Day Two: Marching up the mountain

I shook my head at Ketut, shot him a withering look for breaking his promise, then followed the smell of coffee. Two grandmothers in towel-wrapped heads squinted at me silhouetted in the doorway. Steam poured from a soot-blackened kettle and smoke from the wood fire clung to the low ceiling. Eyes stinging and watering, I crouched below the haze and slid onto a stool in front of the glowing warmth as a package of cookies and a cup of thick, sweet, Bali kopi was passed to me.

The grannies kept up a stream of chatter as I drifted in a dreamy, heat induced stupor. Other family members entered like shadows until the little room was full. It’s always the same, coffee and sweets as the family awakens and gathers in the kitchen. Then a big breakfast of rice, vegetables, tofu, and chicken follows the morning chores.

But on this day, after coffee all similarities ceased. The holy man appeared. Men and women arrived in temple clothes. Offerings created the day before were carried to the street and loaded into the back of a white truck. Women hiked themselves, sidesaddle, onto motorbikes that roared off in a dusty cloud.

“Go to cemetery,” Ketut said, as he pulled up on his motorbike and I, too, hoisted myself to sit, lady fashion, sideways on the slippery bike saddle. If the road had been paved before, it was so eroded by water and time that it was no more. Gullies and chasms made for a rough ride. “Massage,” Ketut said as I clung and bounced.P1070952The cemetery would not have been identifiable as such had I not known. There were no neatly clipped lawns, orderly headstones, or flowers. It was a clearing on the side of a forested mountain. A white cloth suspended, hammock-like, from two bamboo poles indicated Bapak’s burial site. Silence seemed a heavy thing, weighted by solemnity and the lack of movement in the air. Someone put a drink and a little food on the grave and a lump formed in my throat.

Commotion behind me signaled that the offerings and the white truck had arrived. Instead of coming to the grave, women, balancing the precious cargo on their heads, and men carrying the larger baskets, were marching single file up the mountainside.


I thought I had seen all of the exquisite creations, but I watched the stream of elaborate baskets and trays go by noticing many for the first time.


After the ceremony the fabrics in this offering were distributed among an eager group of women.

P1070985I picked my way, with help, up the sandy slope sliding two steps back for every one step forward. How do they do it with baskets on their heads?

P1070986The bearers waited at the top until the priest showed each one where that kind of offering should be situated. P1070992 The bounty was piled high in front of the seated crowd when the line of gifts coming up the incline finally stopped. After arranging them in the correct ritual order, the busyness ceased and a hush fell over the crowd. Silence. There were no birds singing, not a breath of wind rustled the trees. Then a low, melodious chant, soft at first, but building in volume and strength, flowed from the women. Moments later the priest joined them, his voice a raspy, hypnotic tone accompanied by his ever clanging bell. P1070966 Prayers commenced, a well-orchestrated sequence that changes very little no matter what is being celebrated. Rich with symbolism, it’s the one time during a ceremony when people stop chit-chatting, instant messaging or gaming on their smartphones, and give the officiant their full attention. P1080006Lost in the beauty of nature, the warmth of the people, the intimacy of this eons old practice, I felt very close to Bapak. At that moment a wind swished the leaves of the trees overhead and brushed a swath of air across my hot, moist face. “Goodby, Bapak,” I whispered and a rogue tear slid down my cheek. The crash of gamelan answered me, resounding through the trees from somewhere below shifting the energy into a rousing farewell to his spirit.

“You have photo of gamelan?” Ketut asked.

“Not yet.”

“Now is good time.” Grateful for a chance to stretch my legs and relieve my buttocks after hours on the ground, I stood and headed toward the path, half skidding, half running down the mountain.

The gamelan orchestra was spread out in the shade focused and intent upon the difficult rhythms they were creating.

“Ketut are there are special songs for different ceremonies?”

“Different gamelan group, one for temple called Gong Gede, one for when people die called Angklung. Angklung song sad, Gong Gede song happy.”

P1080008 I listened but to my Western ear, gamelan can never sound sad. Perhaps the beat was a little slower, the pounding a little less intense, but even funeral gamelan has a vital energy that stirs and enlivens my senses.

The ceremony on the mountaintop was over and the offerings were making their way back down the slope to Bapak’s grave. I watched as the pile became a mound and family members gathered on the northeast end of the site, the direction of his head.

“Ya, when in ground same as for sleeping,” Ketut told me in answer to yet another of my endless questions. The Balinese sleep with their heads in the direction of holy, Mt. Agung.

