The South Island

We had originally planned to spend well over a month in New Zealand (which Kiwis pronounce ‘New Zillund’).  The eclipse in Australia changed that, as did the timing and availability of home exchanges.  We spent a mere three weeks in New Zealand, and only nine days on the South Island – not nearly enough time.   Our South Island base was a gorgeous home perched on a hillside with a spectacular view of the South Pacific just south of Christchurch, roughly in the middle of the South Island.

Our Home in Christchurch


Our Deck — Breakfast with a View

This perch was a precarious one.  In February of 2011 a devastating earthquake centered in Christchurch destroyed many of the historic downtown buildings, including much of Christchurch’s historic cathedral.

IMG_9942Remains of Christchurch Cathedral

Devastation - Downtown Christchurch

Devastation – Downtown Christchurch

The quake had rippled and buckled roads throughout the region, and driving was at times slow and precarious.  Sections of many of the hillside homes surrounding the city are now dangling over the edges of cliffs newly created by the earthquake and its aftershocks.    The cliff-top home in which we stayed had narrowly avoided disaster.  Parts of the driveway just below the house had disintegrated, and cracks were evident in the walls of the home.  Despite the ravages of the earthquake Christchurch remains a delightful city that still maintains a very British flavor.  We spent part of an afternoon “punting” on the Avon River, which courses through the center of town.

Punting on the Avon

Punting on the Avon


Our idea was mainly to use the home in Christchurch as our base for exploring the lakes, mountains and coastlines of the South Island.  New Zealand looks tiny on a world map, but it would take fifteen hours to drive the length of the South Island alone.  We didn’t have enough time to visit some highly recommended parks on the northern and southern edges of the South Island; so we had to be very selective.   What we did see there was absolutely beautiful.  As we leave, it’s clear that we have a lot of unfinished business to do tramping about in New Zillund.

Our final foray away from Christchurch was a trip to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Major storms had battered the western half of the South Island during a good part of our stay there, causing tremendous flooding in the west and summer snowfalls in the mountains.  These were the remnants of the hurricane that had caused so much devastation in Fiji – our next destination.    It was only a few days before our departure from New Zealand when the weather finally cleared enough for us to attempt a trip to the Southern Alps.  They were distant enough from our place in Christchurch that we decided to make it a two-day camping trip, using equipment very graciously loaned to us by Nigel and Desiree, with whom we were doing our home exchange in Christchurch.   Our primary destination was Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but Nigel mentioned that we might want to stop for a bit in Tekapo on the way to Mt. Cook.

Tekapo is on the southern shore of Lake Tekapo, and as we rounded a hillside and got our first view of the lake, the color was so vivid that it looked almost unnatural, as though the lake were a solid substance.  It simply compelled us to stay.

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

Although we were an hour away from Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, we found a campground at the edge of the lake and pitched our tent on a bluff overlooking the blue-green waters.

Lake Tekapo Camprground

Lake Tekapo Camprground

Lake Tekapo Camper

Lake Tekapo Camper

The Southern Alps were visible in the distance on the far end of the lake, and the snow level had been so low in the recent storms that even the smaller hills surrounding the lake had gotten a heavy dusting.  It was glorious.

View of Southern Alps from Lake Tekapo

View of Southern Alps from Lake Tekapo



Lonely Planet had mentioned that there was a café with a ‘to-die-for’ 360-degree view atop nearby Mt. John; so we started the drive up.   Although the drive was less than ten miles, it took us the better part of an hour because we had to keep stopping to take photos of flower fields, the lake and the surrounding mountains.


By the time we arrived at the top, gale-force winds were blowing, forcing all the visitors to cram into the tiny glass-walled café for shelter.  I tried to order us a light lunch, but, after an experience like that portrayed by John Cleese in the Monty Python “Cheese Shop” skit, I eventually discovered (after a good deal of fruitless guessing) that only two items on their menu were actually available – coffee and scones.  This eliminated my usual indecisiveness about ordering café fare.  As soon as our “lunch” arrived we were ordered off of the mountain because the winds were forcing the authorities to close the road that provides access to the Mt. John.  We gulped down the coffee and scones, rushed out and tried to take a few photos in the windstorm, and then again from the car windows as we negotiated the switchbacks down the mountain.

Lake Tekapo from the road to Mt. John

Lake Tekapo from the road to Mt. John

Returning to the campground, we went for a jog along the rim of Lake Tekapo, followed by a long soak in the adjacent hotsprings with a view of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake.

The next morning we made our way towards Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but again the going was slow because the vistas we encountered along the way were utterly distracting, beginning with Lake Pukaki, which seemed even more vivid than Lake Tekapo, an intensity we hadn’ t seen since our visit to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.

Looking at Lake Pukaki

Looking at Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki is fed by waters from the glaciers of the southern Alps, which deposit the silt that suspends in the lake, turning it a stunning turquoise.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

From the southern end of the lake there was a view to the north end, which was dominated by the rather formidable, glacier-clad, Mt. Cook.  At over 12,000 feet Mt. Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, rising to its full height from a plain that is only a few hundred meters above sea level.

Mt. Cook from Lake Pukaki

Mt. Cook from Lake Pukaki

Recent storm activity had been so intense that the dam and spillway at the southern end of Lake Pukaki were overflowing, and the beautiful turquoise water was pounding into a broad valley, creating a turquoise torrent, the Pukaki River, which plunged over falls and then disappeared around a bend, painting the landscape blue.

Spillway, Lake Pukaki

Spillway, Lake Pukaki

Pukaki River

Pukaki River

Despite the fact that this was the rainy season on the South Island, tourists had risked bad weather simply for the chance of catching a view of Mt. Cook and its sister mountains.  The mountain gods were with us, providing what New Zealanders call “fine weather”  with deep blue skies.

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

The trail up Hooker Valley took us past 10,300-foot Mt. Sefton.

Mt. Sefton

Mt. Sefton

Hooker Valley Tramper

Hooker Valley Tramper


Then it meandered up the Hooker River all the way to the terminus of the Hook glacier and others that fed into it.  We crossed two long suspension bridges, under which the gray-white river thundered and boiled.

