Tense Spaces

There’s this theory in ethnography called the Hawthorne Effect, the idea that a researcher’s presence influences behavior. Scientists hate this effect because it means that what they’re observing isn’t reliable—that, admittedly, their data is total crap. Quite simply: people’s behavior changes when they know they’re being watched.

It’s laughable, then, to think that somehow I’d tricked the gods, that magically I’d gained access to the “secret lives of the Balinese”. In truth it sounds more like a National Geographic story than a headline for a personal blog.

Who am I really kidding? I’m a westerner in yoga clothes and a bona fide tourist. I’m no different from the thousands of other tourists seeking healing, wellness and peace in a land that’s rumored to offer such gifts. And with the Hawthorne Effect in full operation, it’s no wonder why I’m questioning the behavior of my Balinese neighbors. Are they really that polite? Am I pronouncing this right? Is he making fun of my accent? It’s like I’m back in middle school and everyone’s praising, judging, or rejecting me (and sometimes in that order).

Still, I wonder about this whole notion of “authentic” and what that means in today’s world. We’re developing at such a rapid rate and we’re so mixed together that it would be hard to distinguish different cultures from each other.

*******

Just yesterday, I walked through a parking lot and saw two Balinese women hysterically laughing. They wore identical uniforms and looked like they had just gotten off work. I watched them as they put on their helmets and hopped onto a scooter, and for a split second we exchanged looks. They smiled at me and I smiled back, and it felt like this shared moment of intimacy. The girls scooted past me—zoom! zoom!—and launched into the heavy stream of traffic.

Daytime slipped away and my walk home blended into the smoggy haze of sunset. Shopkeepers came out in unison to offer me taxi rides, massages, pedicures, manicures, food, drinks, malas, and clothes. When they realized I wasn’t buying—“Jalan, jalan,” I repeated—they continued to sweep their sidewalks, removing remnants of the day’s canang saris. A monkey looked on in boredom.

I maneuvered around cracked roads, but nearly tripped trying to avoid an oncoming jogger. He had big biceps and a sweaty forehead, and I smelled his body odor when he ran past me.

*************

Ubud’s musk of sewers, incense and perspiration is unmistakable. Everywhere there are splashes of existence, splashes of moments that are mixed together on this canvas of life. Maybe we’re here permanently or maybe we’re here temporarily, but this space is meant to bring us closer to something raw, something profound.sundial.jpg

Yogis talk a lot about needing tension in order to create space. It’s this huge paradox (and yogic wisdom is full of those) but it’s true. Take, for example, Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana (pictured here for your convenience). You’ve really got to press your arm against your thigh and your thigh against your arm to get a deeper opening.

Trust me on this one.

Maybe a pose like Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana is no different than living here in Ubud; maybe the Balinese have to be here and the tourists have to be here in order to create tension; maybe we’ve all got to push against each other in order to make space.

For me, space represents pure freedom. This realization makes me laugh because, in the end, I sound just like an American: an independent, freedom-loving woman in search of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

*******

As for the Hawthorne Effect? It will always be there, foiling my attempts to document the “secret lives of the Balinese”. Still, at least I get to coexist with the locals, creating tension in order to experience something deeper.

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