Bali’s Well Fed Dark Spirits

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it too many times to count: The energy of Bali is different from anywhere else. If you’re tuned to her frequency, she will draw you back again and again until your power to resist is gone. The island is magic, and the people of Bali live equally in two worlds: the seen, and the unseen.

Rucina Balinger is a legend in Ubud. She came to Bali from the U.S. in 1974, and forty years later she’s still here. Marrying into the Ubud royal family, she became what she was required to become as the wife of a Cokorda. Needless to say, she’s a reliable fount of information. So when invited by email to hear her speak on Bali magic, I signed on. For two hours she talked and answered questions about the dark arts as practiced here with a slide show to emphasize her points.


I came away with one sentence burning in my brain, Black magic only works if you believe it does. I’m a guest on this island where probably close to 100% of the locals believe in magic. Therefore, on Bali it works, and chances are fairly high that, whether I believe it or not, I’ll be affected by it in some way. So it behooves me to learn as much as I can. Forewarned is forearmed, right? There’s just one small problem with that: The more I learn, and the more I see, the more I believe. So I’ll fill you in on a little of what I’ve gathered, both from Rucina and from Ketut, my ‘go to’ for all things Balinese. I preface this with a profuse apology to the people of Bali for my very small knowledge of this subject. Mohon maafkan saya untuk pengetahuan saya kecil dari subjek ini.

The Balians, who are the healers, magicians, and soothsayers, must learn both the white and black arts so they can counteract the effect of one with the other. These powerful people are chosen by spirit and declining the invitation to become a Balian is not an option. Those who refuse, die. But there are also initiates who, in the course of study, become mentally deranged and are institutionalized, some temporarily, some permanently. And others wander about their villages sometimes babbling incoherently, sometimes more lucid than I. I’ve met one of those and it’s unnerving. This is not a coveted occupation.


Any Balinese person will be quick to tell you that jealousy is a big problem here. In a family compound there may be as many as 15 to 20 people piled, quite literally, on top of one another. There’s a communal kitchen, a room for the grandparents, possibly another one for the parents, and another for everyone else. The sons live here with their wives and children and as things go, little grievances form across family ties. Pretty soon somebody is visiting the Balian to get a potion to wreak havoc with his neighbor. When the wronged party realizes he’s been zapped, it’s his turn to visit the Balian to get the remedy and perhaps a little something for the other guy. Illness may be the result of natural causes, or it may be black magic induced, but a visit to the local Balian will clarify the matter.

Both men and women can become Balians and in Rucina’s words, unmarried women are the best practitioners of black magic. Hair, or fingernail clippings make effective amulets for casting spells. For years Rucina collected her own hair every time she brushed it and buried it somewhere outside so no one could grab it and use it against her.

Food, too, can be tainted by a person wishing ill will. To be polite, you always accept food when it’s offered. But if you’re suspicious of the bringer of this gift, don’t eat it. According to Rucina, take the food to the bedroom after the person leaves and pass it under the bed three times. This will undo the magic. Then you can eat it. Ketut laughed when I told him that. “Maybe if very small magic,” he said. Perhaps the conjuring in his village isn’t so easy to unravel.

But they are in agreement when it comes to the times when people are most vulnerable. During the first three months before their feet are allowed to touch the ground, babies are extremely susceptible. At this tender age they’re considered divine and are in danger of being stolen and having their entrails eaten by Rangda, the embodiment of black magic, so she can access their power.

In the Bali pantheon of the paranormal, there are gods, goddesses, spirits, and witches. The Leyak witches take many forms, some beautiful, some terrifying some funny looking or unusual. These humans who transform themselves are evil and throw fireballs or lightning bolts and steal babies. Parents put a shallot on the soft spot of a baby’s head since that is another point of entry for black magic and the Leyaks don’t like shallots. One Leyak in the form of a particularly beautiful woman likes to climb on behind the driver of a motorbike. He thinks he’s scored a hot one until he sees that her lower torso isn’t there, and her upper parts don’t resemble anything human.


Other times of vulnerability occur during the ceremonies marking rites of passage. At tooth filings and weddings, a person is distracted and makes an easy target for the black arts. Performers of traditional dances are especially susceptible. They pray before dancing but still often fall into trance during their performance. Even the masks worn by the dancers have powerful magic. Places, too, can invite mischief. Graveyards, crossroads, bridges, the edge of the village, are littered with offerings to maintain a peaceful balance and ensure that the spirits are content.

