Bali – Life in Technicolor!

 

When I practiced interior design, I told clients that their homes should reflect who they were (private persona) and how they wanted to be perceived by others (public persona). We spent significant time discussing this and often who they felt they were inside differed vastly from how they wished to be seen.

Personally, I wanted my home to tell the world how sophisticated I was. My mother modeled flawless manners: setting a proper table even for breakfast, insisting that I learn piano and listen to classical music when I much preferred playing guitar with my dad. Her need to look perfect to the world lodged in my psyche.

As an adult that ingrained training dictated appearances. The color palette in both the clothing I wore, and the furnishings I chose, blended a dazzling array of – you guessed it – neutrals. The absence of color was chic and classy. The only divergence from the black, white, beige theme was a red brocade jacket pulled out of mothballs at Christmastime.

I brought that aesthetic with me when I moved to Bali. The first thing I noticed after the two thousand shades of green, was the Balinese’ flagrant disregard for subtlety in their attire. Bali style was as far from neutral as Minnesota winter was from tropical paradise.

Layered patterns in bold, clashing colors challenged my tightly held conceptions of what worked and what most decidedly didn’t.

I searched the entire island to find quiet earth tones for accent pillows and cushion covers, but Bali would not be subdued. I settled for a dignified combo of black, rust, and avocado. Now, six years later, in response to a growing community of permanent Western customers, gray, taupe, and putty batiks and ikat fabrics abound, all those lifeless non-colors that no self-respecting Balinese person would ever want.

As the years passed I was unaware of my continental drift away from ‘safe.’ The change came so slowly I didn’t notice when the vanilla person hiding behind beige, went missing.

Upon reflection, blame settled on the Bali Blue Bed. When that precious antique handcrafted half a century ago by Ketut’s father for his growing family became my most cherished possession, my relationship with color began to expand.

Tentatively I added a little china to carry the emerging theme into the kitchen.Not long after the new dishes brightened up the far end of my quarters, I discovered skirts. Until that time, capris had covered my lower half, white ones, black ones, and of course non-threatening beige. I don’t remember when the first flowy, legless clothing crept into my closet but I remember the color: hot coral!

I loved flouncing around Ubud with naked legs! Breezes reached all those previously confined areas and I was so much cooler underneath! Soon the mid-length pants occupied a drawer that never got opened and the closet was full of skirts: blue, green, some with birds, others with flowers. Loose-fitting tops were the natural accompaniment and they came in various shades of bright. So the wardrobe morphed along with the house.

On the way back from the supermarket one afternoon, the bead shop lady greeted me on the sidewalk. Next thing I knew I was the proud and somewhat surprised owner of an enormous beaded basket!I’d ordered one that was half the size but when I had gone to the shop a month later to pick it up, the dear lady apologized. “So sorry, Ibu, but no small now, only this kind.” Evidently the current shipment of imported rattan baskets from Java that the woman used as a base for her beadwork, had only come in large.

As so often happened to me here, the Universe conspired to give me my heart’s desire. I’d lusted after the monster baskets so why had I ordered a small one? I knew the answer to that as well as I knew the reflection in the mirror. It was a lie as old as I was, instilled in the subconscious where it reared it’s ugly head from time to time when I wasn’t vigilant.

Thankfully, the ‘you don’t deserve such abundance’ story was overridden. I hugged the prize to my heart as the happy woman gave me a lift home on the back of her motorbike.

Then the heron came home to roost on top of the bookshelf.
It was a similar story with an interesting twist. I’d passed the bird in a shop window, stopped to look, decided it was unrefined, folksy even, and continued on. I did that several times over the next few days. Curiosity finally forced me inside to ask the price. Expensive. I left. Several weeks went by. Upon rearranging a few things in my house, a space opened up where none had existed before. The memory of that colorful creature popped into mind. I can’t explain why or how, but by the time I arrived at the shop, desire burned in me with all the passion of first love! Now every time I look at the stately bird, I smile and wonder how I could possibly have thought him provincial.

When the pillows and mattress cover on the the Bali Blue Bed recently grew too faded to tolerate, I went shopping. It was a shocking pink batik boasting mythical birds with glorious chartreuse tails that captivated me first. There followed a shimmering array of metallics for accents and a purple, orange, red geometric weave for back pillows. Handwoven eggplant colored fabric became the grounded base for all that whimsy.

The burst of color thrilled me. I loved to nestle deep in those delicious hues and absorb their intensity, to be cradled in the very essence of myself. Then it struck me: in my non-stop, stressed-out, U.S. workaholic life, I had to surround myself with boring neutrals. It was survival.

But in my laid-back, joyful Bali life, my nervous system has re-calibrated. I thrive in an atmosphere of visual stimulation, no longer living a schizophrenic existence. Who I am is on display for all to see in bold designs and brilliant hues. My house validates me the way insipid neutrals never could.

