Diplomacy Bali style, you only think you know what you want!

The jungle has it’s place. My idea of a garden, however, is more orderly, manageable, controlled.

In the months preceding the acquisition of the small plot of land adjoining mine, I visualized, sketched, imagined what my garden would look like. Ah, lovely! A solid base of mosaic stone pathways known as batu sikat to create the backdrop for potted palms, bougainvillea, gardenias, and other tropical varietals. It would go from this, its current jungle-ish state,

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The ‘before’ look of my future garden

to something more like this.

Garden plan

The basic idea

I show my drawings to Ketut who will be instrumental in manifesting the vision. (In other words, to him falls the questionable pleasure of uprooting and relocating the jungle and transforming it into planned perfection.) “Oh,” he says, with that tone that I’ve come to recognize as not being quite on my page. “No small mountain???”

For the sake of clarity, the Balinese style garden is a series of earthen mounds. In the center of each is a tall tree that is bordered by leafy plants in varying hues of green, red, and yellow, which are again skirted at the lower level with shorter flowering shrubs creating a mountain affect.

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Balinese style garden

There is no question that it’s beautiful. But I want something  different.

“No small mountain,” I say, with the inflection of voice that leaves very little room for doubt. “I want pots, not mountains.”

Ketut is thoughtful and quiet.

“What are you thinking?” I get wary when there’s no give and take.

“Oh ya,” he says, and nothing else.

A day passes and Ketut’s industry is beautiful to behold. The jungle, like Bali magic, disappears and I venture into the cleared space to reintroduce my plan, just in case. Ketut speaks first. “Ya, three small mountains, one here, one here, one there.” I decide to go the route of diplomacy.

“Ketut,” I try to be patient. “Tell me what you see.”

After a brief explanation I see the same thing he sees, a traditional Bali garden.

“I don’t want small mountains, just pots. Many batu sikat and pots. Is that possible?”

A small “Ya,” is my answer.

Another day passes. More space is cleared and new plantings appear along the back wall.  It’s taking shape. With drawing in hand I once again venture into the clearing, drumming up the necessary resolve to hold firm with my vision.

“It looks beautiful, amazing!” I tell him, and it does. But I don’t see any indication of a design that includes my decorative pathways. “Where will we put batu sikat?”

“Oh, very expensive,” he says.

“How expensive?”

“Maybe broken.”

“Broken?”

“Ya, land very soft, easy make batu sikat broken. Maybe a little a little around pot. And here small mountain…”

The end of this story is obvious by now. In true Balinese fashion, Ketut has given me what I want, his way. He never tells me I can’t, but with gentle stubbornness he guides me to reach that conclusion all by myself. I have to loosen the reigns. When I do the results are always spectacular. The creativity that erupts in such abundance in this culture astounds me. I have no doubt my garden, when left to Ketut, will be a thing of wondrous beauty. I’ll have a few pots, he’ll have a few mountains, and I’ll believe it was all my idea in the first place.

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Ketut hard at work in the new garden

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You a little fat

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It’s 6 p.m.

Wayan Sie, the only masseuse in the world that I allow anywhere near me, arrives and I strip, stretching out on my stomach on the bed. The aroma of nutmeg scented oil swirls in the room. She strokes my back with long, sweeping movements, ahhh. Muscles let go. I melt. “That feels so good, Wayan,” I croon happily.

“Ya, Sherry,” she replies. She’s quiet for a moment then says, “You a little fat, ya?”

Wayans hands have been all over my body. Many times. If anyone could detect a few extra pounds, she could. Damn Balinese honesty! “Am I?” I ask.

“Ya, it’s good,” she says.

