Good day to buy a temple…

“What does your typical day look like?” she asks, sitting across from me shiny-eyed and expectant. And I want to tell her so she’ll have a definition of me that she can take out and look at when she’s back at home shoveling snow. But it’s impossible. There are no typical days.

For example, last night it was approaching that hour when I lower the lights, slip into my shapeless soft bedshirt, and go limp. I had gotten as far as lowering the lights when a knock came at the door.

“You beezy?” I couldn’t lie. I hadn’t been this un-beezy all day.

“No, not busy, please come in.” Pasek, all showered and slicked-back hair, asks if he can speak with me. I switch on dazzling overhead lights and lead him to the dining table. Then I notice he has the calendar with him.

The Balinese calendar is a thing of frightful significance. It governs life. From the full moon to the dark moon and everything in-between, the calendar identifies auspicious days for weddings, cremations, pouring foundations, or starting a new business. The dates of ceremonial days are listed, and when to bless the plants or the motorbikes and cars and other machines. I haven’t scratched the surface. If you flip it over to the back you can find out who you should or should not marry. There’s so much information on that calendar even the average Balinese person has to consult a higher source to get it right.

Pasek spreads it out between us. “This today,” he says pointing to the 24th of November. Then he moves his finger to the 26th. “This you go to Prances (France).” He turns his head to meet my eyes. His are serious. “Must buy temple tomorrow,” he says.

When my gaping mouth, raised eyebrows, and furrowed brow indicate that I have nothing to say, he continues. “If not make temple on 26 Nopember, no good Desember. Not until end of Januari.”

I find it ironic and sweet that a sizeable part of my life is governed by that calendar. I’m not Hindu so my personal involvement isn’t much, but the people who work for me and with me, are. For them, the temple is the security system. Without that structure to receive the daily offerings that seek blessing for the house and grounds, there is no protection. I may as well issue a personal invitation to the dark energies, “Come and party here!” Not only that, the property becomes suspect, achieves a haunted status and is considered a place to be avoided.

We’re on the road by 8:00 a.m. “You want from stone?” Pasek asks. How do I know what I want? What are the options?

“I want to look around, okay?”

“Ya, okay”

We cruise along and I watch the roadside for examples. There are many. Some are bulky, massive, scary-looking. None are appealing until my eye lights on one more delicately detailed.

“Pasek! Look! I like that one.”

“Cement? Not stone? You like cement? More cheap.”

Now I like it even better. I have no clue how much a temple will set me back. Then I have the presence of mind to ask, “Is cement okay?” I’ve already been told that the kind of temple I need cannot have a roof. The roofed variety is used beside a river. Mine should be open on top.

“Ya, okay.”

After a few more miles Pasek pulls to a stop. We’re sitting in front of the exact, massive stone structures I don’t want. But I’ve learned to hold my tongue. Then I get instructions. “You tourist. Don’t speak. I speak say temple for me. Good price.” Then he states the obvious, “These stone. You want cement, ya?”

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“Yes, please.”

But just for kicks he goes off in search of the owner and comes back with a price. I breathe again. If the cement ones are cheaper I’m in good shape.

We’re on our way until a quick swerve across oncoming traffic lands us in concrete land. I pull out my camera, put on my most inane, clueless tourist look, and follow Pasek. So far we’re alone and I already know the one I want. “This one,” I point, then fall back as a woman approaches.

Pasek is slick. He negotiates, points out defects that I can’t see, and massages the shopkeeper in the subtle, alpha male kind of way that he’s mastered.

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It will be delivered this afternoon, he tells me. It’s one-half the price of the other one and it’s pretty, not a stodgy, box-like block of stone!

Commerce completed, we slide onto the motorbike and hightail back to Ubud. Tomorrow there’ll be a small ceremony. I’ll put on my kebaya, sarong, sash, and do what I’m told. Then I’ll zip up my suitcase and catch a plane for a wedding in Paris….all in a typical day’s work!

Four days til Paris and…uh oh

It’s a daunting task to assemble the appropriate attire for a winter wedding in Paris, the height of the fashion world, when you’re living basically barefoot in a small tropical village in Indonesia. But given enough time and a little ingenuity, it’s possible.

One essential item for the trip, however, eluded me. Socks. I no longer own a pair of socks. Socks were not even a remote speck on my radar until I googled temperature in Paris today and read 4 degrees Celsius. That’s a balmy 40 degrees Farenheit. At that moment I knew I was in trouble. I’ve acclimated to hot. Eighty feels chilly to me now. I imagined my feet without socks at 40, a sickly bluish purple color. Not acceptable.

In the mountains in Kintamani I saw people wearing socks. Ketut is from Kintamani so I asked him where I can find a pair.

“At market,” he said. “Many many.”

I confess, I’m not comfortable with the Ubud market. First of all there isn’t a breeze ruffling the tight packed stalls and repugnant odors waft through like incense. The air sits hot and still and sweat pours off me in torrents. There are hundreds of cubicles selling everything from penis bottle openers to raw chicken feet and they all have hawkers offering “good price,” some more aggressive than others. But it can’t be helped. I must have covers for my poor feet.

