MINDFUL OF THE GOOD

I’ve found the best way to keep from dissolving into a state of overwhelm after reading the morning news is to walk. It’s essential for my sanity. Without it, doom and gloom tend to consume too much psychological bandwidth.

I go slowly and notice things. Pretty things. Funny things. Solid, recurring, timeless things. I don’t own a car – in fact, I own nothing with wheels. On the rare occasion I need to leave Ubud, I hire a driver. Forty dollars U.S. covers my transport for an entire day and I probably do that six times a year. Maybe less.

So come with me on my stroll. It’s a beautiful morning. A slight breeze carries traces of incense and cooking. At the bottom of my stairway Wayan and Ketut have already thanked Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa for peace and abundance.

As I walk past I wonder…what if I didn’t have to step over offerings on the sidewalk in front of every shop, every day? Could I still be happy? These bright tokens make walkways in other parts of the world seem drab.

As I cross the bridge that separates me from my favorite grocery store, I stop to watch a Ngaben in progress far below. The ashes from a cremation have been brought to the river to be purified – the final step before the spirit can return to heaven to begin the process of reincarnation.

Hindu rituals have been enacted in Bali for hundreds of years. There’s something that can’t be destroyed here. I try to know what it is but it hovers at the fringes of my understanding and I can’t quite catch hold. Yet I feel linked with antiquity. Grounded. Safe.

At Bintang Supermarket I pick up a few supplies I can’t get at the traditional market: raisins, toasted muesli, ginseng tea, and gift bags. You can never have too many gift bags!

Then I’m on my way to Bali Buda Mart on the other side of Ubud. I’m addicted to their sourdough bread. For months I guessed at the mystery ingredient. Cardamom? No. Fennel? Not quite. What then? I was driving myself crazy and finally approached the bakery manager and begged for the recipe. Cumin! I don’t have an oven so I’ll never bake it, but I had to discover the source of that elusive flavor.

My route takes me past Ubud Palace. Could there be a wedding today? Is this the royal getaway car? Exquisite! I could apply perfect lip liner looking into the mirror finish on that classic automobile. What a shine.

It’s hard to pull away from the festive florals and over-the-top decor, but I must. Sourdough sells out early and I finished mine with a spicy omelet two hours ago.

Self-discipline is rewarded. I score the last loaf and continue my loop past Ganesha Book Store then to Sugriwa and Hanoman Streets cutting across on motorbike paths. It’s a quick backtrack north to Dewisita Street where another eye-feast awaits.

I laugh out loud at the sheer creative whimsey of a hot pink bicycle. The new shop is Pina Colada. Even the name makes me smile…and makes me thirsty.

Fortunately, Mingle Cafe is a few steps away and their frozen mojito has no equal on earth. Happy hour begins at 3:00. It’s a favorite afternoon destination.

I check my watch. It’s as I feared, only ten a.m. I order a cappuccino.

Image result for cappuccino Bali style

Tomorrow I’ll read the news again. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Denial solves nothing. I want to be informed.

Then I’ll take another walk.

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Mistaken identity?

 

I don’t waste time wondering how I’m perceived by others. It’s pointless. If I please myself that’s a giant step beyond the way I spent most of my old life.

But yesterday I received a video that called my hard won self-confidence into question. In that revealing clip, my almost-two-year-old granddaughter sat on the kitchen counter beside a round box of Quaker oatmeal. You know the one…

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She observed the picture on the top, turned it to look at the larger image on the side, then with absolute conviction pointed at the face and said, “Granny Sherry. Granny Sherry.”

Her dad was standing beside her and asked, “You think that looks like Granny Sherry?”

Her response was immediate and resolute. “Ya, Granny Sherry.” She stabbed the image several times with her pointer finger and repeated, “Granny Sherry.”

My sensitive and astute son-in-law took a halfhearted shot  at correcting her. “Oooh, Granny Sherry isn’t going to like that, though. That’s not Granny Sherry.” But did that stop him from sending the video? No indeed!

Okay, she’s a toddler quickly approaching her second birthday. Other than my recent visit, our only contact is through Skype several times a week. So let’s just take a minute here. My hair is reddish. The Quaker Oats man has white hair. He wears a black hat. I never, ever wear hats. Then there’s the male/female thing…?

