MINDFUL OF THE GOOD

I’ve found the best way to keep from dissolving into a state of overwhelm after reading the morning news is to walk. It’s essential for my sanity. Without it, doom and gloom tend to consume too much psychological bandwidth.

I go slowly and notice things. Pretty things. Funny things. Solid, recurring, timeless things. I don’t own a car – in fact, I own nothing with wheels. On the rare occasion I need to leave Ubud, I hire a driver. Forty dollars U.S. covers my transport for an entire day and I probably do that six times a year. Maybe less.

So come with me on my stroll. It’s a beautiful morning. A slight breeze carries traces of incense and cooking. At the bottom of my stairway Wayan and Ketut have already thanked Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa for peace and abundance.

As I walk past I wonder…what if I didn’t have to step over offerings on the sidewalk in front of every shop, every day? Could I still be happy? These bright tokens make walkways in other parts of the world seem drab.

As I cross the bridge that separates me from my favorite grocery store, I stop to watch a Ngaben in progress far below. The ashes from a cremation have been brought to the river to be purified – the final step before the spirit can return to heaven to begin the process of reincarnation.

Hindu rituals have been enacted in Bali for hundreds of years. There’s something that can’t be destroyed here. I try to know what it is but it hovers at the fringes of my understanding and I can’t quite catch hold. Yet I feel linked with antiquity. Grounded. Safe.

At Bintang Supermarket I pick up a few supplies I can’t get at the traditional market: raisins, toasted muesli, ginseng tea, and gift bags. You can never have too many gift bags!

Then I’m on my way to Bali Buda Mart on the other side of Ubud. I’m addicted to their sourdough bread. For months I guessed at the mystery ingredient. Cardamom? No. Fennel? Not quite. What then? I was driving myself crazy and finally approached the bakery manager and begged for the recipe. Cumin! I don’t have an oven so I’ll never bake it, but I had to discover the source of that elusive flavor.

My route takes me past Ubud Palace. Could there be a wedding today? Is this the royal getaway car? Exquisite! I could apply perfect lip liner looking into the mirror finish on that classic automobile. What a shine.

It’s hard to pull away from the festive florals and over-the-top decor, but I must. Sourdough sells out early and I finished mine with a spicy omelet two hours ago.

Self-discipline is rewarded. I score the last loaf and continue my loop past Ganesha Book Store then to Sugriwa and Hanoman Streets cutting across on motorbike paths. It’s a quick backtrack north to Dewisita Street where another eye-feast awaits.

I laugh out loud at the sheer creative whimsey of a hot pink bicycle. The new shop is Pina Colada. Even the name makes me smile…and makes me thirsty.

Fortunately, Mingle Cafe is a few steps away and their frozen mojito has no equal on earth. Happy hour begins at 3:00. It’s a favorite afternoon destination.

I check my watch. It’s as I feared, only ten a.m. I order a cappuccino.

Image result for cappuccino Bali style

Tomorrow I’ll read the news again. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Denial solves nothing. I want to be informed.

Then I’ll take another walk.

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THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PLUTO SOUL

When you have a Pluto soul…

Wait. Back up…

You know you have a Pluto soul when your evolutionary astrologer reveals that tidbit of terrifying information during a birth chart reading. She says it matter-of-factly, then adds, Oh, and by the way, the god of the hell realm also opposes your Venus and resides in your fifth house of sexuality, creativity, and…children.

I had my first reading when I was sixty. It was a telephone session. The person didn’t know anything about me. After an hour of listening with my jaw hanging, the dear woman said, and I quote, “Sherry, if you don’t change the direction of your life now, you’re nailing your coffin shut.”

It was harsh but she got my attention. I took her advice to heart and two years later, when my divorce was final, I retired and moved to Bali. It was as though I’d been bound and gagged my entire life and now the fetters were off. Every day was an adventure. Everything was new. I was in love with life, in love with Indonesia, and a bit more in love with myself than I’d dreamed possible.

