Night Visitor

“Will your mother show me how to make this?” It is an innocent request. I love the coconut and rice flour kue, especially when it’s crispy fried. I’ve never seen it anywhere else in Bali.

“You come for six month ceremony. My mother show you,” Ketut says.

A child has four important birthday ceremonies, one each year for the first four years. The Balinese calendar has six months of thirty-five days each. It’s time for Ketut’s baby to celebrate her second six month birthday.

Ketut says that he’ll be leaving for his village, in five days. “We come back in morning after ceremony,” he tells me.

I know it will involve spending the night in his family compound. But just to make sure we’re on the same page, always a good idea here, I beckon Ketut to the calendar, “Show me,” I say.

He points out the dates, “Go to village here, come back here.”

“That’s three nights Ketut, yes?” my stomach is doing little flips.

“Ya, it’s okay,” he says.

Ya it’s okay with whom, I wonder. With him? With his mother? With me?

Ketut’s village, Abang Songan, is off the grid. Literally. There is no internet period, full stop, forget about it. There’s also no running water unless you count the hose hanging from the outdoor cistern. The bathroom’s only fixture is squat style, with the dip and pour bucket beside it. But the door locks from the inside so the things a strange white lady has to do to make that facility work for her are done in complete privacy. And in case there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, don’t forget to BYO TP.

I pack light. We’re going by motorbike and I’ll need a few changes of clothes, my computer for downloading the pictures I plan to take, and gifts for the family. By the time they’re assembled the three stuffed bags are all squished between my stomach and Ketut’s back. We head out of Ubud.

The family greets us when we arrive. I’m ushered into the room that Ketut and his wife and baby share with a bed, a TV, and a wardrobe.

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Presents, boxed and wrapped, are unheard of but Nengah is undaunted. She rips into her gifts like a pro. Traditionally, the Balinese don’t celebrate birthdays with the exception of these first four ceremonies.

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Komang disappears for a minute and returns with food for me, a huge bowl of rice, soto ayam which is chicken soup made with lemongrass, lime leaves, and garlic, and wrapped sweets. I plough through the delicious flavors until I’m stuffed. Then they bring coffee and more treats. This is to be the theme for the duration of my stay. It is as though there is an unspoken code: When you don’t know what to do with her, feed her!

Two new rooms have been added to the family compound. One is a house for the sacred writings (lontar) and the kris (sword). The other is for me. I’m ushered into a 8 x 8 foot space with a bed and a whimsical side table for my computer. I take note of the writing on the headboard: Lovely Sheep, Lovely Sheep! An offering has been placed in the corner.

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I leave my bags and join the family outside. They’re sitting beside a pile of husked coconuts, talking and laughing as they cut off the brown leaving only milky white meat. This, I am told, is the first step in the lengthy kue process.

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By now my camera is a familiar friend and an uncle hams it up for me.

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The coconuts, peeled and ready, are turned over to Komang. She fills the plastic basin with water and rinses off fingerprints and remnants of fiber. Coconuts are plentiful in Bali but they don’t grow at this altitude. These have been purchased from the local market.

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Rinsed and clean, they’re set aside to await the next steps in the process. I can’t stifle a huge yawn and I’m hustled off to my room for the night.

Alone at last, I pull out a bottle of drinking water, wet the washcloth and dab a corner of it on the bar of soap I’ve brought with me. The coolness feels good as I swab the shine off my face. With another damp corner I wipe off the soap. A little toothpaste on my electric toothbrush and my mouth is as fresh as my face. I swallow since there’s nowhere to spit. My filthy feet aren’t going anywhere near that pristine, white washcloth! I swing them onto the bed, tuck the fleece blanket around me and realize the light switch is 7.5 feet away.

I lunge toward it and flick it off. In the dark I rustle around with the plastic mattress cover crackling beneath me until I find just the right position. Deep breath, sigh. I try not to think about how much I’d like to pee. Then I hear something. It’s a scritch-scratching somewhere over my head. The sound stops. I relax and begin to drift off. Out of nowhere a rather small, lightweight beast runs across my blanketed legs. My right knee flexes and I haul off with a mighty kick. I expect to hear a thud as a furry body hits the wall. Nothing. I think about the light switch 7.5 feet away. Nah. I don’t really want to know the damages, and if I don’t see anything maybe there is nothing really there. I’m drifting again, my arm flung over my forehead, almost asleep. This time the wee beastie uses my arm as a bridge. I don’t scream, but I do grab the edge of the blanket and throw it over my head.