I’ve even ratcheted up the intensity in my clothing. The new temple outfit for the ultra important Hindu ceremonies I’m frequently invited to, is a hunting-jacket-orange kebaya with a fuschia sash over a hot pink-yellow-blue-etc. etc. sarong! And it just feels right.

Why did it take so long to come to this, to embrace the complex, colorful person hidden  somewhere inside? The answers have to do with fear, with the need to fit in, with concern about the perceptions of others, with self-denial, with…nevermind. Needless to say, the list of reasons is long. But the realization that all are now in past tense is sheer delight! I’ve burst the confines of conformity and traded suffocating sophistication for my technicolor Bali life.

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Meet Dewa, #1 Guide, Host, and Friend

Dewa says I must bathe in the sacred waters of Tirta Empul before I leave Bali. It will purify my mind and body. So this morning at 9 o’clock sharp I do as I have been instructed, don my sarong and sash then off we go. “Why the sash?” I ask Dewa as he weaves through the maze of motorbikes in early morning traffic. My Balinese walking Wikipedia thoughtfully asks a question in return, “There is the mind, and there is the body…what is a better English word for the desire of the body?” Now it’s my turn to ask a question. “Do you mean all the desires? The desire of the body for food, for sleep, for sex?” (It’s okay. We’ve had these conversations!) “Yes, for sex,” he replies. “Well, that depends,” I say. “If desire is accompanied by caring and deep feeling it is a good word. If it is purely desire with no emotional attachment you could call it lust.” By now I think I have an idea where this is going. Dewa confirms my suspicions. “The sash is to separate the mind from the sexual desires of the body when you enter the temple,” he tells me. In this culture there’s a purpose for every item of clothing, every ritual, every ceremony.

We arrive at Tirta Empul and walk through the serenity of the the gardens.

The statue is Saraswati, a female Hindu water deity.

There isn’t really grass anywhere. It’s a tiny, round leaf plant that is used for ground cover.

And here is Dewa. Always happy, always patient. The plastic bag contains offerings for our time in the sacred waters.

Before we enter the cleansing pool, Dewa takes out the three offerings made by his mother, and lights the incense.

He places the offerings on the altar along with many others. Now it is okay to enter the water.

He says I should go first. I sit down on the edge and notice there are a great many fish that are sharing this experience with me. Some are medium, some are an edible size. I decide it isn’t much different than swimming in a Minnesota lake. As I put my feet and legs in the water I detect another similarity. It’s COLD! This is fresh spring water and as such it is deep-earth cooled. I slip into the chest high water with a little gasp. There are 12 gushing spouts and I am to bow under each one of these and make a prayer.

That’s me about half way through. By this time I’ve got it down and I’m totally into the experience.

Dewa follows. It’s quite a lengthy process, this cleansing of the body!

The second pool is for the mind. There are six spouts but you only use one. I wait patiently for the privilege of cleansing my mind.

The ritual cleansing completed, we go back to the locker room, change into dry sarongs, and depart for the next leg of the journey. Our second stop is the home of a famous batik designer. Following a narrow walkway from the street, we come to a large room. Thirteen women sit at makeshift drafting tables, each with a length of fabric and a bowl of hot wax. Using a paintbrush they painstakingly apply wax to the fabric in all the areas where the dye is not wanted. The wax is a deep amber color and the waxed pieces are beautiful before they are even dyed.

The next room holds the huge vats of dye. The fabric is soaked in the color then hung to dry.

Once dry, the pieces are moved into the next room to await wax removal. In this factory the batik is done on cotton, linen and silk. They are limited edition fabrics. Only a few of each of the designs are made. The quality is magnificent. You won’t find these in the market!

The contents of the two huge, black cauldrons in the center of the room is heated with a wood fire. The dyed material is placed in a cauldron and the wax melts leaving the raw white fabric showing through creating the design. If more pattern and color is desired the piece is returned to the wax room to have a new application placed over the dyed areas. Now when it is dipped in a different color the already treated portions will not be disturbed.

Here is a block of the amber wax. Pieces are sliced off and melted for the women to use in the fabric waxing room.

I so appreciate the opportunity to see the Balinese people doing what they have done for hundreds of years for the most part unchanged. It can be a severe shock for those of us coming from the industrialized West. Most tour guides take you to the showrooms. There you will find a few pretty vignettes where Balinese people demonstrate how jewelry is made, or batik fabrics are created. Then you are ushered into the main area with row upon row of glittering jewelry cases or racks of fabrics for sale. The average tourist doesn’t have a clue that these staged presentations are light years removed from the reality of how the products are created.

We thank the batik workers for allowing us a peek into their world then head for the ocean. The last stop today is a fishing village where we will have lunch. The roads get narrower and narrower. Dewa reminds me that this is not a place where tourists go. This is a village of Balinese fisherman and our ‘shore lunch’ will consist of today’s catch, whatever it is.

The road ends at the beach and the black volcanic sand begins.

