Sunday, December 19, 2010

Church, Offerings, Fortunetellers, and Aliens- Part 5

Sunday began with hiring a hiring a driver to find a church. In a spiritual country with freedom granted by the Indonesian Constitution to four religions, five if you separate Christian Catholic and Christian Protestant as they do, there is no church nearby. Apparently there is a protestant church that exists in Ubud, the tourist destination of Bali, but they are not allowed a building in which to meet. The local Expats just shook their heads when I inquired. The churches have a lot of persecution here. You have to go to Denpasar which is one and a half hours away. So when did Christians shy from persecution?
My friend who teaches English in Ubud and I hopped in a small van and introduced ourselves to the driver. She bargained the price of the ride from thirty thousand rupiah to fifteen thousand. You have to watch out, the tourist don’t know what they are doing. They pay double and it wrecks it for the rest of us living on Indonesian salaries. I paid fifty thousand for the same trip the day before. Don’t be sucked in by the smiles. I love the smiles. That was one of the reasons I returned to Bali. Whoops.
We told the driver that we were late for church and to please hurry. Bouncing along the bumpy dirt road on which I lived brought us to a traffic standstill on Ubud’s main road. A tour bus was trying to back into a small parking space in front of the central market. It was an amazing feat to watch the driver skillfully swing a vehicle wider than the road into a narrow spot between hundreds of motor scooters. Traffic stopped in both directions. I felt like I was on 405 in Seattle anytime after 3 PM. There was nothing to do but stare with the hundreds of people on the sidewalks and those waiting in their vans. The cars in both directions were packed so close together that rear view mirrors nearly touched. Even the motor scooters were unable to pass. Motor scooters never obey the logic of two way traffic. When they stop, you know that the traffic mess will take a while to correct. We were getting later by the minute and had not even left Ubud.
We had been delayed by another group of foreigners who would file out into the heat to buy sarongs, puppets, fans, and carved wooden penis key chains. They would return to their air-conditioned cocoon with flimsy red bags stuffed full, and feeling great that they had bargained so skillfully. It was always the same. The vender would begin with a large toothy smile; a smile that needed braces, tooth whitener, and a cap for a broken incisor. When the buyers would begin the bargain dance, the street vendor would show his large sad eyes. Their prey would protest personal pleas to help their poor families by purchasing two carved Buddha statues. The salesmen would shamelessly beg the shopper to be the first sale of the day by taking home a set of intricately carved chop sticks. Only a dollar. One hundred thousand rupiah. Wait. One hundred thousand rupiah is ten dollars. Their sales skills put an IBM salesman or a politician to shame. Once the fish had been hooked, the vender would press in closer, close enough that the shirts of Indonesian and tourist would touch. He would touch the fleshy white arm and pat softly. Out of sheer exhaustion and heat, the sale would be made and the rupiah paid. Four more venders would pull in close with the same sad eyes, and the same appeal to bring luck to their day. The feeding frenzy would begin. The tourist would rush to the air-conditioning of his bus and the venders would smile again.
Finally the traffic cleared, and we began the hour journey through Balinese villages and rice paddies. The villages merged one into the other. Small temples with lego-like pillars and red brick accents were marked with the palm penjors which swayed in the wind to imaginary music. The green moss covered statues, clothed in black and white checked fabric, and yellow fringed umbrellas marked the temple entrances. Offerings of palm leaf containers littered the streets, the cars, and the steps of every structure.
Each village has three temples behind the main wall. One is for the founder of the village and where Brahma, the guard of the South resides. In Hinduism, gods guard to the five corners of the world. When these guardians are taken together, they form the symbol of a swastika. It is difficult to see swastikas on t-shirts hanging for sale in Ubud shops. However, here it is the sign for peace, safety, and blessings. Another temple building in the compound is for the worship of Vishnu, the guard of the North, and where area village activities are held, such as cock fights on days of celebration. The third is for the controller of the middle of the world, Shiva, whose temple building is where the souls of the dead are judged and a future life of either heaven or hell is determined.
The temple is the religious and social center of each village. Although poor, the people of the area must maintain the temple and participate in rituals. By active participation with celebrations and exorcisms, the cosmic order of life is maintained. Divine powers are worshiped and demonic ones are exorcised. Like the Balinese dancer who pauses on one foot, spine curved, and head tilted without a quiver, good and evil remain in check this way, in a delicate balance to insure prosperity and an abundant life for the village.
Skinny speckled chickens with their chicks scurrying behind, ran from the street as we passed by. They fluttered to the top of walls that opened to a complex of family homes. The roosters screamed their crows at our van, and the scruffy dogs barked. In the backyard, behind the individual houses and paths, we could see banana trees, papaya, coconut, and bamboo. Each extended family lives together behind such a wall, in their own rendition of the Garden of Eden.
One of my favorite sights was the neighborhood gas station. Either in front of a snack store, perched in the darkness beneath a tin roof, or part of a small square cinderblock repair shop, was a wooden rack holding glass liter bottles. We slowed to make a right turn in the road. Some bottles had the vodka labels still attached. An enormous plastic funnel rested on the top of the rack. Gas costs about forty-five cents a liter. I think of all of the scooters jamming the roads in Ubud, running on cheap petrol. A woman in a tight pink dress pulled up on her motorcycle, took down the funnel, and began filling her tank. We sped up again, following the line of motor scooters making their way to the capital city of Denpasar.
At the edge of the village in the stream by the road an elderly man bathed. Two women sat by the ditch and washed their clothes, rubbing shirts against the rock of the wall. Another filled a water container. I refrain from snapping a photo out of modesty for the naked man who stopped rinsing his hair to stand and watch us pass. He bent over again and scooped water into his hands. He was unconcerned by the stream of motorcycles and vans passing by. This was time for his morning bath. He would bathe again in the same spot before the sun set and the light was still good.
The walled homes in the villages which lined the narrow stone irrigation ditches gave way to village rice paddies. The Balinese are excellent farmers. They build their farmland as high as there is enough water with which to irrigate. The terraced rice fields follow the contour of the hills in such way as to take your breath away. Workers can be seen with conical straw hats and rusted scythes cutting clumps of precious rice from the stalk. I saw a pair of oxen bound by a carved wooden yoke trudging through a field. I snapped as picture as I gazed out of the rear window of the van. Rice is not just a commodity for the farmer. It is a Goddess and treated accordingly. I watched a woman holding a decorated bamboo pole and with a basket of offerings on her head, walk along the dike toward her field. She was about to tie an offering to the stem of a rice plant in the corner of her plot. Hopefully the goddess would be appeased and the harvest good.
We passed a large banyan tree that grew by the bend in the road. The road had been build to accommodate the tree. The Balinese people view as holy anything that is strange, large, or that they do not understand. This huge tree was large enough to have become holy. It was marked with black and red checked cloth tied around the trunk. A shrine sat beside the road under its branches. Colorful remnants of flowers and fruit withered in the heat as offerings to the spirit of the tree in an attempt to please the spirit. I thought of the roadside memorials around Seattle, left to remember loved ones who had died in car accidents on bends so similar to this. Perhaps prevention is the best approach. Appease the spirit of the tree first, then maybe memorials would not be necessary. A motor scooter whizzed by our van on the curve of the road. The father and mother wore helmets for safety. The baby was perched on the father’s lap, hugging the handlebars and laughing as his hair flew in the wind. An older sister stood between her mother and father tilting into the turn. Her eyes connected to mine as they passed by my window. Neither child had on helmets. Appeased spirits or not, offerings are less efficient than laws forbidding children on motorcycles and enforcing the use of helmets for safety. I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. I hoped it would not rain before we made it to Denpasar.
Villages flowed into rice paddies which turned into jungles and back again into villages as we wound our way through central Bali toward the south. We had arrived at our destination, too late for the service. The large Catholic Church loomed above us with Asian parapets crowned with crosses. Three modern arched porches tried to mimic the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. The whitewashed stone interior was decorated with colorful stained glass windows. Mary, dressed in an Indonesian orange and purple headpiece, cradled the white baby Jesus. Beautifully sculpted angels adorned the interior columns. They perched above our heads like Balinese dancers in ceremonial costumes wearing feathered wings. We wandered the empty aisles snapping photos and listening to our shoes click against the floor and echo in the vastness of the building. We found a man cleaning the back corner of the nave that pointed to the side Deli and noted that a church service was in process on the second floor of an office building across the road. We made our way over to the Christian City Church.
The room was an unadorned rectangle with silver folding chairs and a stage at the end. We were immediately handed a tray with the last two communion wafers and tiny shot glasses with bitter wine. A friendly young woman whispered that she would find us two seats in a room overflowing with rocking and singing worshipers. Yesus tuhan kau rajaku. The words projected on the screen from the stage were sung by all. Indonesian is an easy language to read. Every letter is pronounced with little inflection. We sang along in Indonesian. The women in front of us bounced and jumped to the music as if they were at a Rolling Stones concert. Most people had their hands in the air. I clapped along.
The visiting speaker was a missionary from the north of Bali. He had come to Indonesia fourteen years before with his wife, small infant, and no money. He described being called for his mission and the work that he did through the churches and schools. He asked for help, for people to respond to his plea by becoming missionaries to spread their faith. The women in front responded with yes, periodically throughout his speech. He called for the congregation to come forward to receive a blessing. Everyone rose. I was still seated. My friend gave me a stare, and I rose to go with her to the front.
The minister of this second floor office building church was a woman with a kind smile, soft voice, and the body of your Auntie Nellie. She came to me and asked my name, and if I lived in Bali. When she had learned the essential facts, she laid her hands on my head, and said she knew that I had many decisions to make. She assured me that I would take the right path and be blessed. Thank you Auntie Nellie. You a have a wonderful congregation in this unadorned room. As we walked out to leave, I wandered down the hall to the narrow porch on the side of the building. It overlooked the grounds of the Catholic Cathedral. On a table sat a small hot plate, a couple of woks hanging on the wall, a tray of clean glasses, and a makeshift sink. This was the Christian City Church kitchen. Tokay called the lizard from his hiding place in a tree nearby. By Bali standards, this was a blessed moment.
Agus, our driver, was waiting under the shade of a palm tree. I felt horrible that I had forgotten to invite him into the service. What kind of a missionary was I? We treated him to lunch at a warung near the post office. Agus is shy and reluctant to smile. He came from a small village in the north of Bali where he and his family tended the rice fields. His wife and two children were there now with his mother and father. He smiled when he mentioned his two sons. The eldest was ten. He left them for the month to stay in Ubud at the home of a friend and work as a driver for tourists. He would alternate months between the fields and his job as a driver. His life was not easy. He said that he would not have entered the Christian church. He was Hindu. I explained that I would love to visit the temple during a celebration. Aren’t you curious? He just smiled and remained silent.
