The swimming pool that rocked my world

How have I not been swimming here every day since we arrived? 

This pool in downtown Cairns is amazing. This photo really doesn’t capture its size or location or special features. First of all, it is huge – 4800 sq meters (almost 52,000 sq ft or 1.2 acres) and it is slightly saltwater with white sand “beaches” at the edge that come right out into the water. It is located on the Esplanade (3 miles or so of waterfront in the downtown area) so it has magnificent views of the sea.

My favorite thing about this pool? No crocodiles and no box jellyfish (see George’s post on stingers.) I know it’s so much more hip and cool to swim in the ocean, but the salt water is very salty and I’m constantly worried about bumping into something larger and scarier than myself. The beach right down the street from here not only has stinger warnings, it also says, “crocodiles are known to inhabit these waters”. The biggest thing I have to worry about is bumping into in this pool is another person who will laugh and we will both excuse ourselves and carry on. No problem. No hospital visit or missing limb. And have I mentioned the temperature? I think it was custom made for my comfort zone. I have always said that I like 80° water, but I’m revising that down to about 78°. The water temperature in this area at this time of year is about 83° which is actually warm enough to not feel refreshing.

Today we decided to run along the Esplanade and then get in the pool to cool off. On a whim, I decided to try to keep up with George on our run today. I managed to stay at his pace for 2.5 miles and then dropped back to my own comfort zone. I ran 6k, which means he ran closer to 6.5k or maybe even more. We are slowly getting stronger and I am beginning to see a 10k in our futures. Although George consistently runs farther and faster than I do, we are both seeing the results. George now weighs less than I did when we left Sonoma County! (Take that in for a moment.) He’s lost nearly 25 pounds and I’ve lost about 12. I’m actually beginning to worry that he will come back weighing less than I do.

In any case, I hope to spend some portion of each of our 5 remaining days in Cairns enjoying the urban plunge into waters not too salty, not too chlorine-y, not too warm, not too cold, not too dangerous – but juuuuusssst right!

Stingers

The northeastern coastline of Australia in Queensland is stunning, the beautiful blue-green Coral Sea lapping gently onto curving white-sand beaches shaded by graceful palms bordering dense rainforests that climb the mountains as they rise above the sea.  The water here at 18 degrees south of the equator is 83°F, and it absolutely begs you to plunge in….. well, not so fast.

Lois and I had encountered an Australian couple in Assisi (Italy) who had mentioned that on the beaches of northern Queensland, one does have to be careful to avoid “stingers.”  Gradually we realized that these were neither bees, scorpions, nor scam artists, but rather jellyfish, and not just any jellyfish, but a special species called box jellyfish that inhabits these waters.  I’d already received a pair of four-inch-long vertical jellyfish tattoos on my torso while snorkeling near Menjangan Island off of the northwest coast of Bali.

Jellyfish Food

So, shortly after our arrival in Australia, we drove to the tourist information office to get advice about the location of the best and safest swimming beaches. The tourist office was near a beautiful promenade on the Cairns Harbor.

At Cairns Harbor — There are some really beautiful women in Australia.

Outside of the office a man was giving advice to inquiring tourists.  When we asked him about stingers, he said that sections of most public beaches have stinger nets that keep the jellyfish out.  Then he looked us over carefully and said, “No worries…..the loikes of you should be ible to swim anywheah.  Yer in foine shipe.  Yeea, it moight be the most excruciatin’ paine yuv evah felt, and occayysionally some overwight, retired bloke gets nicked by one of the buggahs and drops dead of cahdiac arrest on the spot, but the two of you should be foine.”

Our confidence renewed, we drove to a beach about an hour north of Cairns in Port Douglas called Four Mile Beach, a long, gorgeous crescent of white-sand paradise.

Four Mile Beach

The approach to the beach was posted with stinger warning signs showing a crude depiction of a jellyfish the size of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around the thighs of a suitably horrified, unsuspecting bather.  One helpful guidebook advises what to do if attacked by one of these creatures: “Do not attempt to remove the tentacles.”  So I guess they leave the tentacles (which are up to 10 feet long) dangling from your sorry ass as a sort of souvenir of your visit.  Underneath each stinger-warning sign at the beach was a bottle of vinegar.  Apparently even severed stinger tentacles will continue injecting agonizing toxins into your nervous system unless you pickle the damn things.  What to do if you can’t find a handy container of vinegar?  Locals suggest that you have a buddy urinate on the affected area.  The only drawback to this is that scientific studies show that urination has absolutely no beneficial effect on the victim of box jellyfish stings and may actually exacerbate the pain, in which case you suffer not only greater agony from the sting, but also the humiliation of having been pissed on.

Although Four Mile Beach is nearly as long as its name suggests, not a soul entered the water anywhere except for the 50 x 50 meter area bordered by the stinger net.  I have to admit, I was disappointed.  This is the land of Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.  You’d think that there must be at least someone out there with the gumption to do a little stinger wrasslin’….. especially after a few beers.  By the way, I forgot to mention that box jellyfish are transparent and therefore pretty much invisible.  OK, so maybe more than just a few beers.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?

It is summer in the tropical area of Australia. Temperatures are in the low 90s and beaches are   bustling. We wandered in to the mall (me still in my bathing suit top) to find a notice that Santa will be available for photos next week. Aussies are busily discussing their plans for the summer “hols” (holidays). For them, Christmas means barbecues and watermelon and sweet corn and playing with your new frisbee on the beach. I’m finding it a little disconcerting to be browsing through shorts and flip flops while listening to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” on the in-store entertainment system. Maybe this is my big chance to pick up a Santa themed bikini… and actually get to wear it.

 

To Jerry, on the Total Solar Eclipse, Australia, 2012

One of our most dear friends was Jerry Waxman.  Jerry was a colleague I taught with at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years.  He and I worked hard together to create an environmental studies program at the college; we also team-taught a class in environmental studies called Thinking Like a Mountain.   Actually though, Jerry was more renowned at Santa Rosa Junior College as an astronomy instructor.  He was a passionate and charismatic professor as well as a loving human being who seemed to attract devoted friends like a heavenly body.  He was a lover of the stars and the San Francisco Giants.  He had a wonderfully mischievous sense of humor.  When we would teach environmental studies together he would sometimes say things to the class that he knew would provoke and annoy me as a philosopher because, well….he thought it was fun.

Jerry Waxman, speaking at our wedding

Jerry left us far too young in 2009, after a long battle with a degenerative disease related to Parkinson’s.  Jerry especially loved the constellation Orion, and his family had a star in that constellation named after him.  I don’t know whether Jerry would approve, but I still have conversations with him when I see Orion in the sky.

Jerry had made it clear to all of his friends (and students) that at some point in their lives, they absolutely had to see a total eclipse of the sun.   He referred to it in ways I’ve heard mystical experiences described.  He said, it could not be described in words.  It could not even be understood through photographs or videos.  It simply has to be experienced.

The first itinerary that Lois and I put together for our year abroad did not include Australia.  Then Lois discovered that on the 14th of November, 2012, there would be a total eclipse of the sun centered near Cairns (pronounced ‘Cans’) in the northeastern tip of Australia (northern Queensland), and we immediately changed our plans…..in honor of Jerry.

There’s often great interest among Australians in spending time in Lake Tahoe, and we found a couple with a beautiful home just outside of Cairns, which they were interested in exchanging for our Tahoe place.  We arrived only a couple of days before the eclipse and immediately began researching prime viewing spots as well as weather prospects.  Cairns is in a gorgeous tropical location, bordered by the Pacific to the east and dense mountain rainforests to the west.  We arrived just as the rainy season was starting in earnest.  There was intermittent rain in Cairns when we arrived on Monday as well as the following day.  Weather forecasts called for more of the same for Wednesday, the day of the eclipse.  Jerry’s advice for viewing a solar eclipse had been to get to a mountaintop with a 360-degree view so that you can see not only the sun, but also the eclipse shadow as it races toward you at over 1000 miles per hour from the west.  Unfortunately, the mountains of coastal Queensland, although quite high, are covered with rainforests and are typically cloudier and rainier than Cairns – very risky for eclipse viewing.

