So, dear soul-sister, about your shit…

Image result for Wading in shit

So, dear soul sister, about your shit…

Or maybe that’s too abrupt. Let me explain…

I owe many of the articles I write to the quirky friends I’ve made in Bali. The reasons we choose this island are different for each of us. But I’m drawn like a sugar-seeking ant to those sweet women who, like me, don’t shy away from intense inner work.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all about issues, tendencies, addictions, and destructive patterns that resurface in a different disguise just when we think we’ve conquered them once and for all. When mutual trust and respect pave the way for sharing at this level there is an equal and opposite reaction toward lasting friendships and insane fun. Balance. Bali is all about balance.

With that introduction, allow me to begin again.

So, dear soul sister, about your shit…

Bali magnifies and accelerates the processing of shit.
Maybe it’s the heat, or the multitude of busy spirits, or the daily abundance of prayers and offerings to maintain equality between the light and the dark – or all of the above.

Whatever it is, your shit will come up here, bigger and stinkier, until you own it, embrace it, and make peace with it – until you love your shit as much or more than you love your sane, sensible, enlightened self.

How do you do it – the owning and embracing?

Make a shit altar – a beautiful shit shrine.
Make a representation of every shitty thing you imagine about yourself and place it on that altar. (I would avoid real excrement – just FYI.)

For example, if you are stubbornly attached to some destructive behavior, maybe write the name of that behavior on a rock and stick chewing gum to it.
If you think you’re not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, whatever enough, put a photo of yourself flat on the altar and set an empty bowl on top of it – leave your face exposed so you have to look at your poor, empty self.

Many gurus advocate writing your shit down and burning it.
I say, face it head on, day in and day out, honor it and celebrate it. Have fun with it.

You get my drift?

Burn incense to your shit.
Make offerings to your shit.
Talk to it.

Let your shit stare you in the face until it makes you laugh.

When a breakthrough comes, change the representation of that piece of shit on the altar. Maybe the rock, in time, becomes a precious gem stone; the bowl fills to overflowing and you’re standing tall on top of it.

Remember that all those shitty things happened because a little girl, who still lives inside you, didn’t know how to separate truth from lies, she didn’t know that the things she suffered were not her fault, she took all the blame.

When you can weep for the little girl and have compassion for how hard she tried, what a strong little fighter she was, you can begin to love yourself.

Shit matters.

This may sound ridiculous but it works. It puts substance to the demons and forces you to confront them. It allows you to interact with them in the physical dimension. It brings humor into an otherwise dark equation. It is ritual, which is essential to our well being but has basically been lost in our superior Western culture, which, viewed from this place of immense beauty and profound healing, doesn’t look so superior at all.

Advertisements

To Risk Being Disturbed and Changed

12472759_1990189647873393_7926401586331771740_n

 

 

From A Morning Offering
by John O’Donohue

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fears no more.

 

 

Bali, steeped in ritual, alive equally to the seen and the unseen, demands offerings.

I came here to ‘break the dead shell of yesterdays’. I had no idea what lay ahead for me but I wanted a life that I would love and I had a shadowy dream of what that might look like.

I noticed the offerings first. How quaint, I thought. How pretty. Weeks later in a small village I saw others that were not lovely. They held dark, partially burned objects. Women in trance danced beside them, swaying, eyes closed. An involuntary shudder rippled head to toe. In an instant it was clear that I was living on the face of things, lost in the romance of paradise while another reality roiled and churned just out of sight.

It’s that Bali I’ve grown to love. I’m still smitten with the enchantments of her beautiful face, but I’m no longer naive. The Balinese devote hours every day making prayers and offerings to spirits both dark and benign. This, they believe, maintains balance between the worlds. Since they operate in both realms simultaneously, that balance is essential. Unlike Western consciousness grounded in the seen, Bali-mind is equally at home with the physical earth and the spirits at play here.

I’ve been ‘disturbed and changed’ by the tremendous power of this island. People ask me, Do you believe all that? And I answer, How can I not? I’ve experienced her transforming fire first hand and I’ve watched as others fall prey to her spell. A friend commented recently that Bali is a karmic accelerator. That’s a piece of it, but it’s much more. If you stay any length of time you’ll see. Bali intensifies character good or bad, manifests intention, spawns creativity, and rearranges beliefs. If you merge with her flow she’ll nurture you. But if you cross her, beware. You’ve no idea what demons you’ve summoned!

 

 

Image

THE LONELINESS DEBATE

*

Lonesome. Lonely. What’s the difference?

My Aussie and British friends say there’s no difference. If you’re lonesome then, by default, you’re lonely. I disagree.  I’ve not once been lonely since I arrived in Bali early in 2012. I do, however, from time to time miss my daughters and other family members back in the USA. A wave of lonesome washes over me. Then Ketut appears, or Wayan, or Nina, or any of a vast assortment of Balinese and expat friends and the moment passes.

It hasn’t always been like this. I know how lonely feels and for years I avoided being alone even though some of the loneliest times of my life were with mismatched others.

In this communal culture I have to work hard to be lonely, or even to be alone. Today is Kuningan, the end of the twice yearly, ten day celebration dedicated to ancestral spirits. At 9:00 a.m. Ketut appears in his sarong with food offerings. Bananas, snakefruit, peanuts, various kinds of Balinese home-made sweet treats, rice, a sugary milk drink in a small bottle, are heaped on a palm leaf plate and placed on my kitchen cooktop for those spirits.

P1110080

P1110081

P1110082

P1110084 He lights incense and prays for the blessings of the ancestors, abundance, safety, good health, long life.

Two round bamboo talismans secured to my terrace will ward off negative spirit energy. For the prior nine days these symbols have been rectangular in shape. Today they’re replaced by round ones, a significant difference indicating completion, fulfillment, and the circular nature of life.

Prayers and offerings complete, we chat briefly and Ketut leaves.

Fifteen minutes later he’s back with a morning treat. One item on the plate is a mysterious concoction of chocolate, rice flour, palm sugar, banana, all mashed together, wrapped in a palm leaf, and formed into a Balinese tootsie-roll! Yum!

I’m snacking when Ketut pops in again…

That’s what I mean. With these pop-ins there’s always laughter. Either I’m trying to convince the hard-headed Leo of something that he’s dead-set against, smiling at me as he disagrees, or he’s cracking a joke.

A neighbor stops by in full Kuningan regalia, sarong, kebaya, Mona Lisa, for a quick hello. About that time my phone sings the message jingle and another neighbor wants to come for an afternoon chat. Every day is some variation on this theme.

Of course the sheer number of interactions per day doesn’t guarantee anything. But that isn’t the question posed here.

So tell me please, who’s right? Is there a distinct difference between lonesome and lonely, or is it just one of those cultural misunderstandings that American English has with the Queen’s English and we’re both right in our own obstinate ways?

7400 Spirits

Clouds shroud the mountainsides of Abang Songan village as we proceed with solemn purpose toward the cemetery.

Ketut’s father died last June. He was buried and an elaborate, day long ceremony was performed at his grave. But the Hindu population of Bali believes that the spirit stays near the family and remains active and restless until it’s freed by the rituals of a firey cremation.

Cremation is one of the most spectacular and costly events that occurs in Bali. To help those with limited funds provide this essential send-off for their loved ones, a mass cremation is held once every five years. It spreads the expense over many families, and makes available to all this otherwise prohibitive ritual.

That time had come in Ketut’s village. At his invitation, seven of us left Ubud at 8:30 a.m. to make the hour and a half trip into the mountains as perhaps the first ever foreigners to witness this ceremony in his village.

With patient help from Ketut I have attempted to reconstruct the day and some of the beliefs and practices around this most important event. But he will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know everything. The holy Sriempu Pedanda are the keepers of knowledge. Nine of them are required here today, three to represent each clan, and they will attend to ceremonial protocol.

What follows is specific to Abang Songan. These particulars may not exist in any other village as each municipality brings its own flavor, history, and tradition to bear on observances such as these.

P1090702

One of our group snaps a shot as this part of the procession begins. The women carry offerings of food on their heads. The gifts are beautifully garbed in double sarongs of white and yellow cloth.

P1090709

Uniformed gamelan players assemble.

P1090697

Kadek (our exceptional driver for the trip) dresses Omar in traditional garb.

P1090711

Roasted pig on a stick is an offering of food to appease and distract the dark spirits so they won’t cause the people carrying the heavy bulls, or the tower, to stumble. The man in the red shirt cradles a fabric wrapped box containing a carved wooden doll that symbolizes the deceased.

P1090717

It’s perhaps a mile, maybe more, that we walk together. The road is a trail that takes a steep plunge as we near the cemetery.

P1090724

At the bottom of the hill at last, the canopy sheltering a red bull comes into sight.

Bali operates on a hierarchy of castes and clans. The largest percentage of Balinese are Sudra, and that is the only caste represented here today. But there are three clans, the Tangkas, the Pande which was Ketut’s father’s clan, and the Pasek. It’s essential to the Balinese Hindus that the caste and clan distinctions are maintained in the rituals of death as in life. The members of each clan can only be burned in a bull with other members of the same clan.

