Saturday, April 2, 2011

Stone Cutters Of Ubud

My brain was filled with but one clear emphatic thought, "Don't do this."  Emblazoned from the very beginning, to the very end of the horizons of my mental landscape was one firm belief.  It was written large and printed in a bold font.  There was no nook or cranny for any other idea to grasp a tenuous nibbling hold.  I could examine the foundation upon which it was firmly embedded.  It was straight up rock solid common sense.  It would be both foolish, and dangerous to attempt such a thing.  I had calculated and examined all the possible outcomes, none of them would lead to anything other than failure.   It was unequivocally a doomed plan, with absolutely zero chance of a positive outcome.

Padyatra spent perhaps 10 seconds or less peering over the precipice and simply said, "Oh, come on," and hopped over the stone wall.  In a moment he was skidding down the nearly vertical muddy trail.  One with no steps, no stone ledges to pause, just slippery mud with a meager selection of hardy vines or branches to latch on to for safety, if you were lucky.  For a while I could hear him sliding, bounding, and letting out the occasional 'whoop' as he slithered out of sight.  I really had no idea how he could physically do it.  In one hand he was carrying a $3,000 dollar camera and in the other a large tripod.

I looked down at the sandals on my feet.  I was quite certain that it wouldn't take long for them to mangle my feet to shreds, long before I hit the bottom.  I had equipment as well, but not nearly so expensive and burdensome.  Than suddenly, like a traffic light, that just blinks from red to green, I found myself clambering over the wall and beginning my own foolish descent.

Cursing silently, and perhaps more often, with a great deal of vocal vigor, almost every slippery yard.  It was treacherous going down and around, each and every tangled sliding step and turn.  Why I committed to such foolishness I am not quite sure.   In an instant I seemed to suddenly have no options, other than to go.  I had said goodbye to logic, leaving it parked tidily and alone on the ledge above me, where I had been so certain and so content just moments earlier.

It was bad from the very first moment of my descent and than quickly escalated to very bad.  If I hadn't been such a wimp I would have taken pictures on the way down to prove this point.  You will have to take me at my word, and if you ever run into Padyatra do not believe anything he has to say about it.

He had somehow enticed or convinced me to do this crazy thing by saying, that the sound, screaming out of the deep gorge below us was probably coming from an archeological excavation team.  Certainly you could just see some men, working under a cliff on the far side of the river.  I found this observation to be just completely impossible to believe.  To my ear it sounded just too much like the nasty screech, my own 2 stroke gardening machines make, when they attack the urban landscape in Queens.  What it sounded like to me was the interminable and relentless racket of men cutting stone.

Too add to the logic, or lack of it, this is not what we had set out to do when we had left Sanur earlier in the day.  What we had planned originally to do was to take scenic pictures of terraced rice paddies, from a pleasant coffee shop, on the outskirts of Ubud.  From the edge of the cliff there was clearly no fields, no farmers, no systematic farming of any kind.  It was a steep and nasty drop down to stony plane and than a frothing river, which by the way, introduced the next logical thought.  At this moment I was loosing nearly all my faith in my capacity to reason.   Regardless, I was now confronted now with obviously the next and perhaps most intractable dilemma,  "How will we get across?"

Padyatra had somehow arrived swiftly at the bottom of the cliff and was picking his way out across the rocks.  On the other side of the river, a man from the far shore was walking out to the water's edge to greet him.  My sandals, not very effective at climbing down the cliff, were even less so, on the jagged trek across the sharp rocky field that led up to the river.

By this time Padyatra was many yards ahead of me and I could see that the workman was readjusting a couple of bamboo poles that stretched out across the rushing water.  My recent urgent question, "how will we get across," was now being regrettably answered.  Quite naturally, I returned to my original preeminent thought, "I don't want to do this."

Somehow Padyatra crabbed stepped across and then turned his attention back to me and repeated an earlier phrase that had originally worked so well, "oh, come on."  Now however, I seriously considered the option of parking my backside down, and just abruptly stopping the foolishness once and for all.  The steep descent of the cliff had turned, what I had thought were quite firm quadriceps muscles, into something that felt more like wobbly tapioca pudding. 

A further examination of all my options came down to 2 unsatisfactory possibilities.  One, I could stay dry and quivering on my side of the river and learn to accept the label of, "You are a big chicken."  Or two, go trembling out there on the spindly bamboo poles,  fall off into the rapids.  With this outcome, of course, I would not be considered a coward, but just an idiot instead.

Needless to say I selected the second, of the 2 poor choices.  I began to pray for my survival almost immediately out loud.  I vigorously attempted to invoke the Supreme, with such intensity, he would have had to been a very deaf God indeed not to hear my boisterous cries for protection.

As you can see from the above picture, there comes a moment when, as you inch past the big rock near the shore, that you are precariously suspended over deep swift water.  Any firmness or steadiness you may have felt that previously existed in the bamboo is now completely eliminated.  With my thighs already trembling from the recent descent I could feel myself, almost as though I was being loaded into a springy catapult.  Looking down into the rolling water I was almost certain I was about to be immanently launched into the air and then plunge head first into the abyss.  Somehow this didn't happen,  and the workman from the site nearby, graciously helped me over the final few steps.

Once ashore I gathered up what remained of my tattered courage and manhood and picked my way over the rocks to the camp a short way off.
The great piles of broken rock made it clear that it was some kind of stone quarry.  No hieroglyphs, no bones, or any pottery shards.  It was simply a team of men cutting stone.  Mustering up my reporter skills, and not trying to interrupt a crew obviously busily at work, I asked who ran the place.  Yaman introduced himself as the boss of the site and told me that he had been working here for something like 20 years.

An average day he told us lasts from 7 in the morning until 5 o'clock, 9 hours.  The crew was made up of various family members of his.  He told us that they cut, on average, 150 heavy stone blocks a day.  They are used in all kinds of local construction. It is a noisy and dangerous job but he and his crew were eager to share with us how it was done.  There seemed to be no measuring whatsoever.  Everything seemed to be done by instinct and routine.  

Yaman seemed very happy to talk about his work here.  He pointed to each of his workers and they were all some sort of family member.  It is a hard job, yet one he seems eager to do, even though for his efforts he makes about $23 dollars a day.  His crew made a little less than $10.  He told us he and his crew only take one day off a week.

Grudgingly, as fate would have it,  it all was turning out to be an unexpected and excellent hike.

Every afternoon the finished blocks are hauled by hand, in small numbers to the rim of the cliff high above.

The trip back across the river was even more cause for prayer and trepidation.  The climb back up to the rim was much easier than the descent.  Once safely back at the top, my legs and wits still trembling, I tell Padyatra that some day I would thank him for this adventure.  Now, finally seems like as good a time as any.

Click below to play interview with Yaman, the stone cutter.

The outer adventure
Makes us happy.
The inner adventure
Makes us perfect.

Sri Chinmoy, Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, Part 144, Agni Press, 1991.


Anuday said...

Nice story! Oh by the way 7 to 5 is 10 hours ;)

Pavaka S. said...

good work Utpal!

Niriha said...

Told in your inimitable style, this story is interesting and personal with a touch of Indiana Jones. I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Great! Thanks for sharing :)

Audrey said...

Your story is a true adventure. What nice people you encountered. Thank you for sharing. :)

Garga said...

Intrepid, my man, most intrepid! And great shots too :)