The Village That Time Forgot – Making Kue – Scritch-Scratch

Morning in the mountains comes early. Abang Songan awakens its people by alarm at 6 a.m.

WeeaaaahhhhWeeaaaahhhhWeeaaahhhh it screams. School children roll out of bed, babies cry, dogs bark, and cooking fires are stoked. The kitchen is the hub of the world. It’s no different here. A stone fireplace with two holes in the top where the pots sit to cook holds a smoking blaze that is fed continually throughout the day. P1060187Someone outside the bedroom door summons Wayan. Without a word, she gathers her blanket and slips out. I linger a few more minutes under my cozy covers, then reach for clothing. Everyone else sleeps fully dressed. I peer around the room looking for signs of my nocturnal visitor. None are evident, not even telltale droppings.

I wipe my face with the still wet cloth and pull out a mirror to inspect the damages of my eventful night. Hmmm. Puffy eye-bags. I grab the fleece jacket and step outside. The mixture of woodsmoke and mountain air smells like fall in Minnesota, but all similarity ends there.

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I pause to soak in the hazy purple of Mt. Abang silhouetted against the awakening sky. Majesty. The word springs to my lips and I breathe it out like a prayer. Majesty. But the urgency in my bladder cuts short my meditation. The bathroom is unoccupied. I wonder if I’m the only one who uses it. At least twenty family members live in this compound with only one bathroom yet I never see anyone else head that direction. But muddy footprints on the tile floor assure me that others also heed the morning call of nature.

Voices emanate from the kitchen building and I cross the sun-baked earthen yard and stoop through the doorway. Grandpa is seated on a low stool by the fire, warming his arthritic legs. Grandma, her head in a towel turban, pours rice into massive plastic tubs. I don’t know how I understand what she’s telling me because Grandma speaks only Balinese and I know only a smattering of Indonesian. But it’s clear to me that one tub holds regular rice and the contents of the other is glutinous rice.

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As soon as my sleepy face appears, a staccato chorus of voices issues commands. A sister-in-law is shooed off a stool and Grandpa commandeers it. He sets it beside him, close to the fire, and motions me to sit. Grandma bustles and a steaming glass of white coffee with a plate of sweets is offered. It is implicitly understood by everyone here that I am the queen of everything. Heaven and the gods forbid if anything I want should go unattended. I’m always seated first in the best spot. I am fed before anyone else, even the holy man who usually reigns supreme, with portions sufficient to satisfy an entire family for a week.

I eat and converse with Grandpa who, in spite of his age, speaks Indonesian. Most of the elders in this community never attended school and the younger ones learn the language but don’t have occasion to use it unless they leave the village.

English is required for work in the tourist industry. The teens are taught basic grammar by Indonesian teachers. Wayan shows me her workbook from English class. The author is not a native English speaker. I can barely understand it. “What’s the point?” I murmur out loud.

“What?” asks Wayan.

“Nothing,” I say, then add, “Difficult?”

“Yes,” she nods. I would imagine so.

The fire melts me and smoke stings my eyes. Two wives sit in front of huge baskets of garlic and onions, one peels, the other smashes. It’s something I know how to do.

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I stand up and tell Grandpa I’m too hot. I move toward the vegetables. The women scramble to rearrange themselves and they clear a spot for me to sit on a higher bench. I shake my head and thank them as I pick up a bud of garlic and begin to lower myself to the floor. Everyone speaks at once. Loosely translated I’m sure they’re saying, “Oh my god! She’s going to sit on the floor! Somebody get that stool under her lily white bum immediately! Do you think she can peel an onion? OH MY GOD!!!” A stool slides under my backside before it reaches the ground. An extra knife appears for me. For the next few hours I’m just a woman peeling onions, or so I’d like to think. I can only stand the boredom of being queen for so long.

The women are rescued from my help when Ketut’s brother sticks his head in and says he’ll take me to the machine. How can I resist such an offer? I bid my co-workers farewell, the queen has been summoned elsewhere.

It’s a quick walk to another uncle’s home. As we pass through a gateway steps lead down the mountainside. Sheets of plywood hold confections that are drying in the sun.

In Ubud where many Balinese women work outside the home, the delicacies needed for offerings are purchased at the market. There simply isn’t time to make them. But that’s not the case in Abang Songan. These women may spend part of their days cutting the long bladed grasses to feed the livestock, pick beans or uproot potatoes, and cook everything from scratch, but they still work hundreds of hours making the various kinds of kue that especially please the unseen deities.

The thrum of a motor comes from one of the buildings. I’m invited inside to see the machine. And what a multipurpose contraption it is!

The large silver box in the forefront houses sharp blades that turn coconut flesh into dust. The far end has a funnel where rice is dumped and comes out the bottom transformed into flour. The middle chute is for grinding coffee beans into the powder that makes the thick, black, Bali kopi. Uncle dumps several cups of rice into the far chute. The operation takes mere seconds and the flour is ready.

The coconut dust is returned to Grandma’s kitchen where moisture is squeezed out, handful by handful.

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I can’t believe it’s still morning. There’s a bamboo structure going up in the space between houses and the men have strung a blue plastic tarp over the top.

Low tables appear out of nowhere and are placed in the shelter. Around noon, men with knives assemble. Woodchips fly as they carve the hundreds of sticks needed for chicken and fish satays. One uncle is a renowned singer. He serenades with Balinese songs while the men whittle away.