I’d lived abroad for three years when, at sixty-five, I had my second reading. It was from this practitioner that I learned how significantly Pluto figured in my chart. With Pluto opposing Venus, she told me, it was almost impossible to have a successful romantic relationship. By that time I’d accumulated a distressing number of failed marriages.

To complicate matters, Pluto sat conjunct my moon. I had to find healthy ways to feed my shadow otherwise it would manifest catastrophe and dysfunction. The dark is so much a part of you, she said with an earnest, concerned look, if you don’t get enough excitement in your life in positive ways, you’ll create your own destructive chaos. Ouch. I won’t even go into how that tendency haunted my past. But nurtured appropriately, she assured me, your shadow is the truth teller. It can be a powerful ally.

I found much of that necessary nurture on the Island of the Gods. Bali, a paradise of sunlight and smiles, knows how to honor the darkness. It isn’t dusted off, polished, and shoved under the rug. Death is on display. Gamelan pounds in frenzied discordant percussion as sweating men carry the tower and bull to the cremation site. Smoke layers over the town while the body burns. On New Year’s Eve, monsters parade the streets enticing evil spirits to enter them. Ritual trance dance, ceremonial cleansing, shaman healers, black magic – they’re all just business-as-usual here – Pluto soul-food. Perfect for me. And the perfect place to write.

I noticed, however, that Pluto didn’t fully appreciate the need for quiet in my writing life. It’s a silent, solitary business and I spend many hours inside my head with imaginary characters of my own devising. This morning, try as I might I couldn’t focus. Lead-gray clouds poured rain. So I burned incense, turned on lights, did yoga and meditated, drank coffee, but restless itchiness persisted. Pluto grumbled. As torrents pelted down, the noise provided a rare opportunity. I scanned YouTube, hooked up my sound booster, and blasted, really blasted, music.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, Pluto seemed to say. I followed up with Leonard Cohen: “You Want it Darker,” “The Traitor,” “The Waltz.” So I waltzed, spinning through the house, one two three, one two three, one two three, whirling and dipping and letting go. Cathartic. I feasted on sound for three solid hours and sated my Plutonian appetite.

Evolutionary astrologers don’t mess around. When my second reading was finished I was stunned. How could she know me so well? She told me things about myself that hadn’t been clear, even to me, until she spoke them. I felt affirmed, seen and understood.

Beyond that, she showed me what still hung on from my karmic past, the snares that continued to trip me up, the tendencies that seemed to repeat in a never-ending loop. And she gave direction for the way ahead, the path of evolution to my highest, happiest, most fulfilled self.

Only evolutionary astrology accomplishes that. Many say it’s better than years of therapy. I wouldn’t know. But I do know the information I received in those two readings gave me the motivation and the awareness necessary to change my life.

7400 Spirits

Clouds shroud the mountainsides of Abang Songan village as we proceed with solemn purpose toward the cemetery.

Ketut’s father died last June. He was buried and an elaborate, day long ceremony was performed at his grave. But the Hindu population of Bali believes that the spirit stays near the family and remains active and restless until it’s freed by the rituals of a firey cremation.

Cremation is one of the most spectacular and costly events that occurs in Bali. To help those with limited funds provide this essential send-off for their loved ones, a mass cremation is held once every five years. It spreads the expense over many families, and makes available to all this otherwise prohibitive ritual.

That time had come in Ketut’s village. At his invitation, seven of us left Ubud at 8:30 a.m. to make the hour and a half trip into the mountains as perhaps the first ever foreigners to witness this ceremony in his village.

With patient help from Ketut I have attempted to reconstruct the day and some of the beliefs and practices around this most important event. But he will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know everything. The holy Sriempu Pedanda are the keepers of knowledge. Nine of them are required here today, three to represent each clan, and they will attend to ceremonial protocol.

