out for a country life but just couldn’t put his dissatisfaction into words. That didn’t change as he grew up. No matter how hard he tried, the words just wouldn’t come.

“Give up,” his uncle Cheetah (who was so named not because of any striking resemblance to Tarzan’s sidekick but for his inability to play poker without cheating) snapped irritably at him one day. “You can’t talk. You’re a monkey. What do you think this is, Planet Of The Apes?”

Bob just looked forlorn and flicked his tail in that way monkeys do when they’re left without a snappy aside.

It was yet another example of the mysteries in his life, of which there were many. His reaction, or lack of, to his own kind, for example.

Girl monkeys just didn’t do it for him. Neither did boy monkeys, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Instead, what really knocked him sideways were the tourist girls who wandered the Monkey Forest. But only a certain type of tourist girl – tall, lean, willowy. Who moved with an effortless grace and fluidity. He found them incredibly sensual although he had no idea why.

He wanted to get to know them, talk to them, find out their names, their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Then he wanted to work them relentlessly, from morning to night, treat them harshly until their spirits broke, then rebuild them as efficient, highly-disciplined dancers until they looked at him with respect and a strange kind of dependent, twisted love.

Again, he had no idea why. It just seemed like a good idea.

Then, one day, he had an epiphany. While wandering the city, he stole through an open window into a hotel room. It took his breath away. It was sumptuous, not a word he’d been able to use with much frequency in the Monkey Forest. The curtains, throw pillows and other soft furnishings were of the finest brocade,, Magazines and coffee table books were all over the room, not just on the coffee table, an effect he found bold and ever so slightly rebellious.

Bob Fosse with his lawyer, Dr Gonzo
Bob Fosse with his lawyer, Dr Gonzo

On one wall was a large screen television. Below, a DVD player. He waved a remote around, pressing buttons until the room was flooded with sound.

The screen leapt to life. Song, dance, bentwood chairs dragged across highly-polished floors, hip rolls, finger snaps. Jazz hands, oh how he loved jazz hands. He tried out the moves, tentatively at first then with increasing confidence and found them strangely familiar. The music bumped and grinded, the songs were sexy and provocative. But, most of all, the cast were dressed exactly as he envisaged those tall, willowy tourist girls in his imagination. It was like this movie was plugged directly into his subconscious, beaming his imagination onto the hotel room wall.

The effect was staggering. He knew not just how to do the stuff on the screen. He could improve on it, make it better. Maybe a few more crescent jumps, for a start. But he could work on the details later.

Bob Fosse recognised there and then that he had to get out of Ubud. The stifling provincial atmosphere was holding him back, smothering his creativity.

If he had to see one more production of Oklahoma or Carousel, he’d screech. And bare his incisors. And don’t even mention Michael Bennett. Bob had ventured to the other side of the Monkey Forest to catch Bennett’s latest production and was, quite frankly, bored. Who wants to see a bunch a dancers standing around talking?

Dance was so much more. Dance was sex. You sweated and groaned, contorted your body into strange positions, opened yourself up in every sense of the word. It was a marathon effort and, when you reached the end, when the excitement and applause reached its peak, it exploded in your head and heart. And you slumped exhausted and thought about doing it all over again. But better.

In a moment of clarity, Bob Fosse knew his future lay far from the Monkey Forest and Ubud. The Big City beckoned. He had the name and it was time he did something with it. It was no coincidence, he thought, that the Monkey Forest Road was one-way and it led straight out of town (if you turned left at Starbucks).

At the local markets, he rummaged around until he found black pants and a shirt, which fit his lean frame perfectly. In the mirror, the combination looked OK but it needed more. Bob was already prematurely bald, though barely out of adolescence; a bowler hat would help but, even in cosmopolitan Ubud, it was too tall an order.

He had to settle for a ratty fez he unearthed in the bargain bin of a thrift store, which gives a pretty good idea of exactly how ratty it was. It was made of brocade like the furnishings in the hotel room, which he took as a good omen. A matching brocade vest completed the look.

Bob examined himself in a full length mirror. He tipped his fez rakishly forward on his forehead and lit a cigarette; Bob habitually chain-smoked which, for a simian covered in body hair, had its pitfalls. The brocade wouldn’t be so flammable.

It was just right. He rolled his hips and snapped his fingers. Applause thundered in his head. He was ready.

