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.