The Ubud market spills out into the street

Outside the Ubud market

It was probably just shy of 95 degrees as I entered the first building. “Buy sarong?” the woman asked as I approached.

“I’m looking for socks,” I said in my most confident Indonesian. “Can you tell me where to find them?” The woman jumped up gesturing and waving her arms uttering a string of sentences so fast it sounded like one, long word.

I watched the direction she was indicating and I pointed, in a comradely sort of way, in that same direction nodding my head up and down, eyebrows raised as if to say, “That way? Yes? Is that what you mean?”

“Ya, ya,” she said and gave my shoulder a little twist and shove in the right direction.

I took off the way that she’d indicated until I rounded a corner and a new vendor vied for my attention. “I’m looking for socks. Can you tell me where to find them?” It worked before and this time the response was similar. Her directions brought me to the old part of the market where everything negative about the place is intensified about 200%. But another shopkeeper was offering “morning price,” so I rolled out my question a third time. This woman didn’t waste words. She grabbed my arm and hauled me up the broad concrete steps to the second level. Then pointing down a cluttered alley she sent me off. At the end of the aisle was a pillar covered with socks.

I paged through the ankle socks, the Hungry Bird socks, the Nike sweat socks, my hope dwindling. But then, right there behind all the others was a pair of black knee-highs. A brown arm reached over me and plucked them off the rack. “These you want?” she said.

“Are they my size?”

She eyed me, “Ya, good for you.” I asked the cost and she told me.

“Local price?” The price for foreigners can be significantly more than what the Balinese pay for the same goods.

“For Bali people same,” she said.

I fished out the bills, handed them to her, and stuffed the socks into my purse. A sense of well-being drifted over me. I’ve braved the market, tracked my prey, found it, killed it, and dragged it home. It’s taken months to assemble all the pieces, but the Paris look is complete and I’m so ready to BE THERE!

Part Three: Kick-Ass Granny

The morning of Day Three is like hitting the replay button. It’s comfortable and familiar with no surprises. I slept fairly well before and after some distressed wild thing shrieked in agony for about an hour in the night but I don’t mention it. Nobody else will have heard it, and if they did, they won’t say so.

I’m invited to a wedding reception today. Gede, the sweet, sensitive jokester who works in the house next to mine, is thrilled. His girlfriend of several years is finally pregnant. Children are important, if not essential to the culture here and often a wedding is forthcoming only when the woman’s fertility is a proven fact.

I’ve been told the reception will be in the morning, but a message from Gede to Ketut let’s him know not to bring me before 1 p.m. The couple is still having their makeup and costumes done. I find a straw broom and sweep the baked earthen yard halfheartedly, kicking up clouds of dust. I recharge my camera and delete several dozen photos to make room for a few wedding shots. I walk to the side of the cliff and gaze at Mt. Abang in the distance. Then, when I’ve exhausted all my options, I twiddle my thumbs.

“Maybe relax, you go in room, relax.”

“Okay? I won’t disturb anybody?”

“No. It’s okay.”

I stretch out and allow my body to melt into the bed. When I wake up and look at the clock, two hours have passed and it’s time to go. Today the temple clothes aren’t a requirement and I’m grateful to be able to grip the bike between my thighs for the plunging drops and zig-zaggy turns. My sparkly sandals are the only dressed-up thing about me, but I’ve learned that as the token foreigner I’m going to look unusual no matter what I wear.

Upon arrival we’re told that Gede and Ary are still inside. We’re offered Coke, Sprite, and sweets. Ketut sits with the men. I chat with the women and Gede’s father who is a round, jovial gentleman and has the same sense of humor as his son. We’re having a fine conversation when right in the middle of a sentence, he jumps up, pulls back a blue curtain that I hadn’t noticed before, and says, “Eat! Please! Eat!”

The row of chafing dishes lined up on the buffet table is impressive and as our host uncovers each one, spicy aromas fill the tent. I heap my plate and every bite is more delicious than the one before. As I’m shoveling the last morsel of banana tree trunk into my mouth, there’s a ripple of excitement from outside. The bride and groom have arrived.

P1080105I take a volley of photos, then Gede joins the men and Ary and I join the women. She asks me about weddings in America. Does the bride have her makeup done? Does she wear traditional clothes? I reassure her that many brides hire a person to do their hair, makeup, and nails and that for traditional weddings, the bride wears all white. She thinks an all-white dress sounds boring. I start to argue then glance again at her elaborate costume and say no more.

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After a dignified length of time I thank the parents, say goodby to Gede and Ary, and let Ketut know I’m ready to point my nose toward home. We pull out of the gate and bump along for about a half mile when Ketut says, “Want to see my grandmother? She 150 years old.”

“One-hundred fifty? Are you sure?”

“Oh ya. Very old.”

I’m at that point where the horse can smell the barn. I just want to be home! But I’ve learned that when Ketut throws out an off-handed suggestion, I’m a hundred times the fool if I don’t jump at it. In a few more yards he hangs a hard left and revs the gas for a vertical climb. We’re now on a dirt trail about the width of the bike tire.

“Where does she live?”