In Ubud, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed, cleaned, and shrouded in white for the cremation. In Abang Songan, if the dead cannot be cremated immediately, they’re buried and they remain buried. Instead of a corpse or bones, the family carves a human likeness from a small piece of sandalwood to symbolize their loved one. This effigy is placed inside a box along with 200 coins. Ketut says that every person is born with 200 spirits. Each coin is for one of them. Once the box contains the doll and the coins, it’s wrapped in white cloth. Dark spirits are repelled by white but as an added level of security, inscriptions are written on the fabric and inside the box with further instructions and warnings to discourage unwanted supernatural activity.

Abang Songan has a cavernous community building. One week before the cremation, thirty-seven boxes, each representing someone who has died in the past five years, are placed there along with the offerings that will accompany them to the cemetery. I get the idea from Ketut’s narrative that keeping 7400 spirits present and accounted for is no small task. Three days before the cremation, more small offerings are brought to the building, three for each of the deceased. They’re tapped on the ground three times which brings the spirits hustling to sample the offerings. The priests intervene, praying and calling the spirits back to their boxes. When all have gathered, the boxes and offerings are doused with holy water that has been collected from the seven main temples in Bali, and the ritual cleansing is complete.

P1090750

I took this photo of Ketut’s father shortly before he passed and it is lovingly carried by his family throughout the day.

Four bulls, one for the clan Tangkas, one for Pasek, and two for Pande, began their journey to the cemetery early in the morning carried on platforms of criss-crossed bamboo poles by an army of strong, young men. The Padma tower that will transport the deceased followed the bulls, but at midpoint between the community building and the cemetery it halted to await the arrival of the dead. Back at the building, the boxes were retrieved and each one was held by a family member on the slow walk to the tower. They approached and a long sheet of white fabric was lifted high overhead. The bearers with their boxes proceeded slowly beneath this canopy and up a wooden stairway. At the top they handed their boxes to the priests who stowed them inside the tower for the last half of the journey.

Upon arrival at the cemetery, the protective cloth was again held high as the boxes were transferred from the tower to the bull that represented each ones caste and clan.

P1090733

At the cemetery, the parcels are taken out of the tower, handed back to the family, and transferred to the appropriate bull, again under the protection of the long cloth.

P1090774

The tower with its Garuda wings and its bamboo platform can only be used once. After it has served to transport the dead, it’s burned.

P1090777

Sometime in the afternoon a shower erupts. But a little rain doesn’t put a damper on the smiles.

P1090769

This girl’s mother insisted I photograph her beautiful daughter. Balinese women in their temple finery know they look good and are not shy about posing and asking you to be sure to post their photo on Facebook.

P1090755

Offerings are piled under the bull, four offerings for each one of the deceased represented in this clan. The back of the bull has been sliced open and filled with the white wrapped boxes of the dead.

P1090784

A pile of offerings awaits while white clad priests move among the families grouped around this bull, blessing and sprinkling holy water. Trash collects on the ground and awaits the clean-up crew that will descend when all is complete.

P1090757

Fire starts with the red bull as the crowd pushes away from the searing heat.

P1090765

The other three are ignited and soon the mountainside is ablaze.

P1090792

As the fires die down a female Pedanda rings the bell and chants prayers.

P1090794

The title of Sriempu Pedanda is bestowed only after death, Ketut tells me. Following years of study, the Pedanda in training is wrapped in a shroud as though dead, and carried on a bamboo platform to the temple. The initiate is left there without food or water for three days, then unwrapped. If the person is still alive after this symbolic death, he or she has earned the right to serve the people in this holy capacity.

For us, it was over. Kadek had the car waiting at the top of the brutal hill that we’d slipped and slid down on the final approach to the cemetery. Now upon leaving, climbing back up challenged our gluts to the max. After walking the distance to the cemetery, then standing for hours because the ground was too wet to sit on, Kadek’s car felt like a luxury limousine. He shuttled us to Ketut’s family compound, and because we had been with the dead, a ceremonial cleansing was performed before we were allowed through the entrance gate. Purified, we were welcomed in and invited to sit on mats on the terrace.  Bali kopi and cakes appeared, then  sweet, creamy Nescafe and more treats. The Balinese ascribe to the old adage: Life’s short, eat dessert first!

There had been some tentative questions by our guests early in the day about dining etiquette and more specifically, how to politely decline offerings of food. That was eight hours ago and most hadn’t had a bite of anything since breakfast. Dinner appeared, heaping mounds of rice and vegetables, Lake Batur fish, corn fritters, a bowl of crispy tempe manis, and it disappeared almost as quickly as it came, with groans of pleasure and exclamations of delight. Second helpings were begged and the round-cheeked face of Ketut’s mother beamed pure happiness.

