The souvenir I didn’t get…yet

Ubud is a shopper’s paradise, and not just for souvenirs. Paintings, sculpture, clothing, furniture, and more are all available for sale, much of it locally handmade and at reasonable prices. Of course we don’t have extra room in our packs, so we haven’t really been in a shopping mood. Anything we buy either has to be small enough to carry, or small enough to send home. For the most part, we just take photographs.

The good news is that there’s so much for sale, it almost becomes an undifferentiated blur, which makes it easier to ignore. That is until the other day. I was walking down Monkey Forest Road in Ubud, and something caught my eye. It appeared to be a cow skull, like you might see decorating a ranch in New Mexico, except this one was adorned with intricate carvings. The centerpiece of the design was a portrayal of Ganesha, the Hindu god of knowledge, surrounded by decorative floral flourishes around the eye sockets and down the snout. I later discovered that the skull most likely belonged to a water buffalo (based on the distinctive horns).

Carved water buffalo skull, portraying the Hindu deity Ganesha, found in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Carved water buffalo skull in Ubud, Bali

It stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t have my camera with me, but I soon went back to take a photo. I inquired about the price: 3.5 million rupiah, or about $350. Not a king’s ransom, but not a steal either. I was more concerned about the logistics of shipping it home. I talked to a specialized cargo company to try to get an estimate, but they said they couldn’t ship bone.

I tried to ask myself (and Stephanie) what I liked so much about it. On one hand, it’s completely unusual. I’ve never seen anything like it. I appreciate how it transforms a reminder of death and decay into something uplifting and beautiful. I like how Ganesha, the Hindu god of knowledge is juxtaposed against the skull of a buffalo, which, like cattle, are sacred to Hindus (in India at least). I like how this symbol of the American West is commingled with the exotic East. It just gets me on so many levels.

Detail of a carved water buffalo, portraying the Hindu deity Ganesha, found in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
The carving portrays the Hindu god of knowledge, Ganesha

I found some more carved skulls in two other stores, ranging in price from 1.2 million to 2.5 million rupiah, but none were as delicate and sophisticated as that first one I’d seen. I tried to ask how I might ship one home, and though I came up against something of a language barrier, I got the sense that bubble wrap, a box, and the post office were the most obvious way to go. Apparently the horns can be removed for easier shipping, but still it must weigh 15-20 pounds. I can’t imagine what it would cost to send to the US.

I went back to the first store, figuring if I could talk down the price, maybe that would motivate me to foot the shipping bill, but they wouldn’t budge below 3 million rupiah. I also considered visiting the workshop of the man who carves the skulls (as it’s usually much cheaper to buy directly from the artist), but we already had plans to go to Amed, so I didn’t have time to arrange a visit.

Anyway, we’ve got a week left in Bali, so there’s a chance we could go back through Ubud and/or check out the workshop on the way to the airport. What do you think? Am I crazy? Is it worth pursuing?

Update, January 6, 2011: On Monday we drove up to Tampaksiring to try to find the artist. We’d been communicating over email, and I told him I’d be coming. Of course when the taxi driver finally found his workshop, he was asleep. Someone there directed us to his studio in town which turned out to be the same as the one I’d gotten his card from in Ubud. Many nice carvings, but few additional skulls, and none that grabbed me as much as the first one.

The most interesting thing about the taxi ride, other than the beautiful countryside on the way there, was that Tampaksiring really is a center of bone carving, and many shops had carved skulls hanging out front. However, we’d already seen countless mediocre examples of carved skulls in Ubud (intertwined dragons, celtic knots, Native Americans, flat designs, mismatched horns, etc), so I didn’t want to waste our time looking at every last carved skull in Bali. All signs were pointing to the Ganesha skull. It was still hanging outside the store in Ubud on our way to Tampaksiring, I just hoped it hadn’t been snatched up in the hour since we’d been away. Of course it hadn’t, and 3 million rupiah later, I was walking down the street to our bungalows with a buffalo skull, horns and all, in both hands.

Justin carrying his new Balinese carved water buffalo skull in Ubud, Bali
Justin carrying the skull down Monkey Forest Road

This turned out to be a transformative experience. All over Ubud there are countless men sitting on the sidewalks asking everyone who passes “Transport? You need taxi? Maybe tomorrow?” Over and over and over again. From across the street. Combined with the universal two-hands-turning-the-steering-wheel gesture. It’s enough to drive folks a little crazy. But here I was, with this giant skull in my arms, horns poking out beyond my shoulders, and suddenly every taxi driver saw me in a new light. Their eyes would widen when they realized what they were seeing. They’d yell out “Buffalo!”, point, and make various gestures of approval. At one point someone even started singing Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Solider”. Not once did they ask me if I wanted transport.

Shipping it home turned out to be a fun process. I was a little nervous after both Bislama (a cargo company) and DHL said they could not ship bone, but the person at DHL said I should just go to the post office (Pos Indonesia). So I did, and they had no problems—they just warned me that it was going to be expensive because of the dimensions and weight. It took two guys nearly an hour to build a completely custom box for it: wrapping the skull expertly with insulation, forming the box around the skull, and then encasing the entire thing with plastic tarp. Had I known it was going to be this involved, I would have brought my camera! I sent it via “seamail”, which was supposedly cheaper than airmail, but slower. Much slower. It cost nearly $200 to ship. Who knows when/if it will arrive in Austin.

Update, March 27, 2011: I got an email from my parents today that a very large package arrived. Yippee!

Custom-made seamail box for a water buffalo skull, handstitched with plastic tarp
Custom-made seamail box, handstitched with plastic tarp

It’s been almost 3 months since I shipped it home to Austin, and I had pretty much written it off as a $500 folly. But no, it arrived, safe and sound. Pos Indonesia for the win! It looks like my family had a fun time unwrapping it. Wish I was there—I’ll be in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a few more days before heading to India!

Unboxing the water buffalo skull collage
Unboxing the skull—miraculously, it was still in one piece!

Update, May 3, 2012: We brought the skull across the country to San Francisco with us, only to deposit it in our storage locker for 6 months before we moved into our new place. And then it took us 2 months to finally put it on the wall. Now it’s home. What a journey.

Balinese carved water buffalo skull
Our dreamy Balinese water buffalo skull