“On mountain. No more house, only her house.”

“She’s 150 years old and she lives in a house alone on the mountain?”

“My grandfather also.”

“Your grandfather is still alive?”

“Oh ya, very strong, still in garden, feed cow, good body.”

I marvel silently at this information while trying to ignore the fact that all signs of civilization have disappeared and we’re still going straight up. With a lurch, the bike swerves right and a cluster of concrete block buildings lays dead ahead. Ketut kills the motor and I swing my leg over for the dismount. It feels like we’ve warped into a different universe surrounded by a vacuum of silence.

I follow Ketut through a gateway into an immaculate courtyard. The black dirt is smooth and hard as concrete without a tree or shrub or blade of grass and there isn’t a soul in sight.

“Maybe in garden,” Ketut says.

We walk around the corner of a building and a broad, parched meadow spreads before us. Several yards away a stooped figure rises to look at the intruders. Communication passes between Ketut and his grandfather.

“She not here,” he says after the exchange. “She cut grass for cow.”

“Well she couldn’t have gone far. Let’s go find her.”

We set out along the treeline bordering the meadow. Within a few minutes we’re passing mounds of fresh-cut grass. Another figure comes into view, swinging a curved knife that mows down the long green blades with stunning efficiency. She sees us and stands, erect and alert. I don’t know what I expect a 150 year old woman to look like, but I flash on a memory of a proud buck, frozen in a meadow, watching me. She’s elongated. Her thin, bony body and face seem stretched out rather than the slumped and shrunken form so common to the elderly.

I smile. She glares and stares for a moment, then issues a command to Ketut. He jumps to attention and gathers up a pile of grass while she picks up another. I trail behind gleaning the shreds that drop from their overloaded arms. The cows are excited to see us as we dump dinner in front of their noses. Then granny disappears inside the house.

“Wait a moment,” says Ketut and we stand in the courtyard until summoned a few minutes later. There’s been a transformation. Field worker granny has donned a coral satin blouse and a fresh sarong. We’re invited in and grandpa, not to be excluded from the action, enters behind us. They sit side-by-side on the low bed and agree to a photo.

P1080116Granny still hasn’t smiled, but Ketut engages her in conversation and the more they talk the more animated she becomes. They’re speaking Balinese so I understand nothing. All at once she jumps up, bustles to the other side of the room and rummages in a cabinet. She returns holding a tablet and opens it to a page covered with what appears to be tiny circles. But the longer I look, figures emerge. The detail is dizzying.

“Spirit picture,” Ketut says. At that she moves to another corner and returns with a fabric pillow about two inches square. Once again she rattles a string of words at Ketut. “Oh, she say cut cut picture, put inside. People buy. Make good spirit come.”

“So besides the cow, she has this business?”

He turns and asks her a question. Suddenly she’s very animated, talking fast and with intense feeling.

“She say before, she fighting.”

“Fighting?”

“Ya, she study fighting.”

“You mean like martial arts? Kung fu sort of thing?”

“Ya, ya. Like kung fu.”

It takes me a minute to digest this when he turns back to her and asks her something else. As she answers, her cheeks grow pink. A youthful energy shoots through her body. Without warning, granny’s hands clench into fists. Her feet come off the ground and with lightning swiftness she kicks and punches the air.

P1080117My mouth flies open and I gasp. She doesn’t stop.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” It’s all I can say. The woman is phenomenal. Her face glows with a beauty beyond anything I’ve seen on glamorous stars. She radiates a fierce, fabulous, power that captivates and stuns me. Long after she stops, I can’t take my eyes from her face. She fires another string of words at Ketut and he translates.

“Oh, she say study in many place and king of Bali ask her to teach all police how to fighting.”

“The king asked her to teach the police how to fight? Really!”

“Ya, but she say no. She say no good for woman to teach man how to fight.”

“Wow,” I say again for the hundredth time and then we all fall silent until granny once again breaks the spell.

“She like your sandal,” Ketut translates. I kick one off and slide it over to her.

“Ask her if it fits.”

She slides her foot into my newest, sparkly-est, sandal. It fits. Not perfectly, a half size larger would have been the best, but for all intents and purposes, it fits.

“Does she want them?” I ask as I kick off the other one. The delighted grin on her face is my answer.

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“Tell her I want her to wear them when she cuts grass for the cow.” Ketut translates and granny nods vigorously through her laughter.

“But you no shoe,” Ketut frowns. Miles and miles on the motorbike barefoot isn’t going to cut it.

“I have extra.” I pull my everyday pink rubber flip-flops out of the bag beside me. Meanwhile granny slips on the other one and she’s back in kung fu mode, her new sandals flashing with each thrust.

Twenty minutes later we’ve taken our leave.

“Did you know your grandmother was a fighter?” I’m working hard to assimilate the mind blowing encounter I’ve just had with an ancient kung fu warrior on the side of this mountain.

“No, don’t know. She don’t say before.”

I lean forward and close my eyes as the plummeting path ahead presents a perilous reality. The kung fu granny image is burned into my retinas. She moves like a twenty-year old. Her mind is clear and present.

“Are you sure your grandmother is 150?”

