Blowin’ in the wind…the Sanur Kite Festival

When I say kite, what comes to mind? Something diamond shaped with a ribboned tail? I can count on one finger the number of times I saw a kite in the sky where I grew up.  The marshy bog of northern Minnesota wasn’t a kite culture. Maybe that’s why they hold such a fascination for me.

Then I came to Bali and watched graceful shapes dip and swoop in the sky, sometimes fifteen or twenty at a time during the windy months of winter. It was magical! And when I heard that the oceanside town of Sanur had an annual kite festival, I vowed to go.

But I could never quite pinpoint the when of that event. It’s like most things here. Somebody tells somebody else and when word finally gets to me it’s happening in ten minutes, or it just happened ten minutes ago.

So when a friend sent a message to my phone yesterday that the kite festival would be at Mertasari Beach in Sanur today, I was thrilled to have that much advance notice.

This morning we set out. I put my visiting friend on the back of Ketut’s motorbike because I wanted her to remain alive, and I rode with Wayan since I can handle a little more speed and a lot more near death trauma. As we approached Sanur, traffic came to a dead stop for no apparent reason.  There was speculation in the crowd, maybe Obama is passing through, maybe the British soccer team…logical assumptions like that. After a pause of about seven minutes, a whistle blew from somewhere and off we went.

P1100008There were the usual interesting t-shirts. I snapped this one and didn’t notice the uniformed Polisi behind him until I downloaded the photo at home. Lucky accident.

P1100010Today, as always, our motorbike excursion was a visual feast. The entrance to an elegant, upscale jewelry showroom dazzled with the intricately sculpted figures at the entrance.

P1100011And the assortment of statues that grace the major intersections, continue to amaze me. This grand scale example was finished earlier this year.

P1100013Never to be excluded are the edibles being transported from point A to point B by motorbike.

P1100103After about forty minutes on the road, we reached our destination, parked, and stepped through the looking glass, or the wardrobe, or fell down the rabbit hole…into a different world.

We arrived in the middle of a kite competition. Kites so large they required whole teams of men to carry them were advancing toward an open area. Judging officials were housed in covered canopies announcing the events over booming loudspeakers. And when the long-tails leapt into the sky it was just about the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.

P1100057The glorious, undulating ribbons hung in the air, operated by teams of five, six, seven, or more men, all straining to hold their prize in place against the strong ocean breezes. When the judges called the winner, the teams efficiently pulled the great birds out of the air to make room for the next category.

Overhead was empty blue, then, as though someone opened Pandora’s Box, it was full!

The skill to keep all those kites airborne, aloft in one place without tangling with the strings of the others surrounding them, is an expertise practiced from the time these guys are toddlers. They look like specks in the sky but don’t be fooled. They’re massive.P1100075Some had heads, ornate, crowned beasts with flowing scarves and fangs worthy of a child’s worst nightmare.

When our senses had been stimulated to overload and sunstroke was an impending threat, we left the extravaganza behind and started home. We’d made it about half a block and once again traffic came to a standstill. Nancy stood up on the motorbike to get a better view. What is Ketut thinking?! I wondered as I captured the moment digitally.P1100089After a generous length of time, someone thought of a shortcut. Engines roared into action and a teeming throng of motorbikes turned as one entity into a parking area that wound around the obstruction and spit us out on the other side of it.

P1100104Then it was clear sailing…P1100110past the blue Visnu….

P1100114down the frightfully narrow path…

and home again, home again, to Ubud, jiggety-jig. How nice to get a timely tip. It was a spectacular day!

Report to Immigration!

Source: Report to Immigration!

Report to Immigration!

Why my last year’s picture and fingerprints aren’t good enough, I don’t know. My U.S. passport photo serves me for fifteen years. But the Indonesian retirement visa, no way. And with the number of expats that live here, couldn’t there be a branch in Ubud capable of the required official documenting of our existence?


