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.

Building a House in Bali – “Check with the holy man…”

Last night on the back of Pasek’s motorbike, ears flapping in the wind, din of traffic drowning out the words, he said, “Tomorrow ceremony for house.” Had I heard him correctly?

“My house?” I shouted back at him.

“Ya. My wife bring offerings,” he said.

I’ve been waiting for this moment for what seems like forever. Weeks ago, Pasek and Dewa, the two men who are handling the project, sat down with the Balinese calendar to find an auspicious day to begin. Then a holy man was consulted just to make sure we had it right.

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Five auspicious days were identified in March, and the 12th was the most beneficent of the lot. But like every month on this beautiful, Hindu island, March is littered with ceremonial days culminating in the granddaddy of them all, Nyepi. When there are ceremonies, there are no workers. They all go to their own villages to observe the customs and rituals required. There’s no arguing with that, it’s just the way it is.

So the announcement on the motorbike was good news, great news in fact. But it left me no time to prepare. And even if I had time, I had no idea what was expected of me. So I did what I’m getting very good at doing here…nothing.

This morning dawned sunny and gorgeous. Awake with the chickens, I heard puttering outside. Pasek had arrived early to affix the small temple to the side of the wall in the garden. I scurried out to greet him and find out what, when, and how this was all going to unfold. “Start maybe ten o’clock,” he said. Maybe was the operative word.

“What should I do?” I really had no idea.

“Up to you,” he said. To anyone who has ever had the pleasure of knowing a Balinese person, that’s a very familiar phrase.

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I took time to dress in temple clothes. I set out glasses and Bali coffee. I sent out some invites via text messages to friends and neighbors who might be interested to pop in on such short notice. And then I waited. And waited. Ten o’clock stretched to eleven. The sky was darkening overhead and moist air hung heavy and still. At last, down the trail came Pasek’s wife and daughter.

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Following close behind them, an elderly priest appeared in a sarong and udeng.

Unlike me, Pasek’s wife knew exactly what to do. When she removed the cover from the basket full of offerings she had made, I was stunned. There were mounds of white rice and flowers in palm baskets for the small temple, and black rice and flowers for the earth, each one a work of art. There was incense, holy water, and fruit. A lump came in my throat. It was beautiful.

Someone spread a bamboo mat on the earth. The priest climbed up the terraced bank and piled offerings on the small temple. He sat and prayed, sprinkling holy water and chanting as sweet incense plumed upward. Then it was my turn. I knelt on the mat and the priest placed a palm basket of flowers in front of me. It’s a routine I’ve done before and this time it felt comfortably familiar…flowers in prayer hands, flowers flicked into the air, flowers tucked behind the ears, flowers on top of the head. Water in cupped hands, sip three times and sprinkle the fourth on your head. Sticky rice in the middle of the forehead, sticky rice on each temple, rice on the chest, then the top of the head. Now eat a few grains and, poof! You’re done!

During the ceremony, the hole digger, who had come before any of the others arrived, continued to hammer away at the concrete and remove earth. By the time we were finished he was about waist deep. He continued into the afternoon until the hole was as deep as he was tall. The foundation has to withstand frequent earth tremors, but I had no concept of what that meant until today. Ketut lowered offerings into the depths of the pit. A sprinkling of holy water, and my foundations were blessed.

Many times throughout the morning I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I don’t pretend to understand the ways of the Balinese, but I am moved by the kindness and the care they have shown me. The offerings today will ensure that my home is protected and safe. The prayers will keep the workers happy, strong, and clear headed during the building process. My participation creates a bond between me and the land.

Pasek’s family came by motorbike from Kintamani, an hour and a half away, to perform these rites for me. They wouldn’t have had to. I’m a foreigner. That’s a get-out-of-jail-free card in Bali. I don’t have to observe the religious requirements that they do. I’m not bound by the same code. But it seems I’ve been adopted and that changes the game. Things just get done for me, things that smooth the path and balance the energies. It’s so much more interesting than, well, for instance building a house in America. I can just hear the contractor saying, “I’ll check with the holy man and get back to you….”