“Maybe 150, maybe 115. She don’t know.”

I feel the bike flatten out and open my eyes. We’ve reached the main road, safe. One hundred fifty, one hundred fifteen, what’s the difference? Kung fu fighter, spirit pictures, farm girl deluxe. Do you want to see my grandmother? More than that, Ketut, I want to BE your grandmother when I grow up.

Day Two: Marching up the mountain

I shook my head at Ketut, shot him a withering look for breaking his promise, then followed the smell of coffee. Two grandmothers in towel-wrapped heads squinted at me silhouetted in the doorway. Steam poured from a soot-blackened kettle and smoke from the wood fire clung to the low ceiling. Eyes stinging and watering, I crouched below the haze and slid onto a stool in front of the glowing warmth as a package of cookies and a cup of thick, sweet, Bali kopi was passed to me.

The grannies kept up a stream of chatter as I drifted in a dreamy, heat induced stupor. Other family members entered like shadows until the little room was full. It’s always the same, coffee and sweets as the family awakens and gathers in the kitchen. Then a big breakfast of rice, vegetables, tofu, and chicken follows the morning chores.

But on this day, after coffee all similarities ceased. The holy man appeared. Men and women arrived in temple clothes. Offerings created the day before were carried to the street and loaded into the back of a white truck. Women hiked themselves, sidesaddle, onto motorbikes that roared off in a dusty cloud.

“Go to cemetery,” Ketut said, as he pulled up on his motorbike and I, too, hoisted myself to sit, lady fashion, sideways on the slippery bike saddle. If the road had been paved before, it was so eroded by water and time that it was no more. Gullies and chasms made for a rough ride. “Massage,” Ketut said as I clung and bounced.P1070952The cemetery would not have been identifiable as such had I not known. There were no neatly clipped lawns, orderly headstones, or flowers. It was a clearing on the side of a forested mountain. A white cloth suspended, hammock-like, from two bamboo poles indicated Bapak’s burial site. Silence seemed a heavy thing, weighted by solemnity and the lack of movement in the air. Someone put a drink and a little food on the grave and a lump formed in my throat.

Commotion behind me signaled that the offerings and the white truck had arrived. Instead of coming to the grave, women, balancing the precious cargo on their heads, and men carrying the larger baskets, were marching single file up the mountainside.

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I thought I had seen all of the exquisite creations, but I watched the stream of elaborate baskets and trays go by noticing many for the first time.

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After the ceremony the fabrics in this offering were distributed among an eager group of women.

P1070985I picked my way, with help, up the sandy slope sliding two steps back for every one step forward. How do they do it with baskets on their heads?

P1070986The bearers waited at the top until the priest showed each one where that kind of offering should be situated. P1070992 The bounty was piled high in front of the seated crowd when the line of gifts coming up the incline finally stopped. After arranging them in the correct ritual order, the busyness ceased and a hush fell over the crowd. Silence. There were no birds singing, not a breath of wind rustled the trees. Then a low, melodious chant, soft at first, but building in volume and strength, flowed from the women. Moments later the priest joined them, his voice a raspy, hypnotic tone accompanied by his ever clanging bell. P1070966 Prayers commenced, a well-orchestrated sequence that changes very little no matter what is being celebrated. Rich with symbolism, it’s the one time during a ceremony when people stop chit-chatting, instant messaging or gaming on their smartphones, and give the officiant their full attention. P1080006Lost in the beauty of nature, the warmth of the people, the intimacy of this eons old practice, I felt very close to Bapak. At that moment a wind swished the leaves of the trees overhead and brushed a swath of air across my hot, moist face. “Goodby, Bapak,” I whispered and a rogue tear slid down my cheek. The crash of gamelan answered me, resounding through the trees from somewhere below shifting the energy into a rousing farewell to his spirit.

“You have photo of gamelan?” Ketut asked.

“Not yet.”

“Now is good time.” Grateful for a chance to stretch my legs and relieve my buttocks after hours on the ground, I stood and headed toward the path, half skidding, half running down the mountain.

The gamelan orchestra was spread out in the shade focused and intent upon the difficult rhythms they were creating.

“Ketut are there are special songs for different ceremonies?”

“Different gamelan group, one for temple called Gong Gede, one for when people die called Angklung. Angklung song sad, Gong Gede song happy.”

P1080008 I listened but to my Western ear, gamelan can never sound sad. Perhaps the beat was a little slower, the pounding a little less intense, but even funeral gamelan has a vital energy that stirs and enlivens my senses.

The ceremony on the mountaintop was over and the offerings were making their way back down the slope to Bapak’s grave. I watched as the pile became a mound and family members gathered on the northeast end of the site, the direction of his head.

“Ya, when in ground same as for sleeping,” Ketut told me in answer to yet another of my endless questions. The Balinese sleep with their heads in the direction of holy, Mt. Agung.

P1080037When the last basket was settled in place, the men erected a bamboo fence around the grave. I learned later that this is a ritual performed only for the body of a minor holy man called a Dulu in Ketut’s village. His father was a Dulu and he, Ketut, will eventually also have that designation. Every question I ask, and every answer I receive prompts about fifty thousand more questions. But the language limitations are still so great that I don’t ask them. I just wonder, and marvel at the endless layers of significance that exist in every aspect of the life of the Balinese Hindu.