Every fifteen days Kajeng Kliwon rolls around, Bali’s own Friday the 13th, and that requires offerings only for the dark spirits. The segehan have boiled rice in five different colors signifying the five elements. These form a five-pointed star in the bottom of the coconut leaf basket. Then the usual flowers, cigarettes, and snacks are piled atop the rice.


When I arrived in Bali it appeared to be the island of smiles. Everybody wore a happy face and I couldn’t believe that so many people could be so joyful all the time. Then Rucina burst my bubble. There are antidotes to black magic and one of them is, you guessed it, happiness! A smiling face rejects evil. Even at cremations people smile and joke. That end of life ceremony does not in any way resemble the Christian funeral where solemnity and tears mark the day.


Symbolic objects like rings, bracelets, special spirit drawings, or the kris (Balinese sword), are powerful anit-evil talismans. Ketut has a ring that’s been blessed and imbued with protective powers. “I don’t like,” he said. “Maybe enough just pray and make offering.” But, oh! The offerings! Spirits love to eat, symbolically of course, and the Balinese go to unbelievable lengths to feed them. Ancestral spirits are protectors and advice givers so they must be kept well nourished. The spirits of all the gods and goddesses, the trees and animals, cars and computers and mechanical things, and the opposing dark spirits, all need to be honored to keep the balance between good and evil.

Widi WasaThe great god Sanghyang Widhi Wasa (the All-in-One God) is honored everywhere in Bali with offerings placed in open shrines. The Balinese are monotheistic, but there are hundreds of lesser deities, manifestations of this god-of-the-enormous-penis who is said to be genderless. The closed shrines are only for rivers, known to be thoroughfares for dark energies and those, too, must have their quota of gifts.

As I write this a curtain of overwhelm descends. The inadequacy of what I’ve said here is titanic. Even with the help of Rucina and Ketut, it doesn’t cover as much of the topic as a flea on the surface of a mastodon. So I’m going back to what I said at the beginning: The energy of Bali is different from anywhere else. The Balinese believe in magic. They believe that their ceremonies, rituals, offerings, and prayers strike a balance between good and evil, and so do I.

Mastering the subtle insult

My friend, Sudi, loves American idioms, American rock, American subway sandwiches. But when it comes to insults, nothing in the English language can match the Indonesian tongue-in-cheek proverb. Of course I wouldn’t know that by listening, since I’m at the proficiency level of a first grader and the nuances of the language are lost on me. But Ketut mumbled something the other day about looking at a hill after we had been discussing a mutual acquaintance and I asked for clarification.

“What did you say about a hill?”

“I say, to look at hill from far not same to look from close.”

“Were we talking about hills?”

“It tell about people. When you first know somebody maybe you think good. Later you know him long time you think, maybe not so good. Same like look at Mt. Agung from Ubud. Beautiful. Then get very close. Just many many stone.”

“Wow! I love it! Are there more like this?”

“Ya. One say about squirrel. Very clever squirrel jumping sometimes fall down. It mean people not become…sombong…what in English?”

“Arrogant! Don’t be arrogant, like we say, pride goes before a fall! More! More!”

“Tall tree is first to fall down in storm.” He thought for a minute then said, “This also about arrogant.”

“Yes, tooting your own horn or being big-headed.”

He told me about water in an elephant’s ear and tamarinds in the same pot with salt. You had to be here.P1100567

But that made me curious and I set about finding other wisdoms of Indonesia. This is a small sampling of parables that are poetic and true:

Whatever ground you stand on, hold the sky high.
Meaning: Wherever we live, we must observe the local customs.

The will of the heart is to hug the mountain, but the arm is not long enough.
Meaning: A person who does not have enough resources to accomplish his goal.

If you give your liver, they ask for your heart.
Meaning: If someone receives a favor, they will request a bigger one in the future; taking advantage of kindness.

Head can be heated but heart must stay cool.
Meaning: A dispute can only be resolved by discussing the problem openly and rationally.

Throw a stone but hide the hand.
Meaning: Someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for his/her actions.

The tongue indeed has no bone.
Meaning: To describe, with disgust, a person who has no principles, who keeps changing what he/she says, who is a liar.

The rice has become porridge
Meaning: Describe with regret, something that has already happened and is irreversible. No use crying over spilled milk.