Google Translate…Tidak apa apa

I am learning Indonesian. It’s survival. But let’s face it, my mind doesn’t fire on all cylindars as quickly as it used to. Still fires…just not as quickly. It’s a slow process and I’m not a patient person. Ibu, the woman who cleans for me, gets so frustrated with me that she actually starts speaking English! She says she doesn’t know English but when push comes to shove, Ibu knows a heckuva lot more than she let’s on. But Ibu isn’t the problem…it’s Ketut.

When I lived at Rumah Kita, Ketut was my everything. He made my meals, he cleaned my house, he transported me wherever I wanted to go, he was indispensible. And I paid for his services. Now I live next door. Ketut is no longer my staff. But every day about 3:00  he pops his head in my door. “Want cook?” he says. The first time it happened I was surprised and said, “Sure!” He made a delicious Balinese dish that I devoured. As he got ready to leave I pulled out my wallet to pay him for cooking. He refused. “Tomorrow,” he said.

I assumed that meant I could pay him tomorrow. Wrong. It meant he would come back and cook again tomorrow. And he did, and the next day and the next day, refusing all of my efforts to pay for his services. I tried out my best Indonesian on him. “Saya tidak mau masak anda tanpa bayar.” Basically that says, I don’t want you to cook without money. He gave me his 2000 watt smile and said “Tidak apa apa.” The verbatim translation is No what what, but it means No problem.

Each day we had a similar conversation with similar results. Until today, that is. As he repeated his “Tidak apa apa,” Google Translate flashed into my consciousness. I whipped out the computer while Ketut looked at me quizzically. “What?” he said.

“I’m going to solve this problem!” I answered.

“Tidak apa apa,” he said.

“Wrong!” I almost shouted. “There IS a problem and this will fix it!” I pulled up the screens for translating English into Indonesian and typed in “I feel bad when you come here and cook on your time off and won’t let me pay you.” He was watching over my shoulder, chuckling when the Indonesian words popped up as I typed. He started to say something and I said, “Uh-uh, Ketut.” I switched the screens so they would be Indonesian to English then said,  “Type what you want to say in Indonesian.” So he did.

This is what it said, “Don’t worry. I like to cook. It makes me happy to cook for my friend.” I don’t think any tears escaped, but I couldn’t speak for a while. So this post is for my friend, Ketut. His village is in the mountains near Kintamani. I’ve been there many times but this trip was for his daughter’s 12 day ceremony. I got to hold Nenga when she was just 12 days old. Sweetness!

Ketut's mother holding little Nga

Ketut’s mother holds little Nenga

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Ketut is such a proud daddy!

Ketut's niece holds Nga while grandpa smiles.

Ketut’s niece holds the baby while grandpa smiles

Ketut's wife, Komang has been up all night for 12 nights because Nga sleeps all day!

Ketut’s wife, Komang has been up all night for 12 nights because Nenga sleeps all day!

What a sweetheart!

I only saw her eyes once for about a half second. She slept through everything…big yawn! What a sweetheart!

Behind Ketut and Komang is the temporary bamboo shrine that marks the spot where the placenta is buried.

The holy man blesses the offerings made for the baby's 12th day

The holy man blessed the offerings made for the baby’s 12th day

The holy man posed for a photo before he took off for his next blessing ceremony!

He posed for a photo before he took off for his next ceremony!

I am always stunned by the way this family gives. Before I left we took a trip to the garden. His mother and brother dug sweet potatoes. Ketut was up a tree faster than a monkey, harvesting handfuls of guavas. Then rambutan, and other tropical delights that don’t have pronounceable names were added to the mounds of edibles. I came home with bags full of produce and a heart overflowing with gratitude.

Friend. The word has taken on new meaning for me. Sometimes it feels even bigger than love.

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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