Suspension Bridge, Hooker River

Suspension Bridge, Hooker River

Staring down the valley, I shuddered to think of what it might be like to run a river raft or kayak down such a raging torrent.

After the second footbridge we were met with a full-on view of Mt. Cook, whose huge, commanding presence dominated the horizon.  Massive glaciers covered the mountainsides and spilled from the feet of Mt. Cook.  This was why we had come to New Zealand.

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

The trail was crowded – even after the going had become precarious, and sections of the trails had become stream beds channeling the run-off from the recent storms.  I was especially impressed by the tenacity of a middle-aged Asian woman who attempted the rocky, mucky three-hour trek dressed like Tina Turner in a red satin jacket and high-heeled boots.  I hadn’t realized that ankles could twist in so many directions before.

On our return trip to Christchurch, we realized how much of the South Island we would not be able to see on this trip, including Abel Tasman National Park in the north and Milford Sound in the south.  Our sample had been small, but exquisite.  New Zillund is a place to which we absolutely must return. 


Middle Earth


We arrived in New Zealand not long after the world premiere showing of “The Hobbit” in Wellington’s Embassy Theatre.

Gandalf at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington

Gandalf at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington

Like the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit (which will also be stretched into a trilogy of 3-hour-long films….yikes!) was filmed in New Zealand.  Peter Jackson’s films have helped make New Zealand the new tourist destination, especially for nature buffs.  I have to admit that the scenery we saw in Lord of the Rings is one of the things that brought us to these islands.  When we arrived at Wellington’s airport, it was apparent that New Zealand has fully embraced the films.  Huge sculptures of characters from The Hobbit populate the Wellington airport.

Gollum, at Wellington Airport

Gollum, at Wellington Airport

Wellington’s most famous museum, Te Papa, displays gargantuan sculptures of the three trolls, who, because of their impeccable culinary knowledge of the proper herbs to use in cooking dwarves over a spit, turned out to be Lois’ favorite characters from The Hobbit.  I liked them too, but only because I thought the dwarves deserved to be eaten.

Troll, at Te Papa Museum

Troll, at Te Papa Museum

Signs throughout Wellington, including one in the “backpacker style” hotel/house of ill repute where we stayed our first night, proclaim:  “Welcome to the middle of Middle Earth.”  Since Wellington is at the south end of New Zealand’s North Island, it’s as close as one gets to the middle of New Zealand.  On our map of New Zealand, we found not only the names of cities, highways, and national parks, but also the locations where various scenes in the Lord of the Rings had been filmed.  We had arranged a home-exchange in a house about an hour north of Wellington in a beach town named Otaki, which can only be understood by Kiwis (i.e. New Zealanders) when pronounced “Oh Tacky.”

Sunset, Otaki Beach

Sunset, Otaki Beach

Not far outside of Otaki lies the Otaki River Gorge where, as indicated on our map, one could find the location of a scene featuring the outskirts of the Shire.  Apparently there are “Lord of the Rings/Hobbit” locale tours of New Zealand for the most serious Tolkien geeks (and I use this term with the utmost respect).   Since I’m now retired I was thinking of returning to New Zealand at some point to make a few extra bucks by setting up a company called “Geek Tramps and Tracks.”  If you think this would be a job pimping for nerd call girls on freight cars, you obviously aren’t familiar with Kiwi lingo.  “Tramp” is Kiwi for hiking/backpacking, and “track” means trail or footpath…..sorry to mislead or cause any undue excitement or interest.

One of the more surprising realizations that we have had in New Zealand is how similar Middle Earth is to Northern California, our home….if indeed we have such a thing at the moment.

Sonoma???  Not!  Waipara Valley, NZ

Sonoma County, California??? Not! Waipara Valley, NZ

Meadow in Otaki River GorgeMeadow in Otaki River Gorge

Actually there’s a bit of Ireland in New Zealand as well, given the brilliant green hillsides, the dragons, and the little halflings with furry feet and pointy ears…. not to mention the dead guys wielding swords.

View of Akaroa Harbor

View of Akaroa Harbor in New Zealand, looking downright Irish

Akaroa Harbor

Akaroa Harbor

Still, there are differences.  One does not find these hues in the coastal waters of Northern California and Ireland.



Beach at Kaikoura

Beach at Kaikoura

And although this river valley may have the general look of a river valley in Northern California,

Otaki River Gorge

Otaki River Gorge

the proliferation of tree ferns was a dead give away that we’re not home yet.

Tree Frern

Tree Fern

The forests may look familiar, but you just don’t find tree species with names like rimu, pukatea, kahikatea, and rewarewa in Ireland or California.

Rainforest Tree Ferns

Speaking of Kiwi lingo, many of the towns in New Zealand have Maori names — with which I’m having extreme difficulty.  In the greater Wellington area, we encountered towns with names like Paekakariki, Waikanae, Paraparaumu, and Wanganui.  The Kiwis were of little help here; we heard them pronounce Waikanae in three different ways, and they referred to Paraparaumu simply as Parapram. The Maoris were originally from Polynesia, and had begun settling the islands of New Zealand in the 13th Century….hence, the Polynesian names.  Nonetheless, New Zealand is as far south of the equator as the southern border of Oregon is north of the equator.  For me, having towns this far from the tropics with Polynesian names was like seeing Oregonian loggers wearing flowered sarongs with Tahitian Gardenias in their hair.

While on the North Island, like Bilbo Baggins, we decided to have “an adventure.”  This consisted of a long drive to the Wanganui River, an evening’s camp-out, and a jetboat trip upriver, followed by a canoe trip downstream.  The Wanganui River gorge had been described as one of the most beautiful places on the North Island.  The drive up the canyon was breathtaking.

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Although the idea of racing wildly upstream and disturbing the tranquility of pristine riparian habitat offended a number of my more naturalistic sensibilities, I got over it.  It was a blast.