P1080037When the last basket was settled in place, the men erected a bamboo fence around the grave. I learned later that this is a ritual performed only for the body of a minor holy man called a Dulu in Ketut’s village. His father was a Dulu and he, Ketut, will eventually also have that designation. Every question I ask, and every answer I receive prompts about fifty thousand more questions. But the language limitations are still so great that I don’t ask them. I just wonder, and marvel at the endless layers of significance that exist in every aspect of the life of the Balinese Hindu.

P1080063Once the cage was in place and Ketut had circled it distributing small packets of satays along the exterior perimeter, “So all spirits can have party,” he said, the family received one more round of blessings and started home.

I lingered, taking time to say goodby. Here was a man I had met only two years ago. Our ability to communicate was limited to Ketut’s willingness to translate which was limited even farther by Ketut’s very basic English language skills. But Bapak persisted with questions about America, about my family, about the solar system, seasons, and the cost of a house or a plane ticket to the U.S. He was soft spoken. His sons have the same gentle quality of voice. But intelligence burned from his eyes and the intensity with which he listened made my breath catch in my throat. As I stood there, emotion rolled over me moving from gratitude, to loss, to love, and back to gratitude.

At last I turned away and hurried to catch up with the crowd. I saw what looked like another family ritual and turned to go around so as not to disturb, but was waved back. When I got closer I understood. I needed purification after being in the company of the dead. A long bamboo tube with leaves tucked into its mouth tipped over my hands and cool, clean water trickled out. I rubbed my palms together and was told to take some of a green mixture of finely chopped leaves and continue to scrub.

P1080066Thus cleansed, I found Ketut and the motorbike and we headed back to the house. People were lined up opposite the gateway to Ketut’s family compound when we arrived. I hopped off and went to join those waiting and once again, hands beckoned me to come to the gate. I couldn’t make out what to do but I knew something was required. There was a person standing on one side with a dish of salt. There were hot coals burning in the center, and another person stood on the opposite side with a bucket and ladle. Behind this setup was a holy man seated on the ground deep in prayer.

P1080070Watch and learn, Sherry, I told myself as a woman in blue carrying a child dipped her hands into the salt, scrubbed them and flicked the remains over the fire, then proceeded to the man with the buckets who sloshed water over her feet.

P1080073Once the feet were doused a dribble was poured into her hands which she drank. Only then did she proceed past the holy man and enter the compound. At the first opportunity I quizzed Ketut. What happened at the cemetery and again at the house?

“Water at cemetery make ok  go home so spirit don’t follow. Leaf same. When home salt make dark spirit go into fire. Must wash feet so land from cemetery don’t go in house. Drink water a little take out spirit. Holy man sit in middle make no spirit come in.”

“Right. Of course. Thank you. Glad we cleared that up!”

Once the family had all proceeded through the gate, the rest followed. In the back of the property, yet another priest, seated with more offerings, prayed and blessed the family home while the women once again filled the long tables with bowls upon bowls of food and the blue laundry basket overflowing with rice.

P1080078Faces were showing signs of wear and as soon as their plates were emptied, a weary group straggled through the gate toward home.

P1080081The men began deconstructing the tarp shelters and for all intents and purposes, it appeared that the big day was coming to an end.

P1080080I’d been close to nine hours in my corset and sarong. Up the road about a half mile is the house of another friend and I’d promised her I’d stop in after the ceremony. I longed to shed the constraints of my restrictive clothing and have a few laughs with her.

“Ketut, maybe I can go to Nyoman’s house now? Finished, ya?”

“Oh, not yet temple. Want go temple?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“There’s more?”

“Ya, in temple.”

“Of course I want to go.”

And of course I did. There wasn’t one moment of this fascinating day I wanted to miss. The rigorous activities required of the living to appease the spirit of the dead mystified me. Back on the motorbike and up the steep hill to the top we zoomed to the location of the temple. A handful of people were sitting just inside on the steps and they flagged me over to join them. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

“You want to walk? Take more photos?” someone said. So I walked and snapped a few more pictures. Slanting rays cast long shadows when by some mysterious clock it was time. We were a small group, five priests, a few elder men, several women, and a child. I sat with them and observed. When it finally began it was brief and I assumed, which I should never do, that this final temple ceremony ensured that the village was also purified and safe from unruly roaming spirits. (I asked Ketut before writing this. Nope! That particular ritual had made it possible for the family to once again go to the temple. When a relative dies the rest of the family cannot enter the temple until either the cremation or this special ceremony is held.)