After a tour of the wood carving shop, a peek into the family temple, and a volley of photos of majestic Mt. Abang in the distance, our little troupe headed home with reruns of an anthropologist’s dream rolling in our heads.

But the ritual for Ketut was far from over. He remained at the cemetery with his brothers, and as the ashes cooled families sifted through them. Handfuls were scooped up and put into the shells of coconuts, wrapped in new white and yellow fabric, and taken to another cemetery by the river. There the ground was struck three times with the nuts again summoning the spirits back. Presents of food offerings were made to further entice them. Upon leaving that cemetery, the fabric that dressed the coconuts was removed and replaced with fresh new cloth. “Must have clean shirt,” Ketut said.

The next day the coconuts were on the move again, this time to the beach. The long white cloth reappeared and the remains were moved beneath the trailing fabric held high by willing hands, into a new tower for their ride to the sea. There, nuts and ashes were pitched into the water. “Before beach, body and spirit,” Ketut said. “After beach, just spirit.”

7400 spirits are once again on the loose and 200 coins reappear on the scene. New white and yellow fabric is folded and stacked. One family member is handed the cloth and it’s touched three times by the string of 200 coins. That person carries it to the five small temples nearby. Each step of each temple is touched three times by the fabric. At the end, the person takes three steps backward and summons the spirits back to the white cloth.

But it isn’t over yet.

Now the entire entourage pilgrimages to Besakih, the mother temple on Mt. Agung. There, at the most sacred site on Bali, the family prays. Ketut says, “We tell god at Besakih we want to bring spirits home. Already cremation, already purified at beach, already visit small temples.” Prayers at Besakih, with the priests in attendance, go on until just before dawn. When this production of grand proportion and significant spiritual impact is finally over, Ketut tells me that he forgets he had a father. He will not even dream of him again.

I’m shocked at the harsh sounding words and I argue. “Of course you’ll remember him! I’ll always remember him. He was a great man.”

He looks at me with a soft smile and eyes older than time. “It’s okay,” he says.

 

 

Banking in Bali – not for wimps

I procrastinated, mind muddled with indecision, putting it off, putting it off. In the U.S. a trip to the bank is a tidy business. Everybody speaks English. People specialize. You’re questioned and funneled to the appropriate desk. There isn’t a lot of room for creativity so it either can, or it cannot be done. End of conversation, thank you very much, and you’re on your way.

Indonesian banking doesn’t ascribe to that model.

I wanted to close one account and open another. But something in the back of my brain prompted me to be sure I allotted enough time, and I should probably run through my Indonesian vocab before I ventured into something beyond deposits and withdrawals.

On Wednesday this week, stamina summoned, resolve fortified, I finally decided that the time had come.

SecurityDay 1:

A security guard opens the door to the bank, greets me, and asks my business. I tell him, in Indonesian, that I wish to speak to Putu, my personal banker. I’m invited to take a number and have a seat. When Putu sees me she motions me to her desk. I tell her what I want to do.

“Yes, of course.” She flashes a gorgeous but professional smile. “You have passport?”

“Not with me.”

Her smile turns to a most apologetic frown. “Oh, sorry Ibu, must have passport to change account.” I thank her and leave.

Twenty minutes.

Day 2:

I have a meeting in the morning so the trip to the bank will have to wait until afternoon. Ketut gets me there  around 2:00. The bank closes at 3:00. Plenty of time.

The security guard routine is always the same. I greet him and he ushers me straight to Putu’s desk.

“Hello Ibu, you have passport now?” I assure her that I do.

“And social security number?”

“Social security number?”

“Yes, new law, July 2014, U.S. citizen must have social security number on bank account.”

“Okay, I know my number, let me write it down.”

“Oh no, Ibu, must have card.” My mind does a random search of its memory banks and I see the card, tucked into the Birth Certificates and Marriage Licenses folder, in a file drawer in Minnesota.

“Not possible,” I tell her. But the brain, still grinding for solutions, remembers that I have my tax returns in a Word Document on my computer which I happen to have with me since I needed it for the meeting. “My social security number is on the computer. Maybe you can look?”

She agrees. I pull up the tax return and there they are, the nine digits that identify me to the IRS no matter where I might be in the world. Putu locates her iphone, takes a picture of the document on the computer screen and asks me to, “Wait moment.” She leaves her desk. Fifteen minutes later she re-appears. “So sorry to make you wait. I must send to main branch in Denpasar. If they approve then it’s okay. But sorry, Ibu, not possible today. Bank is closing.”

One hour.

At 9:00 p.m. that night I received a text from Putu. My unorthodox presentation of the social security number had passed muster. If I would come back tomorrow we could proceed with my request.

