Muslims, Hindus, and Christians…oh my!

*

“My father is Islam, but not fundamentalist,” she’s quick to add. “My mother is Christian. Next month I’m going to a monastery in India to study with my guru there. I go every year for three weeks.”

“So you’re Buddhist?” I’m more than a little intrigued.

“Oh yes, but my passport says Muslim because my husband is Muslim and in Indonesia…” she pauses.

“The wife must take the husband’s religion,” I finish for her and she laughs.

“But before I married him, I made an agreement. You call it a prenup, yes?”

“You made a prenuptial agreement, really Meli? Here, in Indonesia?”

“Well, I had already divorced one husband because he wanted to tell me what I couldn’t do, so I learned from that. This time I would make sure I could practice Buddhism and go every year to the monastery. So I made the contract. If he agrees…marriage. If he doesn’t…bye-bye!”

I’m in awe of this feisty, well-educated, forty-something woman. She tells me that her man agreed to the terms and they’re quite harmoniously married. They live in Bali where the religion of choice is Hindu. “I also make offerings to keep the peace between good and evil as my Balinese friends do.” The corners of her eyes crinkle and she winks. “When my husband notices he says, ‘What are you doing? That is a Hindu practice.’ So I stop until he leaves and then continue.”

Where else on earth? I can’t conceive of another place like this. Bali is a feast of diversity, a conundrum of befuddling opposites, a loveable, laughable hodgepodge of unique people who are slow to judge and quick to call you family. They are who they are without apology and that gives me the freedom to be me, the warts, the contradictions, the glorious all of who I am because there’s no rigid, this is the way, walk ye in it! Rather, an Indonesian person will say, “Well, you can go this way, but today there is a ceremony, the road is closed, so maybe you go around, it’s a little longer, but you will see the rice terrace, or my cousin can show you the small roads, I’ll call him now, or maybe you wait until tomorrow.” Bali, the land of endless possibility, if not today, tomorrow!

 

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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.

 

 

The Balinese Male Mindset

When told that as a foreigner with a retirement visa I was eligible for government medical insurance in Bali, I was skeptical. It seemed so out of the realm of possibility that I did nothing about it for months. Then I discovered that Ketut and his family could also be covered, and the cost was minimal. After hounding my neighbor for details, I cornered Ketut.

East meets West.
Leo meets Capricorn.
Stubborn meets equally stubborn.

It isn’t that he didn’t think it was a good idea, it was just a NEW idea, and one that he didn’t know how to navigate. So we did our dance. I’ve learned that the Balinese male mindset cannot be railroaded. It’s better to ask questions. Rather than saying I don’t know a Balinese man is more likely to text any number of contacts until he gets an answer he likes.

So it went for several weeks, I’d ask, Ketut would text, and information slowly accumulated.

As the facts leaked in it appeared that it would involve a trip to the hospital at a neighboring village to pick up the registration packets. A date was set to go but a prudent call to the hospital indicated that the office was closed. The next day Ketut was too busy. A few more days passed, then he showed up one afternoon with the forms. He’d gone with a friend who had done it before and knew the routine.

The second thing I’ve learned about the Balinese male mindset is that once the procedure is clear, things happen fast.

Day One: Packets…check.

Ketut immediately summoned his wife. Komang and their daughter arrived drenched from the hour long motorbike ride in the rain. “Tomorrow make photos and I take back to hospital,” he tells me. All of us needed passport type pictures and copies of important documents to submit with the government forms. Komang brought theirs with her.

Day Two: Ketut was busy all morning but early afternoon he told me that they had taken their showers and were ready for photos. We set out,  Komang and Nengah on one motorbike, Ketut and I another. We were in and out in about 30 minutes, pictures in hand, total price $4.50.

Back on the bikes we went another mile to a copy shop,  22 copies, 20 cents. At that point Komang and Nengah said goodbye. They have done their part. Ketut and I returned to the house and assembled the materials. The forms were filled out and he was ready to go back to the hospital when I handed him an envelope.