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quaker oats man

After mopping tears of laughter off my Quaker-Oats-man face, I mulled over this latest revelation and have only succeeded in becoming more confused. Hadley’s a bright little button. I’ve watched her naming things in her picture books. Other than elephant being effunt, or kinggoo instead of kangaroo, she doesn’t miss a beat. If she’s unfamiliar with something it’s Whasat? or Whosis? There was no such question when she saw the oatmeal box. That face was Granny Sherry, period, end of conversation, no questions asked.

I thought at sixty-eight I’d nailed it. This is who I am. This is what I’m about. This is my purpose and my path. That fifty-two second clip shattered my self-confidence. Something about an 1800’s gentleman in a somber hat on the oatmeal box, convinced Hadley it was her Granny Sherry and I am baffled. Truly mystified.

After attempting to come up with answers to the befuddling questions circling in my head, I’ve decided I really have no idea how others see me, or how anyone sees anything for that matter. I view the world through layers of experience and understanding unique to me. That’s true for all humans. No two people will interpret an idea or object in exactly the same way.

But I can’t deny my ego has taken a severe hit. The Quaker Oats man, Hadley? Really?

When You’re Real

Most of my life I craved REAL while living the opposite. By the time I was in my late fifties I’d grown bone tired of keeping up appearances, looking happy when sad, successful when failing, confident when crushed, in love when…sigh….

Nobody said I had to fake it. The compulsion came from inside. The whole perfect facade of my life hid a mucked-up mess.

It was the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, that helped me change; helped me become REAL.

Isn't it ironic how this was one of my most favourite stories as a child and I really didn't know why ... but now I do.

It was the single most profound thing I’d ever read. It became my holy book, lines underscored, pages earmarked, and this paragraph especially, tear stained.

I look back on that time often, now that my joints are loose (more likely stiff) my hair’s been rubbed off (gotten thin) and my eyes have fallen out (lasik surgery). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I don’t feel a bit ugly. I surround myself with REAL people, and they understand.

I no longer require pristine perfection in other things, either. Like, for instance my REAL groceries from the Ubud morning market. Far from the scrubbed and sanitized, shrink wrapped, color enhanced, chemical infused products proliferating the shelves in the local grocery stores, my food is brought in battered trucks fresh from the villages at 5:00 a.m.

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Ketut visits the market pre-dawn and does all the shopping. When I realized a year ago that I was protein deficient and needed to add a little meat to my vegetarian diet, I asked him if he could get chicken at the market. His answer was lengthy. Not only could he get it, he could get it fried, open fire roasted, grilled, steamed in banana leaves with Balinese bumbu, made into satays, and raw. I decided to try the fire roasted. He looked happy.

Next morning the grossest looking fowl I’d ever seen (exactly like the one above) arrived on my counter top. I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I squeaked when I saw it. I scream at snakes, most everything else that surprises me gets a squeak. I asked Ketut to take it to his kitchen, remove the head and feet, and return it looking less like it might get up and walk. He said I should use those parts to make soup. I told him he was welcome to have them for that or any other purpose just please take them away.

Of course it turned out that the scary bird was the most delicious meat I’d ever eaten. I’m sure it had been free-ranging, scratching and pecking in the family compound only minutes before it was captured, de-feathered, gutted, cleaned, and roasted over the smoking fire.

The brilliant green spinach offered up a few surprises of it’s own. It’s locally grown and organic. How do I know? It comes complete with bugs still residing in the leaves. The ones I miss during cleaning come floating to the top when I boil it for dinner.

And the eggs…?

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The eggs still have REAL poop on them!

I derive such pleasure from the simplicity. These products haven’t been cleaned up and made presentable. They come from farmers living a few miles away who load their trucks at o-dark-thirty and rumble into town. I love knowing that by avoiding the grocery stores and purchasing from the morning market I’m supporting independent family businesses, REAL people with REAL food.

Sometimes I wonder: What if I’d never read The Velveteen Rabbit? Would I still be living a soulless life? Words have incredible power to inform and transform. That little book happened to fall into my hands at precisely the time I was ripe for it’s message. And oh what bliss: the intoxicating magic of REAL!

 

 

 

 

Naughty Nuri’s: Anyone for a Body Scrub and Cleanse?

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Naughty Nuri’s is well-known in Ubud for its barbecued pork ribs. Always packed, most people who eat in this popular restaurant are not part of Ubud’s thriving spiritual community. Those folks go to the organic, vegan, and raw food places where to even whisper pork is anathema!

I gave up most meat long ago so I’d never been to Nuri’s. But after living in Indonesia for five years and eating fruit, veggies, rice, tofu, tempe, and not much else, about two months ago I began to crave nachos.

