The Bali Blue Bed

Indonesians make amazing beds. Historically they used them for sleeping, but Westerners have adopted these exquisite creations to serve as sofas where several people can curl up and have a cozy conversation.
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For months, Ketut has been hauling me to and fro through surrounding villages stopping at every shop with a daybed for sale. I’ve seen them all, from heart-stopping gorgeous ones to those with manure and pig-smell hanging about them. Even though the choices were endless to the point of customizing something to my specifications, I was ambivalent.

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Then last week at Ketut’s home in Kintamani, I toured the family compound and caught up on the latest happenings. As we passed through the wood shop, a flash of blue in the corner caught my eye. It was heaped full of stumps and chunks awaiting the skillful knives that would reveal the images within. Upon closer inspection, my eyes nearly popped their sockets. It was a DAYBED, carved in the old style and painted Bali blue. In disbelief I turned to my host.
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“Ketuuuuut…what’s this?”
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“Oh, old bed. My father make.”
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“Your father made this?”
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“Ya, very old.”
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“Ketut, this is a daybed.”
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“Ya.”
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“Remember, you have been taking me all over Bali looking at daybeds.”
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“Ya.”
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“You didn’t tell me about THIS daybed!”
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“Oh no. Very old. I forget.”
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I took a few deep cleansing breaths and studied the lines, the detail, and checked the sturdiness. It appeared to be strong and fully intact.
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“You like?” he asked.
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“Ketut, it’s amazing! It is exactly what I’ve been looking for. And your father made it! Do you know how special this is to me because your father made it? Do you think your mother would sell it?”
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I was speaking too fast about abstract feelings, most of which, I knew, would be lost in translation. But he caught the gist of the last question.
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“I ask,” he said.
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He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a tape measure. He knows the size I want and he stretched the tape for the length, width, and height calling out the numbers to me. It was perfect.
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“Will your mother sell it?”
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“Ya, you can have. Very old, nobody want.”
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“Ketut, I need a daybed. I am going to buy one somewhere but this one is so special and I want to pay for it. Is that okay?”
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“Ya, up to you.”
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I left in a state that can only be described as bliss. He said he would arrange to rent a truck and bring it to me. It arrived two nights later around 8:30 pm  with Ketut and five family members. They carried the pieces from the street along with four big new trees for my garden and a pair of giant carved mushrooms, also for my garden!
*
Over the next two days I scrubbed years of use from the frame and Ketut sanded and applied new varnish to the side panels. Yesterday afternoon he assembled it.
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 Ketut in assembly mode.
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The beautiful Bali blue bed in all its splendor!
P1070835No mattress yet. I’ll order one made to fit. Pillows are enough for now!
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This daybed embraces me and it will do the same to all who join me here for future conversations. Ketut’s family is extraordinary. His father passed away six months ago. He  was a very special man, and now I have something that was not only made with his hands, but used by the family until they bought a new, modern one three years ago.
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 There are unfinished areas on the sides that were always against a wall in the room in Kintamani. As we discussed paint possibilities I mentioned the white ridged detail along the canopy.
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“Maybe a new color there?”
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“Not possible,” said Ketut in the voice that means it really IS NOT POSSIBLE.
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“Why?”
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“This Barong Gigi, not possible change.”
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“Oh, the Barong’s teeth? Really? Is that right?”

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“Ya, long time ago all Bali house have this. Now make with machine but my father make this.”
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 I look at the hundreds of half-cylinder shaped wood pieces and my awe deepens. Not only do I have a family heirloom, but it is infused with the rich, protective magic of the Barong. I know the Barong. He’s the physical manifestation of the king of all protective spirits. In the ceremonial dances he’s huge with a hairy body and lion-like masked head full of large, white teeth.
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I feel myself choking up, a common occurrence in my life here. That feeling always accompanies the intense gratitude for what seems to fall effortlessly from the gods into my lap.
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“Thank you for telling me, Ketut. I love this bed so much!”
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“Ya.” There’s silence for a moment while he applies varnish to the bamboo slats that hold the mattress. “You have more question?” I laugh. He loves to tell me about Balinese beliefs and wants me to write a story about Bali. Maybe I will. I’ll call it The Bali Blue Bed!
*
Oh, and speaking of blue, Bali blue is a color I NEVER would have incorporated into my decor. So bold, so very very BLUE! Now I’m rethinking my whole design scheme to highlight that color. It gives my heart a joyful bounce every time I look at it.
*
On all those daybed outings I told myself, I’ll know it when I see it. There were many stunning options, ornate and delicately carved, but my mind never said, Yes! This is it! until the woodshed. I’ve learned this about myself: I need to wait with decisions until my heart leaps out and grabs onto something. Until then it’s just stuff. But after the heart takes hold it becomes a treasured part of me, its presence an intrinsic piece of my happiness.
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You Want Go Dance?

I was about due for another Ketut Surprise, and yesterday I got it. “You want go dance?” he asked. That was a bold move for Ketut and it posed a serious threat to my perception of our relationship. But I’ve learned not to jump to conclusions.

“Where?” I ask. He tells me Jembawan Street, “You know Jazz Café?” he looks at me, his eyebrows raised, questioning. Now I’m really confused. There are places where local Balinese go and hang out with the tourist crowd but Jazz Café is not one of them. I am about to seek further clarification when he continues. “Ceremony for cemetery.” he says. “Dance many-many.”

