Thursday, March 15, 2018

Our Lucky Day!

 The first three days in Nusa Lembongan were not exactly exciting.

I had escaped here from the island of Bali in order to do more of nothing, so what did I expect? The tour on the back of the motorcycle with 21 year old Bodhi was fun but after two hours we had seen it all! Other than that there was rain. What did I expect— the rainy season! (In case you think I’m whining, I actually thought this would be the dry season since the wet season in Nepal was in the summer. Yep, less than perfect research.)

The Lonely Planet guidebook suggested Mushroom Bay as the place to snorkel off the beach. Not! Since the book was written the boats have destroyed all the coral. What to do? What everyone else does, of course,  go on a snorkeling tour!

The first day my clerk couldn’t reach her friend who had a boat. The next day we had it arranged but it rained. This morning it rained too and I put him off until noon. It cleared! A hut neighbor walked by with his go-pro camera and I invited him in order to split the cost and make me feel just a little safer. After all, the waves were high, the native catamaran fishing boat seemed to be held together by rope, and the fisherman didn’t speak English!

All I really cared about was seeing manta rays.

I’ve seen coral and tropical fish galore in other places, but manta? They seem other worldly. Give me one manta and I’d go home happy! “Maybe you will be lucky,” hoped the clerk.

Yep, the waves were high, the water looked murky, but overboard I went, avoiding a bop on the head with the catamaran. Nothing. Cloudy view. Then the fisherman started yelling in Indonesian. When he couldn’t get Alain’s attention he angrily jumped up and down! Then pointed. We swam in the direction of his shaking fingers and there… gliding… was manta. He had been the look out for us. Then another manta. Then another…

What were they like? Other worldly. Flying under water. Graceful. Dangerous looking projection off the back. Unconcerned with us. A little scary when coming right at me with that bizarre looking mouth.

The fisherman was pleased with his guiding skills and led us to two amazing snorkeling sights. And throwing bread crusts into the water he created a swirl of technicolored fish, circling around me. 

Here is my favorite blue coral.

And after aimlessly wandering the sights of coral, waving tentacles and darting fish, I realized that down there, in that other world that really could care less about plane flights, politics, money, accomplishments or relationships, I could forget them too. So nice to forget about my stuff. My plans. My, me, myself and I. Nothing down there related to this thing I call I. No thoughts really. A meditation of sorts in which there is no suffering because there is no fear, no grasping, no planning.  Just being, underwater..

And on the way home, me trying to pose, undignified, before sliding down to the bottom of the slippery boat.

Yes, we were lucky! Thank you Alain!

Our lucky day!

Then, as he and an Australian sat with me over dinner (quick and very temporary friendships while traveling), we three agreed we were so lucky. It was the only night out of four when it hadn’t rained or the ash obscured the view. 

Local children playing below, using a coconut as a ball.

Swallows darting. Agung puffing away at a safe distance, its output turned to flame by the sunset.

We had to wait over 50 years to see that!

And overhead, ahhh… an airplane! The airport was opened! And might just stay that way if the winds pushed the ash clouds away from Denpasar.

Interesting how one lucky day can erase the other disappointments. Yes!! We toasted. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Cruising Nusa Lembongan

It’s time to get out of Dodge! How often have I said that on this journey! 

Something about me is never content to sit pool-side and read a book. I can’t stand confinement, even in Paradise and have to see what is around the next corner. Dissatisfaction? A Buddhist source of suffering? Or just Kathy…

There isn’t much to do on the island Nusa Lombongan, an hour’s boat ride from Bali. (It is actually a part of the province called Bali. The country is Indonesia and the capital is Jakarta, Java — geography lesson.) But it was around the next corner.

No gangplank here! The luggage was tossed to the top (hopefully tied down) and we had to wade on.

See the interesting sign on the boat. It was a safe and easy boat ride.

And that’s why I came. Few distractions, do some writing, wait out the volcano in Bali.… 

But after one day I’m bored and need to get out of these Alam Nusa Huts. They are lovely — see the “welcome drink”, welcoming bed with the ubiquitous mosquito netting, semi-outside bathroom, and daily offerings.


But, I needed to see the island …

Obviously I could rent a scooter and figure out the unmarked roads and rocky lanes around the island. 

But I promised my children I would not come home in a wheelchair! So, I hire Budi for $15 for the day and off we go. Too late I think of a helmet, but no one rides with them on this island. They are mandatory in Bali but here four schoolchildren will buzz along happily on one scooter without any protection.