Day 3:

I’m on a first name basis with the security guard and he waves me though without comment. Putu introduces me to another banker who will do the paperwork. Kadek is all business. Within minutes there is a formidable stack of forms in front of her. She pulls them out at random, filling in a little here, a little there, shuffling them, stacking them, unstacking them. Settling into the chair I shove my Western brain under the rug and take out my evolving Indonesian brain. It’s the one that says, “Tidak apa-apa,” No problem, about every inconvenience that arises no matter what.

With that letting go I become aware of the spice-sweet scent of incense. A young man in a sarong is making his way through the bank with a tray of small offerings. I hadn’t noticed before, but every desk and teller booth has a footed stand. He places one of the fragrant gifts on each, sprinkles it with holy water, then with hand movements more graceful than I’ve seen on any dancer, he entices smoke from the incense to waft upward toward the deities. I love this, I tell myself, as I float a million miles away from bank accounts.

footed offering platesAnd then something else catches my attention. All the personal bankers are women. The tellers are women. And the manager who hovers in the background with a name tag indicating her superior status, is a woman. The offerings are being made by a man, often a woman’s role. Balinese reality is shifting and in this case, in a positive direction.

At that point, Kadek places the forms in front of me and I land with a thump back into banking world. As she gracefully indicates the blanks for signatures I’m reminded of my years in real estate sales: sign here, and here, and here please, then here, and I’ll need your initials on all 256 pages…

Two hours and 30 minutes.

When I leave the bank, relief lifts me like a helium balloon. It’s done, and it only took three days, three hours, and fifty minutes. Not bad. Not bad at all. Tidak apa-apa.

Off With Their Heads!

After the bizarre ferris wheel ride in the middle of godforsaken nowhere that followed a day of new experiences one after another, I’m exhausted. My roommate is still with her peers at the fair so I have our small room to myself, well almost. The scritch-scratch begins. “Oh no,” I moan as I whip the fuzzy blanket over my head and begin breathing my own fumes. I determine that whatever it is, it WILL NOT touch my skin, not tonight. The noises go on and on and I lay tense and waiting for the inevitable skitter of feet across some body part.

Then the tell-tale rustling stops. “Great,” I groan, “I know you’re just waiting for me to uncover my head and you’ll pounce!” I lay corpse-like, head sweating and hair plastered across my eyes and lips. “Enough already! I’ve had it! I’m done with this game. Go ahead, run over my face, see if I care!” I fling off the offending headcovering and lay listening once again. Still nothing. It takes me about two and a half seconds to fall asleep.

The morning alarm blasts through a dream. I return to my home in Ubud and Pasek greets me full of excitement. The new kitchen has been finished in my absence. He proudly leads me to it. It looks a bit like this, windows crooked, everything cartoonish.

I tell Ketut about the nightmare. “Oh,” says the wise one, “Bad dream mean kitchen good.” He thinks for a minute then adds, “If good dream, then maybe kitchen bad.” Yin yang. Balance. I thank him and suggest that he check on things. He has to go back to Ubud for a few hours today. I’m staying behind to avoid the three hour round trip on the motorbike. He says he will check.

The morning routine is the same as yesterday, but after breakfast, a woman with a box of footed red offering plates wheels in on a motorbike. She’s followed by a virtual army of others, arms full of supplies, long palm fronds, baskets full of flowers, fruits, moss, and a myriad assortment of necessities. Soon they’re thirty strong sitting on the low tables under the blue tarp. Their fingers fly.

In another corner the bloody business of butchering chickens is hidden from view. Unlike a pig slaughter, chickens are silent martyrs and the men are experts. Short work is made of the slim neck. Then the bird is held over a bowl to collect the blood and flung, still fully feathered, into a big, blue bucket. When it’s filled, the bucket moves to the next crew and the bird is neatly denuded. Rows of plucked bodies are strung on long skewers ready for the barbecue pit.

I pick my way through woodchips and bits and discover another enclave of men gathered around chopping blocks. These fellows are cutting up the onions and garlic that I, and hosts of others, spent hours peeling yesterday. But it’s not just garlic, onions, and chilies. There are warty roots, I’m guessing ginger, maybe turmeric, and medicinal looking leaves going into the mix. I smile, shoot a photo, and follow a basin of the chopped mix up the stairs. It’s dumped into a stone bowl and a tall, lean gent commences pulverizing it with a mallet.

The man and woman power represented here to prepare for a child’s birthday party, makes anything a normal family in the States might do look downright skimpy.

In mid-afternoon Ketut returns with a story that my dream was right. The kitchen is completed. “Wait you look-look,” he says with an evil grin. We both know that isn’t possible. I have a good laugh with Ketut at his wry, Balinese humor.