I swing onto the back of Ketut’s motorbike, my happy place. “Ayo! Ayo! It’s off to imigrasi we go!” I sing out as we meld into the stop-go traffic on Monkey Forest Road. Ketut ambles along, never in a hurry but always getting where we’re going in time. There’s a window, 2 – 2:30, to meet up with the agent, Mr. Heru, at immigration headquarters. The rice fields flash by in their various states of readiness, sometimes wet, murky pools, sometimes shafts of harvest gold. When the burn starts in my throat I know we’ve hit the polluted border of Denpasar and the sudden snarls of motorbikes affirms that suspicion.

Bali Traffic

The outskirts, a hodge-podge of billboards, Communist era gray buildings, and lean-to warungs, disappear as we enter the civilized Renon district and pull into the parking lot. Mr. Heru is there and we’re ushered inside.

I’m not sure what hits first, the heat or the stink, but the combination stops me in my tracks and I disguise the gag reflex in an extravagant episode of coughing. Holy B.O. Batman! Let’s hope this is quick.

Mr. Heru tells us to find chairs. Two in the back corner sit empty and I slouch into the one nearest the wall with a direct view of the television that’s showing a comedy act on silent. I’m handed a slip of paper with a number, C070, and notice that the one showing on the monitor overhead is C036. Okay, so there will be a little wait. My breakfast feels unsteady as I breathe shallow puffs, trying not to inhale any more of that over-ripe air than possible. Memories of morning sickness remind me of how great it is to be old and far beyond childbearing potential.

I tune in to the comedy. Raunchy Indonesian humor has me hysterical in moments. The two men, one with a red mohawk and one with a yellow, in shiny business suits with pants that end about three inches above the ankle, are non-stop hilarity, and Ketut and I laugh lounder than anybody. Their thirty-minute routine ends. I glance again at the monitor. C036 hasn’t budged. Mr. Heru appears, apologetic. “So sorry. Equipment is not working. Can you come back tomorrow? Or maybe you wait, in one hour maybe fixed.”

I barely suppress a groan. “I can’t come back tomorrow,” I say. “I have a meeting.”

“Ya, you wait then,” he says.

“Ya, okay.” What else am I going to say? The idea of turning around, riding the hour and a half back to Ubud, then repeating the sequence again anytime soon is revolting. I’ve almost acclimated to the stench.

Another show that smacks of the old U.S. favorite, You’re on Candid Camera! is underway. The thing that Indonesian television has over anything in the U.S. is its blatant political incorrectness. Here women are objectified, subjectified, and sexualized with careless abandon. Gays are depicted with affection as providing unlimited potential for ridicule and harassment, and the male sexual organ is referenced or displayed at every possible opportunity.

Time passes unnoticed, glued to the tube. But when the display on the digital monitor moves from C036 to C037, a murmured undercurrent scuttles through the room. People shift in their chairs, unfold the crumpled bits of paper that hold their number, and check their watches. The building closes at 4 p.m. It’s now 3:15.

In my TV stupor I’d failed to notice that the room had emptied down to a handful of a dozen bodies or so. Suddenly there’s a parade back in and a scramble for the remaining chairs. One of those New York Wall Street types, with a child strapped to his back and his ex-model wife herding three more children blocks the view of the programming while expounding at shocking volume on the recent activity of the Chinese stock market. I note glances exchanged among the quiet locals. A hip white lady, circa 1940’s, with bleached hair and shorts so short they reveal the saggy creases of once perky buttocks jiggling just below their lacey edge, strolls in with her teen-aged Balinese boyfriend. The monitor flips over another number: C038.

It’s a slow race with time. The numbers advance, sometimes two or three in a row, but often the minutes stretch out with eons between them. It’s 3:55. C068 has parked and taken up residence. Has the equipment malfunctioned again? Am I to get this close and be sent home? I turn toward Ketut, my eyebrows ask the question. Stoic, positive, with the kind of patience that I can never hope to achieve, even in retirement, he appears unruffled and noncommittal. Then, as if tripping over one another in their excitement, C069 is immediately followed by C070.

