SPIRIT GUIDE, TOTEM ANIMAL, OR JUST A PRETTY BIRD?

 

I glanced in the window. Stopped dead in my tracks. Backed up. Stared. I’d passed this shop dozens of times; had even gone inside once. But the bird on display was new.

The color caught my attention. It was the identical shade of my Bali Blue Bed. I never liked blue until that bed, handmade and painted by Ketut’s father for his family of nine children, became my prized possession. Then it had to be THAT blue. This bird was THAT blue.

The size was good, too. It was big. For some reason, probably hearkening back to childhood when I had to dust every small knick-knack and treasure my mother collected over the years, l preferred large accessories.

My delight ended there. The design of the bird didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t a noble Garuda, the heraldic national emblem of Indonesia. Its beak was too long, its wings too short, and the tail was so flamboyant as to be an embarrassment to the humble creature. I shrugged and walked on.

A few days later I was in the vicinity of the shop. The color grabbed me again and I stood transfixed. What was it about that ungainly thing? The fact that it was blue and big wasn’t enough. It was unsophisticated, provincial, not my style. The word folksy came to mind.

I couldn’t exactly say when I became obsessed, when I began to want the bird. Was it the fifth time I stopped at its window? The tenth? On that day, I went into the shop to ask the price. It wasn’t shocking. Or was it? Was the color really right? Was there a chip in the paint under its wing? By the time I left I’d talked myself out of wanting it. Almost.

A couple of weeks went by. I was distracted and had no cause to be in the neighborhood of the shop. Then, in a flurry of rearranging things in my house, I moved a lamp. In the now empty space on top of the bookshelf I saw the bird. It was the perfect spot, the exact amount of room needed to exhibit him to full advantage.

I couldn’t get to the little store fast enough. I burst through the door and caught a flash of color on a high shelf. It was my bird with different plumage: electric green, and touches of THAT blue. My fickle heart fell instantly in love.

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At home I unwrapped my prize and set it carefully in place. About that time, Ketut appeared.

“Heron,” he said. “Bad design.”

As soon as he named it, I saw the likeness. Of course it was a heron. They were everywhere in Bali and the craftsmen here carve what they know. He reached up and I saw what he saw. There was a gap where the tail joined the body.

Ketut disappeared and came back with a drill.

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“Ummmm, are you sure, Ketut?” I had to bite my tongue and sit on my hands to keep from stopping him. Where was my faith? But leave it to the son of a woodcarver to know what to do. In the capable hands of Ketut, my bird was made perfect.

The story could have ended there. But this is Bali. Instinct told me there was more to Mr. Heron than just a pretty bird. The fact that at first he hadn’t appealed to me at all, and later was the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes upon, defied logic. Most things magical aren’t logical, and Bali is an island steeped in magic. So I googled: totem animal heron. Laughter, then tears, followed the tingling, goosebumby sensation that accompanies a touch from beyond. This is what I read:

If Heron is your Animal Totem

You love to explore various activities and dimensions of Earth life. On the surface, this may seem like a form of dabbling, but more than likely you are wonderfully successful at being a traditional Jack-of-all-trades.

This ability enables you to follow your own path. Most people will never quite understand the way you live because on the surface it seems to be unstructured without stability or security to it. It is, though, just a matter of perspective. There is security underneath it all, for it gives you the freedom to do a variety of tasks. If one way does not work, then another will. This is something you seem to inherently know.

You do not seem to need a lot of people in your life, nor do you feel pressured to keep up with the material world, or to be traditional in your life roles. You stand out in your uniqueness, and you know how to snatch and take advantage of things and events that the average person would not even bother with.

Anyone who knows me must agree that the description could hardly be more perfect.

Years ago I learned about totem animals and have often wondered if I had one. There are online questionnaires that profess to establish your totem by the answers you give. I did a couple and never felt a connection with the results.

But the heron knew, didn’t he.

 

 

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The Bali Blue Bed

Indonesians make amazing beds. Historically they used them for sleeping, but Westerners have adopted these exquisite creations to serve as sofas where several people can curl up and have a cozy conversation.
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For months, Ketut has been hauling me to and fro through surrounding villages stopping at every shop with a daybed for sale. I’ve seen them all, from heart-stopping gorgeous ones to those with manure and pig-smell hanging about them. Even though the choices were endless to the point of customizing something to my specifications, I was ambivalent.

