“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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!