The women are finished. A buffet lunch is spread on outdoor tables. They fill their plates and relax, laughing and joking with each other. When the last bite is consumed, they file out of the compound and head home.

P1060338

About this time a bucket of fish goes by. They’re dumped out on boards and heads, fins, and tails get the axe. But that’s it. The bones are left in as the body of the fish is chopped into mush by serious looking knives. Minced bones and flesh are now united with the herb and spice mixture and fresh grated coconut to make the spicy satays that I love.

When the last stick of satays is roasted to a turn, the men are fed and they go home.

I’m summoned into the small room that has been decked out for the ceremony. Already a holy man is seated on the platform. Draped fabrics in red, purple and gold create the backdrop for the plates and mounds of offerings that I watched being made just hours ago. This is where I need my sarong but the borrowed one from Komang works fine. One size fits all when it’s just a two meter length of fabric!

The ceremony takes less than an hour. Children come in to stare for a few minutes then leave. Incense fills the room. The holy man rings the bell in a continual clanging and chants prayers as Komang and Ketut perform the rituals they’ve been taught from birth.

I have so many thoughts. First in mind, I’m embarrassed to admit, is the problem of having so much food in one’s bedroom. On the plus side, the critter that visited me the past two nights probably won’t bother when presented with this smorgasbord! But the ants? The sweet kue will attract hoards of them. And what about flies?

I banish those unholy imaginings and soak in the magnitude of the past three days. Ketut appears. “Finished?” I ask. He looks happy.

“Until tomorrow,” he says.

“What happens tomorrow?” Fair question, right?

“Oh, again for my brother, but this time dance.”

“Huh?”

“Ya. Brother’s baby six month ceremony tomorrow but holy man say have dance.”

“Tomorrow?” I repeat, seeing this wilderness vacation stretching on endlessly before me.

“Ya. Gamelan, like before.” As he speaks we walk toward a light and voices. “Can stay?” he asks.

We round a corner and there are Ketut’s brothers and their wives seated under the bare light bulb with a lone bottle of beer in the center of their small circle. They’re woodcarvers and though they’ve worked constantly all day long preparing for the ceremony, the job that makes money is carving.

I happen to know that neither Ketut nor his brothers drink alcohol. It’s expensive, and as Ketut tells me, “Too strong.” But a guest brought several bottles to the gathering today and the carvers are sharing one.

We leave the jovial group and I tell Ketut that of course I want to stay for his brother’s ceremony and the dance. What a privilege, what an honor, what an exquisite glimpse into a time and place that most Western eyes have never seen.

My roommate appears and we enter our little house together. She drops to the floor, rolls in her blanket, and is asleep. I turn off the light, grope for my sleepwear with one ear tuned for the scratch-scratch, and slide into bed. As I suspected, the ferreting varmint has better pickings elsewhere and I’m left in peace. Sleep descends.

Building a House in Bali – “Check with the holy man…”

Last night on the back of Pasek’s motorbike, ears flapping in the wind, din of traffic drowning out the words, he said, “Tomorrow ceremony for house.” Had I heard him correctly?

“My house?” I shouted back at him.

“Ya. My wife bring offerings,” he said.

I’ve been waiting for this moment for what seems like forever. Weeks ago, Pasek and Dewa, the two men who are handling the project, sat down with the Balinese calendar to find an auspicious day to begin. Then a holy man was consulted just to make sure we had it right.

P1050780

Five auspicious days were identified in March, and the 12th was the most beneficent of the lot. But like every month on this beautiful, Hindu island, March is littered with ceremonial days culminating in the granddaddy of them all, Nyepi. When there are ceremonies, there are no workers. They all go to their own villages to observe the customs and rituals required. There’s no arguing with that, it’s just the way it is.

So the announcement on the motorbike was good news, great news in fact. But it left me no time to prepare. And even if I had time, I had no idea what was expected of me. So I did what I’m getting very good at doing here…nothing.

This morning dawned sunny and gorgeous. Awake with the chickens, I heard puttering outside. Pasek had arrived early to affix the small temple to the side of the wall in the garden. I scurried out to greet him and find out what, when, and how this was all going to unfold. “Start maybe ten o’clock,” he said. Maybe was the operative word.

“What should I do?” I really had no idea.

“Up to you,” he said. To anyone who has ever had the pleasure of knowing a Balinese person, that’s a very familiar phrase.

P1050820

I took time to dress in temple clothes. I set out glasses and Bali coffee. I sent out some invites via text messages to friends and neighbors who might be interested to pop in on such short notice. And then I waited. And waited. Ten o’clock stretched to eleven. The sky was darkening overhead and moist air hung heavy and still. At last, down the trail came Pasek’s wife and daughter.