I meditate on that for the remaining 70 minutes that she kneads, pokes, pummels, and prods me. First I think about the comment another friend made just a month ago. “You’re scrawny,” she said. Okay, who do I believe? No contest. Wayan knows. Then I think about my body. It’s become muscular with all the yoga and walking. It’s that new muscle, I tell myself, as if Wayan doesn’t know the difference between fat and muscle. Right. I wonder why I haven’t noticed. My clothes aren’t any tighter. Of course the loose fitting garb I wear here wouldn’t be tight if I gained 200 pounds.

Wayan finishes. I thank her and she leaves to cook dinner for her husband and son.

Fat. I don’t relate to fat. I’m not fat. I’ve never been fat, well, aside from pudginess prior to puberty, but that doesn’t count. Why am I obsessing about this?

In the U.S. we wouldn’t dream of telling someone what we think when it concerns negative body image. Bali is a different story. In this culture you say it like it is, whether you’ve gained weight, grown a zit the size of a grapefruit, gotten a bad haircut…the Balinese notice and comment. It can be a bit off-putting at first, as is their propensity to want to know your business.

“Where you go?”

“What you buy?”

“How much you pay?

Then I remember. The last massage Wayan gave me was on the heels of a ten day siege of Bali Belly. I had done nothing but puke and poop. There wasn’t much left of me. By comparison I am now, indeed, ‘a little fat’. Okay. I can live with that.

Negotiating Bali Style!

We were on our way back to Ubud. Made Mangku had stopped to gift us with another incredible view of rice terraces. We took our photos, ooo’d and aaah’d and were returning to the car when, across the road, a sarong vendor spotted us. The last thing I need right now is another sarong so I asked her in my best pidgin Indonesian if I could take her photo. She immediately went into a sort of sarong ballet, whipping a bright pink one off the stack on her head and winding it around her ample middle.

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After the photogenic pose she sashayed toward our little group saying, “Nice photo…now you buy!” Terri, Barbara, and Sharon had that look of, “Oh no…here we go again.” Our trip to Besakih, the Mother Temple, had been well populated with many opportunities to purchase the handicrafts of Bali, and my friends are not overly fond of negotiating. But there was something in that impish face…and I decided there was nothing I needed MORE than a sarong from this engaging woman. So it began…

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She handed me the pink one and I quickly made her understand that pink was NOT my color. Then the stack of them came down off her head and we went at it.

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I found one that I liked and said, “Berapa?” (how much?)

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When she answered I, of course, looked horrified. “Sanghat mahal! Bagi saya sanghat mahal!” (Too expensive for me!)

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“Berapa?” I asked again, knowing what she would say. “Berapa?” she asked back. How much would I pay. In other words, “Okay, let’s get real, what’s it worth to you?” I named my price. Then it was her turn to look horrified.

After a bit more haggling she met my price. "Good for me, good for you," as the Balinese are fond of saying.

After a bit more haggling, she agreed to my offer. Then with that decidedly smug look she quipped, “Good for me, good for you.” When mama’s happy, everybody’s happy!

My Balinese friend should have won an Oscar for her performance. By the end our audience was laughing hilariously, except for Sharon. She was behind her camera capturing the whole show in living color.

My Balinese friend should have won an Oscar for her performance. By the end our audience was laughing hilariously, except for Sharon. She was behind her camera capturing the whole show in living color.

This is my 9th sarong. Two of them turned into beautiful pillow covers. One is now a pair of wild pants. The rest give me many choices when ceremonial dress is in order. But for sheer, dramatic delight, this one is my all time favorite!

Note:  The white stuff on my forehead is rice. We were allowed to participate in a Hindu prayer ritual at the Mother Temple. It is a complex process, but at one point sticky rice is affixed to the middle of the forehead. Mine really stuck!

Paradise Found

I’m not one for crowds. I like my people in controlled portions, ceremonies and festivals excepted. In those situations crowd energy is essential. So when Ketut and I sit down with the map to find a new coastline to explore, he knows I don’t have Kuta or Canggu in mind. I want something pristine, deserted, remote. There’s a little dot on the map called Soka. It isn’t connected by road to the crazy tourist beaches. Something about it speaks to me.

