A Strange Diagnosis

Ketut’s father is sick. The Balian, a traditional Balinese healer, is consulted. “How is Bapak?” I ask him the next day.

“Same-same,” is his reply. But there’s more to the tale and once again I listen in amazement to the complex interrelation of medicine, magic, and mystery that surrounds the lives of the Balinese. This is the story as told to me by Ketut.

One of his father’s ancestors a long time ago was a Balian and he had a book that had been passed down in the family for seven generations. The book (lontar) contained the collected wisdom of the healing arts, required rituals, recipes for medicinal cures, instructions for auspicious marriages, and all that the community needed to know to thrive. But it also contained the opposite, an operations manual for black magic.

When that Balian died, no one replaced him. The book that had been cared for, consulted, honored with offerings and placed in a special position of prestige, was ignored. It was kept in a cabinet in the father’s sleeping room.

“The Balian say book angry,” Ketut tells me. “My father sick because book want house.” I pepper Ketut with questions and learn that construction on a house for the book is underway. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but the concept is elusive.

A few days later I ask Ketut how construction is coming. “Not yet finish,” he says. I get the same answer as weeks go by. I’m picturing one of the small tower-like structures that I’ve seen in temples all over Bali. That, I assume, would be a fitting house for a book. But why is it taking so long?

The day comes when the new house is finished. “Is the book already inside?” I ask.

“Oh no.” Ketut answers many of my questions this way. “Not yet good days,” he says. “Manku make ceremony when good days.”  So this is a bigger deal than I thought. I should have known. The book can’t be moved until the holy man finds an auspicious day. Then the priest will be hired to come and officiate. Mountains of flowers, fruits, cakes, and chickens will be purchased or cooked and prepared as offerings.

“I want to come to the book ceremony,” I tell him. He says of course and he’ll let me know. Weeks pass. “Book ceremony soon?” I ask.

“Not yet, maybe three month.”

“Three more months?” I’m shocked. His father hasn’t gotten better. But this is Bali and the mills of the gods grind slowly.

As mid-April approaches I’m told that the day has been decided. It will be on Purnama Kedasa, the full moon celebration April 14th, an auspicious day indeed.

The long-awaited morning dawns bright and clear. Outfitted in temple clothes, my neighbor Julie and my visiting friend from America, Jan and I are ferried up the mountain to Ketut’s village in a decrepit mini-van. As we chug and cough along Pasek, who is with us, gets a text from Ketut. The priest hasn’t yet arrived. Pasek invites us to his house to wait.

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We’re greeted by Nyoman, Pasek’s wife

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Nyoman cooked this amazing spread for usIt’s always the same with Ketut’s and Pasek’s families. We are plied with food and drink. When asked if they will be eating too it’s either, “Already,” or “Later.”

Not many foreigners come to this remote, mountain village so we are studied with wide-eyed wonder by the small children. The adult women wrap us in warm hugs. The adult men smile and shake hands or hang back. Teens whisper and giggle.

Waiting outside the temple for Pasek's father to bless us

After the feast we wander to the temple where a rug is spread outside. We squat or crouch in our tight sarongs awaiting the blessing.

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re still with Pasek’s family.  Ketut comes to find us. The priest has not yet arrived but Ketut is ready to take his turn with us. “Want to see book?” he asks. Of course we do! We all pile back into the rusty bucket. This time our route can barely be called a road. The jouncing and jiggling are fierce and I’m surprised my dinner behaves as well as it does. I’m worried about Jan. Her stomach was a little unsettled earlier. But she says she’s fine. It’s a miracle.

Ketut and Pasek's cousing with rice basket cookers on their headsFrom Pasek’s house we move to the home of another relative. A tour of the premises brings us to the outdoor kitchen where Ketut and our driver model the woven cones that are used to steam rice over boiling water.

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Stealing honey

Moving from one mischief to the next, these two decide to pry open the bee house and check for honey. The bees they’re disturbing look like overgrown fruit flies. We’re told they don’t bite, but they swarm around Ketut’s head as he violates their stash.

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He extracts some of the honeycomb and a little nectar for us to taste. The comb is dark brown and the honey has a tart vinegar-y flavor. It isn’t an instant hit.