In the Jetboat

In the Jetboat

Our driver, Thomas, is Maori and had been raised in the Wanganui River canyon where his family had farmed for generations.   As we slalomed upriver at breakneck speeds, he would occasionally bring the jetboat to a stop and treat us to some natural history, Maori lore, or family stories.  He also would give us encouragement about canoeing the rapids.  “Thees one heah we call Foofty-Foofty….cause you only got a foofty perceent  chance of comin’ through the rapid uproight…..No worries, though…you can always chicken aout, and drag the canoe through that shalla section ovah theah…..  If ya do troy ta run it…. well…. see that wayve theah with all the backwarsh?   Just mayke suah ta hit it stright and you’ll be foine.  No worries.”

The rapid was only a Class Two rapid, and I’d guided whitewater rafts on Class Four rivers.  There was no way Lois and I were going to drag the freakin’ canoe through the shallows in order to avoid running “Fifty-fifty.”

The jetboat took us as far upstream as the trailhead leading up a 2-mile pathway to the Bridge to Nowhere.

On the Trail to the Bridge to Nowhere

On the Path to Nowhere

The Bridge to Nowhere had been constructed in 1935 as part of a depression era program to encourage farming in the Wanganui River Valley.  The main transportation in the valley had consisted of river boats (including steamboats), and there had been plans to construct several roads connecting these farming communities to the river transportation network.  The bridge had been built in anticipation of the future construction of these roads.

In Front of the Bridge to Nowhere

In Front of the Bridge to Nowhere

It then became clear that the area was not especially suitable for farming, and the farmers began abandoning their farms, one by one.  By 1942 only three farms remained.  The government abandoned its plan to construct roads into the area, and the environment reverted back to rainforest.  Only the bridge remained, and still stands as a monument to poor planning.  We ate lunch on the bridge as Thomas filled us in on its history and pointed out the eels swirling in the currents of the Mangapurua Stream that flowed 125 feet below the bridge upon which we were standing, the bridge now known as the Bridge to Nowhere.

The jetboat dropped us off 10 miles upstream from our starting point on the Wanganui River.  We were looking forward to the canoe trip, which would enable us to get a closer look at the canyon and take some photos, a few of which appear below.

Waterfall, Wanganui RiverWaterfall, Wanganui River

Wanganui River Tributary

Wanganui River Tributary

Wanganui River Reflection

Wanganui River Reflection

If you do canoeing, kayaking or rafting, you’ll know that the fact that we were able to take the above photos from the canoe is an indication of the level of confidence we had that we would not experience any mishaps that might immerse our cameras.  For the most part, the Wanganui River was rapid free.  We paddled through miles of flatwater, and encountered only a riffle or two before we came upon Fifty-fifty.  By then, Lois and I knew that it would be no problem for us to hit the wave straight.  No worries.  The canoe slipped into the tongue of the rapid perfectly, and Lois and I were a well-oiled machine, hitting the wave perfectly straight… which point I heard a shriek from Lois as the front of the canoe (Lois included) disappeared under the wave.  Knowing that we had followed Thomas’ instructions to the letter, I had no doubt that the front of the canoe would re-emerge uneventfully from the waters.  It emerged, but not uneventfully.  Even though we’d hit the wave perfectly straight, the amount of water that had found its way into our canoe was beyond the capacity of this particular canoe to manage, and it began sloshing left and right until the canoe rather effortlessly capsized.   I was astonished.   After 15 minutes wrestling the canoe onto a midstream rock and dumping out the contents, we settled our moistened and bedraggled behinds back into the canoe and began assessing the damage.  Two cameras had experienced full immersion, and my prescription sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.  Lois described it as the price we paid for hubris.   I think from now on I’m sticking with white-water rafting.

Modern fashion technology is the only reason I was able to post the above photos of the Wanganui River.  I had never had good fortune with cameras while traveling, but thanks to an hour under Lois’ blow-dryer, my camera (and all the photos on it) survived. Lois’ camera survived as well.  Like Bilbo, we returned to our village bruised, but just a little wiser….and humbler.

Canoeing the WanganuiCanoeing the Wanganui

A Vulnerable Land

Lois and I have been amazed by the scale of things in Australia.  We spent our entire time in the state of Queensland on the eastern coast.  Although Queensland is one of Australia’s smaller states, if we had tried to drive from our place in Cairns to our next destination on the “Sunshine Coast” near Brisbane (both in the state of Queensland), it would have taken us twenty hours, longer than a drive from San Francisco to Denver.  Even after spending six weeks in Australia, the parts that we experienced did not even begin to give us a sense of the whole of the country.

We began our stay in Australia in the Tropic of Capricorn, just 17 degrees south of the equator.  When we  moved to Australia’s Sunshine Coast, we were 27 degrees south of the equator.  The ocean was still a beautiful turquoise color, framed by crescents of white-sand beach, but it was decidedly cooler, and unmenaced by the stingers and crocs of northern Queensland.

IMG_9628Rainbow beach, Sunshine Coast

Every other day Lois and I would run for 30 or 40 minutes along the beach promenade in Mooloolaba or Noosa (two wonderful Sunshine Coast beaches) in the late afternoon, and then cool off by swimming in the ocean as the sun set, showing those Aussie blokes a thing or two about California-style body surfing, which included spectacular tumbling exhibitions and face plants.

IMG_9306 Mooloolaba Beach

On the Sunshine Coast south of the tropics, there are still wonderful forests.  Our favorite was at Noosa Heads, where koalas snooze in forests that seem to run right into the sea.

Sleeping koala at Noosa National Park

Sleeping koala at Noosa Heads National Park

Noosa Heads Beach

Noosa Heads Beach


To an American, Australian forests are as exotic and unfamiliar as its animals.  Even to a person familiar with every native tree in America, few native Australian trees would be recognizable.   Although Australia is, culturally speaking, more like America than any other country we’ve visited, its natural environment is utterly unlike America’s environment.

Daintree Rainforest

Daintree Rainforest


Although the idea of national parks was actually born in America, I got the sense (in Queensland, at least) that Australia is currently more committed to maintaining and expanding its parks than America.  This is something of a surprise, given the politics of Queensland during the height of the American environmental movement.  From 1968-1987, Queensland was led (paradoxically) by a ruthless self-proclaimed pious Christian governor, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who was described by the Australian prime minister in 1975 as a “Bible-bashing bastard.”  This was an episode in Australian politics that contemporary Americans would find distressingly familiar.  Bjelke-Petersen was fiercely anti-environmental, so much so that even when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site, he nonetheless opposed giving it national-park status, because he was still trying to find ways to drill for oil there.  Over the past 15 years, Lois and I have snorkeled in some of the world’s most famous coral beds, but the Great Barrier Reef is the most spectacular.  The corals are breathtaking and the diversity of sea life is absolutely astonishing.

Great Barrier Reef as it appears from the surface

Great Barrier Reef as it appears from the surface

In one day of snorkeling there, Lois and I spotted white-tipped reef sharks (harmless, they say, but still….crikey!), sea turtles, sting rays, and tropical fish of every description, as well as some that are simply beyond description.  Many divers consider the Great Barrier Reef the best dive location in the world.  It stretches for 1200 miles down the eastern coast of Australia, so huge that it’s visible from space.

Its northern tip is near Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook because one of his ships ran aground there), where the amazing Daintree Rainforest National Park now connects with the Great Barrier Reef to form a huge protected region of land and sea.

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation

Fortunately for the reef and for the Australian environment, Bjelke-Petersen became mired in scandal in the mid to late 1980’s, falling out of favor….and power.  Since that time, national parks have proliferated in Queensland; currently there are approximately 200 of them, five of these Unesco World Heritage Sites.  Unfortunately, however, the prospects for the Great Barrier Reef are dim, according to biologists.  As a result of the warming of the oceans, many are predicting that the Great Barrier Reef corals will die out by 2050.

Like America, Australia has struggled with the tension between economic development and environmental protection.  Australia currently has a stronger economy than America, strong enough that Lois and I have encountered a number of immigrants to Australia from Ireland and Italy who reported that Australia rather than America is the place with the job opportunities these days.   The unemployment rate in Australia has remained below 5.5% throughout 2012; whereas the U.S. unemployment rate has been above 8% for most of the year.  This has had a very tangible impact on Lois’ and my children, one of whom was laid off when his employer moved overseas (he remains unemployed) and two of whom left the U.S. for better job opportunities abroad.   Economists attribute Australia’s ability to avoid the most serious consequences of the world recession to a variety of causes, one of which is the strength of its mining industry, particularly its exports of iron, coal and natural gas to China.  Despite the proliferation of national parks in Australia, its mining and energy policies contribute to the problems that not only threaten the Great Barrier Reef, but that also make Australia one of the most environmentally vulnerable of all developed nations.  Although other developed nations, including the U.S., face similar problems, given the geological isolation of Australia and its unique evolutionary history, its life forms have much more of what environmental philosophers refer to as “scarcity value.”  Australia has some very difficult decisions to make.

My son would like to visit Australia.  As Lois and I hiked through her exotic and unique rainforests, encountered her delightfully strange animal life, and snorkeled her spectacular coral reefs, I wanted to encourage him not to wait for retirement before traveling there.

Australian Armageddon

We’ve had several friends email us about Australia’s reputation for deadly life forms.  With the exception of certain television nature adventurers who have made a habit of pestering Australian critters into a frenzy to prove how aggressive they are, Australians don’t really make a big deal about the natural world that menaces them from all sides.  In my last post I mentioned the box jellyfish, the danger of which Australians downplay by referring to them as ‘stingers.’  It is true that Queenslanders avoid swimming in the northern beaches during stinger season, but unlike me, they don’t seem to see it as cosmically unfair that they can’t swim in the world’s most beautiful waters because of a damn jellyfish.


Stinger net - Palm Cove Beach

Stinger net – Palm Cove Beach

Australia is well known for its array of weird and venomous reptiles.  I’ll begin with a few that pose relatively little threat to humans.  It’s not uncommon to see a five-foot-long monitor lizard slither across rainforest roads.  Lois and I have seen two or three.

Lace Monitor we saw near the beach at Mooloolaba

Small Lace Monitor We Saw Near the Beach at Mooloolaba

Although this isn't my photo, this is what they look like when they grow up

Not my photo, but this is what they look like when they grow up

We recently traveled 1000 miles south of Cairns down the Australian coast to a beautiful home where we are now staying in Buderim (to pronounce this, think of what you’d do to a stack of pancakes).  It’s about an hour north of Brisbane.  In a note about various features of the property, the owner informed us casually that a dragon roamed the front garden area of the house.  This is a two-foot long prehistoric looking creature that tends to lounge around on tree branches — a water dragon.  Although I’m informed that neither the monitor lizard nor the water dragon is venomous, neither is likely to be a popular attraction at a petting zoo either.

Eastern Water Dragon

Not our photo — we haven’t spotted him yet.

Another non-venomous reptile that inhabits the Australian rainforest is the tree python.  It frequently snoozes in basket ferns, which often encircle the trunks high up in palm trees.  Experts insist that, although it is a constrictor, it’s not large enough to pose a danger to humans.  Of course that’s not considering the number of heart attack deaths suffered by coconut harvesters who ascend a tree and unexpectedly discover a tree python draped around their throats.  By the way, the home where we are staying in Buderim comes with an adorable little Pomeranian, and when we asked the owners whether the dog should be allowed out to roam around the grounds at night, they advised us to look carefully in the branches of the trees on the property.  We did; and we found two snakeskins draped over the branches of a tree near the pool, one of them over six-feet long.  We’re thinking about using them in place of tinsel on our Christmas tree.