The day before the eclipse we decided to scout out the territory in the rain shadow to the west of those mountains in order to find a clearer viewing sky.  West of the rainforests the terrain in Queensland certainly became drier, but we could see that the high coastal mountains that loomed to the east were covered with an apparently permanent mantle of high clouds, and would definitely eclipse our view of the eclipse, which was to take place shortly after sunrise when the sun was only 14 degrees above the eastern horizon.   So we continued even farther west, but the roads hugged the valley floors and were rimmed by mountainous terrain.  The territory was so remote that there were no side roads leading to the tops of mountains for broader vistas, and we were not inclined to set out on foot for the mountaintops in the pre-dawn darkness, given the reputation of the Australian outback as the habitat for the most lethal critters on earth.  We had driven for two hours before we found a place where the eastern mountains were distant enough and the road elevated enough to afford a possible view of the eclipse, depending upon how far away from due east the sun would rise the next day.   Still, scattered clouds hung in the sky despite the drier climate.

So we drove all the way back to the coast just north of our home near Cairns to check out the beaches as possible viewing sites.  The sky was still somewhat cloudy, but clearer than it had been in the mountain rainforests.   The scattered clouds were not much more prominent than they had been inland, and at least there was open sky all the way to the horizon.  Still, although forecasters were predicting scattered clouds and intermittent showers both on the coast and well inland for the morning of the eclipse, they were of the opinion that cloud clover would be thinner and the probability of precipitation lower inland.   What to do?  We decided to sleep on it.  We packed our eclipse watching gear into a backpack, put together a breakfast, set our alarm for 2 a.m. (in order to score a decent eclipse-watching spot), and went to bed.

We awoke (sort of) at two.  I think I recall wondering out loud as I got out of bed whether we really had to go through all of this just to watch the sky turn dark.  A brief rain shower battered the roof of the house.  This did not bode well.  We dressed, grabbed our stuff and got into the car.  A mile down the road we still hadn’t decided whether to head inland or to the coast.  When the road forced us to make a choice, Lois recommended heading to the coast first and checking out the sky there; this would still leave time to go inland if necessary.  We arrived at Ellis Beach, walked out onto the sand, looked up, and Orion glittered down at us like white gemstones from almost straight above.  I had no idea that Orion would be visible so high in the southern celestial hemisphere.  We stayed – even though there were no stars visible toward the eastern horizon.  It was an act of faith.

At 3 a.m. there were only a few other eclipse watchers visible through the darkness on the beach.  We set out a blanket on the warm, tropical sand, lay on our backs and looked up at the Milky Way flowing from north to south along the crest of the heavens like a sparkling waterfall, brilliant in a sky blackened by a moon as new and dark as it can be.  Spectacular shooting stars darted along the Milky Way.  We saw the Southern Cross for only the third time in our lives, and we were able to get a fairly close fix on the eastern horizon, its stars still obscured by clouds.   I had a silent conversation with Orion.   I later learned that Lois had done the same.

Not long before 5 a.m. the southeastern horizon began to glow a very faint yellow, much farther south of due east than I’d anticipated.  This was not good news because there was a thick band of ominously dark clouds in that part of the sky about 5 degrees above the horizon.

Cloud Band in Sky — Before Sunrise

In the dim light, we now found that we were sharing the beach with hundreds of people who had slipped in during the last couple of hours like apparitions.   At 5:30 the yellow tip of the sun lit up the southeastern horizon, glinting and glittering off the sea right next to the hills of an offshore island.

Sunrise

For the next 15 minutes sunrise was spectacular.  If there had been no eclipse, the sunrise alone would have been worth sacrificing a night’s sleep for.

Island Near the Sun

Although the sun still shone brilliantly, the eclipse was already in progress.  The moon had just begun carving an arc into the top of the sun, although this was only visible through a filter.   By 5:45 the sun had risen high enough to bury itself into the thick cloud bank, the only evidence of its presence an arc of rays reaching out past the clouds toward the eastern horizon.

Sun Moves into Cloud Bank

The large cloud was creeping very slowly from south to north.  Occasionally a small hole in the cloudbank would allow a small patch of sunlight through, but it would quickly pass by, replaced by ever thickening clouds, which obscured almost all signs of the sun at around 5:55.

Sun Completely Obscured by Clouds

The eclipse had been predicted to enter totality at 6:39; totality would last for just over two minutes.  There appeared to be no way the sun would escape the clouds during that time.  Beginning at 6:00 people began leaving the beach, presumably to drive to other beaches where the sun wasn’t obscured.   Lois said they reminded her of fans of the San Francisco Giants who leave in the 7th inning simply because the Giants happen to be losing.  Lois and I had once been with Jerry and his wife Pam in Ashland, Oregon watching a television broadcast of a World Series game between the Giants and the Angels in 2002.  When all the Giants needed to do to win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco was to protect a five-run lead for the last few innings of the game, Lois and I left in order to attend a Shakespeare play.  When we returned from the play, we learned that the Giants had blown the lead and lost the game, eventually going on to lose the whole World Series.  Jerry always blamed that loss on Lois and me.  There was no way we were going to leave the beach.

By 6:20 when I looked at the sky above and the people on the beach, it was as though a grayish film had seeped into the air.

Eclipse Watchers — Getting Dark

The winds began to increase.  (Jerry had mentioned that this is caused by the temperature and pressure differential created by the advancing moon shadow.)  By 6:25 I was feeling profoundly frustrated.  Our main purpose in coming to Australia had been to see this eclipse, and that purpose was being thwarted by a single persistent cloud.   Although Orion had long since faded from view in the morning light, I had one last silent conversation.

By 6:35, four minutes before totality, for no reason whatsoever the thick clouds that had been obscuring the sun started to disperse.   We began to glimpse the sun peaking through gaps in the clouds.

Clouds Breaking Up

Although we hadn’t been able to purchase the special eclipse-viewing glasses, we were able to see the remaining sliver of sun through an equally effective and much more beautiful filtering system – thinning clouds.  With the naked eye we were able to watch the solar crescent diminishing toward totality, which we would not have been able to do if the sky had been clear.

Crescent Sun Filtered through Clouds — Visible with the Naked Eye

The heavens dimmed ominously. At 6:38, miraculously, the clouds let go of the sun, by now nothing more than a thin, smiling arc of light with a small bulge where sunlight passed through a valley on the underside of the moon.  Then suddenly darkness struck, and a collective gasp sounded all along the beach as all solar light disappeared behind the dark perfect circle of the moon except the dancing halo of the sun’s corona and a soft glow low on the eastern horizon.  I had never realized how beautiful and amazing darkness could be.  During the two minutes of totality, most of us on the beach were speechless, with the exception of occasional exclamations of “Oh, my God!” and “Beautiful,” and the sweet sound of Lois’ soft crying.

Jerry had warned us not to look at pictures of totality.  He said they don’t even come close to capturing the experience, yet they give the illusion that you have seen it.  Lois and I had both run camera videos of totality, and Jerry was right.  They did not capture it.  In fact, they distorted it.  I’m following his advice.  You’ll find no photos of the total solar eclipse here.

When I think about our experience, I realize that there are several things we did not see.  We didn’t see the wall of darkness rushing at 1000 mph from the west because our beach only had a view to the east.  Nor did we see any sign of what Jerry called shadow-bands, dizzying bands of light and shadow that sometimes accompany solar eclipses.  What we did experience, though, was a sort of sweet torture, followed by tremendous relief, heart-stopping exhilaration, and a giddy, breathtaking feeling of beauty and wonder.  It was unforgettable.  There is a total solar eclipse in Oregon in August 2017.  We’ll be there.

The San Francisco Giants never won the World Series while Jerry was alive, but since 2010 when he departed for the stars, they’ve won it twice, after playing one cliff-hanging game after another in which they clawed their way back to victory in the final inning or two.   One radio announcer characterized watching the Giants as torture.   This past year the Giants won the championship again against tremendous odds after losing the first two games in a playoff series against the Reds and three of the first four games in the championship series against the Cardinals.  When all hope seemed lost, some sort of spiritual intervention seemed to take place, and they would emerge victorious in glorious fashion.  Watching them play was exhilarating, mesmerizing…and exhausting……like the solar eclipse in Australia, November 2012.

