When the dead aunts go home

There isn’t a situation, circumstance, life event, object, (animate or inanimate) in Bali that doesn’t have a particular ceremony assigned to it. The big ones, marriage, birth, death, are universal. But a day to bless metals? An elaborate celebration before a baby’s feet are allowed to touch the ground? A ritual dealing with incest? The coming of age practice of tooth filing to rid the body of carnality? These are foreign concepts. Then there are the temple birthdays, a day to bless the animals, another for trees and plants, the list goes on.

But every 210th day on the Balinese calendar, the spirits of dead ancestors return to their earthly homes. Elaborate preparations are made by the living to receive them and the festivities continue for ten days culminating in Kuningan when those restless souls take their leave to go back to their haunts for another 210 days until the cycle repeats.

Today was Kuningan.  I woke up having slept a total of about two hours all night, and felt the urge to walk. The sky was that particular shade of wisteria with a steady breeze out of the east. I set out heading north on Monkey Forest Road toward the Ubud Royal Palace. Offerings hung from doorways and women in temple clothes lit incense and sprinkled holy water over mounds of square palm baskets filled with flowers, rice, and treats piled on the sidewalk. 2015-07-25 10.24.55As I ambled along in no hurry to get anywhere, I looked back to see this car, adorned with the woven, shield-shaped ornaments that signify protection. Many cars and motorbikes had these woven palm talismans hanging on the front.

2015-07-25 10.10.53Bicycles, too, were the recipients of offerings and blessing.

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My lazy stroll took me past residences that I never see when the streets and sidewalks are crowded with people. But this morning I was the only non-Balinese person about, so I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the stunning second story residence of a wealthy Ubudian. Every door and window was framed by intricate stone carvings, and the shutters and doors themselves were carved and painted the deep reds, greens, blues, and golds of the traditional Balinese style.

2015-07-25 10.24.29The home sitting next to this one was another example of unique architecture. Resting at the top is a lumbung built in the style of the old rice barns. This one has been embellished with paint and looks more like an elaborate child’s playhouse, which maybe it is.

2015-07-25 10.24.05My trek had gotten me as far as the football field, a well-known landmark about half-way between the Ubud Royal Palace and the Sacred Monkey Forrest. It was in the background across the street when I asked a young woman who was putting offerings in the roadside temple if I could take her picture.

2015-07-25 10.19.01Of my several walking routes, this morning I chose to take a left on Arjuna Street for the quieter feel off the main thoroughfare. I had seen men working on penjors earlier in the month but had not been back since they’d been installed. This year those towering arched poles with swaying tassels, seemed taller and more intricate in design than I’ve ever seen them.

2015-07-25 10.25.59 Arjuna Street comes to a T. I hang a right that takes me up to Jalan Raya, the main east-west artery in Ubud. More altars with offerings, palm weavings and flowers graced this busy area mail.google.comAs I continued along my way, down the steep hill to the bridge over the river and then the slow climb out of the valley, I watched family after Balinese family in full-on temple garb, riding sidesaddle and carrying the square baskets that hold everything needed to send the dear departed once again on their way.2015-07-25 10.44.00No matter how many times I see the offerings, the temples, the penjors, the men in their udeng headgear and double sarongs, the women in their kebayas, I delight in the exotic beauty of it all. Today was no different. When I got home, Ketut was back from his family responsibilities in Abang Songan and had performed the ritual blessings for my house, and even though my ancestors probably can’t find me here, I’m prepared! P1090939

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Sexy men in sarongs

I’ve heard it said that Asian men are androgynous. Statistically they’re smaller in stature than men in the West. Most have less body hair and finer features. I’ve been around Japanese men, a few Koreans, and now hosts of Indonesians. To my aesthetic, there’s nothing sexier than a man in a sarong. Androgynous or not, they are magnificent!

P1070751My friend, Dewa I, (the hottie in the photo) invited me to his village months ago for a special ceremony. I have no idea how special until Ketut and I are about a mile from the town and we’re stopped by a Pecalang, the local security guard.

“Sorry, no vehicles past this point, special ceremony.”

“Yes, we know. We’ve been invited.”

The guard peers at me. I’m in full temple garb and I’m sure he’s wondering how I fit into this picture.