After we returned from Denpasar and my friend departed, I asked Agus if he knew the location of Ketut Liyer from Ubud, the fortuneteller made famous in the Book, Eat, Pray, Love. The Expats called the bestselling memoir ELP and give it mixed reviews. The astrologer, healer, and medicine man, they unanimously referenced as Ketut Liar. I had met an Indonesian woman at lunch the day before, who revealed that she had her palm read by Ketut earlier that week and been brought to tears during her reading. She had learned things about her brother that were personal, and that she did not want to share. She gave him a glowing recommendation. Why not go for a reading? I had a few hours to spare. I would find the famous fortuneteller. I was sure that he would bond with me, and that I would learn truths worthy of tears.
We battled the traffic in the center of Ubud, until we came to a quiet narrow road lined with ornately carved doorways and flowering vines that cascaded over stone walls. A temple decorated with offerings stood across the road to Ketut’s home. I was nervous to be arriving on a whim with no appointment. Agus assured me that he had brought many tourists there before. Everyone would have to wait their turn to see the famous old man, with or without an appointment.
Ketut sat upon woven bamboo mats on the raised, red tile porch of his house. Books and mailing envelopes were piled on tables at the end of the porch. Two Japanese women and one man sat cross-legged on a large mat beside the old man. Ketut’s son wore a white polo shirt, a white Destar traditional turban, and pointed for us to take a seat on the porch opposite his father. A large clock hung on the wall behind him and clicked away the time.
The young woman had a full round face and giggled as Ketut whispered words in Japanese to her while he examined her palm. She would cover her mouth to hide her giggles. I could hear him say occasionally in broken English, You very, very lucky girl. She covered another giggle. I wanted to joke around with Agus, speculating on my fortune soon to be read. What if Ketut told me that I was unlucky? I would have to be carried from the porch in tears. I knew that Agus would not understand my jokes. This was a respected healer and astrologer. It was not a joking situation. I surveyed the groups of people waiting patiently on the porches of the surrounding homes in the compound. If each one took as long as this Japanese woman, how long would it take for me to make it back to Ubud where my friend was waiting for me at Starbucks? I smiled at the son and then at Ketut. It was the Indonesian way. I would will myself to the head of the line.
I watched as Ketut turned the girl around and pulled down the collar of her blouse. He rubbed his hands on the back of her neck and across her shoulders. He examined her legs and touched her tibia with his fingers. He felt her face and the top of her head, then held her hand and stroked her forearm. She giggled throughout the process. Between his words in Japanese, I heard him repeat, You very, very lucky girl. She thanked him profusely by bowing and shaking hands, as did her companions. They took photos with the old man. The young girl opened her wallet and handed money to Ketut’s son. After another couple was presented for a reading, it was my turn.
I removed my shoes and left them at the base of the first step to the porch, taking my place on the mat beside the sage. I was smiling broadly. He looked me directly in the eyes and then spoke. You stay right here. I have to pee. I burst out laughing. These were the first words spoken to me by a Balinese medicine man. He rose and walked through the wooden doors, disappearing into the darkness of his house. Alrighty then. I waited. When he returned, I stood up to show my respect. He told me to sit down. Then he sat down. I was laughing, and he began to laugh too. This was going to be an unusual reading.
What do you want to know?
I don’t know. What do you have to tell me?
Do you have any questions?
No, just tell me what you see.
So he asked me what everyone in Indonesia asks first. Where are you from? After telling him the specifics and learning that I was divorced, he began.
You very very pretty.
Thank you, and I giggled. Ketut must have the same effect on all women. He took my hand in his and began his reading by examining the lines in my palms.
You will live to be one hundred years old.
Really? My dad died at fifty-four.
He did not like to be second guessed. He showed me the definitive line that proved I would live to be one hundred. Ok. Ok. Now where the heck am I going to find the funds to survive until I am one hundred?
You will have lots of money.
Good. That question was answered.
You very, very pretty. I giggled again. I couldn’t help myself. At least I didn’t cover my mouth.
Your mouth as sweet as sugar. This time I laughed instead of giggled. I think I heard him tell the Japanese girl the same thing. He laughed too.
Your eyes are very merry.
Yes, I am a merry person. We were laughing after each sentence.
You very smart.
Thank you, I said politely this time.
You very impatient, aren’t you?
Well. I guess, maybe, I might be. I thought that yes, I had been impatient. I knew that I had outlived my father. I was living each day as my last, trying to maximize each moment. I thought this was a good thing. Now that I was living to one hundred, perhaps I could slow down. Thanks Ketut.
You have lots of boyfriends.
Uh, I don’t think so. Well, maybe there could be. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t sound very smart or definitive. Perhaps I should resort to giggling again.
Ketut turned my hand. There was a tiny line on the side of my palm below my pinky finger.
You be married again. This time, marriage last until your last days.
Really? I blurted my response. That’s great. Are you sure?
Ketut did not like being doubted. Of course he was sure. That tiny, indecipherable line proved it so. I would be married, and only once more. I was so interested in seeing the line, the guarantee of a future husband that I forgot to ask for details, such as a name of my groom and a date of the nuptials. I could begin planning.
You very healthy.
Good, good. I smiled. Ok, so this guy knows his stuff. He gazed at my finger tips, my head, and pressed his fingers on my forehead between my eyes. He felt my wrist and forearm. As I glanced down, I noticed his long yellowed nails for the first time. I stared into his face and saw deep creases in his thin cheeks. He smiled as I looked into his eyes. He was missing all but a few teeth that bucked forward and matched his nails in color. His eyes twinkled. As he held my hand I could tell that he enjoyed his profession.
Ketut’s outfit was as unique as the man himself. He wore a yellow and green Nike soccer shirt with the logo of Brazil. From his neck hung a brown and amber necklace made of carved beads. His head was wrapped in a brown batik Destar, and around his thin waist was tied a beautiful blue and gold sarong. On his wrist was a big faced watch with hands and numbers large enough to see without glasses.
I am old man. Ninety six. Would marry you if I could have sex. We both laughed.
You very healthy, he repeated. Your kidneys good. Your gall bladder good. Your heart good. Each time he felt a different part of my hand. When you get married, on wedding night, you have sex three times before 3 AM.
Alright! Damn this man is good! Three times.
You not sleep. You have sex three times before 3 AM. I was laughing hard now, as was Agus and Ketut’s son. Another driver who spoke English was laughing as well and seemed to look at me with interest. This will be a good selling point for me in the future. Thanks Ketut. This may be what guarantees that the tiny line below my pinky was accurate.
He turned me around and pulled down the neckline of my top. He rubbed his fingers along my back. I held my hair up with my hands to give him easier access to my shoulders. He rubbed his fingers down the front of my leg.
How you get around at home? You walk? You use car?
I hated to tell him that I used a car. I use a car. But, I do like to hike, I mean trek.
You use car. You not in an accident.
No I have never been in an accident.
You very, very lucky girl. I had to laugh at that one. You very, very pretty. When you get married, you let me know. I marry you if I could have sex. I am ninety six. No more sex.
With the repeated referrals to marriage, I was beginning to feel grateful that Ketut was too old for sex. I was off the hook, and I didn’t have to disappoint Bali’s most famous fortuneteller. I smiled and shook his hand. The session was over.
He looked at me and said, You pay two hundred fifty thousand rupiah.
I felt sure that this was fifty thousand more than the Japanese girl had to pay. Since I do not speak Japanese, I could not tell if she was going to have a lot of sex on her honeymoon. I decided that it was well worth the extra five dollars. I said goodbye, but knew I would be seeing Ketut again. I had to bring my future husband back to meet him and report on our wedding night.
Agus and I headed back to the car for a quick drive back to the center of Ubud. The traffic had thinned. My friend was still at Starbucks. I am a lucky, luck girl. We decided to meet later for drinks at Deli Cat and talk about the day. She wanted to hear the details of my session with the fortuneteller.
Deli Cat is a small restaurant and bar that borders the soccer field in the center of Ubud. It is known for excellent cheap food and as a gathering place for the drinking Expat crowd. This was my second time there. The porch is too small for more than three tables. We shared a place with a mother and son from Spain and ordered Rose. I am not a Rose drinker, nor am I a wine aficionado. However, I can tell a bad wine, and I can appreciate a fine one. There are few fine wines in Bali and none without an enormous price tag attached. We ordered ice to help improve the flavor of our carafe.
We were laughing over the stories of our day, the rain, and discussing Christianity, when my friend’s friend dropped by our table. He ordered a nice red wine and offered to share. Another friend came over as well. We were now a party. The subject had already been determined. Religion. Erik was from Norway. He had lived in Ubud for years. He knew his wines and had definite opinions about organized religions. The candle on the table flickered in the darkness as we made sure that the wine glasses remained full during our serious discussion.
He was concerned about the control of Hinduism over the population of Bali. The people are poor. The requirements of their religion to make offerings, support the temple, and pay for the cremation of loved ones as well as their own, is an enormous financial responsibility.
In Balinese Hindu society, a body must be cremated. It is the supreme offering made in one’s life. It is believed that through cremation, the body of the deceased is cleansed and purified by fire, therefore allowing the spirit to be incarnated into a better human being. Bodies are only buried when the cost of cremation is too much for a family to afford. The dead will remained buried until the ceremonies can be paid for, or the cost of a mass cremation is shared by the village for the poor.
Every tourist begs their guide to see a cremation. Preparations can takes months. It begins with the entire village bringing gifts to the home of the deceased. The family must entertain their visitors with food and music. A tower is constructed to bear the body to the location for cremation. The more important the individual, the larger the tower.
The day I landed in Bali was the cremation of the Ubud King, Ida Dewa Agung Peliatan IX. There had not been a royal cremation for nearly a hundred years. What incredible luck! His tower had eleven tiers and was over 82 feet tall. The ten ton structure was carried for almost two miles by hundreds of men. Bearing the weight of such a heavy structure, the men were replaced frequently. Power lines had to be removed so that the tower could process through the streets of Ubud. The procession had the ambiance of a Macy’s Day Parade. Vendors sold balloons, pinwheels, food and handicrafts to the tourists. It was another feeding frenzy of buying and selling. A huge sarcophagus in the shape of white bull was decorated with golden necklaces and headdress, and stood on a carved gold canopied platform. With the bull was placed an enormous crowned snake-like dragon. All were to be incinerated with the body of the King. Before the fire was lit at sunset, the priests prayed and anointed the body with holy water. Thousands of people came to watch. I was there as well. I am a lucky, lucky girl. The King’s cremation was a fortune. It made the cost of a bar mitzvah or a wedding pale in comparison. Ida Dewa Agung Peliatan IX went into the next lifetime in style.