Around ten p.m. the door opens and the light goes on. It’s Wayan, Komang’s fourteen year old sister, looking for a place to sleep. She throws her blanket on the ceramic tile and pulls it around her. “Wait, Wayan! You can’t sleep on the floor. I’ll move over…”

“No,” she says. “I stay here.”

I argue but she’s adamant, telling me she moves a lot and doesn’t sleep well. She falls promptly to snoring while I lay suffocating with my head stuffed under the blanket against further invasion. Wayan sleeps like a rock. I know this because every dog within ten miles barks all night, non-stop, and I hear them. There is, however, no more scratching. It becomes essential to breathe and I eventually uncover my head.

Next post: Day Two in Abang Songan

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A Strange Diagnosis

Ketut’s father is sick. The Balian, a traditional Balinese healer, is consulted. “How is Bapak?” I ask him the next day.

“Same-same,” is his reply. But there’s more to the tale and once again I listen in amazement to the complex interrelation of medicine, magic, and mystery that surrounds the lives of the Balinese. This is the story as told to me by Ketut.

One of his father’s ancestors a long time ago was a Balian and he had a book that had been passed down in the family for seven generations. The book (lontar) contained the collected wisdom of the healing arts, required rituals, recipes for medicinal cures, instructions for auspicious marriages, and all that the community needed to know to thrive. But it also contained the opposite, an operations manual for black magic.

When that Balian died, no one replaced him. The book that had been cared for, consulted, honored with offerings and placed in a special position of prestige, was ignored. It was kept in a cabinet in the father’s sleeping room.

“The Balian say book angry,” Ketut tells me. “My father sick because book want house.” I pepper Ketut with questions and learn that construction on a house for the book is underway. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but the concept is elusive.

A few days later I ask Ketut how construction is coming. “Not yet finish,” he says. I get the same answer as weeks go by. I’m picturing one of the small tower-like structures that I’ve seen in temples all over Bali. That, I assume, would be a fitting house for a book. But why is it taking so long?

The day comes when the new house is finished. “Is the book already inside?” I ask.

“Oh no.” Ketut answers many of my questions this way. “Not yet good days,” he says. “Manku make ceremony when good days.”  So this is a bigger deal than I thought. I should have known. The book can’t be moved until the holy man finds an auspicious day. Then the priest will be hired to come and officiate. Mountains of flowers, fruits, cakes, and chickens will be purchased or cooked and prepared as offerings.

“I want to come to the book ceremony,” I tell him. He says of course and he’ll let me know. Weeks pass. “Book ceremony soon?” I ask.

“Not yet, maybe three month.”

“Three more months?” I’m shocked. His father hasn’t gotten better. But this is Bali and the mills of the gods grind slowly.

As mid-April approaches I’m told that the day has been decided. It will be on Purnama Kedasa, the full moon celebration April 14th, an auspicious day indeed.

The long-awaited morning dawns bright and clear. Outfitted in temple clothes, my neighbor Julie and my visiting friend from America, Jan and I are ferried up the mountain to Ketut’s village in a decrepit mini-van. As we chug and cough along Pasek, who is with us, gets a text from Ketut. The priest hasn’t yet arrived. Pasek invites us to his house to wait.

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We’re greeted by Nyoman, Pasek’s wife

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Nyoman cooked this amazing spread for usIt’s always the same with Ketut’s and Pasek’s families. We are plied with food and drink. When asked if they will be eating too it’s either, “Already,” or “Later.”

Not many foreigners come to this remote, mountain village so we are studied with wide-eyed wonder by the small children. The adult women wrap us in warm hugs. The adult men smile and shake hands or hang back. Teens whisper and giggle.

Waiting outside the temple for Pasek's father to bless us

After the feast we wander to the temple where a rug is spread outside. We squat or crouch in our tight sarongs awaiting the blessing.

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re still with Pasek’s family.  Ketut comes to find us. The priest has not yet arrived but Ketut is ready to take his turn with us. “Want to see book?” he asks. Of course we do! We all pile back into the rusty bucket. This time our route can barely be called a road. The jouncing and jiggling are fierce and I’m surprised my dinner behaves as well as it does. I’m worried about Jan. Her stomach was a little unsettled earlier. But she says she’s fine. It’s a miracle.