P1070729As authentic as it looks, I’m not passing muster.

“Sorry. Road closed.”

Ketut rattles off a few sentences in Balinese, slides his phone out of his pocket, and calls Dewa. The next thing I know we’re waved through. Even in Bali…especially in Bali…it’s not what you know, it’s who.

In a mile or so we come to the village. Another Pecalang motions us off the road into a parking area. We leave the bike and are ushered to a roofed platform where three more guards confer about what to do with this smiling American and her Balinese escort. They’re holding two-way radios and a flurry of crackling messages commences. “Parking lot to temple, we have an unidentified foreign female demanding entrance…!”

Five minutes, ten minutes. Ketut arranges himself on the platform with a cigarette. One of the men notices the sun beating on my fair-haired head and invites me to sit in the shade. Fifteen minutes, twenty, then Ketut stands, ambles to the edge of the platform and says, “Dewa’s wife coming.”

We’re saved!

P1070754She’s like a vision walking toward us. We exchange happy hugs and she leads us to their home up the street past throngs of villagers awaiting the next event in the temple. The houses are nestled, tight-packed up the mountainside. We follow a narrow, walled path, ascend a staircase, and we’re there.

Coffee appears and a bowl of snacks as Nyoman apologizes. They’re all very busy today and because it’s an important ceremony and we are outsiders, we’re not allowed into the temple. But we can watch the processions and dancing that will happen in the street.

I laugh and tell her it’s fine, but my private thought is that Dewa didn’t remember, or perhaps didn’t think of it when he invited me. It’s the women who know the rules, the ins and outs of the ceremonies. But I’m delighted just to be here, to see their village and be a guest in their home.

Everyone’s jabbering at once when a shout from below brings me to the wall. I peer over and there’s Dewa II,  holding a plate of food and grinning up at me. I can hardly believe he’s the same guy who scared the stuffing out of me when we first met because he never smiled. He’s just finished a Baris performance and is grabbing a bite before it’s show-time again.

P1070747As he gobbles his lunch he tells me that he has six performances today and the next one is in a few minutes.

“Can I watch?”

“Yes.” When he leaves the girls grab my hands and we zig-zag through the crowds. They park me in the shade above the area where the dancers will appear, and then it begins. (Click here: Baris Dance.) Now the smiling face is set in a mask of concentration as he executes the complex footwork of this dance of the warriors.

P1070764The dancers form lines on either side of the women and priests who are exiting the temple after making offerings and prayers. When the ceremony draws to an end the girls are agitated. Their English is confined to, “What is your name, my name is…!” and they don’t comprehend my brand of Indonesian. But with enough repetition and gestures I’m made to understand that they have to go somewhere to do something and I should wait here. They race away. In a matter of moments it becomes clear. They are the next performance! This close-up of Dewa II’s daughter shows her with the same fierce intensity of concentration as her father in the photo above.

P1070782The girls finish and I’m collected and returned to the house where more coffee and a tour of the rest of the family compound awaits. Ketut is particularly interested as we meander past the residences of the brothers and uncles, to see the livestock. There are cows, pigs, piglets, chickens, fighting cocks, and ducks. One porker named ‘cow’ because of her immense size, lumbers to her feet and sticks her snout toward the camera for a close-up.

P1070797There’s one spotty milk chocolate runt in the pen of piglets. I feel an instant kinship with the tiny character because he looks so out of place with his pinky-grey companions. I name him Coklat (c is always the ch sound in the Indonesian language, and Cok is the name attached to the royalty in Ubud.) My companions find this hilarious.

P1070794The afternoon wanes into evening and the gamelan orchestra is still pounding a frenzy of sound when we take our leave. Nyoman bustles to the kitchen and returns with a bag stuffed with mangoes, oranges, pears, snakefruit and sweets to send home with me. We walk down the hill together, her arm around my waist, mine around hers. Then it’s back in the saddle for the long ride home.

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We pass rice terraces and fresh paddies just sprouting. “Nice area,” says Ketut.

“Yes, beautiful.”

“Good people,” he adds, and I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

A Strange Diagnosis

Ketut’s father is sick. The Balian, a traditional Balinese healer, is consulted. “How is Bapak?” I ask him the next day.

