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.