I leap from the chair. Ketut skitters out of the way as I head for the door marked Photos for Foreigners and push through it. Two desks, manned by uniformed immigration officials, are stuffed into the closet-sized room. I climb over the granny with the shorts to get to the second desk where I’m being summoned by the bespectacled man behind it.

“Sit back,” he commands as I perch on the edge of the chair. “Move your bangs off your eyebrows.” I do as I’m told, grinning like a happy chimpanzee. “You can smile but don’t show your teeth.” That one throws me and I snap my mouth shut and frown just as the camera clicks. If Frankenstein had a twin sister, the photo would have captured the likeness. Before I have time to ask for a retake he’s shoved documents in front of me. “Your signature here, the same as this one, and again here.” At the final flourish of the pen he grabs my hand. “All the fingers, this one first,” and he moves my thumb to the red window on the machine that records its image. Then it’s over. Two and a half hours and three minutes, the three minutes were inside that closet, from 3:56 to 4:00, taking care of the business I came to accomplish. Mine is the last number called.

Rolling through countryside on the return trip I experience yet again the sense of elation, the thrill of living here in Bali, the island of the gods, the land of volcanoes and magic. A few hours sweating it out in Immigration once a year for the privilege, is a small price to pay. We sail along in the late afternoon warmth, exotic views unrolling alongside us, the tails of my scarf flapping in the breeze. “Pulang?” says Ketut. I smile, once again grateful for this sweet soul who is the very essence and heart of my paradise.

“Yes, please, Ketut. Let’s go home.”

Young rice planting

Muslims, Hindus, and Christians…oh my!


“My father is Islam, but not fundamentalist,” she’s quick to add. “My mother is Christian. Next month I’m going to a monastery in India to study with my guru there. I go every year for three weeks.”

“So you’re Buddhist?” I’m more than a little intrigued.

“Oh yes, but my passport says Muslim because my husband is Muslim and in Indonesia…” she pauses.

“The wife must take the husband’s religion,” I finish for her and she laughs.

“But before I married him, I made an agreement. You call it a prenup, yes?”

“You made a prenuptial agreement, really Meli? Here, in Indonesia?”

“Well, I had already divorced one husband because he wanted to tell me what I couldn’t do, so I learned from that. This time I would make sure I could practice Buddhism and go every year to the monastery. So I made the contract. If he agrees…marriage. If he doesn’t…bye-bye!”

I’m in awe of this feisty, well-educated, forty-something woman. She tells me that her man agreed to the terms and they’re quite harmoniously married. They live in Bali where the religion of choice is Hindu. “I also make offerings to keep the peace between good and evil as my Balinese friends do.” The corners of her eyes crinkle and she winks. “When my husband notices he says, ‘What are you doing? That is a Hindu practice.’ So I stop until he leaves and then continue.”

Where else on earth? I can’t conceive of another place like this. Bali is a feast of diversity, a conundrum of befuddling opposites, a loveable, laughable hodgepodge of unique people who are slow to judge and quick to call you family. They are who they are without apology and that gives me the freedom to be me, the warts, the contradictions, the glorious all of who I am because there’s no rigid, this is the way, walk ye in it! Rather, an Indonesian person will say, “Well, you can go this way, but today there is a ceremony, the road is closed, so maybe you go around, it’s a little longer, but you will see the rice terrace, or my cousin can show you the small roads, I’ll call him now, or maybe you wait until tomorrow.” Bali, the land of endless possibility, if not today, tomorrow!


The Baby’s Coming!

P1090993Nina’s been pregnant for 8.25 months so it was high time to have a baby shower. I don’t want to say how long it’s been since I’ve attended one, and I think it’s been three times longer since I hosted such an event. But she’s my youngest best friend and my next door neighbor so it made sense.

In the U.S. there’s every possible gimmick available to decorate for a party. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a baby shower kit complete with storks and tiny white diapers with miniature safety pins, rattles, giant pacifiers…?  But this is Bali. The Balinese culture is rich with celebrations and ceremonies, but they don’t have baby showers, therefore they don’t have baby baubles, doodads, or trinkets.