I coerced my partner in crime and chief confidante into weekly walks to Devilicious, a street-side eatery near her house where they make a few Mexican dishes. Nachos is one of them. An ice cold beer with a heaping plate of crisp, cheese-and-jalepeno covered tortilla chips became a weekly ritual, until last Sunday. We approached the sign with a red devil caricature boldly displayed and my heart sank. Devilicious was closed.

There’s nothing worse than having your taste buds set for a certain flavor and being denied that pleasure. We stood outside the empty café and I was less than cavalier. “I want nachos. Where can we get nachos?” I’m sure my whine was about as pleasant as a spoiled 5-year-old’s.

Without missing a beat my friend said, “Nacho Mama’s has them.”

“Nacho Mama’s? Why haven’t you mentioned this place before? Where is it?” As it turned out it was just a few blocks the opposite direction so we set off, saliva flooding my mouth.

I smelled barbecue long before we arrived at the entrance to Naughty Nuri’s and my friend stopped there.

“This isn’t Nacho Mama’s, it’s Naughty Nuri’s. They sell ribs, not nachos. Look at the sign.” Had she lost her mind? She knows I’m a closet vegetarian and although I may not be the brightest bulb, I can read!

“Relax already. This is the place. It used to be called Nacho Mama’s. They serve nachos, don’t worry.”

Skeptical, I followed her inside looking for an empty table. There were none but a lone man occupied a spot with seating for 8 so we parked ourselves at the far end. We’d been there a few minutes when a group got up and vacated a nearby booth. We grabbed it. The table was loaded with platters of gnawed rib bones and bowls still full of Nuri’s special sauce.

One of the wait staff began to bus the table. My accomplice and I were deep in conversation when the tray the girl had just loaded crashed to the floor. Something globby and wet splattered my hair, my face, arms, legs, and my favorite cream-colored skirt. A spoon still dripping with the stuff lodged under my thigh. Dazed, I saw that my entire right side was plastered with rich, red, oily, lumpy blobs of barbecue sauce.

For a split-second there was silence. Nobody breathed. In the next instant, the entire Nuri’s staff rushed to my aid. One dabbed my hair, another scrubbed at my clothes, grinding the stains deeper into the fabric. The skin on my face where barbecue had landed, burned from the chilies abundant in Nuri’s special recipe. No matter how they tried to swab me down with paper napkins the situation worsened.

Perhaps it was Isnuri herself, the Indonesian wife of the American owner, who finally took charge and hauled me to the sink at the rear of the restaurant still in plain view of all the diners. Scrubbing commenced in earnest. She grabbed my skirt, hoisted it high and pulled it into the sink so she could hose off the mess (which, by the way, is the consistency of chunky salsa but stickier.) How much of my white leg and Victoria’s Secrets were exposed I’m not sure. It was about then that I decided to take the matter into my own hands and shooed the hovering attendants away.

At some point in my energetic scouring, a flash of movement caught my eye. Off to one side, a Japanese man stood mopping at his cream trousers. I looked at him, he looked at me, and I recognized him as the person who had been sitting with his back to me in the next booth. Not a word passed between us but we simultaneously broke into uproarious laughter. It was the first time I’d realized that I wasn’t the only star in this drama!

When I returned to our table, soaking wet from hair to sandal on my right side, the surroundings would suggest that nothing untoward had occurred there. All was wiped clean. We ordered nachos and beer and rehashed the blow-by-blow account of what had just happened. The food came followed by the bill. My meal hadn’t been charged.

Out on the sidewalk I said goodbye to my friend. Before leaving we agreed that Devilicious still makes the best nachos in Ubud but Nuri’s can’t be beat for barbecue sauce! I walked home in the 88 degree heat, damp and comfortable in my ruined clothing.

After treating the skirt and blouse with Balinese bleach paste and soaking everything for several hours, miraculously the stains came out. Those areas are a little whiter than the rest but I can still wear the outfit. When I do, it will remind me that anything can happen on a beautiful Bali Sunday afternoon nacho run!

Three Strengths – One You Don’t Want

 

You’re so strong! How many times have I heard that throughout my 66 years? But it’s true.

I have physical strength –

Emotional stamina –

And willpower –

Muscular arms and legs, probably earned from early years lifting hay bales and running through farm fields doing all the tomboy things I loved, still ripple under loosening skin. And by sheer force of will, I’ve maintained my weight and continue a regimen of daily exercise.