Ketut and Pasek's cousing with rice basket cookers on their headsFrom Pasek’s house we move to the home of another relative. A tour of the premises brings us to the outdoor kitchen where Ketut and our driver model the woven cones that are used to steam rice over boiling water.

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Stealing honey

Moving from one mischief to the next, these two decide to pry open the bee house and check for honey. The bees they’re disturbing look like overgrown fruit flies. We’re told they don’t bite, but they swarm around Ketut’s head as he violates their stash.

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He extracts some of the honeycomb and a little nectar for us to taste. The comb is dark brown and the honey has a tart vinegar-y flavor. It isn’t an instant hit.

Ketut’s father with the ancient books (lontar)

Ketut’s father appears and greets us. He is much better. He leads us to a room with a cabinet and takes a seat on a raised platform. This is the room where the lontar is stored. A footed offering plate holds several of the volumes. With utmost care he opens one of them and shows us the script that was cut into the palm leaves hundreds of years ago. Very few people can read the old Balinese writing. The modern alphabet is completely different.

P1060083We lean in close and Bapak says it’s okay to take photos. The inscription is faint but legible. There are dozens of the bound packets of hardened palm leaves. Ketut tells us that the leaf is dried, then soaked in hot water, then dried again and it becomes hard. The writing is done by carving each letter with a knife.

But there are new developments. The book no longer wants to be in the new house. The ancestral weapons, the kris, must go there first. Later if the book wants to be with the kris, it will tell the priest. But for now, the book stays where ‘she’ is and the swords will take up residence in the new house. How was this communicated? “The Mangku he know,” Ketut tells me later.

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This is the new book house. Ketut stands in the doorway and Komang, his wife and a niece look on. I’m shocked to see a real house with two rooms. All this for a book and a couple of swords?

Ketut’s family gathers round while we wait for the priest. More food is brought along with thick, sweet, Bali coffee.

Ketut has heard from the priest. Many blessings are scheduled for the full moon and he’s much in demand. It may be hours before he arrives, “Or maybe tomorrow,” Ketut says.

The sun set a while ago. We still have an hour-and-a-half ride down the mountain before sleep. With the timing of the ceremony uncertain, and the adventures of the day already enough to fill us to capacity, we opt to take our leave. As we bump along the ridge, the lights of the villages lining the shores of Lake Batur shimmer through a gauzy mist of cloud far below.

The island of Bali is another world. But the places we’ve been today could be another galaxy so far removed are they from what we might consider normal. And yet it works here. It fits. And I doubt that I will ever outgrow the amazement and wonder at the vast differences that feel so familiar.

 

 

 

 

 

When her feet touched the ground

Remote is just a word until you’re there. An hour and a half by motorbike, uphill all the way, is the town of Kintamani. And several miles beyond that is the village of Abang Sonang. No foreigners live there and few visit. But this is Ketut’s village. His family’s land was given to them by the king. Things haven’t changed much for the people here.

Every village in Bali has its unique traditions, so when Ketut asked me if I wanted to come to his baby’s three month ceremony, I was thrilled. When he told me he would sell his motorbike to pay for this very important birthday party I was horrified. “But Ketut! You need your motorbike!”

“Already,” he said, then added “have two.” He’d already sold the automatic…the one with the super smooth ride…the one I fondly called ‘Pink’.

“How much does a three month ceremony cost?” I wanted to know. Asking isn’t impolite in Bali. No people group on earth is more inquisitive than the Balinese. They’re not afraid to ask anything and they’re not opposed to being asked. When he told me it would cost 5,000,000 Rph, about $500 US dollars, I was horrified all over again.

Ketut, Komang, and three month old Nengah

Ketut, Komang, and three month old Nengah

In all fairness, this is a very important milestone. Balinese children are held every waking moment for the first three months. Only when the parents go to bed is the child out of someone’s arms, and then it is snuggled in with mom and dad for the night.  The three month ceremony marks the first time the baby’s feet touch the ground. It’s a big deal. But I had no idea what that really meant until June 19, 2013, Nengah’s three month ceremony.

The belle of this ball

Nengah, the belle of this ball

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Arrival tent for visiting and smoking

When I arrived I changed into temple clothes, the kebaya and sarong, and was invited to sit on a platform with other family members and guests. There were baskets of cigarettes and matches here and there for the men to enjoy. Social smoking is as popular in Bali as social drinking is in Western cultures.

I was curious what $500 would buy for this party, so, armed with my camera, I set out to see for myself. Three tents had been erected in the family compound. One was the arrival area with the platform and the cigarettes. Another had been pitched beside the food service area so people could eat in a covered space in case of rain.

