Please don’t ever let this become ordinary

You know how things that once amazed and delighted you fade to ordinary over time? It happens with just about everything: jobs, clothing, marriage.

When I moved to Bali, I remember sucking in fragrant, moisture-laden air, staring enraptured into bottomless ravines, tasting foods that exploded with heat and thinking, “Please don’t let me ever take this for granted.” I’ve gotten comfortable here, but I’ve never lost the tingle of delight at the scents, the landscapes, and the bursts of fire on my tongue.

Early on, I learned to ask for “Not spicy, please,” whenever I ordered Balinese fare. There’s one memorable eating adventure that still makes me giggle. I’d pointed to the word Rujak on the menu and asked the server what it was.

“Fruit salad,” she replied.

“Safe,” I thought. Little did I know the sweet papaya, pineapple, banana, and watermelon would be served drowned in a dressing heavily laced with cayenne pepper!

I’ll admit, though, there is one thing that did fade over time.

I was curious about the whistling I heard daily. It wasn’t raspy, electrical-wire-humming sound that cicadas make. This was pure, melodious, and it went on continuously for around thirty minutes every morning. One day I was having coffee with my neighbor and there it was. The whistling.

“What makes that sound?” I asked.

“What sound?” It had faded into background noise for her.

“The whistling,” I said.

“Oh, that. It’s just birds.”

Whistling birds circling over my Bali garden

I accepted her explanation and thought little more about it. Nine years later, I sat down to lunch with an expat friend who had lived in Asia most of her adult life. I’d watched the birds circling and whistling that morning and was mesmerized anew by their disciplined flight pattern and ceaseless sound. Once again, I wondered what kind of bird it was. No amount of Google searching on my part had turned up any evidence. She answered immediately.

“They’re a kind of pigeon – like homing pigeons. They’re trained to fly in circles.” I quizzed her for more but she shrugged and said that was all she knew.

Later that afternoon, I refined my Google search and this time hit pay dirt. It was one of those mind blowing moments of discovery.

Wikipedia told me that whistling pigeons have been used in China since at least the Ching Dynasty (1644 – 1912) and are also popular in Japan and Indonesia. But wonder of wonders, the birds aren’t born whistling. Tiny, lightweight whistles, painstakingly carved, are sewn into their tail feathers. The sound changes with the speed and direction of flight.

Photos from China Today

I was instantly obsessed and had to learn more. Who makes the whistles? How are the birds trained? This video answered all of those questions and several others I hadn’t thought to ask.

It seemed the flock that circled my garden was the only one of its kind in town. Over the past year of lockdown however, with time on their hands, it sounds like others may have gotten into whistle carving and pigeon training. Now there’s a new school that circles high over my back garden as well. (Pigeons. A band, dropping, flight, kit, loft, passel, plague, school – notice I resisted using plague for obvious reasons!)

The practice in China has diminished due to increasing urbanisation and regulation. I understand why. It’s a noisy hobby.

Ubud is more laid-back. People here can raise anything they want. Across the street from me in the town’s center, a family keeps chickens in makeshift coops on their flat rooftop. When the humidity is high and the wind is right, I’m keenly aware of the pig farm a block away.

It’s the complexity. The element of surprise. The strict rituals of Bali Hinduism nudged up against the relaxed approach to the rest of life that keeps amazement and delight alive in me. There will always be a mind-blowing vista to discover, a suspicious cuisine to sample, a new perspective on an old idea to explore.

Ordinary? I should say not. Extraordinary? Absolutely – like falling in love again with each sunrise.

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.


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.


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.


PART THREE: Kick Ass Granny

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