A Violent Spirituality

The 17,000 islands that form Indonesia are located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. They’re peppered with volcanic mountains and shudder under frequent earth tremors.


This week, Paluweh on the very small island of Palu’e, east of Bali, erupted. Its incessant rumbling over past days alerted officials who evacuated most inhabitants to the nearby island of Flores. Six lives were lost.

Even though the map lists only two volcanic mountains on Bali, there are at least six. Mt. Agung last erupted in 1963-1964. Mt. Batur in 1968. The others have been dormant for hundreds of years. Hot springs dot the calderas of these sleeping giants, and a geo-thermal plant harvests the power from fiery regions below Mt. Bratan’s crust.
Earth’s dynamic unrest in this part of the world drives the energetic spirituality of Bali. The regions beneath the island paradise hold tremendous power. The Balinese understand, and daily tend to the balancing of energy through their rituals and offerings. They open their arms to spiritual practices from around the globe, and while the earth seethes, the air above vibrates with the hum of prayers, the movement of dance, and the ecstatic clang of gamelan.
I’ve noticed that mindfulness is easier in Bali. Being present is a way of life. Gratitude soaks into the pores and becomes perpetual. I’m struck by the differences now that I’ve been in the States for a few weeks. Now that jet-lag has passed, and culture shock has subsided to a degree, and my emotions have stabilized, I can think logically about what it is that feels so absent, what gets in the way of connection.
It’s the veneer. There’s a glossy coating on people in America that separates us. Maybe it’s competition, or power. Maybe it’s privilege, or sophistication, or make-up! But we’re isolated. Even walking down the sidewalk with hoards of others, we’re so alone. We are the casualties of progress, of technology, of narcissistic self-absorption.
In Bali I don’t go 10 steps without an interaction. Maybe it’s nothing more than a taxi driver on the street offering his services, but someone has spoken to me and I have the option to respond and thank him and inquire about his day. I have the option to connect. I find I like that. I need that. And I take advantage of those opportunities. It has opened the door to a different kind of life. The taxi drivers remember. They stop offering “Taksi!” and instead say “Good afternoon, how are you today?” and we visit for awhile.
The fragile brevity of life calls for more than just going through the motions. In the shadow of Mt. Agung, regal, serene, but deadly when aroused, there is a creative force that supports authenticity. It beckons, like these words by Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

…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.

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.

Volcanoes and Snakes and Bears, Oh My!

As a girl I loved to listen to Johnny Cash sing Ring of Fire in his scratchy voice. The lyrics produced Faustian images in my adolescent imagination. Here in the South Pacific I am becoming acquainted with another Ring of Fire. Indonesia is uncomfortably cradled between the Alpide Belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire. The two together account for about 96% of the world’s earthquakes. The Pacific Ring of Fire is also home to 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes. Bali boasts four of her own, Batur, Agung, Bratan, and Merbuk. Of the four, Batur is the most active erupting every few years. And that is the one that has all the hiking/trekking packages! Even if I had the proper gear, shoes, and stamina I don’t think I would even be tempted. The words from that Johnny Cash song, “I fell into a burning ring of fire, I went down, down down and the flames went higher.” kind of spoil it for me.

Photo of Mt. Batur copied from Bing Search Engine

Then there is Mt. Agung. This volcano is a little more stable. Only a few eruptions dating back to the early 19th century have been recorded from Agung. However the eruptions in 1963 were among the world’s largest and killed 2000 people. In spite of the ominous history there are daily tours to both of these sites and villages dot the mountainsides.

Photo of Mt. Agung copied from Bing Search Engine

Why do people want to do dangerous things and live in dangerous places? Two of my daughters (and millions of others) have chosen to reside in San Francisco at times in their lives. Those people experience regular earth tremors and yet they remain. And my other daughter lives in the jungle called New York City. Why?  The levels of adrenaline needed just to navigate the subway from point A to point B are probably off the charts.

Then there are the folks in rural Texas who encounter poisonous snakes coiled in unexpected places. Yet they walk through tall grasses and don’t bat an eyelash. A Texan friend and I were conversing one day in the 80’s. I was living in Texas then, and my friend had invited me to walk with her to see something at the other side of the meadow. “But, Karen,” my voice quivered. I  think I was trembling. “What about the snakes?”  She looked at me in disbelief. “But you’re from Minnesota,” she exclaimed and in her mind that seemed to settle the issue. I was confused, “And what’s your point?” I asked indignantly. She gave me the “Well Duh” look and putting her hands on her hips said, “The BEARS!” I guess its a matter of perspective. In spite of my superb resilience at being able to survive Minnesota bears, I did not join her on the hike across the meadow!

Photo copied from Bing Search Engine

%d bloggers like this: