When the dead aunts go home

There isn’t a situation, circumstance, life event, object, (animate or inanimate) in Bali that doesn’t have a particular ceremony assigned to it. The big ones, marriage, birth, death, are universal. But a day to bless metals? An elaborate celebration before a baby’s feet are allowed to touch the ground? A ritual dealing with incest? The coming of age practice of tooth filing to rid the body of carnality? These are foreign concepts. Then there are the temple birthdays, a day to bless the animals, another for trees and plants, the list goes on.

But every 210th day on the Balinese calendar, the spirits of dead ancestors return to their earthly homes. Elaborate preparations are made by the living to receive them and the festivities continue for ten days culminating in Kuningan when those restless souls take their leave to go back to their haunts for another 210 days until the cycle repeats.

Today was Kuningan.  I woke up having slept a total of about two hours all night, and felt the urge to walk. The sky was that particular shade of wisteria with a steady breeze out of the east. I set out heading north on Monkey Forest Road toward the Ubud Royal Palace. Offerings hung from doorways and women in temple clothes lit incense and sprinkled holy water over mounds of square palm baskets filled with flowers, rice, and treats piled on the sidewalk. 2015-07-25 10.24.55As I ambled along in no hurry to get anywhere, I looked back to see this car, adorned with the woven, shield-shaped ornaments that signify protection. Many cars and motorbikes had these woven palm talismans hanging on the front.

2015-07-25 10.10.53Bicycles, too, were the recipients of offerings and blessing.

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My lazy stroll took me past residences that I never see when the streets and sidewalks are crowded with people. But this morning I was the only non-Balinese person about, so I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the stunning second story residence of a wealthy Ubudian. Every door and window was framed by intricate stone carvings, and the shutters and doors themselves were carved and painted the deep reds, greens, blues, and golds of the traditional Balinese style.

2015-07-25 10.24.29The home sitting next to this one was another example of unique architecture. Resting at the top is a lumbung built in the style of the old rice barns. This one has been embellished with paint and looks more like an elaborate child’s playhouse, which maybe it is.

2015-07-25 10.24.05My trek had gotten me as far as the football field, a well-known landmark about half-way between the Ubud Royal Palace and the Sacred Monkey Forrest. It was in the background across the street when I asked a young woman who was putting offerings in the roadside temple if I could take her picture.

2015-07-25 10.19.01Of my several walking routes, this morning I chose to take a left on Arjuna Street for the quieter feel off the main thoroughfare. I had seen men working on penjors earlier in the month but had not been back since they’d been installed. This year those towering arched poles with swaying tassels, seemed taller and more intricate in design than I’ve ever seen them.

2015-07-25 10.25.59 Arjuna Street comes to a T. I hang a right that takes me up to Jalan Raya, the main east-west artery in Ubud. More altars with offerings, palm weavings and flowers graced this busy area mail.google.comAs I continued along my way, down the steep hill to the bridge over the river and then the slow climb out of the valley, I watched family after Balinese family in full-on temple garb, riding sidesaddle and carrying the square baskets that hold everything needed to send the dear departed once again on their way.2015-07-25 10.44.00No matter how many times I see the offerings, the temples, the penjors, the men in their udeng headgear and double sarongs, the women in their kebayas, I delight in the exotic beauty of it all. Today was no different. When I got home, Ketut was back from his family responsibilities in Abang Songan and had performed the ritual blessings for my house, and even though my ancestors probably can’t find me here, I’m prepared! P1090939

Motorbike Magical Mystery Tour

My brain felt cobwebby. What to do? Force it into submission and write? Sometimes that works. Or…

I chose the ‘or’ and plotted an escape. There is a vast mountain area of Bali that I haven’t explored. I got out the map. When Ketut brought breakfast, I ran the idea past him. A few days earlier I’d asked him what he liked best about his job. “Petualangan,” he said. Petualangan, translated, means adventure.

So yesterday, at 6:30 a.m., we left Ubud behind and headed for Mt. Batukaru. I packed bottled water, grabbed a couple of pears, and slipped on my raincoat. It would serve as a windbreaker in the early morning cool, and I had no doubt we would encounter rain at some point in the cloud-covered mountains.


Bali has just completed another three day Galungan celebration so graceful penjors bowed over the streets of the villages we passed through. The elaborate designs, each one different, are a testimony to the unlimited creativity of the Balinese. Snapping photos over the top of Ketut’s helmet, I captured the road ahead.