An empty drum gives loud sound.
Meaning: A person who talks a lot but knows little.

There are hundreds like this in the lyrically beautiful language of the islands. I think part of my delight upon hearing them is that they indicate a way of thinking that is expressed with different words but similar meanings to the ones I grew up with. And when my friends speak English, which is their third language after they first learn their native Balinese, and then Indonesian, they structure their conversation with words that mean what they say but don’t always translate their precise intention…for example…

I was walking along the path to the street and Gede was coming from the other direction. When we got close he yelled out, “You look young from very far away.” What could I say? I laughed at his innocent insult, which was absolutely intended as the highest compliment, and thanked him.

I laughed because I love words. I love them in English and in Indonesian. I love them in poetry, prose, conversation, or unintentional insult. I love them butchered, filleted, and served up half-baked.  But I especially love them when they say something old in a surprising new way.2014-02-27_00-01-56

Too Much Information

I want to sit down and write the rest of the story about the writers festival while it’s fresh, while the words and images still reverberate in my skull. I want to turn myself inside-out and splatter my heart on the page so you can feel what I felt. But I don’t know how to do that. So I’ll give you snippets, a quote here, an image there, and try to take you along for a bit of the ride.

An Australian journalist, Liam Pieper, was asked about his experience becoming a published writer. He said that he wrote his first book, The Feel Good Hit of the Year, about his life. He was thrilled when it was published but wasn’t at all prepared for the backlash of judgment against him for his less than stellar conduct toward his mother. His second book, Mistakes Were Made, was about how his life fell apart as a result of the first book. And the third book, the one he’s writing now, is about how he pulled his life together again.

That’s something I hadn’t considered. Backlash. People can be cruel in so many places now, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. They can speak out and the world will hear their opinions. What if my memoir is published and I become the target of hate-mail? How thick-skinned am I?

At that point I decided that 10:00 was not too early for a coconut gelato.


A Mind Less Ordinary, Chaired by Tory Loudon

Fortified by the sugary fix, I stuffed the questions away for later contemplation and moved on. The session entitled A Mind Less Ordinary was an information rich panel of three women with wildly different writing styles and brilliant insights. “I can’t write every day!” Porochista Khakpour, author of Illusion, and Sons and Other Flammable Objects, spouted vehemently. “How can people write every day? I READ every day!” I liked this woman! How refreshing after the directives from so many to carve out time, don’t let a single day go by, appear at the page even if you only write one word, show up!

Anuradha Roy wholly agreed, then talked about endings. “I want to reach a point where every character is transformed at the end, but still leave the reader with questions. The unsaid in a book is just as important as the said.” The titles of her books make me drool: The Folded Earth, and An Atlas of Impossible Longing. Who dreams those delicious titles? Why can’t I?

A writer and teacher of literature in Hong-Kong, Dorothy Tse’s book, Snow and Shadow, has been translated into English. She made this observation. “Fiction is the genre for telling your secrets. You’re wearing a mask. It’s a way to communicate what you would never say about yourself.” Hmmm, she’s right. Maybe I should change my blatantly self-exposing memoir into fiction. Do I really want to serve up all those secrets with my name attached?


Phillip Gwynne and Patrick Burgess, co-creators of: THE SUN, THE MOON, AND THE TRUTH

But there was no time to ponder the info-bites that were stirring up discomfort. Phillip and Patrick had taken the stage. For the next hour, my mouth agape, eyes tearing up and dribbling over, the story of what these men have done to bring the message of human rights to Myanmar, held me entranced. They were invited to make a soap opera (their words) for the Burmese people, to educate them about human trafficking, domestic abuse, land fraud, and a host of other issues that plague that country. They talked about the difficult, very difficult, process of making the dry stuff of law into a story entertaining enough that people would watch.

They insisted on a well-known female star for the lead character because there are so few women in leading roles in TV series. They also wanted to project a strong message for women’s rights. They chose the title from a quote attributed to the Buddha: Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. When they showed a clip from the series it was all over. I think the ‘now’ term is gutted. I was gutted and ashamed. Here I am, fat cat happy, enjoying life as never before while atrocities are being committed everywhere. Some people care. Do I? 

This is a sampling, a forkful of the whole pie, and I haven’t begun to do this incredible festival the justice it deserves.