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Then last week at Ketut’s home in Kintamani, I toured the family compound and caught up on the latest happenings. As we passed through the wood shop, a flash of blue in the corner caught my eye. It was heaped full of stumps and chunks awaiting the skillful knives that would reveal the images within. Upon closer inspection, my eyes nearly popped their sockets. It was a DAYBED, carved in the old style and painted Bali blue. In disbelief I turned to my host.
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“Ketuuuuut…what’s this?”
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“Oh, old bed. My father make.”
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“Your father made this?”
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“Ya, very old.”
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“Ketut, this is a daybed.”
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“Ya.”
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“Remember, you have been taking me all over Bali looking at daybeds.”
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“Ya.”
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“You didn’t tell me about THIS daybed!”
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“Oh no. Very old. I forget.”
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I took a few deep cleansing breaths and studied the lines, the detail, and checked the sturdiness. It appeared to be strong and fully intact.
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“You like?” he asked.
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“Ketut, it’s amazing! It is exactly what I’ve been looking for. And your father made it! Do you know how special this is to me because your father made it? Do you think your mother would sell it?”
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I was speaking too fast about abstract feelings, most of which, I knew, would be lost in translation. But he caught the gist of the last question.
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“I ask,” he said.
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He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a tape measure. He knows the size I want and he stretched the tape for the length, width, and height calling out the numbers to me. It was perfect.
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“Will your mother sell it?”
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“Ya, you can have. Very old, nobody want.”
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“Ketut, I need a daybed. I am going to buy one somewhere but this one is so special and I want to pay for it. Is that okay?”
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“Ya, up to you.”
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I left in a state that can only be described as bliss. He said he would arrange to rent a truck and bring it to me. It arrived two nights later around 8:30 pm  with Ketut and five family members. They carried the pieces from the street along with four big new trees for my garden and a pair of giant carved mushrooms, also for my garden!
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Over the next two days I scrubbed years of use from the frame and Ketut sanded and applied new varnish to the side panels. Yesterday afternoon he assembled it.
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 Ketut in assembly mode.
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The beautiful Bali blue bed in all its splendor!
P1070835No mattress yet. I’ll order one made to fit. Pillows are enough for now!
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This daybed embraces me and it will do the same to all who join me here for future conversations. Ketut’s family is extraordinary. His father passed away six months ago. He  was a very special man, and now I have something that was not only made with his hands, but used by the family until they bought a new, modern one three years ago.
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 There are unfinished areas on the sides that were always against a wall in the room in Kintamani. As we discussed paint possibilities I mentioned the white ridged detail along the canopy.
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“Maybe a new color there?”
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“Not possible,” said Ketut in the voice that means it really IS NOT POSSIBLE.
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“Why?”
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“This Barong Gigi, not possible change.”
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“Oh, the Barong’s teeth? Really? Is that right?”

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“Ya, long time ago all Bali house have this. Now make with machine but my father make this.”
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 I look at the hundreds of half-cylinder shaped wood pieces and my awe deepens. Not only do I have a family heirloom, but it is infused with the rich, protective magic of the Barong. I know the Barong. He’s the physical manifestation of the king of all protective spirits. In the ceremonial dances he’s huge with a hairy body and lion-like masked head full of large, white teeth.
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I feel myself choking up, a common occurrence in my life here. That feeling always accompanies the intense gratitude for what seems to fall effortlessly from the gods into my lap.
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“Thank you for telling me, Ketut. I love this bed so much!”
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“Ya.” There’s silence for a moment while he applies varnish to the bamboo slats that hold the mattress. “You have more question?” I laugh. He loves to tell me about Balinese beliefs and wants me to write a story about Bali. Maybe I will. I’ll call it The Bali Blue Bed!
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Oh, and speaking of blue, Bali blue is a color I NEVER would have incorporated into my decor. So bold, so very very BLUE! Now I’m rethinking my whole design scheme to highlight that color. It gives my heart a joyful bounce every time I look at it.
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On all those daybed outings I told myself, I’ll know it when I see it. There were many stunning options, ornate and delicately carved, but my mind never said, Yes! This is it! until the woodshed. I’ve learned this about myself: I need to wait with decisions until my heart leaps out and grabs onto something. Until then it’s just stuff. But after the heart takes hold it becomes a treasured part of me, its presence an intrinsic piece of my happiness.