Relief.

According to Ketut there are two cremation sites in Ubud with a road running between them. Evidently the road wreaks havoc with the supernatural, so every six months a ‘balancing’ ceremony must take place to pacify the restless spirits. The ceremonial dances act out the battle between good and evil and bring them symbolically to a draw. Neither side wins, they simply depart peacefully.

He has already been to Jembawan Street to scope out the site. He tells me it starts at 8 p.m. and lasts until 2 a.m. I don’t doubt it. At 7:50 my phone signals an incoming text. “Pergi sekarang?” (Go now?) I shoot back a quick, “OK,” and I’m out the door. The night air is delicious on the back of a motorbike. As we approach, men in black and white checked sarongs are directing traffic. Finding a spot, Ketut parks and we head toward the sound of gamelan.

Suddenly there are people everywhere, close to 500 would be my guess. As usual, I am stunned with the magnitude of the event. A high-tech sound system has been set up at one end of a long structure. Palm decorations that look like fish skeletons with giant fresh marigolds woven into the design hang from the ceiling beams. It’s beautiful. And there are Balinese families everywhere. Babies that have passed their 3-month birthday are held. Until they are 3 months they cannot leave the family compound. Toddlers sit, well behaved and mesmerized. Teens do what teens do, they roam about. I glance around for other foreign folk like myself. I see one. By the time we leave at midnight there are 5. Although this event is in the middle of a familiar street and is an amazing peek into authentic Balinese ritual, the tourists don’t know about it.

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The gamelan orchestra is stunning in white uniforms with red and gold head gear. Their music is the foundation of every dance. It is non-stop, sometimes a bright sound, light and tinkly, sometimes a crashing cacophony as the dancers reach the climactic point of the performance.

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The Barong comes on first. He seems almost shy. His long body drips with shaggy hair reminiscent of an Afghan Hound. The luxurious tail usually has a bell attached. His face wears a frightening mask with a mouth that opens and shuts making a dreadful clacking noise. It’s hard to know whether to watch the head with it’s snapping jaws or the twitching, hypnotizing tail. I’m told the black beard holds strong magic.

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When the evil Rangda makes her appearance the energy ramps up. She is a powerful witch. Every time I see her she is almost completely enveloped by her own dreadlocks. They reach nearly to the floor. The babuten, in a trance state, challenge her with their spiraled kris swords. Naked to the waist and dressed for combat, their sarongs are drawn up between their legs and tucked in back. When Rangda waves her white cloth at them they turn their swords on themselves. For way too long they gyrate wildly, bending forward and backward, trying to pierce their sweat drenched chests with the wicked instruments. Finally, all at once, they fall to the ground. Holy water is rushed onto the stage and they are sprinkled and prayed over. Some have to be carried away.

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In Bali there’s a ritual for everything, literally. When a woman is pregnant but won’t reveal the name of the baby’s father, a ceremony ensues. Offerings are made and a surrogate husband is found for her. It may be an animal, a stick figure, or any number of other possibilities depending upon the village. Once these steps have been taken, the matter is settled. The woman is considered married.

We left the dancers at midnight, still going strong. The dancers were going strong…I was exhausted. The combination of four hours of gamelan and the intense battling in the spirit realm is a bit of a drain. “Go home?” Ketut says as we pull away from the curb. “Go home.” I reply, then add, “Thanks for the dance.”

Deep Magic

The strangely discordant music of gamelan works in Bali. You can hear it emanating from open pavilions, raucously accompanying cremation processions, or drifting in soft tinkling waves on the humid night air. It is pure essence. It works because it is played in unconfined spaces with few or no walls to trap the cacophony. The cymbals, drums and the metallic keys of xylophones create an unparalleled din that is sucked up by the 100% moisture content of the atmosphere. Thereby muffled, blended, and slightly distilled it becomes dramatic background to weddings, cremations, and traditional ceremonies. It also accompanies the Legong, Barong, and a host of other dances performed by outrageously beautiful Balinese women and fierce, masked men.

But……when taken out of context, inserted into a bone dry climate, captured in a room with four walls and a ceiling, and visited upon ears that are tuned to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and even an occasional Led Zeppelin or Johnny Cash, gamelan assaults. It is instant headache. With every cymbal crash each delicate Western nerve ending spasms. Foreheads furrow, brows knit, the polite, politically correct audience sits on its hands to keep from covering its ears. It won’t catch on here. I guarantee.

I love gamelan. Is it an acquired taste? Not really. As I said, it works in Bali. It celebrates the rich abundance of the island. Life there is lived outdoors in the color and heat of nature. Gamelan proclaims in sound, tangled jungles, volcanic peaks, curling breakers, black sand, pounding rain, relentless sun, terraced hillsides, and deep magic. The complexity of ritual supported and enhanced by gamelan music is the heartbeat of the Balinese people.

I have downloaded a gamelan CD to my itunes. When I’m not in Bali something in me craves that sound. When I know I’m alone and won’t disturb the sensitive ears of my Scandinavian roots, I crank up the volume. Lighting a stick of supa-dupa Balinese incense I close my eyes and sink into the mystery. The frigid temps and monochromatic landscapes of my childhood melt away. In moments I have a headache. But in those moments I’ve been strangely replenished, fed, revived. It’s powerful stuff, gamelan…deep magic.

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