Ketut’s father with the ancient books (lontar)

Ketut’s father appears and greets us. He is much better. He leads us to a room with a cabinet and takes a seat on a raised platform. This is the room where the lontar is stored. A footed offering plate holds several of the volumes. With utmost care he opens one of them and shows us the script that was cut into the palm leaves hundreds of years ago. Very few people can read the old Balinese writing. The modern alphabet is completely different.

P1060083We lean in close and Bapak says it’s okay to take photos. The inscription is faint but legible. There are dozens of the bound packets of hardened palm leaves. Ketut tells us that the leaf is dried, then soaked in hot water, then dried again and it becomes hard. The writing is done by carving each letter with a knife.

But there are new developments. The book no longer wants to be in the new house. The ancestral weapons, the kris, must go there first. Later if the book wants to be with the kris, it will tell the priest. But for now, the book stays where ‘she’ is and the swords will take up residence in the new house. How was this communicated? “The Mangku he know,” Ketut tells me later.

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This is the new book house. Ketut stands in the doorway and Komang, his wife and a niece look on. I’m shocked to see a real house with two rooms. All this for a book and a couple of swords?

Ketut’s family gathers round while we wait for the priest. More food is brought along with thick, sweet, Bali coffee.

Ketut has heard from the priest. Many blessings are scheduled for the full moon and he’s much in demand. It may be hours before he arrives, “Or maybe tomorrow,” Ketut says.

The sun set a while ago. We still have an hour-and-a-half ride down the mountain before sleep. With the timing of the ceremony uncertain, and the adventures of the day already enough to fill us to capacity, we opt to take our leave. As we bump along the ridge, the lights of the villages lining the shores of Lake Batur shimmer through a gauzy mist of cloud far below.

The island of Bali is another world. But the places we’ve been today could be another galaxy so far removed are they from what we might consider normal. And yet it works here. It fits. And I doubt that I will ever outgrow the amazement and wonder at the vast differences that feel so familiar.

 

 

 

 

 

A House Made By Hand

I don’t need a time machine to step one-hundred years into the past. All I need is a Tukang, a small patch of earth, a wee bit of cash, and a dream.

I dreamed of a house in Bali. I found my small patch of earth, my little piece of paradise in the heart of Ubud, and sketched plans. Since a house already exists on the property, I decided to renovate the main level and add an upstairs apartment. Two contractors (Tukang) were referred to me. With much head-scratching, arm-waving, and measuring, we seemed to be on the same page. They said they would get back to me with a price. I held my breath for a couple of weeks waiting, hoping that my nest-egg would suffice.

The prices came back reasonably close, but by then it was no contest. One of the men, Pasek, had come back many times to look again, measure again, talk me through my ideas again, and again, and again. He took the time to tell me that there were different grades of cement, different sizes of the reinforcing rebar, and various types of wood, some strong and insect resistant, some just cheap. By the time his price came back I understood what I was getting for my money.

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There’s a building frenzy in Ubud. New structures spring up overnight. I’ve seen the process in various stages when I’m walking or as I whiz by on a motorbike. But I’ve chosen to live in my house while the work goes on around me, and that’s a very different experience.

P1060030I’ve watched the foundation holes dug by a muscle man with a shovel, and the forms for the concrete pillars custom built on site. The square, wooden box that is used for mixing the concrete also took shape before my eyes.

The only access to the property is a gang just wide enough for a motorbike. The distance from the traffic and chaos of Monkey Forest Road makes it a hidden haven of peace. Well, it was until now.

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No cement truck or mixer can squeeze it’s wide body into the block long, high walled path. But we’ve come to a point in the project that calls for concrete. Trucks dump bags of cement mix in the street and the women carry them all the way back to the site on their heads.

Mixing is a three-person process. Two men stir the gloppy mess in the box while Iluh, a beautiful Balinese woman, loads the wheelbarrow from the stone pile and dumps it into the stew.

