Bali Boy Braves the Waves!

Superstitions run deep. Bodies of water harbor entities, not all benign, and on this island elaborate rituals are enacted to keep those restless spirits in their place. So swimming is not an altogether comfortable idea for many Balinese people. But today we went to the beach. It’s the supposedly hidden one, off the beaten track, hard to access. The trail appears to drop off into nothingness.

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Counter to intuition that told us to continue following the path forward, there’s a door in the side of the wall. I missed it the first time. The trail grew narrower, and narrower, steeper and steeper, until without mountain climbing gear, I wasn’t going another step.

P1100225Feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland jumping down the rabbit hole, we retraced our steps, found the opening and passed through. It was still a steep descent to the beach, but once there we found the place almost deserted.

P1100193With the exception of a pair of sleeping beauties.

P1100198Today was to be special. Our friend, Nancy, was going to teach Wayan how to swim. But as we settled in at the local warung and ordered our favorite drinks, it was clear that the waves were unusually high and rolling in with astonishing speed. So we sat. And we watched. And we sat some more. We sat and watched while people arrived and congregated on the sand in front of us. The sarong vendor hawked her wares. The beach masseuses found willing victims.

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And still we sat. We ordered coffee, then  lunch, then more lunch, then more coffee. The waves crashed on.

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By late afternoon, Ketut was looking significantly bored with the whole affair and I was making going home noises when all of a sudden, Wayan jumped up, stripped off his jeans, and headed to the water. There was no swimming lesson, Nancy had gotten over that idea real quick. But Wayan cavorted, splashed, sputtered and played, and emerged at last with a very large, very happy grin. And the rest of us…well, we did what we do best…we watched.

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Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head

Hand in hand with golden days and balmy nights, if you live in the tropics, it rains. I’m not talking drizzle here, the kind that goes on for days until you want to wring out the clouds and shout “QUIT ALREADY!” No, I’m talking gushing, pounding, torrents of water.

I’m thrilled by the power of it, both the sight and the sound, unless it happens to be pouring through the roof into my kitchen. (That happened last night.) Or possibly just slightly worse, I’m on the back of a motorbike.

This cruiser didn't have a poncho and he wasn't stopping for anything!

This cruiser didn’t have a poncho and he wasn’t stopping for anything!

It was on one of those epic journeys to Kintamani that the weather turned. Fortunately, Ketut saw the storm coming and pulled into a roadside warung just as the first sprinkles hit.

This warung came in handy in three ways: 1) hot coffee, 2) petrol 3) shelter.

The warung had what was needed: 1) hot coffee, 2) petrol 3) shelter.

It was the perfect opportunity to fill up. The proprietor grabbed one of the amber bottles. She unscrewed the cover of the gas tank, uncapped the bottle, poured, then secured the gas cap again, all while holding an umbrella in her other hand. Rumor has it that the government is trying to outlaw these hazardous, do-it-yourself gas stations. I’m guessing it will be awhile.

Do you recognize this? It's the petrol station. One of those little jugs about fills the tank of a motorbike.

Here’s the petrol. One of those bottles fills the tank of a motorbike.

We sat and enjoyed steaming cups of thick Bali kopi just inches from the drenching downpour. Brown eddies swirled past our feet. This smiling fellow had stopped only to don his poncho. No coffee for him! He was on his way to work.

These ponchos come in all the colors of the rainbow. Everyone hopes they remembered to pack it when it starts raining. My smiling friend is getting ready to leave.

The ponchos come in all the colors of the rainbow. Everyone hopes they remembered to pack it when it starts raining. My smiling friend is getting ready to leave.

And off he goes.

And off he goes.

The warung was across the street from a temple that had an impressive flight of steps leading to the top. When we arrived a little trickle of water had started. After only fifteen minutes, the steps looked like this. When I say it was raining hard, I want you to understand what that means. Folks…it was raining HARD.

No, this is not a waterfall. These are the steps to the temple across the street.

No, this is not a waterfall.

The gutters were overflowing, completely flooding the street, and a man with a bright red umbrella tried to dislodge a huge branch that was blocking the culvert. He was unsuccessful.

Leonard Cohen does a song "Famous Blue Raincoat" and here's the Famous Pink Umbrella to go with it!

Leonard Cohen does a song “Famous Blue Raincoat” and here are the Famous Blue Slippers to go with it!

Eventually the cadence of the drops slowed and Ketut fished out his rain gear. Pulling it on, he seated himself and started the engine. In one flying leap I whipped the back of the poncho over my head and flung my leg over the seat. “Ready!” I yelled through the din.

There’s only one thing scarier than riding in the rain, and that’s riding blind in the rain. I could see nothing. My head was underneath the poncho. I tend slightly toward claustrophobia. I’ve gotten better, but for a few miles I had to sing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. (That’s a great technique, by the way, for those of you who tend to panic!) Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. I pulled my head out from under. “You wet?” Ketut shouted over his shoulder.

“No! You?” I yelled back.

“No! Big rain!” he said, and I guess that tells it all.