But looking back, emotional stamina was a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it kept me sane when my world, at various times, sank into the abyss. But the dark underbelly of that strength hindered me from moving out of difficult places. I knew I could manage extreme mental anguish so I did. Rather than change what I was doing, make different choices, I stayed and endured far too long.

Both pride and fear played a role. I proudly maintained a placid surface when inside chaos raged. I was complimented on my calm demeanor by co-workers, even complete strangers. My ego, undernourished as it was, feasted on those crumbs of praise and preferred the safety of known misery and a well-studied façade, to the terror of change.

There’s a high price for being strong. It took many years to realize that the same emotional resilience that enabled me to withstand destructive situations without losing my mind, could also be mustered to chart a healthier course. It’s the same muscle, but the more I practiced releasing it instead of gripping tight and hanging on, the more space opened to other possibilities.

Most people reach a transition point. The timing is different but the catalyst is the same. It’s the moment we grasp the concept of mortality, the uncomfortable truth that we’ve reached a place closer to the end than to the beginning. For many it ignites a mid-life crises. For others, depression. But for me it prompted the question: Is that all there is? And my answer: It better not be! The thought jolted me out of apathy. I became more afraid of staying the same, marking time waiting to die, than I was of change.

Beware of the strength that keeps you hanging on, stuck in an unlived life. Does your jaw clench, your neck stiffen, the space between your shoulder blades ache? Do you breathe shallow in the top of your chest while your stomach constricts? Ask yourself, What do I want more than this? What’s the worst that could happen if I just let go? let go

 

 

Calling all writers…UWRF 2015!

Calling all writers…or readers, poets, short story tellers, journalists, memoirists, documentarians, stand-up comedians, photographers, political activists…

Despite the creeping menace of censorship that threatened to shut down the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, the show has gone on with a few parts missing. It’s gut-wrenching to know that there is still such fear around freedom.

Brave soldier, Philip!!!

Brave soldier, Philip!!!

This year I waffled. Should I volunteer again? I’ve given time and energy to this event for the past three years. I’ve met people who have become important to me, dear friends like Philip, faithful soldier, who is back from San Diego, USA, to offer his blood, sweat, and tears for the cause.

Or…

Should I buy the 4-day pass?

Being the decisive person I am, I vacillated right up to the day before the festival. By that time it was far too late to volunteer so I had the option to buy a ticket…or not. That morning I woke up to a lecture, stern self-talk from left brain to right that went something like this: “Idiot! You call yourself a writer. Here you are, living walking distance from one of the most celebrated writers’ festivals in the world, and you’re actually wondering whether or not you should attend? What are you thinking!”

I didn’t walk, I ran to the box office as soon as it opened and bought my ticket. That very evening was a kick-off book launch at Nomad, a popular restaurant at the intersection of Jalan Raya and Gautama streets. As soon as I walked in, a glass of wine was shoved in my hand and a tray of exotic canapes held under my nose, compliments of Nomad. Stormy

The book being launched was, Stormy with a Chance of Fried Rice, in which author, Pat Walsh tells the story of his twelve months in the megacity of Jakarta where he lived while editing the painful human rights report entitled, Chega! which recounts the horrors of victims of the Suharto years in Timor-Leste.

That set the tone. This morning at 8:30, Ketut dropped me at the Neka Museum where the first session of the day was a panel discussion by four Indonesian writers.

nekaKetut is always a little shocked when we arrive at a destination and there’s nobody there. I like to be early, especially when I expect a standing-room-only crowd and want to snag a seat toward the front.  neka2As it turned out, I had my choice of seating, but within twenty minutes the shuttle buses arrived and the place was jammed with humanity.

PanelWhat followed was an hour of fascination. Two of the four authors spoke in English and the other two had interpreters. What was brought home to me with poignant clarity as I strained to understand the writers who spoke in Indonesian, was the beautiful complexity of that language. I’ve studied enough to understand most of what was said. But I was unprepared for the impact of hearing the message twice: first in the panelist’s own language, eloquently, with humor and subtle cultural nuances, then in English. Being unable to understand a speaker in his own language is like seeing the sunrise through a shaded window. Now, suddenly, the shade had been thrown open and the fullness of morning shone through.

XinranThat heady experience was followed by an interview with Xinran, the feisty Chinese woman who wrote Buy Me the Sky, a book that tells how the one-child policy in China has turned the family structure of that country upside down. As luck, or fate, may have it, the headlines this morning CHINA ABANDONS ONE-CHILD POLICY AFTER 35 YEARS appeared just hours before her interview.

