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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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.

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