Paradise Found

I’m not one for crowds. I like my people in controlled portions, ceremonies and festivals excepted. In those situations crowd energy is essential. So when Ketut and I sit down with the map to find a new coastline to explore, he knows I don’t have Kuta or Canggu in mind. I want something pristine, deserted, remote. There’s a little dot on the map called Soka. It isn’t connected by road to the crazy tourist beaches. Something about it speaks to me.

This morning at 8:30 with thunderheads warm and dark in the west, we straddle the motorbike and head…west. “Maybe big rain,” Ketut astutely observes. “Maybe,” I agree hoping he’s right. A big rain when you’re on a motorbike is a great excuse to stop for a cup of Balinese coffee at a roadside warung to let it pass. There is nothing negative about that possibility for me.

Rice fields with mountains in the distance

After about an hour and three raindrops on my nose, the clouds are behind us. Soka is an eyeblink with a restaurant overlooking the distant ocean. Pretty, quiet, and no surfboard rental shops in sight. Good sign. We continue on. The ocean disappears. It has to be there but we can’t see it. A few more miles and Ketut pulls off the road. After a brief conversation with a local, he translates for me, “Small road,” he says, and we turn around and head back toward Soka.

Small road to the beach

When he turns off on said ‘small road’ I am feeling really happy. There are no guards demanding an entrance fee. There are no motorbikes parked alongside. There are no hoards of people. “Is it private?” I ask, thinking we may be trespassing on some exclusive beachfront property. “No very,” his tone reassures me even if his words leave me a bit muddled as to the exact meaning. We round the corner and, oh bliss! There it is! My beach! The one I have envisioned, longed for, believed in, and needed to find.

Ethereal mist softens the outcroppings of black lava

Breakers just keep rolling in

There are holes in the lava where tepid pools of water are trapped when the waves overflow. Nature’s hot tubs!

Ketut points out that the design on the edge of one pool looks like a snake is coiled there.

I am pretty proud of myself climbing up, but have to enlist help to get back down!

And this is what someone may have seen landing on this same beach centuries ago

There’s a downside to all magical moments. Leaving. At some point, knowing it’s going to take just as long to get home as it did to get here, the decision to leave must be made. We slowly pick our way back to the motorbike noting that the only tracks on the beach belong to us and a cow. Hmmm. A cow?

Back on the highway mid-afternoon hunger sets in. Rounding a curve, there it is, a tidy little warung. Water, soft drinks, bottled fruit juice and assorted Balinese snacks in pink bins line the counter.

Roadside warung

Hidden behind the display in her baseball cap and gorgeous smile, ibu chops the chilis for the mei goreng she is preparing for us. We wait, happily sipping steaming cups of delicious black sludge.

Chopping the chilis

Hunger satisfied, I resume my position behind Ketut when down the road in front of us comes…

THE COW!

And why not? This is Bali after all. Motorbikes, trucks, tourist buses, and a cow. It all seems perfectly normal after a few months here.

The Night Market at Mas

Question:  What do you get when you cross a Hindu ceremony with a Balinese all night market?  Answer: Sensory overload!

When Ketut asked, “You want to go to different market?” and I responded “What is different?” I was operating on the assumption it would be the same kind of market in a different location. Assumptions. Ketut expanded, “Night time, whole night, by temple, big football field.” I sought further clarification, “You mean all night? 24/7? No close?” Yes, that is exactly what he meant.

Of course I want to go, and my friend, Nancy, who is visiting me from the U.S., wants to go too. I picture a series of small shops around the perimeter of a large open area beside a temple. Why does my mind do that? Why do I presume to know what to expect? I do it every time and every time I’m astonished by something so utterly and completely unexpected it blows my tiny mind.

At 6:00 p.m. we’re ready. We have our sarongs in a bag to tie on when necessary. Ketut arrives, takes one look and says, “Pasek already sarong.” Okay, we need to wear our sarongs. At 6:30 we are still struggling to wrap the 2 meters of fabric in a semi secure fashion that doesn’t include an unsightly bulge around the mid-section. We both look about 8 months pregnant. It isn’t working. Finally, sweating bullets and laughing because it beats crying, we agree to quit trying to make it perfect and just go. I’m packaged like a tootsie-roll pop. Walking is a challenge.

I start to mount the motorbike (sidesaddle of course) and Ketut patiently repositions me. Since they drive on the left side of the road it is less likely my protruding knees will snag a passing vehicle if they stick out on the left. (Yes, the oncoming traffic is THAT CLOSE!) I glance at Nancy. She has hiked up her much more loosely wrapped sarong and is straddling the back of of Pasek’s bike. She’s taking no chances.

My first clue that the Mas Night Market may be a cut above the norm is the traffic jam. Suddenly every motorbike in creation has converged on this point. As we inch our way forward I notice a temporary toll booth of sorts. It is a chair in the middle of the road with a sign on it. The attendant standing beside it collects the fee. And then I see them…rows upon rows of motorbikes lined up two deep as far as the eye can see on both sides of the street. Ketut and Pasek make a few adjustments to the arrangement and we’re parked. We join the throngs. The flowing sea of humanity reminds me of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Here however, out of literally hundreds of people, Nancy and I are the ONLY tourists.

