Monthly Archives: October 2012

Living with the Dead

My Days as a Deadhead, published in Farang Untamed Travel 2005

All photographs by the extraordinarily talented Joe Ryan

Jerry Garcia, singer, songwriter and founding force of the Grateful Dead was a larger- than-life character, hailed by many of his fans as a Messiah-like figure. When he died in 1995, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco for a candle-light vigil. Shortly after, the band announced their split and to many it seemed like the end of an era. But time has proved otherwise and ten years after Jerry’s death, and forty years after the band played their first gig, the spirit of the Dead is alive and kicking. The Grateful Dead formed in the 60’s and seamlessly provided the background music for Ken Kesey as he unleashed his acid tests on California. Playing their unique, psychedelic boogie music, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolise the summer of love and the phenomenon of the‘Dead Head’ was born as loyal followers went on the road for the bands legendary tours across America.


In the spring of 1993, I embarked on my own summer of love and went on tour with the Dead– albeit selling falafel to hungry Dead Heads. We arrived in Chicago for the first show and seemed to have passed through a time warp when we entered the parking lot. There were tie-dyes, buses with flowers painted on them, girls in patchwork dresses, drumming circles. It was bitterly cold but everyone was in high spirits and incredibly friendly. I swapped a falafel for a space cake and off I went. A truck opened its doors, revealing hundreds of balloons, a queue formed and people were soon reeling about with big grins on their faces as they inhaled the happy gas from the balloons. Everything seemed to go a bit crazy, my friend Martin was arrested for selling falafel and the cops were bombarded with snowballs. The disco bus raised its flag, cranked the volume and the air was filled with the funky beat of Freak out, suddenly everyone was dancing – even the cops. All around the snow gently fell.

There were thousands of us on the road with the Dead, but we weren’t just following a band, we were following a lifestyle. I had stumbled upon a sub-culture, whose roots were firmly entrenched in freedom of expression and that was something I could relate to. Although I could never fully silence the cynic in me, at times I came close. I have never experienced such kindness and dare I say it, love! Dead tour was about people coming together; it really was one great big happy family, complete with its own lingo. Everything was ‘kind’; ‘kind bud’ to get you high; ‘kind veggie pasta’ if you were hungry and it seemed that I had become a ‘kind rainbow sister’ which I wasn’t really too sure about. Kind brothers and sisters kept asking me if I could ‘kick down a kind falafel’ which I eventually figured out meant they wanted one for free. If something was good, it was‘styling’ or ‘grooving’ and no-one said hello, it was ‘hey now’ or ‘hey dude’ or ‘hey bro’. Scores of people would hang around outside the venue calling out for a miracle (a free ticket).

The scene teemed with vitality and energy. In the heat of the summer I saw a show at Shoreline, California in which Terrapin (my favourite song) was jammed out for over an hour during the most glorious sunset. The music built and built until it became almost unbearable, erupting into a frenzy just as the sun sank behind the horizon.

It soon transpired that my friends ( a motley crew of fellow backpackers) and I were working for the falafel mafia, so-called because our boss, Bill, was no Dead Head, he was in for the money and not the vibe, which was very uncool. I eased my conscience by kicking lots down (falafel that is) and later by kicking in the whole job. It had all got a bit much anyway, six of us sharing a room, Wendy screaming out “Falafel” in her sleep and Dave – who seemed to have missed the point entirely – waking us all up every morning with blaring Megadeath tunes. He was increasingly drawn to the black power movement and had started shedding all his belongings which were not black. I scored a purple sleeping bag and a red Swiss army knife. He was last seen at the end of the tour buying an axe and heading off to live in the caves of Yosemite National Park. By then I had traded in travelling in the back of a truck- with six people, bulk falafel mix and pitta bread – for a styling van and a Dead Head boyfriend named Dion. He was beautiful and funny and loving and kind, until he broke my heart when he took off with a Dead Head chic in a ‘I love Jerry T-shirt’. “Ali, I’m just grooving on Jacky’s energy”, he explained to me. “Well, groove on this baby”, I screamed as I punched him in the face. And my days as a kind rainbow sister were over.