Balinese Religion

**Once again, my apologies for the length of this post.  Feel free to read it in smaller pieces.

People come to Bali for different sorts of reasons — for the beautiful tropical beaches, for world-class surfing, for the amazing snorkeling and diving, for rafting Bali’s dark green rivers or for trekking through rainforests and brilliant green rice fields in the shadow of Bali’s elegant volcanic mountains.  Still, this isn’t what’s unique about Bali; what can be found nowhere else on earth is Balinese culture, and that is mainly what Lois and I came for.  If this is what you want from Bali, you need to stay a bit and settle in.  You need to let go of your desire for the familiar; you need to be able to embrace your own disorientation.  Although there is a very deep sense in which people are the same wherever we go, life feels very different here.

Spiritual practice is deeply woven into everyday life in Bali, far more than anyplace we’ve visited.  Offerings to the gods and divine ancestors are as important a part of life as eating, working and sleeping.  Each day, women in the household sit on the floor creating beautiful arrangements of flowers in small, handmade banana-leaf baskets.  At certain times of the day, the women then dress in traditional sarong and sash, place flowers behind their ears, and set these creations out at various locations around the property as offerings to facilitate life in harmony with the spirit world.  Offerings are usually accompanied by incense, the smoke from which rises up to the gods.  The ritual of placing these offerings is an act of quiet beauty, accompanied by graceful hand movements and the sprinkling of holy water.  The smell of incense is ever present; from now on it will always remind me of Bali.

Offering

Offering Placed on Dinner Table

As our host (and mentor) Wayan explained it, the Balinese believe that the divinities give us natural beauty, and we then use nature to create beauty, which we offer in return to the gods.  Wayan sees it as a sacred cycle involving reciprocity and gratitude.  The gods give us rice, fruits, vegetables and meat, and that is the inspiration for the offerings of foods to the god.  The use of holy water represents the cycle of water that begins in the abode of the gods on the sacred mountain, and flows down the rivers to the sea, from which it returns once again to the mountain as rain.  In fact, Wayan describes Balinese Hinduism as a religion of holy water.

Offerings are placed not only around the home, but also in markets, stores and warungs, in restaurants, in rice fields, and even in the middle of the road.

Making an Offering in Rice Field

I’ve even seen offerings set out in the headquarters of rafting companies, notorious hotbeds of irreverence in other parts of the world.

Entrance to Rafting Company — Two Guardians against Evil Spirits (I could have used them when I worked as a whitewater guide)

Very elaborate offerings of flowers, rice, cakes and fruit are often placed in temples.  All of these offerings are temporary; flowers will fade; chickens will peck them apart; old offerings litter the ground in outdoor markets where they are ultimately trampled by customers.  No matter.  New offerings are constantly being made.  Most days we find an offering on the walkway or the porch outside of our cottage.

Offering in Front of Our Cottage

Although most Balinese believe that these offerings are greatly appreciated by the gods, we had a conversation with one village spiritual leader who (like Socrates) couldn’t imagine how the gods could be benefited by anything we might offer them.  He said, “My belief is that offerings serve as an act of meditation that helps purify the soul of the one doing the offering.”  However interpreted, offerings are indispensible to the rhythm of life here.

Balinese New Year is one of the most important days on the Balinese calendar.  It’s not a rousing, American- or Chinese-style festival, but a time for quiet contemplation about your life over the past year and your goals for the next.  This is like Rosh Hoshannah in the Jewish tradition.  It’s taken a bit farther in Bali, though.  On the Balinese New Year absolutely no work or travel is permitted.  Wayan mentioned that it simply transforms Bali.  Airports and seaports in Bali are completely shut down; no one can enter or leave the island.  The streets are completely vehicle-free.  Wayan said that you could sit in the middle of a highway in peace on Balinese New Year, which is difficult to imagine after having seen the swarms of motor scooters darting and weaving amidst taxis and trucks in downtown Denpasar.

Although Bali is an island within Indonesia and Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, approximately 90% of Balinese are Hindus.  Hinduism has been present in Bali since at least as far back as the 11th Century.  There are a few Islamic communities, particularly on the west coast of Bali across the Bali Strait from Java, and there is a smattering of Buddhism (in Chinese immigrant communities) and Christianity (among the expats), but Bali is essentially a Hindu island.  According to the Balinese we’ve met, all religions coexist amiably in Bali, despite the infamous Al Quaeda bombings ten years ago, which, in addition to causing over 200 deaths, also utterly disrupted the Balinese economy by bringing tourism to a standstill for several years.  Tourism is picking up again, although the worldwide economic problems have taken a toll over the last few years.

To people interested in culture and religion, Bali is a dream destination because it has made a deliberate effort to encourage its villages to open up their ceremonies to visitors.  In our village of Taman, where we are the only foreign visitors, we have found villagers and priests to be completely willing not only to allow us to observe their ceremonies, but also to participate in them if we wish

Lois in Cremation Ceremony Procession

Each Balinese home is in a family compound.  It is passed down on the father’s side.  When the sons marry, the parents share the compound with them and their families, adding new buildings to the compound if necessary.  Our friend (and sometime chauffeur) Blue has three daughters and very much wants to try to have a boy for this reason….but his wife is a bit worn out by the kids and her job, and it is very expensive to pay for their education.   Family planning is being promoted heavily in Bali now; most families have only two children.

To walk the streets of a Balinese village is to be surrounded by temples.  They call Bali the land of a thousand temples, but this number is much smaller than the actual number of temples in Bali.  Each family compound has a temple – which is often more elaborate than the home itself.  At one point our host Ayu gave us directions for a running trail and told us to turn left at the village temple.  I became hopelessly lost because I couldn’t distinguish family temples from a village temple.  Ayu’s son Agus had to come fetch this bewildered tamu (tourist guest) on his motor scooter.  A family temple is a matter of great pride in Bali.

Family Temple of Wealthy Household

Wayan’s and Ayu’s Family Temple

The family temple is placed on the north and east side of the family compound, north for the line of mountains that stretch across the north of the island (particularly the most sacred mountain – Agung)  and east for the sunrise. In fact north is actually defined in the Balinese language in terms of its orientation to the mountains, so that temples on the north side of the mountains that face southward toward the mountain are still said to face north.  The family temple shrines are mainly for honoring one’s ancestors.  The importance the Balinese give to the veneration of ancestors, including the idea that ancestors can become deities, is one of the ways in which Balinese Hinduism is different from Indian Hinduism.

The refreshing thing about the Balinese is that when they describe their beliefs to a visitor, there is no expectation that the visitor will accept them as true. They just identify them as Balinese beliefs or sometimes simply “my beliefs” because they also recognize that different villages and even different individuals in Bali sometimes have differing beliefs. This is not considered grounds for excommunication, damnation, or condemnation.  It’s accepted as a natural consequence of our individuality as humans.  This is one of the characteristics of Hinduism, both in Bali and India, that I’ve always wished would spread a bit further west.

One of the Balinese beliefs I found most tempting was their explanation for hair loss.  Ayu reassured me that, according to the Balinese, the bald spot on my head was a natural consequence of my being a college professor.  She said that, according to Balinese people, deep thought leads to hair loss.  So now that I’ve given that up I’m hoping to regain a full head of hair.

In addition to family temples, there are also village temples, as well as ‘public temples’ used by people throughout Bali.  There are even temples devoted to certain occupations/castes.  Unlike temples in India, Balinese temples are not enclosed; they are open to the sky – in order to make it easier for the gods to appear during temple ceremonies.  In any village there are usually a number of temples, at least three of which are dedicated respectively to the 3 great gods of the Hindu trinity —  Brahma, Vishnu (‘Wisnu’ in Balinese), and Shiva (Siwa).

Statue of Vishnu and Sacred Bird Garuda in Center Intersection of Taman Village

Brahma is the creator; Vishnu is the preserver or protector; and Wayan calls Shiva the “dissolver” (not ‘destroyer’ as Shiva is often described).  Of these three temples, the temple to the god Shiva is generally at the lowest elevation of the three; he is thus most closely associated with the sea, where our ashes are ultimately deposited and everything is dissolved.   When I asked Wayan whether a Balinese Hindu, like an Indian Hindu, tends to become a devotee of a particular god, Wayan said that this isn’t really the case in Bali.  The Balinese generally worship the one great universal spirit (Sanghyang Widi Wasa) who underlies all of the gods.  Like Hinduism in India, there is an underlying monotheism in Balinese Hindu belief, despite the fact that Balinese practice generally appears to be polytheistic.  These multiple deities are all manifestations of the universal spirit (which Indian Hindus call Brahman).  Wayan does add, however, that Balinese practice tends to be Shivaistic due to the fact that so much of life – and especially spiritual life – is an attempt to come to grips with suffering and dissolution.  Shiva is also the god most closely associated with the cycle of reincarnation because the dissolution of life is what makes way for rebirth.