“Same-same,” is his reply. But there’s more to the tale and once again I listen in amazement to the complex interrelation of medicine, magic, and mystery that surrounds the lives of the Balinese. This is the story as told to me by Ketut.

One of his father’s ancestors a long time ago was a Balian and he had a book that had been passed down in the family for seven generations. The book (lontar) contained the collected wisdom of the healing arts, required rituals, recipes for medicinal cures, instructions for auspicious marriages, and all that the community needed to know to thrive. But it also contained the opposite, an operations manual for black magic.

When that Balian died, no one replaced him. The book that had been cared for, consulted, honored with offerings and placed in a special position of prestige, was ignored. It was kept in a cabinet in the father’s sleeping room.

“The Balian say book angry,” Ketut tells me. “My father sick because book want house.” I pepper Ketut with questions and learn that construction on a house for the book is underway. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but the concept is elusive.

A few days later I ask Ketut how construction is coming. “Not yet finish,” he says. I get the same answer as weeks go by. I’m picturing one of the small tower-like structures that I’ve seen in temples all over Bali. That, I assume, would be a fitting house for a book. But why is it taking so long?

The day comes when the new house is finished. “Is the book already inside?” I ask.

“Oh no.” Ketut answers many of my questions this way. “Not yet good days,” he says. “Manku make ceremony when good days.”  So this is a bigger deal than I thought. I should have known. The book can’t be moved until the holy man finds an auspicious day. Then the priest will be hired to come and officiate. Mountains of flowers, fruits, cakes, and chickens will be purchased or cooked and prepared as offerings.

“I want to come to the book ceremony,” I tell him. He says of course and he’ll let me know. Weeks pass. “Book ceremony soon?” I ask.

“Not yet, maybe three month.”

“Three more months?” I’m shocked. His father hasn’t gotten better. But this is Bali and the mills of the gods grind slowly.

As mid-April approaches I’m told that the day has been decided. It will be on Purnama Kedasa, the full moon celebration April 14th, an auspicious day indeed.

The long-awaited morning dawns bright and clear. Outfitted in temple clothes, my neighbor Julie and my visiting friend from America, Jan and I are ferried up the mountain to Ketut’s village in a decrepit mini-van. As we chug and cough along Pasek, who is with us, gets a text from Ketut. The priest hasn’t yet arrived. Pasek invites us to his house to wait.

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We’re greeted by Nyoman, Pasek’s wife

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Nyoman cooked this amazing spread for usIt’s always the same with Ketut’s and Pasek’s families. We are plied with food and drink. When asked if they will be eating too it’s either, “Already,” or “Later.”

Not many foreigners come to this remote, mountain village so we are studied with wide-eyed wonder by the small children. The adult women wrap us in warm hugs. The adult men smile and shake hands or hang back. Teens whisper and giggle.

Waiting outside the temple for Pasek's father to bless us

After the feast we wander to the temple where a rug is spread outside. We squat or crouch in our tight sarongs awaiting the blessing.

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re still with Pasek’s family.  Ketut comes to find us. The priest has not yet arrived but Ketut is ready to take his turn with us. “Want to see book?” he asks. Of course we do! We all pile back into the rusty bucket. This time our route can barely be called a road. The jouncing and jiggling are fierce and I’m surprised my dinner behaves as well as it does. I’m worried about Jan. Her stomach was a little unsettled earlier. But she says she’s fine. It’s a miracle.

Ketut and Pasek's cousing with rice basket cookers on their headsFrom Pasek’s house we move to the home of another relative. A tour of the premises brings us to the outdoor kitchen where Ketut and our driver model the woven cones that are used to steam rice over boiling water.

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Stealing honey

Moving from one mischief to the next, these two decide to pry open the bee house and check for honey. The bees they’re disturbing look like overgrown fruit flies. We’re told they don’t bite, but they swarm around Ketut’s head as he violates their stash.

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He extracts some of the honeycomb and a little nectar for us to taste. The comb is dark brown and the honey has a tart vinegar-y flavor. It isn’t an instant hit.