The last event of the day was a book launch at Pulau Kelapa, a restaurant overlooking its jungle garden, with Bara Pattiradjawane, a TV master chef. “I am not a chef, I’m a supercook!” he tells fans. “A guy who cooks passionately on and off TV.”

Janet DeNeefe, the founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, who is a celebrated cook and author herself, introduced him. And there he was, in all his passionate glory explaining to us the varieties of chilies used in Indonesian cooking.

Coming from a bland, Scandinavian background, I carefully scrape the seeds out of chilies and pulverize them beyond any knowable substance before cooking. Shame, shame, shame! No self-respecting Indonesian would remove the most heated part of that fruit. Nor would they mince it entirely to bits. It often exists in a dish in chunks. Woe to me if I happen to get one of those in my uninitiated mouth. It can mean burning for hours followed by canker sores galore!

Bara was in fine form. Talking with fervor about his beloved home in Ambon, one of Indonesias 17,000 islands, we were treated to a brief history lesson served up with generous helpings of cooking tips and humor. Ambon made the early traders rich with that island’s natural resource: nutmeg.

But we weren’t to have just a lecture. Bara cooked! Using smoked fish from Ambon, shallots, bean sprouts, roasted grated coconut, chopped long beans, and lime juice, a communal gasp went up when he picked up a bowl of bumbu, the red-hot, blister-making chili spice that Indonesia loves.

P1100559“Just a little, please!” I found myself blurting before good sense told me to keep my mouth shut. “No! No! All of it!” the dark-eyed man beside me shouted. There was wicked mischief in Bara’s eyes as he toyed with his audience. At the end he used about one-fourth of the contents and the result was a lovely heat, perfectly balanced with the other flavors.

It was explained that no oil, or very little, is used in the recipes in Ambon. Everything is fresh and raw, except the fish, he was quick to add. He filled palm leaf bowls with a sampling for each of us along with a lump of cooked taro root.


The tang of the lime juice, the crunch of the bean sprouts, and the subtle smokiness of the fish sat lightly on my tongue, a most pleasant arrangement. As we finished sampling, a tray of glasses appeared.

P1100566The unattractive, brownish liquid with suspicious, yellow lumps afloat in it, might have been a pass if he hadn’t explained that it was a palm sugar and coconut milk drink with bits of banana and sweet potato added for texture. My curiosity overwhelmed the off-putting appearance and I had a taste. Mmm-mmm good! So next time I want to spice up a rather ho-hum beverage, I’ll throw in some boiled sweet potato, of course.

Bara’s newest cookbook is in English and will be available on Amazon in about 2 months. But I was determined to walk out of there with a signed copy of something. Scooting to the back table where I had noticed a stack of colorful books on the way in, I took a look. As I feared, all the recipes were in the lovely language of Indonesia. Who cares? And it’s about time I learned to cook with metric measures. I grabbed it, paid, and squeezed my way front and center. Signed. Done.

What a high and unexpected note on which to end four days of magic. I was challenged on many fronts, entertained, and informed. I met new people who may become friends and reconnected with old ones. I bought books and made lists of dozens more that I will read simply because I heard the authors speak. And I’ve already made a note on my calendar, October 2016 UWRF: JUST BUY THE TICKET!



Calling all writers…UWRF 2015!

Calling all writers…or readers, poets, short story tellers, journalists, memoirists, documentarians, stand-up comedians, photographers, political activists…

Despite the creeping menace of censorship that threatened to shut down the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, the show has gone on with a few parts missing. It’s gut-wrenching to know that there is still such fear around freedom.

Brave soldier, Philip!!!

Brave soldier, Philip!!!

This year I waffled. Should I volunteer again? I’ve given time and energy to this event for the past three years. I’ve met people who have become important to me, dear friends like Philip, faithful soldier, who is back from San Diego, USA, to offer his blood, sweat, and tears for the cause.


Should I buy the 4-day pass?

Being the decisive person I am, I vacillated right up to the day before the festival. By that time it was far too late to volunteer so I had the option to buy a ticket…or not. That morning I woke up to a lecture, stern self-talk from left brain to right that went something like this: “Idiot! You call yourself a writer. Here you are, living walking distance from one of the most celebrated writers’ festivals in the world, and you’re actually wondering whether or not you should attend? What are you thinking!”

