Mona Lisa Corset and Lacy Red Bra

Abang Songan, Ketut’s village, goes about it’s ancient ways under the looming presence of holy Mount Agung. Today, a ceremony would take place here, rain or shine.

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I hopped on the back of the motorbike about 9 a.m. Monday morning. The sky brooded and at the last minute I threw my long, nylon, semi-water resistant coat into the bag. Otherwise I wore layers. The Mona Lisa corset, layer number one, hugged my ribcage. There was no way I wanted to tuck and zip myself into that chamber of horrors in front of a group of giggling pubescent Balinese girls. I knew from past experience that my change from street clothes to temple clothes when we arrived would be a group project. I was prepared. We tooled out of Ubud and headed through Tagalalang, climbing, climbing.

Pretty soon the air, heavy with un-rained moisture, turned brisk. A camisole the color of spring lilacs, the second layer of my ensemble, flashed bright underneath an unbuttoned fleece that flapped like great black wings as we sped along. A few more kilometers and I buttoned the fleece. All at once, the air let loose of its water content. Ketut pulled off the road and slid into his rain poncho. I fished out my coat and buttoned its high collar tight around my neck. I’ve never worn so many clothes in Bali! We set off again, the road slick and glistening, still climbing, climbing.

Balinese women went bare from the waist up until the government, concerned with the growing tourism industry, ruled that they had to wear shirts. But old ways die hard, especially behind the walls of a family compound. When we arrived, Ketut’s 67 years old mother, met us in her sarong and lacy red bra. The bra was on my account…otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered. I was ushered out of the rain, shivering and blue, into the all-purpose shelter. The space was filled to overflowing with offerings. Coffee and platters of food were brought for me and, one by one, family members appeared, crowding into the small space. They joked and commented on the unfortunate failure of magic to make the rain disappear.

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Trays and trays of offerings that have already been blessed at the temple, are now available for munching!

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We huddle together, waiting for the rain to slow a bit more before setting out for the festivities.

Abang Songan has traditions unlike any other village in Bali. I learned that for this special ceremony, not only do the women construct their impossibly high towers of fruits, vegetables, chickens, cakes, and so forth, but the men make an inverted version of the same. (Typically Balinese men do not make offerings.) They carry two of these masterpieces suspended on a pole over their shoulder. As the rain continued it’s postnasal drip, the offerings were shrouded in plastic and prepared for their march to the gathering place.

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Ketut, master of understatement, assured me that these weren’t heavy. But it’s like carrying 4 grocery bags full of apples and bananas! Tell me that’s not heavy!

The women carry these massive structures the equivalent of 3 or 4 blocks of muddy ruts. A superhuman effort!

The women carry these massive structures on their heads for the equivalent of 3 or 4 blocks through muddy ruts…a superhuman effort!

Once at the soccer field, the gathering place for this event, the men’s offerings were placed on racks that had been pre-constructed for the purpose and the women’s offerings were either taken to the auditorium across the street or carefully tucked under makeshift shelters.

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As the rain slowed, plastic was removed from the spectacular arrangements and the place took on a festive air.

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Families gathered under tarps and umbrellas, sitting on plastic tablecloths, chatting and waiting for the holy men to come and bless their offerings. .

About 4 p.m. the rain stopped. Hundreds of offerings had been placed under cover in the auditorium across the street where the gamelan, blessings, and prayers were ongoing. Ketut’s sister-in-law is the take-charge type and the task of managing me for the day had fallen to her. The auditorium was literally jammed with people. She saw me pointing the camera toward the gamelan musicians…”You want photo?” she asked.  I was about to say I had just taken one when she grabbed my arm and hauled me through the crowd right up to the gamelan platform. Once there she turned to me with a triumphant look on her face and gave me a curt nod, as if to say, “Well, what are you waiting for?!”

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The gamelan musicians

I was the token foreigner in the crowd. Once they realized that I liked to take photos, there were many willing to pose. Here are some of my favorites:

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Ketut’s take-charge sister-in-law with her towering offering

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Adorable! And she knows it!

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Three young boys deep in discussion

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Granny and her little tiger

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A colorful family that just wanted their photo taken

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These little mischief makers followed me around and posed numerous times!

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Total sweetness!

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Gede is the handsome chap in white on the far left. He’s standing with cousins and other family members from Trunyan, another traditional village by Lake Batur.

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I don’t want to be picked up!

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Giraffe? These animal jackets are very popular!