Bob Fosse recounts his tumultuous live to his Boswell
Bob Fosse recounts his tumultuous life to his Boswell

So Bob Fosse left Ubud, hitching a ride towards his fame and fortune. In his hometown, he was a very small monkey in a very big forest but, once he reached Kuta, well, he soon released that being different had its advantages.

Chicks dug him, they hung on his every word and, on Ladies Nights, when the 50,000 Rupiah arak cocktails flowed like the brackish brown sludge that passed for water in the garbage-choked rivers (which is to say, not very well), they loved him even more. He was a monkey, sure, but a naughty monkey and chicks went crazy for that sort of thing.

He woke the next morning in a small, hot hotel room, with an agonising headache akin to a slim-bladed knife relentlessly probing his eyeballs. His mouth felt like the bottom of an Asian palm civet’s cage. It couldn’t get any worse than this, could it?

Then he noticed he was almost squashed between two naked Finnish backpackers. Memories of the previous night, a procession of crowded noisy nightclubs, raucous laughter, flirting, smouldering gazes, and how he’d drunkenly acted out every last dance move from the “Cell Block Tango” while improvising his own improvements.

As drunk as he was, he recognised he didn’t have blood in his veins so much as glitter.

Bob Fosse grinned a thin, humourless grin and slapped the closest sinuous rump within reach. They didn’t have tails but he could get used to that.

“Wake up, sweet cheeks. There’s lots of work to do,” he growled and lit the first cigarette of the day. The amphetamines could wait till later.

One of the twins, he couldn’t remember which one, woke slowly and favoured him with a lazy smile. She scratched Bob behind the ear. He could get used to that as well.

TO BE CONTINUED

As told to David Latta. © words and photos David Latta 2014

 

Sun, Sand And Seriously Good Times: The Komune Beach Club Blitzes The Competition

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Beach clubs. Unless you’re a twenty-something with a serious gym addiction, you’ll have a love-hate relationship with beach clubs. In my previous life, my opinion would be “never”. Maybe with “ever, ever” added for emphasis. But since coming to Bali, I’ve been trying a lot of new stuff, some of which has severely confused long-time friends and associates.

Into this category I would put visiting Ubud, ground zero for all things weird and wonderful, and spending any amount of time in vegetarian cafes, especially if it involved eating and/or drinking. Yet I’ve done both several times recently; Ubud I still rank as weird but also most definitely wonderful along with fascinating and endlessly compelling. That it has some great museums and restaurants certainly helps.

As for the vegetarian side of things, I’ve had some truly tasty vegetarian meals and even been gradually getting my palate (and nether regions) accustomed to juicing. Not that vegetables will ever supplant bacon as my favourite food group but, after a couple of heart attacks, I suppose I should exercise some caution.

This has engendered much consternation and concern amongst my friends; when I’ve made such announcements on Facebook, several immediately assumed my account had been hacked.

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Never say never. Approach each new experience with an open mind. And trust people will have your interests at heart when they share their own loves and interests with you. Am I getting a little too New Age?

Then I won’t mention the recent shopping expedition to get a yoga mat. Wait, don’t call psychiatric services just yet. I’m not planning on yoga. Some things really are never, ever, ever (note to self: check back in a few months’ time to see if this still holds). I merely needed some cushioning for the hard tile floors of my room while I do general toning work (push-ups, planks, etc) between gym visits.

There was a close call during the shopping expedition when the only likely candidate I could find was a Hello Kitty yoga mat. I did consider it, however briefly, but irony can be an exhausting concept to justify, especially in a foreign country. What might have flown in the inner city of Sydney was definitely not going to soar too high in Indonesia.

Creep old guy on a yoga mat? Maybe. Creepy old guy on a Hello Kitty yoga mat? I could already hear the sirens in the distance.

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Luckily I persevered and found another mat, much thicker, much better quality, in a fetching battleship grey. Crisis averted.

Anyway, back to beach clubs. There are a few in the Seminyak area, notably Ku De Ta and Potato Head. The former I’ve visited enough times to know I’m just not cut out to socialise with the young, buff and beautiful. At Potato Head, I initially couldn’t even get beyond the style enforcer on the door. And that was when I was wearing clothes. Undressed, I just wouldn’t want to be responsible for the mass panic, the collective fear and loathing that would surely manifest.