“Here’s the money. I want to pay for one year, not every month.” He frowns.

“Very expensive, not possible today.” It’s my turn to frown.

“Why not?”

“Today Hari Buda Cemeng Kelawu, cannot pay big money.”

“Buddha? You’re Hindu. What does Buddha have to do with anything?”

“This special day, Hindu ceremony give money only to god, cannot make big money go out.”

“I’m not Hindu. Maybe it’s okay for me?” Ketut has a repertoire of faces. The one he wears now is familiar. It’s a half-smile with lowered eyes that tells me he’d very much like to do what I ask but there’s no way in hell he’s going to.

“Not so good,” he says.

Tomorrow will be Day Three. Ketut will take the forms, the photos, the copies, and the cash, and go to the hospital. Then we’ll wait a month and he’ll go back to pick up our little plastic membership cards. Four people will be covered for anything and everything medical that can possibly happen to a human being in Indonesia, all for the equivalent of $12/month. I love this place. I love it’s inconsistencies, it’s inconveniences, and it’s incomprehensible devotion to a belief system that multiplies the inconsistencies and inconveniences exponentially.

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Offering for Hari Buda Cemeng Kelawu

And I love Bali’s inclusivity, but I’m still mystified as to how Buddha figures into this Hindu ceremony.

You only think you know what you want: Lesson 2

A flyer sits in my e-mail box. It’s from a friend in Australia who holds retreats in Bali. Spring is in the air…it begins. For a hair’s breadth I think, “She needs to update her website. It’s September. Spring is in March…April latest…OH!” Whoops! Southern hemisphere, the seasons are up-side-down. She’s absolutely right, in Australia (and Bali) it’s spring.

This gives me pause. How often, I wonder, do I pass judgment based on my frame of reference?

Often.

It’s one thing to study different countries and cultures in books. It’s another thing entirely to relocate your life to a place on the opposite side of the equator from the familiar comfort zone. My understanding of how things should be is challenged daily. Two recent occurrences come to mind, ceremonies and sleeping arrangements.

Someone said that to the Hindu, life is ceremonies and everything in between is just filler.  The truth of that statement cannot be fully appreciated until it’s experienced. In my white Anglo-Saxon Protestant past, church on Sunday was the tradition. It was an hour of sitting in respectful silence and listening to the sermon with the occasional call-response or hymn to break the monotony. When the pastor said, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” it was my signal to stop daydreaming, find the page for the last song, and make sure my legs hadn’t fallen asleep.

Not so the Hindu. Rituals are not an hour on Sunday morning. Ceremonies can last hours, days, sometimes even weeks. The priest may be ringing his bell and chanting Sanskrit prayers but men and women continue to gossip and laugh and virtually ignore him.

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At first I’m appalled. What disrespectful people! How can they offend the priest like this? Why doesn’t he say something? All the while I sit piously, hands folded in my lap, paying rapt attention. But the holy man never appears to be offended and as soon as he finishes he joins in with his own jokes and good humor.

I’m an expert at imposing assumptions from my narrow experience on a culture that doesn’t share that experience. Their reverence is shown in ways that I’m only beginning to understand. But I’ve taken note and I’m loosening up.

Yesterday posed a different problem, however, and I tried to play the I’m-not-Hindu-so-that-doesn’t-apply-to-me card. It had to do with the orientation of my bed. The Balinese are adamant about sleeping arrangements. The bed must be positioned so one’s head points either east or south, and I’ll qualify that by saying it depends upon where a person lives on the island in relation to Holy Mount Agung. In Ubud, Agung is to the east. Because of the configuration of the bedroom, however, I want the head of the bed on the west wall.

“Not possible,” says Ketut.

“I know, I know,” I gear up to hold my ground. “But I’m not Hindu so it’s okay for me.”

“No good,” he continues. Impatience rises up at his inflexibility on this topic but I try to reason with him.

“Look, if I put the wardrobe here on the short wall, and the bed here, it’s easier to get to the bathroom. Otherwise too crowded.”

