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.”

———-

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.

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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

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I Hope You Dance

No bad dreams this time. Sleep is sweet and morning is a known routine. Ketut’s face appears along with coffee. “Busy today?” I ask.

“Oh no,” he says in a way that always sounds surprised that I would suspect such a thing.  “Finish.”

“But ceremony and dance?” I ask, thinking he means everything is finished.

“Later,” he says.

“Later today?” I ask. Clarification is necessary. I have begun to long for my own bed and a bit of privacy.

“Ya,” he says. We sit, enjoying the steamy warmth. He tells me that all the offerings and food are ready. Now it’s just a matter of the afternoon ceremony for his brother’s little girl and the night-time dance. I tell him I need to write for awhile today, alone in my room.

“No problem,” he says. He will tell his family to leave me alone. That concept simply doesn’t exist here. If you want to be alone surely you must be sick. In this loving, extended family, nobody should ever have to be alone. Groan!

After breakfast I closet myself away with my computer. I close the door but leave the curtain pulled back so anyone who needs to know what I’m doing in the confines of my solitary space, can peek in. Five minutes pass. A tiny face appears with nose smudged up against the glass. Another head, and another. The door opens a crack then three giggling girls pile beside me on the bed and stare at the hundreds of gray words marching across the screen. I suppress the urge to entertain them and continue to type. They watch in silent awe. Maybe twenty minutes later, one by one, they scoot off the bed and run away. Ahh.

A few more minutes pass. There’s a shadow at the window. It’s grandpa. A quick glance in and he proceeds past. A little later it’s grandma. She stops, grins. I grin back and wave. She leaves. How much more time can I take without appearing gauche, ungrateful, inconsiderate, and strange? Scratch strange. I’ll always be strange. I eke out another forty-five minutes, close the laptop, and venture forth.

My timing is perfect. Nita, with her mom and dad, are at the street in front of the compound making offerings. The white clothed priest and his bell have returned. A bit of scrambling ensues and someone locates a chair. It’s brushed off and offered to me, a throne for the queen of everything. I sit, am granted permission to take photos, and the ceremony begins. It’s clear that baby has new shoes!

When the outside ritual is finished the priest moves inside. He chants blessings for the family, for the offerings, for auspicious days, for the ancestors. Grandpa’s sister, old as dirt, sits though it all with me. She tells me she wants a copy of this photo to post on her cremation tower when she dies. It’s a customary practice but often the only photo a Balinese person has is the one the government takes for I.D. purposes. It’s a one-time event and hers was a long time ago. When blown up the grainy reproductions resemble a bowl of Grape-Nuts. I assure her she will have her picture.

The ceremony ends with a meal of course. All the mouth-watering satays, kues, spicy vegetables, soups, and rice appear once again in abundance.

As dusk wraps us all in the soft haze of approaching night, Wayan strolls in with a red drum.

On his heels the heavy gamelan instruments, each one carried by two strapping Bali boys, line up on the mats spread out for the occasion. Children that are too shy to look at me, run for them and are allowed their moment of glory as they pound away. After impressing everyone, they’re shooed to their parents as the men take their seats. Gamelan. Metal on metal softened by drum-thumping rhythm and melodious flute. My heart hammers the same cadence. I peer into the darkness knowing that soon the stunning dancers will captivate my senses.

But what’s this? I don’t think there’s a Balinese woman anywhere that is taller than I am and that’s 5’2″. These willowy wonders are well over six feet! I stare at the beautiful faces, bright red lips, haunting eyes. One apparition is swaying with undulating grace right in front of me. The sister-in-law sitting beside me makes a comment and even though I don’t know the words, I’m familiar enough with bawdy Balinese humor to know she’s not looking at the feet! I discreetly jab her ribs with my elbow and she roars with laughter. The dancer is unruffled.

They’re men. The last dance like this I attended the performers were nubile young girls. Although the guys do a spectacular job it isn’t the same.  I ask Ketut.

“Long time ago,” he begins, “All like this. Only men not married can dance. No girl.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Oh, because all like this. Married no can.” Cryptic Ketut. His answers multiply my questions. But I refrain. Another time.

The mother/daughter dance is next. When little Nengah, Ketut’s baby, had her dance it was with Ketut. I want to ask why this time the child’s mother is dancing instead of her father. But before I can plague him with yet another question, a sweet young female dancer waves a fan in my face. Where did she come from? The fan is an invitation for me to join the dance.