There are usually village temples that are dedicated to other gods as well, aside from the Hindu trinity – most prominent among them the goddess Saraswati (goddess of education, arts and music), the goddess Melanting (deity of business and commerce), and the goddess of the rice fields, Devi Sri.

Statue of Goddess Saraswati (in Arma Museum in Ubud)

Ceremonies happen frequently in Bali.  The first official ceremony we observed was also the one that took the longest time for me to grasp.  It concerned the measurement of the site for Wayan and Ayu’s new guest cottages.  At first it was hard for me to see this as a spiritual activity; I don’t generally see surveyors and title company employees as especially spiritual folks.  Wayan’s explanation is that his project involves an expansion of the original walls of the family compound into an undeveloped, natural area where spirits dwell.  If he is going to develop the area occupied by these spirits, it’s important to do the appropriate ceremonies that will make it more likely that those spirits who make their home there will be willing to share their dwelling place with Wayan and his guests.  A priest needs to come in to perform the rites that will allow the family and guests to live in harmony with those divinities and that will position the new borders of the compound in the most spiritually auspicious manner.  Ayu explained it as being a bit like feng shui.

Priest (in white, toward the right) Observes Property Measurements

Wayan and Ayu Receive Holy Water from Priest in Property Ceremony

I think we should generally make this a requirement in America before deciding where to put in a new Wal-Mart.

The measurement ceremony was followed a few days later by placement of the first stone, which required that the priest return to make sure that the foundation was positioned appropriately (spiritually speaking).  For each of these ceremonies, Wayan and Ayu dressed in sarong and sash (also a traditional Balinese headdress for Wayan) and placed offerings on the site to be developed.  The priest carefully observed the measurement of the area and placement of the stone, chanted prayers and blessed the area with holy water.  When the cottages are completed, the priest will return to preside over an additional ceremony.

Another home ceremony that took place during our time with Wayan and Ayu was for the bees on his property.  Wayan has created a beautiful flower garden in his family compound; so there are naturally quite a few bees in the compound.

Orchid in Wayan’s Garden

The priest had told Wayan and Ayu that this could be a very good thing spiritually speaking, if handled properly.  It could also be a bad omen, unless the proper spiritual precautions were taken.  So a ceremony was held in order to help assure that the presence of bees in the garden would be beneficial…to humans as well as the bees.  My theory is that the reason for the declining bee populations in the U.S. is that they’re all heading to Bali.

Wayan told us that one of the differences between the Hinduism of India and the Hinduism of Bali is that Balinese Hinduism is more animistic and naturalistic.  The Balinese natural world is alive with spirits.  This is why a ceremony needed to be done in order to create the proper balance with the spirits in the undeveloped area beyond the borders of the family compound.  Trees are often considered sacred, particularly the banyan tree with its hundreds of roots plunging from high in the tree down into to earth like gigantic rooted tentacles.  It is hard to look at one of these organisms without feeling some sort of spiritual presence there.  Often the Balinese wrap a banyan or another grand old tree at the base to honor the spirit of the tree, just as they wrap the base of a statue to honor a god.

Base of One of the Largest Banyan Trees in Bali – The tree is so large that the wrapping in foreground (intended to honor the tree) is dwarfed by the tree.

Even the Balinese gods are often closely associated with nature.  In Balinese Hinduism Shiva is associated with the sea, the ultimate dissolver; Vishnu is associated with water (freshwater) needed to sustain life.   Brahma is associated with fire.  Devi (Dewi) Sri is the goddess of rice, Bali’s most important crop; like her rice fields, she is beautiful.

Balinese Painting of Devi Sri

There is a close relationship between Devi Sri and Vishnu because of the importance of water in the growing of rice.

The rice fields in Bali are not owned by large multinational corporations; they’re owned by small farmers each of whom inherited a small family plot, often less than half an acre, which will be passed on to his/her descendants.  It would be unthinkable to sow or harvest a crop of rice without honoring Devi Sri.  So the boundaries of these plots are generally marked by a shrine for offerings to the goddess of the rice fields.  It’s part of what makes these fields so lovely.

Shrine in Rice Field

Wayan told us that the Balinese can also believe there are spirits in inanimate objects – like machines.  When I reported that there seemed to be evil spirits in my computer, Ayu offered to arrange to have me take it to a priest for a purification (actually I think she felt that I could use at least as much purification as my computer).  I’m thinking about it.  I thought I might bring along the GPS unit to see if it would help with Irish fairies as well  (see my post ‘Farewell to Ireland’).

There are other differences between Balinese and Indian Hinduism.  Meditation, for example, is not an especially prominent practice among the Balinese, nor is what we would generally refer to as yoga…..although I would require years of hatha yoga in order to sit or kneel on asphalt or cement surfaces as long as the Balinese do in village ceremonies.  The existence of people who choose to renounce the world and live an ascetic life of deep spiritual introspection is virtually non-existent in Bali.  The idea of leaving family or society on a spiritual quest would simply be unacceptable here.  Balinese Hinduism is, in some ways, more like earlier forms of Indian Hinduism (sometimes called Classical or Vedic Hinduism) with its strong emphasis on offerings and sacrifice.

Although caste still exists in Bali, my sense is that it plays a much smaller role there than it has played India.  The Balinese I’ve spoken to prefer to call castes “clans,” but they identify them more with occupational groups. Intermarriage between castes is widely practiced, and one is not restricted by heredity to a particular trade or occupation in Bali.  There are social reasons one might be inclined to remain in one’s father’s occupation, though.  For example, one may inherit one’s father’s rice field or blacksmith forge and tools, and this influences people’s career choices.  The blacksmith trade is one of the few in Bali that remains largely hereditary.  Nonetheless, there is no expectation on the part of Wayan or Ayu that their children will choose their parents’ occupation.  Anyone, in fact, can become a priest in Bali as long as he (or even she) is respected enough by the village to be chosen.  Still, it is true that the high priests generally come from the Brahmin caste.

Not only are Balinese rituals and offerings a constant part of life in a family compound, but there are also frequent ceremonies that involve all or most of an entire village.  In any car trip across Bali you can count on passing through towns the roads of which are festooned with a gauntlet of bamboo penjors for temple anniversary celebrations (each anniversary reckoned according to the Balinese 210-day calendar),

Penjors for Village Celebration

and sometimes long funeral processions that halt traffic in town.  We encountered one very recently on a trip to the mountains.  What had stopped traffic was an elaborate bier to be used in the funeral that was being put together on the main road through the village.

One of the most complex ceremonies we took part in was a mass cremation ceremony in our neighboring village of Karang Dalem.  Villages conduct funerals in different ways.  Some hold separate cremations for each person who dies in a village; others wait for years and then hold mass cremations.  In some villages the body is literally cremated, and its ashes brought to the river or sea; in others the body is buried, and a symbol or effigy of the body is cremated.  The ceremony in Karang Dalem was a mass cremation for villagers who had died over the past five years.  We were told that cremation is very expensive, and mass cremations minimize the expense.  The ceremony was for about two dozen people (one of whom had been a relative of Ayu’s), and the entire village participated.  Ayu told us that preparations for the ceremony had begun a full month beforehand.  The actual ceremony went on for a week.  Our first exposure to it was a long funeral procession in which offerings of all kinds were carried on women’s heads, and an effigy or symbol of each departed person was carried to the cremation site by a relative of the deceased under an umbrella, accompanied by the entire village and its gamelan band.

Funeral Procession in Village of Karang Dalem

Procession Nears the Cremation Grounds in Karang Dalem

The townspeople then gathered in the cremation grounds where there was a long ceremony presided over by several priests.  Relatives and other villagers made a huge number of offerings, instructed by the priests who also led in prayers and conducted their own chants in Sanskrit.  Then the effigies were cremated.  Cemeteries and cremation grounds in Bali are considered the domain of the fierce goddess Durga, often described as wife of Shiva.  True to her reputation she let loose a coconut from about 45 feet high in a palm tree, and it struck a woman in the side.