This morning at 8:30 with thunderheads warm and dark in the west, we straddle the motorbike and head…west. “Maybe big rain,” Ketut astutely observes. “Maybe,” I agree hoping he’s right. A big rain when you’re on a motorbike is a great excuse to stop for a cup of Balinese coffee at a roadside warung to let it pass. There is nothing negative about that possibility for me.

Rice fields with mountains in the distance

After about an hour and three raindrops on my nose, the clouds are behind us. Soka is an eyeblink with a restaurant overlooking the distant ocean. Pretty, quiet, and no surfboard rental shops in sight. Good sign. We continue on. The ocean disappears. It has to be there but we can’t see it. A few more miles and Ketut pulls off the road. After a brief conversation with a local, he translates for me, “Small road,” he says, and we turn around and head back toward Soka.

Small road to the beach

When he turns off on said ‘small road’ I am feeling really happy. There are no guards demanding an entrance fee. There are no motorbikes parked alongside. There are no hoards of people. “Is it private?” I ask, thinking we may be trespassing on some exclusive beachfront property. “No very,” his tone reassures me even if his words leave me a bit muddled as to the exact meaning. We round the corner and, oh bliss! There it is! My beach! The one I have envisioned, longed for, believed in, and needed to find.

Ethereal mist softens the outcroppings of black lava

Breakers just keep rolling in

There are holes in the lava where tepid pools of water are trapped when the waves overflow. Nature’s hot tubs!

Ketut points out that the design on the edge of one pool looks like a snake is coiled there.

I am pretty proud of myself climbing up, but have to enlist help to get back down!

And this is what someone may have seen landing on this same beach centuries ago

There’s a downside to all magical moments. Leaving. At some point, knowing it’s going to take just as long to get home as it did to get here, the decision to leave must be made. We slowly pick our way back to the motorbike noting that the only tracks on the beach belong to us and a cow. Hmmm. A cow?

Back on the highway mid-afternoon hunger sets in. Rounding a curve, there it is, a tidy little warung. Water, soft drinks, bottled fruit juice and assorted Balinese snacks in pink bins line the counter.

Roadside warung

Hidden behind the display in her baseball cap and gorgeous smile, ibu chops the chilis for the mei goreng she is preparing for us. We wait, happily sipping steaming cups of delicious black sludge.

Chopping the chilis

Hunger satisfied, I resume my position behind Ketut when down the road in front of us comes…

THE COW!

And why not? This is Bali after all. Motorbikes, trucks, tourist buses, and a cow. It all seems perfectly normal after a few months here.

The Elegance of the Balinese Penjor

If I thought Bali was beautiful before, I had no idea what was in the works for the ten day Galungan celebration. Every Balinese friend I talked to spoke excitedly about Galungan and the penjor. The words had no meaning for me. So although their excitement was contagious, and even though they attempted to explain, I was clueless. As the day drew closer the energy of the island intensified. Then I got an invitation. Pasek, the manager of several properties including my house, invited me to his village for the temple ceremonies and the first day of Galungan. His village is high in the mountains and if there is a beaten track his home is significantly beyond that. I was deeply honored to be included in the special time for his family. So even though it meant another very long motorbike ride (over an hour one way) and subjecting myself to the roads that snake their way to the top shrinking ever smaller as they ascend, I eagerly accepted.

Pasek in his family temple with a few of the many many offerings

Pasek with his wife, his father, and his three children in the traditional Balinese ceremonial dress.

The experience was profoundly personal and I am grateful to have been so generously welcomed to share in the ancient practices still alive today.