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Women sit crafting hundreds of offerings

As I progressed I wondered at the absence of women. There were men lounging, laughing, talking, but no women to be seen. Then I came to the third tent. Mystery solved. The third tent was full of ladies making offerings. They chatted and laughed as their fingers flew.

P1030910There seemed to be a hustle-bustle of people coming and going from behind one house. I peeked around the corner and found Komang’s mother cooking. She was stirring a heaping wok of veggies. There were bowls of other delights just waiting for the feast that would come later.

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Chickens wrapped in banana leaves stay moist and delicious

Moving through another group of men talking and smoking, I found the barbecue pit. As I approached the blistering heat, I wondered how the men could stand there all day, twisting the sticks that held the food.

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The birds are done…notice the two ducks on the right

Ketut told me he had bought 40 chickens and a suckling pig. I saw a few ducks on the spit, thrown in as an extra measure of pleasure for the gods!

The young pig awaits his turn on the fire

The young pig awaits his turn on the fire

Seated on the ground near the fire, the holy man prayed for blessings on the food, the child, the family, and the guests.

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The holy man offers prayers throughout the day

I left the barbecue and continued my photographic journey. The next stop was the room where Nengah would experience her coming-of-age first kebaya. It was filled with colorful offering towers and stacks of the small, palm basket offerings.

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A wall of gifts to maintain the balance between good and evil

I was beginning to see where ‘all that money’ went!

Ketut found me and asked if I wanted to go with the family to the birth site. Nengah was born in a small center just a few miles down the road. The family was going there to offer thanks for her safe delivery. We left the guests and hopped on motorbikes for the quick trip to the clinic.

Komang delivered the baby in the bed with the blue cover

Nengah was born in the bed with the blue cover

The holy man is seated with piles of offerings as granny lights the incense

The holy man is seated with piles of offerings as granny lights the incense

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It’s a lighthearted affair. Ketut said something just then that made Komang blush.

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The intricacy of the rituals throughout the day mesmerize me.

The clinic blessings complete, it was back to the compound for the feast. The ever present rice was served in plastic laundry baskets! I was so shocked at the overwhelming abundance of rice I forgot to take a picture! The rest of the food was loaded on a long table and the feasting began.

Cap cay

Cap cay

A sayur stir-fry with tofu

A sayur stir-fry with tofu

Spicy satays of chicken mixed with coconut

Spicy satays of chicken mixed with coconut

Kachang penjang, the foot long green beans with chilis

Kachang penjang, the foot long green beans with chilis

Banana leaf packets of highly seasoned minced chicken

Banana leaf packets of highly seasoned minced chicken

A spicy tomato bumbu sauce

A spicy tomato bumbu sauce

Super hot sambal!!!

Super hot sambal!!!

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Ketut holds the cooked pig, dripping with grease, waiting as his mother clears a spot and produces a tray to hold it

The cuisine of Bali is a blend of many Asian countries and it is fabulous! I ate plenty, as I usually do. My Mona Lisa corset was stretched to the max. I needed to walk off some of the excess. Ketut’s brother accompanied me. After a short stroll he said, “Here.” I didn’t know there was a planned stop and this looked like another family compound. “Who?” I asked. “Father brother me,” he said. Ah, his father’s brother…an uncle’s home. I’m getting much better at sorting out the meaning of such cryptic phrases! We turned into the gate. A skeletal man, shirtless, motioned us over. I asked if I could take his photo. He jumped up, went inside and put on a shirt, then came back and with a big smile and nodded permission.

Uncle's astrological invention

Uncle’s astrological invention

The interesting object he is holding is a globe carved from wood with three metal rings encircling it. He explained the rings. Spellbound, I asked him where he studied astronomy. The walls were covered with calendars he had drawn and lunar progressions that he had carved and painted on long, rectangular blocks of wood. He didn’t understand my question. I turned to Ketut’s brother and asked him. As my meaning dawned, he frowned and answered with a scolding tone. “He no school. He just know.” The innate ‘knowing’ of the intuitive Balinese is a mysterious phenomena. But it cannot be denied. The man hasn’t spent one day in school, yet what he knows about the constellations and the movement of the earth through the heavens, is wondrous.

It was time to get back to the festivities. The next step in Nengah’s transition commenced in the offering room. The symbolism of what took place over the next hour left me with tears throughout. Her party clothes were removed and she was bathed.