Ceremony at Cremation Grounds

In a ceremony a day or two earlier a small amount of dirt from the cemetery where the bodies rested had been added to the bowl containing the effigy for each deceased person.   The effigy (along with the dirt) was what was cremated (in lieu of a literal cremation of the body) in the ceremony we attended. Balinese Hindus believe that fire is needed to purify the soul after death.  In this particular ceremony there would actually be three cremations, a new effigy made for each one.  The ashes of one would be washed in the river Agung; a second would remain with the family shrine for ancestral worship; and the third would be taken to Bat Cave Temple on the eastern shore of Bali, and deposited into the sea.  Bat Cave Temple is a national public temple used by Balinese from all over the island, particularly as a part of cremation rites.  The temple’s name refers to a large cave within the temple compound; the cave teems with bats the size of crows. They were clearly visible en masse from our vantage point outside the cave entrance.  We were told that large snakes writhe about the floor of the cave snacking on the occasional careless bat that comes to close enough to the pile of writhing reptiles.  One shudders to imagine how large those snakes would have to be to eat the massive bats.  Legend has it that the bat cave extends deep inland and northward all the way to the great temple on the slope of the sacred mountain Agung, connecting the temple on the sea with the temple on the mountain.

At the Bat Cave Temple – Look for a Throng of Bats Hanging on Ceiling of Cave

After the mass cremation there would be a ceremony to purify the souls of the departed.  That celebration took place the following day.  The part we witnessed was a procession led by a priest and a sacred cow in which the relatives of the deceased once again carried new effigies of the departed, and women carried on their heads large fruit offerings piled high in a cylindrical shape while circling the village temple.  Because the souls had now been purified by cremation, the new effigies made to represent them could finally be placed in the temple where the ceremony was completed.

Offerings of Fruit, with Effigies Underneath — Purification Ceremony

Before purification the effigies could not enter the temple ground.  The requirement for purification within the temple grounds also extends to menstruating women, and this prevented Ayu from participating with us in a later temple village temple ceremony.

The mass cremation and soul purification ceremonies were not somber; they were lively and upbeat social gatherings. Wayan mentioned that relatives and friends do sometimes experience a certain amount of grief during the ceremonies, but their grief is mitigated by the belief that their loved ones will reincarnate into a new life, perhaps a better one. Of the seven or eight funeral processions I’ve seen in Bali, I wouldn’t characterize any as sad or somber.  There is a casualness to all Balinese religious ceremonies.  During a ceremony kids are playing; people are eating; some men are smoking (I’ve never seen a Balinese woman smoking); people are chatting while priests are chanting.  The priests are communicating with the gods (often in Sanskrit), and the people generally have no idea what is being said.  So unless the priest is specifically directing them to pray or move to a particular location, the people go about their own social activities during a ceremony, trusting that the priests are doing the rituals properly.  The priests don’t consider this disrespectful in the least.  If I’d played and chatted with my friends at church when our priest was chanting in Latin, Sister Mary David would have whacked me up the side of the head.

Just as there is a dark side to human nature, the Balinese see a dark side to divinity as well.  This is best represented by Durga, who is not only the goddess of the cemetery, but also the goddess of black magic and witchcraft.  Western religions (even some western philosophers like Socrates) reject the idea that a god could be something less than good.  They prefer a purely elevated notion of divinity.  The price they pay for this is extreme difficulty in accounting for the existence of evil in our world; evil is generally pinned on variety of culprits other than God – usually human, who were, by the way, also created by God.  There is a certain honest (and, I suppose, brutal) logic to the Balinese idea that since this world has evil in it, there must be evil in the realm that created or governs it.  They see this world, both physical and spiritual, as a kind of balance or harmony between the positive and negative, a bit like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  Our lives would be impossible without the negative.  For example, rebirth would be impossible without death.  One village spiritual leader used another example.  He said that anger, although a negative quality, is necessary and beneficial for human functioning and progress as long as it is kept in proper balance.  The harmony between positive and negative is represented by the white and black checkered cloth that the Balinese often drape around objects they wish to honor.

Someone who is spiritually adept can learn how to use positive spiritual forces in order to become a healer (white magic) or to use negative spiritual forces, with the aid of Durga, in order to bring harm to one’s enemies (black magic).  God is not going to smite down the practitioner of black magic.  The rest of us simply need to be aware of both the positive and negative, and to know the various spiritual strategies available for us to protect ourselves against negative spiritual forces like black magic.  Consequently a large number of Balinese rituals are designed to ward off evil spirits.  Any offering that is placed on the ground around the family compound (and this is probably the majority of the offerings) is for protection against evil spirits.  Most important family or village ceremonies begin with the burning of three green bamboo logs, which are, in turn, struck on rocks, making a loud pop that frightens off evil spirits, not to mention unsuspecting tamu.

Warding Off Evil Spirits

Statues of ferocious beasts guard the gates of most village and public temples against the presence of evil spirits.

Two important figures that appear in Balinese myth and dance are Rangda, the evil widow witch, who is often closely associated with the goddess Durga,

Statue of Rangda in front of Tirtha Gangga Royal Water Palace

and Barong, a fantastical animal creature that fends off evil characters like Rangda.  Elaborate dances (Barong) involving dancers dressed in spectacular Barong and Rangda costumes center around this theme.

Barong Costume, Worn by Two Actors During Barong Dances

By the way, the stories do not generally end in the victory of the good.  Neither the good nor evil prevails; balance prevails.

We did meet Balinese Hindus who considered black magic to be nothing more than misfortunes that one brings on oneself.  One of them described it as an unfortunate belief that potentially creates false suspicions about the cause of illness in a village.  Nonetheless, the majority of Balinese believe quite literally in black magic, and take precautions against it.  Even those more skeptical of black magic still embrace the idea of a spirit world and a physical world that contains a balance of good and evil.

Speaking of the dark side, even though I was intellectually prepared for it, I still tend to feel a jolt when I encounter the swastika carved into ancient Balinese temples.  I have to remind myself that it’s not the work of Balinese Arian skinhead taggers hankering after world domination.  It’s the ancient Hindu symbol for harmony and peace.   So I’m trying to chill about it…..dude.

Peace and Harmony — Inscription on Bat Cave Temple

And speaking of chilling, I’ve tried to work hard to develop a sense of toleration about the passionate involvement of most Balinese men in the ‘sport’ of cockfighting.  I have to report that I’ve failed – I’d never make it as an anthropologist.  I’m an unrepentant bleeding heart; I could not bring myself to watch a pair of roosters peck each other to death.  Roosters are raised all over Bali for the purpose of cockfighting.  I’m told that owners treat their roosters very lovingly….before tossing them into a ring to have their eyes pecked out in front of a throng of salivating, cheering men — sorry…may the Balinese Hindu spirit of toleration guide the remainder of this blog post.

Cockfights (subject to certain time limits) can actually be a part of temple rituals, I was told.  Balinese Hinduism does believe in animal sacrifice to the gods (although cows are an obvious exception), and the cockfight is a variation of this.  The blood shed by the roosters is returned to the earth as a sacrifice to the gods.  Cockfights are male activities in Bali (well, of course the roosters are male, but so are the humans who watch).  Gambling is hot and heavy during virtually any cockfight, and I’m told that this is not only prohibited by Balinese Hinduism, but also by law in Bali.  The prohibitions have no effect whatsoever that I could see.  I saw open betting on cockfights taking place on temple grounds.  I saw betting going on among the crowd at the start of a village temple ceremony.  When I mentioned my puzzlement to our host Wayan (who is among the minority of males in Bali who is not a fan of cockfighting), he responded that the gambling makes certain people wealthy enough that they are able to bribe the police to look the other way.  The police themselves generally enjoy cockfighting.  He added that he’s known people who have lost all of their property gambling on cockfights.