Snakeskin in a tree at our place in Buderim

Of course, then there is the highly publicized matter of Australia’s venomous snakes.  The majority of Australia’s snake species are poisonous.  In fact, the six species of snake with the most deadly venom in the world are all found in Australia.  We were at Daintree National Park in northern Queensland, the world’s oldest rainforest, when the person at the desk mentioned casually that a venomous snake had just honored them by coiling up just outside the entryway to the Visitor Center.  She offered to show us.  We took her up on her offer, and sure enough a deadly red-bellied black snake was coiled tranquilly in the flowerbed.  Having worked for a few years as a park ranger, I found this astonishing.  In the U.S., park administrators would find this absolutely unacceptable.  Every day thousands of people walk within six feet of this poisonous reptile, which could easily spring from its lair among the peace lillies and fasten its fangs on the jugular of an innocent, paying park visitor. Not that park administrators would worry too much about the victim; it’s the lawsuits that would concern them.  When I asked the Daintree park employee whether she was at all bothered by the proximity of the deadly snake to so many park visitors, she said, “Nobody would ever look to see that it’s there.  Besides it’s only the 20th most venomous snake in the world……no worries.”

Red-bellied Black Snake

Again, not my photo

Speaking of poisonous venom, in Australia it’s not confined to the animal kingdom.  In many Queensland rainforest parks there are signs posted warning about the “stinging tree” whose leaves look very much like our stinging nettle; it’s just that they deliver an excruciating venom which has caused fatalities for humans and even horses, and for which there is no known antidote.  Like so many Australian species names, the name ‘stinging tree’ simply does not do this organism justice.  Contact with this tree doesn’t simply ‘sting.’  It delivers a neuro-toxin that can convert the affected area into a red, swollen mass that remains intensely painful for months, if you’re fortunate enough to live that long.  Some of Australia’s plants seem downright evil.  Take, for example, the strangler fig.  A fig seed is dropped by some creature onto a branch of, let’s say, a beautiful mahogany tree.  The fig seed then sends long roots down to the ground to root itself.  The roots eventually proliferate until the mahogany tree is completely covered with the fig roots, which show their gratitude to the gracious host mahogany tree by choking it out, depriving its leaves of sunlight.  The host tree for the strangler fig in this photo is long dead and disintegrated.  All that remains is the strangler fig.

Strangler Fig Tree

Strangler Fig Tree

Then of course there are the carnivorous plants; Australia has nearly 200 species of them.  There’s the cheerily named ‘sundew’ whose tiny tentacles secrete a sticky goo that traps insects, which are then slowly digested.  The elegant Australian pitcher plant features a slippery flower spout leading to a deep pocket with a pool of water that drowns the insect. Fun.

Sundew(not my photo)

(not my photo)

Australia has such unique life forms because it is an island that has been separated from the other continents for so long (geologically speaking) that in many ways it has taken its own evolutionary path.  The platypus is a good example of this.  A bizarre creature that looks like a combination of a beaver and a duck, it’s one of the few animals that lays eggs and suckles its young.

Platypus(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

Given that it’s an Australian life form, it goes without saying that it has venomous stingers on its hind feet that can cause humans extreme pain.  In fact, it’s one of the few venomous mammals in the world.  It is such an odd creature that in the late 18th Century, even after an Australian governor sent a platypus carcass to England, British zoologists still considered it a hoax.  Of course, fun-loving Australians have been known to capitalize on the reputation of their country for weird and dangerous critters by perpetrating hoaxes.  Currently a myth is circulating about bloodthirsty koalas (called ‘drop bears’) that leap out of eucalyptus trees devouring unsuspecting American tourists.  Even the Australian Museum seems to be complicit in perpetuating this hoax, proving that scientists can actually have a sense of humor.

For these reasons, I had doubts when I started seeing signs in the Daintree rainforest warning of the presence of a creature I’d never heard of — the cassowary, allegedly a flightless, human-sized bird that regularly crossed rainforest roads.  As a young boy scout I’d been duped into participating in snipe hunts, and besides, the road signs made the cassowary look suspiciously like Big Bird.

Cassowary sign

Cassowary sign

So I wasn’t having any of it – until Lois and I hiked a very overgrown trail to see some particularly large rainforest trees, and returned to the car with a kilo or so of cassowary dung dripping from the soles of our shoes.  We still haven’t seen one of these giant birds, despite looking carefully along rainforest creek beds, but now I realize that the spiritualists are right.  Sometimes you just have to have faith in that which you can’t see – especially if you’ve had an excremental experience.

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

By the way, we learned that female cassowaries are quite a bit larger than the males, and after laying the eggs they abandon the nest, leaving the males to nurture the chicks while the females go off to seek new sexual adventures.  Lois delights in this example of gender role reversal just enough to make me a tad uncomfortable.  So from now on she gets to kill the giant tropical cockroaches in the bathroom at night.

As the sun sets on the Cairns Harbor each evening, a cacaphony of piercing shrieks erupts from several of the larger trees flanking the harbor promenade.  The sound is made by a swarm of black flying foxes.  Although when they take to the air, they are thought by most people strolling along the boardwalk to be a flock of large ravens, they are actually a form of “megabat” whose closest relative is a species scientists call pteropus vampyrus.  (See below for a photo of this bat that appeared in my post on Bali.)  I’m convinced that if word got out that these winged creatures swooping overhead were actually bats with a wingspan of over four feet, the Cairns Harbor promenade would be pretty much tourist free by 5 p.m.

Black Flying Fox(Also called "Fruit Bat")

Black Flying Fox
(Also called “Fruit Bat”)

The animal we most associate with Australia is, of course, the kangaroo.  There are actually many types of kangaroo in Australia, even one type that, believe it or not, inhabits trees in the rainforests we visited.  Still, Lois and I have seen only one species of kangaroo – wallabies.  They congregate by the hundreds in a field near Cairns. Technically I should say we’ve seen a mob of wallabies.  The official term for any group of kangaroos is “mob,” although you won’t find gangs of kangaroos bounding through the Australian hood roughing up humans.  Like koalas, kangaroos seems to be among the few Australian creatures that lack venomous defense powers. They do, however seem to have a good deal of animosity for Australian SUV’s, into which they hop headlong so frequently that most Australians outfit their SUVs with ‘roo bars.’

