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.

Garden on Steroids

“Want to see garden?” Ketut, the master of understatement, asked. We had just finished up a quick errand and I was planning to get back to my neglected writing. But who can resist a lovely garden as long as it belongs to someone else? I grew up pulling weeds, picking beans, shelling peas and not loving it. I revisited gardening once as an adult and quickly realized I did not inherit my father’s green thumb. “Sure,” was my immediate reply and off we went.

A few miles down the road Ketut pulled into a parking area and I read the sign, Botanic Garden Ubud. Of course I started laughing. My assumption versus Ketut’s reality is always off by about 180 degrees. I thought we might stroll for a few minutes through a temple garden or a pretty landscape. But the extravaganza of flora and fauna that awaited me was beyond my imagining. Two hours and thirty minutes later we emerged from an adventure that neither of us had anticipated. There were stone paths through groves of bamboo. There were steep staircases beside a bottomless river gorge. There was a temple meditation area and deep in the heart of that jungle garden, a rainforest. I think I must have said, “Oh wow!” a thousand times. So, want to see a garden?  Come with me!

The journey begins in the Orchid House where some ordinary, and some very rare orchids are raised for sale commercially.

The Orchid House

The Orchid House

The Orchid House

The Orchid House

Leaving The Orchid House

We left the Orchid House and descended a broad staircase into incredible layers of green.

The Path and Benches

Here and there a bench, free-form and organic, offered a place to rest and gaze. The path surfaces varied from tight, smooth pebbles to lumpy rock, to asphalt, to dirt and in one area, beautiful mosaic. You want to wear hiking sandals for optimum enjoyment of the walk.

Heliconia Hill


The Fern Garden

Entrance to Meditation Area

The Bamboo Grove

More of The Bamboo Grove

Small Waterfall Approaching Deep Gorge and Rainforest

The photos of the rainforest do not come close to doing justice to the magnificence. There was a river somewhere far below the dense jungle growth. All I could see through the layers was blackness.

Rainforest and River Gorge

Mother-in-law’s Tongue

I had to photograph this for my mother. She has a pot of Mother-in-law’s Tongue (I’m sure the name comes from the fact that the leaf is sharp and pointed!) in her living room that is from a plant that my grandmother brought with her on the boat from Norway in the early 1900’s.

Rainforest, green upon green upon green!

Approach to Lotus Ponds

Mosaic Lotus Motif in Path

The Maze

It was much darker than it looks. Don’t go in if you are even slightly claustrophobic. The paths twist and turn and YOU WILL GET LOST! I thought I was on my way out, turned a corner…dead end. It’s a good way to get the heart rate elevated without strenuous exercise.

The Palm Hill

Sculpture Garden and view of Orchid Houses

As we emerged from the intense density of jungle into this airy, open space at the end of the trail I had just a momentary flash of what it might have been like for those first adventurers. They wouldn’t have had the luxury of paths. Nor would they have had the little signs to tell them what they were looking at. There would have been no bamboo rail to warn them of the edge of the cliff that drops into nothingness. There might have been snakes. I was jolted back into the now by Ketut. “Go home?” he asked. “Yes, go home. This was a good adventure Ketut!” (We like that word.) He laughed then said, “What you want to eat?”

John Hardy Jewelry is Big Business in Bali

I know what I expected. What I got was a jolt of reality.

I made the appointment the day before and my visit to the John Hardy Jewelry Compound was confirmed for 11:00 a.m.  I arrived, signed in, and a lovely Balinese woman introduced herself as my guide. We crossed a little thatched roof bridge and entered another world.

To clarify a few points, John Hardy sold the company in 2007. The two men who purchased the brand were his CEO, Damien Dernoncourt and his Senior Designer/Creative Director, Guy Bedarida. John Hardy himself went on to imagine, fund and build The Green School in Bali. (See my earlier post.) The jewelry compound at first glance appears green and serene.

I am standing on a bamboo path that leads to the huge boat-shaped showroom where the collections of John Hardy jewelry are displayed.

The interior is stunning. The jewelry cases are on bamboo pedestals. The two in the middle are single columns and the displays along the sides sit atop criss-crossed bamboo structures. The flooring is a woven bamboo material that has significant give to it. Since footware is removed upon entering, during the entire shopping experience my feet had a subtle massage. (It would never pass U.S. Building Codes!) This showroom houses the collections that are being discontinued, 30% off. There is another room slightly below this one, completely enclosed and air conditioned, where the new collections are displayed.  There are no discounts in that room but I was served a complimentary glass of amazing iced lemongrass tea with turmeric, ginger, and cane sugar syrup.

Leaving the surreal environment of the showrooms we entered the factory itself. I snapped one picture and was advised that photos would not be allowed in these areas. Gone were the bamboo fronds and breezes. I was in hot rooms with row upon row of men and women sitting at long tables, bent over their work. Some were cleaning the tiny pieces of wax that will be used for creating the molds for each miniscule part that makes up an exquisite John Hardy work of art. Some were applying those pieces to a cuff bracelet, an earring or a ring. Some were creating the beautiful woven silver chains, link by excruciating link, that become the bracelets and necklaces that are sold for hundreds, even thousands of dollars each. I was told that the workers can create up to 10 centimeters of chain per hour. Each piece of the link is about the size of the curved end of a paper clip. They do this for seven hours a day.

Approximately 700 people are employed here. The factory is immense. My guide led me through room after room and explained the process from beginning to end. A few of the orange shirted workers looked up as I passed, but most were focused diligently on their work. In the rooms where the molds are heated to melt the wax it was hot. In other areas the processes produced fumes. The people work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour off for free lunch that is served cafeteria style under the huge banyan trees.

Management eats at this table after the workers have had their meal.

There are organic gardens where  vegetables are grown. The produce is used for meals at the compound. Here one small patch of ground is being prepared for planting.

What had I expected? I had a romantic notion that all of this took place outside in the fresh air under bamboo roofed pavilions. I imagined laughter and an atmosphere of creative energy. I pictured maybe 60 people…max! Silly me. This is BIG BUSINESS. This is capitalism. This is all about money with an attempt at maintaining the goodwill of the Balinese by planting bamboo trees with a percentage of the profits. So, hypothetically, a silver bracelet that may have cost $25 to make, sells for $900, and 16 baby bamboo trees get planted when someone purchases it. (It says so right inside the bracelet.)

As I rode back through the rice fields we passed an older Balinese woman walking along the side of the road, bare breasted with her sarong skirt and a huge basket of produce on her head. I didn’t photograph the woman, but I did take this shot of the field.

It’s a bit tough to integrate everything. Some of the most expensive, beautifully refined jewelry in the world is being created right here within steps of where the old woman walked.  Many of the workers are people who, themselves, are incredible artists. But they can make more money sitting elbow to elbow in a hot, smelly factory doing a single job day after day, than they can creating their own pieces. Is it any different than farming out jobs in the garment industry to countries where people work for little or nothing, or any industry for that matter? Seeing it first-hand gives me a completely different perspective. I feel thrown off-balance. But that’s what reality does when it catches me unprepared for truth.

The Green School


Today I am sending you to a link for the Green School here in Bali. There are conscious efforts in many U.S. cities to teach children to be more self-sufficient and ecology minded. In Bali they have taken it to another level. Please check out the website and see a school that was built ‘green’ and teaches ‘green.’

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