I was travelling in the Middle East a couple of years later when I met some US Marines who told me Jerry had died. With only two tours and ten shows under my belt, I was hardly a Dead Head, but I had been touched by the magic and it seemed that things would never be the same again. However, the movement that surrounded the Grateful Dead proved to be big enough to sustain its own momentum. “While he was the guitarist extraordinaire, half the voice and arguably the leader of the band, the band was a whole lot bigger than the fat man”, claims David Dranginis, a veteran of 30 Grateful Dead shows. The sales of music and merchandise continued, Dead Heads kept doing their groovy thing and other ‘Dead’ influenced bands such as Phish and Blues Traveller partially filled the void for people looking for a similar experience. Surviving band members went on to form their own bands, keeping the music alive by including a number of Dead tunes in their sets.

In 2003, to the delight of fans, surviving members reunited, calling themselves simply,‘The Dead’. “For a while we had to let it go, but now we’re reclaiming that part that we had a right to”, says Bassist, Phil Lesh. The band embarked on successful tours in 2003 and 2004.

Dead Heads have heartily embraced the cyber world and there are thousands of websites related to the band. Many fans have their own pages; merchandise is sold on-line; music is traded and there are numerous chat rooms and forums. I logged into a chat room recently and my inquiries about the current scene saw my inbox inundated with messages. People sent photos, colourful anecdotes, general musings, and a couple of people even remembered me (there weren’t to many Australians on Dead tour).

The Dead and their various incarnations continue to show almost total disregard for the record industry, at all times remaining true to their artistic vision. While they have enjoyed limited success in the studio, it’s always been the atmosphere of the shows that provides the magic: the unstructured improvisations: the legendary light shows: the people spinning in the doorways: the chance to see all your friends. They went from crazy hippy freaks to mainstream popular culture, but did it their way; they ignored the rules and against the odds became phenomenally successful.”The band became synonymous with a way of life”, wrote Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, shortly after Jerry’s death. “Without ever intending to, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolize the summer of love, both for aging baby-boomers who lived through it and those who wished they did.”


A walk on the wildside


Bali Herbal Walks

I drive up to Ubud early in the morning, dark ominous clouds hang over the hills creating a moody backdrop. I hope the rain will hold off for the next few hours as I have signed up for a herbal walk, and trudging through rice fields in torrential rain isn’t quite what I have in mind. I meet my guide, Westi, a wise and gentle soul with an innate knowledge of all things herbal. He and his wife Lilir have been leading guests on walks through the ravines and rice fields of Ubud for twelve years. Their extensive knowledge of herbalism gained from their families, working in the field, and from years of studying with traditional healers.

The use of natural medicines, known as Usada, is a strong custom in Bali, as traditionally the only medicines that people had access to were those provided by nature. Most Balinese have some knowledge of natural cures and many families keep an apotek hidup (living drugstore), a small garden of herbs with medicinal properties in their yard. The edges of Bali’s fertile rice fields also host a plethora of herbs, fruit and trees that have therapeutic and health enhancing properties.

We head down a walled path way that edges along a steep ravine. Westi points out a magnolia tree, its leaves can be steeped in hot water and the resulting brew creates calm and balance. He adds that many Balinese women can’t afford perfume, instead enjoy the scent of fresh cut flowers such as magnolia, tied into their hair.

We wander through dense foliage, thick with trees, shrubs, and fernery that grows with untamed abandon. He tells me that unlike the heavily landscaped gardens that are popular in the island’s holiday resorts, a traditional Balinese garden is more wild and artistic. We come to a ylang ylang tree, with a solid trunk leading to a mass of leaves high above. He says the Japanese use it as ‘honeymoon oil’ which I guess makes it an aphrodisiac. Here in Bali, the flowers are considered holy and are used in offerings, but, “You have to be feeling strong to climb,” he says, “because it’s a tall tree and if you fall off, it’s all over.” Nearby, an avocado tree is sprouting with tiny green fruit; when ripe these can be used as a natural colouring and women blend the creamy flesh into a body mask which is highly moisturizing.

The path winds around the river and leads us up a gentle slope. We pass back yards where women are busy preparing morning offerings. Roosters crow, dogs bark and the air is fragrant with frangipani.

We find the dark red Indian long pepper growing on a climbing vine that clings to a stone wall. It is hard and shriveled and, as I discover when I taste a tiny sliver, very very hot. “The heat creates power,” Westi says, and is chewed by men as an aphrodisiac. I ask if women can chew it too, and he replies, “Yes, women are more equal now.” It is also one of the ingredients in boreh, a traditional body mask that relaxes the muscles and helps prevent rheumatism.

