Taking Tea with the Prince

 

I’ve had tea with the prince. My life is complete.

Several weeks ago I happened upon a construction site. Looking at it from the other side of a yawning gorge it appeared an ambitious project. I followed steep steps beside a waterfall to the bottom, crossed the bridge, and huffed and puffed my way up the equally steep steps to the top of the other side.

Construction site

I wondered if it was another new hotel being built for the booming tourism business here in Ubud. But there was no one to ask so I carefully picked my way through building materials. The project took on a more finished appearance as I progressed. Then suddenly before me was the entrance, a towering edifice with not one, but four tiers of carved Barong faces guarding against unwanted visitors, earthly or otherwise. I began to wonder if this might be a private home. The doorway was constructed in traditional Balinese style, but I have never seen embellishment of this refined detail, even at the Ubud Palace.

Entrance edifice

I crept up the steps to peek, just peek, through the gilded doors standing slightly ajar. In front of me, barring further view, was a splendid Ganesh. Should any of those said unwanted beings happen to pass the first line of defense, his placement directly in front of the entrance was guaranteed to finish the job. My curiosity insisted on seeing what lay beyond.

Ganesh

So I proceeded, and Ganesh didn’t seem to have a problem with that. The scene that met my eyes when I cleared the final barrier was like something out of a fairy tale, or a Disney theme park! On my right, 15′ stone maidens poured the contents of their jugs into terraced pools.  Between the maidens water cascaded over lapped panels of metal. The landscaping was a glorious profusion of Bali’s most exotic vegetation.

Fountain wall

There are few places where I’ve stared with my eyes bugging and my lower jaw gaping…the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Vatican…my standards are significantly elevated. It takes something pretty special to impress me. This gilded oasis at the end of the rice paddies definitely made the grade. After ogling shamelessly for several minutes, I tore myself away and went home. But I couldn’t get the images out of my mind.

So when I asked Ketut this morning if he wanted an adventure, my plan was to return and see what progress had been made in the past two weeks. We hopped on ‘Pink’ (a fitting name for his pearlized mauve colored motorbike) and were there in a matter of minutes. My jaw dropped again. I hadn’t glamorized it in my mind. If anything it had grown grander in two weeks. We strolled the path toward a group of workers installing a pair of dazzling chandeliers on the porch of the main structure. It would be good to ask permission to be there, I decided.

One of the men was obviously not a worker. His diamond encrusted watch probably cost more than a small oceanside villa, and the two rings he wore, one on each hand, would make Tiffany’s drool. Ketut had addressed one of the workmen but I approached the jewelry and said, “This is amazing. Who is the owner?” The man smiled benignly, almost humbly. “I am,” he said. Then he proceeded to introduce himself as Cok Wah and invited me to sit on the floor of his glistening black marble porch with him. He said a few quick words of Indonesian and I knew he had ordered drinks for Ketut and me. I quickly said, “Not necessary,” also in Indonesian. Again the beneficent smile. “I want you to feel welcome in my home,” was the gracious reply.

So I sat. And as we shared tea and Balinese sweet cakes, Prince Cok Wah told me about his father, the king of Ubud, and how he was building this palace to honor him. He seemed in no hurry to be anywhere else. He explained the two female statues flanking the gold bust of his father at the great entrance. They represented his father’s two wives, the women who had raised him and his five siblings. He talked about other plans he had for the unfinished portions of the project. Then, as I’ve often experienced with Balinese people, the conversation turned philosophical. We contemplated good and evil, light and darkness, and the necessity of maintaining balance in our lives. I kept checking in with myself to make sure this wasn’t some surreal dream, but the tea was wet, cake crumbs were accumulating in my lap, and I was sweating. In a dream I wouldn’t be sweating.

