The Good Women of Ubud

By Mark Ulyseas

For The Bali Times

Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.

– W.B. Yeats

This week’s column is dedicated to my late friend Bina and the good women of Ubud who I see every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at restaurants dancing the evening away alone or in groups, while the men watch from the sidelines. The throb of jazz, reggae, rock and salsa entrance the women, who move to the music like birds in a mating ritual. Sometimes I feel the urge to join them but I am outnumbered 10 to one by the heavenly bodies and the captivating fragrance of Chanel.

Today we shall not talk of that four-letter word we encounter everyday – love. Instead we shall put on our dancing shoes and waltz to Englebert Humperdinck’s song Release Me, with a companion held close to our bosom like two swans in a partnership of a lifetime; although ours will last three and a half minutes, which is the duration of the song. But who cares, it’s the beat of the moment that counts.

Growing up in the late 60s early 70s in a city that was the former capital of India, Calcutta, we were intoxicated by Pam Crain and Braz Gonzales, who jazzed it up at a restaurant called Trinca’s on Park Street. Those were the days of the Fox Trot, Waltz and the Tag dance. Of course the Cha-Cha and Jive did get pride of place. Pond’s talcum powder was thrown on the floor to smoothen the surface so that we could twist to Chubby Checker in our nylon socks and pointed toe shoes and shorts that were so tight that they stuck in our rear.

As the years rolled on, the Doors and the Beatles opened us to a whole new world of bellbottoms and floral shirts with collars the size of medieval contraptions. It was a time of free love, teenage pregnancy and good music. The Waltz then became the choice of fuddy duddies while we moved on to rock n roll. The girls in their midis, short tops and roman sandals were like Indian rubber men on the dance floor. The contortions could have displaced a few hips but that didn’t happen for they knew how to move to the music of the times.

Then, in the midst of the party, in walked the crinkle tie-dye cotton skirts, long hair, faded jeans accompanied by the raucous sound of Janis Joplin and the wailing of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’. Peace descended in our hearts to the harmony of Simon and Garfunkle. The sound of silence was the music that stoked the fire in our hearts. We danced with complete abandon, oblivious of the morrow that cried out for sanity as our lives flowed like a river in spate.

Many of us had fumbled on the dance floor or had been shy of moving to the beat or holding the hand of a damsel eager to accompany us in a ritual that invariably bordered on erotica. Unfortunately, some of us have carried this feeling through to adulthood.

I have often wondered why women dance to the spirit of the beat and are mesmerized by the vocals of songsters Barry White and Joe Cocker. Could it be that they have tuned into the subtle nuances that lie hidden in the subterranean blues and these unravel their heartstrings?

Not too long ago I met Elizabeth, one of the good women of Ubud, who wanted to learn the salsa. A teacher would arrive at her hotel to guide her through the motions. As time passed, she transformed herself into a creature of delight, swaying to the tempo of a live band. She dressed in black and danced the night away. The tempo ignited her emotions and quelled the feeling of loneliness she carried within her.

I sensed that the sound of feet tapping to the music could have been a balm that soothed her heart. But one will never know for she had tuned into a higher frequency of passion, just like Bina, who I had left behind in Calcutta.

The first time I met Bina was when I bumped into her on the dance floor while straining every sinew to Rod Stewart’s grating Tonight I’m Yours. Her long black hair and lithe body clothed in a white cotton dress soon became entwined with me, as the song changed to Leo Sayer’s When I Need Love. In those days we called it the Slow Dance: a perfect opportunity to agitate the pheromones. From that night on we were regulars at jam sessions, where a live band played pop songs and tea and cucumber sandwiches were served.

Over a period of six years we graduated from these evenings to nights at the disco dressed like members of the band – ABBA, and onto rock concerts on Calangute beach in Goa on full-moon nights. Sadly, from the time I stopped dancing with her, for I had grown weary of music, she drifted away. One day I awoke to a goodbye letter placed under my door. I never saw her again. She passed away last year, on Valentine’s Day, after a prolonged illness.

The only regret that I have is not having danced with her one last time.

Come on Baby, Light My Fire is a haunting melody that plays through my head whenever I encounter the good women of Ubud, for they remind me of follies past. In them is reflected a joie de vivre, a time of roses and poses that keeps them forever young, a touch of Gatsby in the hills. They, like Bina, possess a lust for living and a natural, enchanting rhythm that entices onlookers like sirens in a Greek tragedy.

Ubud embraces a string of restaurants and a host of entertainment that never ceases to drive away the melancholia that sometimes grips the fine women of Ubud who have arrived from far-off lands and nested in the hills. A night out with Chika and her saxophone, moving to Michael Franti’s Yes I Will at Flava Lounge or swinging to salsa with the genteel crowd at Indus is reminiscent of evenings at Park Street’s hip restaurants and bars of the 70s: Trinca’s, Blue Fox, Mocambo’s, Moulin Rouge, the Barrel, Sky Room, with live music and good food. Here in Ubud, shades of those swinging years flash before my eyes like errant motorcyclists whizzing past, unmindful of the near-death experience they go through everyday.

From Calcutta to Ubud, the song remains the same.

You can’t start a fire

You can’t start a fire without a spark

This gun’s for hire

Even if it were jus for dancing in the dark

– Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark

To the good women of Ubud, I have one request: save the last dance for me.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Filed under: Paradox In Paradise

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