No, you don’t understand…

Stretch reality, expand it until it becomes unreal, a thing so far removed from the familiar that words of explanation cease to exist.

I awaken at 6:00 a.m. to the hollow wooden echo of the kul kul and a chorus of roosters. Morning. The fingers of the great coconut palm brush my window, whish, whish, and clouds in the east blush golden. My feet meet the silky chill of the tiled floor. Curls of sweet cempaka incense from morning offerings tells me that Pasek has already appeased the gods on my behalf. I pad to the bathroom and assault my face with cold water.

Yoga pants and sports bra await. Yawning, I slip into clothes and push the wall of sliding doors aside. A rush of morning air carries the scent of onions and garlic frying and the gossipy blither of sparrows busy vying for best nesting rights under the eaves. With a practiced flick of the wrist, my mat unfurls and I step into place for morning sun salutes. Today I do the sequences quickly, pushing myself to wake up.

Forty minutes later, muscles warmed and mind clear, I open the front door. Sitting in bags, striped black and white and one shocking pink, are papaya, salak, jackfruit, sprouts, spinach, cozy brown eggs from chickens that have never known captivity, and sweet kue. I didn’t order kue, but periodically the irresistible, fattening delicacies appear. Mmmm yum! Shallots and garlic round out today’s picks. Ketut asked for my shopping list last night so he could visit the Ibus’ produce trucks before sunrise.

The teakettle whistles. Scalding water with one part Nescafe and one part Torajan coffee, mixed well and allowed to settle, brings me fully into the day. I answer e-mails then pick up writing where I abandoned it the night before. Half-way through morning Ketut appears to cook rice, vegetables, and tofu for the noon meal. Before he begins, one-quarter of the papaya is sliced into a bowl with a spritz of fresh squeezed lime juice. Breakfast is served.

“Have program?” he asks while he chops and minces.

“How about flower shopping? Go to Mas?”

“What you want?

“Short flowers, red, yellow, for the garden.”

“Maybe grass?”

“Grass?”

“Ya. Two meters make many many.” It’s clear to me that I have a fuzzy idea of what I want but Ketut has the master plan. I don’t pursue with questions.

At noon we set off by motorbike to the nurseries in the next village. The woodworker shop where I left a sketch and a request for a quote is on our way. We swerve in and stop so I can check to see if there’s a price assigned to my drawing.

“Bapak belum,” says the little moonface in pigtails. (Daddy not yet.) The shy older girl says nothing and both turn back to the cartoon characters shouting at each other on the rabbit-eared t.v. We press on.

Another mile down the road lush, well-ordered gardens appear on the right. “Grass here,” Ketut says. In the States I’ve seen turf rolled into neat bundles and delivered by truck to create instant lawn. Of course that’s what I expect. Dumbfounded I watch as the stooped Balinese man marks off two meters of ground cover and skims it from the earth into a pink plastic bag in exchange for 50,000 rph. ($4.75 U.S.) An hour later we’re on our way back to Ubud. On the bike seat between us is the bulging bag of sprouting earthen knobs, and atop that, the yellow and red blooms of ten plants bob gaily like the flowers on a clown’s hat. For a split-second I imagine us tooling down Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis. A Neil Diamond song runs through my head,

It’s Love, Brother Love, say
Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies
And ev’ryone goes, ’cause everyone knows
Brother Love’s show…!

Why that song?

Back at home Ketut serves up lunch then heads to the garden. I resume writing. The sounds of drumming and male voices in a staccato kecak chant jolt me from my altered author state. Gede and Kadek, the staff from Rumah Jepun next door, and Alit from Rumah Kita on the other side of me, are helping Ketut prepare the ground for grass. Ketut scrapes and chops at the hard-baked earth and shovels it into buckets.

P1070473The three volunteers relocate the contents. On the return they pound a wild beat on their empty bucket drums and fill the afternoon with the syncopated chak-chak…chak-chak-chak… that they’ve heard since before they could walk. Primal energies churn through my nervous system. There is something deep in my cells that knows the language of drumming, knows that understanding its message meant survival. I close my eyes as the force of their sound vibrates through me.

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The performance is by them and for them, but I’m the lucky bystander and when the camera appears smiles beam upward.

Last night this same group gathered around my table to play Uno.  We’re vastly different in age, cultural background, education, and life experience but at the core, our hearts desire the same things, community, acceptance, laughter, love.

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As the sun and heat intensify, Ketut lays down the clods, pressing them into moist, loosened earth. Now I understand his cryptic, two meters make many many. He’s already planted about four meters and that pink plastic is still half full! I hurry downstairs and slip into my garden flip-flops . It isn’t until I’m eye level with the artful ‘ruin’ in the far corner of the plot that I notice the cheerful yellows and reds embedded in their new home. I had imagined stewing, contemplating, The yellow here? No, over there? No…. But I’ve been spared the indecision and it’s perfect.

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“Wow Ketut! I love it! Amazing job!” He knows he’s good, but you can never give a Leo too much praise. He poses for the camera looking like something from The National Geographic in the rolled up ‘PINK brand’ sweat pants that some guest discarded, with his t-shirt swathed around his head.

“Facebook?” he asks.

“Absolutely! Okay?”

“Ya, okay!” His grin spreads wider.

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My phone tings and there’s a text from Nina. Join me for a cocktail? I leave the garden and go around the corner to her kitchen. She dusts off the tiny blue stool that we both know is my spot. I sit, sipping a Mandarin orange juice shot through with mango vodka and marvel at the way she can talk, gesture, drink, and cook all in the same breath. We remark again at the fate that made us neighbors and agree that our friendship is a happy accident. We share the knowledge that people who haven’t experienced this kind of life cannot possibly understand its rich rewards.

At dusk I toddle home and hear the trickle of the water hose as Ketut gives the new plantings their kiss goodnight. An hour later he appears, showered and fresh. “Want fish?” he asks as he scans the contents of the refrigerator.

“Yes! Great!”

We feast on Lake Batur bounty smothered in Balinese sambal, and a savory mix of sautéed veggies over rice. At eight he closes the sliding doors and heads down the hallway. “Want door lock?” he says as he lets himself out.

“Please. And thank you for everything.”

“Ya. Good night. See you tomorrow.”

It’s a snippet, a typical day in a life that I could never have imagined for myself. Ketut is staff. Every foreign resident in Bali must employ at least one Balinese person. He has his own bedroom and bath on site. He shops for me, cleans, gardens, cooks, and carries me on the back of his bike wherever I need to go. He’s up at 5:30 a.m., to the market by 6:00, and sometimes he’s still hauling me to and from engagements at midnight. He manages my life so it’s a seamless, effortless, joyous event. But he’s also my friend.

How did this happen?

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

…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.

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