Throughout the day the crew talk and laugh as they work. About noon everything stops. It’s time for lunch and the second cup of thick, Bali Kopi. Then they do what people everywhere should do. They catch forty winks. Bodies stretch out, supine on banana leaf beds while the cicadas’ high-pitched buzzing floats on waves of heat.

the happy one!beautiful

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I told Pasek I would live in the house during the work, he looked at me like I’d grown two heads.  “Nooo,” he said. I probably frowned.

“Not possible?” I asked.

He thought a minute. “Possible,” he said. I already have a reputation for being a bit different. I like to think that’s a good thing.

So here I am in the thick of it. The pounding, the sawing, but most of all the happy chatter, keeps me company all day long. This house built by hand feels like love. Laughter is woven into it’s framework, and the creative ingenuity of these men and women blows my Western mind. It’s unlike anything else. It’s prayer perhaps, or poetry, and all I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

 

News Flash…There Will Be Silence!

Nyepi SilenceSilence is serious business in Bali. New Year’s Day falls on March 31 this year and it’s a big deal. If you’re a traveler vacationing here, you are confined to your hotel. Cable broadcasting in Indonesia is turned off. The use of electricity is discouraged. There are no vehicles allowed on the roads with the exception of emergency transport. If you venture out you run the risk of being fined by the vigilant Pecalang, local men who police the streets for offenders. And the airport is closed.

I’ve only experienced this kind of silence once before. It followed a day that will remain indelibly imprinted on my memory for the rest of my life. September 11, 2001. Air traffic over America ceased. People cowered in their homes, wondering where and when the next terror would strike.

Today, with the brilliant blue skies over Bali undisturbed by the thunder of jet engines, I remember. Nyepi is a blessing. It recreates the quiet after that devastating storm. I sit in silence and pray for the inconceivable. Peace. A planet at peace.

Nyepi, Ogoh-Ogoh and the Drone

From the magical and mythical to the horrific, New Year’s Eve in Bali is a monster mash. For weeks, men of all ages have worked feverishly in community buildings, parks, and garages. First a framework appears. It morphs into a three dimensional entity that grows limbs and a head and very possibly, pendulous breasts. With artistic flair, the specter is painted, dressed, and readied for it’s debut. These are the monsters, the ogoh-ogoh, that are paraded through the streets on the night before Nyepi, to the wild accompaniment of gamelan and tumultuous cheers.

It’s a night like none other in the world, wild, ghoulish, cacophonous, and I love it! I wondered about that as I sat at a table in Sjaki-Tari-Us around 4:30. I’d gone early to secure a ringside seat with a great view of the football field, the venue that hosts the monsters’ ball.

I had promised my friends that I’d do my best to save seats for them since it’s their first Nyepi. I hadn’t been there five minutes when an aggressive gent in a blue plaid shirt laid claim to one of the empty chairs. “My friend is coming,” I said, smiling in a you’ll-get-your-hands-off-that-chair-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you kind of way. The chair stayed, the man went away.

P1050963I slipped into a day-dreamy haze as the loudspeaker pumped reggae music through the soft hum of voices. The bright colors, the warmth, the familiarity of this town that has become my home, settled around me with a sweetness that brought a lump to my throat.

As I wallowed in the gratitude of those feelings, a different sound needled into my consciousness.

What was it, electrical wires buzzing? It had that high-pitched whine that pierces through everything else and puts your teeth on edge. It sounded foreign, it didn’t belong. Then I saw it hovering over the football field like an alien spaceship, lights flashing, propellers whirring. My friends had arrived. “What in the…what’s that?” I had spotted it first.

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They craned their necks to see what I was looking at. “It’s a drone!” Nancy said. We watched it hover, then dart to another part of the field, hover, then dart again. “It’s taking pictures.”

For a nanosecond I felt dizzy. The harsh invasion of space technology colliding with the ancient practice of Nyepi sent shock waves through my system.  An image of Balinese women, carrying buckets of sand, or concrete blocks on their heads, came to mind. Even though that stretches my definition of reality, it’s easier to accept here than a buzzing, flashing, hovering UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

I pulled my eyes away from the intruder and back to the teaming crowds. Then it hit me. That’s why I love it here. Bali is a study in contrasts. It has tranquil rice fields and chaotic traffic, reverent prayer and raucous cockfights, Kuta Beach and Kintamani. But tonight, on the eve of Nyepi, it has ogoh-ogoh’s and a drone.