Erik drank his red wine and contemplated the afterlife. He was not a fan of any organized religion, but was a fan of Nostradamus. Deli Cat closed, and the staff left us on the porch with wine refills and the candle still burning as midnight turned into the next day. Erik explained his personal philosophy. We were part of a grand and complex cosmos, watched over by aliens. There was no heaven or hell. We made our own heaven and hell. Our relationship to the divine being was a personal one, and required no church or religious ceremony, no offerings or appeasements. The aliens were advanced beings that had learned to live in other dimensions, in other vibrations. A shift in life as we know it was closer at hand. We would have to learn how to shift into new vibrations ourselves.
My friend compared the aliens to Angels. I clung to the power of group prayer and my experience with miracles and faith. I described my trip to Burundi, Africa, and how Christianity had done so much for that beautiful but war torn country. Erik finally allowed that there might be exceptions to his philosophy. Perhaps I had experienced the one exception. We finished the wine and remarked that our discussion needed to be continued before my month in Indonesia came to an end. The night and the day had flown by as had my November in Bali. I would be leaving soon.
I rode back home on the back of my friend’s scooter with my hair blowing in the night air. The heat of the day had vanished. The rain had stopped. When we reached my house, and the motor of the cycle was turned off, the Tokay could be heard in chorus with the smaller geckos. I thought of angels and aliens, offerings and services, priests and fortunetellers, as I walked in the darkness.
We are all bound by our humanity. If a cremation purifies your soul and your life has been a good one, then blessings to you. If you leave a Sunday service and don’t forget the poor you encounter on the way to lunch, or golf, or the beach, then blessings to you as well. If aliens or angels protect you on your way through this life, then you definitely are blessed. Afterlife, rebirth, new vibrations, heaven, or hell; unless we are blessed by the tiny line beneath our pinky to live to be one hundred years old, we will know the answers soon enough. Why sweat it now?
I walked down the dark, rocky drive to my villa. There were three offerings of colorful flowers placed in a tiny square palm tray on the top step in front of my kitchen door. I had rats in the lower terrace earlier in the afternoon. I mentioned my concern to the housekeeper. Offerings to good spirits are placed in shrines or upon decorated bamboo poles. Offerings placed on the ground are meant to appease evil spirits. In the absence of traps, the Orkin man, or a cat, I hoped these offerings would work. I said my prayer as I gingerly stepped over the flowers that lay on the ground. Keep me safe through the night, Oh Lord. I went inside to huddle in my bed beneath the mosquito net until the morning came, and I woke again to a new day.

Alone- Part 4

I had dinner last night with George Orwell in a small Balinese-style restaurant on the main street of Ubud. I learned about his philosophy. I laughed too loudly when he described the horrible, exhausting struggle of writing, comparing it to a long bout with a painful illness. Writing and painting are very similar. I had been painting that day in the garden of the villa where I am staying this month. I was sipping on a glass of wine in celebration of the long and painful painting illness that I had just survived. I toasted George, for his insight, his beautifully crafted words, and the fact that he was my night’s dinner companion. I laughed again as he described writers as vain, selfish, and lazy. He noted that they were driven by an unknown demon that can neither be resisted nor understood. Cheers, George. You got it. I put down my wine glass and turned the page of his book. I could not be happier, sharing my satay with such a renowned author. His book was a gift from a new friend on Bali. When I am finished, someone will appear who will want and need to have dinner with George too. I will pass my gift on.
Seven months ago, I was on a tour bus in Bali heading to the volcano Batur, where I was to have lunch. Although I was with a dive group from Seattle, I was alone. I sat with the only child on our tour. All of the other adults were in pairs. She liked my attention, and I like kids. As our guide, Made, talked into his microphone and described the rice paddies we were passing, I noticed a large cabochon ruby ring on his finger. It was set in the yellowest of gold and was sizable enough to be worthy of the Smithsonian’s gem collection. The brilliance of his ring washed away his monologue. I could not hear his words. I could only see his ring. When he paused, I complimented his ruby. He thanked me and told me the story of his treasure.
In broken English, he relayed that while visiting his temple, the priest had found a large ruby. Made was not specific. Perhaps it had been a gift to the temple. While Made presented his personal gift of offerings, the priest handed him the ruby and said it belonged to him. I was amazed. Such a precious stone, one that would have been the show piece of any Seattle jewelry store, was given to a man of limited means and without any thought of compensation. Made spoke into his microphone with little flair, as if this was just another day in his life. He had a jewelry maker design the setting. I commented with a chuckle that his children must be thrilled with the thought of inheriting such a prize. My thoughts had wandered back to Seattle and the Last Will and Testament that lay tucked in my safe in the event of my death. Made tilted his head back and laughed in a high pitched giggle typical of Balinese men. No. This ring was his, until it was time came that it was no longer his. Then he would pass it on to another.
Such a simple thought devoid of greed. I had a similar experience. The day before Palm Sunday in 2008 was a particularly rough day for me. I was in the middle of my divorce. That Saturday ended with a flurry of emails that left me with a feeling of helplessness. My husband had photographed and counted the candlesticks, as well as all of our possessions, down to the Halloween and Easter decorations. Nineteen pairs of candlesticks. Half of the Halloween decorations? I felt emptied.
The next day I was accompanying my niece as she went shopping in Palm Springs. I had been looking for something special to wear on my left hand, but was afraid to spend any money. I wanted a Greek ring to replace my wedding band. My mother’s family was from Greece. I watched my niece trying on jewelry, as I chatted with a stranger at the counter. After purchasing several pieces for his girlfriend, he insisted on buying something for me. Despite my objections, he chose an expensive ring and handed his credit card to the clerk. This ring was designed by a Greek artist and looked nothing like a wedding band. It was exactly what I had wanted. It had a cross of topaz in the center. I tried not to take it. He handed me a small shopping bag tied with a ribbon. The transaction was complete. The gift was given. It was what I wanted, on the day that I needed it most.
I spent months looking for the stranger to thank him and send him a gift in return. I never could track him down. I wear the ring every day as a reminder that God will provide, and that I will be safe. It is my ring until it is no longer mine. When the time comes, I will pass it on. It is not my gift to keep. The gift for me will be giving it away. Whether gifts comes from a Hindu temple or a jewelry counter in Palm Springs on Palm Sunday, I am convinced that we are all connected through the gifts we give to others. Some gifts are expensive treasures like rubies or Greek rings. Some gifts are simple as a smile.
My waiter stopped at my table to pour more water. I read his name tag. He was Wayan, He asked where I was from. I placed George Orwell on the table and smiled at Wayan. He smiled too. He was eager to use his English in conversation. I told him that I was from Seattle. His smile hung on his face without changing. America, I continued. He brightened and told me that he had a friend in America. I introduced myself by name, and we shook hands. He explained the meaning of his name. He was the first born in his family. The Balinese have four names. It does not matter if the child is a boy or girl. Their name reflects the birth order in the family. Wayan was proud of being the first. I loved his smile. I explained that Microsoft, Bill Gates, and Starbucks came from where I lived. His smile never changed, and thus I was sure that he did not know to what I was referring. However, he was enjoyed our connection. We shook hands again, and I told him how pleased I was to meet him. I assured him that we would meet again. I returned George Orwell to my backpack, and headed down the stairs from the restaurant and onto the sidewalk.
The evening had grown dark while I had been at dinner. I was not particularly interested in wending my way home with my small flash light. The sidewalks dip and rise like a mountain chain. They are littered with offerings. Walking the streets of Ubud is like traversing an obstacle course. My villa is on a street with no sidewalks. Jalan Sandat is a rocky dirt road with few street lights. Chickens roam free and fighting roosters crow from their bamboo cages. Bali street dogs are everywhere, and at night their barking scares me. I have been told that they will not bite, but I have also been told that rabies is a new problem. I chose not to get the rabies inoculation before traveling to Indonesia. I was feeling vulnerable.
There was a crowd of men standing on the corner of Ubud’s main road and my dark side street. They looked up and stared at me as I approached. Their motor scooters were parked in disarray by the sidewalk. Could anyone give me a lift to the end of Jalan Sandat? What? Two thousand-five hundred Rupiah. Two dollars and fifty cents. Sidewalk robbery! I negotiated the price down to two dollars. I was desperate and did not want to walk by the dogs that I heard snarling in the distance. As I hopped on the back of a scooter, a stockier man approached. I could not understand his sentence above the revving of the engine. Cremation? Yes, I was at the Cremation the first day when I arrived. He smiled broadly. I remember you, he said. You were at the Cremation of the King. Yes I was. You remember me? He tilted his head back and laughed. Yes. I responded that he had a wonderful memory, and that I was sorry that I had not recognized him. I was so tired for having traveled for 32 hours to get to Bali. His smile seemed to say that he did not understand me. My name is Tula, and I held out my hand. He grabbed my hand and introduced himself as Made. He was number two in his family. I told him that Made had picked me up from the airport that day, and he laughed. He said if I needed another ride to come and find him. He pointed to the store closest to the corner of the main road. This was his home, above the snack shop. He lived on Jalon Sandat as well. We were neighbors. We both smiled. I waved goodbye as my motorcycle roared off. The dogs were barking while I sped away, up the dirt road thinking about all of the interesting connections in life.
The first place that I visited upon arriving in Ubud, was the high speed internet café at the corner of Jalon Sandat and the main road, the main source of connections in Bali. I wanted to chat with my friends back home. The café is air-conditioned, serves lattes that can rival a Starbucks, and attracts Expats from around the island. At each table are two chairs that face each other. I settled into my chair and connected my net book. As I sipped my coffee, I looked up to see a handsome man smiling across from me. I asked where he was from. California. We were both Americans and both from the west coast. We laughed at the coincidence. He asked me how long I was staying in Bali and why I had decided to come alone for a month. I told him that I was in search of connections, to see if Indonesia was a place that I might return to live. I wanted to see what role I could play if I lived in Bali. I had already met a friend from the internet who had spent the past twelve years of his life devoting himself to the orphans of the island. He was to show me around.
I continued on. I also love to paint, write, and scuba dive. He smiled again. He was a scuba diver. Although he would be leaving for Napa Valley in a couple of days, he had time to go diving one more time before he left. He would make the arrangements, and we could discuss them that night at the trivia contest at the Fly Café. Lots of Expats would be there. It was guaranteed to be lots of fun. Just grab a scooter and be there by 8:30.
I had been in town for hours. I had a dive buddy and someplace to be on a Friday night. I remained at the Internet café and talked with a Canadian realtor who ran a Bali bookmobile program and supported a medical clinic. I listened to the discourse from a retired analyst who was convinced that the monetary system was soon to collapse and recommended buying gold despite the current high selling price. I agreed with the students from Ireland and France that Bali would be a great place to be if all hell broke loose.