“Ya, but no good.”

I want to say, Why not, dammit?! But instead I offer a meek, “Why not?”

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“Machine. Too much noise. No sleeping.” For a few brief seconds I try to make sense of how a machine has worked it’s way into this spiritual conversation. Then it dawns. The neighbor’s washing machine is directly behind the west bedroom wall. An early morning spin cycle, a little off balance, would be sleep disturbing. I feel the defeated grin spreading across my face as I shake my head.

“Why do I even argue with you?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Ketut has the answer.

“Maybe you forget machine,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Fat Full Moon

What’s more romantic than moonlight?

My father proposed to my mother on a bridge with the reflection of the moon on the Mississippi River below. She loves to tell the story, how she didn’t answer right away so he took her by the shoulders, peered into her eyes, gave her a little shake and said, “Say yes.” She did, of course.

But I haven’t had any proposals recently, and tonight is Purnama, the ceremony that celebrates the full moon.  Here’s the culprit, just an hour ago, smiling down on my balcony.

P1070350I have no curtains, shades, blinds, or draperies of any kind on any windows. I love light, most light, that is. Moonlight is different. It’s blue. Blue light is not my favorite, neither the eerie illumination from the moon, nor the cold neon glow from the cool color light bulb I bought by mistake. And when it should be dark outside but my house is bathed in that phosphorescent sheen, I don’t sleep. When I don’t sleep, I do other things, like think.

So while I was not sleeping last night as the moon approached full, I contemplated the Hindu calendar that pays homage to the lunar cycles. Purnama is the full moon ceremony, Tilem celebrates the dark moon, and they alternate every fifteen days.

All Balinese ceremonies, celebrations, and rituals have a meaning and a specific purpose. I’ve seen the women walking to temple with offerings on their heads around 8 p.m. on the moon nights. But I never thought to ask why.

So after Ketut finishes arranging a potted bougainvillea at the bottom of my stairway, I snag him. “Tell me about Purnama and Tilem. What are the meanings of those ceremonies?” Sometimes I ask him questions pertaining to rituals and he’ll think for a minute, make a sheepish little laugh and say, “What it means? I don’t know.” This time he explains in some detail and I come away understanding that this ceremony, like many, ensures the balance of opposites, light and dark, life and death, good and bad, happy and sad. If a person is experiencing sadness now, he is told not to worry because soon he will be happy. And if happy, don’t get too excited because it will change. He ends by saying, “Always like this,” and I don’t know if he’s insinuating that from the beginning of time this is the way it’s been done or if every fifteen days it’s always the same. It’s because of the possibility of various interpretations that I decide to check the internet. Google agrees with Ketut but goes on to elaborate.

P1070343Balinese people believe that at the height of the full moon and the peak of dark moon, clusters of galaxies emit a certain energy that affects the lives of living creatures on earth. Therefore, the people of Bali begged (pray) that the energy provided will be positive energy for life.

When you consider that the 2,740,300 Hindus on Bali, are all taking offerings, going to temple, and praying in the blue moonlight tonight, that’s a lot of concentrated focus on a very small island. No wonder the energy here feels different. Where else on earth is it prayed in from the galaxies?!

 

 

Bali Building Codes

I have seen construction sites in Bali that make me shake my head. After working on commercial projects in the interior design industry for years, I was familiar with strictly enforced building codes.  In Bali I’ve heard of only one: nothing can be built higher than a palm tree. There are some mighty tall palm trees, but a building over 3 storeys is rare.

That leaves the playing field virtually wide open for creativity, nevermind safety or accessibility! The Balinese are artists and if they can think it, they will build it. Or if YOU can think it, they will build it. Which brings me to the subject of my latest residence.

Approach to Front Door

From the outside it looks like a normal structure with handsome brick and stonework. There’s a wide tiled terrace a step up from the yard and a garden of banana trees, coconut palms, frangipani, and thousands of unknown plant species.

