Sexy men in sarongs

I’ve heard it said that Asian men are androgynous. Statistically they’re smaller in stature than men in the West. Most have less body hair and finer features. I’ve been around Japanese men, a few Koreans, and now hosts of Indonesians. To my aesthetic, there’s nothing sexier than a man in a sarong. Androgynous or not, they are magnificent!

P1070751My friend, Dewa I, (the hottie in the photo) invited me to his village months ago for a special ceremony. I have no idea how special until Ketut and I are about a mile from the town and we’re stopped by a Pecalang, the local security guard.

“Sorry, no vehicles past this point, special ceremony.”

“Yes, we know. We’ve been invited.”

The guard peers at me. I’m in full temple garb and I’m sure he’s wondering how I fit into this picture.

P1070729As authentic as it looks, I’m not passing muster.

“Sorry. Road closed.”

Ketut rattles off a few sentences in Balinese, slides his phone out of his pocket, and calls Dewa. The next thing I know we’re waved through. Even in Bali…especially in Bali…it’s not what you know, it’s who.

In a mile or so we come to the village. Another Pecalang motions us off the road into a parking area. We leave the bike and are ushered to a roofed platform where three more guards confer about what to do with this smiling American and her Balinese escort. They’re holding two-way radios and a flurry of crackling messages commences. “Parking lot to temple, we have an unidentified foreign female demanding entrance…!”

Five minutes, ten minutes. Ketut arranges himself on the platform with a cigarette. One of the men notices the sun beating on my fair-haired head and invites me to sit in the shade. Fifteen minutes, twenty, then Ketut stands, ambles to the edge of the platform and says, “Dewa’s wife coming.”

We’re saved!

P1070754She’s like a vision walking toward us. We exchange happy hugs and she leads us to their home up the street past throngs of villagers awaiting the next event in the temple. The houses are nestled, tight-packed up the mountainside. We follow a narrow, walled path, ascend a staircase, and we’re there.

Coffee appears and a bowl of snacks as Nyoman apologizes. They’re all very busy today and because it’s an important ceremony and we are outsiders, we’re not allowed into the temple. But we can watch the processions and dancing that will happen in the street.

I laugh and tell her it’s fine, but my private thought is that Dewa didn’t remember, or perhaps didn’t think of it when he invited me. It’s the women who know the rules, the ins and outs of the ceremonies. But I’m delighted just to be here, to see their village and be a guest in their home.

Everyone’s jabbering at once when a shout from below brings me to the wall. I peer over and there’s Dewa II,  holding a plate of food and grinning up at me. I can hardly believe he’s the same guy who scared the stuffing out of me when we first met because he never smiled. He’s just finished a Baris performance and is grabbing a bite before it’s show-time again.

P1070747As he gobbles his lunch he tells me that he has six performances today and the next one is in a few minutes.

“Can I watch?”

“Yes.” When he leaves the girls grab my hands and we zig-zag through the crowds. They park me in the shade above the area where the dancers will appear, and then it begins. (Click here: Baris Dance.) Now the smiling face is set in a mask of concentration as he executes the complex footwork of this dance of the warriors.

P1070764The dancers form lines on either side of the women and priests who are exiting the temple after making offerings and prayers. When the ceremony draws to an end the girls are agitated. Their English is confined to, “What is your name, my name is…!” and they don’t comprehend my brand of Indonesian. But with enough repetition and gestures I’m made to understand that they have to go somewhere to do something and I should wait here. They race away. In a matter of moments it becomes clear. They are the next performance! This close-up of Dewa II’s daughter shows her with the same fierce intensity of concentration as her father in the photo above.

P1070782The girls finish and I’m collected and returned to the house where more coffee and a tour of the rest of the family compound awaits. Ketut is particularly interested as we meander past the residences of the brothers and uncles, to see the livestock. There are cows, pigs, piglets, chickens, fighting cocks, and ducks. One porker named ‘cow’ because of her immense size, lumbers to her feet and sticks her snout toward the camera for a close-up.

P1070797There’s one spotty milk chocolate runt in the pen of piglets. I feel an instant kinship with the tiny character because he looks so out of place with his pinky-grey companions. I name him Coklat (c is always the ch sound in the Indonesian language, and Cok is the name attached to the royalty in Ubud.) My companions find this hilarious.