Deep Magic

The strangely discordant music of gamelan works in Bali. You can hear it emanating from open pavilions, raucously accompanying cremation processions, or drifting in soft tinkling waves on the humid night air. It is pure essence. It works because it is played in unconfined spaces with few or no walls to trap the cacophony. The cymbals, drums and the metallic keys of xylophones create an unparalleled din that is sucked up by the 100% moisture content of the atmosphere. Thereby muffled, blended, and slightly distilled it becomes dramatic background to weddings, cremations, and traditional ceremonies. It also accompanies the Legong, Barong, and a host of other dances performed by outrageously beautiful Balinese women and fierce, masked men.

But……when taken out of context, inserted into a bone dry climate, captured in a room with four walls and a ceiling, and visited upon ears that are tuned to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and even an occasional Led Zeppelin or Johnny Cash, gamelan assaults. It is instant headache. With every cymbal crash each delicate Western nerve ending spasms. Foreheads furrow, brows knit, the polite, politically correct audience sits on its hands to keep from covering its ears. It won’t catch on here. I guarantee.

I love gamelan. Is it an acquired taste? Not really. As I said, it works in Bali. It celebrates the rich abundance of the island. Life there is lived outdoors in the color and heat of nature. Gamelan proclaims in sound, tangled jungles, volcanic peaks, curling breakers, black sand, pounding rain, relentless sun, terraced hillsides, and deep magic. The complexity of ritual supported and enhanced by gamelan music is the heartbeat of the Balinese people.

I have downloaded a gamelan CD to my itunes. When I’m not in Bali something in me craves that sound. When I know I’m alone and won’t disturb the sensitive ears of my Scandinavian roots, I crank up the volume. Lighting a stick of supa-dupa Balinese incense I close my eyes and sink into the mystery. The frigid temps and monochromatic landscapes of my childhood melt away. In moments I have a headache. But in those moments I’ve been strangely replenished, fed, revived. It’s powerful stuff, gamelan…deep magic.

Lost

Amit texts me, “Want to meet for a walk?” I was introduced to her just last week. She’s currently living in Bali and recovering from a near-death accident in Cambodia. While riding her bicycle she fell through a bridge. I can’t allow that image in my mind. It’s too horrifying. She is lucky to be alive, and even more fortunate to be able to walk. That wasn’t a given at the time.

I text back in the affirmative and we agree to find each other at 7 o’clock near the Royal Palace on Jl. Raya. I set my alarm for 5:45 a.m. and settle in early for a good night’s sleep. I drift off. A blinding flash followed by thunderous rumbles awakens me. For hours the thirsty earth is watered by pounding torrents of rain.  At times it cascades straight down like a heavenly waterfall. Then the wind picks up and the water crashes against the windows. I don’t sleep until it stops around 3 a.m.

The sweet, melodious chime of my alarm wakes me. The sun isn’t up yet but the sky has that bright, scrubbed look that it gets after a good cleansing. I feel remarkably well rested with just three hours of sleep. We plan to walk the rice paddy trail. It occurs to me that it could be muddy after all that rain, but its a passing thought. I splash water on my face, braid my hair, pull on cargo pants, a tank top, and my hiking Merrells and set out.

Monkey Forest Road at 6:30 a.m. after a night of rain.

Monkey Forest Road is deserted. I’ve never seen it quite so empty. I set out at a brisk clip. The football field is a well-known landmark in the center of Ubud. There is a grade school across the street and often the grassy space is filled with children playing soccer or flying kites. This morning its soggy surface shimmers in the mist.

Football field after the rain.

I arrive at the designated meeting place and a few minutes later Amit hails me from across the street. We chatter as we hike along. You know how it is with some people? It’s like you have always known each other and conversation is effortless and mutually enjoyable. So it is with Amit as we begin our walk.

Amit on the path.

Notice the path. This trail is shared by pedestrians and motorbikes. Notice the water beside the path. The other side is mud thanks to the rain from night before. When a motorbike approaches we have the choice…water or mud.

View across the rice fields toward Champuan Ridge

There is a well-known restaurant nestled in the rice paddies along this trail. Sari-Organik has been a landmark for many years and was one of the first establisments to focus on providing healthy, organic meals to patrons. The staff is just pulling up the bamboo blinds and sweeping the puddles of rain off the floor. We continue on, chattering away. I am fascinated by the list of various jobs Amit has had in her life. We are engrossed in conversation until suddenly she stops abruptly and says, “Oh! I wonder if we’ve missed the path?” Up ahead there is a farmer approaching. “Pak!” she calls, “Pak!” It’s a form of salutation, like sir, or Mr. in English. The man stops and, yes, we have missed the turn. We follow him back a short distance. The fork in the trail is quite obvious when you’re looking for it! We set out once again in good-natured camaraderie. Within a few yards there is another fork. Which way now? We opt for the less muddy one on the right. Soon we are slip-sliding down a steep bank. At the bottom is a stream. A bridge has been fashioned out of thick branches. We cross.

