Holiday weekend in Bengli

I have been very fortunate to have the chance to experience the “real” Bali. Thomas said yesterday that I have seen 99% more of the country than most tourists and I have only been here a week. I am now back in the land of the internet and westerners but for the last couple of days I was one of 3 white faces in a village. Describing my experiences there as “unique” seems like a huge understatement.

Before we left for Bengli, Sylvia and I took a taxi to Denpassar to purchase fresh fruit to bring to the family. We went to the traditional market where we were packed in with hundreds, if not thousands, of other shoppers – no Westerners that I could see. Much of the market was outside with stalls packed together and a narrow alleyway between them. In this small space, people jockeyed for positions to choose their fruit or materials for their offerings. There is a huge market for incense, flowers and bamboo to make the daily offerings. Baskets of flowers were filled with colorful blossoms – pink, bright purple, orange and yellow. There were ready made bamboo hanging offerings to buy, a bit more ornate than usual for the holiday, as well as bamboo sheets to make your own.

Before we purchased our fruit, we went across the street to the part of the market where fabric is sold. Sylvia led us to a shop with the most gorgeous samples of colorful fabrics of cotton and rayon. We looked through many samples before choosing some. I picked out my typical blue/green/purple colors to make a pair of capris and a twirly skirt for traveling and dancing. Sylvia got several fabrics to make a variety of clothing including some white lacy fabric to make a new blouse to wear to the temple. Back in Sanur the next morning, we visited a tailor who took lots of measurements and helped us decide exactly what we wanted. When I get back there in a couple of weeks, I’ll have not only what I planned, but also a matching shirt and a dress made from fabric Sylvia already had. Total cost for the fabric was about $5.00 if I remember. Too bad I can’t carry more home. I also picked up a ready made sarong for another $8.00. They can be worn at the temples but also can serve as an impromptu towel, shawl or table cloth among other uses.

The vendors were generous with samples of their fruit. Much like wandering the aisles of Costco before the Super Bowl in Hawaii, Sylvia and I ate our way through the market. Instead of chips and dips, I tried many varieties of fruits, mangosteen (which I have already developed a passion for), snake fruit with its reptilian skin, little bananas, rose like dragon fruit, huge breadfruit, little prickly red fruits with an opaque white center and a white mango. The ones that are considered special (which we purchased for our gift) are apples still with their product of Washington, USA stickers on their sides. No need to try them.

As our purchases added up, the bags we brought were getting quite heavy. No problem. There were young girls, maybe 10-12 years old, who carry big baskets on their heads for a small fee. We ended up with a delightful young lady, pointing out things we might be interested in and carrying our things with a big, beautiful smile. We wandered past other stalls selling raw chickens with their heads and feet intact, children’s clothing, remotes for electronics, and big colorful balloons for the children. The crafts market was closed, which was just as well, as my senses were already on overload. Our girl found us a taxi and we were on our way.

That evening, Sylvia and I skipped dinner and indulged in massages and a body scrub in a nearby spa. After a yoga class in a bamboo hut by the sea in the morning, we were relaxed and ready for the holiday with the relatives.

We drove north about an hour or so to Bangli where Thomas’ Balinese family has their family compound. It looked somewhat like a suburban street lined with fences until you opened the gate. There are separate buildings within the compound holding different bedrooms, a kitchen and a shrine. Everything is open to the air and there are many plants lining the walkways. Here, everyone takes their shoes off outside the buildings and then there is a step up (to foil the low gods). We were greeted by Meme, the matriarch with a huge smile and sense of humor. She doesn’t speak English but her warmth comes through in any language. She is quick with a pinch or a poke as she teases. Thomas said when he was first there as a student, she sent him to the market to look for “big breasts”. As the people in the market laughed at his request, he realized he had been had. I felt very welcome there.