P1040889P1040890There are many benefits to getting an early start. Traffic is minimal, and the tour buses aren’t yet on the road. But the morning markets are bustling. There isn’t a more typical Balinese scene than this, a group of vendors selling fruits and vegetables to the local people at sunrise.

Weaving between baskets of produce and the men and women collecting their provisions for the day, we continued on our way.


The countryside sped by with vast stretches of rice fields meeting the horizon on either side. The cobwebs began to blow away. I sucked my lungs full of fresh air and closed my eyes. The wind, the sun, the freedom to be here…what bliss. What blessing.

We were climbing. Every road going north from Ubud ascends toward the mountains. A little to the east, Mt. Agung boasts the highest elevation at 3,142 meters. Mt. Batur, directly north, stands at 1,717 meters, and northwest of Ubud, Batukaru, our destination this morning, is the second highest reaching 2,276 meters.


A picturesque village in the shadow of Batukaru

One of the things I love about Bali is the changing landscape. There are flat rice fields, terraced paddies, timbered mountainsides, tranquil lakes, ocean beaches, black sand, white sand, bumpy lava coasts and rocky cliffs.

As we entered the switchbacks for the serious climb upward, Ketut said, “You want see botanic garden?” I’ve learned that when Ketut says, “You want see,” or “You want go,” the answer should always be an unqualified, “Yes!” No matter what image my mind conjures up, it is bound to be so far off the mark that it’s better not to even imagine. Just say yes and go.


Ketut chats with the vendor while I snap their picture

A few minutes later we pulled into an empty parking lot at the Botanical Garden of Bedugul and dismounted. Ketut ordered two cups of Nescafe. I’ve said it before, but I repeat, nothing tastes better after biking in the chill mountain air, than a cup of hot, super sweet, Balinese Nescafe!

At 8:00 a.m. we walked through the deserted area, past a sleeping guard, up to the ticket window. Sure enough, the happy face behind the glass was awake and welcomed us to the gardens. I paid the 18,000 rph, roughly $1.75 U.S., and we strolled into botanical paradise.

The park is huge and we were it’s first visitors. We rambled through the glades and glens, along avenues of towering palms, through medicinal gardens, a ceremonial plant collection, giant ferns, orchids, and a patch of blood-red amaryllis blooms. Two pachyderm topiaries stood guard at the entrance of the Begonia House.


Topiary elephants stand guard at the Begonia House


Grotto in the Begonia House


Domed screens provide the necessary shade for hundreds of begonia species


The first glimpse of Lake Bratan is a welcome reward for the ever-upward hike through the park


The carpet of green rolls unbroken under a shady canopy


Another peek through the trees of the distant lake


Finally, at the top, Lake Bratan spreads out below in sapphire glory


It was hard to pull ourselves away from that enchanted hilltop, but another surprise awaited: Cactus House!


After the dry heat preferred by the cacti, Orchid House was a shadowy retreat


A sea of Amaryllis


This avenue of palms could be the approach to a mansion, but it leads instead to the Herbarium, Laboratory, and Library housed in the park.


Pools, bridges, resting places, are interspersed here and there, around the next bend in the path


A collection of medicinal herbs in manicured beds have signs designating their latin names


Two deer create a heart shape on one of the boulevards

A little way in, rock music blasted from somewhere in the distance. Through the trees we saw a crew setting up for an event that would be taking place later in the day. Farther on, another crew was preparing a venue for a crowd complete with sound system and tented shelters. By the time we left, hundreds of Balinese and Javanese people had arrived. Twelve tour buses, countless rows of mini-vans, and an area of motorbikes packed in like sardines, filled the parking lot. I was thrilled that we had gotten there first.

Ketut rescued his bike from the crowd, and we made our way to the next stop, Ulun Danu Bratan, the famous temple in the water.


Ulun Danu Temple in Lake Bratan

I took this photo, but it looks just like thousands of others I’ve seen. What this picture doesn’t reveal, are the hoards of tourists everywhere, all struggling for a shot of the epic Hindu temple.


Lake Tamblingan

The best time to visit any special site in Bali is early morning. Often the sky is clearest, and the tourists and vendors who will later flock to the area, are still waking up.

After Ulun Danu, we followed a ridge that skirted the three lakes in the Mt. Batukaru caldera, Lake Bratan, Lake Buyan, and Lake Tamblingan. There were no tourists along that ridge. In fact we encountered very few people at all, just immense peace.