Balinese Men Gathering to Watch a Cockfight

When Ayu offered to take us to a tooth-filing ceremony, I was baffled.  Although I have experienced fear and trembling in the dentist’s chair, it’s never been an especially spiritual experience.  In Balinese Hinduism the tooth-filing ceremony represents a sort of initiation into adulthood.  It is done in order to help protect the person against the six enemies (sometimes called the bad habits): jealousy, anger, laziness, dishonesty, arrogance, and lust.  Like most Balinese ceremonies, it begins with prayer and the sprinkling of holy water.  The initiates are dressed in elaborate traditional Balinese dress, and, after prayers and the sprinkling of holy water, the priests write sacred inscriptions on their front teeth.

Sacred Inscriptions on Front Teeth in Tooth-filing Ceremony

Then, in the ceremony we observed, the youths lay down five at a time and five priests rubbed files over the tips of their six front teeth while practically the entire village leaned in to get a good look.

Tooth-filing

When she saw me wincing, Ayu reassured me that, although in times past, priests could be fairly vigorous in their tooth filing techniques, these days they are much gentler.

Although scripture (particularly Vedic Hindu scripture) does not play a large role in Balinese Hinduism, traditional stories from the Hindu tradition, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabarata epics, do.  Scenes from these stories appear everywhere in Balinese art.  Gigantic sculptures of mythical gods and heroes are often placed in the middle of the central intersection in the village.  In a previous post, Lois mentioned the incredible scenes from the Ramayana carved in 700 meters of rock on the bank of the Agung River.

Scene from Ramayana, Banks of the Agung River

An entire tradition of Balinese dance and music is centered around Balinese and Hindu myths.  I’ve already mentioned barong.  Legong is another example. It is an extremely stylized and graceful dance performed by young female dancers dressed in beautiful and elaborate costumes.  Historically it was performed for the Balinese royalty, but now it is performed throughout Bali, often for tourists.  The dances feature intricate, synchronized hand gestures (mudras), foot positions, and head, neck and eye movements, and are accompanied by gamelan music played on tuned, hollow, bronze drums, bells and flute.

Legong Dance

Gamelan Instrument

Balinese girls who show promise begin learning legong when they are four or five years old.  Legong dancing brings them great prestige.  Ayu invited four 10-year olds to do a practice performance for us one evening.

Practice Dance Performance at Wayan’s and Ayu’s Home

An especially famous form of Balinese dance is called kecak.  It’s a dance in which the Ramayana story of the rescue of Rama’s kidnapped wife Sita is acted out.  Kecak can’t really be described; you’ve just got to see it.  The dance/story is accompanied by a large number of bare-chested male dancers sitting on the stage, sometimes in rows and sometimes in concentric circles, swaying and moving their hands in synchronized patterns, while shouting out syllables like “chak-a-chak-a-chak” in very rapid and complex, patterned rhythms.  The rhythms are wonderful, and Lois and I were amazed and delighted by the performance.  Although kecak is very sophisticated, there is also something that feels very primitive about it, as though if you were surrounded by a group of these men doing kecak, you would likely be sitting in a large pot of boiling water.

None of my photos came out.  If you’re interested, check out the following Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E55dQXdiIms

In the performance we saw, the kecak dance was followed by what is called Trance Dance or Fire Dance.  It began when a barefooted and bare-chested man came out onto the stage carrying a model of a horse on a frame.  He knelt in front of a priest who blessed him with holy water (he will need it).  He then entered a trance-like state, and, keeping his eyes closed, he stood up carrying the model horse above his shoulders and ran into a large pile of burning coconut husk coals, kicking the coals all about the stage with his bare feet, after which two men swept the coals back into a pile in the center and the dancer again ran into the pile, repeating the process until the coals were mostly spent.  It was an amazing and frightening thing to watch.  The dancer’s feet were completely blackened at the end.

Fire Dance

If you do come to Bali, you’ll see religion on display, perhaps like nowhere else on earth.  There are performances of sacred dance and music for visitors; you may well be invited to observe cremations, weddings or temple anniversary celebrations.  Those who visit Bali find the value in this to be essentially anthropological and historical.   It is tempting for us to assume that the Balinese view it the same way, but this would be a tremendous mistake.  This is a living religion that penetrates and gives meaning to virtually every aspect of their lives.  We need not only to understand that, but also to treat it with respect.  During the kecak ceremony, Lois and I didn’t grasp the connection between the kecak dance and the fire dance.  Ayu explained afterward that, in the Ramayana, after Rama rescues Sita, he suspects that Sita’s kidnapper Rahwana may have had his way with her.  Sita insists that she did not allow this to happen, and to prove her sincerity and loyalty, Sita underwent trial by fire (which is what is being represented in the Fire Dance).  When she was done recounting this story from the Ramayana, Ayu had tears in her eyes.

Second Cooking Lesson with Ayu

For our second cooking lesson we made Sweet Tempeh, Fried Noodles, and Black Rice Pudding for dessert. I thought I should mention that the sweet soy sauce we used is thick like maple syrup. I’ll have to look for it in my Asian market at home. The little packet on the left in the photo is oyster sauce, which technically violates the vegetarian thing, but I don’t care.

All the ingredients for the whole meal. The plate on the right (next to the coconut) contains black rice, 2 blocks of palm sugar, 2 bananas, and the fragrant panandan leaves. The iron tool next to the coconut is for opening the coconut.

Sweet Tempeh  (Serves 2)

 Ingredients:

2 blocks tempeh

Tempeh wrapped in a banana leaf. It’s about the same size as our blocks of tempeh at home.

6 garlic cloves

1 small shallot

1 red chili, seeds and veins removed

3 green onions

1 stalk celery, including some of the leaves

1 T. sweet soy sauce

1 T. ketchup

1 T. oyster sauce

coconut oil for frying

Preparation:

  1. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.
  2. Cut the tempeh into small rectangular slabs about ¼ inch x ¼ inch x ¾ inch.
  3. Chop the green onions, including about 2 inches of the green part. Dice the celery and chop the leaves.
  4. Heat coconut oil (1/4 inch deep) in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, carefully add the tempeh cubes and move them around in the pan to coat with the oil. Continue moving them around gently with spatula until they are golden on all sides. (You don’t need to turn them individually.)
  5. Remove the tempeh to a strainer or colander set over a bowl. Reserve 2 T. of the coconut oil.
  6. Using the same pan, heat the 2 T. of coconut oil. When it is hot, add the shallot and cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and stir fry for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the green onions, celery and the tempeh. Gently stir to mix.
  7. Add the sweet soy sauce, the ketchup, the oyster sauce, and a little salt and white pepper. Stir to coat all pieces with the sauce.
  8. Taste and correct flavors. Remove to a serving dish.

Sweet tempeh served on a banana leaf. This was one of our favorite dishes in Bali. I could have eaten this every day.

 

Fried Noodles (Balinese style)     Serves a lot more than 2

Ingredients:

1 pkg wavy Asian egg noodles

8 garlic cloves

1 large shallot

2 red chili, seeds and veins removed

4 green onions

2 stalk celery, including some of the leaves

1 bunch bok choy, washed and dried

2 eggs

1 medium carrot

½ small head of cabbage (2 cups chopped)

3 T. sweet soy sauce

3 T. ketchup

3 T. oyster sauce

2 T. coconut oil for frying

 

Preparation:

  1. Put on a pot of water to boil while you prepare the vegetables. When it boils, cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain and add a little oil so the noodles don’t stick together. Set aside.
  2. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.
  3. Dice the celery and green onions, including about 2 inches of the green part. Chop the bok choy and cabbage into bite size pieces. Dice the carrot. Dice the celery and chop the leaves.
  4. Heat coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. (You can use some of the coconut oil that you used to fry the tempeh.) When it is hot, add the shallot and cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and stir fry for a minute or two until fragrant.
  5. Add the green onions and celery and cook for 1 minute. Crack 2 eggs into the pan and stir them around until cooked and combined with the vegetables. Add the carrot, bok choy, and cabbage. Stir to mix well.
  6. Add the noodles.
  7. Add the sweet soy sauce, the ketchup, the oyster sauce, and a little salt and white pepper. Stir to coat all pieces with the sauce.
  8. Taste and correct flavors. Remove to a serving dish.

Fried noodles, ready to eat.

Black Rice Pudding

This dish takes some advance planning since the black rice needs to be soaked and cooked ahead of time. The whole dish can be made ahead of time and reheated for dessert or for breakfast.

 

Ingredients:

½ cup black rice

1 can coconut milk (or you can make your own coconut milk like we did. Instructions below.)