We head into a more open area, resplendent with the verdant green rice fields (sawahs) that Bali is so famous for. As with so much in Bali, the growing of rice is approached with an artist’s eye; just because something is practical, doesn’t mean that it can not also be beautiful. Palms line the path, butterflies flitter by and the sound of trickling water is ever present. We come across a couple of water snakes but they are timid and quickly slither away.  Westi points out the Balinese rice crops which are tall and stately and tells me that this is the best quality rice, as it is high in vitamins and nutrients, but only yields two crops a year. Nearby we see the Philippine variety which is more common, it is shorter, thicker and less aesthetic, but produces three crops a year and needs less attention.

I have never really given the rice paddies much thought beyond admiring them, taking numerous photos and regularly tucking into nasi goring. I learn that all farmers must be part of a rice co op a system known as Subak. There are 200 Subaks in Bali, seven of which are in Ubud. The one we are walking through is called Juwukmanis (Sweet orange organization of rice fields.) Water is set into irrigation channels to which everyone has equal access and although fields are individually owned, all members work together for the prosperity of all.

A few farmers are at work in the fields and a man in a rattan hat walks by with a stick over his shoulder laden with bushels of rice that have just been harvested.  A couple of small fires are burning which Westi tells me is sometimes necessary to rejuvenate the soil, the farmers decide what is needed. Natural insecticide is provided by a gaggle of ducks that are busy pecking away.

Small temples are scattered over the fields, and offerings are made to ensure good harvests.I notice a doll like figure dangling from a large bamboo stick and Westi tells me that this is a representation of the Rice Goddess Dewi Sri. It has been made from harvested rice husks, and is an offering of thanks to Ibu Purtiwi (earth mother.) He adds that after the rice has been planted, it is deemed  pregnant, and in the early growing stage, offerings such as sour fruit, which control nausea, are made to the rice goddess to prevent morning sickness.


Although Balinese practice Hinduism, the more ancient practice of Animism imbues much of the spiritual side of life. The earth is considered female and the sky is male – when the two meet, as in human relationships, there is power. The wet season is considered particularly powerful as the continual rain from the sky pounds the earth nurturing everything that grows with in it.  Nature’s bounty is powerful, because it has been created by the union of earth and sky. The reason that there are so many problems in Denpasar he explains, is that there is too much cement and the gods are angry because the sky and earth never meet, there is a block.

“When we eat, we absorb the character of the food,” he tells me. “Holy men eat only duck which is a symbol of wisdom, roosters are no good to eat because they like fighting.” I ask about ritualistic animal sacrifice and he tells me that, “Whatever we need, we offer the gods, blood sacrifice symbolizes fertility and may be necessary to ensure a good harvest.” But before killing an animal a ceremony is held to bless it, so that the animal will come back to a better and higher life.

We come to the temple compound of the Subak, it is late morning and the clouds have dispersed revealing the sun in all its scorching glory. We sit in the shade, enjoying the rest and the peaceful rural scene that surrounds us. A farmer brings me a fresh coconut to drink, skillfully opening it with a long curved knife.

We continue on our way, stopping to crush Citronella leaves which release a strong aroma that repels mosquitoes. We inhale the scent of Melaleuka leaves which are also used as an insect repellant, and pick stalks of lemongrass which are good for colds.Outside a temple Westi points out a tiny little plant not much bigger than my hand, it’s a banyan, one of the most sacred of all trees, it seems hard to imagine that this scrawny  little thing will one day be a magnificent sprawling mass of branches and vines.

Westi and Lilir are both keen to revive and preserve the natural heritage of herbalism, for the sake of the young generation of Balinese, and for the tourists who flock to the island. With the help of Melanie Templar from the UK, they established Utama Spice in 1997 which produces a range of high quality herbal beauty products, including lotions, oils and soaps. Westi tells me that some of their clients were interested to know more about the natural substances they used, which gave them the idea of taking guests on  guided walks. He says that there goal is sustainable tourism “You must have an income, but it should be a positive income, whereby you also look after the environment and share ancient knowledge.”

I meet Lilir back at their little shop on Sweta street in Ubud, she is tiny in stature, but big in spirit, and bubbles with enthusiasm. She tells me that her family had strong healing traditions and the brood of 11meant that there was no money for doctors, instead all ills were cured by trips to the living drugstore – the family garden.It has been a pleasure to meet this couple who are so passionate and dedicated, and I feel like I have learned more in these few hours than I have in years of living on the island. Lilir invites me to come another time and sample her special tumeric tonic and to join one of her Jamu classes, but that’s another trip, another story.

Book one day in advance.