Holding on to his waist very tightly, I do keep reminding the 21 year old invincible Budi that I am “Nenek”, grandmother. And it is really bad karma if he gets a grandmother injured or dead! “I will come back to haunt you, like the witch Ragada,” I promise. We are safe. He is a careful driver and one can’t go too fast anyway around the twists and turns.

Cruising the island is just what I wanted. 

Very rural, jungle even. Simple houses, a little farming, and beaches. A temple where we get yelled at because I’m not wearing a sarong.

He points out a small cemetery where the dead are buried under concrete, an umbrella and frequent offerings. Once a year the bones of the dead are unburied and cremated. These Balinese cremations are such big events, with relatives taking off work, that its best to consolidate them to certain dates if possible. (At least that’s what I think he said over the motorscooter’s roar.)

From the largest beach at Jungutbatu we see Volcano Agung spew ash and steam. 

I would like to stay for awhile and honor it’s massive power, for I’m sure it has something to teach me.  No doubt about it, I can see why the airports are in trouble! And in case you are wondering, the ash is why we are wearing face masks.

Then a manpowered mangrove ride.

Looks a lot like Florida, minus the alligators and manatees. 

A very strange underground house called Gala-Gala.

It was carved by an ambitious priest in honor of a story from the Mahabharata and the character Pandawas who had to protect his family in an underground cave. Interesting to crawl through the tunnels and wonder why?

Over the yellow bridge onto the island Nusa Ceningan. 

And the only transportation to those living on this tiny island is scooter or foot, even for a grandmother— “nenek.”

And other sights. 

See the mighty cliffs dubbed “swallow house”. 

And the flats where at low tide seaweed is gathered, to be made into the emulsifying agent for ice-cream — carrageenan. Tourism is more profitable and less back-breaking now. There are even fewer tourists here.

And then a stop at Dream Beach before buzzing back home, safe and sound.

The next morning my hopes for snorkeling with the manta rays are dashed by a rainstorm.

So I will have to be content in Paradise, writing, reading and swimming, and working with that insatiable urge to be somewhere else!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ash on the Bamboo Floor — Bali Stories

I love people’s stories but I will never really know the Balinese. 

Sure the drivers and tour guides do their best to let me glimpse their culture, their politics and their struggles. They answer my persistent questions the best they can. But it feels like I will always be more of an outsider here than with any other country I’ve visited.

I can enjoy watching them play on the beach on Sunday, their only day off. They arrive on motorbikes, swim in their clothes and ride home wet. Simple pleasures.

I know they need us tourists and a good day is when they catch a taxi fare or nab one of us for a massage. But I’ll never really  know their stories.

 So instead I listen to the stories from us foreigners and reflect on the attraction of Bali.  

The Dutch came to plunder the spices in Indonesia for over three centuries and the Japanese to conquer. But why do the rest of us come? Are we allured by the conclusion of the book, “ Eat, Pray, Love?”  Do we hope to find ourselves? Lose ourselves?

The climate is gentle. Flowers decorate the bathrooms and beds and float on the pool. Adornments are the norm.

Beaches surround us. 

Amazing food.

 The people smile, sometimes enigmatically. Temples and colorful offerings are everywhere.

 No other part of Indonesia has the tourist draw. Because it is an exotic blend of Hinduism, animism and demonism? Because of the plethora of exquisite arts?

“Why do you come to Bali?” I ask.  

And from the answers of total strangers I have concluded that Bali is a lovely container that holds and even changes our stories. Think about it! The cottages I have stayed in are more like spas, for $30 a day including breakfast and pool.

Massages are $7 and fresh grilled dinners of snapper served on the beach $7 also. Yoga classes are the most expensive outlay of the usual American rate of $10. It is affordable luxury. It is comfort and support as we experiment with new ways of being.

For many Australians it is an easy time-out. One cottage neighbor has been here 35 times! She sits in a rented bean bag chair, smokes and reads a book, gets two massages a day and soon will return refreshed to a job in a nursing home and life on a sheep farm.

Over seafood pizza, an American School Principal in Singapore and her husband who works at the internship camp for Syrians trying to escape to Australia, tell of their romantic meeting in extreme danger in East Timor. Obviously they come here to decompress. And having saved little for retirement will be able to afford retiring here.

For some it is love, and of that there are interesting variations.

I heard a really wild story today while resting under the shade at the Museum le Mayeur in Sanur from a Dutch woman. Her 25 year younger Sumatran live-in boyfriend  fell asleep while she described her lifestyle. It would make a unusual book although the husband might not appreciate the exposure! 