¾ cup palm sugar or ¾ cup dark brown sugar, packed

* 3 fragrant panandan leaves (These are used for flavoring and coloring cakes and other baked goods. Obviously you can only add these if you are in Bali.)

salt

sliced bananas

 

Preparation:

  1. Soak the black rice for 8 hours or more. Drain off the water.
  2. Put the soaked rice in a large pot and add 10 cups cold water (it should cover the rice by about 5 inches. Cook the rice over low heat for an hour or more. Taste to see if the rice is tender. You should have about ½ an inch of black water in the pan with the rice. If the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and keep cooking it down until you have tender rice and about ½ inch of creamy, black, soupy water.

*Add the fragrant leaves to the last 15 minutes of cooking time.

3. While the rice is cooking, melt the brown sugar with 1 T. of water until syrupy. Set aside to use later.

4. Add 1 can coconut milk and a pinch of salt to the pot with the black rice. Bring to a boil, stirring so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom. Boil for 5 minutes.

5. Add at least half of the sugar syrup. Taste and add more sugar as desired *Remove the leaves before serving.

6. Serve in small bowls or cups with sliced bananas on top.

 

Note: Here’s how to make your own coconut milk. This is the way we made it in Bali.

  1. Get a mature coconut off your tree in the back yard. Get your husband to remove the husk with a hatchet.

    Wayan removing the coconut husk.

  2. Crack the coconut open with a penyeluhan, a small crow-bar looking tool that is made just for opening coconuts.
  3. Drain off the coconut water.
  4. Separate the coconut meat from the hard shell. Break off 5 large chunks (about the size of your palm).
  5. Using a traditional wooden grater made from the bark of a palm fern tree, finely grate the coconut meat.

    Grating coconut

  6. Put the grated coconut in a large bowl and add 1½ cups of water. Using your hands, squeeze the water through the grated coconut for about 10 minutes. Remove as much grated coconut as you can with your hands, then drain the coconut milk off using a fine mesh strainer. It is now ready to add to the pot with the black rice (or whatever else you’re making.)
  7. Feed the discarded grated coconut to your pigs. (It makes the meat really tasty I’m told.) Use the coconut shell for making bowls and fancy spoons. Use the coconut husk for grilling suckling pig and other meats, or for your fire dance ceremony.

First Cooking Lesson with Ayu

About a week ago I had my first cooking lesson with Ayu. We made Gado-Gado (Boiled Vegetables With Peanut Sauce), Tofu With Peanut Sauce, and Fried Banana for dessert. Here are the recipes and a few photos:

Tofu and Vegetables with Peanut Sauce

 Ingredients:

1 pound firm tofu

10 long beans (or 2 handfuls green beans)

1 large handful bean sprouts

½ bunch spinach (or 1 package baby spinach)

1 cup raw peanuts

10 cloves garlic, chopped very small (1/3 cup?)

2-3 shallots, thinly sliced

2 red chili peppers, seeds and veins removed

1 T. sweet soy sauce

1-2 T. cane sugar

*Optional: A squeeze of fresh lime juice. (We used half a Balinese lime, which is teeny tiny lime about the size of a ping-pong ball. You don’t juice it, you just put it in rind and all.)

coconut oil for frying

(Serve with white rice or thin rice noodles. If you have leftover rice you can warm it up with boiling water just before serving. If you need to make rice, start it cooking at the beginning of the process.)

Clockwise from upper left: Spinach, long beans, bean sprouts; tofu blocks; garlic, shallots, bali lime; salt; sweet soy sauce; coconut oil in the plastic water bottle; peanuts; bananas; jackfruit (which we also made into fritters for dessert.)

Preparation:

  1. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.

    Prepping the veggies

  2. Slice the tofu ¼ inch thick from the small end of the cube and put it in a bowl.

    Slicing the tofu.

    3. Wash and trim the spinach. Drain well. Cut the long beans into 3 inch lengths.

    4. Heat coconut oil (1/4 inch deep) in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, carefully add the tofu slices one at a time with tongs. When you can see they are becoming golden on the bottom, turn them to cook on the other side. If the oil gets smoky, turn the heat down (or off) for a little bit. When cooked on both sides, remove to a strainer placed over a bowl to drain and cool.

    5. While the tofu is cooking, heat more coconut oil in a small frying pan. Fry the shallots until crispy and browned. Remove them to a plate. Using the same oil, fry the garlic and chilies until the garlic is very pale golden, just a couple of minutes. Remove them to a separate plate.

    Fried shallots, and fried garlic and chili in coconut oil.

    6. After the tofu is finished cooking, use the same oil (add more as needed) to fry the peanuts. Stir constantly until the peanuts are nicely colored. Remove them to a plate to cool. Dispose of any remaining frying oil.

    Frying the peanuts while the tofu drains in the natural bamboo colander.

    7. Put a large pot of water on to boil. When the water is boiling, add the long beans or green beans. Put the lid on and let the water return to a boil. Taste a bean for doneness. It should be tender crisp. Add the spinach on top and push it down into the water. Then add the bean sprouts. Move them around in the water for one minute, then turn off the heat. Put them in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Let them drain.

    8. Make the peanut sauce. Grind the peanuts in a mortar and pestle or put them in the food processor. Add a little water to loosen the paste. Add the shallots, garlic, and chilies and process until smooth.

    Grinding peanuts in a stone bowl with a round rock.

    Seeing how it’s really done.

     

    9. Using the same large frying pan that you used for the peanuts, heat some water (approximately an equal quantity as the peanut paste.) Stir in the peanut paste. Add salt, sweet soy sauce, and cane sugar. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. Cook the sauce until it is the consistency of gravy. (At this point, you could try adding a little bit of lime juice to brighten the flavors, or just leave it as it is.)

    10. Put the tofu on a wide serving dish and spoon half the peanut sauce over the tofu. Drizzle with more sweet soy sauce.

    11. Put the vegetables on a separate serving dish and pour the remaining peanut sauce over them. Stir to coat all the vegetables with the sauce. Add a little more salt, some sweet soy sauce, and taste. Correct flavors as needed.

    Main dishes ready for the table. Gado-gado on the left, plain white rice in the middle on a beautiful banana-leaf mat, and tofu with peanut sauce on the right.

Fried Bananas   (Makes 8 small fritters)

Ingredients:

2 cups white flour

2 eggs

¼ t. salt

4 T. sugar

2 bananas

coconut oil for frying

Preparation:

  1. Crack the 2 eggs into the flour. Add salt and sugar. Stir with whisk just to combine.
  2. Peel the bananas. Cut them in half to make 3-4 inch long pieces. Cut them in half lengthwise (to make them skinnier.)
  3. Start heating coconut oil ( ¼ inch deep) over medium flame.
  4. Gently place a piece of banana in the batter. Using a spoon, gently move the banana around until it is covered with batter.
  5. When the oil is hot, use the spoon to gently place the coated banana into the oil. Fry for 1 minute or so until golden. Using tongs, turn to cook the other side.
  6. Remove from the oil and drain in a colander placed over a bowl (or on paper towels on a plate.)
  7. Repeat with the other pieces of banana. (You can cook as many pieces as will fit in your pan at the same time, but make sure you still have enough space to turn them over.)

Note: These should be eaten shortly after frying as they don’t keep very well. The batter will keep for a few days, covered in the refrigerator. Balinese people eat these for dessert and for breakfast.

The Real Bali

Although Lois mentioned that we are staying in Abiansemal, that is actually the name of the district our village is in.   The name of our village is Taman.  Much of the tourist action in Bali is on the southern beaches in towns like Kuta, Bali’s Cancun.   Ubud is farther inland; it is often said to be the cultural center of Bali.  It is where tourists go to see the “real Bali,” although the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love has turned it into a rather congested and touristy town.  Ubud is charming, but it is no longer quite the real Bali.  Taman, our home for the month, is without a doubt the real Bali.   It’s about a half-hour’s drive from Ubud.  We are the only tamu (tourist guests) in the entire village.  When people (especially children) see us, they are clearly startled, but usually delighted.  The Balinese are among the most friendly and curious people we’ve encountered in all of our travels.  Passing Balinese strangers sometimes stop on their motor scooters just to say hello, perhaps the only English word they know – because it also has the same meaning in Balinese.  Giggling children approach us shyly, working up the courage to greet us with “Good morning” whether it is day or night.  During village social gatherings, Lois is often surrounded by laughing children.

