Saturday 14 December 2013

Waves of faces

Cuca’s opening marketing strategy was to focus ourselves on every single guest, welcome them with open arms and make them feel taken care of, spoiled by the food and our sincere smiles. We were determined not to advertise anywhere, firstly because after building the entire restaurant we were seriously broke and secondly because our thinking is: who is going to believe an ad someone has paid for? People believe friends or acquaintances who have tried a place and eagerly recommend it.

Things could have turned sour and we may have failed badly as we knew nobody in Bali so not even friends or relatives could help us out to start spreading a good word about Cuca... However our humble strategy and very hard and long hours of work slowly started to pay themselves back.

It all started by Kevin himself in full uniform fishing for customers among the tourists at the nearby beach (“Come, I will cook for you!”). Once convinced, they would walk in, sit down and be in awe with our food. I guess it is not that hard to exceed low expectations :). Most of them would return the following night and then promise us to tell their friends back at home, write something nice about us on Internet or share their unexpected find with their fellow hotel guests.

It was shocking to start getting guests recommended by previous ones… It was working! Our strategy was working! Then the power of Internet multiplied exponentially the chain of recommendations and the word of mouth started to cross borders. Believe me, it is still truly magical to witness day by day and first hand this phenomenon.

While tourists came and left, we started to recognize faces that kept on coming, every time with different company to show new groups of friends their recent discovery. We know each other by name and they are now our regulars.

At the end of October the tourist season significantly slowed down and locals took over. Guests from Jakarta or Bali timidly walked in knowing exactly what to order. It seems they always watch out for reviews about new places and wait for the tourist wave to leave before trying them themselves.

We are now preparing ourselves for a new tourist peak season: our first Christmas. We don’t know exactly what is ahead of us but we are ready to embrace this new chapter with our eyes wide open, a well-laid table and a Cuca smile that will make you feel at home away from home.

Friday 20 September 2013

PART 2: religion reaches Cuca

The altar in our kitchen
Religion has also invaded Cuca’s life. As soon as the first employee walks in, the “canangs” are prepared and placed around the restaurant: on our cars, on the main entrance, staff area, in the office, on the reception counter, etc. Special attention is put on the main “pecati” in our kitchen, carefully decorated and daily taken care of. The ceremony of blessing all the key locations takes place at least twice a day and the Balinese masterfully organize themselves to take turns to carry out these intriguing tasks. 

Our priest 
For you to understand the degree of importance of the spirituality in Bali, let me tell you about our “Mlaspas”. Our initial plan was to open Cuca’s doors for the first time on July 20. However, a brief consultation with the priest revealed that we could only request permission from the Gods to open Cuca on July 22, a full moon day. Our staff explained to us that it was unquestionable to open Cuca without divine permission, so it was decided by the higher power to postpone our opening until July 23 and celebrate our Mlaspas on 22. 

The “Melaspas” is a traditional Balinese ceremony meant to cleanse and purify a new building after it has been completed and prior to its occupation. This ceremony is held by priests, relatives, neighbors, friends, etc.  for the people who will occupy the building to feel at ease and avoid undesirable tribulations (pain, frustration, conflict). During the day-long intricate ritual, we asked the spirits of our coconut grove to consent us to carry out our business in their land. We fed them with countless offerings so they leave us work in harmony and Kevin and I witnessed the endless series of rituals participating as we were told. 

Feeding the spirits with offerings
Cuca staff ready for the ceremony
Cuca's ladies discussing the ritual
Blessing Cuca
Blessing Cuca
The main ceremony
Taking the blessed water
On the way to the beach
The end of the ceremony: in the sea
A few weeks later, on August 10 we celebrated Saraswati Day. This is a very special celebration in which the Balinese give thanks for the gift of knowledge, for the ability to understand human nature, to write and to read. We got up that day leaving our bedroom to find incense burning on all our bookshelves at home. Cuca’s office was equally scented and we were recommended not to write by hand and seriously forbidden to erase anything written.  Schools are closed on that day and students pray for the success in their studies. 

On the morning of August 24 Cuca was a very busy restaurant. Our Balinese staff was waving dozens of beautiful offerings made of coconut leaves. We soon found out that we were celebrating "Tumpek Landep", or the Day of the Iron. Originally this day was about giving thanks for the swords but it has evolved to all things man-made from metal: computers, kitchen equipment, cars… That afternoon when we briefly left Cuca for a meeting we were amazed by the wonderful decoration on our cars and smiled every time we came across to other cars in the road similarly decorated. How nice look the streets of Bali with so many mobile decorations!

The front of our car

It is not easy to find out why you are supposed to do or not do certain things on certain days. Balinese take these beliefs in such a natural way that when you ask them why this or that they just look at you surprised at your question. Trust me, no matter how much you ask, you don’t get a straight answer, they simply tell you “don’t worry, just make sure you don’t erase anything today”, what leaves you with no option but to follow…  Life in Bali is a constant enigma. 

Tuesday 27 August 2013

PART 1: Bali, all about religion

Religion in Bali is present everywhere and every day. It is literally a way of life where ceremonies mark every single step a Balinese takes and every event he or she experiences.

Hinduism came to Indonesia from India in the 5th century, was first replaced by Buddhism and later in the 14th century by Islam. However, Bali was the only part of Indonesia to remain Hindu and despite the foreign influence generated by tourism still until now Balinese people worship an elaborate array of deities: of fertility, fire, water, earth, sun, the mountains and the sea, gods and devils…

Several types of Canang
No matter where you are in Bali, you only need to look around to see signs of religion in every corner: the “canang” or traditional baskets reign over the island filled with the most unusual gifts to the Gods such as a candy, a tangerine, some frangipani flowers, a banana or a salak fruit, some leaves, even a cigarette! Balinese start each day by buying these items in their traditional markets, they then arrange them nicely in coconut-leaf baskets and finally they pray while placing them in strategic locations around houses or workplaces. These offerings are meant to thank the good spirits and appease the evil ones, keeping the balance between good and bad in the island.

Teeth filing ceremony
Apart from these daily rituals, ceremonies are a major aspect of the Balinese lifestyle and culture. From birth to death the Balinese celebrate a variety of milestones or rites of passage that they believe will guide the soul through the numerous stages of life. Some of these celebrations can be really shocking from a Western perspective, as it is the tooth-filing ceremony. This very significant ritual marks the step from puberty to adulthood for both males and females and it consists of filing down the canine teeth (the pointy ones) until they are even with the other teeth around them as they are considered animal-like and getting them shortened symbolizes the smoothing out of the animal aspects in a human's personality. If for whatever reason a person has not undergone this ceremony by the time he/she dies, then it will have to take place prior to his/her cremation, as the Balinese believe that the gods may mistake a human for a savage animal if his/her teeth are not filed.

Until recently, Kevin and I were exposed to religion in Bali just by watching the locals in their immaculate ceremonial clothes buying or preparing the offerings, walking to the temples, praying to holy trees... Or as we waited anxiously in traffic for a cremation procession to enter or leave a temple. Or when we witnessed from time to time the taking over of a beach by a group of worshippers to release their offerings into the ocean. But, as I promise to reveal in my next post, religion is now also part of Cuca and of our daily tasks and accomplishments. 

It’s time to go, Cuca’s dining room is filling up and dinner service begins!