Roo Bars

Roo Bars

To return to water creatures for a moment, there’s something I didn’t mention about why Australians are reluctant to go into the water at the beach.  It turns out that it’s not just the stingers.  There is also the matter of the saltwater crocodiles that prowl around the mouths of rivers and in nearby ocean waters.  (By the way, Aussies fondly refer to the twenty-foot long beasts as “salties.”)   This means that even if you don a “stinger suit” and are successful warding off the box jellyfish, you could still be snatched off of your surfboard whilst hanging ten and be torn limb from limb by a prehistoric-sized amphibian.  Something about this just seems excessive to me.

Waiting for Dinner(Not my photo)

Waiting for Dinner
(Not my photo)

For a moment I was tempted into thinking that maybe it’s safer just to swim in rivers where you have only one deadly creature to menace you.  This thought was put right out of my mind, however, when we went on a guided boat tour of the Daintree River, where we spotted two small adult crocodiles (10-12 feet long) as well as a number of their offspring.  (Sorry but the adults didn’t want to be photographed.)

You just know there have got to be crocodiles here.

Tributary of the Daintree River — swimming not advised here.
Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

I was stunned when our guide told us,  “Yeeah, but if ya fell into these watahs, the crocs aren’t even the worst of yuh problems, mite.”

I took the bait.  “OK, what is the worst of your problems, then?”

“It’s the bull shahhks.  They attack in packs…..teah ya to shreds.”

“Bull sharks!!  You’re kidding!  In rivers?  But sharks are ocean dwellers.”

“Naa, not bull shahhks.  They do foine in fresh watah.  They’ll come quoite a waiys up this rivah.”

“How big are they?”

“Aah, in these pahhts, they get to around three, neahly faw meetahs .”

“Four meters….that’s 12 feet long!”

“Yeeah, the bull shahhk is the most aggrissive of all the shahhks.  They saiy it was the inspiraytion for movie Jawrs.”

Bull Shark

Bull Shark — (Not my Photo)

Something seems deeply wrong about all of this, in a biblical sense.  Monstrous, scaly, freshwater creatures invading saltwater habitats; terrifying, toothy saltwater creatures wreaking havoc in freshwater rivers; beavers growing duckbills and laying eggs; gigantic jellyfish herding swimmers on beaches into netted enclosures; megabats the size of eagles taking over the harbors; docile, vegetarian koalas turning into carnivorous man-eaters; plants strangling each other; mobs of kangaroos hurling themselves into oncoming traffic.  I even noticed the other day that the water is going down the drain backwards.  Figuring it was time to schedule a flight out of this place, I checked the cool calendar on the personal digital organizer I found a few years back in our travels through the ancient city of Tulum in southern Mexico, but the calendar seems to end two weeks from Friday.


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.

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… 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.


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 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.


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:

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Bella Italia

We’ve said good-bye to Italy many times over the past eight months, and one week ago we bade farewell to bella Italia once again.  We don’t know when, but we’ll be back.   A friend of ours just asked why.   For me, the answer has to do with the way that Italy values beauty.

One of the things that has always most surprised me about Italy is its natural beauty.  From the Italian Alps and the northern Dolomites, to the Appenines and the Lucanian Dolomites, to the coastal bluffs of Amalfi and Maratea, to the gorgeous green Adriatic of the Gargano and the beautiful beaches on the Ionian Sea, Italy’s landscapes are stunning and diverse, much like California’s.

Grand Sasso National Park, Appenines

Lake Como

Tyrrhenian Sea Coastline Near Maratea

Adriatic Sea off the Gargano Peninsula

Beachside Bistro at Marina di Pulsano on the Ionian Sea

Beach on the Gargano Peninsula Looking Toward Vieste

Californians sometimes compare the hills of Sonoma or Napa to the hills of Tuscany or Umbria.  Still… California’s hills are not crowned by this:


And its towns are not decorated like this:

The Main Street of Pulsano in Southern Italy

Italy’s land was developed before industrialization brought along its more pragmatic approach to the built environment.  Pragmatism was not the guiding force behind the building of the magnificent Duomo of Florence (pictured on our blog-site home page), or the wonderful cathedral of Pisa, which is far more worth visiting (in my humble opinion) than its much more famous bell tower.

Interior, Pisa Cathedral

Much of Italy’s development was guided largely by spiritual and aesthetic values (with lavish financial support from the Church and other wealthy patrons).   The creation of beauty and grandeur was seen as an essential component of the worship of God and the honoring of the saints.   Although most visitors to Italy find her cathedrals to be breathtakingly beautiful, I’ve seen some who react with a kind of repulsion that can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, and even farther back to the Old Testament.   For these folks, the cathedrals of Italy are examples of the materialistic excesses of the Church, and the countless exquisite paintings of Madonna and Child as well as sculptures of the prophets and saints violate First Commandment prohibitions against idolatry and the creation of likenesses — especially representations of the spiritual realm.  For its part, Catholicism reckons that once God actually took on physical form in Jesus, the Old Testament admonitions against representing the divine through art were superseded, much like the way most Protestants currently believe the Old Testament Kosher and Sabbath laws were superseded.  It’s no accident that the greatest Western masterpieces of art were created in Italy and other nations where Catholicism was historically prominent.  Even though religious fervor has cooled a great deal in Italy over the years, it still considers the beauty of its art and its built environment to be its great national treasure.

Correspondingly Italians have a much different attitude toward their cities and towns than Americans generally have, particularly their old towns.  These towns are not practical.  Americans would have no patience for them.  They were created before the automobile.  The streets are too narrow; the towns are often surrounded by ancient walls that make traffic flow so inconvenient that people often have no choice but to walk….and interact with each other, violating all sorts of New World notions of privacy in the process.  The stone walls in their buildings are two-feet thick and not conducive to phone, TV and internet wiring.  Still society gives them so much value that remodeling one’s home or widening a road in the “centro storico” (historical center of town) seems to require an act of God.  Of course, Italy does have its suburbs and its box stores, as I mentioned in a long-ago post about Florence’s Ikea, but Italy is far more reluctant than the New World to tear down its old buildings and walls.  They are too charming, too historical….too beautiful.