Then a friend suggested visiting the Komune Beach Club at Keramas Beach on the East Coast, not far short of Candidasa. In the spirit of opening myself up to new experiences, I reached for my spiritual Magic 8-Ball (which, admittedly, is generally stuck on hell, yeah) and it immediately came up with hell, yeah (what did I tell you?)

It was just a matter of getting there. I’d been quoted Rp400,000 (around $AU37.00) each way for a car and driver from Seminyak to Keramas. But I also knew this could be a worthy introduction to exploring the more distant parts of Bali, so I determined that, without any previous experience, I would hire a motor scooter and ride there myself.

And that, my friends, will be the subject of another post.

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So long story short, I booked a room at Komune, charted my journey via Google Maps (a total of 35 kilometres, I was informed, about 40 minutes) and set off. The route was pretty much idiot-proof as I took the Sunset Road then the Ngurah Rai by-pass towards Sanur.  It was just a matter of following my nose until I was roughly east of Denpasar. This road was a direct route to Ubud but, taking notice of the unusually assistive signage, I branched off onto (deep breathe) Jl Professor Doktor Ida Bagus Mantra towards Candidasa.

In all, and taking into account over-shooting the Keramas Beach turn-off, I arrived in the parking lot of Komune about 90 minutes later. So much for Google Maps (and that will definitely be another post).

It’s billed as a four-star resort with 66 guestrooms and suites. The rack rate for rooms is $AU150 but on-line booking sites go as far down as $AU75. For suites, rack is $AU192, with discounts as low as $AU113. A number of package deals are also available. Eat, Play, Surf includes room, daily breakfast, five massages, two night surfing lessons or two yoga sessions, two sunset cocktails and one dinner. Packages are for a minimum of five or seven nights.

The guestrooms are air-conditioned with comfortable beds and large bathrooms. There is a well-stocked mini-bar, enough power points, loads of natural light, and the only drawback I could really note was an unusual design flaw that allowed neighbours to be heard quite distinctly, even if they weren’t particularly noisy. And it stands to reason that if you can hear them, they can most certainly hear you. You’ve been warned.

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The beach club aspect is a real winner. Walk through reception and the vast tropical gardens and you’re a grassy field overlooking Keramas Beach. A large swimming pool, bracketed with wide plush day beds, looks out on the surfers attempting to dodge the rocks and master the breaks.

At one end is an elevated two-level beach shack with a shabby-chic-meets-Ralph-Lauren vibe. Spotlights directed at the beach are used for night surfing. At the other end is an ultra-modern dining area nestled under the sloping angle of what appears to be a tropical interpretation of a 1950s Hollywood flying saucer (very The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Michael Rennie version not the atrocious Keanu Reeves remake). Just beyond that is an outdoor cinema; if there are no thrill-seekers ingracious enough not to provide night surfing entertainment, at least there’s a fall-back.

After the pricing of Seminyak’s Potato Head or Cocoon, which is much more in line with an upmarket Sydney bar, food and beverage at Komune is a delight. The Big Barrel Burger, with egg, cheese, bacon and beetroot, costs Rp80,000 ($AU7.37), the same price as the Chorizo and Calamari Salad and the Komune Roast Vegetable Salad.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the flying saucer, while lunch and snacks are always available around the pool area. Weekdays are the time to visit; on the weekends, especially Sundays, families take control of the pool.

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Komune is especially proud of their green credentials. Their solar farm provides much of the electricity, the organic garden many of the vegetables, they have a dedicated team for cleaning the beach and adjoining river, they treat their own waste water and use it to water plants and garden, and they also make their own bottled water.

Located far enough away from the tourist hordes to deter those who would frequent Potato Head and Ku De Ta, Komune is a very special experience. Did it reshape my view of beach clubs? It did. Will I return? Most definitely; I’ll be there again in a few days. Despite the distance, it’s still close enough to home (and Ubud, should I feel like a side serving of weird with my burger) to merit a day trip.

It’s in a beautiful part of the world, with Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida in one direction and the looming presence of the semi-retired volcano, Mount Agung, in the other, a dark sand beach and cold eager surf that carries a taste of salt to the day beds. Basking in the sun, cocktail at hand, music prickling your consciousness, there seems no better way to celebrate yet another perfect day in Bali. And, with the right company, there probably isn’t.

© words and photos David Latta 2014