Nengah doesn't like baths, but she let granny administer this ritual cleansing

Nengah doesn’t like baths, but she let granny administer this ritual cleansing

Following the bath, she was dressed for the first time in temple clothes, the sarong and kebaya. Ketut cut the strings that she had been wearing on her wrists and ankles and replaced them with bracelets and anklets of silver. The holy man had blessed a talisman and inserted it into a silver box on a chain that was now placed around her neck.

Cutting off the yarn bracelets

Cutting off the yarn bracelets

The holy man uttered prayers and chants and sprinkled great profusions of holy water. An egg was passed three times in front of Nengah’s little body. But the girl’s spirit of cooperation wore thin. It began with a few whimpers, then broke into an all-out squall that speaks louder than words, “I’m finished! Get me out of here!”

She was not made to endure. Granny left with her in tow and the ceremony ended. Dazed and delighted, I stepped through the doorway into the night. What sights met my eyes! The gamelan orchestra was setting up in preparation for dancing! The air crackled with excitement. Ketut had been talking about this for months. He and his baby daughter would have their first dance, maybe their only dance, together. The music began. Four professional performers in full costume wove their magic.

The firey torches in the center with offerings below, set the stage for the dancing

The fiery torches in the center with offerings below, set the stage for the dancing

They finished and it was time for Ketut and Nengah.  I have never seen Ketut so happy and proud. Nengah, her good nature restored, was wide eyed, taking it all in.

A daughter's first dance

A daughter’s first dance

Various family members danced with Nengah. After that the professionals reappeared. Someone in the audience is handed a fan and that is an invitation to dance.  Of course a foreigner is a prime target, and I took my turn. It was great fun! But that’s another story!

It had been a long day. The gamelan packed up and went home, as did the guests. I had been invited many times before to spend the night with Ketut’s family, but it had never worked out. This was to be the first. They showed me to my room. There was a full size bed with fleecy new blankets. Ketut told me I should sleep there. I glanced at a tangle of bodies under covers on the floor. Ketut’s mother lay there with three of her granddaughters curled around her. Oh my. So I was once again the honored guest who got the only bed. I started to argue but was instantly shut down.

I didn’t sleep much. It was almost too quiet, way up on that mountaintop, with the soft breathing of four other bodies in the room. But it didn’t matter. I had seen sights that few Westerners ever see. I had heard stories and witnessed the unfolding of a stunning ritual. But…wait a minute…! This was supposed to be the celebration of Nengah’s feet contacting the earth for the first time. Had I missed it?

Morning brought my answer. As I emerged from the sleeping room, dressed and ready for the day, I saw granny kneeling on the ground. She had made two rows of overlapping green leaves about a foot apart and approximately two feet long. There were little bits of rice on each leaf. The next thing I knew, Ketut and Komang were there with Nengah who was once again in her temple clothes. Then it happened. Komang lowered Nengah to the ground, just so her bare feet met the earth. She half carried her to the end of the little leaf bordered path, back and forth, three times.

Making the leaf path

Making the leaf path

Nengah's feet meet the earth

Nengah’s feet meet the earth

Some moments are joyous and sacred. This was one of those.

We entered another small room for more prayers. The sun filtered through the incense-filled air creating an eerie beauty.

There is one more prayer session with the holy man

There is one more prayer session with the holy man

The formal prayers said, the family made a final gesture of gratitude for excellent weather and the blessing of children. They gathered up more offerings and carried them to the entrance by the street. Komang’s mother placed them, just so. Temporary altars were erected on either side of the gate.

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Filing out to the street with the offerings

Offerings at the gate are mark the end of the ceremony

Offerings at the gate are mark the end of the ceremony

Ketut places offerings by one of the temporary altars

Ketut places offerings by one of the temporary altars

After cups of rich, Bali kopi, slabs of papaya, sweet bits of kue pastries, and all the rice I could eat, it was time to go. It already seemed far away, like a half-forgotten dream, or a peek into someone else’s life. But it isn’t someone else’s life. It’s mine. It’s what I have manifested by letting go of who I thought I should be and exchanging it for who I am. It’s full, alive, and fabulous. It’s a life that fits like skin.

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head

Hand in hand with golden days and balmy nights, if you live in the tropics, it rains. I’m not talking drizzle here, the kind that goes on for days until you want to wring out the clouds and shout “QUIT ALREADY!” No, I’m talking gushing, pounding, torrents of water.