I remained in the café for most of the afternoon. I got the scoop on island life from the next group of expats connecting to friends across the globe. I was told that there are three groups of foreigners living in Ubud. Everyone had been reduced to a stereotype. The hippies, health nuts, and spiritual ones meet at a café nearby. A finger pointed to the window toward the left. They love to meditate and do yoga. There will be a meditation festival next week in the soccer field near the palace. They would all be there. I thought of Eat, Pray, Love. The second group was the European intellectuals. They meet at a restaurant farther away off the main road. They drink a lot and think they are smart. They love to discuss books and politics. They are mostly from Germany and Holland. Then there are the artists, writers, and Australians. They drink a lot as well. It was decided by the internet café crowd that I was one of these. I tried to explain that I didn’t drink much and couldn’t see myself fitting into any stereotype. No. It had been agreed upon. I would be a perfect Aussie drinking artist writer. They meet at the Fly Café just beyond the statue on Friday nights for a wild game of trivia. Hey, maybe they were right. I had already planned to go there that night. Everyone shook hands, smiled, and wished each other a happy day. I headed out to explore the sidewalks. I waved to the men smoking on the corner by their motor scooters. Made dropped his cigarette and smiled. Sorry number two. Don’t need a lift today. Thanks anyway.
I had come to Bali by myself, but I did not feel alone. I arrived at the Fly Café with my new dive buddy calling my name to join his table. I was introduced to my team of trivia competitors. They were called the Big Lebowski’s which is one of my favorite movies. This was a definite fit. Tonight however, the group’s name had been changed. Because of a tennis match being aired on television, many people had not shown up to play. The team was much smaller than usual. They needed me. We were now the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. I like these people. They are funny.
By the end of the competition, I had connected to another close friend, a beautiful woman who had come to Bali to teach English. I wanted to be a teacher too. We planned to meet for brunch and discuss the process for getting certified to teach English abroad. The puzzle pieces of my life were fitting together, one at a time. Perhaps this part came from a stack of pieces carved in Indonesia.
Conversations continued around the table. My dive buddy had met me before. One year ago I had been in his shop in northern California. My nephew had designed his website. After a tour of wineries in Napa, we had stopped by his design shop to do business. Now I was about to go diving half way around the world with someone I did not know that I knew. If you miss a connection, sometimes you have the opportunity to make it again. Life is wonderful that way.
One connection seems to lead to another, like synapses firing off each other in the brain. Connections expand like a web reaching out and growing from one thing that it touches to another. Trivia night with the artists, writers, and Australians, led me to Wednesday Movie Night at the home next to my villa. When Lauren Bacall finished kissing Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock film, Notorious, and I could barely contain my romantic sigh. My new movie loving friends felt the same way. Before the evening was over, I found myself with plans to attend Saturday Trivia Night with the Dutch at Ubud’s romantic hideaway restaurant, Han Snell. I had crossed over into the Expat’s second group.
Han Snell was a Dutch artist. He died in 1998. He had been sent to Indonesia as a soldier to fight the nationalist, and defected to their side. He lived in Bali as a painter from 1950, became an Indonesian citizen. This had been his restaurant. Now after winning Saturday Trivia with a charming Dutch Expat from Holland, I was sharing dinner with his family in Han Snell. They had all been friends of the famous artist. His daughter is the current owner of the restaurant. Before they drove me home to number thirty Jalon Sandat, I was invited to world’s best spa, where my new friend, the owner, worked in the daytime as the general manager. The world’s best spa? I am a person of superlatives. I could hardly wait. I had been the only person from the Wednesday night movie to attend Saturday Trivia. I was not about to miss a connection.
Movie Night also provided the introduction to my third group of friends, the hippie spiritual healthy eaters. Before the film began and Cary Grant took my breath away, I introduced myself to a fascinating French woman drinking a glass of red wine. She wore several beaded necklaces, a flowing vest over her sheer top, and multiple bangle bracelets. She was an artist and a writer, and had lived in Bali for years. She handed me her card. I told her how I loved being in Paris for Christmas and New Years. I raved about French food. I listened as she spoke with her flowing French accent. She would be covering the meditation festival on Saturday. Do I meditate? Would I care to join her? If not, go to the painting workshop on Saturday morning. There would be a live nude model. The model was a ballet dancer. All the artists in Ubud would be there. The studio was just around the corner from Jalon Sandat. She could not come because of the festival, but we would find a time to go out into the countryside to plein air paint together soon.
She told me of a yoga class that met in her friend’s home. It was run by a famous instructor whose books had sold millions of copies. There are two students in the class, but I could come too. It was alright that I could not touch my toes. Yes, it was even alright that I cannot touch me knees. She would bring a mat for me. I need only bring a sarong and show up. I will show up. That is what I do in life now.
Everyone I met has been surprised that I have no card or cell phone. Do I not want to be connected? You must get a cell phone. I laugh. I have a deposit slip with me. Feel free to make a deposit anytime. I can walk down to the internet café. I have the movie night, and two trivia nights. I have been invited to the monthly Bali Women’s club luncheon by a founding member. I have been asked to volunteer at the private English speaking school in Ubud. I have cards for clinics, bookmobiles, and resale shops that benefit the handicapped. My teacher friend and I are responsible for the turkey and dressing at the Expat Thanksgiving dinner. I also have the street corners with the waiting drivers and the smiling waiters at the restaurants throughout Ubud. And there are always the orphanages. I have promised to go back. In my busy life, it is important to return there with a gift of hugs, and the willingness to listen.
Am I alone on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, exactly twelve hours ahead of New York, where I know not a single soul? Not at all. The French couple from the small flat at the entrance to number 30 Jalan Sandat has moved in with me. They had to leave their flat as it was rented to two teachers who have come to Ubud for a couple of weeks. My new French roommates live in India. They moved to be close to their spiritual teacher and have taken on Indian names. They have to leave their country every six months as a requirement to renew their visa. Health care is also excellent in India. I was told by Hiadas, that Shanti needs to be there. She is dying. The housekeeper tells me that she has some form of cancer. My French is limited as is their English. We communicate mostly with smiles. I do not know the details of her disease. She is in a wheel chair, and he lovingly cares for her. I have watched him gather flower blossoms that have fallen from the trees on Jalon Sandat to bring home to her. He floats them in a bowl of water to see her smile.
My villa is large. There is plenty of space for a wheel chair to maneuver, and there is a beautiful lotus pond by which to sit. They are paying me to be here. I feel embarrassed taking their money, but the owner of the villas negotiated the deal. He did not want me giving away my privacy for free. He did not know that I have come to Bali in order to make connections. For the next week or so, Shanti, Haidas and I will sit by the pond and listen to the roosters, the lizards, and the barking dogs. We are surrounded by the loud hum of life reverberating from the jungle and the small rocky road outside of our gate.
The Tokay Gecko calls his name from the thick greenery that forms the invisible walls of the villa. Tokay, Tokay. To the Balinese, the voice of a lizard is the voice of God. In any serious discussion, God’s support or anger is determined by the response of the lizard that calls from the distance. Bali must be blessed because the lizards cry continually. The Tokay is the loudest.
I think I will paint a portrait of Shanti for Haidas. Maybe that is why they have moved in with me. Tokay, Tokay. Today will be a good day.

People and Fish- Part 3

One of my greatest adventures in 2010 was learning to scuba dive. I have always been in love with people. Before I learned to dive, I did not know how much I loved fish. Once you see what lies beneath the surface, you life is changed forever. Isn’t that always the way? Below the waves waits Bob the Grouper. He hangs by the shallow Caribbean corals off the coast of Little Cayman Island in hopes that divers will swim by and stoke his scales. There is nothing like feeling the skin of a living fish suspended in water. There is nothing like diving.
After my slow start as a scuba diver in the cold water of the Puget Sound, I found myself on a trip to the Wakatobi Resort in Indonesia. I had a rudimentary idea of where I was going. Indonesia was somewhere above Australia. I had never heard of Sulawesi, the enormous U-shaped Island to the west and only knew of Bali to the south, through books and Hollywood films. The day I walked into my dive shop to inquire about dive locations, one precious space opened up on the trip to Indonesia. There had been a cancelation. It was the scuba adventure of a lifetime. I wrote a big fat check and tried to submerge the fear of traveling to the other side of the globe with strangers. Something was calling me. I was not about to miss it.
The location was exotic. The Wakatobi Dive Resort is situated on Tolandono, one of a circle of islands called Tukang Besi, southeast of Malaysia. The surrounding coral reefs extend for 100,000 square miles and encompass one of the largest protected marine parks in the world. From the air, the reefs look like a glass marble, swirls of turquoise, green, and blue. The scuba divers who stared down at the coral reefs below were awestruck. It is reassuring that nature such as this exists, and the excitement was tangible. We watched uninhabited jungle islands pass beneath us. The round dark tops of palm trees formed thick unbroken masses from shoreline to shoreline. There were no huts or roads to break the lush green vegetation. We felt lucky to be visiting a place that few tourists find. Places such as these are where divers go.
The plane landed at a tiny private airport. We were loaded into several ramshackle vans and driven through narrow island dirt roads past cinderblock style houses. Small children ran to the road to watch the vans pass. We hiked down the stone steps to our waiting resort boat. We watch the sea gypsies swim beside the dock. The sea gypsies are the Indonesian homeless who live on the water throughout the archipelago. We were handed pink welcoming drinks and iced towels to wipe the sweat from our faces. Ours is not the life of most Indonesians. The children waved to us as we slip away into the darker blue water.
Wakatobi Dive Resort looks like the set from Gilligan’s Island. The waves lap against the narrow white sand beach where tall palms curve down and back up again, reaching for the sky. The smell of sea salt and jungle fill the air. We put down our drinks and made our way along shell lined paths to our bungalows. We had barely arrived, and it was time for our first dive. We rushed into our wetsuits to explore the house reef, one of the best in the world.
We only swam a few meters when the underworld magic of this coral reef was revealed. We released our air and sank below the surface to have a closer look. Like an underwater garden, the reef bloomed in color, shape, and texture. Everything was alive with activity. What appeared to be a feathery green and black fern was an animal reaching for food in the passing current. What seemed to be a sediment rock was a deadly stonefish waiting for prey. Anemones of pink or orange sheltered fish of matching colors. Camouflage and color is the way of life for creatures beneath the surface of the sea. Schools of dazzling striped or spotted fish swam around us. Some fish were both striped and spotted, as if the decision made at their creation was a jumbled error. I was amazed and gasped in my regulator, not for air, but in joy for the viewing the reef for the first time. I had been at Wakatobi for a matter of hours, and I had seen incredible things.
Divers seek tiny creatures like a treasure hunt, peering under ledges on rocks for slugs in brilliant blue and yellow. We hovered beside pink fan coral with magnifying glasses in search of pygmy sea horses. We strained our eyes at the sand looking for crocodile fish buried for protection. The moray eels yawned their jaws to display their teeth as we drifted on the current near their hiding holes. All the while the goby fish peered at us to see if we were predators while his enlisted shrimp dug his hole. Life continued nonstop in the ocean while we, for as long as our air allowed, watched and learned.