The next group comprised of a journalist, an attorney, and a ‘citizen’, hashed over Jokowi’s first year as the seventh President of Indonesia. In his campaign, touted as a man for the people, he went up against the military might of Prabowo and won. But not much has changed. Does that sound familiar?

All this before lunch.

One of the problems at this festival is a mixed blessing. There are simply too many choices. I heard four of the twenty-four offerings available to me in the main program today. I could have attended six if I wanted to skip lunch and by-pass another book launch. I opted to eat. And the opportunity to learn about Indonesians who were drawn into the colonial quest for pearls from Adrian Vickers, who wrote The Pearl Frontier, seduced me. The lure of a little more wine and tasty appetizers my have had some influence on my decision to by-pass another panel discussion and go for the launch.

Early again, a friend and I settled in at The Elephant, another of Ubud’s fine eateries, and I ordered an Americano mocha. That, of course, identified me immediately as a coffee dunce. “Do you want an Americano…or a mocha,” the very respectful, very young wait person asked. I revised my order and the mocha was delicious. It’s the reason I’m still awake and able to write this post.

9780824840020Adrian Vickers mesmerized his crowd. We heard about Broome, Australia, where Asians who were indentured into the pearl trade lived and many intermarried with the aboriginal people there. The fishermen of Indonesia knew where to find the pearls, but most of the first divers  were Japanese. Later, Indonesians learned how to free-dive, braving sharks and sea snakes to plunge into the depths for the treasures at the bottom of the sea. It wasn’t the divers who got rich. Like so many other tales of Indonesia, this, too, is a story of exploitation.

I can’t believe how my horizons have been broadened, my awareness heightened, my sensitivities enhanced, my consciousness raised. Being in the presence of these brilliant minds humbles me, makes me want to be a better person. It’s heartbreak and joy all in one package, and it’s only the second day.

BEYOND THE BALI CLICHÉ

I’ve heard Bali described many ways, tropical paradise, island of the gods, exotic, enchanted, magical, the whole package. I’ve used the same or similar words myself, and believed them. I still do. But after an almost four year love-affair, my perspective has broadened. Infatuation has matured into a riper relationship, and the dalliance has become a committed bond.

I used to be blind to the warts, like an awestruck lover. As in marriage, some of the things that wowed and inspired me when I first set foot on this island, are now an accepted part of daily life. I remember wondering back then if living in Ubud would ever feel ordinary. Would I some day stop being amazed every time I woke up to the sound of roosters and the holy man’s prayers?

If ordinary means comfortable and familiar, the answer is yes. I know how to navigate the strange machinations of Indonesian culture. I co-exist with the lack of privacy and the communal assumptions inherent in this society. I know when someone calls me mbak (older sister) it’s a compliment, and that dadong (grandmother) is probably the more fitting endearment for my age group. I’ve discovered where to get the things I need and I’ve realized that I don’t need what I can’t get. I’m learning the language and that goes a long way toward feeling a part of things.

But if ordinary equals mundane, or dull, the answer is no, not ever. Each day I’m inspired or wowed by something new. Sometimes it’s as simple as a neon blue butterfly in the garden. And other times its bigger. For example, I had never walked the Campuhan Ridge. Laziness is the only explanation, as it’s 20 minutes from my house. But when I finally did, it was one of those special moments, like looking into your old love’s eyes and remembering why.

PHOTOS FROM THE CAMPUHAN RIDGE WALK

P1100349Steps down to the bridge at the beginning of the trail

P1100301The path passes along the wall of the Pura Gunung Lebah Temple

P1100339Beautifully paved, the trail is flat and even, though at times hilly

P1100341Sweeping views on both sides kept my camera clicking

P1100343A farmer harvests the mountainside

P1100335After the long hike in full sun, the Karsa Kafe is a welcome sight

Wayans and Waterfalls

“Come and see my waterfall,” Wayan Massage said in her intense, bossy way. I call her Wayan Massage to differentiate her from the 20,000 other Wayans in Bali. First born children, whether boy or girl, are often named Wayan, and I’ll leave it at that for now because this story is about her waterfall, not her name.

I’ve been to Niagara. I’ve been to Norway. I’ve seen spectacular waterfalls. Bali’s are nice but they’re not in the same league. So I stalled a bit.