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Ketut and his beautiful, alert little daughter, Nengah.

The day was splendid, but the ritual I found most compelling happened at the end. Two women in white appeared carrying loops of rope. A line of girls formed behind them and each one held onto the rope. They circled the perimeter three times doing graceful movements with their free hands. Ketut said that this particular village ceremony is about starting again. I don’t know the full implications, but I embrace the concept!

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Barefoot in the muddy aftermath of rain, the women circle the area three times.

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Their hands flutter gracefully to the distant sound of gamelan

Dusk had encroached by the time we trudged back to the compound. Once again closeted with the women, Ketut’s mother helped me unwind the yards of sarong fabric, appalled that I had used safety pins to secure it, and neatly folded it back into my satchel. Ketut was ready with the motorbike. We whispered along in the softness of night, no traffic now and no rain. As the kilometers clicked away I once again experienced that familiar bubble of immense gratitude for my friend, Ketut and his willingness to share his family, his traditions, and his unique perspective on life, with this bule gila…crazy foreigner!

“Cinch me up, Scotty!” The Victorian corset is alive and well in Bali.

Vanity, thy name is woman. The quote is attributed to Shakespeare, but he actually said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” I take exception to that! But vanity, in my case, is sadly appropriate. I stooped low. But given the circumstances I trust you will be gentle with your judgements.

Living among the warmth and generosity of the Balinese people, I frequently have invitations to important ceremonies. In ignorance I first attended in my regular Western clothing and quickly felt like the poor orphan in the midst of splendor. The statuesque grace of the female Balinese form takes on goddess-like qualities when outfitted in full ceremonial regalia. I quietly observed from the sidelines and resolved to clean up my act.

I bought a sarong at the market. Rushing home I spent the next few hours struggling to assemble myself and look like those ethereal creatures I was trying to emulate. What in the name of the goddess did they do with all those yards of fabric? The next ceremony was imminent so I put on a t-shirt with a little sleeve, wrapped myself several times around with the sarong fabric, tied it, tucked it, and hoped it would remain secure. I was lumpy but less conspicuous than before.

This time I noticed that all the women wore a blouse of a similar style, and many of them were made of colorful lace. The next day I returned to the market and left with a stunning golden lace kebaya and a matching satin sash.  

Back at home I tried on my ensemble. When I donned the lacey kebaya dismaying amounts of naked flesh were visible between my bra and my sash. The Balinese women had no flesh showing. What was I missing? For the next ceremony I added a tank-top under the lace for modesty and set out determined to get this figured out once and for all! Discreetly I peered more closely at what was going on under the beautiful, Balinese kebayas. What gave them that sculpted elegance I had failed to achieve? Where were their lumps? I was horrified to discover that these amazing women who, less than 50 years ago roamed bare-breasted and free, had succumbed to being sausaged into that chamber of torture, the Victorian CORSET! Just then I felt my sarong begin to unwind and slide down my hips.

The following day I stepped into the shop of a tailor whose exquisite kebayas hung on display in the window. I asked her if she sold corsets. She was not familiar with the term but employing a few gestures we came to an understanding. “Mona Lisa,” she stated, as if that ended the conversation. “Mona Lisa?” I echoed. “This,” and I gestured again wrapping my hands around my ribs and squeezing, ” is Mona Lisa?” She assured me it was and that she did not sell the exotic undergarment.

So my search began. With each failed attempt to locate what I wanted I grew more determined to own one. Finally, in a remote shop in Ubud, I found a woman who sold corsets. I knew I was going to be spending far more than the kebaya, sarong and sash put together, but this was THE piece de resistance! The corset vendor explained that there were three qualities: economy quality, better quality, and THE Mona Lisa. I tried the economy model first. The itchy lace ripped as she was securing it around me. We moved up to better quality. The zipper broke half way up my ribcage. Then with reverence she removed Mona Lisa from its tissue wrapper. I felt the smooth silkiness of it caressing my body. She hooked it and zipped it. The stays lifted me out of my dumpiness. I was pushed upward, outward and transformed. At that point I would have paid anything. I felt gorgeous. But I regained presence of mind enough to make a slight negotiation of the price and left with my prize.

Yesterday I wore my very own Mona Lisa for the first time. Even though vanity would normally deter me from posting the ‘before’ version, I feel it is essential to illustrate the absolute necessity of THE undergarment.

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BEFORE…t-shirt with sarong…lumps and bumps.

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AFTER…Mona Lisa…need I say more!

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