Nowhere is there a more beautiful place than a dive site named for ancient Rome. In Roma the giant barrel sponges look like the ruins of Pompei. At the bottom of a ridge, a giant cabbage coral grows in the shape of an enormous pink rose. As we swam in humble respect for the underwater Indonesian landscape we were experiencing, a school of large silver snapper swam by. Then quickly to our side, a regiment of bright blue fusiliers darted in precision across the rose.
Oh the fishies, the beautiful fishies. My instructor, Marielle, laughed at my pleasure as she wrote the names of fish on her slate. We could not speak. We had regulators in our mouths to keep the air flowing and us alive. Without the use of spoken words, we communicated to each other with our hands. We tapped our chests to tell each other how much we appreciated the unique sights that drifted by.
It is a bonding experience to engage in a life threatening activity with another person. A diver does not dive without his buddy. It is a dive buddy’s responsibility to make sure that his partner is safe. Every few minutes you make eye contact with your buddy and signal with your fingers the message, Are you OK? If only relationships were that caring above the water’s surface on the land, every few minutes someone looking and checking to see, are you OK? Eyes beside you that watch closely for your response. Yes, I am OK for now.
A diver can easily get narced. This is the slang for nitrogen narcosis, when too much nitrogen had gathered in your blood. One of the first symptoms can be a lack of focus or perhaps giddiness. As I swam circles like a mermaid and chased fleeting turtles, Marielle was always watching. If I became narced, she was ready to help me to the surface and share her life sustaining air. The lessons of scuba can extend beyond the water, to the eyes of those in need with whom we have contact. Are you OK for now? Let me know, and I will be there to help if you need me.
Returning home from such a beautiful place with such great need was difficult. I knew that one day I would return to Indonesia. In the mean time, I began diving in the Puget Sound. Diving in a drysuit is much more difficult than in warm tropical waters. It is difficult to achieve neutral buoyancy with the addition of quilted undergarments, rubber boots, huge gloves, a thick hood and thirty-two pounds of extra weight. Air is added to the suit itself for warmth against the nearly freezing temperatures. This must be regulated. Visibility is limited. Having a dive buddy close at hand is essential.
Darrell is my instructor at Elliot Bay. He is patient and supportive, generous with his compliments and encouragement. He loves to share what he finds beneath the surf with other divers. While most people feasted on calamari over the water at Seattle’s famous Seafood Restaurant, Salty’s, a hand full of divers submerged below the surface to see the North Pacific Giant Octopus that lives twenty meters away. Hidden under submerged boats and artificial reefs, these enormous creatures lazily eye their visitors with their ten foot tentacles as the rest on bottom of the bay. Darrell and I paused on the bottom as well, watching in amazement at the very existence of such an incredible animal. Darrell grabbed a large orange Sea Star and placed it on my head, like a fancy Easter bonnet and then snapped a photo. I laughed in my regulator. Darrell constantly checked my eyes behind the lens of my mask. Are you OK? Let me know if you are OK. We were here together to make sure that we were both safe on this day’s journey in the salt water of the Sound. That’s how it goes when you dive together. Hey Darrell, I am more than OK. I am fabulous. I took off my orange Sea Star bonnet and looked for more treasures in the deep.
I am reluctant to quote Blanch Dubois, “that I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” but in June, through strangers on Face Book, I met a group of divers heading to the Caribbean. Again there had been a cancellation. One precious spot remained on a trip to the Cayman Islands, and it was offered to me. I jumped at the chance to see more warm water coral reefs. I had been the Caymans only once before, and it was not to dive.
In 1998, several women asked me to join them on a golfing trip to Grand Cayman Island during the November Pirate’s Week. When we landed at the airport, were handed rum drinks by costumed revelers. The party had begun, before we ever reached baggage claim. The leader of our group knew how to party. She owned a condo with her lover on Cayman, along with a bank account where we assumed that money was hidden without scrutiny from the IRS and his ex wife. This trip was doomed before it began. Upon reflection, I am not surprised. Far to the east, storm clouds were gathering.
We landed at night and awoke in the morning to a beautiful narrow white beach. The sky was dark with what appeared to be the typical tropical storm. It was too rainy to play golf, so we played cards instead in the afternoon and headed to dinner for more parting. We were not about to miss a moment of Pirate’s Week. The next day at the pool, we chatted with a group of divers from New Jersey. They had just chartered an airplane to leave the island that afternoon. They were cutting their dive vacation short because of a Hurricane named Mitch that was on the way. I looked around. The rain had stopped. Where was the hurricane? I asked how much it cost to charter a plane. They asked me how much my life was worth and laughed. I began to feel uneasy.
We went into George Town to discuss the storm over fried clams and beer. I looked into the harbor and explained with authority to my buddies that the Navy vessel moored in the bay was a guarantee that we need not be concerned. When hurricanes approached, the Navy always moved their ships to sea. We clicked our beer glasses to calm waters and par golf, when all of a sudden, the Navy ship turned and headed to sea. Mitch was on the way, and the military was not taking any chances.
After learning that all return flights home were booked, and that we would be staying on Cayman for our first hurricane, we looked for candles, matches and flash lights in our holiday condo. None were to be found. The grocery store was nearly as vacant. What had been an aisle filled with loaves of bread a day and a half earlier, was barren. Shoppers were swarming through the aisles grabbing any food and supplies they could find. We managed to buy a few candles and some batteries for the sole remaining flashlight that we triumphantly claimed for our own.
Grand Cayman Island is a sandbar in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. The news had reached Seattle that a category five storm was nearing the island. Husbands were calling, concerned about Mitch. They wanted us to leave. There were no planes left to charter. Our host’s lover warned of being too low to the ground in their condo, or too high up in a hotel room if we were to rent one. Everyone else received calls from Seattle, pleas to head to the airport and find a plane. Where was my dive buddy to ask if I was OK? I called home. No worries. You’ll be OK. It’s just a storm.
The television and radio blared continual reports throughout the night as to Mitch’s location. It was predicted to be a direct hit. All foreigners were to be evacuated out immediately. We dragged our unopened golf bags and our suitcases to the airport at 5 AM and watched the palms that lined the tarmac bend flat to the ground in the rushing winds. Huddled on the floor, we waited for our names to be called. Yes. It was our turn to leave. The early morning had turned into late afternoon, and we were finally getting our chance to go home, away from the storm. We did not care that United Airlines was flying us to Miami on an Aeroflot jet. As I gripped the armrest in the wind of our departure, I thought about the people remaining behind on the floor, and the natives who were not being flown to safely. I am going to be OK. Are you?
On my return twelve years later, I was pleased to see that Mitch had spared the Cayman Islands. Only one dive boat was lost in the storm. Mitch decided to turn at the last moment and do his worst to the Spanish speaking countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
Now I was back again. I met my new dive buddies at the Grand Cayman Airport. Pirate week and free airport rum drinks were still five months away. Little Cayman rested quietly off the shore of its bigger sister, waiting for the few arriving divers who flew in to enjoy the reefs and the wrecks. I was immediately welcomed by a friendly group of gregarious divers from North Carolina. They were the Gypsies and were happy to welcome a new member. No problem that you traveled here alone. We will all be your dive buddies.
The experienced divers heaped praises on my skill, boosting my confidence, and gently made suggestions to improve my diving ability. They were always checking to see if I was OK on land as well as underwater. They called my name as I entered the bar to come and join them for drinks. They made sure there was a seat at the dinner table, so that I would never dine alone. I was part of their diving family, a Gypsy Diver too.
This is where I met Bob. I was swimming along the reef, minding my own business, when Bob decided to swim along. He nuzzled below me and did not flinch when I reached down to touch his side. We had been told by our dive master that Bob would be waiting. We were instructed the proper way to pet a fish. We would damage his skin if our caresses did not follow his scales. We had to respect the innocence of a Grouper so friendly that he would let us run our hands along his sides. We had to be careful. I settled as closely to the coral below without touching the bottom, so that I could float beside Bob, as if we were lying together, side by side in a bed. Our heads were close and I cooed to him in bubbles, trying to explain how moved I was that he had decided to be there with me. He seemed for a moment to understand my English, distorted by bubbles from the regulator. Are you OK? I am more than OK as I talk with you now. Be safe from fishing nets, hooks, and sharks. I like you my friend.
I have made a promise to never eat a Grouper again. I think of Bob happily swimming on the current in the Little Cayman reef. I would hate to think that any harm would come to him. And, like the day that I was following the reef when Bob came close to swim beside me, I swim along in life day by day. Perhaps someone will join me for a while. However, there are too many wonderful things to experience while swimming, many wondrous places to go, and many people to meet, to be concerned about who is swimming and where. The current will take me along. It’s been an incredible year drifting along the reefs of the world, and there is one last reef to explore.
I have come back to Indonesia. I am in Bali, this time for a month. I am here to see if this is where I might stay for a while. I am here to make connections with the people of Indonesia. I have packed my dive equipment, my plein air palette and oils, my laptop, and my book of prayers.
I walk back and forth along the long rocky road each night, and back and forth again each morning. On one end of my street lives an old and famous Balinese artist. He has invited me to join him for coffee. At end of the main road, in the opposite direction, is a scuba shop. They are waiting for me to call and return for another dive to a remote and exotic underwater location.
At every corner of the street, and in between, on every road in Ubud, sit the poor, asking to take me on the back of their scooters for twenty cents, so that I won’t have to walk by myself alone down the rocky road. They sleep in the backs of their trucks and smoke on the curbs in front of the few shops that stay open twenty-four hours a day in hopes of a customer. They are polite and always smile. Their smiles belie their true feelings of hunger or despair.
Twenty cents for a ride. Twenty cents that would lie discarded on an American road, walked over by those who pass by, too lazy to bend down and pick up such an insignificant amount of money. On my way home from dinner I am asked at least thirty times if I could use a ride. No thank you. I am OK. I do not need a ride. I am fine on my own, walking on my way alone. Are you OK tonight? Are you OK this morning? What can I do to help you?

Fear- Part 2

Thump. Thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump.
I hear it on the roof. It’s late. I am alone in the only room of my house that has walls. The doors are locked with small key locks which are not very effective when the handles keep falling off. There is a large space underneath the connecting door to the study. My bedroom has the only light that is on. I am sure that the light streams out beneath the door as a beacon to whatever is on the roof.
There it is again. The sound is coming from the left. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. As it scuttles across the roof, the sound reverberates over to the right side of the ceiling. In the silence of the night, even with the air-conditioner running, the bounding feet are heavy from above. It must weigh one hundred pounds at least. Perhaps it is a winged monkey from the Wizard of Oz. What else would be that large and able to jump upon the roof of my room? I hear the thumps only at night. Oh God, a night creature.