Right of Entrance

Lush foliage borders the right of the entrance.  The gap between the wall and the roof allows fresh air and light into the luxurious bathroom.

Stepping through the door, however, all similarities to Western design cease. The front entrance allows a view straight through the house to the back garden, and there are no walls or windows blocking the sight. A wooden platform floats serrenely in the air above the tiled living area. The stairway access has no unsightly railings and the surround enclosing the platform has openings large enough to allow countless small children to fall through unhindered.

Platform Overlooking Garden

It is something like heaven to wake up at dawn, pull out my yoga mat, trundle up the steps, and greet the day with sun salutes while nature sings it’s lungs out around me.

Daybed on Platform

A daybed occupies one end of the floating deck and I could easily live right here. This is where I enjoy morning coffee and start my writing for the day. The view of the inside of the house from this perch reveals a sweet informality. The furnishings, although not entirely my taste, work for me. The home was built to last 25 years ago, with brick walls 10′ high, tile floors, and a ceiling that soars 20 feet.

View of House from Platform

Below the platform is an extensive terrace living area. It is open on three sides and as one friend remarked, “It looks like anyone or anything could walk right in.”

Terrace Below Platform

Indeed they could. But the bedrooms and the kitchen have locking doors, and I tend to like the security of that when I sleep! However, the bedroom window has only a decorative wooden design that would prohibit an adult from entering but it wouldn’t stop a monkey! I just lower the bamboo blinds, arrange the diaphanous mosquito netting to make a cozy tent, and sleep more soundly that I have in years.

Bed, Mosquito Netting, and Window

This house comes with staff. Ibu is a 67 year old woman who wades across the river every morning (there’s no bridge) to make breakfast, clean the house, and do whatever else I need. The first day she disappeared for about an hour. When she returned she was carrying a box of a dozen two quart bottles of drinking water on her head. I fussed at her and she left again and returned with a second big box of 12 more. I can barely slide the darn thing across the floor and she not only lifted it up to her head, she carried it all the way from the market. And she did that twice. Later, she was nonplused when she saw I had made my own coffee and she apologized profusely for not knowing I wanted it. 

It’s hard for me to let her do anything. She’s a grandmother and has worked hard all her life. But this is her livelihood. She speaks no English. I am grateful I know a little Indonesian by now, but it’s not nearly enough. Still we are making each other understood, and it is fascinating to see how much is communicated non-verbally with absolute clarity.

I did , however, ask one thing of her. It is something I want done that only she can do. The Balinese fill their homes and businesses with offerings daily. They spend hours making the little palm dishes that hold the bits of moss and flowers. My new home has the traditional house temple. P1020771

There are statues of Rama and Sita, Buddha, and Dewi Sri. It was a strange feeling to know, though I am not Hindu, that something needed to be done, that there was unfinished business here. So I asked Ibu if she would honor my house and make the daily prayers and offerings. The next day she arrived with no less than 15 of the little palm dishes filled with flowers. She lit sticks of incense and put on her sarong. Then she went through the rooms placing each offering where only she knows it should be placed, sprinkling holy water, and making prayers.

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There was one on either side of the entrance to the house. There were three in the front yard, one in the back. There were two in the kitchen, one on the dining table. I watched with moist eyes.

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My heart overflowed with gratitude for Ibu, and the grandmothers who know what to do. They are a dying breed. When she finished the ritual, she told me that now the house was protected. We had appeased the high gods, the low gods and the animals. We had blessed the plants and the ancestors, and brought safety to my home.

Pasek stopped by later. “How much you pay?” he asked, noticing the offerings. When I told him he quizzed me again, “How many?” Again I offered up the requested information. I’ve gotten used to the direct questions of the Balinese. If they want to know, no matter how personal, they ask. When I approached a temple a few months ago with a Balinese friend he turned to me and in all seriousness asked, “Are you menstruating?”