I scoured the massive Delta Dewata on one end of town and the equally enormous Bintang Supermarket on the other to see what I could glean from the paper products, arts and crafts aisle, tourist gizmos, and whatnot. The first time out was a bust. I was going to have to be creative.

“Ketut, could you buy flowers and make two big arrangements for Nina’s party?” Bali does have flowers.

“Oh no. Not buy. Cut-cut no problem. What you want?”

“I want red, pink, and white colors. It’s okay, you can buy them.”

“Maybe I borrow.”

“Borrow flowers? Where?”

His answer would definitely incriminate him so the source of the borrowed flowers will remain a mystery. But he augment the heisted blooms with two dozen purchased stems of the sinfully fragrant bunga sedap malam (delicious night flower) that emits the most powerful scent after dark.

P1090952The shower was three days away and the time had come to get serious. Balloons are universal but the colors they come in are not. I wanted baby girl hues, pinks, lavenders, and splashes of rose. Bintang Supermarket had pepto bismal and fire engine. Pass. In the Delta Dewata I found an enormous bag of the most hideous shades of mud, spruce, beige, and dusty navy. But hidden in the same bag among those eyesores were exactly the colors I wanted. I grabbed the package and ran. On the way to the cashier a flowery painted offering basket caught my eye, the perfect alternative to a box and gift wrap.


The house is ready for guests with bunga sedap malam, and the colorful offering basket.

P1090956After stopping on the way home to order a cheesecake at Cafe Wayan, I conferred with Ketut regarding a shower lunch. He suggested lumpia, satays with peanut sauce, steamed mixed vegetables with onion and garlic sambal, and rice. Lovely.


I ordered it with strawberries…they got the color right…!

No self-respecting baby shower is complete without games, even I know that! Again at a loss, I Googled baby shower games. The internet yielded a dizzying feast of choices.

So today from 1:00 – 5:00, Nina and friends celebrated the imminent arrival of the newest member of their family, and judging from the constant babble punctuated by peals of laughter, I’d say a good time was had by all!



When the dead aunts go home

There isn’t a situation, circumstance, life event, object, (animate or inanimate) in Bali that doesn’t have a particular ceremony assigned to it. The big ones, marriage, birth, death, are universal. But a day to bless metals? An elaborate celebration before a baby’s feet are allowed to touch the ground? A ritual dealing with incest? The coming of age practice of tooth filing to rid the body of carnality? These are foreign concepts. Then there are the temple birthdays, a day to bless the animals, another for trees and plants, the list goes on.

But every 210th day on the Balinese calendar, the spirits of dead ancestors return to their earthly homes. Elaborate preparations are made by the living to receive them and the festivities continue for ten days culminating in Kuningan when those restless souls take their leave to go back to their haunts for another 210 days until the cycle repeats.

Today was Kuningan.  I woke up having slept a total of about two hours all night, and felt the urge to walk. The sky was that particular shade of wisteria with a steady breeze out of the east. I set out heading north on Monkey Forest Road toward the Ubud Royal Palace. Offerings hung from doorways and women in temple clothes lit incense and sprinkled holy water over mounds of square palm baskets filled with flowers, rice, and treats piled on the sidewalk. 2015-07-25 10.24.55As I ambled along in no hurry to get anywhere, I looked back to see this car, adorned with the woven, shield-shaped ornaments that signify protection. Many cars and motorbikes had these woven palm talismans hanging on the front.

2015-07-25 10.10.53Bicycles, too, were the recipients of offerings and blessing.

2015-07-25 10.12.27

My lazy stroll took me past residences that I never see when the streets and sidewalks are crowded with people. But this morning I was the only non-Balinese person about, so I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the stunning second story residence of a wealthy Ubudian. Every door and window was framed by intricate stone carvings, and the shutters and doors themselves were carved and painted the deep reds, greens, blues, and golds of the traditional Balinese style.