Similar attitudes can be found in other parts of Europe where the Catholic Church has had a strong presence.  In early October we spent a week in Barcelona, Spain and visited La Sagrada Familia, a grand church that has been under construction since 1882, initially under the design of Francisco de Paula del Villar, but almost immediately taken over by the great 19th Century modernist architect Antoni Gaudi.

La Sagrada Familia — Currently Under Construction

Facade, La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia has been open to visitors since 2010.  It will be many decades before it is finished, but the church is already absolutely stunning, both outside and inside.   Still, it must be utterly mystifying to those who see the value of a building in terms of functionality.

Sagrada Familia Altar

La Sagrada Familia Dome — Interior

It’s very hard for me to imagine Americans having the patience to take centuries to construct a church….or any building for that matter.

The styles of architecture that predominate in La Sagrada Familia are modernist and neo-Gothic.  Modernist elements are present especially in the facade, which clearly takes its inspiration from the natural world.  To get a sense for why La Sagrada Familia is called neo-Gothic, it helps to compare it with the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona – soaring spires reaching toward the heavens, and tall, high stained-glass windows that pull in sunlight.

Cathedral of Barcelona

Many consider La Sagrada Familia excessive, even outrageous.  The same has been said about both the baroque cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce in the southern Italian city of Lecce (the Florence of the South), which we visited at the end of September.  Both were designed by the wild and crazy brothers Zimbalo in the 16th Century.   Gargoyles, cherubs and critters of all kinds (some undetermined) cover the exterior façade of Santa Croce.

Sections of the façade of Lecce’s Basilica of Santa Croce were hidden by scaffolding during our visit there.  Parts of the great churches are almost always being repaired or cleaned – a small price to pay for their preservation.   So my photo doesn’t fully capture the fancifulness of the façade.

Facade of Santa Croce, Lecce

Baroque, Gothic and neo Gothic styles are not for those with more sober tastes in architecture.  Those folks are more inclined toward the Renaissance and the Romanesque.

My tastes seem to lack sobriety.  One prominent visitor once said that the Basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce was a nightmare produced by a lunatic.  Of course, the same might be said of Dante’s Inferno — one of the world’s great works of literature.

Speaking of Dante, one of my main reading projects during my travels has been to read the complete Divine Comedy.  I’d struggled through the Inferno and was just finishing the last cantos of the Purgatorio when we left Europe.  The flight was long and exhausting.  It was nearly 36 hours before we actually slept in a bed again.  We awoke to a chorus of roosters and the smell of incense in a beautiful bungalow in Bali – just as I made it to Dante’s Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden at the apex of the mountain of Purgatory.

Family compound where we are staying in Bali

Hill Towns Revisited

Since my last post, Lois and I took a major detour in our tour of southern Italy.  After spending a week in a beachside apartment on the beautiful Gargano Penninsula (much of which is a national park) in southern Italy, we veered north to Umbria in the very center of Italy to visit Ben, a friend we had met in Italy in 2009.   He and his parents own a home in the tiny hill town of Pissignano,

Old Church Tower — Pissignano

about fifteen minutes down the road from its more famous neighbor Spoleto and only a few minutes south of the very epitome of a hill town, Trevi.  Consequently, my last post on hill towns now needs a bit of supplementation.


We had spent over a week in Ben’s place in 2009, and our return this time felt a bit like a homecoming.  We also had an opportunity to visit with Ben’s parents.  Ben now works for EF Tours in Italy.  His father is a recently retired community college instructor (which sounded suspiciously familiar), and his mother has spent a number of years working in theater in the U.S.  There was lovely wine, prosecco, bruschetta, cheese and wonderful conversation that ranged from travel to education and, of course, to politics – Italian and American.  We stayed for three days and could not resist visiting some of the charming hill towns in Umbria and Marche (Marche is one of only a few regions in Italy we had never visited).  Ben is now a trained sommelier, and took us to do some tastings in two of his favorite wineries in the hill town of Montefalco where we sampled some wonderful Sagrantino.  Then we moved on to another gorgeous Umbrian hill town – Spello – where we had lunch on a terrace overlooking the Umbrian countryside.

Street in Spello

On the drive back to Ben’s house, we stopped and took a walk through the town of Foligno, an Umbrian town working hard to restore its medieval character.


Lois and Ben on Cathedral Steps in Foligno

The following day Lois and I struck out on our own.  We just could not resist another visit to Assisi, which is only a half hour from Ben’s house.  It is one of my favorite places in all of Italy.  Like Bergamo farther north, much of Assisi lies on a broad plane, but on a hill rising above modern Assisi is the ancient town. Its beauty hasn’t faded since our last visit in 2009.  Even in the latter part of September the town was still crowded with tourists, but it was always possible for Lois and I to ditch the crowds by wandering up one of the many small alleyways and stairways that wind through this lovely medieval village.  The Cathedral of St. Francis in Assisi is one of my favorites in all of Italy.  It is perched on a hillside overlooking the plane far below. It is one of the few cathedrals with a large lawn in front, and on that lawn the letters PAX are inscribed in shrubbery, along with the characteristic Franciscan version of the cross, shaped like the Greek letter Tau.


Cathedral in Assisi

There are actually two interiors in the church, one on the ground floor and another one floor higher.  Decorating the walls of the cathedral is a series of frescoes commemorating the highlights of St. Francis’ life.  These sorts of fresco series are fairly common in Italy.  The remarkable thing about these frescoes, however, is that they were painted by Giotto, a 13th Century friend of Dante’s who advanced the art of painting to such a degree that he is considered to be the artist who was most important in laying  the foundations for the Renaissance.  Mum’s the word, but although photos are prohibited inside the church, I took this one of the ground floor.

Interior of Cathedral in Assisi 

Although St. Francis would frankly have been appalled at the size of the church that was built in his honor, I do think he’d have loved the blue ceiling displaying the heavens above.