P1070794The afternoon wanes into evening and the gamelan orchestra is still pounding a frenzy of sound when we take our leave. Nyoman bustles to the kitchen and returns with a bag stuffed with mangoes, oranges, pears, snakefruit and sweets to send home with me. We walk down the hill together, her arm around my waist, mine around hers. Then it’s back in the saddle for the long ride home.

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We pass rice terraces and fresh paddies just sprouting. “Nice area,” says Ketut.

“Yes, beautiful.”

“Good people,” he adds, and I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

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Dancing History, Dancing Memory, Dancing A Prayer

The entrance to the Water Palace was ablaze with light. Instruments of the gamelan glowed golden as they awaited the evening performance.

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We had been accosted by a man in a checkerboard sarong as we hurried toward the venue along Jl. Raya. “You see Lagong Dance at Royal Palace? You buy ticket from me. Only 80,000 rupiah.” I told him we were going to the Water Palace to see Gamelan, not the Royal Palace for Legong. “Yes, you go to Water Palace, Gamelan, you buy ticket from me, 80,000 rupiah.” He was walking sideways, ahead of us, earnestly explaining that the price was the same for us whether we bought tickets from him or at the gate. If we bought from him he would get commission.  There are many ways to make a buck in Bali, and that’s about what he made when we gave him our business.

Passing through the gate we strolled a pebbled walkway between two lotus filled pools and found a seat a few feet from the entrance to the palace. The air, heavy and moist, threatened rain. Those seated near us were speculating on the likelihood of that happening when the musicians filed in and took their places. There is a relaxed informality inherent in the Balinese alongside a dignified grace. The woman on the right checked her glasses, decided they were adequately clean, and repositioned them on her face. When all were seated a joyous and resounding instrumental introduction welcomed us to the performance.

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Gamelan is distinctly Indonesian. It is meant to be played outdoors. As one writer described it, “The open walls allow for the music to flow out into the community where the rest of the people may enjoy it. Inside closed rooms Balinese gamelan is inaudible and it easily trespasses the threshold of pain.” I have experienced it both ways and wholeheartedly agree that it must be played outdoors.

The instrumental introduction was followed by Puspa Wresti derived from the ceremonial Pendet dance. Young girls with bodies undulating disciplined and slow, shower the stage and the audience with flower petals. The flower offerings purify the temple or theater as a prelude to ceremonies. It is a ritual of welcome inviting the audience, and the spirits, to enjoy the delights of the performance. 

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The costumes, makeup, and artistry of the dancers held us entranced.
The movements of their hands and feet, arms and torsos, necks and heads, and even their eyes, were precise and provocative.
 

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The beautiful Bird of Paradise dance, Cendrawasih, followed. The complex choreography is designed to portray the arrogance of this magnificent creature, and the costuming reflects its glorious plummage. This sweet bird moved too quickly for the night setting on my camera to do it justice!

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No performance would be complete without the fierce Baris, glorifying the manhood of the triumphant Balinese warrior. The dance depicts the courage of a hero who is going to war. Once again the careful positioning of the feet, the impossible angles of the fingers, and the whites of the eyes tell the story.

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After the intense scariness of the Baris, it was time for the children to perform Kelinci, the Rabbit Dance! They came bouncing out all in white satin and floppy ears looking adorable. And they continued to bounce and playfully bat at each other executing their antics in orchestrated unison.

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Each performance was more exotic and technically brilliant than the one before. But at the end of the night I had a distinct favorite. The Panji Semirang tells the story of a young princess. When her husband marries another woman, the princess cuts her hair and changes her clothes pretending to be a man. She moves to the forrest with her servants. Granted, the Balinese men are gorgeous, but I don’t think anyone is going to mistake these beauties for handsome gents!

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Throughout the evening a light mist hung in the air, but no one noticed. The magic of sumptuous fabrics, intricate movements, and melodious gamelan kept us spellbound. These ancient stories have been danced for centuries, but they are more than mere entertainment. Woven into the artistry is a thread of reverent awe.  The performers are dancing history, and memory, and perhaps even prayer.

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