P1080063Once the cage was in place and Ketut had circled it distributing small packets of satays along the exterior perimeter, “So all spirits can have party,” he said, the family received one more round of blessings and started home.

I lingered, taking time to say goodby. Here was a man I had met only two years ago. Our ability to communicate was limited to Ketut’s willingness to translate which was limited even farther by Ketut’s very basic English language skills. But Bapak persisted with questions about America, about my family, about the solar system, seasons, and the cost of a house or a plane ticket to the U.S. He was soft spoken. His sons have the same gentle quality of voice. But intelligence burned from his eyes and the intensity with which he listened made my breath catch in my throat. As I stood there, emotion rolled over me moving from gratitude, to loss, to love, and back to gratitude.

At last I turned away and hurried to catch up with the crowd. I saw what looked like another family ritual and turned to go around so as not to disturb, but was waved back. When I got closer I understood. I needed purification after being in the company of the dead. A long bamboo tube with leaves tucked into its mouth tipped over my hands and cool, clean water trickled out. I rubbed my palms together and was told to take some of a green mixture of finely chopped leaves and continue to scrub.

P1080066Thus cleansed, I found Ketut and the motorbike and we headed back to the house. People were lined up opposite the gateway to Ketut’s family compound when we arrived. I hopped off and went to join those waiting and once again, hands beckoned me to come to the gate. I couldn’t make out what to do but I knew something was required. There was a person standing on one side with a dish of salt. There were hot coals burning in the center, and another person stood on the opposite side with a bucket and ladle. Behind this setup was a holy man seated on the ground deep in prayer.

P1080070Watch and learn, Sherry, I told myself as a woman in blue carrying a child dipped her hands into the salt, scrubbed them and flicked the remains over the fire, then proceeded to the man with the buckets who sloshed water over her feet.

P1080073Once the feet were doused a dribble was poured into her hands which she drank. Only then did she proceed past the holy man and enter the compound. At the first opportunity I quizzed Ketut. What happened at the cemetery and again at the house?

“Water at cemetery make ok  go home so spirit don’t follow. Leaf same. When home salt make dark spirit go into fire. Must wash feet so land from cemetery don’t go in house. Drink water a little take out spirit. Holy man sit in middle make no spirit come in.”

“Right. Of course. Thank you. Glad we cleared that up!”

Once the family had all proceeded through the gate, the rest followed. In the back of the property, yet another priest, seated with more offerings, prayed and blessed the family home while the women once again filled the long tables with bowls upon bowls of food and the blue laundry basket overflowing with rice.

P1080078Faces were showing signs of wear and as soon as their plates were emptied, a weary group straggled through the gate toward home.

P1080081The men began deconstructing the tarp shelters and for all intents and purposes, it appeared that the big day was coming to an end.

P1080080I’d been close to nine hours in my corset and sarong. Up the road about a half mile is the house of another friend and I’d promised her I’d stop in after the ceremony. I longed to shed the constraints of my restrictive clothing and have a few laughs with her.

“Ketut, maybe I can go to Nyoman’s house now? Finished, ya?”

“Oh, not yet temple. Want go temple?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“There’s more?”

“Ya, in temple.”

“Of course I want to go.”

And of course I did. There wasn’t one moment of this fascinating day I wanted to miss. The rigorous activities required of the living to appease the spirit of the dead mystified me. Back on the motorbike and up the steep hill to the top we zoomed to the location of the temple. A handful of people were sitting just inside on the steps and they flagged me over to join them. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

“You want to walk? Take more photos?” someone said. So I walked and snapped a few more pictures. Slanting rays cast long shadows when by some mysterious clock it was time. We were a small group, five priests, a few elder men, several women, and a child. I sat with them and observed. When it finally began it was brief and I assumed, which I should never do, that this final temple ceremony ensured that the village was also purified and safe from unruly roaming spirits. (I asked Ketut before writing this. Nope! That particular ritual had made it possible for the family to once again go to the temple. When a relative dies the rest of the family cannot enter the temple until either the cremation or this special ceremony is held.)

P1080090By now my energy gauge was hovering around empty. We returned to the compound and as I walked back to the room to finally free myself from my ceremonial outfit, I passed this little fellow, down for the count.

P1080079 Alone at last, I unzipped the corset, untied and unwound the sarong, and let my stomach fall out into happy freedom. My lungs sucked in deep breaths of air. What a day you’ve had, Bapak. What an incredible day.

Next

PART THREE: Kick Ass Granny

Part One: Death isn’t the end

Six months ago, in a hardware store in Denpasar, Ketut answered a phone call. He moved to a quiet area behind metal shelving to talk. It was a light-hearted outing but the man who emerged after the call walked as though wounded and his face, attempting a smile, masked pain.

“Ketut, what’s wrong? What happened?” He didn’t speak right away. Maybe he was still grappling with disbelief. But when he was able to answer it was a message that sent my heart plummeting to my feet.