It’s time to leave my body again! I hover in the blue light near the peak of the tarp roof and observe. All eyes fasten on my attempts to move my feet, my fan, my head, my fingers, in unison with my partner’s. Twirl. Repeat. Move to the right. The left. My gaze sweeps over the crowd. I’m getting thumbs-up from Grandma. The gamelan players are amused. The sweet dancer who has to endure my fumble-stumble attempt maintains her deadpan, professional face. Then it’s over.

“Ya good,” says Ketut.

The music ends, the dancers become normal people, and food and coffee makes the rounds. It’s a time warp and for a moment I feel like I’ve always been here, that nothing else exists. It’s that familiar. Gratitude floods over me with goose bumps.

I’m reminded of a song on a CD, a gift from my daughter many years ago. The words encapsulated her wish for me at that difficult time in our lives. Neither of us dreamed of the way it would manifest.

“I Hope You Dance”

By Lee Ann Womack

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.I hope you dance….I hope you dance.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’,
Lovin’ might be a mistake but it’s worth makin’,
Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider,
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.I hope you dance….I hope you dance.
I hope you dance….I hope you dance.
Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along,
Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder where those years have gone.

Off With Their Heads!

After the bizarre ferris wheel ride in the middle of godforsaken nowhere that followed a day of new experiences one after another, I’m exhausted. My roommate is still with her peers at the fair so I have our small room to myself, well almost. The scritch-scratch begins. “Oh no,” I moan as I whip the fuzzy blanket over my head and begin breathing my own fumes. I determine that whatever it is, it WILL NOT touch my skin, not tonight. The noises go on and on and I lay tense and waiting for the inevitable skitter of feet across some body part.

Then the tell-tale rustling stops. “Great,” I groan, “I know you’re just waiting for me to uncover my head and you’ll pounce!” I lay corpse-like, head sweating and hair plastered across my eyes and lips. “Enough already! I’ve had it! I’m done with this game. Go ahead, run over my face, see if I care!” I fling off the offending headcovering and lay listening once again. Still nothing. It takes me about two and a half seconds to fall asleep.

The morning alarm blasts through a dream. I return to my home in Ubud and Pasek greets me full of excitement. The new kitchen has been finished in my absence. He proudly leads me to it. It looks a bit like this, windows crooked, everything cartoonish.

I tell Ketut about the nightmare. “Oh,” says the wise one, “Bad dream mean kitchen good.” He thinks for a minute then adds, “If good dream, then maybe kitchen bad.” Yin yang. Balance. I thank him and suggest that he check on things. He has to go back to Ubud for a few hours today. I’m staying behind to avoid the three hour round trip on the motorbike. He says he will check.

The morning routine is the same as yesterday, but after breakfast, a woman with a box of footed red offering plates wheels in on a motorbike. She’s followed by a virtual army of others, arms full of supplies, long palm fronds, baskets full of flowers, fruits, moss, and a myriad assortment of necessities. Soon they’re thirty strong sitting on the low tables under the blue tarp. Their fingers fly.

In another corner the bloody business of butchering chickens is hidden from view. Unlike a pig slaughter, chickens are silent martyrs and the men are experts. Short work is made of the slim neck. Then the bird is held over a bowl to collect the blood and flung, still fully feathered, into a big, blue bucket. When it’s filled, the bucket moves to the next crew and the bird is neatly denuded. Rows of plucked bodies are strung on long skewers ready for the barbecue pit.

I pick my way through woodchips and bits and discover another enclave of men gathered around chopping blocks. These fellows are cutting up the onions and garlic that I, and hosts of others, spent hours peeling yesterday. But it’s not just garlic, onions, and chilies. There are warty roots, I’m guessing ginger, maybe turmeric, and medicinal looking leaves going into the mix. I smile, shoot a photo, and follow a basin of the chopped mix up the stairs. It’s dumped into a stone bowl and a tall, lean gent commences pulverizing it with a mallet.

The man and woman power represented here to prepare for a child’s birthday party, makes anything a normal family in the States might do look downright skimpy.

In mid-afternoon Ketut returns with a story that my dream was right. The kitchen is completed. “Wait you look-look,” he says with an evil grin. We both know that isn’t possible. I have a good laugh with Ketut at his wry, Balinese humor.

The women are finished. A buffet lunch is spread on outdoor tables. They fill their plates and relax, laughing and joking with each other. When the last bite is consumed, they file out of the compound and head home.