“Where is your waterfall?”
“In my village.”
“Is it man-made or natural.”
“Ya.” My spotty Indolish obviously didn’t translate.
“Okay, soon.  I will come soon.” I pictured children splashing around a pile of rocks with a stream of pumped-in water stolen from the paddy irrigation ditches dribbling over the top, a glorified fountain.

A few hours later, Wayan gave my visiting friend, Nancy, a massage. Before I knew it we were scheduled to see the waterfall the following week.

The day arrived and as we were leaving, my phone rang. “Where are you?” It was Wayan.

“Just heading out of Ubud. We’ll be there soon.” Twenty minutes later we turned off the main road down a narrow path. Ubud, so close by, is one of the hottest tourist spots in Bali. But foreigners rarely come to this village and heads cranked around to stare as we passed. Excited children on bicycles shouted, “Hello! Hello!” and we waved and shouted back, “Hello!”

Wayan, her son Arya, and her husband Komang, ushered us through the gate into the family compound. “Oh! That’s new!” I exclaimed at the structure that had materialized where nothing but garden used to be. Komang explained that it was the pavilion where all the family’s human celebrations are held, baby ceremonies, tooth filings, weddings. “It is also the place where, at the end of life, the body is prepared for cremation,” he said.

“It’s very beautiful” I scanned the remaining open spaces. “And where’s the waterfall?”

“I’ll take you later, please sit down.” Balinese hospitality has its rules. We sat on the terrace and drank from the young coconuts offered to us. Nancy had treats for them. Arya was quick to sample and grimace as the bitter taste of the goji berry raw dark chocolate brownie offended his expectations. When the magic moment came, seven of us hopped on three motorbikes and set out.

As we zoomed along my first misconception became obvious. The waterfall wasn’t located in the immediate neighborhood.

P1100253When we exited to another small pathway and came to a halt at the top of a cliff of stairs, my second erroneous perception showed itself. Whatever the waterfall was, it probably was not a playground just for children.

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We started down the steps. When they ended and the land fell away at a near vertical decline, and I realized that I was expected to navigate it to the bottom and come out alive, I decided that just maybe this might be a deep-in-the-jungle, bona-fide, honest-to-goodness real authentic waterfall.

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Anchored by one strong Balinese man stabilizing me from the front, and another gripping my hand from behind, I skidded, slid, and plummeted to a point mid-way down where Komang stopped us. “Do you want to see the temple?” A grassy trail cut a horizontal path to the left. No one had mentioned a temple. Yes, we wanted to see. It sounded like a better idea than continuing the plunge downward. Within a few minutes the jungle opened to reveal simple buildings tucked into the mountain on the other side of the river. “How do you get there?” There wasn’t a bridge in sight.

“Through the water,” Komang said.

Of course. How silly of me. Any Balinese woman could navigate that suicide path down the mountain with an offering tower on her head, dance her way through the swirling water, sure-footed as a gazelle, and land safely on the other side, her precious cargo intact.

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We retraced our steps, resuming the downward journey. Then, with a fair distance still to go, I spied the falls through a break in the trees.

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Stunned by the wild beauty of it, I soaked in the sight and sound of tons of water tumbling over jagged rocks. “We bring the ashes here,” Komang said, and I knew he was referring to the cremains of the deceased and that this spot served a spiritual purpose as well as a practical one.

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Reaching bottom at last, Komang and Arya were soon playing in the cool, calm pool at the base of that pounding cascade of water, Nancy, assisted by Wayan Puji, was scaling the steep rock face to the top of the falls, and Ketut was keeping a watchful eye on us all.

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As I sat surrounded by the raw majesty of nature, I felt ashamed. It had been a while, but once again I had misjudged, and grossly underestimated what Bali wanted to show me. Humbled, I whispered an apology to the silent keepers of that sacred place and begged their pardon. But forgiveness, however generously offered, wasn’t unconditional. My penance, unavoidable, lay ahead: the climb back up!

Blowin’ in the wind…the Sanur Kite Festival

When I say kite, what comes to mind? Something diamond shaped with a ribboned tail? I can count on one finger the number of times I saw a kite in the sky where I grew up.  The marshy bog of northern Minnesota wasn’t a kite culture. Maybe that’s why they hold such a fascination for me.

Then I came to Bali and watched graceful shapes dip and swoop in the sky, sometimes fifteen or twenty at a time during the windy months of winter. It was magical! And when I heard that the oceanside town of Sanur had an annual kite festival, I vowed to go.