A muddy bank and a makeshift bridge

We find ourselves at the bottom of a gorge. The trail follows a stream which becomes steadily more turbulent as we proceed.

Rushing stream at the bottom of the gorge

By now we are both quite certain that we are not on the official ‘rice paddy walk.’ But we know we’re heading in a direction that takes us back toward Ubud. We’re a good 60 minutes into a walk that was supposed to take an hour and we are still swapping stories. We contemplate our two options: we can turn around  and go back the way we came, or we can keep forging ahead. We keep going.

Trail by the stream

Suddenly the path veers sharply to the left. There are steps carved into the earth and most of them are still intact, even after the downpour of the night. We pick our way slowly, carefully, to the top and emerge at the edge of a vast sea of rice.

Are we there yet???

At this point we have embraced the adventure. We’re committed to moving ahead even though we know now that we are definitely on the ‘road less traveled.’ The grassy mounds squish beneath our feet. I try not to think about the creatures that live here whom we might be disturbing. Leeches, snakes, rats…no, I won’t think about them! The path becomes narrower and narrower, then ends. We retrace our steps a few feet to a place where there was a tiny connecting ridge that zig-zaggs us toward a line of palms in the hazy distance. Now we are in a terraced paddy. The path ends abruptly at the edge of one terrace and we jump, slide, slither our way down three or four feet to the next level.

I use the term ‘path’ loosely. These are 8 to 10 inch wide raised portions of earth that skirt the edges of each field. One slip plunges you into the muddy goo that sucks off your sandal as you try to extract your foot. We teeter perilously on the spongy, lumpy, mounds while our soaked feet slide loosely in our sandals. But we make progress. Far in the distance there is a wall with roofs peeking over the top. Civilization. Slowly, slowly forward, one foot in front of the other, one more leap off the edge of a terrace to the sog below and we’re at the wall. We follow it to the left. Rounding a corner a vista opens before us. It is a construction site. To my eyes it’s Shangri La.

Shangri La!

There is a real stone pathway, real concrete steps, a real bridge!

A real path…we made it!

Descending from the terraces we pause beside this waterfall. I take a photo of Amit. She takes a photo of me. It’s like we’ve achieved the summit of Kilimanjaro. But where are we now? We climb a steep stairway up the opposite side of the valley and stumble into riches.

A golden ganesha welcomes us

We walk through a doorway, or fall down a rabbit hole. I’m not sure. We’re suddenly in another world.

Pristine perfection

We stare in awe. Is it a villa? A museum? A private home? The grass…you don’t see grass like this in Bali. It is as perfect and beautifully manicured as a golf course. We look closely. Astroturf. I feel momentarily betrayed, but not for long. The trees drip orchids. In the wall below the grand entrance stairway is a glass window. There are fish staring out at me. It’s an aquarium. The stream we followed for miles found its way here and rushes alongside another work of architectural magnificence.

Orchids hang from the trees and ornate statues stand guard

We stare in stupefied wonder, pointing out each new discovery to one another. We are awed. Our cameras click, click, click. Finally,  reluctantly, we tear ourselves away from this make-believe place and pass through the magic gate into the street. Amit knows where we are.

We stop at the first warung we pass. What is that place at the end of the street? No, not the school, the other one, the one still being built. Now we get big smiles of understanding. We are told it is a new palace for the royal family. I am secretly relieved that it is not another mega villa or 5 star hotel. And as I think about it, I should have known. It is traditional Balinese design. The steps up to the magnificent doorway, the genesha directly in front of you as you enter, the courtyard, the family temple, the exquisite aesthetic, all of these are typical of the Balinese home but on a much grander scale.

A simple rice-paddy walk had turned into a full-blown adventure with a surprise ending. But I’ve learned this about my new friend: Amit is a seeker. She never complains. She sees the glass half full. She is an overcomer, a possibility thinker, a believer in the basic goodness of all things. She has had extreme hardship in her life and triumphed. I am honored to know her and delighted to have spent the morning with her…lost.

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