Her explanation is that they are fascinated by her blonde hair.

Bali Babe

Our Balinese friend Blue disagreed.  He said it was because Lois is a person who is bursting with love, and children see this right away.

As Lois mentioned in an earlier post, our hosts have said to us that there are no rules in Bali, and this seems to apply particularly to driving.  Well, technically there is a rule about keeping toward the left side of the road, but on many occasions we’ve been in cars in which oncoming motor scooters were passing us both on the right and the left.  Cars and motor scooters crowd side-by-side on the roadway, slipping past each other on either side with a friendly honk.  Unlike Italy and Ireland, they generally keep their speeds relatively slow, but being in a car in Bali (particularly in the city) feels a bit like being in the middle of a brisk cattle drive.  So, in the interest of sanity and the safety of everyone concerned, we’ve opted to have a driver take us wherever we need to go.

Although cars fill their tanks at gas stations, the motor scooters almost never do this.  Their gas is sold in one-liter bottles lined up in stands outside of tiny roadside stores (wahrungs) that also sell a few groceries and sundries.

Petrol

Lois mentioned in a recent post that one of our chauffeurs is Made (Mahday), who drives us about in his VW Thing convertible.  Volkswagen stopped making the Thing around 30 years ago.  Made was confused when I asked where he finds parts for it.  My guess is that they mostly don’t bother with parts, because I noticed that nothing on Made’s dashboard works – including the speedometer, odometer, and fuel gauge.  Once on our way into Ubud the Thing sputtered and died, rolling right up to a little wahrung.  Made just got out of the Thing, strolled over and got a bottle of yellow firewater, poured it into the tank with a funnel, and we were on our way.  What the hell do you need a fuel gauge for?

When you move out away from Ubud to the smaller villages like Taman, traffic does thin out, but you start seeing bizarre things.  At one point I noticed a giant haystack careening toward me on the roadway – until it got closer, revealing two wheels and a barely visible man riding in the middle of the foliage…. along with his toddler and wife.   In Bali motor scooters are for hauling.  In the past two weeks these are some of the things I’ve seen being carried on motorscooters: bushels of rice, bales of hay, 20-foot long bamboo poles, large loads of firewood, huge temple offerings, mobile grocery stands, two dozen ducks, a large (live) goat, a large (live) pig, and a family of five humans (honest!), No worries, though; the drivers are really responsible.  Although there doesn’t seem to be any official minimum age for riding a motor scooter on the village roads, I haven’t seen anyone driving a motor scooter who was under six or so.

Balinese Logging Truck

Recycling – Balinese Style

Actually many Balinese do walk from place to place in the village, but they tend to carry something with them.

Women often carry these items hands free.

If you’re going to stay in the real Bali, your neighbors will include critters of all sorts.   Each family compound has at least one dog.  Our host family’s dog is named Feedo (spelled Fido).   He’s a little 3-month-old rascal who likes to chase cats and chickens and nibble on our toes.  Families in small villages in Bali often raise their own domestic animals.  Roosters are everywhere in Bali because of the popularity of cock-fighting.  So rooster reveille sounds throughout the village (and all over Bali) at around a half hour before dawn.  Oddly enough, at around the stroke of midnight I often hear several woozy rounds of rooster crowing.  Apparently they like to party.  The second morning here I was pretty sure I heard elephants trumpeting all over the neighborhood, but it was just pigs, some of whom are almost the size of elephants.  Speaking of elephant-sized animals, here is a photo of the arachnid guarding the approach to our door.  We’ve actually grown very fond of him.

Houses in the tropics are not insulated or sealed, but are made with openings to enhance air flow – which would also enhance bug flow if it weren’t for the geckos and chk-chks that patrol every home interior.  In Bali you do have to become friends with lizards on the ceiling.  The sound GECK-O…..GECK-0 is echoing through the compound as I write these words.

Gecko

After a rain the bullfrogs and crickets add their voices to the chorus.  All of this is mixed together most evenings with human sounds.  Balinese Hindu chanting and temple gamelon percussion drifts through the forest from neighboring village temples almost every evening.

If we venture about a half-mile away from the family compound to the jungle adjacent to the river Agung, we also see and hear monkeys, as Lois mentioned in a recent post.  Since monkeys are sacred animals to the Balinese, we often see them in temple compounds as well.  They’re not especially frightened of their slow and clumsy human relations.  The monkeys in one area are famous for stealing small items set down by humans (like sunglasses) and ransoming them for bananas.  I saw one macaque stage a sneak attack on a dog when it wasn’t looking; the dog deserved it.

Our host Wayan is philosophically opposed to large-scale tourism in which hotel chains buy up scenic Balinese rice fields, river banks and ocean front, causing great environmental damage and congestion that will ultimately cause Bali to become a less attractive place to visit.  This is already happening across the river from Taman in Ubud.  Wayan is passionate about promoting what he calls sustainable tourism.  The lifeblood of Bali’s economy is tourism, but he favors a grass-roots, downsized approach in which individual families are encouraged to host tamu in small bed-and-breakfast environments, giving guests an opportunity to see the real Bali, as opposed to a fabricated resort environment.   Wayan and Ayu arrange almost all of our excursions.  In addition to being our host, Wayan has been a local tour guide for 20 years.

Wayan

When we wanted to go to the beach, he arranged for us to go to a beautiful “secret” beach he knows that has few tourists and is serviced by small local wahrungs and restaurants rather than large chains.

Secret Beach

Rather than send us to Ubud to do our shopping, Ayu introduced us to the village’s morning market.

Ayu and Lois at Morning Market

Morning Market

Wayan and his friend Blue have taken us to beautiful waterfalls where the visitors are almost entirely Balinese.

We’ve visited palaces and spectacular temples set by the sea or in the mountains, some of which are far away from the tourist routes.

Gangga Water Palace — once the palace of the royal family of Bali

Pura Melanting

Malanting Temple

Temple Ulan Danu

Although there are not many Buddhist communities in Bali, Wayan also brought us to a beautiful Buddhist monastery.

Guarding the Buddhist monastery

Reclining Buddha

Wayan especially enjoys taking us on walks through the rice fields.  Balinese rice fields are astonishingly beautiful.

As often as not, we encounter people washing their clothes or bathing in the canals that irrigate the rice fields.  The older ones sometimes try to cover up, more to accommodate our sensitivities than their own.  The kids don’t seem to care.

As part of a two-day tour of the north and west parts of Bali, Wayan took us to a fishing village in which the fishing fleet looks like this.

He knows where to find the best sunsets,

Looking west from the Bali coast toward volcano in Java

the most amazing views,

and cool trees.

Wayan loves gardens; in fact, the courtyard of his own family compound is a beautiful garden.  On one trip, we stopped at this ridge-top garden overlooking spectacular terraced rice fields.

By the way, on our tour of the northwest Wayan told us we might be able to see some flying foxes.   We saw several.

Flying Fox

I believe this fox hybridized with a pterodactyl.  Although Wayan insisted that they were harmless, my hand kept moving involuntarily toward my jugular.

Wayan also took us on a tour of northeast Bali where we saw the two active volcanoes on the island.

Mt. Batur — Volcano

Lake in the crater at the base of Mt. Batur

Mt. Agung

Mount Agung last erupted in 1963.  It is considered to be the home of the gods.

Many of these locations are not frequented by the big tour operators; they’re often not even mentioned in respected alternative travel sources like Lonely Planet.

As part of their plan to facilitate sustainable tourism, Wayan and Ayu are now adding two more guest cottages to their family compound; they are urging their village neighbors to do the same sort of thing.  Bali needs tourism.  Wayan and Ayu just want more people to have access to the kind of tourism that supports residents of the village and integrates tourists into village activities, rather than the kind that mainly offers the experience of a large hotel complex and highly commercialized and inauthentic activities.  It would be absurd to claim that Lois and I are living like real Balinese.  We are among the few people in this village who have hot water; we get to sleep in late; all of our meals are prepared for us; and whatever we need is provided.  After all, we are still tamu, but we are getting to see the authentic Bali.  It’s a beautiful and amazing opportunity.