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About this time a bucket of fish goes by. They’re dumped out on boards and heads, fins, and tails get the axe. But that’s it. The bones are left in as the body of the fish is chopped into mush by serious looking knives. Minced bones and flesh are now united with the herb and spice mixture and fresh grated coconut to make the spicy satays that I love.

When the last stick of satays is roasted to a turn, the men are fed and they go home.

I’m summoned into the small room that has been decked out for the ceremony. Already a holy man is seated on the platform. Draped fabrics in red, purple and gold create the backdrop for the plates and mounds of offerings that I watched being made just hours ago. This is where I need my sarong but the borrowed one from Komang works fine. One size fits all when it’s just a two meter length of fabric!

The ceremony takes less than an hour. Children come in to stare for a few minutes then leave. Incense fills the room. The holy man rings the bell in a continual clanging and chants prayers as Komang and Ketut perform the rituals they’ve been taught from birth.

I have so many thoughts. First in mind, I’m embarrassed to admit, is the problem of having so much food in one’s bedroom. On the plus side, the critter that visited me the past two nights probably won’t bother when presented with this smorgasbord! But the ants? The sweet kue will attract hoards of them. And what about flies?

I banish those unholy imaginings and soak in the magnitude of the past three days. Ketut appears. “Finished?” I ask. He looks happy.

“Until tomorrow,” he says.

“What happens tomorrow?” Fair question, right?

“Oh, again for my brother, but this time dance.”

“Huh?”

“Ya. Brother’s baby six month ceremony tomorrow but holy man say have dance.”

“Tomorrow?” I repeat, seeing this wilderness vacation stretching on endlessly before me.

“Ya. Gamelan, like before.” As he speaks we walk toward a light and voices. “Can stay?” he asks.

We round a corner and there are Ketut’s brothers and their wives seated under the bare light bulb with a lone bottle of beer in the center of their small circle. They’re woodcarvers and though they’ve worked constantly all day long preparing for the ceremony, the job that makes money is carving.

I happen to know that neither Ketut nor his brothers drink alcohol. It’s expensive, and as Ketut tells me, “Too strong.” But a guest brought several bottles to the gathering today and the carvers are sharing one.

We leave the jovial group and I tell Ketut that of course I want to stay for his brother’s ceremony and the dance. What a privilege, what an honor, what an exquisite glimpse into a time and place that most Western eyes have never seen.

My roommate appears and we enter our little house together. She drops to the floor, rolls in her blanket, and is asleep. I turn off the light, grope for my sleepwear with one ear tuned for the scratch-scratch, and slide into bed. As I suspected, the ferreting varmint has better pickings elsewhere and I’m left in peace. Sleep descends.

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.

Night Visitor

“Will your mother show me how to make this?” It is an innocent request. I love the coconut and rice flour kue, especially when it’s crispy fried. I’ve never seen it anywhere else in Bali.

“You come for six month ceremony. My mother show you,” Ketut says.

A child has four important birthday ceremonies, one each year for the first four years. The Balinese calendar has six months of thirty-five days each. It’s time for Ketut’s baby to celebrate her second six month birthday.

Ketut says that he’ll be leaving for his village, in five days. “We come back in morning after ceremony,” he tells me.

I know it will involve spending the night in his family compound. But just to make sure we’re on the same page, always a good idea here, I beckon Ketut to the calendar, “Show me,” I say.

He points out the dates, “Go to village here, come back here.”

“That’s three nights Ketut, yes?” my stomach is doing little flips.

“Ya, it’s okay,” he says.

Ya it’s okay with whom, I wonder. With him? With his mother? With me?

Ketut’s village, Abang Songan, is off the grid. Literally. There is no internet period, full stop, forget about it. There’s also no running water unless you count the hose hanging from the outdoor cistern. The bathroom’s only fixture is squat style, with the dip and pour bucket beside it. But the door locks from the inside so the things a strange white lady has to do to make that facility work for her are done in complete privacy. And in case there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, don’t forget to BYO TP.

I pack light. We’re going by motorbike and I’ll need a few changes of clothes, my computer for downloading the pictures I plan to take, and gifts for the family. By the time they’re assembled the three stuffed bags are all squished between my stomach and Ketut’s back. We head out of Ubud.

The family greets us when we arrive. I’m ushered into the room that Ketut and his wife and baby share with a bed, a TV, and a wardrobe.

