A Writers’ Fire

It’s dark. Quiet. Still. I stand at the street looking down on a small circle of men in white. Where is everybody? I check the time…7:45…I’m early.

There are hundreds of people in Ubud for the 2013 Writers’ Festival. A large percentage of them are the volunteers from around the world. They make this event possible. All of us are invited here tonight. Is Minnesota, U.S.A. the only place on earth where people arrive a bit early to make sure they’re on time?

I make my way, with some trepidation, down the staircase toward the gathering. As I approach I notice a person sitting on the sidelines. His brown shirt, pants, shoes, and stocking-cap blend with his skin. He’s invisible. He notices me and says hello, then smiles a mouthful of white teeth. He’s no longer invisible. He assures me that this is the right place and invites me to take a seat on the platform with the holy men.

Holy men are scary. They shouldn’t be. I’ve been hugged by an ancient holy man who was about a foot shorter than I am. But in Balinese hierarchy, a holy man is at the very pinnacle of authority.

with holy man

One of the men in the circle has noticed me. He nods. I nod back and smile. The next thing I know he is beside me, asking my name and where I’m from. This is standard procedure anywhere in Bali. Siapa nama anda? Di mana?

Pak Ketut takes me under his wing and informs me that this ceremony honors the Hindu diety, Agni, the fire god. The priests are busy preparing the altar, which by now is covered with flowers and fruit. I’m surprised we aren’t here to ask the blessing of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and the arts. I ask Pak Ketut about it and he explains that Agni burns away all that is unwanted. The intention of this ceremony is to clear out whatever stands in the way of a successful, 2013 Ubud Writers’ Festival.

While I’m engrossed in Hindu Ceremonies 101, a few others straggle in. They join Pak Ketut and me and get the same questions, Siapa nama anda? Di mana? There is a woman from Singapore, one from Borneo, an Australian chap, and me. This time when invited to join the holy men on the platform we do so.

It’s 9 p.m. when the 8 o’clock ceremony commences. I should know this by now. Bali operates on jam karet, rubber time. Nothing ever starts when it’s supposed to. When time is attached to an event it’s a mere suggestion.  The Balinese possess an innate knowing and always appear en masse at the precise moment things commence. Or maybe things commence when the Balinese appear en masse?

There isn’t a full gamelan orchestra, but one of the men has cymbals. Another has a rattle. I notice now that all the holy men have some type of instrument. The officiating priest rings a bell and it begins. There is a cup of water and a folded banana leaf in a dish in front of me. I watch as the others dip the leaf in the water and pour it on their hands, cleansing them. Suda, sitting beside me, tells me if I touch anything besides rice during the ceremony, I must wash my hands again. I am reminded of this every time I take a photo. Suda points to the water and I dutifully wash.

There is a bowl of dry rice and a banana between us.


A low tinkling begins. The priest chants in Sanskrit. Those in the group who can, echo the response. As the volume builds the fire is fed and becomes a dancing apparition in the center. The sound ebbs and flows. The music stops. In a grand finale lasting at least fifteen minutes, the priests incant. The sound crescendos to an abrupt halt and we all grab a handful of rice and throw it on the fire.


The chant resumes and this performance is repeated over and over and over again. The rice in our dish is replenished many times. Then it stops.

We stand and form a circle. Very slowly, clapping a rhythm, our intimate little group of about twenty people, circles the fire. Then one-by-one we approach the holy man. It’s my turn. I kneel and incline my head toward him. He dips his finger in a mixture of oil and ash from the bowl sitting in front of him and with one finger, puts a dot of black over my third eye. When all have received their mark, food is distributed and it’s party time.

We open our neat packages to explore the contents. My new friends poke tentatively at the food while I dive in with my fingers and gobble the delicacies. Yum. We say goodbyes then Pak Ketut is there. “What do you feel about this ceremony?” he asks me as he makes a circle in the air with his arm then pats his chest. “What do you feel in here?” I pause. What do I feel? How has the night impacted me? And how do I communicate that with someone whose English is minimal. I open my mouth, not sure what will come out, but the words are there. “I feel special,” I said. “I feel special and blessed.” Pak Ketut beams. “Yes.” he says.

Together we have fed the fire. Bushels of rice and bananas smolder in the embers. Agni’s tummy is full and so is mine. Let the 2013 Ubud Writers’ Festival begin!

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.

Mosquitoes, Music, and the Siren’s Call

It sounds suspiciously like a buzzing mosquito. The sound filters through the thick Balinese air from a temple some distance from here. The holy man is chanting. At first I am convinced there is a bothersome bug circling my head. Then I realize, no, someone is singing! Today in the main temple of Ubud there is a major celebration. Dewa explained it to me this morning. In a few minutes the women will begin parading down the main street with tiered offerings towering on their heads. I set out to observe from a distance. If I wear a sarong I can approach the celebration but cannot enter the temple. I would need a spotless white covering like this woman is wearing before that would be allowed.

This photo was taken by Damian White and I have borrowed it for reasons that will soon become obvious.

I exit my room heading south on Hanoman Street. It is hot. I am on the sunny side of the street. After going a few blocks sweat is literally creating little rivulets down my back. I cross to the shady side of the street and keep going. Passing a beautiful restaurant I feel the pull of refrigerated air. But I am determined so I keep going. I finally reach the intersection where Hanoman joins the main east/west artery in Ubud. I halt on the corner taking stock of the surroundings. Cars, buses, and motorbikes are whizzing and honking past me. The only sidewalk appears to be on the opposite side of the street. There are no stoplights. Challenge number one: get to the other side. I stand on the corner awhile longer, now completely drenched, licking my own salty sweat as it drips off my upper lip.

Suddenly a menu item from the Atman Kafe that I haven’t yet tried appears like a mirage before me! Watermelon Salad! In my fried brain delirium I do an about face and hoof it back to the Atman in record time. Diving into its shady, welcoming embrace I place my order and it comes quickly, unusual for this endearing establishment!

Ah! Bliss! The cool chunks of watermelon with julienne strips of apple, a hint of red pepper, walnuts, and mint leaves, topped with feta and a faintly sweet dressing revive me. My view as I feast is of a basket of coconuts and the neat line-up of sandals that guests leave at the door upon entering. The staff regularly retrieves any footwear that doesn’t make it properly into alignment and remedy the situation.

I am so happy to be here! After finishing my salad I smell coffee. The Atman advertises the best coffee in Bali. I haven’t tried it yet, but an iced coffee latte sounds like a divine way to finish this meal. It comes with a sprinkling of cinnamon on the frothy cap of sweet Australian milk. I don’t really care if I’m up until the wee hours because of this indulgence. It is worth every sleepless moment!

I finally tear myself away from Atman, my personal slice of heaven, and return to my room. There is no one to offend now if I get a quick shot of the burned roof. I am literally standing in my doorway to take this photo. It was that close!

Home at last, I settle into my comfy chair and open the laptop. Then the mosquito begins its buzzing. When the reality of that sound registers I know that I am missing the ceremony. But I am in Bali. There will be hundreds of ceremonies, festivals and rituals before I leave. I can attend or not as I desire. Today I succumbed to the heat and the Siren’s call of Watermelon Salad. It was the right choice.

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