The visits to the relatives had already happened before we arrived so there was time to hang out before the evening festivities began. The children were watching T.V. so Sylvia pulled out some cards and we taught them Lucky 7 and gin rummy. They speak a little English but it was still quite an ordeal and Thomas ended up translating the finer points. It felt a lot like Thanksgiving afternoon in any family – people hanging out, sharing stories, teasing each other. There were several generations, including a baby who was passed around. The cousins laughed and teased, pulling each others fingers and even doing some thumb wrestling. I got in on that and was soundly defeated.

Thomas, Sylvia and I needed to pray at the family shrine as a show of respect. One of the relatives is a high priestess and she led us through the Hindi ceremony. I was dressed in Sylvia’s temple clothes and we sat barefoot at the shrine. We each had a stick of incense burning in front of us. We held our hands above our heads in prayer holding a variety of items – flowers of different colors, ancient Chinese coins, a bamboo offering filled with flowers and ferns. Each represents something (that I can’t remember). Then we were sprinkled with holy water and 3 times water was poured in our cupped hands (right hand on top) and sipped. The fourth time you put the water on your head and the last you rub it on your face. Then you get a small bit of rice to stick to your forehead, your temples and your chest. You swallow a few grains raw. Ceremony complete.

The next morning, we went to an ancient temple with hundreds of other people to pray again. We were still the only westerners. I noticed some of the children staring at us but mostly we were ignored. This time, we repeated the ceremony 3 times in different outdoor spaces with many others young and old. Even the smallest children participate, holding their hands out to sip the water. Offerings were placed in baskets on the altars and then gathered up to take home later. We each had our own collections of flowers, coins and the bamboo nosegays as well as a stick of incense for each place. No wonder the market was so busy with its sales.

The time I was really out of my normal league was in the evening. As it got dark, we walked in our special clothes to the crossroads in the village. The women had offering baskets on their heads, the children all dressed up for the occasion with little boys wearing head scarves to cover their 3rd eyes, girls in sarongs and sash ties and the men dressed in white. The crowds found places along the road, each village in one of the 4 directions in the middle. All of a sudden, the music began with gongs and flutes and drums. The men paraded in with a huge puppet bull. There were crowds everywhere and suddenly there was screaming. Some men were in trances in the “parade”, one eating a live chicken, but as the music played, the incense offerings scenting the air, various men and women would suddenly be possessed by evil gods and start screaming and aggressively charging the crowd. Big men in black were tasked with keeping them and the audience safe and would wrangle them. Shortly afterwards, the women would be slowly dancing and the men wandering around, sometimes becoming aggressive again. I was watching from a place up on some steps but I was still scared at times. I spoke with a young woman the next day and asked her what it was like to be a child in that village at these celebrations. She admitted fear when she was younger but is fine now. Thomas said that was one of the tamer evenings. I’m glad I got the beginner version.

Yesterday, on the way back, Thomas and Sylvia met with a couple of their friends for lunch. One, an older German man, is making a film about Bali and the other is a renowned mask maker from England. Later, we sat with a couple who run a textile business, creating top of the line fabrics and supporting local weavers and dyers. As exotic as my travel seem to people at home, these are the people who are really living the expat life, creating lives in interesting and challenging places. Bali does seem to grow on people and many have made lives here in Ubud, a place known for its many cultural arts. There are crafts people and art galleries everywhere, as well as dance performances, clay classes and batik classes. Ubud also has several spas and places for yoga. It is the biggest center for tourists and has its share of touristy gift shops and hundreds of guest houses and B&B’s.

I’m settled into a guesthouse in a family compound. I have already met other travelers and had two invitations to share a table at dinner. Last night, I sat with a young couple from Canada, already 6 months on the road. This morning I woke up early and walked through Ubud before most of the shops were open and things were a little cooler and quiet. I saw parents dropping their children at school by scooter, girls practicing soccer, and shop keepers putting out their daily offerings. I visited the monkey sanctuary before the tour buses arrived, wandering the mossy lanes where hundreds of monkeys groomed each other, nursed their babies and ate sweet potatoes and coconuts.