The dogs are barking. Now a howl. I have been placed in the setting of a horror film. I sit underneath a white billowy net, a barrier from mosquitoes for which I am protected by inoculation, and all those other insects for which I am not, like the three inch black wasp that I saw on my ceiling this afternoon. Is he still up there? I know I could crush the insects with my shoe, if I were wearing shoes in my bed. My Hindu neighbor would be appalled. I am an ant crusher. Hopefully it is not his aunt. How can I joke when there is something out there? Something that I cannot see but can hear, along with the dogs. Something that is large, and I am sure has teeth. All night creatures must have large, ugly, yellow teeth, and red, red eyes. They always do. I am sure that it is looking down from the clay roof tiles, smiling an evil smile, and thinking of the meal cowering below.
I look up through the netting and notice that the end section of my ceiling is missing the drywall. It has been replaced with plastic sheeting. The only thing that prevents that night creature from falling on me is a thin, clear plastic layer. Night creatures could eat their way through plastic. They probably think of plastic as an appetizer before a meal of white woman. Fear. I feel the fear. I am alone. I have no one to protect me from the sounds in the night, the sounds that go thump. I am unprotected from my fear.
This afternoon, I noticed something dead and white floating in the lotus pond that borders my lower sitting area. Fish were eating the carcass. I thought at first it was an enormous bullfrog, and that the coy were enjoying a lunch of frog legs. I did not know that frogs were white, but this is Indonesia and creatures are stuff that lures the photographers from National Geographic’s. When I looked at my photographs at dinner, I saw that the animal, missing half its body, was not a frog at all. It was a rat. What could have chomped a rat that large in half and left its bloated body floating in my lotus pond until it turned white? The fear. The fear is here. I bet the sounds on my roof are from large Bali rats, or whatever ate a rat that huge. I hear the sound again, racing across my roof. The rat must be fleeing something large. I can feel the fear in its footstep flying across the drywall ceiling. I hope it doesn’t step through the plastic. There is so much to fear in Bali. Would I be afraid if I were not alone?
I walk the dark rocky street to my villa, accompanied at night my small flashlight. On a street without lights, I see an erratic dark image coming toward my head. A huge bat swoops down from the banana tree. This must be a fruit bat. I have seen them in zoos, but they were behind glass cages and not free to nest if my hair if so desired. I hunch my shoulders and stoop as it darts overhead. The fear. I need mace or a gun. I have only my dog whistle, and I am too frightened to fish it out of my pocket. The dogs are barking in an unending chorus at the bats and at me.
I was told that the dogs are no threat. They stand in every doorway growling as I pass. Most begin with a low guttural sound, as they defend their spot for the night. They are skinny with mange, and I pretended to ignore them as I pass by on my way to the Main Street of Ubud. The Balinese dogs look hungry. If they are family pets, food is not wasted on their behalf. They appear to have to fend for themselves. I hope they don’t like to munch on the legs of a tourist. It was recommended to bring my dog whistle to keep them from getting to close. The one time I blew it, they followed behind howling even louder. I try to keep the fear hidden. They can sense fear. I don’t want to give them an advantage. My heart races despite the logic of my brain which is retreating beneath my fear.
I was told that rabies is a problem in Bali. There is a program to get the dogs vaccinated. I did not take the rabies vaccine before my travels. It cost a thousand dollars. I was too cheap to pay so much for the inoculation. I was assured by my doctor that unless I was around bats, I did not need to worry about rabies. Another bat swoops by. I stoop again. The fear.
Other than the series of three shots for rabies which I decided to decline, I have had every other inoculation available to prevent diseases spread from the water, the soil, and insects. Months before my departure, I begged my doctor for shots that have yet to be invented. Why haven’t they come out with a prevention for the plague? I want it. There are rats here. I read Camus’ book. I even read it in French. I know what a rat can spread. I saw a large one on the wall of my bathroom garden. I adjust the mosquito netting to make sure there are no gaps. I want to insure that my sleeping perimeter is secure from rats, bats, dogs, and mosquitoes.
Malaria is a huge problem in Africa. It kills thousands each year. Here in Bali, malaria is not a concern. I have packed my prophylactic Malarone pills, just in case I get an email from the CDC saying that things have changed. It was only by chance that I checked their website and discovered a vaccination that I lacked, Japanese Encephalitis. I only had time for two of my three shots. There was no time to be inoculated fully before my departure. I am at risk. Fear.
I loved traveling to Africa. Every shot possible was required before entering the country of Burundi. I had to produce an inoculation record which was presented at the airport at Bujumbura. How nice to make sure that everyone has had their shots.
Before I left for Africa, my friend Henry and I were discussing elephantiasis. Henry was laughing at my fear. I was not. Testicular elephantiasis can be found in Burundi. He had seen it on the internet. We looked together in horror at the images of the poor souls disfigured by this disease which is born on the wings of a mosquito. There is hope for a vaccination by the year 2020. 2020! That is ten years away! Six percent of the country’s populations suffer from this disease. What will I do if I get testicular elephantiasis? Henry assures me that this is impossible. The female alternative is unimaginable. There is no cure for elephantiasis. The only treatment is to bathe your skin in Clorox. I have packed a Clorox pen, my mosquito netted pants, my clothes treated with insecticide, and a case of Deet. I am sure that if the mosquitoes don’t get me, then skin cancer will.
They laughed when I arrived in Africa. They said that there had never been anyone who traveled to their country more prepared that me. I am sure that REI’s stock skyrocketed after I purchased my equipment. Despite their laughter, before my departure from Gitega, the staff begged for my supplies. I told them that I had been a Girl Scout, and that I was always prepared. Actually, it was the fear that had pushed me to prepare so well.
I took my dive knife on my trip just in case I had to slash ferocious African animals or a terrorist on my way to the latrine at night. There were neither ferocious animals nor terrorists around us, and we had the luxury of indoor bathrooms. I used my dive knife to sharpen pencils used for drawing a mural on the wall of a school. Everyone was glad that I had brought it. There were no pencil sharpeners.
I also brought my water purifier. Water is a problem throughout the third world. Bad water produces parasites. All kinds of hideous worms come from bad water and ultimately attack the whites of your eyes, coil beneath your skin, or cause diarrhea, dehydration, and sometimes death. I had done my internet homework. I knew what was lurking in the water. My doctor warned that if I returned from Africa with a rash that moved beneath my skin, to contact him immediately. Not to worry doc. You’ll get my call from the tarmac. I want an ambulance with anesthesia sent to my plane. I want to be hospitalized immediately.
When bathing or washing my hands in Africa, I chanted, “Water is poison. Water is poison.” With the smallest break in concentration, I might open my mouth in the shower and unwittingly let the water come in. I told my doctor that he should come with me to Africa because he had the skills to be of great service. He said he would never go there. Perhaps he felt the fear too. Always remember doc, “Water is poison. Water is poison.”
As for Africa, one thing you need not worry about is ice. There is none. In Bali, I order my drinks without rocks. But it was hot today, and I was thirsty. I had a coke at dinner with frosty cubes of ice. They assured me that bottled water was used, and that I was safe. I feel my stomach tighten and churn as I sit in bed looking toward the ceiling. I fear getting sick and spending the evening on the floor of my bathroom. There was a rat on the bathroom wall and mosquitoes will be attracted to the light above the sink. There is also the matter of something unidentifiable thumping above my head. There is goes again. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. Thump. I breathe deeply and ignore the cramps in my stomach. Nothing will make me emerge from beneath my mosquito net. I freeze into stillness and think happy thoughts. I think of hand sanitizer.
Hand sanitizer is the blessing of third world travel. I keep it by my sink with a bottle of water to remind me that I am not at home. My favorite smell when traveling is that of sanitizer. Five years ago on a cruise to Alaska, the ship was blessed with the Norwalk Virus. The employees washed every wall with sanitizer several times a day. Sanitizer dispensers were placed by each stairwell and every elevator. The captain of the ship refused to shake anyone’s hand at dinner. We were asked to bump elbows as a new way of greeting other passengers. The ship smelled cleaner than a hospital. I am sure that you could have performed surgery on the floor of the hall outside or my room. I was in heaven.
We tend to want sanitized lives. It is all born from fear like the sleeping sickness parasite that comes on the wings of a tzetze fly. We have brains to inform us when shots are need, Deet should be applied, and hands should be washed. We can listen to the government reports, walk in pairs, and avoid dangerous street corners. I read every government report before I flew to Africa. When information was difficult to find about the emerging violence in Burundi, I called the embassy in Bujumbura and spoke with a marine named Phil. Phil assured me that the country was quiet, and described the previous day that he had spent on the beach at Lake Tanganyika. He recommended going to the beach. He had not heard my mantra that, “Water is poison.”
Phil was right. Once I arrived in Burundi and met the people who live there, I felt no more fear. The unknown had become the known. The known had vanquished my fear. I walked on the rutted orange dirt road behind the Gitega Orphanage and greeted the people with a smiling Amahoro. Amahoro means peace. It is a fitting way for people who are tired of civil war and mass murder to greet each other. I clasped their hands in mine in the tradition way of showing respect. After extending your right had to shake, you grasp your right forearm with your left hand. In that way the left hand can offer no harm to the other person. Peace, may no harm come to you.
When you meet an orphan, it is a special and blessed experience. This is a human being, whether young or old, boy or girl, who has had a difficult life by no will of their own. To see the smile of a child in an orphans home eliminates the need to sanitize your hands. You want to hug their shoulders, pat their hair, clasp their hands, and offer any encouragement that you can.
In Africa, their parents have usually died in the genocide, or by disease. In Indonesia, the parents are more than likely alive, just too poor to care for all of their children. Some children are sent from their homes at the age of five to work in the rice fields of Bali for food. At six, a dear friend from Burundi watched his parents and thirty-two members of his family die at the hands of neighbors with machetes. He, his sister, and cousin hid in the fields until he was rescued and eventually found his way into an orphanage.
The question I always get is, “Will you come back?” and, “When will you come back.” I tell them that I will, and their next smile comes with a large sigh of relieve. They do not want to be forgotten. The cry from the poorest on earth is the same, We are here. Thank you for coming. Do not forget us. Please return.
Remembering the voices of the poor has caused me to forget the sounds on my roof. Perhaps there has been no sound for a while, only the gentle hum of cool air blowing from the air conditioner. Even the dogs are quiet. My thoughts have silenced the sounds.
I am now remembering my testimony before the Anglican Church in Bujumbura. I was terrified. I had written about my faith. I had read my writings in class to a handful of encouraging other writers, but I had never witnessed before a group. I had no idea that the church would be so large.