She is wife number two out of three of a wealthy man in Dubai. He supports her lifestyle which includes the boyfriend in Bali, and she helps him design custom yachts and diamond jewelry. My prying conversation: How do you get along with the other wives? We are a team. But what about sharing your husband, you know, sex? Well, there are the yard boys, the gardener… Really! And what happens if your husband dies? I get 1/3 of the wealth.”
It works for them! One type of love story.

As for Le Mayeur— he arrived in Bali in 1938 to paint the lovely topless ladies and tropical scenes. Falling in love with a much younger dancer, he painted and then married her. Apparently they lived together happily and productively for twenty years and upon his death their house and collection was donated as a museum. See these window shutters carved with a scene from the Ramayana, a Hindu classic love story.

And in this sweet place with fading art I could sense the genuine devotion of this Belgian and Balinese. Here are their memorials.

Do some of us come for prayer? 

I can’t see us praying to their gods or making three times a day offerings, and more on full and dark moon. Even if we were Hindu or connected to aspects of Nature (animism), can we really relate to the demons and fierce protectors?

But some do definitely come to shake out their demons!

An English woman I met at yoga suffers from psychosis and post- traumatic-stress syndrome. In Bali she is stable on meds, lives inexpensively, and takes good care of her health.

I talked at length to an American and Australian who were totally up front about their alcoholism and narcotic addiction. They’ve stayed in Bali for months, coming clean in the mellow tropical atmosphere, letting go of shame and facing the truth. They are supported by good therapists, 12 step programs, healthy fruit juice and genuine hospitality. And with the hard work of introspection, self-acceptance and service, they are totally positive about long-term success. And they start me thinking about my behaviors. “We all have addictions, Kathy.”

And my story? Because that’s what this adventure is really all about. 

Not just about adding months of experiences to an already rich life, but about real change. I will truly understand what has happened in retrospect, when I come home. But I’m getting a glimpse in this magical container called Bali.

After months of veiled threats, Volcano Agung is finally exploding.

As in — airports closed, ash in the air, and the not knowing weighing heavy for everyone. The worst affected are the refugees from the danger zone who have lived in camps for months. They had to sell their livestock for a fraction of their worth and have no income. But the affluent rest of us are also worried. How will I get home? Should I just get a ferry to Java, then fly to Dubai, then Australia? Have I lost the value of the plane ticket? What if I’m here for months? Has Paradise just turned to a Prison? 

(And we won’t even discuss my fears of tsunami! The Prama Hotel has promised me a space on their fourth floor if I can get there in time. And if not, I’ve placed a ladder next to the tallest coconut palm! I sleep with my passport and flashlight…)

Here is Trevor, an Australian flight attendant with a positive attitude the next morning, when we didn’t have to climb the coconut palm— “We’re alive!”

In the meantime, I do yoga.

 The only class I can actually accomplish is Restorative Yoga. 

Ade’s voice is loving, gentle, and refers to my two gimpy knees and torn shoulder as “injuries,”not failures. With enough props and bolsters I can relax totally into poses. Nothing to accomplish. No pain. No forcing. Just relaxing, releasing and moving from one comfortable pose to another.

Bali is starting to get to me. I’m starting to believe that I can let go of a life-time incessant drive of countless accomplishment. Is there a 12 step program for “accomplishment addiction?” It has gotten me far in life but at this age seems silly if not delusional.

Ade gives me a push I need towards enlightenment. 

“Reach out and touch the bamboo floor. Feel the grit? That’s ash from Agung. Think about the volcano. It is neither good or bad. It is just nature. We have to accept it. What can Agung teach you?  And let an intention come to your mind. A heart felt understanding or resolution.”

Then the room goes quiet. Some are sending compassion to those whose farms are being destroyed. And for me? This is what the power and fury of Agung says: “If you can’t control something, let it go.”

That simple. Can’t change people, places or things. Can’t stop a volcano. Can’t make the airplanes fly. No accomplishment on earth can bring lasting happiness. No lifetime of projects can delay death. It’s time to just, “Let go, girl.”

And just as the recovering alcoholic friend reflected that her addiction was the best thing that ever happened to her because of how she has changed, I have to be grateful for this prolonged and unintended stay in Paradise. 

Thank you Agung. Thank you Bali

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Bali: Black and White

No matter how peaceful Sanur was, once again I had to get out. 