But I could never quite pinpoint the when of that event. It’s like most things here. Somebody tells somebody else and when word finally gets to me it’s happening in ten minutes, or it just happened ten minutes ago.

So when a friend sent a message to my phone yesterday that the kite festival would be at Mertasari Beach in Sanur today, I was thrilled to have that much advance notice.

This morning we set out. I put my visiting friend on the back of Ketut’s motorbike because I wanted her to remain alive, and I rode with Wayan since I can handle a little more speed and a lot more near death trauma. As we approached Sanur, traffic came to a dead stop for no apparent reason.  There was speculation in the crowd, maybe Obama is passing through, maybe the British soccer team…logical assumptions like that. After a pause of about seven minutes, a whistle blew from somewhere and off we went.

P1100008There were the usual interesting t-shirts. I snapped this one and didn’t notice the uniformed Polisi behind him until I downloaded the photo at home. Lucky accident.

P1100010Today, as always, our motorbike excursion was a visual feast. The entrance to an elegant, upscale jewelry showroom dazzled with the intricately sculpted figures at the entrance.

P1100011And the assortment of statues that grace the major intersections, continue to amaze me. This grand scale example was finished earlier this year.

P1100013Never to be excluded are the edibles being transported from point A to point B by motorbike.

P1100103After about forty minutes on the road, we reached our destination, parked, and stepped through the looking glass, or the wardrobe, or fell down the rabbit hole…into a different world.

We arrived in the middle of a kite competition. Kites so large they required whole teams of men to carry them were advancing toward an open area. Judging officials were housed in covered canopies announcing the events over booming loudspeakers. And when the long-tails leapt into the sky it was just about the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.

P1100057The glorious, undulating ribbons hung in the air, operated by teams of five, six, seven, or more men, all straining to hold their prize in place against the strong ocean breezes. When the judges called the winner, the teams efficiently pulled the great birds out of the air to make room for the next category.

Overhead was empty blue, then, as though someone opened Pandora’s Box, it was full!

The skill to keep all those kites airborne, aloft in one place without tangling with the strings of the others surrounding them, is an expertise practiced from the time these guys are toddlers. They look like specks in the sky but don’t be fooled. They’re massive.P1100075Some had heads, ornate, crowned beasts with flowing scarves and fangs worthy of a child’s worst nightmare.

When our senses had been stimulated to overload and sunstroke was an impending threat, we left the extravaganza behind and started home. We’d made it about half a block and once again traffic came to a standstill. Nancy stood up on the motorbike to get a better view. What is Ketut thinking?! I wondered as I captured the moment digitally.P1100089After a generous length of time, someone thought of a shortcut. Engines roared into action and a teeming throng of motorbikes turned as one entity into a parking area that wound around the obstruction and spit us out on the other side of it.

P1100104Then it was clear sailing…P1100110past the blue Visnu….

P1100114down the frightfully narrow path…

and home again, home again, to Ubud, jiggety-jig. How nice to get a timely tip. It was a spectacular day!

Report to Immigration!

Why my last year’s picture and fingerprints aren’t good enough, I don’t know. My U.S. passport photo serves me for fifteen years. But the Indonesian retirement visa, no way. And with the number of expats that live here, couldn’t there be a branch in Ubud capable of the required official documenting of our existence?

Nevermind.

I swing onto the back of Ketut’s motorbike, my happy place. “Ayo! Ayo! It’s off to imigrasi we go!” I sing out as we meld into the stop-go traffic on Monkey Forest Road. Ketut ambles along, never in a hurry but always getting where we’re going in time. There’s a window, 2 – 2:30, to meet up with the agent, Mr. Heru, at immigration headquarters. The rice fields flash by in their various states of readiness, sometimes wet, murky pools, sometimes shafts of harvest gold. When the burn starts in my throat I know we’ve hit the polluted border of Denpasar and the sudden snarls of motorbikes affirms that suspicion.

Bali Traffic

The outskirts, a hodge-podge of billboards, Communist era gray buildings, and lean-to warungs, disappear as we enter the civilized Renon district and pull into the parking lot. Mr. Heru is there and we’re ushered inside.

I’m not sure what hits first, the heat or the stink, but the combination stops me in my tracks and I disguise the gag reflex in an extravagant episode of coughing. Holy B.O. Batman! Let’s hope this is quick.