Dewa poses beside one of the colorful fishing boats, still smiling!

Our mystery fish is being grilled over a coconut husk fire while we watch. As it sizzles, it is basted with a mixture of garlic paste mixed in coconut oil then flipped and basted again. The skin is scored with several diagonal cuts before it goes on the grill so the garlic mixture can penetrate into the meat. The end result is yet another gastronomical delight!

Here it is, grilled fish, water spinach, and rice mixed with sweet potato. Notice the candle. We had a good laugh about our candlelight lunch on the beach!

Last but not least, fish satays. These are wickedly hot little globs of fish mixed with various chilies and spices then grilled. I ate one. Dewa polished off the rest.

The shoreline gracefully curves, embracing the incoming waves. Mountains at the horizon are hazy blue.

This one almost got me!

Time to go, but as we leave we stop to watch this woman make short work of a fish. It is round and flat, I’m guessing flounder. Squatting by the side of the road she has it gutted, the fins chopped off, flesh scored and ready for the grill in a few swift flicks of that knife. Even dressing a fish, in the skillful hands of a master, is poetry!

What an amazing day. I think I have said that about every single day for the past two months. I also think, no matter how long I might stay, there would be no end to amazing days.  I love this place, my new friends here, and the ancient ways that anchor me to something more permanent than my life.

Shopping Bali Style

I have a week left so what’s uppermost in my mind? Shopping, of course. What do I want to bring back that will remind me of these leisurely, sun drenched days, the tantalizing smells, the sounds, and food, the glorious food! I decided, having taken the cooking class, that being able to recreate Balinese dishes I love when I get home would be a really great idea. So I made a list of ingredients then narrowed it down to the ones that I’ve never, ever, in all my years of grocery shopping, seen in a Minnesota grocery store. Here’s the list:

Pandanus extract

Palm sugar

Asam

Kaffir Lime Leaves

Pandan Leaves

Suji

Galangal

Belecan

Tamarind Pulp

Photo by Ollie L.

Armed with my list I headed resolutely for CoCo’s Supermarket and made a bee-line for the spices. I poured over the labels then poured over them again. Nothing. One of the adorable twelve-year-old employees (they look so young) asked if she could help me. Gratefully I showed her my list. She painstakingly read through each word, then headed down an aisle at the end of which was a stunning fifteen-year-old (maybe 18). The younger girl handed the list to this new one with a string of Balinese words by way of explanation. The young lady read it and we were off again to presumably find the manager who turned out to be a male of indiscernible age. This time I got answers. “We have no leaves,” he said first. Then took off with me in hot pursuit. He found the belecan and the palm sugar. Hurray! Two down! Then told me to go to the market early in the morning. They will have leaves.  So these are fresh leaves? They aren’t dried leaves? “Oh no,” he assured me. “Fresh leaves.” Silly me. I had pictured something like dried basil leaves in a sealed container that would easily clear U.S. Customs. For some reason custom’s officials do not look kindly on REAL foliage being smuggled onto U.S. soil. Well, that saves me the early morning trip to the market. As for the other five missing ingredients…I will stop by Dayu’s Warung tomorrow and ask Dayu where she gets these exotic potions. I’ll also ask what I can substitute for leaves. They’re her recipes, after all! If anyone knows the answers she will.

The rest of my shopping was delightful. I’ve always enjoyed the art of negotiation. Here in Bali it is expected. I wanted a hand-made batik fabric. I found the shop I was looking for where the woman makes them herself, and the process began. How much? “Oh for you, special discount, 20%, more if you take two.” I only took one and ended up getting it for about 1/2 of the original quoted price. It takes awhile, you have to be so sorry, maybe tomorrow, start to leave, then you find out the real price. It doesn’t matter if the price is marked on a tag on the item. That is what I would call the “suggested starting price.” There are, perhaps, some exceptions. The high end hotel shops probably would look down their noses if someone attempted to bargain. But in the hundreds of small retail cubbyholes that line Hanoman St. and Monkey Forest Road you can get some fabulous buys.

Then a silver shop reached out and grabbed me. Oh I hate it when that happens! I love rings. I’ve been looking for a particular ring for years…truly…years. And today I found it “No!” I told myself. “You are shopping for gifts. Gifts are for other people.” I tried oh so hard to resist. I didn’t even attempt to negotiate. I didn’t say a word. I just kept fighting with my conscience and the quieter I became the lower the price dropped! I kept shaking my head, “Oh, no, no, I can’t…” and it dropped 100 thousand rupiah. “Please, stop!” down another 50,000. Finally I was afraid if I didn’t buy it they were just going to give it to me. It is fabulous! After looking at so many rings you begin to know the ones that are one-of-a-kind, designed and crafted by an artist in the Balinese style.

So tomorrow I will visit another kind of store. They are everywhere and they’re called Money Changers. Then I’ll continue shopping for Other People.

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