Meanwhile, the coconut sans it’s milk, and the rice flour, have been pummeled with a heavy mallet in a stone bowl until the remaining moisture in the coconut melds with the flour and a fine textured substance forms. The dough-like mixture is rolled into logs and sliced into round chunks with a string. Each round is placed inside a banana leaf collar that was made earlier for this purpose. Then the contents is maneuvered by hand until it perfectly fills the collar. The same process is used to make caramel colored kue by adding palm sugar to the already tasty mix.

At another table, rice, coconut, and sugar, are being blended with coloring for a rainbow-like kue. First the white mixture is spread in the bottom of a round pie-plate followed by two colored layers.

Ibu lowers the finished product into one of the steaming kettles and covers it. One hour later it’s removed, sliced diagonally into striped pieces, and wrapped in cellophane. This presents another opportunity for me to assist. Only the most basic, mindless activities are available to me.  Everything else requires a skillset that I don’t possess…may never possess. I’m quite sure you have to be born with it.

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, that no way could there be another kue process today, I stick my head back into the kitchen. There’s Komang slicing banana leaves into small squares. Her mother and sister-in-law are shaping balls of sweet rice with shredded carrot mixed in and wrapping them in the leaf squares. They’re secured with a needle sharp sliver of bamboo. These will also be steamed to perfection and served to the workers and guests who will descend on this compound tomorrow.

And where are the children during this process? There are two under the age of two, one five year old, one six year old who is my favorite. He has Downs Syndrome. And there are two more who attend grade school. Wayan, my fourteen-year-old roommate, is only here to help out with the ceremony. Usually she lives with her mother three miles away.

The children, even the youngest ones, rarely cry. Sometimes they ride in a scarf sling across the chest of a family member. But most often they entertain themselves outside, with a ball, a tricycle, or a training bike. Oh, and the fingernails! Probably something left over from Nyepi, the night of the ghouls. These are the only toys unless they’re lucky enough to snag a smart phone from Bapak! They know how to manipulate the games and music, a feat that, once again, is far beyond me.

This fascinating day seemed endless before breakfast. As the sun sets I think longingly, with a little apprehension, about bed. I wonder if the mystery guest will return. Maybe it was a one night stand. I can only hope. But any thoughts of an early lights out is short-lived. “Go to…what word?” Ketut says, expecting me to somehow read his mind and fill in the blanks.

“Where?” I ask.

“Play play,” he says. “Need money a little.”

All I can do is repeat, “Play play?” with a question mark.

“Ya, you go,” he says.

I stuff some rupiah in my pocket and Wayan grabs my arm. We join the family heading out the gate and down the road. Then it gets trippy. Really trippy! In the distance I can see what looks like…it couldn’t be…

P1060262…a fair?

There’s a merry-go-round and all the horses are white. Solid white. There’s a tent full of balls and bouncing children. There are food vendors, a ring toss and various other opportunities to try to hit items with green tennis balls. But the crowning glory, chugging and belching diesel fumes, is the ferris wheel. In America where there are regulatory laws, safety standards, certain expectations of mechanical proficiency even at the County Fair level, I’m still wary of the ferris wheel. It’s enchanting from a distance but as we approach I get a severe case of the willies. P1060263It’s held together with screwed on pieces of wood and lengths of chain. Wayan, still gripping my arm, hauls me to the entrance. There’s no line and only a handful of the little gondola cars, swinging and wobbling around and around, are occupied. “Saya takut!” I shout over the din of the engine. I’M SCARED!

“Sama Saya!” she yells back, SO AM I. But it appears that sheer terror isn’t enough to get me out of this one. Two more members of the family crowd behind us and I pay the 20,000 rupiah, about $1.75 U.S., for four riders. P1060267Wayan and I step through a creaky door into our chariot. I flash a quick photo of Wayan’s serene face as the car shudders, groans, and begins its ascent. How did I get myself into this? It’s my last thought before our rickety bucket sways to a stop at the very top.

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I have a handy trick when things in life get too difficult. I take a short vacation from my body. It often feels a little like this as we hover in that swaying cab high above the twinkling darkness. Typically I love a bird’s eye view, a lofty perch. But this is a nightmare! Wayan and I get my money’s worth. We circle for thirty minutes or more. Are they doing it for the benefit of the only foreigner ever to set foot in their precious ferris wheel? Who knows? But I kiss the feet of the tattooed goth who finally frees me from my horrible cage!

P1060268Oh what a night. On legs more than a little shaky, I allow myself to be led to another ride where we wait a small eternity for the children to finish their turn. It has almost stopped when a group of giggling youth bound up to Wayan. She shrieks, hugs her friends, then turns to me, “Maaf,” she says, SORRY, and departs with cheerier company.

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It takes so little to make these children happy. One ride on the green caterpillar and they’re ready to go home. One ride on the nasty wheel and I’m also ready. I join them for the trek back along the rutted road in the dark. Someone switches on a phone light for me. It seems I am not endowed with telepathic night vision like my Balinese friends.

My room awaits. I thank my guides for getting me home and the gods that I survived the ferris wheel. There’s no pretense of a bedtime wash-up tonight. I pull on my night shirt and leggings, peel back the blanket, and sink my weary bones into the mattress remembering as I do, the light switch 7.5 feet away. In a replay of the pevious night, I lunge, hit the switch, and fall back onto my pillow. Ahhhh. At last. I begin to drift. Scritch-scratch…

COMING…DAY THREE: The great chicken massacre etc. etc.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Barb Garland
    May 04, 2014 @ 10:21:16

    thanks for sharing such an exquisite adventure. xoxox

    Like

    Reply

  2. healingpilgrim
    May 05, 2014 @ 02:27:55

    What an extravaganza you’ve been privy to.. thanks for sharing all the delightful and frightful details 😉

    Like

    Reply

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