Mr. Heru tells us to find chairs. Two in the back corner sit empty and I slouch into the one nearest the wall with a direct view of the television that’s showing a comedy act on silent. I’m handed a slip of paper with a number, C070, and notice that the one showing on the monitor overhead is C036. Okay, so there will be a little wait. My breakfast feels unsteady as I breathe shallow puffs, trying not to inhale any more of that over-ripe air than possible. Memories of morning sickness remind me of how great it is to be old and far beyond childbearing potential.

I tune in to the comedy. Raunchy Indonesian humor has me hysterical in moments. The two men, one with a red mohawk and one with a yellow, in shiny business suits with pants that end about three inches above the ankle, are non-stop hilarity, and Ketut and I laugh lounder than anybody. Their thirty-minute routine ends. I glance again at the monitor. C036 hasn’t budged. Mr. Heru appears, apologetic. “So sorry. Equipment is not working. Can you come back tomorrow? Or maybe you wait, in one hour maybe fixed.”

I barely suppress a groan. “I can’t come back tomorrow,” I say. “I have a meeting.”

“Ya, you wait then,” he says.

“Ya, okay.” What else am I going to say? The idea of turning around, riding the hour and a half back to Ubud, then repeating the sequence again anytime soon is revolting. I’ve almost acclimated to the stench.

Another show that smacks of the old U.S. favorite, You’re on Candid Camera! is underway. The thing that Indonesian television has over anything in the U.S. is its blatant political incorrectness. Here women are objectified, subjectified, and sexualized with careless abandon. Gays are depicted with affection as providing unlimited potential for ridicule and harassment, and the male sexual organ is referenced or displayed at every possible opportunity.

Time passes unnoticed, glued to the tube. But when the display on the digital monitor moves from C036 to C037, a murmured undercurrent scuttles through the room. People shift in their chairs, unfold the crumpled bits of paper that hold their number, and check their watches. The building closes at 4 p.m. It’s now 3:15.

In my TV stupor I’d failed to notice that the room had emptied down to a handful of a dozen bodies or so. Suddenly there’s a parade back in and a scramble for the remaining chairs. One of those New York Wall Street types, with a child strapped to his back and his ex-model wife herding three more children blocks the view of the programming while expounding at shocking volume on the recent activity of the Chinese stock market. I note glances exchanged among the quiet locals. A hip white lady, circa 1940’s, with bleached hair and shorts so short they reveal the saggy creases of once perky buttocks jiggling just below their lacey edge, strolls in with her teen-aged Balinese boyfriend. The monitor flips over another number: C038.

It’s a slow race with time. The numbers advance, sometimes two or three in a row, but often the minutes stretch out with eons between them. It’s 3:55. C068 has parked and taken up residence. Has the equipment malfunctioned again? Am I to get this close and be sent home? I turn toward Ketut, my eyebrows ask the question. Stoic, positive, with the kind of patience that I can never hope to achieve, even in retirement, he appears unruffled and noncommittal. Then, as if tripping over one another in their excitement, C069 is immediately followed by C070.

I leap from the chair. Ketut skitters out of the way as I head for the door marked Photos for Foreigners and push through it. Two desks, manned by uniformed immigration officials, are stuffed into the closet-sized room. I climb over the granny with the shorts to get to the second desk where I’m being summoned by the bespectacled man behind it.

“Sit back,” he commands as I perch on the edge of the chair. “Move your bangs off your eyebrows.” I do as I’m told, grinning like a happy chimpanzee. “You can smile but don’t show your teeth.” That one throws me and I snap my mouth shut and frown just as the camera clicks. If Frankenstein had a twin sister, the photo would have captured the likeness. Before I have time to ask for a retake he’s shoved documents in front of me. “Your signature here, the same as this one, and again here.” At the final flourish of the pen he grabs my hand. “All the fingers, this one first,” and he moves my thumb to the red window on the machine that records its image. Then it’s over. Two and a half hours and three minutes, the three minutes were inside that closet, from 3:56 to 4:00, taking care of the business I came to accomplish. Mine is the last number called.

Rolling through countryside on the return trip I experience yet again the sense of elation, the thrill of living here in Bali, the island of the gods, the land of volcanoes and magic. A few hours sweating it out in Immigration once a year for the privilege, is a small price to pay. We sail along in the late afternoon warmth, exotic views unrolling alongside us, the tails of my scarf flapping in the breeze. “Pulang?” says Ketut. I smile, once again grateful for this sweet soul who is the very essence and heart of my paradise.

“Yes, please, Ketut. Let’s go home.”

Young rice planting

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