“My father die.”

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Extended family performed the necessary procedures on the body, washing, wrapping, blessing, keeping watch, and burying. But other ceremonies in the village took precedence so the funeral for Bapak had to wait. In Abang Songan there is a mass cremation every five years. Very few families can afford the expense of an individual cremation, so the body is buried and later exhumed for burning with the rest.

P1070891That poses a bit of a problem. The spirit must have a proper sendoff. Nobody wants the spirit of the deceased hanging around for long because it requires tending. Since his passing, Bapak Ketut has been fed every time the family is fed. When gifts are received, he is given a portion. Ancestral spirits are honored and kept happy because it is believed that an angry spirit will wreak havoc. Even with all possible care taken, every stubbed toe and skinned knee in the ensuing months will be attributed to a dissatisfied soul.

October 30th was the day ascertained by the holy man to be auspicious for the releasing of Bapak’s spirit. I was invited to attend. Ketut went home days before to help prepare. There were shelters to be erected, platforms and blankets and tarps to be borrowed, chickens killed, fish caught, vegetables collected. The guests would bring rice, coffee, and sugar as part of their contribution.

Ketut’s older brother, Nengah, came at 7 am the morning before the ceremony to pick me up. When we arrived in the village an hour and a half later, an army of people were already at work.

There’s one job that I know how to do. Only one. Without that job I am destined to wander aimlessly with my camera for hours, long past the battery’s capability for more photos.

I peel onions.

But the kitchen had gone missing.

“Di mana dapur?” I asked the first woman I saw. She motioned in a direction back where I’d come from, then took my arm steering me around a corner, then around another, along a narrow alley between a tarp shelter and a house, over a stoop and behind another house. There they were, the piles of vegetable, the steaming woks and kettles, whole chickens flattened as though they’d met with a steamroller, and the Ibus, chattering and working as smoothly and effortlessly as a new Mercedes Benz.

I greeted them and was invited to sit.

“Thank you,” I said, “But first, where are the onions?” My question was followed by a shotgun volley of words in Balinese, a language I will never understand, and then laughter. A blue plastic laundry basket was hoisted off a shelf and the contents poured into a pan. “Knife?” I asked. A sabre of fearsome proportions came my direction. “Small please?” More laughter but a smaller knife was produced. For the next few hours I peeled onions, made jokes in my broken Indonesian, and functioned as a member of the kitchen crew.

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Bali onions are tiny, about the size of a large clove of garlic. and red. One pan full was the sum of my whole morning’s work.

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For about twenty minutes these two industrious young ladies helped me peel.

P1070856

In another area women assembled hundreds of offerings.

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Some of the designs for this particular ceremony were elaborate and unusual.

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Ketut told me that this vertical basket contained sixty different kinds of leaves. “All the leaf from my house to the river,” he said. It also held sixty eggs, and sixty garlic cloves, sixty onions, in essence, the fruits of the land. To my question, “Why?” there was the usual answer…

“I don’t know.”

P1070857 In another area the men chopped fish and chicken, bones and all, into a meaty pulp. They mixed each of them with pulverized coconut, onions, garlic, and chillies, then smooshed the mixtures onto bamboo sticks. The sticks had been carved the day before.

Coffee and sweets were served when the workers arrived and again later in the morning. At 11:00 am the blue laundry basket appeared, this time heaped full with steaming rice. Dishes of vegetables and tofu, satays, bean soup, potato soup, deep fried fish, and chicken with spicy sambal (the Balinese version of salsa) created a feast for the eyes and the palate. After eating the men smoked and the women chattered, then it was back to work. Mid-afternoon the young girls of the family in tightly wrapped sarongs, once again brought out trays of coffee and sweets. At 4 pm the buffet reappeared. When the last satay stick was licked clean, people drifted to motorbikes or started the walk home. Easily fifty people were fed twice on this day as they had been for several days prior.

But as the sun set and evening chill settled over the mountain there were still a dozen or so extra bodies hanging out. Ketut and his wife insisted that I take their room with the double bed, television, and privacy.

“Where will you sleep?”

“All sleep outside, many many.”

“All these people are spending the night here?”

“Ya, all. You want shower?”

“But where is everybody going to sleep?”

“Ya, here.” A sweep of Ketut’s arm indicated the platforms that earlier held the offering makings.

“Outside? Really?”

“Ya.”

“Ketut, it’s cold!”

“Oh no, many people, very warm. Ya, you take shower now.” As if on cue, his brother appeared carrying a bucket with a small faucet attached.

“Hot,” he said.

I dutifully followed him to the bathroom where he showed me how to operate the faucet then left. The hot water felt wonderful. I dabbed at my face, neck, and did the best I could without soap, washcloth or towel, and the pail was still 3/4 full when I finished. But fresh guilt assaulted me.

“I don’t want your wife and baby sleeping outside when I have a warm room. That’s not okay.”

“Ya, later they sleep inside.”

“With me?”

“Ya, later.”

“Promise?”

“Ya.”