What follows is specific to Abang Songan. These particulars may not exist in any other village as each municipality brings its own flavor, history, and tradition to bear on observances such as these.

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One of our group snaps a shot as this part of the procession begins. The women carry offerings of food on their heads. The gifts are beautifully garbed in double sarongs of white and yellow cloth.

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Uniformed gamelan players assemble.

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Kadek (our exceptional driver for the trip) dresses Omar in traditional garb.

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Roasted pig on a stick is an offering of food to appease and distract the dark spirits so they won’t cause the people carrying the heavy bulls, or the tower, to stumble. The man in the red shirt cradles a fabric wrapped box containing a carved wooden doll that symbolizes the deceased.

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It’s perhaps a mile, maybe more, that we walk together. The road is a trail that takes a steep plunge as we near the cemetery.

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At the bottom of the hill at last, the canopy sheltering a red bull comes into sight.

Bali operates on a hierarchy of castes and clans. The largest percentage of Balinese are Sudra, and that is the only caste represented here today. But there are three clans, the Tangkas, the Pande which was Ketut’s father’s clan, and the Pasek. It’s essential to the Balinese Hindus that the caste and clan distinctions are maintained in the rituals of death as in life. The members of each clan can only be burned in a bull with other members of the same clan.

In Ubud, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed, cleaned, and shrouded in white for the cremation. In Abang Songan, if the dead cannot be cremated immediately, they’re buried and they remain buried. Instead of a corpse or bones, the family carves a human likeness from a small piece of sandalwood to symbolize their loved one. This effigy is placed inside a box along with 200 coins. Ketut says that every person is born with 200 spirits. Each coin is for one of them. Once the box contains the doll and the coins, it’s wrapped in white cloth. Dark spirits are repelled by white but as an added level of security, inscriptions are written on the fabric and inside the box with further instructions and warnings to discourage unwanted supernatural activity.

Abang Songan has a cavernous community building. One week before the cremation, thirty-seven boxes, each representing someone who has died in the past five years, are placed there along with the offerings that will accompany them to the cemetery. I get the idea from Ketut’s narrative that keeping 7400 spirits present and accounted for is no small task. Three days before the cremation, more small offerings are brought to the building, three for each of the deceased. They’re tapped on the ground three times which brings the spirits hustling to sample the offerings. The priests intervene, praying and calling the spirits back to their boxes. When all have gathered, the boxes and offerings are doused with holy water that has been collected from the seven main temples in Bali, and the ritual cleansing is complete.

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I took this photo of Ketut’s father shortly before he passed and it is lovingly carried by his family throughout the day.

Four bulls, one for the clan Tangkas, one for Pasek, and two for Pande, began their journey to the cemetery early in the morning carried on platforms of criss-crossed bamboo poles by an army of strong, young men. The Padma tower that will transport the deceased followed the bulls, but at midpoint between the community building and the cemetery it halted to await the arrival of the dead. Back at the building, the boxes were retrieved and each one was held by a family member on the slow walk to the tower. They approached and a long sheet of white fabric was lifted high overhead. The bearers with their boxes proceeded slowly beneath this canopy and up a wooden stairway. At the top they handed their boxes to the priests who stowed them inside the tower for the last half of the journey.

Upon arrival at the cemetery, the protective cloth was again held high as the boxes were transferred from the tower to the bull that represented each ones caste and clan.

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At the cemetery, the parcels are taken out of the tower, handed back to the family, and transferred to the appropriate bull, again under the protection of the long cloth.

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The tower with its Garuda wings and its bamboo platform can only be used once. After it has served to transport the dead, it’s burned.

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Sometime in the afternoon a shower erupts. But a little rain doesn’t put a damper on the smiles.

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This girl’s mother insisted I photograph her beautiful daughter. Balinese women in their temple finery know they look good and are not shy about posing and asking you to be sure to post their photo on Facebook.