Best Margaritas in Bali

I don’t have many rules about food here, but there’s one that I swear by. In Indonesia, eat Indonesian food. The same goes for France, Italy, Greece, Scandinavia, and so forth. First of all, why wouldn’t you? It’s part of the experience. Second, it’s the best way I know to avoid disappointment. When, for instance, you’re in Bali and the menu says, Chicken Gordon Bloo, here’s my advice. If it isn’t spelled right, how can you even remotely expect that it will taste right?

P1050951But tonight I broke my own rule. I met Sharon, who has been visiting in Bali for two months and admitted that she is getting a little tired of Asian food, at Taco Casa. As the name implies, Mexican food is served there. They have not a single Indonesian dish, well, I take that back. I saw black rice pudding on the dessert menu. That’s undeniably Indonesian. But dessert aside, the fare is Mexican, the kind of Mexican that we in America know and love, sour cream, black olives, and fat, juicy, jalepenos!

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P1050948Not only does Taco Casa advertise great Mexican food, but Nina next door, my oracle on all things Bali, assured me that they have the best margaritas on the island. Sharon liked the sounds of that. “Let’s go!”

Four in the afternoon is a little early for dinner, but it’s perfect for a drink. Oh my! Nina was right! There’s nothing like a cool beverage in a salt rimmed glass on a hot Bali afternoon to make you feel so, so happy.

P1050954But our appetites kicked in as we watched plate after delicious plate of real-looking Mexican food float past and get delivered elsewhere. Nachos Supreme, we decided, was the combination of crunchy and spice that we were looking for.

I didn’t realize until I put the first bite in my mouth, how much I like the flavors of Mexico! Eating rice and veggies in some form or another every day, day after day, is fine. I’m okay with that. But mama mia! Did those nachos taste almighty wonderful!

Next time you’re in Ubud and you have a hankering for Mexican, or a margarita, stop at Taco Casa. It’s across from Mama Mia’s Pizza, another great alternative to Indonesian. Rules are made to be broken!

 

You a little fat

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It’s 6 p.m.

Wayan Sie, the only masseuse in the world that I allow anywhere near me, arrives and I strip, stretching out on my stomach on the bed. The aroma of nutmeg scented oil swirls in the room. She strokes my back with long, sweeping movements, ahhh. Muscles let go. I melt. “That feels so good, Wayan,” I croon happily.

“Ya, Sherry,” she replies. She’s quiet for a moment then says, “You a little fat, ya?”

Wayans hands have been all over my body. Many times. If anyone could detect a few extra pounds, she could. Damn Balinese honesty! “Am I?” I ask.

“Ya, it’s good,” she says.

I meditate on that for the remaining 70 minutes that she kneads, pokes, pummels, and prods me. First I think about the comment another friend made just a month ago. “You’re scrawny,” she said. Okay, who do I believe? No contest. Wayan knows. Then I think about my body. It’s become muscular with all the yoga and walking. It’s that new muscle, I tell myself, as if Wayan doesn’t know the difference between fat and muscle. Right. I wonder why I haven’t noticed. My clothes aren’t any tighter. Of course the loose fitting garb I wear here wouldn’t be tight if I gained 200 pounds.

Wayan finishes. I thank her and she leaves to cook dinner for her husband and son.

Fat. I don’t relate to fat. I’m not fat. I’ve never been fat, well, aside from pudginess prior to puberty, but that doesn’t count. Why am I obsessing about this?

In the U.S. we wouldn’t dream of telling someone what we think when it concerns negative body image. Bali is a different story. In this culture you say it like it is, whether you’ve gained weight, grown a zit the size of a grapefruit, gotten a bad haircut…the Balinese notice and comment. It can be a bit off-putting at first, as is their propensity to want to know your business.

“Where you go?”

“What you buy?”

“How much you pay?

Then I remember. The last massage Wayan gave me was on the heels of a ten day siege of Bali Belly. I had done nothing but puke and poop. There wasn’t much left of me. By comparison I am now, indeed, ‘a little fat’. Okay. I can live with that.