I’m thrilled by the power of it, both the sight and the sound, unless it happens to be pouring through the roof into my kitchen. (That happened last night.) Or possibly just slightly worse, I’m on the back of a motorbike.

This cruiser didn't have a poncho and he wasn't stopping for anything!

This cruiser didn’t have a poncho and he wasn’t stopping for anything!

It was on one of those epic journeys to Kintamani that the weather turned. Fortunately, Ketut saw the storm coming and pulled into a roadside warung just as the first sprinkles hit.

This warung came in handy in three ways: 1) hot coffee, 2) petrol 3) shelter.

The warung had what was needed: 1) hot coffee, 2) petrol 3) shelter.

It was the perfect opportunity to fill up. The proprietor grabbed one of the amber bottles. She unscrewed the cover of the gas tank, uncapped the bottle, poured, then secured the gas cap again, all while holding an umbrella in her other hand. Rumor has it that the government is trying to outlaw these hazardous, do-it-yourself gas stations. I’m guessing it will be awhile.

Do you recognize this? It's the petrol station. One of those little jugs about fills the tank of a motorbike.

Here’s the petrol. One of those bottles fills the tank of a motorbike.

We sat and enjoyed steaming cups of thick Bali kopi just inches from the drenching downpour. Brown eddies swirled past our feet. This smiling fellow had stopped only to don his poncho. No coffee for him! He was on his way to work.

These ponchos come in all the colors of the rainbow. Everyone hopes they remembered to pack it when it starts raining. My smiling friend is getting ready to leave.

The ponchos come in all the colors of the rainbow. Everyone hopes they remembered to pack it when it starts raining. My smiling friend is getting ready to leave.

And off he goes.

And off he goes.

The warung was across the street from a temple that had an impressive flight of steps leading to the top. When we arrived a little trickle of water had started. After only fifteen minutes, the steps looked like this. When I say it was raining hard, I want you to understand what that means. Folks…it was raining HARD.

No, this is not a waterfall. These are the steps to the temple across the street.

No, this is not a waterfall.

The gutters were overflowing, completely flooding the street, and a man with a bright red umbrella tried to dislodge a huge branch that was blocking the culvert. He was unsuccessful.

Leonard Cohen does a song "Famous Blue Raincoat" and here's the Famous Pink Umbrella to go with it!

Leonard Cohen does a song “Famous Blue Raincoat” and here are the Famous Blue Slippers to go with it!

Eventually the cadence of the drops slowed and Ketut fished out his rain gear. Pulling it on, he seated himself and started the engine. In one flying leap I whipped the back of the poncho over my head and flung my leg over the seat. “Ready!” I yelled through the din.

There’s only one thing scarier than riding in the rain, and that’s riding blind in the rain. I could see nothing. My head was underneath the poncho. I tend slightly toward claustrophobia. I’ve gotten better, but for a few miles I had to sing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. (That’s a great technique, by the way, for those of you who tend to panic!) Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. I pulled my head out from under. “You wet?” Ketut shouted over his shoulder.

“No! You?” I yelled back.

“No! Big rain!” he said, and I guess that tells it all.

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.

…and a cast of thousands…!

“You want go gamelan festival in Kintamani?” Ketut asks in his understated way. Yes is always the right answer when he asks that kind of question. “When?” I say. “Tomorrow,” he answers. And once again I do what I have told myself never, ever to do. I assume I know what a gamelan festival is.

We leave for Kintamani at 9 a.m. It’s a glorious day for a motorbike ride. After a side trip into a small village to meet more of Ketut’s huge family, we arrive at the shores of magnificent Lake Batur. My assumptions begin to falter. There are so many people, teeming masses, and they are streaming through an entrance to an area with tents and a monster stage. The chairs are covered in white satin with big red bows. There are hundreds of chairs.

White satin chairs and an enormous stage

Ketut goes to park the motorbike and tells me he will find me later. I don’t know where to begin. There is a man surrounded by people. I wiggle my way through the tightly packed bodies to see what has them enthralled. An artist is recreating the view in front of him, but not in oil paint or acrylics. He’s sculpting the scene out of fruit!

The fruit sculpture shows the crater atop Mt. Batur, an active volcano on the shores of Lake Batur.

I leave the fascinating display and wander more deeply into the festival area. There is a bank of long tables where women are creating the towering fruit offerings. I stroll behind them. Someone told me recently that the action behind the scenes is often equally as interesting. That is definitely the case here.