On the ride to Pasek’s village on Mt. Batur, we passed thousands of penjor. I am not exaggerating…thousands! I kept exclaiming to the wind rushing past my ears, “Oh! Wow! Beautiful! Oh! Look at that one! Wow!” etc. etc.  That was yesterday. Today I straddled Ketut’s motorbike and off we went on a penjor photo adventure! He took me through village after village and stopped, waiting patiently while I walked from one glorious creation to the next, shooting, shooting, shooting.  Just by way of a quick explanation, penjor is synonymous with Mt. Agung, the highest and holiest mountain on Bali. Every single one of these gracefully arched, fancifully decorated bamboo poles is different. They are made by the family who owns the property abutting the street. There are offerings attached and there is often a little temple beside the penjor.

Penjors line the village streets

Another village…

And another…

At about 9 feet from the ground, the first work of art manifests. The following are a few examples of once again, thousands of variations on the theme.

The entire penjor is made from items occurring in nature and basic to Balinese life.

The tassels waving in the breezes high above the street are also marvelous and diverse creations.

The poles themselves are completely covered from top to bottom with exquisite woven, fringed, and looped designs that defy verbal explanation.

This one deserved a close-up…

Some of the penjors had a woven strip forming a ramp to the offering. Ketut told me these special weavings signify a family wedding.

These amazing displays remain in place for the 10 days of Galungan, then they are gone and next year, in the 11th month of their 210 day calendar, it happens all over again. The closest thing to it in the U.S. are the street decorations at Christmas. I won’t shove it down your throat, you can draw your own conclusions, but it doesn’t seem quite the same…

I’ve given you a small taste, a sweet one I hope, of the elegance of the penjor.

Indonesian on a Stick!

At the Minnesota State Fair you can get almost anything on a stick: deep fried nut rolls on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, eggrolls, chocolate covered jalepeno peppers…need I say more? It is gastronomical suicide…on a stick. But on with the story…

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world. It is preceded by China, India, and the United States in that order. As a result, Indonesian is one of the most widely spoken languages. But that’s not why I’ve decided to learn it. There’s a quote by Steven Covey, Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It just seems like the right thing to do.

I also have a unique opportunity for immersion. My house helpers, Pasek and Ketut, and my Balinese friends love it that I’m trying to learn. Most Balinese have completed ‘tourism school’ where they are taught English so they can communicate with the hoards swarming over their country. They make it too easy. So now that they know I’m serious they have become devoted task masters. I have all the help I can handle!

There is an Indonesian phrase book, dog-eared and ancient, that was left here by some former resident. I started with that but I have no need for a bus terminal or a shopping mall. The book is of limited value to me. So the other day I strolled to the Ganesha Bookstore and found a sweet Pocket Indonesian Dictionary. I say sweet because it appeals to me aesthetically as well as functionally, and I appreciate that! It is small (pocket) and has a plastic cover (durable) and it’s orange (pretty!)

The dictionary is an immediate improvement, but things aren’t happening fast enough for me. Flash cards. I need flash cards! So today I go in search of recipe cards, or something similar. I want to make my own. My first stop is the convenience store where I remember seeing tape, staples, tablets. No luck with recipe cards there. So I meander across the street to CoCo’s Supermarket. Again, no such thing as recipe cards. Okay. Think outside the box. What will work instead?

My eyes graze over cardboard gift-type boxes, stacks of brown paper cut in perfect 10″ squares, airmail envelopes, popsickle sticks…Stop…back up! What are those? I pick up a package of little flat wooden spoons, the kind that come with the round ice cream cups. Thirty to a package for 42 cents. I toss two packages into my basket along with a bottle of Kecap Manis and one of Kecap Pedas (sweet soy sauce and spicy soy sauce.) I can’t wait to get home and see if my ‘necessity is the mother of invention‘ purchase will work.

My latest invention: Flash Sticks!

Look at that…would you look at that! I had one package done in no time, Indonesian word or phrase on one side and its English meaning on the other. I’m pretty pleased with myself right now! It’s the simple things…

My Wife is Fat

I strolled through the neighborhood this morning with a shadowy intention of ending up at Lake Harriet.  The sky was a powder-blue dome, seamless, the sun its only adornment. I’ve driven or biked the route many times but walking yields sights and sounds that are otherwise lost.