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Offerings are piled under the bull, four offerings for each one of the deceased represented in this clan. The back of the bull has been sliced open and filled with the white wrapped boxes of the dead.

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A pile of offerings awaits while white clad priests move among the families grouped around this bull, blessing and sprinkling holy water. Trash collects on the ground and awaits the clean-up crew that will descend when all is complete.

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Fire starts with the red bull as the crowd pushes away from the searing heat.

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The other three are ignited and soon the mountainside is ablaze.

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As the fires die down a female Pedanda rings the bell and chants prayers.

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The title of Sriempu Pedanda is bestowed only after death, Ketut tells me. Following years of study, the Pedanda in training is wrapped in a shroud as though dead, and carried on a bamboo platform to the temple. The initiate is left there without food or water for three days, then unwrapped. If the person is still alive after this symbolic death, he or she has earned the right to serve the people in this holy capacity.

For us, it was over. Kadek had the car waiting at the top of the brutal hill that we’d slipped and slid down on the final approach to the cemetery. Now upon leaving, climbing back up challenged our gluts to the max. After walking the distance to the cemetery, then standing for hours because the ground was too wet to sit on, Kadek’s car felt like a luxury limousine. He shuttled us to Ketut’s family compound, and because we had been with the dead, a ceremonial cleansing was performed before we were allowed through the entrance gate. Purified, we were welcomed in and invited to sit on mats on the terrace.  Bali kopi and cakes appeared, then  sweet, creamy Nescafe and more treats. The Balinese ascribe to the old adage: Life’s short, eat dessert first!

There had been some tentative questions by our guests early in the day about dining etiquette and more specifically, how to politely decline offerings of food. That was eight hours ago and most hadn’t had a bite of anything since breakfast. Dinner appeared, heaping mounds of rice and vegetables, Lake Batur fish, corn fritters, a bowl of crispy tempe manis, and it disappeared almost as quickly as it came, with groans of pleasure and exclamations of delight. Second helpings were begged and the round-cheeked face of Ketut’s mother beamed pure happiness.

After a tour of the wood carving shop, a peek into the family temple, and a volley of photos of majestic Mt. Abang in the distance, our little troupe headed home with reruns of an anthropologist’s dream rolling in our heads.

But the ritual for Ketut was far from over. He remained at the cemetery with his brothers, and as the ashes cooled families sifted through them. Handfuls were scooped up and put into the shells of coconuts, wrapped in new white and yellow fabric, and taken to another cemetery by the river. There the ground was struck three times with the nuts again summoning the spirits back. Presents of food offerings were made to further entice them. Upon leaving that cemetery, the fabric that dressed the coconuts was removed and replaced with fresh new cloth. “Must have clean shirt,” Ketut said.

The next day the coconuts were on the move again, this time to the beach. The long white cloth reappeared and the remains were moved beneath the trailing fabric held high by willing hands, into a new tower for their ride to the sea. There, nuts and ashes were pitched into the water. “Before beach, body and spirit,” Ketut said. “After beach, just spirit.”

7400 spirits are once again on the loose and 200 coins reappear on the scene. New white and yellow fabric is folded and stacked. One family member is handed the cloth and it’s touched three times by the string of 200 coins. That person carries it to the five small temples nearby. Each step of each temple is touched three times by the fabric. At the end, the person takes three steps backward and summons the spirits back to the white cloth.

But it isn’t over yet.

Now the entire entourage pilgrimages to Besakih, the mother temple on Mt. Agung. There, at the most sacred site on Bali, the family prays. Ketut says, “We tell god at Besakih we want to bring spirits home. Already cremation, already purified at beach, already visit small temples.” Prayers at Besakih, with the priests in attendance, go on until just before dawn. When this production of grand proportion and significant spiritual impact is finally over, Ketut tells me that he forgets he had a father. He will not even dream of him again.

I’m shocked at the harsh sounding words and I argue. “Of course you’ll remember him! I’ll always remember him. He was a great man.”

