Monsoon Yoga

Holy buckets of water Batman!

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What do you do when the house is clean, you’ve already written the great American novel (unpublished as yet…a minor detail), the laundry’s done, and rain is thundering down? Build an ark? I could, but that’s kind of stealing someone else’s idea.

First I slept in. My phone said 9:18 a.m. when I peeled back the mosquito net and rubbed the sleepy dust out of my eyes.

Then I made a boiling mug of Nescafe, mmmm, drank it on the yoga platform contemplating the sheets of water cascading from the roof.

Then I made another boiling mug of Nescafe.

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Serious rain. This calls for Leonard Cohen and incense. I found Leonard in iTunes and lighted the sweet, tangy dupa. Ahhh, the perfect environment for monsoon yoga! If you’ve never practiced yoga two feet from cascading sheets of water with the inimitable Leonard’s dark, scratchy voice just barely audible above the downpour, I can tell you, it creates a rather rare and wild mood! Truly delicious!

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King Dancer in the rain

Here’s a glimpse of my world. Who took the photo? I had 10 seconds to position the camera, hit the button, and strike the pose. So for you perfectionist Iyengar yogis out there, cut me a little slack if my form isn’t perfect!

I wish I could put into words the exquisite thrill of this morning. I’ve always liked the rain, but here I’ve grown to love it. When water forms a solid wall of sound, and the wind brings a dewy film of moisture to my skin, a shiver of excitement vibrates through me.  It is as though the rest of the world disappears. I have shelter, and music, and the day is mine to explore uninterrupted. Does that make sense?

Oh! Gotta go! Leonard’s singing  Nightingale and I have to join in. It’s like singing in the shower. There are some things you can do better during rainy season. Belting out a song at the top of your lungs is one of them. And I’m told a lot of Balinese babies are made in January. The communal lifestyle where everyone hears everything puts a bit of a damper on some activities, until it rains!

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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.

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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?

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.
 
 

Hafiz had it right

I was searching for words this morning. I am a writer, I told myself. There are words for this. Then I asked myself, What is the ‘this’ I am trying to describe? From somewhere subconscious I recalled a poem. I did not remember the author or even the words, but I thought perhaps Rumi, or Hafiz. It took only a few moments of communing with Google to find it. Ahhh. Hafiz. Here is the poem:

I Have Learned So Much

I

Have

Learned

So much from God

That I can no longer

Call

Myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,

a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself

With me

That I can no longer call myself

A man, a woman, an angel,

Or even a pure

Soul.

Love has

Befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash

And freed

Me

Of every concept and image

my mind has ever known.


From: ‘The Gift’
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Isn’t it beautiful that love is the friend that freed Hafiz from every concept and image his mind had ever known? As I sat with that thought it became clear that love is the only thing that will ever free us. To love others is to accept them in all the ways they are different freeing ourselves from judgement. To love the earth is to protect and care for her freeing ourselves from the consequences of her demise. To love oneself is the ultimate freedom for out of that love comes the capacity for all other love.

The past few days my journey has been inward. The name of this village is Ubud. It means medicine. The essence of Ubud is fundamentally healing to the body, the mind, and the spirit. I have asked myself, why is this so? Is it about the thousands of offerings made daily? The scent of incense ever-present in the air? The constant rituals and ceremonies performed specifically to maintain balance in the spiritual realm? Every day hundreds of tourists parade the streets of Ubud. Every day another rice paddy is drained to make way for a new resort or villa funded by money from the West. But inside the walled compounds of Balinese family homes, life goes on as it has for two thousand years. These people have a way of accepting the new, adjusting to accommodate change, but remaining virtually unchanged themselves. They do this with a self-possessed dignity that defies explanation.

I don’t know the answer to my question. All my life I have believed that everywhere was basically the same as everywhere else. I have traveled and visited amazing countries. I have seen works of art and architecture that left me breathless. I have met wonderful people who genuinely cared for me.  Yet nowhere else has a place whispered to my heart entreating me to stay, to learn, to just be.

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.

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