And other than summoning the courage to rent a scooter and deal with traffic, suicidal dogs and a total lack of signs, a comfortable air-conditioned car was the only way to go. So I booked a personal tour of the east side of Bali with a trusted driver.

Sure, I wanted to see the sites, but I really wanted to pick Agung’s brain — his opinions, his feelings about the history, the culture, etc… Of course it would only be a slice but that is all that 500,000 rupiah ($30) could give me.

First stop, Pura Puseh Temple. 

It is old, he thought— 11th century. The Balinese have another calendar— in Isaka time is 944. 

Of interest is the carving of a turtle. (See the head on the left.) He calls it Empas— a figure on which the world can be turned, an incarnation of Vishnu?

Here are men preparing holy water, letting black smoke infiltrate the jar. Everything here, it seems, can be holy.

The Elephant Cave, Goa Gajah, named after the river, used as a Buddhist Hermitage.

With everyone in required sarongs, tie belt and shoulders covered.

The oldest village, around the 11th century, Tenganan, is home to the Bali Aga people — descendants of the original Balinese. 

No vehicles are allowed. A “magical” cloth known as the kamben gringsing is woven here from cotton and  local plant-dyes. 

I also resisted the urge to buy these intricately inscribed traditional pieces on lontar. (Rule number one, Kathy— don’t buy anything! Too much luggage!) 

And  handcrafted baskets from local fibers.

Men displayed  their dyed fighting roosters who are taken out of the bamboo cages for daily massages. Blood sacrifices are important to religious ceremony, Agung related. Blood-letting rooster fights at the temple, even puppies …

I had missed the festival in May in which the village men fight with sticks wrapped in these thorny pandan leaves, the very leaves that are dried and woven to make comfortable sleeping mats. 

A fight of honor, to the death

Agung didn’t display any emotion during this historical tour until we reached Puri Agung Semarapura, a historical building complex, consisting  of the court of justice, a floating pavilion, and a museum. The palace itself was destroyed by the Dutch in 1908. Here is the memorial to the “puputan”. My tour book refers to a suicidal fight of the depicted royalty at this site in 1908, including women and children. Agung calls it a fight of honor— a fight to the death.

Yet Agung quickly said that there is no black and white to any of this.
“The cloths we see around objects in nature such as trees, around carvings of gods and protectors, and at offering sites are black and white. Like Yin and Yang, it isn’t about one or the other but about a balance of both. We say thank you for everything. God made black and white, bad and good.

“But in Western thinking we resist the bad, strive for the good!” I insist.

“But we have three main gods— Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer. Without destruction there can be no new creation. And bad and good are just powers, like nuclear power— it can be used either way. Look at the Dutch colonization — if they hadn’t taken away many of our sacred objects for their museums in the Netherlands they would have been lost here!”

An interesting perspective…

And indeed these gods, in one form or another, seem to be at every major intersection! This Balinese form of Hinduism (and animism) is all pervasive.

“Is black magic real?” I probed. I had just finished a book “Bali Magic” and wanted to know his perspective.

“Of course it is real. Just because we can’t see the dark forces doesn’t mean they aren’t real!  My arm hurt for three weeks with no cause. The doctor couldn’t find the reason and his medicine didn’t help. So I decided someone had put a curse on me and went for a purification ritual. Immediately when the cold water hit, the pain disappeared and has never returned.”

“Didn’t you want to find out who put the curse on you?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. Revenge is just negative karma. All that is important is purification and moving forward.”

I remembered that he had refused a payment of 350,000 rupiah for an earlier ride from Ubud to Sanur, showing me on What’s App, that we had agreed on 250,000 even though I had forgotten. “To take it would have brought on bad karma. If I ate food with the extra money it could have poisoned me. We can always choose the good.”

But I have to agree that Bali is not black or white. 

Offerings are made to the demons to appease them, not deny them, and to keep everything in balance. What look like demons to me are often strong and fierce protectors at the entrance to buildings or walkways.

Our last stop was a visual reminder of black and white — natural salt-making by the sea. 

At first I could not figure out what this man was doing with buckets dipped into the sea. 

As he walked back up the  beach they leaked sea water all over the black sand!

And then Agung described the process. After drying, the salt-infiltrated sand was put into a basin, more salt water repeatedly poured through it, and a super saturated salt solution was recovered out the bottom and poured into these troughs. The sun did the rest, ending up with pure white large crystals that fetch a good price in expensive hotels. Who would have thought?

The precious result, white purified through the black volcanic sand.

A great day. A dip into a culture. A new way of thinking — black and white. Acceptance of both. And always a choice.