P1050831

Following close behind them, an elderly priest appeared in a sarong and udeng.

Unlike me, Pasek’s wife knew exactly what to do. When she removed the cover from the basket full of offerings she had made, I was stunned. There were mounds of white rice and flowers in palm baskets for the small temple, and black rice and flowers for the earth, each one a work of art. There was incense, holy water, and fruit. A lump came in my throat. It was beautiful.

Someone spread a bamboo mat on the earth. The priest climbed up the terraced bank and piled offerings on the small temple. He sat and prayed, sprinkling holy water and chanting as sweet incense plumed upward. Then it was my turn. I knelt on the mat and the priest placed a palm basket of flowers in front of me. It’s a routine I’ve done before and this time it felt comfortably familiar…flowers in prayer hands, flowers flicked into the air, flowers tucked behind the ears, flowers on top of the head. Water in cupped hands, sip three times and sprinkle the fourth on your head. Sticky rice in the middle of the forehead, sticky rice on each temple, rice on the chest, then the top of the head. Now eat a few grains and, poof! You’re done!

During the ceremony, the hole digger, who had come before any of the others arrived, continued to hammer away at the concrete and remove earth. By the time we were finished he was about waist deep. He continued into the afternoon until the hole was as deep as he was tall. The foundation has to withstand frequent earth tremors, but I had no concept of what that meant until today. Ketut lowered offerings into the depths of the pit. A sprinkling of holy water, and my foundations were blessed.

Many times throughout the morning I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I don’t pretend to understand the ways of the Balinese, but I am moved by the kindness and the care they have shown me. The offerings today will ensure that my home is protected and safe. The prayers will keep the workers happy, strong, and clear headed during the building process. My participation creates a bond between me and the land.

Pasek’s family came by motorbike from Kintamani, an hour and a half away, to perform these rites for me. They wouldn’t have had to. I’m a foreigner. That’s a get-out-of-jail-free card in Bali. I don’t have to observe the religious requirements that they do. I’m not bound by the same code. But it seems I’ve been adopted and that changes the game. Things just get done for me, things that smooth the path and balance the energies. It’s so much more interesting than, well, for instance building a house in America. I can just hear the contractor saying, “I’ll check with the holy man and get back to you….”

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.

P1030641

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.

P1030557

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

P1030569

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.

P1030582

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.

P1030631

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

P1030637

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?!”

P1030622

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:

P1030701

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

P1030688

Adorable! And she knows it!

P1030648

Three young boys deep in discussion

P1030644

Granny and her little tiger

P1030643

A colorful family that just wanted their photo taken

P1030634

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

P1030635

Total sweetness!

P1030640

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.

P1030633

I don’t want to be picked up!

P1030608

Giraffe? These animal jackets are very popular!

P1030558

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!

P1030663

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

P1030670

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!

Yoga and the Invasion of the Semut

I wake up invigorated. The yoga platform is calling me. As the rising sun’s rays sift through banana leaves I do my 24 sun salutations, 12 on each side. Then tree pose, I move slowly from tree into king dancer without putting my foot on the ground, then stork. (Do you know stork? I made it up!) I complete my regular 40 minute routine, meditate staring into the flashing iridescence of a crystal, give thanks, receive blessings, and feel fabulous. Today is Kuningan, the ceremonial last day of the Hindu celebrations honoring the ancestors. The air is supercharged, sweet with incense and the prayers of the devout.

I gather up my mat and step…oops! What the…? Instead of stepping, I leap off the last stair over a swarming mass. There is a black line stretching from the front door to the back yard, but it seems to have a roundabout right under that step. Mass congestion…traffic jam! It appears that I have been invaded by semut…ants to us in the west. This is unacceptable. My adrenalin spikes. I grab the bamboo straw broom and haul away, brushing furiously to and fro.

My sweeping is utterly ineffective. No sooner are the persistent critters ousted, then 2000 more take their place. There was a storm the other night, a really big storm. I think these semut are homeless. I know Ibu has a can of HIT with pictures of vile insects that it promises to eradicate. I’m desperate. She’s moved it from its usual hiding place. I run to the storage area in the back of the house and, sure enough! Sneaky Ibu! I grab the spray and race back. I’ve been gone just long enough for the entire line to reassemble, as though nothing had happened at all.

When Ibu came later with offerings for Kuningan, I was the picture of contented peace. The deadly HIT can was back in its hiding place. (I don’t think she wants me to know she uses the vicious stuff!) And the bodies had been ceremoniously trashed. She decorated the house with beautiful dream-catcher like weavings, piles and piles of fruit offerings, and her secret incense that smells like cloves.