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Presents, boxed and wrapped, are unheard of but Nengah is undaunted. She rips into her gifts like a pro. Traditionally, the Balinese don’t celebrate birthdays with the exception of these first four ceremonies.

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Komang disappears for a minute and returns with food for me, a huge bowl of rice, soto ayam which is chicken soup made with lemongrass, lime leaves, and garlic, and wrapped sweets. I plough through the delicious flavors until I’m stuffed. Then they bring coffee and more treats. This is to be the theme for the duration of my stay. It is as though there is an unspoken code: When you don’t know what to do with her, feed her!

Two new rooms have been added to the family compound. One is a house for the sacred writings (lontar) and the kris (sword). The other is for me. I’m ushered into a 8 x 8 foot space with a bed and a whimsical side table for my computer. I take note of the writing on the headboard: Lovely Sheep, Lovely Sheep! An offering has been placed in the corner.

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I leave my bags and join the family outside. They’re sitting beside a pile of husked coconuts, talking and laughing as they cut off the brown leaving only milky white meat. This, I am told, is the first step in the lengthy kue process.

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By now my camera is a familiar friend and an uncle hams it up for me.

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The coconuts, peeled and ready, are turned over to Komang. She fills the plastic basin with water and rinses off fingerprints and remnants of fiber. Coconuts are plentiful in Bali but they don’t grow at this altitude. These have been purchased from the local market.

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Rinsed and clean, they’re set aside to await the next steps in the process. I can’t stifle a huge yawn and I’m hustled off to my room for the night.

Alone at last, I pull out a bottle of drinking water, wet the washcloth and dab a corner of it on the bar of soap I’ve brought with me. The coolness feels good as I swab the shine off my face. With another damp corner I wipe off the soap. A little toothpaste on my electric toothbrush and my mouth is as fresh as my face. I swallow since there’s nowhere to spit. My filthy feet aren’t going anywhere near that pristine, white washcloth! I swing them onto the bed, tuck the fleece blanket around me and realize the light switch is 7.5 feet away.

I lunge toward it and flick it off. In the dark I rustle around with the plastic mattress cover crackling beneath me until I find just the right position. Deep breath, sigh. I try not to think about how much I’d like to pee. Then I hear something. It’s a scritch-scratching somewhere over my head. The sound stops. I relax and begin to drift off. Out of nowhere a rather small, lightweight beast runs across my blanketed legs. My right knee flexes and I haul off with a mighty kick. I expect to hear a thud as a furry body hits the wall. Nothing. I think about the light switch 7.5 feet away. Nah. I don’t really want to know the damages, and if I don’t see anything maybe there is nothing really there. I’m drifting again, my arm flung over my forehead, almost asleep. This time the wee beastie uses my arm as a bridge. I don’t scream, but I do grab the edge of the blanket and throw it over my head.

Around ten p.m. the door opens and the light goes on. It’s Wayan, Komang’s fourteen year old sister, looking for a place to sleep. She throws her blanket on the ceramic tile and pulls it around her. “Wait, Wayan! You can’t sleep on the floor. I’ll move over…”

“No,” she says. “I stay here.”

I argue but she’s adamant, telling me she moves a lot and doesn’t sleep well. She falls promptly to snoring while I lay suffocating with my head stuffed under the blanket against further invasion. Wayan sleeps like a rock. I know this because every dog within ten miles barks all night, non-stop, and I hear them. There is, however, no more scratching. It becomes essential to breathe and I eventually uncover my head.

Next post: Day Two in Abang Songan

Mona Lisa Corset and Lacy Red Bra

Abang Songan, Ketut’s village, goes about it’s ancient ways under the looming presence of holy Mount Agung. Today, a ceremony would take place here, rain or shine.

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I hopped on the back of the motorbike about 9 a.m. Monday morning. The sky brooded and at the last minute I threw my long, nylon, semi-water resistant coat into the bag. Otherwise I wore layers. The Mona Lisa corset, layer number one, hugged my ribcage. There was no way I wanted to tuck and zip myself into that chamber of horrors in front of a group of giggling pubescent Balinese girls. I knew from past experience that my change from street clothes to temple clothes when we arrived would be a group project. I was prepared. We tooled out of Ubud and headed through Tagalalang, climbing, climbing.

Pretty soon the air, heavy with un-rained moisture, turned brisk. A camisole the color of spring lilacs, the second layer of my ensemble, flashed bright underneath an unbuttoned fleece that flapped like great black wings as we sped along. A few more kilometers and I buttoned the fleece. All at once, the air let loose of its water content. Ketut pulled off the road and slid into his rain poncho. I fished out my coat and buttoned its high collar tight around my neck. I’ve never worn so many clothes in Bali! We set off again, the road slick and glistening, still climbing, climbing.