Two chandeliers dripping with crystal were being installed on the ‘front porch’

Then he told me that I would have to come back and see the palace after dark. “The lighting is automatic,” he said. “It comes on at 6 p.m.” He whipped out his iphone (seriously) and showed me pictures of the palace after dark. I told him I would like nothing better and made polite leave-taking noises. On the way out he took us behind the aquarium that is built into the entrance stairway. The aquatic scenery that appears to be in the tank itself is actually painted on the walls of the room behind it.

Aquarium after dark

Ketut had been uncharacteristically quiet during our tea party. As we putt-putted back home he told me that Cok Wah is a member of the Ksatriya Caste. In the Hindu system, they are the rulers. There are three Balinese languages, one for the lowest caste, one for the middle caste, and the most formal one for addressing royalty. Ketut admitted that he did not know the language well enough for addressing a person of Cok’s social status. Rather than insult the man he had opted for silence.

We did return to the palace after dark. Prince Cok Wah was still there. He greeted me by name and apologized that he had to leave but told us to stay as long as we wanted. Evidently a TV crew had been there about a month ago and filmed the palace extensively. The special program was due to air that night and he was going home to watch it. Before he left he escorted us into the compound and seemed terribly pleased to hear our exclamations of astonished awe. Then he was gone.

The main house

View of the entrance from the main house

Detailed carvings on the entrance edifice

The lighting effects on a dragon’s head

Steps ascending to the family temple

The family temple

Gilded woodcarving adorning the structure where important ceremonies are performed, weddings, cremations, tooth filings, and the like.

The pavilion for gamelan and Balinese dance performances is still under construction

We stayed a long time. The almost full moon watched as I took 164 photos. Ketut chatted with the security staff. When it just didn’t make sense to take another picture we found our way out of the magic kingdom, located Pink, and headed home. Ketut, faithful scout that he is, was eager to tell me what he had learned. Evidently the project has been underway for five years. So far it has cost over $80 million (that’s in U.S. dollars). It will take another year before it’s completed. On the back of the motorbike my jaw fell open for the final time today and I repeated the worn-out word that my lips have reverently breathed over and over and over again…

“WOW!”

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.

Come to Bali…just do it!

I have been MIA on my blog for a few days but certainly not missing any of the action in here ! So let me bring you up-to-date.

I love this sunrise walk to yoga. There is Mt. Agung, all pastels in the morning stillness. The path is embellished with intricate stone mosaics and colorful flags mark the approach. What a privilege to be able to do a yoga practice in such meditative surroundings.

This morning I was the first to arrive. It is incredibly peaceful at this hour, but someone has already been here to place offerings. An hour and a half of breath and poses later, I’m energized and ready for the day.

Today its a trip to Ubud Palace. There are many palaces in Ubud. The families who ruled in the past now have no political power but their social status is still recognized by the Balinese people.

Puri Saren Palace

These intriguing moss covered doorways are everywhere and lead from one tranquil garden to the next.

Carved figures abound, big breasted beasts with horrid teeth, winged serpents…

and just plain scary monster types like this one!

This stage on the palace grounds is ready and waiting. The gongs and xylophone type instruments are used for the gamelan music heard everywhere in Bali.

The ceilings of the buildings are intricately carved.

The most important ones are painted gold.

And there is always another pair of beautiful doors.

Walking home I pass a school where the children are outside in their sweet uniforms.

My evening is a much different experience from the day’s activities. A kirtan performance led by world famous composer and kirtan leader, Dave Stringer is happening at the Yoga Barn. The group consists of musicians and instruments from all over the world. At least 100 of us walk the candlelight path through glades of bamboo and frangipani. Entering the open-air structure we climb the stairs. Yoga bolsters are spread in circular rows throughout the space and I choose one in the front toward the edge. For the next three hours we participate in call and response chanting in Sanskrit lead by Dave and accompanied by 10 incredible musicians. These things have to be experienced. A written account doesn’t do it. The sights, the sounds, the energy, the night, the fragrant air…come to Bali…just do it!

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