Three of us were driven in a van on the first morning of our arrival into Africa, to a large cinderblock building down the typical red dirt road. A small child stood in the doorway, and through the darkness we could see that the service was already in progress. We were told that church services in Africa could last for hours. Praise the Lord, our host exclaimed. We were also told that we would leave early, before noon so that our group could have lunch and journey on to the mountain town of Gitega. Praise the Lord, we thought.
The fear grew when I entered the enormous one roomed building and saw twelve hundred worshipers staring toward the door at the only white faces entering their sanctuary. We bowed our heads. They smiled in curiosity and continued to sing along with the choir which rocked in unified rhythm before the raised stage where the pulpit stood. We were seated to the right of the stage, just below the pulpit, and in front of the visiting choir dressed in black and white. I was wearing a black skirt and a white blouse. I fit right in.
The spirit of the congregation was infectious. I swayed to the hymns that sounded like melodies from the Caribbean. Africans were brought to the Caribbean as slaves. With them, they brought their music. I had the honor to listen to the origins of music that I have always loved. When my translator was not paraphrasing the message of the minister, I was running through a speech in my head that I hoped to remember when it was my time to climb on the stage with my fear.
I heard my voice as I began to speak. It was tenuous. I spoke slowly and at each pause, the translator would begin. The congregation was so large that the people in the back were barely visible. Round dark heads like rows of tiny dark bubbles filled the room. My eyes focused on the microphone in my hand. I spoke of a message that I had heard in England exactly one year before from the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Our mission in life, he explained, was to take one step at a time, and hopefully with a little help from our friends. That was all. The translator translated. I was their friend. The members of our team that had come to Africa were their friends. People from America that they may never meet were their friends, and cared what had happened to them. I wanted to let the worshipers know that Burundi mattered, and that we would be with them as they took their steps along the way. The fear was gone. I was speaking with intensity. When my last words were finished and the translator was quiet, I could hear the congregation clapping. How could I have been so afraid to begin talking? I was humbled by the appreciation for a simple message. No more fear.
Fear is appropriate at times. At dusk on the street corner in Gitega waiting for our hosts to buy three cases of Coke and Fanta for our dinner, I saw a group of men standing beneath a ramshackle tin awning. I knew that this was a group to be wary of, to fear. One night, when the guard who patrolled our twig and leaf security fence that bordered most the Gitega Orphanage discovered a thief, fear was natural. The guard always carried a machine gun. As we lay in our bed, we held our breath. We could hear the cries from the beating. We feared the sound of gunfire. Gratefully, it never came. However, the fear disappeared in the morning with the sun and smiling children.
The fear of death still concerns me. In January, when I took my scuba certification test, I accidentally disconnected the primary hoses to my air tank. I breathed in salt water rather than oxygen in my practice rescue exercise. I knew at the time that I was drowning. There were no thoughts of life, God, or love. Only panic and fear. The voice in my brain cursed violently. I did not want to die. So much for the peace of the Lord. All I needed was for the Lord to hurry up and get me some air. He did. My instructor placed the secondary regulator in my mouth. I had a tank full of air the entire time. I had forgotten about it, when panic and fear took over.
The lessons learned from scuba diving are life lessons; Stay calm, assess your situation, and above all breathe. I hear the sound of an animal slamming into my ceiling and scuttling over to the opposite corner of the room. It was a difficult landing for the creature visiting my house. I laugh this time. I wonder if the unknown brute is bruised from his haste in bounding so recklessly onto my roof. Something that clumsy will not cause me to be afraid.
Neither will the dogs. I will ignore them and carry my umbrella when I walk down my road to the fabulous Japanese restaurant near the corner. As for the mosquitoes, diseases and parasites, that’s what Deet and the pharmacy in my closet are for. Of all the drugs that I brought with me to Indonesia in April and Africa in September, I have yet to use a single pill. What a shame to have missed the scuba diving off of Sulawesi or the songs sung with orphaned children in Gitega for fear of a mosquito or tainted water. I grew up in the south. Mosquitoes were everywhere.
Fear comes from physical things, the animals that fly, crawl or slither. It comes from psychological things such as being alone or forgotten. And then there is always that fear of death or the unknown. I am happy to remember my diving lessons. I take a deep breath, relax, and think calmly. I am under my mosquito net. I am in a safe country, in a beautiful villa, under warm covers in an air-conditioned room. When the sun rises, I will meet a new friend, travel to a beautiful beach, and jump off a boat into some of the most breathtaking coral reefs in the world. Once under the water, I will remember how to breathe again. I will relax. My breaths will slow, and I will achieve a Zen-like state as I float in harmony, in rhythm with my lungs and heart. No fear at all.
I have traveled a little through this world alone and yet was never alone. My friends and family are always an internet click away. I have met new friends everywhere that I have gone. I am grateful that fear has not prevented me from taking my journey. I can hardly wait to see where each new day will lead.
Tomorrow I will ask what resides in my roof. I will turn the unknown into the known. For now, I will turn off the lights and sleep. No fear. Simply sweet dreams of diving and another beautiful day in Bali.

Blessings- part 1

I am overwhelmed. It is difficult to know where to begin; to describe paradise so that those reading can participate through words. I can only start as I know how, with one step, my first step, the first morning in Bali.
I awoke to a symphony of sound. The roosters were crowing. I had seen them the night before as I walked to dinner down Jalan Sandat, the long rocky road where I will live for the next month. As the night was getting darker, the rooster owners were covering them with three foot tall woven domes that resembled the caned seats of café chairs. The black and white skinny birds were darting through the leaves of plants by the road. They did not want to be caught. This morning they crowed continually to be released. Now I know why. It’s not to wake the humans on Jalan Sandat and announce the morning sun. I saw the rat that ran across the wall in my lovely open air bathroom. If I were in a caned cage on the earth, I would cry for release if rats were crawling nearby.
I took a deep breath. This is a beautiful bathroom. The Heliconia hang in lush red and yellow pendulums from long green leaves. There are at least twenty blossoms lining the wall. I am showering in botanical garden. The rat that ran across the top of the wall disappeared into the greenery. So did a black and blue butterfly. A squirrel jumped to a nearby vine. All the animals were waking up. None of them seemed too interested in me. Since the bedrooms are the only closed areas of my house, I decided to keep the doors and windows shut at all times. Just in case.
I continued to listen, and beyond the rooster cries, the birds called in chirps and trills along with the frogs. Dogs barked back and forth to each other. Behind the specific sounds of the animals that I could identify, is a constant hum. In New York, it would be the background noise of taxis, trucks, and construction equipment. Here it is of life. The morning has begun.
Number 30 Jalan Sandat is located at the end of the road, off the main Street of Ubud. It is in a compound of homes called Banjar Taman. Taman means garden. Mine is the largest home in the compound. It has three bedrooms, a study lined with books and magazines, a large kitchen, a dining room and living room with paintings and a television. The lower terrace opens to a lotus pond with bamboo sofas, tables and chairs. The white tile floor and white upholstered cushions provide the perfect backdrop to the thick green jungle that forms the walls of my house.
I had hoped to have friends join me in Bali which is why I rented such a large home. I knew that the other residents and the staff of our compound were curious as to why a single American woman needed so much space. Through my reservation process, I was constantly asked why I was renting the largest villa. When my possessions emerged from the van that drove me to Ubud from the airport, my new neighbors could see that I was a person of excess. I had flown to Indonesia with the limits of my allowed luggage. The ninety-eight pounds, crammed into my suitcases, contain my artist supplies, my diving equipment, and of course, clothes for any occasion. I also had my REI backpack and large carryon purse. I would promptly take the coat hangers from all three bedrooms and wish that I had more.
The older bearded gentleman, who occupies the small house at the entrance to number thirty, looked up at me from his computer in that knowing, holy man sort of way. I introduced myself. With all of my luggage, I don’t think he needed explanation that I was from the United States. He smiled and in broken English explained that he was originally from France and lived most of the year in India. He words were slow and reserved. In a search for truth and enlightenment, he fit my stereotype of someone who has insight into life. Or perhaps the slowness in his speech is less from a wise and thoughtful perspective, as it is from the communications barrier of not speaking the same language. It will be interesting to try and talk with him during the next few weeks. I can tell that a month will not be enough time to accomplish all that I have planned to do in Bali.
When I finished my shower and had washed off the sweat from thirty two hours of travel, I emerged from my air-conditioned bedroom to find the kitchen doors opened and Ketut (pronounced: Ka-took) working inside. With a bright smile, she greeted me and asked if I would like some pancakes for breakfast. I was embarrassed to have her cook for me, so I said I would just get a piece of toast and peanut butter. I have been invited to her birthday party on Sunday. She will be 27 years old. As we spoke, her husband, Kale (Ka-la), whisked into my bedroom, turned off the air-conditioning, and opened the windows. So much for being sealed against the rats. He proceeded to make my bed, wash the floors, and place fresh red hibiscus and white Plumeria on the bedspread beneath the mosquito net. I had not expected such pampering.
Katuk carried a platter of fresh fruit and another with toast and hot banana pancakes to the table on the lower terrace. I had enough food for both husband and wife to join me. She presented me with fresh pineapple jelly and my requested peanut butter. She laughed when I pointed to the passion fruit and asked what it was. I clearly don’t have enough passion fruit in my life. She also identified the mangos, pomegranates, pineapple and bananas beautifully displayed for my breakfast. If you don’t know, passion fruit is filled with a sweet seeded jelly that looks like something from your nose. I would not have tasted this tropical delicacy if it had been given another name, such as “snot fruit”. Therefore, one of today’s lessons comes from the passion fruit. You cannot make assumptions based on looks. Our mothers taught us this. We just have to remember.
I am here in Bali to remember. While a snow white butterfly flits above the coy swimming in my pond, I know it will be difficult to tear myself away from this moment to reflect on a year filled with blessings. My blessings extend beyond the fresh passion fruit on my plate, the birds of paradise in the vase on my table or the lotus pond beside which I eat. My year began with blessings from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
I had just returned from Paris to find the letter of blessings from the Archbishop waiting to be opened. God has a way of giving us wonderful gifts, just when we need them. Three months earlier I had been waiting for a return flight home from Las Vegas, when I received the call from my son that I would be alone for Christmas. I used to be the holiday queen. I decorated anything that did not move, and celebrated every holiday for which Hallmark designed a card. My two sons had decided that for Thanksgiving and Christmas, they would alternate visiting my ex husband’s home and Seattle, where I live. The fact that I would be alone that Christmas lay as heavy on my heart as the lead apron during an x-ray. I couldn’t seem to tear it off my chest. When we boarded the flight to Seattle, I sat beside a woman who explained that she had just won two tickets in a contest to Paris for Christmas. Her fiancé could not leave his job to travel, and she was planning to put them up for sale on EBay for $500 each. I told her that I would buy them.