I didn’t walk, I ran to the box office as soon as it opened and bought my ticket. That very evening was a kick-off book launch at Nomad, a popular restaurant at the intersection of Jalan Raya and Gautama streets. As soon as I walked in, a glass of wine was shoved in my hand and a tray of exotic canapes held under my nose, compliments of Nomad. Stormy

The book being launched was, Stormy with a Chance of Fried Rice, in which author, Pat Walsh tells the story of his twelve months in the megacity of Jakarta where he lived while editing the painful human rights report entitled, Chega! which recounts the horrors of victims of the Suharto years in Timor-Leste.

That set the tone. This morning at 8:30, Ketut dropped me at the Neka Museum where the first session of the day was a panel discussion by four Indonesian writers.

nekaKetut is always a little shocked when we arrive at a destination and there’s nobody there. I like to be early, especially when I expect a standing-room-only crowd and want to snag a seat toward the front.  neka2As it turned out, I had my choice of seating, but within twenty minutes the shuttle buses arrived and the place was jammed with humanity.

PanelWhat followed was an hour of fascination. Two of the four authors spoke in English and the other two had interpreters. What was brought home to me with poignant clarity as I strained to understand the writers who spoke in Indonesian, was the beautiful complexity of that language. I’ve studied enough to understand most of what was said. But I was unprepared for the impact of hearing the message twice: first in the panelist’s own language, eloquently, with humor and subtle cultural nuances, then in English. Being unable to understand a speaker in his own language is like seeing the sunrise through a shaded window. Now, suddenly, the shade had been thrown open and the fullness of morning shone through.

XinranThat heady experience was followed by an interview with Xinran, the feisty Chinese woman who wrote Buy Me the Sky, a book that tells how the one-child policy in China has turned the family structure of that country upside down. As luck, or fate, may have it, the headlines this morning CHINA ABANDONS ONE-CHILD POLICY AFTER 35 YEARS appeared just hours before her interview.

The next group comprised of a journalist, an attorney, and a ‘citizen’, hashed over Jokowi’s first year as the seventh President of Indonesia. In his campaign, touted as a man for the people, he went up against the military might of Prabowo and won. But not much has changed. Does that sound familiar?

All this before lunch.

One of the problems at this festival is a mixed blessing. There are simply too many choices. I heard four of the twenty-four offerings available to me in the main program today. I could have attended six if I wanted to skip lunch and by-pass another book launch. I opted to eat. And the opportunity to learn about Indonesians who were drawn into the colonial quest for pearls from Adrian Vickers, who wrote The Pearl Frontier, seduced me. The lure of a little more wine and tasty appetizers my have had some influence on my decision to by-pass another panel discussion and go for the launch.

Early again, a friend and I settled in at The Elephant, another of Ubud’s fine eateries, and I ordered an Americano mocha. That, of course, identified me immediately as a coffee dunce. “Do you want an Americano…or a mocha,” the very respectful, very young wait person asked. I revised my order and the mocha was delicious. It’s the reason I’m still awake and able to write this post.

9780824840020Adrian Vickers mesmerized his crowd. We heard about Broome, Australia, where Asians who were indentured into the pearl trade lived and many intermarried with the aboriginal people there. The fishermen of Indonesia knew where to find the pearls, but most of the first divers  were Japanese. Later, Indonesians learned how to free-dive, braving sharks and sea snakes to plunge into the depths for the treasures at the bottom of the sea. It wasn’t the divers who got rich. Like so many other tales of Indonesia, this, too, is a story of exploitation.

I can’t believe how my horizons have been broadened, my awareness heightened, my sensitivities enhanced, my consciousness raised. Being in the presence of these brilliant minds humbles me, makes me want to be a better person. It’s heartbreak and joy all in one package, and it’s only the second day.


I’ve heard Bali described many ways, tropical paradise, island of the gods, exotic, enchanted, magical, the whole package. I’ve used the same or similar words myself, and believed them. I still do. But after an almost four year love-affair, my perspective has broadened. Infatuation has matured into a riper relationship, and the dalliance has become a committed bond.

I used to be blind to the warts, like an awestruck lover. As in marriage, some of the things that wowed and inspired me when I first set foot on this island, are now an accepted part of daily life. I remember wondering back then if living in Ubud would ever feel ordinary. Would I some day stop being amazed every time I woke up to the sound of roosters and the holy man’s prayers?

If ordinary means comfortable and familiar, the answer is yes. I know how to navigate the strange machinations of Indonesian culture. I co-exist with the lack of privacy and the communal assumptions inherent in this society. I know when someone calls me mbak (older sister) it’s a compliment, and that dadong (grandmother) is probably the more fitting endearment for my age group. I’ve discovered where to get the things I need and I’ve realized that I don’t need what I can’t get. I’m learning the language and that goes a long way toward feeling a part of things.

But if ordinary equals mundane, or dull, the answer is no, not ever. Each day I’m inspired or wowed by something new. Sometimes it’s as simple as a neon blue butterfly in the garden. And other times its bigger. For example, I had never walked the Campuhan Ridge. Laziness is the only explanation, as it’s 20 minutes from my house. But when I finally did, it was one of those special moments, like looking into your old love’s eyes and remembering why.


P1100349Steps down to the bridge at the beginning of the trail

P1100301The path passes along the wall of the Pura Gunung Lebah Temple

P1100339Beautifully paved, the trail is flat and even, though at times hilly

P1100341Sweeping views on both sides kept my camera clicking

P1100343A farmer harvests the mountainside

P1100335After the long hike in full sun, the Karsa Kafe is a welcome sight

Wayans and Waterfalls

“Come and see my waterfall,” Wayan Massage said in her intense, bossy way. I call her Wayan Massage to differentiate her from the 20,000 other Wayans in Bali. First born children, whether boy or girl, are often named Wayan, and I’ll leave it at that for now because this story is about her waterfall, not her name.

I’ve been to Niagara. I’ve been to Norway. I’ve seen spectacular waterfalls. Bali’s are nice but they’re not in the same league. So I stalled a bit.

“Where is your waterfall?”
“In my village.”
“Is it man-made or natural.”
“Ya.” My spotty Indolish obviously didn’t translate.
“Okay, soon.  I will come soon.” I pictured children splashing around a pile of rocks with a stream of pumped-in water stolen from the paddy irrigation ditches dribbling over the top, a glorified fountain.

A few hours later, Wayan gave my visiting friend, Nancy, a massage. Before I knew it we were scheduled to see the waterfall the following week.

The day arrived and as we were leaving, my phone rang. “Where are you?” It was Wayan.

“Just heading out of Ubud. We’ll be there soon.” Twenty minutes later we turned off the main road down a narrow path. Ubud, so close by, is one of the hottest tourist spots in Bali. But foreigners rarely come to this village and heads cranked around to stare as we passed. Excited children on bicycles shouted, “Hello! Hello!” and we waved and shouted back, “Hello!”

Wayan, her son Arya, and her husband Komang, ushered us through the gate into the family compound. “Oh! That’s new!” I exclaimed at the structure that had materialized where nothing but garden used to be. Komang explained that it was the pavilion where all the family’s human celebrations are held, baby ceremonies, tooth filings, weddings. “It is also the place where, at the end of life, the body is prepared for cremation,” he said.

“It’s very beautiful” I scanned the remaining open spaces. “And where’s the waterfall?”

“I’ll take you later, please sit down.” Balinese hospitality has its rules. We sat on the terrace and drank from the young coconuts offered to us. Nancy had treats for them. Arya was quick to sample and grimace as the bitter taste of the goji berry raw dark chocolate brownie offended his expectations. When the magic moment came, seven of us hopped on three motorbikes and set out.

As we zoomed along my first misconception became obvious. The waterfall wasn’t located in the immediate neighborhood.

P1100253When we exited to another small pathway and came to a halt at the top of a cliff of stairs, my second erroneous perception showed itself. Whatever the waterfall was, it probably was not a playground just for children.

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We started down the steps. When they ended and the land fell away at a near vertical decline, and I realized that I was expected to navigate it to the bottom and come out alive, I decided that just maybe this might be a deep-in-the-jungle, bona-fide, honest-to-goodness real authentic waterfall.

P1010145 - Copy

Anchored by one strong Balinese man stabilizing me from the front, and another gripping my hand from behind, I skidded, slid, and plummeted to a point mid-way down where Komang stopped us. “Do you want to see the temple?” A grassy trail cut a horizontal path to the left. No one had mentioned a temple. Yes, we wanted to see. It sounded like a better idea than continuing the plunge downward. Within a few minutes the jungle opened to reveal simple buildings tucked into the mountain on the other side of the river. “How do you get there?” There wasn’t a bridge in sight.

“Through the water,” Komang said.

Of course. How silly of me. Any Balinese woman could navigate that suicide path down the mountain with an offering tower on her head, dance her way through the swirling water, sure-footed as a gazelle, and land safely on the other side, her precious cargo intact.

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We retraced our steps, resuming the downward journey. Then, with a fair distance still to go, I spied the falls through a break in the trees.


Stunned by the wild beauty of it, I soaked in the sight and sound of tons of water tumbling over jagged rocks. “We bring the ashes here,” Komang said, and I knew he was referring to the cremains of the deceased and that this spot served a spiritual purpose as well as a practical one.


Reaching bottom at last, Komang and Arya were soon playing in the cool, calm pool at the base of that pounding cascade of water, Nancy, assisted by Wayan Puji, was scaling the steep rock face to the top of the falls, and Ketut was keeping a watchful eye on us all.

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As I sat surrounded by the raw majesty of nature, I felt ashamed. It had been a while, but once again I had misjudged, and grossly underestimated what Bali wanted to show me. Humbled, I whispered an apology to the silent keepers of that sacred place and begged their pardon. But forgiveness, however generously offered, wasn’t unconditional. My penance, unavoidable, lay ahead: the climb back up!

For the love of beautiful stuff…

It’s not fair. Here I am, trapped in paradise, surrounded by the most exquisitely crafted objects of art, and I’m committed to a simple, less is more kind of life? That’s just wrong!

But I’m adamant about keeping my possessions minimal and until now I’ve done well, buying only functional items that I need. One of those, the Bali Blue Bed that Ketut’s father made for his family over 30 years ago, is a treasure. It’s also my couch. I love it…cherish it…and so do visitors!

P1100176Then, lacking storage space, I commissioned a carved teak door from a craftsman near the Tagallalang rice terraces and hired a local tukang to create a pantry for my kitchen.

P1090999A cavernous refrigerator once occupied that space. It woke me up in the night growling because it was empty. Now I have a tiny, under-the-counter frig that I keep comfortably full, and a new closet that is functional, practical, and beautiful!

But then…oh dear.

You know how it is when you fall in love? The object of your affection becomes an obsession. You try to put it out of your mind. You tell yourself all manner of stories to reduce its importance, to diminish it. But nothing works. You make excuses to see it, to hang out in its neighborhood, to just stop by. And then, in a moment of weakness…you marry him! Whoops, no! You BUY IT!

Here’s what happened…

Penestanan is a village of master beaders. The first time I saw their creations I was smitten. But I had no home and less money so I tucked the memory into the ‘save for later’ corner and went about my business. That was three years ago. The other day I passed the shop. Except I didn’t pass the shop. I stopped and went inside. The array of shapes, sizes, and colors of baskets entirely encased in glass beads dazzled me all over again. My resistance melted and dribbled out the door. The bargaining went well and I placed an order. I’d have to wait a month, she said. No problem.

Yesterday I got a call from the shop. It was ready, but, so sorry, too tall, no short baskets, if you don’t like no problem, so sorry. All this was uttered in rat-a-tat-tat Indonesian and I caught the gist but had no idea what it really meant. I told her I would come right away.

She began apologizing again the minute I walked through the door. Please slow down. My Indonesian is no good! Uttering a few more sorry’s she disappeared into the back and returned carrying a fabulous basket, by far the biggest one I’d ever seen. Over the course of the next half hour I learned that the rattan structures that form the framework for the beading come from Java and the size I’d ordered hadn’t arrived. Of course this one, more than twice as large, was also twice the price.

Negotiation is a process I enjoy. It often takes unexpected side trips, and this was no exception.

I have villa, you have friend, maybe your friend like my villa, maybe rent, stay long time, maybe I give you good price and you tell your friend…(she quotes a price.)

Oh, sorry Ibu, that’s too much. I’ll wait until the smaller baskets come.

Long time, maybe not come…

I’m not in a hurry…

Okay, okay, what you pay?

No, it’s beautiful, and the price is good, but too much for me. I don’t want to steal it!

Okay, okay, you tell friend I have villa…(she quotes a significantly lower price and I’m hooked.)

Now I own the biggest beaded basket in Bali.

P1100232And I’m done. Really, I am. There’s nothing else I need, nothing else I want, my home is complete! And every time I look at that incredible, non-functional, impractical basket, I smile.






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