Off With Their Heads!

After the bizarre ferris wheel ride in the middle of godforsaken nowhere that followed a day of new experiences one after another, I’m exhausted. My roommate is still with her peers at the fair so I have our small room to myself, well almost. The scritch-scratch begins. “Oh no,” I moan as I whip the fuzzy blanket over my head and begin breathing my own fumes. I determine that whatever it is, it WILL NOT touch my skin, not tonight. The noises go on and on and I lay tense and waiting for the inevitable skitter of feet across some body part.

Then the tell-tale rustling stops. “Great,” I groan, “I know you’re just waiting for me to uncover my head and you’ll pounce!” I lay corpse-like, head sweating and hair plastered across my eyes and lips. “Enough already! I’ve had it! I’m done with this game. Go ahead, run over my face, see if I care!” I fling off the offending headcovering and lay listening once again. Still nothing. It takes me about two and a half seconds to fall asleep.

The morning alarm blasts through a dream. I return to my home in Ubud and Pasek greets me full of excitement. The new kitchen has been finished in my absence. He proudly leads me to it. It looks a bit like this, windows crooked, everything cartoonish.

I tell Ketut about the nightmare. “Oh,” says the wise one, “Bad dream mean kitchen good.” He thinks for a minute then adds, “If good dream, then maybe kitchen bad.” Yin yang. Balance. I thank him and suggest that he check on things. He has to go back to Ubud for a few hours today. I’m staying behind to avoid the three hour round trip on the motorbike. He says he will check.

The morning routine is the same as yesterday, but after breakfast, a woman with a box of footed red offering plates wheels in on a motorbike. She’s followed by a virtual army of others, arms full of supplies, long palm fronds, baskets full of flowers, fruits, moss, and a myriad assortment of necessities. Soon they’re thirty strong sitting on the low tables under the blue tarp. Their fingers fly.

In another corner the bloody business of butchering chickens is hidden from view. Unlike a pig slaughter, chickens are silent martyrs and the men are experts. Short work is made of the slim neck. Then the bird is held over a bowl to collect the blood and flung, still fully feathered, into a big, blue bucket. When it’s filled, the bucket moves to the next crew and the bird is neatly denuded. Rows of plucked bodies are strung on long skewers ready for the barbecue pit.

I pick my way through woodchips and bits and discover another enclave of men gathered around chopping blocks. These fellows are cutting up the onions and garlic that I, and hosts of others, spent hours peeling yesterday. But it’s not just garlic, onions, and chilies. There are warty roots, I’m guessing ginger, maybe turmeric, and medicinal looking leaves going into the mix. I smile, shoot a photo, and follow a basin of the chopped mix up the stairs. It’s dumped into a stone bowl and a tall, lean gent commences pulverizing it with a mallet.

The man and woman power represented here to prepare for a child’s birthday party, makes anything a normal family in the States might do look downright skimpy.

In mid-afternoon Ketut returns with a story that my dream was right. The kitchen is completed. “Wait you look-look,” he says with an evil grin. We both know that isn’t possible. I have a good laugh with Ketut at his wry, Balinese humor.

The women are finished. A buffet lunch is spread on outdoor tables. They fill their plates and relax, laughing and joking with each other. When the last bite is consumed, they file out of the compound and head home.

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About this time a bucket of fish goes by. They’re dumped out on boards and heads, fins, and tails get the axe. But that’s it. The bones are left in as the body of the fish is chopped into mush by serious looking knives. Minced bones and flesh are now united with the herb and spice mixture and fresh grated coconut to make the spicy satays that I love.

When the last stick of satays is roasted to a turn, the men are fed and they go home.

I’m summoned into the small room that has been decked out for the ceremony. Already a holy man is seated on the platform. Draped fabrics in red, purple and gold create the backdrop for the plates and mounds of offerings that I watched being made just hours ago. This is where I need my sarong but the borrowed one from Komang works fine. One size fits all when it’s just a two meter length of fabric!

The ceremony takes less than an hour. Children come in to stare for a few minutes then leave. Incense fills the room. The holy man rings the bell in a continual clanging and chants prayers as Komang and Ketut perform the rituals they’ve been taught from birth.

I have so many thoughts. First in mind, I’m embarrassed to admit, is the problem of having so much food in one’s bedroom. On the plus side, the critter that visited me the past two nights probably won’t bother when presented with this smorgasbord! But the ants? The sweet kue will attract hoards of them. And what about flies?

I banish those unholy imaginings and soak in the magnitude of the past three days. Ketut appears. “Finished?” I ask. He looks happy.

“Until tomorrow,” he says.

“What happens tomorrow?” Fair question, right?

“Oh, again for my brother, but this time dance.”

“Huh?”

“Ya. Brother’s baby six month ceremony tomorrow but holy man say have dance.”

“Tomorrow?” I repeat, seeing this wilderness vacation stretching on endlessly before me.

“Ya. Gamelan, like before.” As he speaks we walk toward a light and voices. “Can stay?” he asks.

We round a corner and there are Ketut’s brothers and their wives seated under the bare light bulb with a lone bottle of beer in the center of their small circle. They’re woodcarvers and though they’ve worked constantly all day long preparing for the ceremony, the job that makes money is carving.

I happen to know that neither Ketut nor his brothers drink alcohol. It’s expensive, and as Ketut tells me, “Too strong.” But a guest brought several bottles to the gathering today and the carvers are sharing one.

We leave the jovial group and I tell Ketut that of course I want to stay for his brother’s ceremony and the dance. What a privilege, what an honor, what an exquisite glimpse into a time and place that most Western eyes have never seen.

My roommate appears and we enter our little house together. She drops to the floor, rolls in her blanket, and is asleep. I turn off the light, grope for my sleepwear with one ear tuned for the scratch-scratch, and slide into bed. As I suspected, the ferreting varmint has better pickings elsewhere and I’m left in peace. Sleep descends.

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.

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