Somewhat mollified I kicked off my sandals at the door and went in. The bed seemed wide enough to sleep crosswise so I stretched out at the foot leaving plenty of room for Komang and the baby. Remembering a previous experience with nocturnal visitors, I left the light on hoping to discourage unwanted guests.

At 5 am I awoke to barking dogs and cock-a-doodle-doing roosters, alone. Still fully clothed, I ran a comb through my hair, pulled on a sweater, and poked my nose outside. A row of mummies, sausaged into a variety of blankets, stirred ever so slightly. Ketut’s head popped out. My glare was answered with his happy grin that spoke, I won! louder than words.

Next

Day Two: March up the mountain

The Bali Blue Bed

Indonesians make amazing beds. Historically they used them for sleeping, but Westerners have adopted these exquisite creations to serve as sofas where several people can curl up and have a cozy conversation.
 *

For months, Ketut has been hauling me to and fro through surrounding villages stopping at every shop with a daybed for sale. I’ve seen them all, from heart-stopping gorgeous ones to those with manure and pig-smell hanging about them. Even though the choices were endless to the point of customizing something to my specifications, I was ambivalent.

 *
Then last week at Ketut’s home in Kintamani, I toured the family compound and caught up on the latest happenings. As we passed through the wood shop, a flash of blue in the corner caught my eye. It was heaped full of stumps and chunks awaiting the skillful knives that would reveal the images within. Upon closer inspection, my eyes nearly popped their sockets. It was a DAYBED, carved in the old style and painted Bali blue. In disbelief I turned to my host.
*
“Ketuuuuut…what’s this?”
*
“Oh, old bed. My father make.”
*
“Your father made this?”
*
“Ya, very old.”
*
“Ketut, this is a daybed.”
*
“Ya.”
*
“Remember, you have been taking me all over Bali looking at daybeds.”
*
“Ya.”
*
“You didn’t tell me about THIS daybed!”
*
“Oh no. Very old. I forget.”
*
I took a few deep cleansing breaths and studied the lines, the detail, and checked the sturdiness. It appeared to be strong and fully intact.
*
“You like?” he asked.
*
“Ketut, it’s amazing! It is exactly what I’ve been looking for. And your father made it! Do you know how special this is to me because your father made it? Do you think your mother would sell it?”
*
I was speaking too fast about abstract feelings, most of which, I knew, would be lost in translation. But he caught the gist of the last question.
*
“I ask,” he said.
*
He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a tape measure. He knows the size I want and he stretched the tape for the length, width, and height calling out the numbers to me. It was perfect.
*
“Will your mother sell it?”
*
“Ya, you can have. Very old, nobody want.”
*
“Ketut, I need a daybed. I am going to buy one somewhere but this one is so special and I want to pay for it. Is that okay?”
*
“Ya, up to you.”
*
I left in a state that can only be described as bliss. He said he would arrange to rent a truck and bring it to me. It arrived two nights later around 8:30 pm  with Ketut and five family members. They carried the pieces from the street along with four big new trees for my garden and a pair of giant carved mushrooms, also for my garden!
*
Over the next two days I scrubbed years of use from the frame and Ketut sanded and applied new varnish to the side panels. Yesterday afternoon he assembled it.
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 Ketut in assembly mode.
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The beautiful Bali blue bed in all its splendor!
P1070835No mattress yet. I’ll order one made to fit. Pillows are enough for now!
 *
This daybed embraces me and it will do the same to all who join me here for future conversations. Ketut’s family is extraordinary. His father passed away six months ago. He  was a very special man, and now I have something that was not only made with his hands, but used by the family until they bought a new, modern one three years ago.
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 There are unfinished areas on the sides that were always against a wall in the room in Kintamani. As we discussed paint possibilities I mentioned the white ridged detail along the canopy.
*
“Maybe a new color there?”
 *
“Not possible,” said Ketut in the voice that means it really IS NOT POSSIBLE.
 *
“Why?”
 *
“This Barong Gigi, not possible change.”
*

“Oh, the Barong’s teeth? Really? Is that right?”

*
“Ya, long time ago all Bali house have this. Now make with machine but my father make this.”
 *
 I look at the hundreds of half-cylinder shaped wood pieces and my awe deepens. Not only do I have a family heirloom, but it is infused with the rich, protective magic of the Barong. I know the Barong. He’s the physical manifestation of the king of all protective spirits. In the ceremonial dances he’s huge with a hairy body and lion-like masked head full of large, white teeth.
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I feel myself choking up, a common occurrence in my life here. That feeling always accompanies the intense gratitude for what seems to fall effortlessly from the gods into my lap.
*
“Thank you for telling me, Ketut. I love this bed so much!”
*
“Ya.” There’s silence for a moment while he applies varnish to the bamboo slats that hold the mattress. “You have more question?” I laugh. He loves to tell me about Balinese beliefs and wants me to write a story about Bali. Maybe I will. I’ll call it The Bali Blue Bed!
*
Oh, and speaking of blue, Bali blue is a color I NEVER would have incorporated into my decor. So bold, so very very BLUE! Now I’m rethinking my whole design scheme to highlight that color. It gives my heart a joyful bounce every time I look at it.
*
On all those daybed outings I told myself, I’ll know it when I see it. There were many stunning options, ornate and delicately carved, but my mind never said, Yes! This is it! until the woodshed. I’ve learned this about myself: I need to wait with decisions until my heart leaps out and grabs onto something. Until then it’s just stuff. But after the heart takes hold it becomes a treasured part of me, its presence an intrinsic piece of my happiness.