St. Francis was “married to the Lady Poverty.”  The sort of church he favored is the Porciuncola – which St. Francis built.


This tiny and humble church is now preserved inside the grand and gigantic cathedral of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which dominates the newer and much larger city of Assisi in the valley below the old town.  The inconsistency in this is not exactly lost on the Italians.  They simply loved St. Francis, and this was the only way to pay appropriate tribute to his stature (he is one of the two patron saints of Italy).  Italy embraces paradox, as is evident in the following traffic signs we saw on the road just outside of Pulsano in southern Italy.


Ben had suggested that we drive into the hills beyond Assisi to the town of Gubbio.  The drive was absolutely spectacular, winding through the foothills of the Appenines.  Gubbio is not on the top of a hill; it is on the slope of a mountain, looking down over the valley.  At the base of the town are the walls of a 1st Century Roman amphitheater,


Roman Amphitheater — Gubbio

but for the most part Gubbio is a medieval town, although it has not been scrubbed up quite so nicely as Assisi; in that way it feels more medieval.

Shop in Gubbio

In its own way, Gubbio is very closely associated with St. Francis – or rather, a friend of St. Francis…..a man-eating wolf.  The story goes that this wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio in the early 13th Century.  When St. Francis was told about this, he ventured out to have a conversation with the wolf in which the two of them arrived at the following peace accord: the wolf would agree to stop eating the residents of the town if the residents of the town would agree to set out some food for the wolf every day.  This was agreeable to Gubbio’s residents, and the humans and the wolf lived peaceably ever after.  In fact, St. Francis’ followers reported that when the wolf eventually died of old age, St. Francis said that the wolf was buried in consecrated ground.

St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

By the way, a common way of wishing someone good luck in Italian is to say, “in boca dal lupo” – in the mouth of the wolf.  There are many other stories about the ability of animals to communicate intelligently with St. Francis and even to worship God.  He calls them his brothers and sisters.  Theologians debate the significance of stories such as this. Did Francis really believe that creatures can communicate in such a sophisticated manner?  Did he believe they have intelligence?  Did he believe they have souls?  Many theologians are reluctant to draw such conclusions about Francis because this would mean that Francis didn’t accept the traditional interpretation of what it means to say that humans (and only humans) are made in God’s image.  For my part, I find it very difficult to read what Francis’ followers wrote about him without coming to the conclusion that he truly believed that animals, and perhaps even some of what we call inanimate nature, had souls.  Why this hasn’t impacted the attitude the Church has toward feedlots is something of a mystery to me…..although I suppose it’s no more a mystery than the lack of impact that New Testament cautions about the accumulation of wealth have had on Christianity, including most of the Catholic Church’s Protestant counterparts.

From Gubbio we drove into a region Lois and I had yet to explore – Marche.  It is dominated by Italy’s northern Appenines, and wraps around the eastern and northern edges of Umbria.  Gino Muzatti, a colleague of mine when I taught at Santa Rosa Junior College (so very long ago), takes American students each summer on a tour of Italy, where they receive intensive instruction in Italian in a town called Urbino, in Marche.  Thinking that we might one day participate in this program, we decided to take a look.  Dusk was settling in as we drove north through the spectacular mountain terrain.  Night had fallen by the time we parked our car, and walked up one of the very steep streets of the hill town of Urbino.   The road we climbed was flanked with dignified, palatial Renaissance buildings that were part of an extensive university complex.

The elegant and impressive buildings throughout the town are so consistently high that it is nearly impossible to see the valley below from inside of the town.   The town seemed deserted, until we crested the hill and found piazzas and restaurants teeming with college students on a Monday night.  They were not doing homework.  It almost made me want to be a university student again.

**Sorry, no photos of Urbino… was dark.

The next day Lois, our designated driver this month, heroically drove from central Italy all the way down to southern Italy not far south of Bari.  Our destination was Castellana Grotte, famous as the location of the most extensive cave complex in all of Western Europe.  What was unexpected was that our drive culminated in a harrowing complex of roads that resembled narrow cave tunnels themselves; the one-lane roads were lined by high white stone walls that are quite lovely I’m sure – for geologists, spelunkers, and those who are not suffering from exhaustion or claustrophobia.  We eventually made it to our bed and breakfast, a very charming place we’d love to return to.  The following day, we took a tour of the cave complex (which will have to be the subject of a separate post), and drove on to the last true hill town we would visit in Italy – Ostuni.   Ostuni is in extreme southern Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, just north of Brindisi.  It is a place where the landscape of Italy becomes drier and is dominated by white rock and extensive olive orchards.   Ostuni is a classic hill town, circular in shape and draped evenly over the hilltop like a skullcap.  It is as though Greek islanders had decided to build a town on an Italian hill – which, is not far removed from what actually happened here long ago.


From the town there are sweeping views east across vast olive groves to the Adriatic Sea.


View from Ostuni

Ostuni is part of the old Magna Grecia, and accordingly the town is dominated by whitewashed buildings.

The streets of the old-town center are paved in white stone and flanked by shops and restaurants.

The façade of the Ostuni Cathedral is unique, the only one that we’ve seen with inverted, rounded gables.

Ostuni Cathedral

The cathedral faces this lovely arch, and just beyond the arch lies the Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale.

Restaurants in southern Italy generally open for dinner at 8:00 pm, but never earlier than 7:30, at which time Lois and I are generally starving (which is my theory about why Americans so love the food at restaurants in Italy).  It is also why we often have an entire restaurant to ourselves as we did at Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale.  We walked in famished the moment it opened.  Italians are still recovering from their four-course lunches until 9:00 pm or so.


Lois in Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale

We left the restaurant so uncomfortably stuffed (a common Italian ailment) that dessert was unimaginable.  Then we walked down to a lighted fountain rising out of a white tiled piazza and listened to jazz music drifting down from the balcony of a bar.

Fountain in Ostuni

A gelato shop materialized like magic in front of our eyes, and we were suddenly –and paradoxically — famished once again.  Ah…Italia.