After an appeal on Face Book for a holiday traveling buddy, my friend Lee and I found ourselves flying to Paris together. We ushered in the New Year on the Champs de Elysee, standing directly in front of the Arc de Triumph with partiers from Lebanon, Boston, Spain and Germany. We downed our champagne in the middle of the boulevard and laughed our way into 4am, my personal best for a New Year’s celebration. We had breakfast in a café on the Left Bank and still managed to rise before noon and jog to the Peace Monument behind the Tour Eiffel. It was the perfect way to begin the New Year.
Lee is a wonderful traveling companion. She is an accomplished artist, and we share the same love for art and architecture. Traveling with a talented artist is important if you want excellent photographs of yourself as a souvenir. I have never looked better than in my Paris photos, thanks to Lee. She was my driver through Paris to the French countryside. She knew which restaurants should not be missed, and patiently taught me the workings of the Paris metro. She also needed her time alone, which in turn enabled me to learn to be more independent.
I had made great strides. I was in Paris, communicating in broken French to tolerant and generous Parisians. I was dining in restaurants and savoring each moment of excellent food without the need of dinner conversation. I had begun 2010, alone at the base of the Peace Monument, happy to be alive, grateful for my health, and eager to begin a year in which I had promised myself to not let a single opportunity pass me by. I had made it to Paris by saying yes to a stranger. Yes would be the watch word for this New Year. I would take a portion of my remaining funds and live. I would travel and gain experiences. I would let God lead me and listen carefully for his voice. I knew that I would be led to meet special people chosen to help take me through the next journey, the last part of my life.
At Chartres Cathedral, my favorite cathedral from my many years of studying the history of art, I was overcome with awe while standing in the nave surrounded by the gorgeous red and blue stained glass windows for which it is famous. I was also overcome with an intestinal bug that was in the process of draining my color and guaranteeing that my evening would be spent on the floor of my bathroom. The priest in charge of Chartres came up to me in the aisle and said in his best English, that he would pray for me. He must have feared that I would die before seeing the New Year. His prayers worked. I lived through the night and with the blessings from Chartres, managed to celebrating the arrival of 2010 in style.
When I returned home, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envelope was waiting. He had read the piece that I had sent to his office. I had described for him my journey to England which had brought me to him. My travels to Lambeth Palace began with a road trip throughout the western US states the previous fall. I had prayed for signs to God for a revelation as to which direction I should be traveling in my life. It was a physical as well as spiritual journey. God continued to place signs before me. Each one got larger and large until, on my way home, I received a phone message from my friend Marshall. It was an urgent call, and he wanted me to contact him immediately. He stated that he knew what a hard year I had experienced with the divorce. He wanted me to accompany him to a dinner in England with the Archbishop. I knew my response. Yes.
In the presence of fifty bishops from around the Anglican community, I listened to the Archbishop’s simple message of meaning for our lives. I thought he was speaking to me. I felt this was God’s message to give me hope and to know that I was on the right path. The Archbishop’s wisdom of “one step at a time” was mine for a while. I would realize later that that message was mean for a larger audience, a congregation of 1200 believers in the heart of Africa. I had no clue that God was planning to send me to Africa. I had never wanted to go to there. I could not have known then that exactly one year later, I would be traveling to Burundi, and that for the rest of my life, I would be trying to figure out how to get back.
I placed the letter from Rowan Williams in the cubby at the front of my desk, and displayed the photos with him on my mantel as a constant reminder that the equivalent of the Pope for an Episcopalian, was praying on my behalf. I knew I was blessed. I planned to continue on through the year by saying yes to opportunity and to the Lord.
In April I went to Indonesia for the first time. I had taken up scuba diving in the winter, just before my trip to Paris. I was driving home from the gym, when asked my new I-phone for the location of the closest dive shop. My miraculous phone showed that I was only two blocks away. I did a quick U turn and found Silent World, moments before they closed. There was one spot left for the lessons which were to begin in a week. I did not know at the time that my learning to dive was part of a greater plan which would ultimately bring blessings to Africa.
From Scuba diving in the Puget Sound to the landlocked country of Burundi, God was yelling at me to stop and listen to his voice. The times that I had not allowed my world to be silent, when I begged for God to let me direct my own outcome, those were the times when my life fell out of balance. I learned many lessons from the instructors at Silent World. The most important ones went far beyond surviving underwater.
I felt that I did not deserve to complete my dive course. My instructors will tell you otherwise. I had the sensation of drowning during my certification test. I would have packed away my very expensive BC, regulator, and computer, if I had not paid for a costly scuba trip to the number one dive spot in the world, Wakatobi, Indonesia. I had hung up my dry suit and upon my return from Paris, refused to go beneath the water’s surface. I had five dives under my dive belt. The trip was leaving in April. Most of the other travelers were professional photographers, instructors, or long time divers. I was the only beginner. I was flying to Indonesia, because I had no other choice. I was too cheap to cancel the trip. I would now travel half way around the world with a group of strangers to do something that terrified me. What was I thinking?
Upon arriving at the Island of Tolondono, Indonesai, home to the Wakatobi Dive Resort, was I given a patient and sweet instructor from Holland named Marielle. With her underwater dive slate, she cooed confidence in my abilities. I will always be grateful to her for showing me the most beautiful area on earth, the coral reefs to the southeast of Sulawesi. I fell in love with diving and the abundant sea life at Wakatobi. Our incredible trip ended on the Island Bali for the four final days of our vacation. I knew when I arrived that this was the most incredible spot yet.
God is everywhere in Bali. It is a Hindu Island, the only one in an archipelago of thousands of islands. The Balinese people take their religion very seriously. They make offerings to their Gods several times a day. Small displays of fruit or flowers are placed upon folded palm leaves and left lovingly outside of shops and homes in hopes of securing blessing for the day. To walk the irregular brick sidewalks of Ubud in Bali is a feat in itself. However, as you walk, you must step over and around the tiny offerings that line the sidewalks and paths. You would never think to dishonor those who made an offering by trampling it as you entered a shop. Walking is therefore the negotiation of an unending obstacle course made of broken tile pavers, open trenches, uneven sidewalks and hundreds of offerings strewn on the ground every few feet. It’s a dance of travel that reminds you, the visitor that God is not to be forgotten on this island.
And God had not forgotten me either. He had blessed me with an introduction to this exotic and beautiful island. I could see for the first time, that there are creative and imaginative options for life. B is for the Beauty of the sea, the jungle, and the people of Bali. Yes. A is for an Alternative, Another path to take on life’s journey. Yes. L if for that journey in Life, meant to be danced through and around with Life’s obstacles in a Loving ballet. Yes. And I is for the Imagination to see it, and the Instinct to believe that it is all possible. Yes. I would return to Bali at the end of the year. I would come back not as a tourist, but in search of my role in this distant place. Yes.
In May, my cousin Brad called to tell me about his upcoming mission trip to Africa. At the very mention of his plan, I knew that I had to be a part of it. He asked that I pray first, to see if something this difficult was right for me. Travel to one of the poorest countries on earth, with limited creature comforts, and the risk of danger in the wake of a fragile peace, would have risks that should be weighed carefully. I could hear God’s voice loud and clear. There were no risks that would prevent me from going with him to Africa. I had no choice. It was my mission too.
The trip would cost $2900 dollars and involve fundraising to provide the materials and labor for a foundation for a new orphanage building. We would pay for as many homes for the Batwa as we could fund. The Batwa are the pygmy tribe who are the poorest of the Burundian population. We would build a playground for the orphanage and paint a mural for the school. We would run an afterschool art program as well. Yes. I was in.
In June I went to visit my cousin and his wife, Ann, in South Carolina. I noticed a change in Brad’s life. His faith had gotten stronger. He was proud to talk about his beliefs. He had made the decision that anything that did not further his faith in God was not time well spent. His good works for others occupies most of his time now that he is retired. We walked his dog on the beach and planned for our greatest journey which was about to unfold, traveling to the middle of Africa on a mission to help an orphanage. God was leading me from one part of the globe to another.
The blessings that followed were as rich and bountiful as any moment in my life. I had been blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head priest at Chartres. But nothing will compare to the blessing that I received on my last day at the Youth for Christ Orphanage in the mountain town of Gitega. Gitega is the old capital of Burundi. It is located in the exact center of the country, so measured by the Belgium colonialists years before, when they abandoned Burundi into civil war and genocide. We were told that Burundi is shaped like a human heart. It lies in the middle of the continent. Our team could feel the strong pulse of life which cried to be heard from the heart of Africa.
On the last day of our mission in Gitega, a circle of ladder backed chairs were set on the sloping dry lawn in the center of the orphanage buildings. Our team was seated, and the children gathered around us. They ran to each one of us, choosing who they would embrace. Three tiny figures, two boys and a girl, came to me and wrapped their arms around me. They placed their hands on my shoulders and knees. We were told that they would pray for us.
We had come to Africa to help them. We had given the children the only playground in the entire country. It was a playground worthy of any American child and large enough for an entire orphanage of children to play on at the same time. We had carried rocks from the sixteen truck loads that had been dumped up the hill and would form the foundation for a new orphan’s home below. We had worked beside the African men and women who bore large stones on their heads in an endless procession. We were shamed that we could not work as hard as they. We had decorated the area school with the only monumental art in the country. With the exception of a few fence panels around the zoo in Bujumbura, a few political slogans, and a hand full of advertisements, there is no other outdoor art to be found in Burundi. Our mural of Noah’s Ark is a message of hope to the hundreds of people who pass by on the red dirt road behind the New Hope School. And yet, with all of our gifts to them, these children were gathered around to pray for us.
They began their pray. Their tiny voices melded together in chant-like sound, words in Kirundi that I did not understand. They held me and as they prayed, I began to cry. Thiers was the voice of God, and I was privileged to be listening. I did not know what they were saying, but I knew their words were holy. Their sounds lifted higher, and everyone in the circle was crying. Yes, I was blessed, blessed by angels whose voices were sweet and clear. Their quiet prayers call out from the center of Africa, from a country too long forgotten. I did not want to leave them. I will never forget the wonderful day that I received my holiest blessing. It was a blessing that came without cassock or robe, from children with crosses made from Popsicle sticks that hung around their necks.
My mother was right. You cannot make assumptions based on looks. Doing so this morning would have prevented me from tasting the sweet passion fruit on my plate for breakfast. God comes in many forms. If we presume to know his exact appearance, then we may very well miss him completely. I am grateful to God for so many blessings this year. I am most grateful to have been able to look into his face through the smiles of his beloved orphaned children who live in the remote mountains of a war torn country.
The faces of God are all around me in Bali. They smile from the restaurants, the streets, the shops, and the temples. They look up in pain as they beg for handouts on the sidewalks of Ubud. They are all around us, no matter where we live. As I step over the obstacles in my own live, dancing my way through this journey, may I see the offerings place by God in my path. May I recognize them as holy and treat them as such.