I’m writing at an outdoor organic cafe situated in fields of rice paddies. Here, everyone is white except the servers but I can hear French, Dutch, German, Aussie/New Zealand English, and other heavily accented English. I had an avocado,egg pizza with a banana, mango smoothie and an extra ice tea while I wrote. I got really lost getting here, wandering along rice paddy canals that narrowed to a single path, geckos scurrying into the bushes as I walked and sweating in the heat. I asked several rice farmers for directions when I realized I had must have missed the turn and was offered coconut water from each of them.

Now, it’s time to find my way back to my room and the internet to post this. I hope I find a faster way back as it’s very warm and muggy. Thanks for reading this long post and for your comments and e mails. It’s always nice to hear from home in such a different place. The pace should slow down a bit while I’m here. I hope you enjoy your vicarious time in Bali too!

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10 Comments

  1. Connie G.

     /  February 13, 2012

    Ellen, Thanks for your vivid descriptions of your days in Bali. It sounds entrancing—not just the beautiful and novel sights, but the glimpse you’re getting into people’s lives. It’s really fun to read your stories and think of you experiencing all these amazing things. What did you feel when you went through the ceremony in the temple? Was it just a feeling of being a stranger in an unknown set of customs, or did you feel any sense of calm or reverence or anything?

    Reply
  2. Liz Samenfeld-Specht

     /  February 13, 2012

    Ellen,
    What an amazing experience! I have been entranced reading about everything you have had the unique opportunity to experience. Take care of yourself and thanks for sharing, Liz

    Reply
  3. Jane Skorina

     /  February 13, 2012

    Holy smokes! Thank you for bringing your amazing experiences to life. But are your sure Meme wasn’t playing a joke on you when she had you put rice on your forehead? I look forward to every blog post. Thank you for the details and for the pictures.

    Reply
  4. Sandra Timko

     /  February 13, 2012

    Wow.

    Reply
  5. Janie Sherwin

     /  February 13, 2012

    Ellen … tears came to my eyes when I read this blog. You are amazing the way you immerse yourself in the culture no matter where you are. The smile on your face in the pictures speaks volumes. You are such a giving, gracious woman and everyone you meet is benefiting from getting to know you.

    Reply
  6. Margery McCrum

     /  February 13, 2012

    Dear Ellen, What a joy to read about your travels and experiences. I remain in awe that you have created this whole experience for yourself and now graciously share it with all of us back home in VT and beyond. The pictures are beautiful and you look radiant. Your words sing, rich with imagery and deep appreciation. Ahhh! you are awesome. It is comforting to hear from you and know you are not only safe, but thriving. Love you, Margery

    Reply
  7. Sabine

     /  February 13, 2012

    What a plethora of colors, in every dimension! Thank you, Ellen!

    Reply
  8. pam perkins

     /  February 13, 2012

    Ellen, What an amazing story, written so well that I hung on to every word. Now you can see why travel changes one’s life and you’ve only just begun. I’m so excited for you and can’t wait for your next entry. I can see your blog turning into another “Eat, Love, Pray” (especially the love part). Be safe.

    Reply
  9. Penny

     /  February 14, 2012

    I am just as impressesed, fascinated, and enthralled as all the others who have already remarked. What a fantastic traveler and writer you are. Keep it up. Your blogs are my highlights

    Reply
  10. Peggy Kehew

     /  March 4, 2012

    Hi Ellen –

    Am reading this looking out at 5 squirrels who are attacking my sunflower seed supply, digging through the 10 inches of snow to find every last morsel. It is a quintessential Vermont winter day, with clear blue skies, sun and white snow setting off every branch of every tree. What a contrast to your days! I’m really enjoying reading about them, tho have fallen behind lately. Sounds like you are really making the most out of each moment. Best, Peggy

    Reply

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