Two women in white kebayas are creating their offering

About this time I learn that what is happening here is not JUST a festival. It’s a competition. The offering towers created by the women from each village will be judged.

Affixing the crown to the top of the offering. Many hands make light work!

There is also a cooking competition. That explains the other long row of tables with gas burners, pots, pans, and produce waiting. Later I learn the full extent of the two-day affair. Tomorrow there will be a dog show (I didn’t know that the Kintamani dog is world famous) a mountain climbing race, and a regatta on the lake.

These beautiful aproned ladies are ready for the cooking competition

The crowd is doubling every minute and a voice booms over the loudspeaker. The masses begin moving toward the stage. I quickly see that all the white satin chairs are full. I begin to circle, seeking a vantage point for my 5’2″ stature. The Balinese are not large people. The ones in front of me, however, are a good head taller than I am. I can see nothing. I hear the music approaching and a thunderous cheer erupts that rattles my ear drums. Something really good must be happening! I strain on tip-toe to catch sight of something…anything. Suddenly the woman beside me grabs my arm. “Where you from?” she growls, scowling. Oh no. What did I do. I squeak out a timid, “America…” She has not released my arm. “America?” she repeats, then grips me even more tightly. The next minute I am being propelled through the crowd. The human tank to whom I’m attached shoves bodies to the left and right all the while exclaiming loudly something about America. I desperately want to disappear. However, a path miraculously opens before us. She deposits me front and center then vanishes. If I ever see that angel again I will kiss her feet. The whole parade passes directly in front of me and it is jaw-dropping spectacular.

The costumes, the colors, the percussive gamelan music, all generate an energy of wild exuberance from the spectators

Every move is choreographed. The hands, the feet, the head, the eyes, all work together in dramatic exaggeration for ultimate effect.

You should have seen him dance!

This performer is holding a giant fan. Look at his fingers! Ketut tells me that this is the group from his village. They take 3rd place in the overall competition. Personally, I think they were the best…but I may be a tad prejudiced.

This venerable gentleman has no doubt seen many festivals.

The Balinese have a way of splendidly layering color and pattern upon color and pattern upon….

I wonder if the children watching ever have nightmares? Some of these dudes are scary!

Even the instruments display artful creativity.

The musicians add more glamor and delight.

The hand movements of the drummers are studied and precise.

The cymbals are the backbone of gamelan parades. To Western ears the sound can seem harsh and chaotic. But the purpose is to generate energy and spur the performers on to even more heroic feats. I have come to love it.

At the forefront of each group a stunning woman carries a sign that identifies the village represented by the group.

I didn’t have to coax too hard to get these gorgeous men to pose for a photo.

I could post endless pictures. And I could go on and on about the evening entertainment that featured famous personalities from Indonesian TV programming. There were professional dancers and singers. The comedians had me howling even though I didn’t understand a word. It was a smorgasbord for the senses beyond anything I have previously experienced. Why did I think I knew what a gamelan festival was?

It is long after dark when I climb on the motorbike behind Ketut for the hour and a half ride home. I want to let him know how amazing it was, how much I appreciate him for telling me about it and hauling my presumptuous carcass all the way to Kintamani to see it. Great globs of gratitude want to spill out and make him understand how indebted I am to him and to his people for sharing the riches of their culture. I search the meager archives of Indonesian words and phrases I’ve learned so far and finally settle for something that, loosely translated, says “Thank you so much for beautiful day.” I shout it in broken spurts as we streak through the night. He turns his helmeted head toward me. The wind whistles past, “Waaat?” he yells. The spell is broken. I can’t control my laughter. When I am finally able to speak I tap his shoulder. He turns his head. “THANK YOU!” I holler in his ear. It is enough.

Why Bali?

Why Bali? What is it that takes me thousands of miles from family and friends and holds me captive? What powerful force grips my mind and weaves it’s spell?

I’ve asked myself those questions. If I were running away from unbearable family matters, or painful memories, or anything at all, Bali would be a lovely place to run to. But I’m not. My family relationships are wonderfully close and loving. My memories are compartmentalized. I store the good ones in front for easy access and I have a convenient habit of forgetting the rest. I am not running from. I am running to.

The back of a motorbike is conducive to thinking. It was on the hour and a half ride back from Kintamani that I suddenly knew the answers to those questions. Perched behind Ketut, winding down the tight switch-backs as twilight and fog shrouded the mountains around us, my too-full heart began leaking from my eyes.