Nancy pauses outside the huge stone entrance to the temple area and Pasek waits just inside the gate

Pasek on the left, Nancy on the right and in the background a parade of people, all in ceremonial dress, bring  their offerings into the temple

In another area of the temple people sit amid flower petals praying

This altar is adorned with rich fabrics and loaded with offerings

I still hesitate to take photos in the temples during ceremonies. It feels intrusive and disrespectful. The Balinese are always gracious and invite snoopy folks to photograph whatever they want. So it may be just me. But I cringe when I see some guy in shorts with a telephoto lens as long as Pinocchio’s nose, climbing on whatever is handy however sacred it might be, shooting, shooting, shooting. At the very least wear a sarong…try! Fortunately there were none of those types around on this particular night.

We leave the other-worldliness of the temple and are thrust into the earthly business of buying and selling. Carried along with the flow, we pass blankets spread on the ground with mounds of lace fabrics. Women are pulling out colors they like and looking through the merchandise just as I would around a bargain table in the U.S. There are wind-up toys, watches, jeans, t-shirts, underwear, jewelry, sarongs, balloons, tennis shoes, sandals, motorbike parts, and food…lots and lots of food. The aroma from this particular warung cannot to be ignored. We try three different kinds of satays.

Making and selling satays in the Mas Night Market

And they are delicious…smokey, spicy, mouth wateringly delicious!

I’m lovin’ this fish satay. Pasek is being his stoic, patient self. He’s a saint!

I notice a stall where that beautiful feminine undergarment of torture, the corset, is on display in abundance. I need one. I have the sarong and the lacy kebaya, but to be 100% correct I need the strapless push-up-pull-in-rib-crushing corset to complete the look. In spite of the human current pushing me I slow way down. Pasek, a few steps ahead but ever-vigilant lest he lose one of us, is immediately beside me. “You want to buy?” Somehow the vision of one of those adorable little Balinese girls strapping me into the most intimate of undergarments in front of the gods, and Pasek, and everybody gives me pause. A corset that doesn’t fit is worse than no corset at all, and the retelling of the story of me being sausaged into one would provide enough entertainment in the village for weeks to come. What am I thinking!? Common sense surfaces and we move on.

There must be something about greasy fried food that triggers a neural response. The warungs selling heaps of piseng goreng (banana fritters) and other deep fat fried bready foods are like magnets. We cave to our salivating taste buds. I point to one heaping mound and two handfuls of the stuff goes into a bag. Before I can ask the price two heaping handfuls of something else goes into the bag. I started to speak but STOP!!! doesn’t seem appropriate so I watch in fascinated horror while the bag is filled with two or three handfuls of everything. It comes to a dollar.

We agree it is time to head back to the peaceful sanity of Ubud. The motorbikes are located and the Polisi directing traffic gets us safely on our way.

Leaving the night market

The ride home is uneventful in the best possible sense of the word. Pasek and Ketut join Nancy and me on the balcony for tea and mounds of greasy delights. I forgot to mention that each deep-fried handful was accompanied by two or three whole green chilies.  And what do you know…a bite of fritter and a bite of chili when chewed up together in the same mouthful…bliss!

Oh what a night!

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.

Reincarnation – Tell me about past lives…

Dewa and I had a long conversation about reincarnation yesterday. I was carrying those thoughts with me as I went about my day and suddenly one line appeared on a mental blank page.  “Tell me about past lives,” it said. I was near a familiar Warung (local restaurant) so I removed my sandals, stepped up to the spotlessly clean white tiled floor, took a seat on a bamboo stool by a bamboo table, pulled my notebook out of my backpack, requested a pineapple juice, and began. Half an hour and a chicken curry dish later I closed my notebook, returned it to my backpack, paid for my $3.00 lunch, retrieved my sandals, and strolled slowly home. Back in my sweet little room I took myself,  my laptop, and my notebook to the balcony and translated the scribbles. The result is this poem.

Journey’s End

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Was I here before? I want to know.

Tell me about past lives.

Was I a temple prostitute

Or one of the sultans’ wives?

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Did my cries ring out on a battlefield?

Did I dance to pagan drums?

Was I burned at the stake for my witching ways?

Sometimes a memory comes…

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Not clear like a snapshot photograph

But wrapped in a cloudy haze

Hinting at something long ago

Reminiscent of ancient days.

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I seek to know myself, and yet

Can I plumb the depths of these wells

When my soul spans ages of lifetimes

And old knowledge resides in my cells?

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When the sound of a Celtic fiddle

Makes my feet do an unknown dance

And I already know the Sanskrit words

That the kirtan leader chants.

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I am trapped in Scandinavian skin

With a penchant for curries and heat.

A crucifix haunts me from behind

While I kneel at Shakti’s feet.

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The teacher smiled with a knowing

And quietly said, “My friend…

The questions are the journey

The answers are journey’s end.”

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Sherry Bronson

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