Balinese women went bare from the waist up until the government, concerned with the growing tourism industry, ruled that they had to wear shirts. But old ways die hard, especially behind the walls of a family compound. When we arrived, Ketut’s 67 years old mother, met us in her sarong and lacy red bra. The bra was on my account…otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered. I was ushered out of the rain, shivering and blue, into the all-purpose shelter. The space was filled to overflowing with offerings. Coffee and platters of food were brought for me and, one by one, family members appeared, crowding into the small space. They joked and commented on the unfortunate failure of magic to make the rain disappear.

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Trays and trays of offerings that have already been blessed at the temple, are now available for munching!

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We huddle together, waiting for the rain to slow a bit more before setting out for the festivities.

Abang Songan has traditions unlike any other village in Bali. I learned that for this special ceremony, not only do the women construct their impossibly high towers of fruits, vegetables, chickens, cakes, and so forth, but the men make an inverted version of the same. (Typically Balinese men do not make offerings.) They carry two of these masterpieces suspended on a pole over their shoulder. As the rain continued it’s postnasal drip, the offerings were shrouded in plastic and prepared for their march to the gathering place.

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Ketut, master of understatement, assured me that these weren’t heavy. But it’s like carrying 4 grocery bags full of apples and bananas! Tell me that’s not heavy!

The women carry these massive structures the equivalent of 3 or 4 blocks of muddy ruts. A superhuman effort!

The women carry these massive structures on their heads for the equivalent of 3 or 4 blocks through muddy ruts…a superhuman effort!

Once at the soccer field, the gathering place for this event, the men’s offerings were placed on racks that had been pre-constructed for the purpose and the women’s offerings were either taken to the auditorium across the street or carefully tucked under makeshift shelters.

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As the rain slowed, plastic was removed from the spectacular arrangements and the place took on a festive air.

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Families gathered under tarps and umbrellas, sitting on plastic tablecloths, chatting and waiting for the holy men to come and bless their offerings. .

About 4 p.m. the rain stopped. Hundreds of offerings had been placed under cover in the auditorium across the street where the gamelan, blessings, and prayers were ongoing. Ketut’s sister-in-law is the take-charge type and the task of managing me for the day had fallen to her. The auditorium was literally jammed with people. She saw me pointing the camera toward the gamelan musicians…”You want photo?” she asked.  I was about to say I had just taken one when she grabbed my arm and hauled me through the crowd right up to the gamelan platform. Once there she turned to me with a triumphant look on her face and gave me a curt nod, as if to say, “Well, what are you waiting for?!”

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The gamelan musicians

I was the token foreigner in the crowd. Once they realized that I liked to take photos, there were many willing to pose. Here are some of my favorites:

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Ketut’s take-charge sister-in-law with her towering offering

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Adorable! And she knows it!

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Three young boys deep in discussion

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Granny and her little tiger

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A colorful family that just wanted their photo taken

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These little mischief makers followed me around and posed numerous times!

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Total sweetness!

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Gede is the handsome chap in white on the far left. He’s standing with cousins and other family members from Trunyan, another traditional village by Lake Batur.

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I don’t want to be picked up!

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Giraffe? These animal jackets are very popular!

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Ketut and his beautiful, alert little daughter, Nengah.

The day was splendid, but the ritual I found most compelling happened at the end. Two women in white appeared carrying loops of rope. A line of girls formed behind them and each one held onto the rope. They circled the perimeter three times doing graceful movements with their free hands. Ketut said that this particular village ceremony is about starting again. I don’t know the full implications, but I embrace the concept!

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Barefoot in the muddy aftermath of rain, the women circle the area three times.

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Their hands flutter gracefully to the distant sound of gamelan

Dusk had encroached by the time we trudged back to the compound. Once again closeted with the women, Ketut’s mother helped me unwind the yards of sarong fabric, appalled that I had used safety pins to secure it, and neatly folded it back into my satchel. Ketut was ready with the motorbike. We whispered along in the softness of night, no traffic now and no rain. As the kilometers clicked away I once again experienced that familiar bubble of immense gratitude for my friend, Ketut and his willingness to share his family, his traditions, and his unique perspective on life, with this bule gila…crazy foreigner!

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