I don’t know if Pasek approved of the price or not. It doesn’t matter. For sixty cents a day I have the joy of watching Ibu perform a ceremony that has deep meaning for her and has its roots in the oldest belief system on earth. Even if the complexities of it are beyond my understanding, it nourishes my soul, and that’s a bargain at any price.

Happy Birthday to Me!

I don’t often post poems, but today is my birthday (it’s already January 6th in Bali) and I will do as I please!

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Kadek let me photograph her as she sprinkled holy water on the small house altar this morning. She moves gracefully, gliding like a beautiful swan. She is the inspiration for my poem.

BEAUTIFUL SWAN

In my whiteness
I watch gold-skinned women
in the temple garden.
 
One climbs
the stairs
to apologize…
 
“I make offerings
so sorry
did not see you.”
 
It is her task
to prepare
my breakfast.
 
Today she wears
a teal kebaya
with hot pink sash.
 
Tiny pearls of perspiration
glisten
on her upper lip.
 
I admire the sarong
woven in traditional
ikat style.
 
“It is made by machine
not good quality,”
she wants me to know.
 
“It’s beautiful!” I say,
and it is
because she is wearing it.
 
The color combinations
would not please
the Western aesthetic.
 
But this is Bali,
contrived fashion rules
do not apply.
 
She carries woven trays
mounded with offerings
trailing clouds of incense…
 
stopping at each altar
to sprinkle holy water
and pray.
 
Who are you,
beautiful swan?
What is your story?
 
Your knowledge is ancient
I am awed and humbled
by your mysteries.
 
Teach me, my sister,
help me understand
your incomprehensible life.
 
 

Sacred Cock Fights

Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body. James Joyce captured my current state in that brilliant sentence.

I’m back in Bali, but parts of me are still arriving and parts of me never left! It is an odd sensation, very odd, and one that I enjoy exploring in my discovery writing. I’ve been half way around the world twice in 45 days with a quick back-and-forth hop between Minnesota and New York sandwiched in-between. My mind goes and my body tags along, sometimes kicking and screaming. Then my body arrives but my mind may have taken a side trip and doesn’t catch up until later.

But the parts of me actually here are residing in this charming, second floor room with many windows and great, western light.

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The balcony wraps the corner and extends to an area where I can sit and write, daydream, or observe the daily life of an upper class Balinese family.

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This part of the balcony overlooks the family temple, but also the public temple across the street. I arrived in the middle of a very important three-day ceremony. There has been constant activity, not the least of which are the cock fights. Yes, cock fights. I requested an explanation from my host, Joni K, about the sacredness of fighting cocks…”Why in the temple?” I was curious. In that slightly apologetic way that is so engaging, he explained that at first, long time ago, just two ‘chickens’ fought so that the blood could be used for offerings. “But,” and the dimples appear, “people enjoy. Now many chickens fight and much money is made and lost.” He told me how much cash is bet on a single fight. “Who keeps the money?” I asked, thinking it might all be donated to the temple. “One who has winning chicken,” he replies. I thought for a moment then said, “Joni, where can we get one of these chickens?” His uproarious laughter warmed my heart. I haven’t lost my touch. I can still make the Balinese laugh.

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Since first coming to Bali I have been enamored with the temple drumming. The drum sounds at about 6 a.m. It signals morning and I love the haunting beauty of it coming through the darkness over the rice fields. Now I live across the street from the drum. It sits in a tower of the temple that is eye-level with my balcony. Today the holy man was striking it every 10 seconds as people in ceremonial dress brought their offerings. I caught a photo of him from the balcony. How can you not love drumming…even up close…especially up close! Something primal in me resonates!

Made Parna Painting

Ubud is the cultural and artistic capital of Bali. In this family, both Joni and his uncle are well-known painters. Made Parna paints in the traditional Balinese style and sells his very expensive works in Jakarta. He took me into his studio to see the works in progress. What kind of patience does one have to possess to create in such intricate detail?

This painting by Made depicts Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, and science. According to Wikipedia, It was with her knowledge, that Brahma created the universe. She is a part of trinity “Saraswati”, “Lakshmi” and “Parvati”Painting Traditional. All the three forms help trinity “Brahma”, “Vishnu” and “Shiva” in the creation, maintenance and destruction of the Universe.