Black Magic

People in the West don’t pay much attention to the dark forces. Paranoia around all things paranormal runs rampant unless of course it’s vampires, or child wizards wreaking havoc with broomsticks. Those have become acceptable, even desirable in recent literature and film. In fact tales of bloodsucking teens has become a money-making machine. We can’t get enough.

In Bali the dark forces are acknowledged and maintaining balance between the negative and positive energies is a daily practice. Credence is given to blessings but perhaps even more attention is afforded the dark arts. Someone’s father is sick. A skin rash appears. A house burns down. Crops fail. Black magic, they whisper. It’s as though no other possibility exists.

When illness or tragedy strikes, a balian is consulted. There are two types of balian according to Ubud Now and Then.

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud Photo credits Namaste Festival

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud
Photo credits Namaste Festival

The first, known as the ‘balian taksu’, is a kind of shaman or trance medium: he goes into a trance to communicate with the spirit world, and frequently chases away unwanted influences in this way. The second, the ‘balian usada’, refers to sacred medical manuscripts, and uses massage techniques and traditional medicines made from plants and animals. He also works with a spiritual approach, drawing on intuition, visions, mantras and prayer to aid the healing process.

The article goes on to say that a visit to a balian requires sensitivity and openness to the Balinese beliefs about the spirit world and the power of the invisible. It may require a dramatic leap of faith to accept a prescribed remedy which can be unorthodox. Yet many visitors to Bali have found themselves cured by a local medicine man when no Western doctor was able to help.

Some of us can be quite comfortable with intuitive types. Their subtle seeing of things unseen, or knowing without being told, is acceptable and we seek them out for guidance. But Bali takes it a step beyond.

Sanghyang is the Balinese sacred trance. It’s a phenomenon that raised the hairs on the back of my neck when I first witnessed it. Spirit possession wasn’t an everyday occurrence in my upbringing and I was unprepared for the raw power unleashed during a Sanghyang ritual.

But for the Balinese, trance is an essential element of their belief system. Skye Laphroaig, in an article for the Bali Advertiser, says that Sanghyang is a sacred state in which hyangs (deities) or helpful spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of willing participants. The purpose of sanghyang is to cleanse people and places of evil influences to restore spiritual balance.

An example of a Sanghyang is the spectacular fire dance. A man in trance holding a hobby horse walks back and forth through burning coconut husks in his bare feet. Again and again he circles through the fire until he is pulled to the ground by two attendants.  A priest appears and sprinkles him with holy water. The man remains immobile in an altered state for some time.

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

These productions may appear to be for tourists, but I have attended elaborate performances where I was the only non-native person there. The Balinese do this for the Balinese. They do it to maintain harmony on their beautiful island. The spiritual realm is as real and present for them as the natural and they travel fluidly between the two. They accept without question the presence of the unseen, the dark forces and the light. Their offerings, prayers, and rituals are designed to appease both.

The Balinese year ends with the granddaddy of all spirit-balancing rituals, Nyepi. This year Nyepi falls on March 31. Nyepi Eve is a ghoulish extravaganza of ogoh-ogoh monsters paraded through the streets accompanied by pounding gamelan and overwhelming chaos. The negative deities are chased away or driven crazy by the pandemonium. Then the island shuts down. The airport is closed as are all the businesses. People do not go out of their homes. The streets are empty with the exception of the Pecalang who enforce the day of silence and impose fines on offenders.

Ogoh-ogoh

Ogoh-ogoh

In the West the healing arts have become the healing sciences. Science, we believe, can fix people, animals, vegetation, rivers, and every ailing thing. Bit by bit, a more holistic mindset is allowing natural remedies to be reintroduced, suspiciously, into the mainstream. But other than prayer chains, dialed into service for an extra measure of divine intervention, the vast resources of the metaphysical realm remain untapped.

We scoff at the mystical beliefs of the uneducated. We pass judgment on primitive practices and superstitions. We’re so wise. But what if that’s the missing piece? What if it takes science, and nature, and the realm of the unseen working together, to accomplish mighty feats? What if….

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