P1050048The morning pears and coffee had worn off. A roadside warung offered lunch to go. Ketut found a serene lakeside area for a picnic and we unwrapped our brown paper parcels. I haven’t perfected the Balinese finger style, but managed to eat the whole, spicy delicious thing.


“Road broken…a little massage!” Ketut shouts happily as my knuckles grow ever whiter.

Full and happy, I was eager to get going. I’d heard about Lovina, a small town on the coast, and Ketut said he knew the way.

Of course, Ketut knew the way, the back way, the adventurous way of razor-sharp turns and perpendicular plunges with no side rails to block the crashing descent to a bottomless somewhere should a tire slip. Add to that a road that had been chewed up by sluicing rivers of rainwater plummeting down from the mountains, and you have a very exciting ride!

I was certain we would have to turn around and retrace our way as the washed-out ruts became deeper and patches of pavement more scarce. But, wonder of wonders, we rounded a bend and the road became whole. In a few moments we were tooling into Lovina. He teased me later, “Want to go home same way?” Thanks, Ketut. I’d rather walk!


Dry terraces as we approach Lovina with the ocean in the distance

The landscape coming into Lovina was parched. The town itself skirted the coast for several miles. We followed the main road, clogged with cars, trucks, and motorbikes. Ketut turned in at a beach area where the boats leave early in the morning filled with tourists who want to watch the dolphins. The attendant apologized to me that I had come too late and would have to come back in the morning. I didn’t bother to explain, just thanked him and headed for black sand and rolling breakers.

Wading knee-deep I let the vibrations of the motorbike melt out of my body and flow into the tugging waves. The ocean was beautiful, but Lovina cast no spell.

The way home took us back into the mountains through the rain I had anticipated. Warm drops pelted my face as the pavement slipped along under the wheels. The cooling moisture felt good on my skin. “You okay?” Ketut shouted back at me, always happy to pull in for another cup of Nescafe.

I wanted to say, “This has been the perfect day. I feel alive. My brain has been de-fuzzed. My soul has been refreshed. Life doesn’t get any better than this!” But neither his English, nor my Indonesian, were up to that task. “Bagus!” I hollered over the engine’s grinding effort. It’s a word that can’t be misunderstood. Translated it simply means good. And between friends, good is good enough.

And…The Woman In My Kitchen

I’ll get to the woman in my kitchen, but first: Galungan. There is no translation for that word. It is what it is, a sequence of days in the life of Balinese Hindus that represent weeks of preparation, the assembling of massive penjors to adorn the streets, and elaborate offerings. The belief is that the spirits of the ancestors visit their original homes during this time. Extensive offerings are made in observence of their return. Offerings are also made on the graves of family members who have died and have not yet been cremated. Business slows to a crawl, schools are closed, and the village concentrates on the events surrounding this sacred period.

Ibu informed me early that my house offerings this week would be “Mahal!” (expensive) because of Galungan. Expensive. When I quizzed her for exact numbers, the typical $3.50/week for the beautiful creations that she places around the house and yard every day would be a whopping $5.00. I happily shelled out the additional rupiah and eagerly awaited the auspicious date.

She had drawn an elaborate diagram on the tablecloth with her finger showing me exactly where each offering would be placed and how many were required at each location. How do the woman keep all the endless details of the hundreds of ceremonies tucked neatly away in their heads? I have seen Ibu studying the Balinese calendar hanging on my wall. Every Balinese home  and place of business has one. In the west, we pencil our appointments and ‘to dos’ in the blank space around the dates. Not so on the Balinese calendar. It’s filled in for you.


Balinese Calendar for March

I’m guessing there may be some hints in the massive amounts of information contained in this document that would help jog the memory. It doesn’t help mine!

But back to Galungan…

I watched as the 67 year old woman made her way along the path to my house. She was in full ceremonial dress, but her sarong was wet up to the knees. Every morning she wades the river to come here. I knew the huge, square woven basket on her head was filled with gifts for the gods. Ibu began the process of sorting and arranging the offerings. Some have fruit. Bananas are an important offering ingredient for Galungan. All have flowers. And there are celophane packages of treats, cupcakes, doughnuts, peanut chips, and little vials of…could it be…jello?! After arranging the proper items in the offering bowls and trays, Ibu began.