The Hindu religion is complex. Each village interprets and practices it as they see fit. So the moment I think I’ve got a piece worked out I go somewhere else and it is entirely different.

I’ve quit trying to understand. I find it’s better to simply go with the flow whenever I’m invited. And the Balinese are quick to extend that invitation! The very same day I arrived Joni and his wife wanted me to accompany them to the evening temple celebrations. I never say no, but that night I politely declined. I wasn’t sure what remnants of self I could gather up, and even if there were a few shreds on hand, they looked ghastly.

Joni photoJoni’s style is 180 degrees in the opposite direction!

Joni painting contemporary

He sees color and transparency, shape and contrast, and applies it to canvas. His paintings have a satisfying balance which typifies what the Balinese strive for. They believe their rituals serve to maintain a balance between good and evil.

Another uncle is a stone carver. His talent has adorned every building in this family’s amazing complex. The entrance to Joni’s father’s home is a stellar example of the family stonecarver’s genius.

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However, in Bali it is hard to compete with Nature. I have a western view. When my room filled with golden light about 6:30 p.m. last night I hurried outside. This resplendent sunset brought tears to my eyes.

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So here I am, plopped down in the midst of these wildly creative folks in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I can feel inspiration seeping back into my shriveled pores. As each wayward part of me arrives, and I become an integrated being once again, the juices will flow. They can’t help it. Ubud is creativity central.  It’s no accident that I’m here…or almost here!

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.

Goa Gaja – The Elephant Cave

Goa Gaja, known as the Elephant Cave, is nothing short of extraordinary. Dating back to the 9th century, this was and still is a sacred temple site of the Hindus. The entrance to the cave is covered with carved figures. Upon entering through the yawning mouth of the beast, the air instantly becomes oppressively thick and dead. The cavern is small and ‘T’ shaped with Ganesha in a niche straight ahead. The two chambers off the center each hold another deity.

The monsters guarding the entrance wear plaid sarongs with the colors of the three-part god, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, red, blue, and white. Brahma is fire, Vishnu is water, Shiva is wind. Maybe this is true. Maybe not. Sometimes it depends upon who is telling the story!

In 1950 the baths at Goa Gaja were excavated. It was believed by the early Balinese that this was the fountain of youth. Now the waters that pour from the jars held by six maidens are considered holy water and used for purification in the ceremonies. For this photo I am standing high above on a path cut into the side of the mountain. You can see the thatched roof below me.

There are three maidens below and to the right, and another three maidens holding their jars stand beside the pool just to the left of these.

This is a community meeting place where they plan the ceremonies and festivals that are held here.

We walked around this building and there below us was a lush jungle valley with a b’zillion steps leading down into it. As I descended the stone stairs I had to stop on each landing to take pictures and to breathe, and that was going DOWN. The air was thicker and more humid with each step.

 

I remember reading a book in high school by Richard Llewellyn about a Welsh mining community. It was a wonderful story. The title was, How Green was My Valley. I thought of that today gazing at the impossible green-ness of this valley.

On the valley floor were huge carved pieces of a Buddhist temple scattered in an irregular line. At some point in history an earthquake or a mudslide tumbled them from their perch on the side of the mountain and deposited them in the midst of the stream.

I followed a narrow path (in spite of my aversion to high, narrow places) around the side of a jutting rock and found this cascading waterfall.

It came from up there…

I was mesmerized by this incredible root system…

and this cluster of delicate white flowers with the orange blossom surprise adding a splash of color.

Being in this place is pure magic and I suddenly realize why. It’s because I can actually see it. There aren’t hundreds of people tramping up and down the stairs and stopping in front of me to take pictures. The only others here at this hour of the morning are a woman placing offerings and a gardener. I feel like I have stepped into the pages of a fairytale where colors are brighter, trees are taller, scents are sweeter and life is bliss.

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