There are huge, peach colored irises in a garden right by the sidewalk. They are the size of coconuts, or cantaloupes, utterly breathtaking. One block has a row of maple trees including the showy Crimson King with the dark purple leaves. There was no traffic.  It was so quiet I could hear bugs skittering through the grass. I could also hear my own thoughts.

I’ve learned a lot about thoughts. Thoughts are the root of everything. No matter what situation I find myself in, how I choose to think about it becomes my reality. That nugget of truth was brought home to me time and again when I talked with my Balinese friends. One conversation in particular comes to mind. We were discussing nutrition, the abundance of healthy eating choices available to the native residents and foreigners alike in Bali. In spite of that, I had noticed that some Balinese women and children are overweight. My friend told me that the Balinese can earn more money now and it is easier to buy rich food or prepackaged cookies, candy, and snacks. He flashed a huge smile and said, “My wife is fat.” It was one of those moments, there were many, when I didn’t know whether to congratulate him, scold him for saying something unkind, or commiserate. I have a terrible tendency to sit with my mouth half open and a glazed look in my eyes while experiencing inner turmoil. Still mentally trying to sort through the etiquette of an answer, he rescued me. “I like it!” he exclaimed.

So, to my point, he thinks fat is beautiful. He THINKS fat is beautiful. Therefore his chubby wife makes him happy. This is what was floating about in my mind as I meandered the streets this morning. I dallied through the rose gardens, across the biking and walking paths that circle the lake, and out onto a wide, plank dock. As I sat down at the end I realized I had been noticed. The fish were gathering. I counted 21 then stopped. They formed a semi-circle at the end of the dock with their pointed noses all headed in my direction, watching, waiting. We eyed each other for about three minutes, then they tired of me and swished away. I took off my sandals and bared my shoulders to the warm rays. Ahhhh. I slowly gave in to gravity and reclined full-length.

Creating my own reality is a big responsibility. Choosing how I will think about everything makes me have to think about thinking. It requires that I become aware of my tendencies toward negative or positive viewpoints. It is the process of mind watching mind. As a child I was taught how to moderate my physical actions. I remember mom saying, “Sit like a lady,” and I knew that meant I should keep my knees together. But there was no instruction regarding how to think in order to create my own happiness.

I have neither a fat wife nor a fat husband. That’s a plus. However, I do have to organize my thinking around wrinkles, retirement, and what matters most as I enter the ‘golden years.’ What surprises me is the feeling of empowerment. Knowing that I can stop at any time, review my thoughts and change them, puts me in charge of my own happiness. Senility may eventually put a wrench in the works, but until then I’m choosing NOT to think about that.

Holy motorbikes!

As adventures go, today gets a perfect 10. It had all the required elements: suspense, terror, discovery, delight. To say that I have an uneasy relationship with motorbikes would be, well, a lie. I am white-knuckle-clench-jaw terrified of riding on any motorized vehicle with only two wheels. So when Wayan invited me to visit their home I was thrilled until she said she would pick me up on her motorbike. My big smile did an instant melt-down. “Motorbike?” I squeaked. “Yes,” she flashed her own lovely smile, “you ride on the back. I will take you.” Face it. An opportunity to visit this Balinese family in a village about 30 minutes away, to experience first-hand how these beautiful people live, just doesn’t come along every day. There was no way I was not going.

Suspense. Wayan was coming at 4:00. By 2:00 I was feeling knots in my stomach. At 3:00 my palms were sweaty. By the time I heard the sound of a motor approaching at 3:55 I was hyperventilating. Taking a deep, cleansing breath I grabbed my bag and went out to meet her. She strapped me into a helmet, popped the back foot rests down and I climbed on. My grip on her rib-cage probably permanently rearranged her vital organs. Terror!  Then off we went. Traffic on the streets in Bali is frightening enough when I’m walking on the sidewalk. But to be weaving in and out between tour buses and hundreds of other bikes similar to hers, horns blaring, without anything protecting my fragile body, put me in a catatonic state. I clung to Wayan’s tiny middle for dear life.