Ketut’s father with the ancient books (lontar)

Ketut’s father appears and greets us. He is much better. He leads us to a room with a cabinet and takes a seat on a raised platform. This is the room where the lontar is stored. A footed offering plate holds several of the volumes. With utmost care he opens one of them and shows us the script that was cut into the palm leaves hundreds of years ago. Very few people can read the old Balinese writing. The modern alphabet is completely different.

P1060083We lean in close and Bapak says it’s okay to take photos. The inscription is faint but legible. There are dozens of the bound packets of hardened palm leaves. Ketut tells us that the leaf is dried, then soaked in hot water, then dried again and it becomes hard. The writing is done by carving each letter with a knife.

But there are new developments. The book no longer wants to be in the new house. The ancestral weapons, the kris, must go there first. Later if the book wants to be with the kris, it will tell the priest. But for now, the book stays where ‘she’ is and the swords will take up residence in the new house. How was this communicated? “The Mangku he know,” Ketut tells me later.

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This is the new book house. Ketut stands in the doorway and Komang, his wife and a niece look on. I’m shocked to see a real house with two rooms. All this for a book and a couple of swords?

Ketut’s family gathers round while we wait for the priest. More food is brought along with thick, sweet, Bali coffee.

Ketut has heard from the priest. Many blessings are scheduled for the full moon and he’s much in demand. It may be hours before he arrives, “Or maybe tomorrow,” Ketut says.

The sun set a while ago. We still have an hour-and-a-half ride down the mountain before sleep. With the timing of the ceremony uncertain, and the adventures of the day already enough to fill us to capacity, we opt to take our leave. As we bump along the ridge, the lights of the villages lining the shores of Lake Batur shimmer through a gauzy mist of cloud far below.

The island of Bali is another world. But the places we’ve been today could be another galaxy so far removed are they from what we might consider normal. And yet it works here. It fits. And I doubt that I will ever outgrow the amazement and wonder at the vast differences that feel so familiar.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Negotiating Bali Style!

We were on our way back to Ubud. Made Mangku had stopped to gift us with another incredible view of rice terraces. We took our photos, ooo’d and aaah’d and were returning to the car when, across the road, a sarong vendor spotted us. The last thing I need right now is another sarong so I asked her in my best pidgin Indonesian if I could take her photo. She immediately went into a sort of sarong ballet, whipping a bright pink one off the stack on her head and winding it around her ample middle.

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After the photogenic pose she sashayed toward our little group saying, “Nice photo…now you buy!” Terri, Barbara, and Sharon had that look of, “Oh no…here we go again.” Our trip to Besakih, the Mother Temple, had been well populated with many opportunities to purchase the handicrafts of Bali, and my friends are not overly fond of negotiating. But there was something in that impish face…and I decided there was nothing I needed MORE than a sarong from this engaging woman. So it began…

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She handed me the pink one and I quickly made her understand that pink was NOT my color. Then the stack of them came down off her head and we went at it.

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I found one that I liked and said, “Berapa?” (how much?)

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When she answered I, of course, looked horrified. “Sanghat mahal! Bagi saya sanghat mahal!” (Too expensive for me!)

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“Berapa?” I asked again, knowing what she would say. “Berapa?” she asked back. How much would I pay. In other words, “Okay, let’s get real, what’s it worth to you?” I named my price. Then it was her turn to look horrified.

After a bit more haggling she met my price. "Good for me, good for you," as the Balinese are fond of saying.

After a bit more haggling, she agreed to my offer. Then with that decidedly smug look she quipped, “Good for me, good for you.” When mama’s happy, everybody’s happy!

My Balinese friend should have won an Oscar for her performance. By the end our audience was laughing hilariously, except for Sharon. She was behind her camera capturing the whole show in living color.

My Balinese friend should have won an Oscar for her performance. By the end our audience was laughing hilariously, except for Sharon. She was behind her camera capturing the whole show in living color.

This is my 9th sarong. Two of them turned into beautiful pillow covers. One is now a pair of wild pants. The rest give me many choices when ceremonial dress is in order. But for sheer, dramatic delight, this one is my all time favorite!

Note:  The white stuff on my forehead is rice. We were allowed to participate in a Hindu prayer ritual at the Mother Temple. It is a complex process, but at one point sticky rice is affixed to the middle of the forehead. Mine really stuck!

“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!

Happy Birthday to Me!