He looks at me with a soft smile and eyes older than time. “It’s okay,” he says.

 

 

Part One: Death isn’t the end

Six months ago, in a hardware store in Denpasar, Ketut answered a phone call. He moved to a quiet area behind metal shelving to talk. It was a light-hearted outing but the man who emerged after the call walked as though wounded and his face, attempting a smile, masked pain.

“Ketut, what’s wrong? What happened?” He didn’t speak right away. Maybe he was still grappling with disbelief. But when he was able to answer it was a message that sent my heart plummeting to my feet.

“My father die.”

———-

Extended family performed the necessary procedures on the body, washing, wrapping, blessing, keeping watch, and burying. But other ceremonies in the village took precedence so the funeral for Bapak had to wait. In Abang Songan there is a mass cremation every five years. Very few families can afford the expense of an individual cremation, so the body is buried and later exhumed for burning with the rest.

P1070891That poses a bit of a problem. The spirit must have a proper sendoff. Nobody wants the spirit of the deceased hanging around for long because it requires tending. Since his passing, Bapak Ketut has been fed every time the family is fed. When gifts are received, he is given a portion. Ancestral spirits are honored and kept happy because it is believed that an angry spirit will wreak havoc. Even with all possible care taken, every stubbed toe and skinned knee in the ensuing months will be attributed to a dissatisfied soul.

October 30th was the day ascertained by the holy man to be auspicious for the releasing of Bapak’s spirit. I was invited to attend. Ketut went home days before to help prepare. There were shelters to be erected, platforms and blankets and tarps to be borrowed, chickens killed, fish caught, vegetables collected. The guests would bring rice, coffee, and sugar as part of their contribution.

Ketut’s older brother, Nengah, came at 7 am the morning before the ceremony to pick me up. When we arrived in the village an hour and a half later, an army of people were already at work.

There’s one job that I know how to do. Only one. Without that job I am destined to wander aimlessly with my camera for hours, long past the battery’s capability for more photos.

I peel onions.

But the kitchen had gone missing.

“Di mana dapur?” I asked the first woman I saw. She motioned in a direction back where I’d come from, then took my arm steering me around a corner, then around another, along a narrow alley between a tarp shelter and a house, over a stoop and behind another house. There they were, the piles of vegetable, the steaming woks and kettles, whole chickens flattened as though they’d met with a steamroller, and the Ibus, chattering and working as smoothly and effortlessly as a new Mercedes Benz.

I greeted them and was invited to sit.

“Thank you,” I said, “But first, where are the onions?” My question was followed by a shotgun volley of words in Balinese, a language I will never understand, and then laughter. A blue plastic laundry basket was hoisted off a shelf and the contents poured into a pan. “Knife?” I asked. A sabre of fearsome proportions came my direction. “Small please?” More laughter but a smaller knife was produced. For the next few hours I peeled onions, made jokes in my broken Indonesian, and functioned as a member of the kitchen crew.

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Bali onions are tiny, about the size of a large clove of garlic. and red. One pan full was the sum of my whole morning’s work.

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For about twenty minutes these two industrious young ladies helped me peel.

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In another area women assembled hundreds of offerings.

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Some of the designs for this particular ceremony were elaborate and unusual.

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Ketut told me that this vertical basket contained sixty different kinds of leaves. “All the leaf from my house to the river,” he said. It also held sixty eggs, and sixty garlic cloves, sixty onions, in essence, the fruits of the land. To my question, “Why?” there was the usual answer…

“I don’t know.”

P1070857 In another area the men chopped fish and chicken, bones and all, into a meaty pulp. They mixed each of them with pulverized coconut, onions, garlic, and chillies, then smooshed the mixtures onto bamboo sticks. The sticks had been carved the day before.