P1080090By now my energy gauge was hovering around empty. We returned to the compound and as I walked back to the room to finally free myself from my ceremonial outfit, I passed this little fellow, down for the count.

P1080079 Alone at last, I unzipped the corset, untied and unwound the sarong, and let my stomach fall out into happy freedom. My lungs sucked in deep breaths of air. What a day you’ve had, Bapak. What an incredible day.


PART THREE: Kick Ass Granny

Invitation to a Cremation

Dewa knocks on my door at 10 a.m. “Do you want to see cremation?” he asks. “Of course!” I am instructed to be ready at 12:30. At 12:15 I’m waiting with a lovely couple from France who have also been invited. Dewa’s uncle, his mother’s brother, passed away over a week ago. The holy man has designated today as an auspicious day for cremation and there will be three of them. We are hurried into the car and make our way toward the cemetery. Suddenly Dewa says, “Get out here!” We scramble onto the street and there it is. The procession begins literally in front of me with the women and their offerings.

We are in a part of town where the tourists don’t come. The energy is much more like a wedding than a funeral. I am entranced. The bamboo platform holding the black bull is coming directly toward me.

I asked Dewa earlier if it was okay to photograph the ceremony. “Take pictures of everything. It’s okay,” he told me. So I did.

There he is. The black bull. Only holy men are cremated in a white bull. For everyone else the bull is black. When there is an intersection the bull circles three times around the intersection before going in a new direction. At one point a young man climbs on the back of the bull and the carriers make the bull buck and whirl but the rider keeps his seat.

It’s very hot and the men stop to rest while police clear the traffic in front of the procession.

They’re up again and on their way. The next to appear is an ornate, pagoda type tower. Three men cling to the sides. At this point I don’t know if the deceased is inside the bull or inside the tower or somewhere else entirely. It turns out the coffin is being transported in the tower.

As the procession continues on its way, men on the sides of the street spray water on those carrying the heavy platforms. It is a welcomed dousing on this hot hot day.

At one point the tower is too tall for the electrical wire spanning the street. The offending wire is ripped down and left hanging so the parade can pass.

Then comes the band of cymbals, gongs and drums played by young men and boys.  The percussion continues from beginning to end, rising and falling in volume and intensity. When the band finally stops they are vigorously applauded.

As the pagoda passes I notice the picture of the departed mounted on the back of the conveyance.

The bull is carefully moved to this platform and the men cut a chunk out of its back. I am transfixed by the elaborate ceremony. A white coffin is removed from the tower and a procession of women carrying offerings and men carrying the coffin circle the bull three time. The coffin is lifted and held up while the body, wrapped in white, is removed and placed in a hollowed out area in the bull.

The men around the body receive gifts and offerings from the people. They place them on the body. More and more gifts are brought. Finally the holy man sprinkles the contents of several different containers on the body and a white sheet is placed over all.

The back of the bull is once more set in place. Large bamboo logs are put under the bull and a motor pumps fuel onto the base of the pyre.

Incense is lighted and the bull begins to burn. Nobody is crying.

At this point the entire crowd moves into the street and words are spoken (in Balinese) over a battery operated megaphone. The crowd of us begins to exit the cemetery and as we pass we are sprinkled liberally with holy water. In this photo people are beginning to fill the street.

After that the crowd disperses fairly quickly. It has been an unforgettable two hours. I feel incredibly privileged to have been allowed a glimpse into this aspect of Balinese tradition that few visitors ever witness.

Dewa provides me with a map so that I can find my way to Ubud center since he has family matters to attend to. I only have to ask directions twice before I am back on familiar turf. Parched and dripping I seek refuge in Warung Laba Laba.

Here, in a shady perch above the street I sip watermelon juice (my current favorite) and order papaya chicken salad. It arrives, light and refreshing.

I opt to pass on Thousand Island Dressing…one just never knows about Thousand Island Dressing! But I can’t resist a sweet finish: one scoop of the creamiest vanilla ice cream this side of a Wisconsin dairy sitting atop one scoop of Balinese mocha.

I would return to Warung Laba Laba just for the ice cream!

Back in my room I can hardly wait to see the photos. I only wish I could include the sounds and smells that made this day one of the highlights of my life. Suksama, Dewa.Thank you.

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