Sexy men in sarongs

I’ve heard it said that Asian men are androgynous. Statistically they’re smaller in stature than men in the West. Most have less body hair and finer features. I’ve been around Japanese men, a few Koreans, and now hosts of Indonesians. To my aesthetic, there’s nothing sexier than a man in a sarong. Androgynous or not, they are magnificent!

P1070751My friend, Dewa I, (the hottie in the photo) invited me to his village months ago for a special ceremony. I have no idea how special until Ketut and I are about a mile from the town and we’re stopped by a Pecalang, the local security guard.

“Sorry, no vehicles past this point, special ceremony.”

“Yes, we know. We’ve been invited.”

The guard peers at me. I’m in full temple garb and I’m sure he’s wondering how I fit into this picture.

P1070729As authentic as it looks, I’m not passing muster.

“Sorry. Road closed.”

Ketut rattles off a few sentences in Balinese, slides his phone out of his pocket, and calls Dewa. The next thing I know we’re waved through. Even in Bali…especially in Bali…it’s not what you know, it’s who.

In a mile or so we come to the village. Another Pecalang motions us off the road into a parking area. We leave the bike and are ushered to a roofed platform where three more guards confer about what to do with this smiling American and her Balinese escort. They’re holding two-way radios and a flurry of crackling messages commences. “Parking lot to temple, we have an unidentified foreign female demanding entrance…!”

Five minutes, ten minutes. Ketut arranges himself on the platform with a cigarette. One of the men notices the sun beating on my fair-haired head and invites me to sit in the shade. Fifteen minutes, twenty, then Ketut stands, ambles to the edge of the platform and says, “Dewa’s wife coming.”

We’re saved!

P1070754She’s like a vision walking toward us. We exchange happy hugs and she leads us to their home up the street past throngs of villagers awaiting the next event in the temple. The houses are nestled, tight-packed up the mountainside. We follow a narrow, walled path, ascend a staircase, and we’re there.

Coffee appears and a bowl of snacks as Nyoman apologizes. They’re all very busy today and because it’s an important ceremony and we are outsiders, we’re not allowed into the temple. But we can watch the processions and dancing that will happen in the street.

I laugh and tell her it’s fine, but my private thought is that Dewa didn’t remember, or perhaps didn’t think of it when he invited me. It’s the women who know the rules, the ins and outs of the ceremonies. But I’m delighted just to be here, to see their village and be a guest in their home.

Everyone’s jabbering at once when a shout from below brings me to the wall. I peer over and there’s Dewa II,  holding a plate of food and grinning up at me. I can hardly believe he’s the same guy who scared the stuffing out of me when we first met because he never smiled. He’s just finished a Baris performance and is grabbing a bite before it’s show-time again.

P1070747As he gobbles his lunch he tells me that he has six performances today and the next one is in a few minutes.

“Can I watch?”

“Yes.” When he leaves the girls grab my hands and we zig-zag through the crowds. They park me in the shade above the area where the dancers will appear, and then it begins. (Click here: Baris Dance.) Now the smiling face is set in a mask of concentration as he executes the complex footwork of this dance of the warriors.

P1070764The dancers form lines on either side of the women and priests who are exiting the temple after making offerings and prayers. When the ceremony draws to an end the girls are agitated. Their English is confined to, “What is your name, my name is…!” and they don’t comprehend my brand of Indonesian. But with enough repetition and gestures I’m made to understand that they have to go somewhere to do something and I should wait here. They race away. In a matter of moments it becomes clear. They are the next performance! This close-up of Dewa II’s daughter shows her with the same fierce intensity of concentration as her father in the photo above.

P1070782The girls finish and I’m collected and returned to the house where more coffee and a tour of the rest of the family compound awaits. Ketut is particularly interested as we meander past the residences of the brothers and uncles, to see the livestock. There are cows, pigs, piglets, chickens, fighting cocks, and ducks. One porker named ‘cow’ because of her immense size, lumbers to her feet and sticks her snout toward the camera for a close-up.

P1070797There’s one spotty milk chocolate runt in the pen of piglets. I feel an instant kinship with the tiny character because he looks so out of place with his pinky-grey companions. I name him Coklat (c is always the ch sound in the Indonesian language, and Cok is the name attached to the royalty in Ubud.) My companions find this hilarious.

P1070794The afternoon wanes into evening and the gamelan orchestra is still pounding a frenzy of sound when we take our leave. Nyoman bustles to the kitchen and returns with a bag stuffed with mangoes, oranges, pears, snakefruit and sweets to send home with me. We walk down the hill together, her arm around my waist, mine around hers. Then it’s back in the saddle for the long ride home.

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We pass rice terraces and fresh paddies just sprouting. “Nice area,” says Ketut.

“Yes, beautiful.”

“Good people,” he adds, and I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

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