I don’t often post poems, but today is my birthday (it’s already January 6th in Bali) and I will do as I please!

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Kadek let me photograph her as she sprinkled holy water on the small house altar this morning. She moves gracefully, gliding like a beautiful swan. She is the inspiration for my poem.

BEAUTIFUL SWAN

In my whiteness
I watch gold-skinned women
in the temple garden.
 
One climbs
the stairs
to apologize…
 
“I make offerings
so sorry
did not see you.”
 
It is her task
to prepare
my breakfast.
 
Today she wears
a teal kebaya
with hot pink sash.
 
Tiny pearls of perspiration
glisten
on her upper lip.
 
I admire the sarong
woven in traditional
ikat style.
 
“It is made by machine
not good quality,”
she wants me to know.
 
“It’s beautiful!” I say,
and it is
because she is wearing it.
 
The color combinations
would not please
the Western aesthetic.
 
But this is Bali,
contrived fashion rules
do not apply.
 
She carries woven trays
mounded with offerings
trailing clouds of incense…
 
stopping at each altar
to sprinkle holy water
and pray.
 
Who are you,
beautiful swan?
What is your story?
 
Your knowledge is ancient
I am awed and humbled
by your mysteries.
 
Teach me, my sister,
help me understand
your incomprehensible life.
 
 

Little Pig, Little Pig…

I ventured out later than usual today. The morning dissolved in an amazing conversation with a new friend that lasted several hours over breakfast and multiple pots of tea. I could write a book just on the people I’ve met the past two months and it would be a page turner! So after catching up with e-mails I set out to run some errands. Somehow I ended up at the huge Ubud market about 3:00 p.m. That’s a terrible time to go to the market. The vendors are cranky, its hot and crowded, and everything looks tired. To make matters worse, I was hungry. When I’m hungry I can’t make up my mind. My stomach distracts me. So after looking at one woman’s sarongs for about half an hour I told her I had to go eat and I would come back. She told me I made her sick. Whoops! Oh well.

I shouldn’t have wasted my time with her wares. She really didn’t have what I wanted. I went a few stalls down, looked at two items, negotiated briefly, made my purchase and got the heck out of there! Now it was 4:30 and I was starving! I wanted to avoid the busy cafes on Monkey Forest Road and Hanoman so I took a little side street to see what might turn up. Just a short way up Jl. Gootama I saw a sign, Dewa’s Warung. I like places that sit high over the street and this one did. I climbed the steps and took a seat on a bamboo mat and started studying the menu. The prices were really, really low. Must be small portions, I thought, paying attention to my growling stomach. The Gado Gado sounded delicious, and I decided to order a side of Green Fern with Shaved Coconut and Rice along with my turmeric, lime, and honey drink. My order was taken and I busied myself people watching from my perch. A French couple came in and sat at the table across from me.

My drink came first. I inhaled it. Delicious. After about twenty minutes I was presented with a large plate, piled high, of tempe and vegetables with a rich brown peanut sauce and prawn chips. It was the largest serving of Gado Gado I had ever seen. I thanked my server and took a bite. I almost groaned with delight. It was absolutely divine. I wondered about the other dish I had ordered, but decided my server could easily have misunderstood. It happens and this would be plenty. I was half way through the amazing meal when suddenly the other plate with equally as much food appeared. “Oh my!” I said and out of the corner of my eye I saw the French couple look askance at my two dinners. The mistake was mine but I vowed to make the best of it. I tasted the mound of green fern with sweet fresh coconut shavings and then I did groan. How can anything be this good?

Yes. I ate them both. Unashamedly. My bill came to $2.75. I paid $3.50 and waddled home. I am so dreadfully spoiled! How is this going to work when I get back to meat-and-potatoes-Minnesota and have to pay real money for groceries and then cook them myself? I’m a dreadfully, dreadfully spoiled little piggy.

Balinese Fashionista!