Coffee and sweets were served when the workers arrived and again later in the morning. At 11:00 am the blue laundry basket appeared, this time heaped full with steaming rice. Dishes of vegetables and tofu, satays, bean soup, potato soup, deep fried fish, and chicken with spicy sambal (the Balinese version of salsa) created a feast for the eyes and the palate. After eating the men smoked and the women chattered, then it was back to work. Mid-afternoon the young girls of the family in tightly wrapped sarongs, once again brought out trays of coffee and sweets. At 4 pm the buffet reappeared. When the last satay stick was licked clean, people drifted to motorbikes or started the walk home. Easily fifty people were fed twice on this day as they had been for several days prior.

But as the sun set and evening chill settled over the mountain there were still a dozen or so extra bodies hanging out. Ketut and his wife insisted that I take their room with the double bed, television, and privacy.

“Where will you sleep?”

“All sleep outside, many many.”

“All these people are spending the night here?”

“Ya, all. You want shower?”

“But where is everybody going to sleep?”

“Ya, here.” A sweep of Ketut’s arm indicated the platforms that earlier held the offering makings.

“Outside? Really?”

“Ya.”

“Ketut, it’s cold!”

“Oh no, many people, very warm. Ya, you take shower now.” As if on cue, his brother appeared carrying a bucket with a small faucet attached.

“Hot,” he said.

I dutifully followed him to the bathroom where he showed me how to operate the faucet then left. The hot water felt wonderful. I dabbed at my face, neck, and did the best I could without soap, washcloth or towel, and the pail was still 3/4 full when I finished. But fresh guilt assaulted me.

“I don’t want your wife and baby sleeping outside when I have a warm room. That’s not okay.”

“Ya, later they sleep inside.”

“With me?”

“Ya, later.”

“Promise?”

“Ya.”

Somewhat mollified I kicked off my sandals at the door and went in. The bed seemed wide enough to sleep crosswise so I stretched out at the foot leaving plenty of room for Komang and the baby. Remembering a previous experience with nocturnal visitors, I left the light on hoping to discourage unwanted guests.

At 5 am I awoke to barking dogs and cock-a-doodle-doing roosters, alone. Still fully clothed, I ran a comb through my hair, pulled on a sweater, and poked my nose outside. A row of mummies, sausaged into a variety of blankets, stirred ever so slightly. Ketut’s head popped out. My glare was answered with his happy grin that spoke, I won! louder than words.

Next

Day Two: March up the mountain

Today I Lost a Friend

It began like a normal morning with roosters crowing in advance of the sun. I awoke with them around 5 a.m. As the sky brightened I checked the clouds, puffy white in a sea of blue, perfect. Ketut appeared with groceries from the market. “I’d like to go to Denpasar today. Are you busy?” He wasn’t.

A half hour later we were tooling through rice paddies and small villages in high humor. I’ve mulled on the fact that Ketut tends to speak little when I can hear him but becomes a regular chatterbox when the thick helmet, rushing wind, and surrounding traffic noise make it almost impossible to decipher his words.

The shop I wanted to see was in Kerobokan, but as we entered the Denpasar area I spotted an ACE Hardware Store. These are not like the Ace Hardware’s at home. Here you can find fake plants, ‘a plastic garden’ as Ketut puts it, bathtubs, and children’s toys as well as auto parts, tools, hinges and toaster ovens. Neither of us had been there before so we took time to check out all three floors of the massive building.

We were looking at the display of safes cleverly disguised as canned vegetables, when he got a phone call from his wife. Workers were repairing the floor in that vicinity of the store so Ketut moved to a quieter area to take the call.  When he came back he had a strange look in his eyes. I told him I was finished and asked if he was ready to go. Holding me in that deeply intense gaze he said, “I’m sorry.” My gut did a flip. Something was terribly wrong.

“What is it Ketut? What happened?”

“My father die,” he said. The bottom dropped out of my heart.