After a few miles we left Ubud. The air was fresh, traffic was light, and in spite of myself I began to enjoy the ride. I don’t believe I said that! But its true. Upon arrival at her home I was introduced to her husband, Komang, and their adorable son. Komang works at the reception desk of a high-end resort spa. Both Komang and Wayan speak very good English.

My tour of their home commenced. I followed Komang to the family temple area. As he explained the function of each of the structures and what they represent I was struck anew by the dailiness of their beliefs. There is no separation between the secular and the holy. They are interwoven so seamlessly that one is unrecognizable without the other.

Komang explained that each of the small buildings in the temple area has a purpose. One is for making offerings to honor the ancestors. One receives offerings for safety. Another, offerings for prosperity. One that struck me with particular impact was the edifice that represented caring about doing good work. They make offerings and prayers, daily, for caring about doing good work. With all these prayers, setting the intention for such goodness, its little wonder that Bali is a very special place.

Did I mention that I was an instant celebrity here. Upon arrival children began to gather around me. No matter what I did or said they found it hilariously funny. They have mastered the words, ‘Hello’ and ‘Bye.’ But they mostly like Hello, so every few minutes one of them would blurt out, “Hello!” and wait expectantly for my answering, “Hello!” Then they would all laugh uproariously.

 

 

The Balinese lifestyle is completely different from ours in the West in other ways too. They have a house for sleeping, a separate house for cooking, a place for the ceremonies of marriage and death, and the temple area. All of these are surrounded by a wall, maybe 8 feet high. The buildings are small by Western standards, but most of life is lived outside. And why wouldn’t it be in this climate where as the saying goes, “Even a rock, if planted, will grow.”

There is a stream that runs a little distance from the house. Earlier Wayan had pointed to it saying that this is where she does her laundry. Huh? Sometimes I have to catch myself so that my shock and disbelief don’t offend. A few moments later she added that this is also where the women bathe every morning at 6 a.m. “Men too?” I asked. “No, men go somewhere else.” As I said, much of life is lived outside.

When we returned from our walk through the neighborhood, Wayan disappeared into the kitchen building and emerged a few minutes later with a treat. It was fresh coconut milk, straight from the coconut, which was harvested from one of the three coconut palms on their property. Then Komang’s mother joined us. She takes care of their mischievous three-year-old while Wayan and Komang work six days a week.

 

After refreshments Wayan and Komang offered to take me to the night market. Even though it meant another motorbike ride, my curiosity triumphed and off we went. There were no tourists there tonight, and we strolled through the isles, Komang carrying his son and Wayan holding my arm. I saw many Balinese women walking arm in arm and I felt much love for this little family that has so warmly welcomed me into their lives.

 

 

There were food vendors everywhere and the knawing in my stomach reminded me that Wayan and Komang had come straight from work and were probably hungry too. Komang pointed out the various dishes naming them. “And this one is bubur ayam…” he had barely gotten the words out of his mouth and I interjected, “Oh! Can we stop and have some? I will buy your dinner. I love bubur ayam!” My gracious host and hostess agreed. Three heaping bowls of the savory dish were presented and what a delicious treat it was. Three bowls of bubur ayam and beverages set me back a whopping $2.00.

As we finished our meal the sky looked like it may be working up to another twilight downpour. We quickly returned to the motorbikes and straddling the trusty machine, I once again wrapped my arms around Wayan’s waist. Waving goodby and thanks to Komang, we set off to beat the rain. What a spectacular day. And, thanks to Wayan, I think I may have overcome a major phobia involving two-wheeled, motorized vehicles!

 

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