2015-07-25 10.24.29The home sitting next to this one was another example of unique architecture. Resting at the top is a lumbung built in the style of the old rice barns. This one has been embellished with paint and looks more like an elaborate child’s playhouse, which maybe it is.

2015-07-25 10.24.05My trek had gotten me as far as the football field, a well-known landmark about half-way between the Ubud Royal Palace and the Sacred Monkey Forrest. It was in the background across the street when I asked a young woman who was putting offerings in the roadside temple if I could take her picture.

2015-07-25 10.19.01Of my several walking routes, this morning I chose to take a left on Arjuna Street for the quieter feel off the main thoroughfare. I had seen men working on penjors earlier in the month but had not been back since they’d been installed. This year those towering arched poles with swaying tassels, seemed taller and more intricate in design than I’ve ever seen them.

2015-07-25 10.25.59 Arjuna Street comes to a T. I hang a right that takes me up to Jalan Raya, the main east-west artery in Ubud. More altars with offerings, palm weavings and flowers graced this busy area I continued along my way, down the steep hill to the bridge over the river and then the slow climb out of the valley, I watched family after Balinese family in full-on temple garb, riding sidesaddle and carrying the square baskets that hold everything needed to send the dear departed once again on their way.2015-07-25 10.44.00No matter how many times I see the offerings, the temples, the penjors, the men in their udeng headgear and double sarongs, the women in their kebayas, I delight in the exotic beauty of it all. Today was no different. When I got home, Ketut was back from his family responsibilities in Abang Songan and had performed the ritual blessings for my house, and even though my ancestors probably can’t find me here, I’m prepared! P1090939

The Mighty Jungle Meets Ketut!

This afternoon I took a break from writing, wandered to the railing overlooking the garden, and there were Ketut and Wayan, hard at work, beating back the jungle. It’s a thankless chore, like doing laundry or washing dishes, tasks that every homemaker knows must be tended to on a regular basis or they soon get out of hand. It’s not at all like weeding a Minnesota garden a couple of times over the course of three months, which is the sum and total of the growing season there.

No, the jungle is aggressive. If it weren’t tamed, it would soon take over everything, vines snarling around pillars, curling over walls and doorways, snaking through open windows. So the garden Ketut planted that looked so feeble at it’s inception, has morphed into a domesticated jungle that requires daily attention.


Last October, Ketut planted every stick that is now a tree and every blade of grass that is now a thick carpet.


This is the same corner that Ketut was planting in the previous picture.


Wayan is carrying two hacked leaves from a banana tree that was encroaching!

Besides being a superb gardener, Ketut is half monkey. If there’s an offending branch or frond that’s too high off the ground to snag with the long knife-stick, he’s up the trunk in a flash, making quick work of the unfortunate interloper.


This is NOT a tree-hugger pose! He has his long knife-stick in his right hand and is hanging on for dear life with his left!


With focused intensity he’s going after a cluster of bananas that fell prey to one of the raggy squirrels that love to eat the stem of the flower which pretty much ensures that the bunch dies or its growth is stunted.


Hmmm…I wonder if I can reach that dried  palm leaf waaaay up there….!


Wayan looks on as Ketut hacks.

And you may as well get used to hearing about Wayan. Wayan Puji is Ketut’s cousin from the same village of Abang Songan, and he’s now a permanent fixture here. (I’m high maintenance…it takes two!)


Wayan Puji

Ketut’s hobby is gardening, and Wayan’s hobby is cleaning! At least that’s what Ketut says, and I believe him. My windows have been washed, inside and out, three times in two weeks. My floor is swept every day and scrubbed every other day. And both guys like to cook so I’ve had to cut out rice and noodles to ward off the creeping poundage! It’s a lovely problem to have.

How do I describe a life that’s so unlike anyone’s frame of reference unless they’ve lived here? I write these blogs but they’re just words and snapshots of an existence that defies explanation. And yet I persist, hoping that something gets through, some part of the magic, the wonderment, injects itself into the reader with the kind of awe I feel every single day. Toward that end I write, and write, and write!


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