Ketut’s father was special. Whenever I was a guest at the family compound he sought me out to talk. He asked questions about my country and my family. He wanted to know about the seasons in Minnesota and how it could be so cold for part of the year and so hot at other times. His mind was sharp and quick to grasp the nuances of things he had never seen. Knowing him I understood where Ketut got his facile intellect and ready wit.

Not only did he possess a natural curiosity and a fine intelligence, but he was kind. deeply kind. That’s another attribute that Ketut inherited from his papa.

The ride back to Ubud was a teary one for me. I know that outward expressions of grief are not appreciated here. A ‘clear face’ is highly prized. Sadness is thought to attract negative energies and upset the balance.  I was glad of the dark glasses and the hour on the back of the motorbike to process my emotions.

Every so often Ketut asked, “You okay?” The dear man had just lost his father and he was still tending to me.

“Yes, I’m okay. You okay?”

“Ya.”

The motorbike bumped it’s way back to Ubud while Ketut told me the story of his father’s illness. He had been to the Balinese healer and a Western doctor. The doc told him his arteries were closing and surgery wouldn’t help. The Balian gave him a medicinal concoction to drink every day. Some days he felt strong. He drove his motorbike and cut grass for the cows. Other days were not so good.

“My father say he want big photo,” Ketut said as we reached the outskirts of Ubud. “For cremation.”

Bapak is survived by four older siblings. One sister had requested a photo for her cremation several months ago. I snapped a picture, had it enlarged and printed, and delivered it to her on a subsequent visit. It was a very big deal.

“Is it too late?” I asked.

“Oh no! Not until cremation.”

I have the picture. It captures this man, his elegant bearing, wise face and kind eyes. He looks far younger than his seventy years and for the hard working mountain farmers, that isn’t often the case.  I’m glad there is one last thing I can do for Bapak as his soul speeds on its journey. Goodbye, my friend. I’ll miss you.

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The Queen is Dead

In August, Ubud had a mass cremation. Sixty some Balinese people who may have already been buried for years, were fetched, cleaned up, and cremated. In October there was a mass tooth filing. The ceremony was performed on over 200 Balinese people. Holy men were carted in from the far reaches to have enough holiness to perform the rite for all those people in one day.

Cremations and tooth filings, weddings and the ground touching ceremony at a baby’s three month birthday, are very expensive events. A tooth filing costs approximately $1000 U.S. In Bali, where the average income weighs in at about $40/month, providing these all important rituals for the family would be impossible without a mass event. When the cost is spread out over enough folks, it becomes affordable.

But if you’re the queen, the game changes. This account of today’s cremation appeared in The Jakarta Post. The photos are mine.

The palebon agung, a term reserved for the cremation ceremonies of royal family members — as opposed to ngaben, the ceremony for normal Balinese — will be conducted for Tjokorda Istri Sri Tjandrawati, the late wife of the Ubud palace’s penglingsir (family leader) Tjokorda Gde Putra Sukawati. She passed away on Oct. 14 at the age of 59 at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore after a year-long fight against stomach cancer.
*
Her embalmed body has been lying in state in a pavilion inside Ubud palace in preparation for the palebon agung since Oct. 15. Alongside her were her belongings, such as a comb, small mirror and toothbrush. Family members also brought offerings every day, such as coffee and tea, which were the deceased’s favorites during her life.
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Two Hindu high priests will lead the cremation ceremony. They are Ida Pedanda Lingsir of Padang Tegal and Ida Padanda Aan.
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The palebon agung will be held Friday. Various rituals will start around 12:30 p.m., when the body of the deceased will be transported on the bade (cremation tower) to the Dalem Puri royal cemetery east of the palace.

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The purple and gold bull waits in readiness outside the palace

The procession will involve two major props; a 7.5 meter-tall (24.6 feet) wooden sarcophagus in the form of a purple buffalo and a 25 meter-tall (82 feet) bade with nine tiers. In Bali, the eleven-tiered bade is reserved only for a ruling king.

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The body of the deceased will be moved from the palace to this tower via the scaffolding on the right, then carried through the streets to the cemetery.

Main roads in Ubud will be closed to vehicles during the procession, while electricity will be shut down starting from around 9 a.m. as cable poles will be dismounted to prevent them blocking the bade. Around 5,000 men from Ubud will take turns carrying the heavy tower along the 1 kilometer road from the palace to the cemetery. Upon reaching the cremation site, the body will be transported to the sarcophagus and then burned into ashes.

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The tower has been connected to the second scaffolding. Now the body of the deceased will be removed and placed into the hollow body of the bull.

The nuduk galih ceremony will follow after the procession completes. The remains will be cleaned with coconut water to be blessed again. After this ceremony, the remains will be rearranged to shape a human form on a piece of cloth.

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The fire raged and debris flew through the air as people scrambled away from the heat.

The whole process ends when the remains — including the ashes, bones, and all other parts — are covered with the cloth and floated out to sea. The deceased’s remains will be disbursed off Matahari Terbit beach in Sanur.

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The streets were jammed with vendors, tourists and three, shiny, red fire trucks.

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It was a little like a street fair. Thousands of people, Balinese and tourists alike, turned out to pay their last respects.

No matter how many cremations I witness, I am still struck by the lack of mourning. Not that sadness doesn’t exist when a loved one passes. But good-byes are said in private, surrounded by family and community.

And then it’s show time. The tower and bull are carried through the streets accompanied by the percussive pounding of gamelan. Water hoses are trained on the straining bodies of the pallbearers who glisten with sweat under the crushing weight.

Add to that scene, the colorful carts of food vendors, women selling sarongs piled high on their heads, bouquets of flashy mylar balloons, bright colored sunbrellas, and tourists looking like they’ve worn their bedspreads in an attempt to fit in, and you have a royal cremation. P1050110

What do Dylan Thomas and pigs have in common?

I awakened about 4 a.m. to an ungodly racket. Not frogs this time. What on earth??? Struggling up through layers of sleep I tried to make sense of the sounds. Then it hit me. Pigs. They are slaughtering pigs for the huge cremation ceremony scheduled for Saturday. A prince died and the preparations have been ongoing for weeks. Hundreds of people will have to be fed. I am reminded of a poem by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The pigs do not go gently…

So, here I am, awake, sitting on my balcony, drinking coffee in the soft pink of sunrise when my dove alights in the potted bougainvillea that sits on the southeast corner of my balcony, the corner nearest The Naked Tree. A moment later, his faithful partner flutters in beside him. I’m only seven feet away and I freeze, my cup midway to my mouth. I observe in awe as they coo and examine the bush, it’s delicate white and salmon-colored blooms, and it’s very sparse leaf cover. As quickly as she came, Mrs. Dove leaves. Unsatisfactory home, dear, it simply won’t do…her message is clear to me, but Mr. Dove remains.

Potted Bougainvillea

The next moment he flies up to the pendant lamp hanging just above my head. Oh my! No place to perch there, so he flits down to the railing of the balcony. My heart stops. To what do I owe this blessed visitation? Then to the arm of the chair. Now he is within three feet of my still frozen cup. I watch him and observe the extraordinary feather collar of black with white polka-dots at his neck, the intelligent eye trained on my face, the dove-gray body and shocking pink feet. Oh sweet and beautiful friend! I wish I could help. There are many lovely trees in this garden. Surely one will make a suitable home?

The railing, the arm of the chair, the coffee…

We assess each other for some time then, with several gallant bobs in my direction, he takes his leave. I sit, stunned, unmoving. Coffee, cool now, still has not reached my lips.

Would I have had this enchantment had I not been up at dawn? Had the pigs not been slaughtered and their cries wakened me would I have missed this holy communion? I owe a debt of gratitude to the pigs. I won’t be partaking of their flesh, but this morning they bestowed the gift of a timely awakening so I could keep a sacred appointment with the doves.

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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