A brief stop on the way to Kintamani

I had spent the afternoon with Ketut’s family. Upon arrival I was welcomed, seated in a place of honor, fed and entertained. But they had work to do. So after an appropriate length of time, I was sitting like a distant queen watching her subjects. That wasn’t working for me. I abdicated my throne, walked over to the family, sat down on the ground beside them and began shelling beans. There was a flurry of activity, a stool was brought in consideration of my…age? Delicate white bum? Whatever. I politely declined in my best pidgin Indonesian. My effort was accompanied by uproarious laughter that left me wondering just what exactly I had said. The attempt to elevate me was abandoned and we settled into the business of work.

The beans have been shelled. I am sitting by Ketut’s ibu (mother) and Ketut is on my left.

All this was stewing in my mind with the hypnotic hum of the motorbike. Then the knowing dropped into my consciousness without effort. Here there is no pretense. These people are completely who they are and that allows me to be who I am. My roots are in the earth. I’ve shelled thousands of beans and peas, husked hundreds of ears of corn, picked berries, pulled weeds, baled hay. I spent my adult life in the city trying not to be a farm girl. But at my core I am that simple creature. Here, quiet respect is valued. Pushy aggression has no place. Humility is honored and the person who boasts or brags is secretly scorned.

One Balinese businessman I know was phoned and asked if he would host a large gathering at his place of business. He requested a meeting to discuss particulars. The date was set, then changed, then re-set, then cancelled. Another phone conversation ensued and the clients wanted to settle the matter over the phone. The Balinese businessman again requested a meeting. Later he told me, “I wanted to see their eyes.” Although it would have been an easy matter to arrange things via the telephone, the man held firm to his principles. The group went elsewhere.

And why is that important? It’s integrity. It’s knowing who you are and not compromising. It’s a set of values that doesn’t bow to the dollar. It feels like my childhood, the farm, the close-knit community of people who helped each other and didn’t feel the need for power suits or slick marketing gimmicks. And that’s why I was glad of the soft darkness as we rolled into Ubud at sunset. Nobody noticed my heart leaking.

Sundown in Ubud

Kintamani, Mt. Batur, and the ride of my life!

Kintamani. Even the name sounds magical, like Shangri-La, or Katmandu. Getting there was equally as perilous, or so it seemed on the back of Ketut’s motorbike. Kintamani is a village high on Mt. Batur overlooking a lake of the same name. We passed these spectacular terraced rice fields on the way.

Rice terraces

Farming the mountainside

The elevation of Mt. Batur is 5,600 ft., and the road up has the tightest switchbacks I’ve seen this side of Norway! As it happened, the road down did too. I so wanted to take a photo of the impossible curves but stopping would have meant instant death, and letting go of my stranglehold on Ketut to grab my camera and shoot from the back of the bike…well…that wasn’t gonna happen! I think I held my breath for 30 minutes. Then, suddenly, we rounded a curve and there it was!

Lake Batur

A flat, straight stretch of road in Kintamani

Behind me is a vast desert of lava from the eruption of Mt. Batur. At the left is a tomato garden. There are red onions, cabbages, and tomatoes in plots nestled among the outcroppings of volcanic rock.

There are two peaks, Mt. Batur and Mt. Abang, and between them is the caldera, the flat open land that resulted after a major eruption. The ground is jagged and lumpy where the bubbling, flowing lava solidified. It more closely resembles desert than tropical island! Bali has many faces.

Hot Springs

One of the advantages of an active volcano in your back yard is the occasional fissure in the earth that allows hot water to bubble out. There is a charge of 150,000 Rp or about $16 to use these pools.

Hot pools of varying different temperatures by Lake Batur.

There were three women in the far pool and while we watched a young man in a sarong served poolside drinks. I felt the water…it was HOT!

The view from the pools.

The sun was out and there was hardly a breeze, but the air up here is much, much cooler than the daily average temperature in Ubud. There were times on the motorbike when my polar fleece would have been a welcome addition!

Leaving Batur and Kintamani…

What a delightful day, and the icing on the cake was meeting Ketut’s parents! They don’t smile for photos, but they laugh and joke constantly the rest of the time.  I do love the Planet Hollywood t-shirt with the sarong!

The one time in my life I felt really really tall!

Then it was time to head back to the curves and swerves for the trip home. Ketut doesn’t drive slowly, but he is careful. I only screamed once. That’s really good for me.

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