Maybe you recall my post about the Balinese wedding I was so fortunate to attend. And perhaps you remember the photos of the women in their beautiful clothing, and me in my black T-shirt and sarong. Well, no more! I have been invited to two more ceremonious events in the coming weeks and I shuddered to think of showing up so inappropriately garbed. I asked Dewa about the lace blouse that so many of the women wear. “You mean kebaya?” he corrected me. “Yes, the lace blouse, kebaya, where can I get one?” Well, it seems if you want it to fit properly you buy the lace and go to a tailor. “Very expensive,” he said. I didn’t doubt it. A few days passed and I again broached the subject. This time his wife brought a bag of fabrics to show me. None of them were lace. “Too hot!” I exclaimed. “Need holes!” They laughed and again Dewa warned me, “Very expensive.” It occurred to me that something might be available ready made at the market. I asked and his answer was affirmative. “Yes, you can buy there, small, medium, large. Not tailored.”

The next day I took myself to the market. Even though that in itself is a challenge not for the faint of heart, I was on a mission. Passing stalls of jewelry, soaps, incense, carvings, and food, I finally found my way upstairs to clothing vendors. The first person who accosted me with, “Sarong? You buy sarong today? Good luck buy from me.” I said, “Kebaya?” It was like an army snapped to attention and suddenly kebayas were everywhere, cotton ones, polyester ones, every color of the rainbow, and yes, lace ones! I won’t belabor the details, but with much buttoning and unbuttoning (there is a row of 12 tiny buttons down the front and they are all displayed buttoned) and trying on and taking off, I found the perfect kebaya. Then with hand signals to represent the cummerbund around the waist the exact item was located. Some quick bargaining and I had hunted, captured, and bagged my prey! I actually found my way out of the market without getting completely turned around and hurried home. Assembling the outfit on my bed to get the full effect of the shopping expedition, I have to say I was thrilled. Here it is, my event-appropriate costume for ceremonies Bali style.

We Wash Their Brains

Mr. Jati has been making art for 50 years. He is passionate about his work. But I didn’t know that until the other morning I notice the door to his studio is open. Dewa, Mr. Jati’s son, had told me I could go in any time, that his father would show me the paintings. Still, climbing the 8 or so steps to his door and announcing myself up to that moment hadn’t seemed appropriate. But on this day, with the open door issuing an invitation, I make the climb and peek in. “Hello? Mr. Jati, Hello?” I don’t know what I had expected, but a man shorter than my 5’2″ in a sarong and short-sleeved shirt buttoned haphazardly was not it. “Mr. Jati?” I ask. “Yes, yes, come in, please.” He is beaming and I immediately feel at ease. “Would it be alright to look at your paintings?” I ask politely. “Yes, yes, please,” he says again.

In very good English, he describes his work, the techniques he uses, the books he has read about art, the countries where he has held exhibitions, and the man’s love for his craft radiates from every pore of his being. There are three huge (I mean 5 x 8 foot) canvases with sketches lining one wall. There are easels with somewhat smaller canvases that have some shading applied to them on the other side of the room. And there are several canvases with the figures and vegetation already showing the colors that Mr. Jati had chosen in another area. His depiction of traditional Balinese life rendered in rich pastels holds me enthralled. I ask him why he is painting so many at once. “They come in my head!” he says, going on to explain that he is also preparing for an exhibition in Jakarta in 2013. “I need 30 to 45 paintings at least,” he tells me.

Picture compliments of website cited below:

http://www.agungraigallery.com/artist-detail/dewa-nyoman-jati/

I stare at his creations so beautifully and expertly rendered from a memory of what Bali used to be. After thoroughly absorbing the art I thank him and give him my best hands-together-incline-the-head gesture of gratitude. He beams again and says, “Come back tomorrow, I will have more.” The next day I don’t have to search for him. He greets me as I come out my door and says, “I will interrupt your day to show you again my art!” I have to chuckle as I follow him up the stairs. Sure enough! The man is prolific! He has several more semi-completed canvases. I am amazed and I tell him so. He beams.

The next morning I visit with Dewa over breakfast. We talk about his father’s art and the beautiful and complex traditions of the Balinese people. I ask Dewa if he thinks the next generation will continue to follow Hinduism and preserve the culture. He nods with an emphatic “Yes!” “Really?” I reply, “You seem quite sure.” He flashes one of those brilliant smiles and says,”From very little we take the babies to the temple every day,” then with that mischievous grin of his he continues, “we wash their brains!” After the initial shock and a good laugh I think to myself, in the U.S. we have a similar system. It’s called television.

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