Ibu sprinkling holy water

She dips the flower in the holy water and sprinkles each offering

The dining table offering

The dining table offering

The top of the refigerator offering

The top of the refigerator offering

The kitchen window offering (so only good things come in)

The kitchen window offering (so only good things come in)

The stove offering

The stove offering

Ibu was in the kitchen for a long time. When she finished, that tiny space had no less that four beautiful offerings. She completed her rounds, offerings at either side of both the back and front entrances to my home, the front and back yard, the altar, until the scent of incense was sweet and thick in the humid air.

Having completed the ritual she changed into her work clothes and again disappeared into the kitchen. This time when she emerged she had a treat for me. Pisang Lawi. I had never seen this dish before but it is now my favorite treat.

Pisang lawi, banana dumplings with fresh shaved coconut and a sprinkling of sea salt. TO DIE FOR!!!

Pisang Lawi, banana dumplings with fresh shaved coconut and a sprinkling of sea salt. TO DIE FOR!!!

We sat together on the platform, each with our heaping plate and steaming cup of Bali Kopi. A friend stopped by who has been in Bali much longer than I have and Ibu rushed to prepare the treat for her, too. She had never exprienced this particular dish before and gushed her enjoyment.

I could try to suggest that I, too, cook in my kitchen, but what I do is a sorry excuse. I heat up leftovers of the fabulous meals that others have prepared for me. I tried, I really did. And I’ll try again…maybe. But with experts who can whip up such things as this in a heartbeat, without scouring the internet for recipes, translating the ingredients into Indonesian, snagging a lift on the back of a motorbike to the market, then fumbling through the unfamiliar equipment that occupies my kitchen…I ask myself, why would I?

The Elegance of the Balinese Penjor

If I thought Bali was beautiful before, I had no idea what was in the works for the ten day Galungan celebration. Every Balinese friend I talked to spoke excitedly about Galungan and the penjor. The words had no meaning for me. So although their excitement was contagious, and even though they attempted to explain, I was clueless. As the day drew closer the energy of the island intensified. Then I got an invitation. Pasek, the manager of several properties including my house, invited me to his village for the temple ceremonies and the first day of Galungan. His village is high in the mountains and if there is a beaten track his home is significantly beyond that. I was deeply honored to be included in the special time for his family. So even though it meant another very long motorbike ride (over an hour one way) and subjecting myself to the roads that snake their way to the top shrinking ever smaller as they ascend, I eagerly accepted.

Pasek in his family temple with a few of the many many offerings

Pasek with his wife, his father, and his three children in the traditional Balinese ceremonial dress.

The experience was profoundly personal and I am grateful to have been so generously welcomed to share in the ancient practices still alive today.

On the ride to Pasek’s village on Mt. Batur, we passed thousands of penjor. I am not exaggerating…thousands! I kept exclaiming to the wind rushing past my ears, “Oh! Wow! Beautiful! Oh! Look at that one! Wow!” etc. etc.  That was yesterday. Today I straddled Ketut’s motorbike and off we went on a penjor photo adventure! He took me through village after village and stopped, waiting patiently while I walked from one glorious creation to the next, shooting, shooting, shooting.  Just by way of a quick explanation, penjor is synonymous with Mt. Agung, the highest and holiest mountain on Bali. Every single one of these gracefully arched, fancifully decorated bamboo poles is different. They are made by the family who owns the property abutting the street. There are offerings attached and there is often a little temple beside the penjor.

Penjors line the village streets

Another village…

And another…

At about 9 feet from the ground, the first work of art manifests. The following are a few examples of once again, thousands of variations on the theme.

The entire penjor is made from items occurring in nature and basic to Balinese life.

The tassels waving in the breezes high above the street are also marvelous and diverse creations.

The poles themselves are completely covered from top to bottom with exquisite woven, fringed, and looped designs that defy verbal explanation.

This one deserved a close-up…

Some of the penjors had a woven strip forming a ramp to the offering. Ketut told me these special weavings signify a family wedding.

These amazing displays remain in place for the 10 days of Galungan, then they are gone and next year, in the 11th month of their 210 day calendar, it happens all over again. The closest thing to it in the U.S. are the street decorations at Christmas. I won’t shove it down your throat, you can draw your own conclusions, but it doesn’t seem quite the same…

I’ve given you a small taste, a sweet one I hope, of the elegance of the penjor.

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