The house altar decorated for Kuningan

The house altar decorated for Kuningan

Then we sat staring at the garden, talking about the price of onions, and eating tape (tah-pay), the fermented rice dish, slightly alcoholic, that she always makes for this day.

The front terrace

We sat on the bench on the front terrace

My yard in the jungle

Staring at the jungle that Ibu chops back to keep from losing the yard

My front door decorated for Kuningan

Ibu’s beautiful dreamcatchers decorate the front door for Kuningan

Through this doorway is a perfect view of the semut trail. See the bottom step leading up to the platform? Yup! The roundabout is right under it. Who knew? But no more…at least not until time and traffic wear away the toxic remedy. I feel like such a traitor! But there are no organic solutions in rural Ubud. I’ve seen a few measly semut carry off an entire gecko and I have no doubt that 2000 of them could make short work of my carcass. So there’s no cohabitating with with the little buggers. Its them or me, and as long as I can find Ibu’s stash, I have the advantage.

And…The Woman In My Kitchen

I’ll get to the woman in my kitchen, but first: Galungan. There is no translation for that word. It is what it is, a sequence of days in the life of Balinese Hindus that represent weeks of preparation, the assembling of massive penjors to adorn the streets, and elaborate offerings. The belief is that the spirits of the ancestors visit their original homes during this time. Extensive offerings are made in observence of their return. Offerings are also made on the graves of family members who have died and have not yet been cremated. Business slows to a crawl, schools are closed, and the village concentrates on the events surrounding this sacred period.

Ibu informed me early that my house offerings this week would be “Mahal!” (expensive) because of Galungan. Expensive. When I quizzed her for exact numbers, the typical $3.50/week for the beautiful creations that she places around the house and yard every day would be a whopping $5.00. I happily shelled out the additional rupiah and eagerly awaited the auspicious date.

She had drawn an elaborate diagram on the tablecloth with her finger showing me exactly where each offering would be placed and how many were required at each location. How do the woman keep all the endless details of the hundreds of ceremonies tucked neatly away in their heads? I have seen Ibu studying the Balinese calendar hanging on my wall. Every Balinese home  and place of business has one. In the west, we pencil our appointments and ‘to dos’ in the blank space around the dates. Not so on the Balinese calendar. It’s filled in for you.

P1030138

Balinese Calendar for March

I’m guessing there may be some hints in the massive amounts of information contained in this document that would help jog the memory. It doesn’t help mine!

But back to Galungan…

I watched as the 67 year old woman made her way along the path to my house. She was in full ceremonial dress, but her sarong was wet up to the knees. Every morning she wades the river to come here. I knew the huge, square woven basket on her head was filled with gifts for the gods. Ibu began the process of sorting and arranging the offerings. Some have fruit. Bananas are an important offering ingredient for Galungan. All have flowers. And there are celophane packages of treats, cupcakes, doughnuts, peanut chips, and little vials of…could it be…jello?! After arranging the proper items in the offering bowls and trays, Ibu began.

Ibu sprinkling holy water

She dips the flower in the holy water and sprinkles each offering

The dining table offering

The dining table offering

The top of the refigerator offering

The top of the refigerator offering

The kitchen window offering (so only good things come in)

The kitchen window offering (so only good things come in)

The stove offering

The stove offering

Ibu was in the kitchen for a long time. When she finished, that tiny space had no less that four beautiful offerings. She completed her rounds, offerings at either side of both the back and front entrances to my home, the front and back yard, the altar, until the scent of incense was sweet and thick in the humid air.

Having completed the ritual she changed into her work clothes and again disappeared into the kitchen. This time when she emerged she had a treat for me. Pisang Lawi. I had never seen this dish before but it is now my favorite treat.

Pisang lawi, banana dumplings with fresh shaved coconut and a sprinkling of sea salt. TO DIE FOR!!!

Pisang Lawi, banana dumplings with fresh shaved coconut and a sprinkling of sea salt. TO DIE FOR!!!

We sat together on the platform, each with our heaping plate and steaming cup of Bali Kopi. A friend stopped by who has been in Bali much longer than I have and Ibu rushed to prepare the treat for her, too. She had never exprienced this particular dish before and gushed her enjoyment.

I could try to suggest that I, too, cook in my kitchen, but what I do is a sorry excuse. I heat up leftovers of the fabulous meals that others have prepared for me. I tried, I really did. And I’ll try again…maybe. But with experts who can whip up such things as this in a heartbeat, without scouring the internet for recipes, translating the ingredients into Indonesian, snagging a lift on the back of a motorbike to the market, then fumbling through the unfamiliar equipment that occupies my kitchen…I ask myself, why would I?

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: