Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fire and Rice

Written by Karen.

Back in Ubud, Bali, we were tipping towards feeling a little frustrated as the clock ticked off our fourth hour sitting in traffic in our hired car.   Our well-laid plans of extending our Indonesian travel visa for another month was blowing up all around us.  It is 22 kilometers from Ubud to the capital city of Denpasar;  it is only a short distance on a paper map.  

We passed the time talking with our driver, Goomba.  He spoke English very well and fortunately had an interest in sharing information about himself, his family, his faith and belief systems, and his community as we inched our way towards Denpasar.  

Adam and I had started out this morning very confident that we had planned our day’s events perfectly.  We had researched the topic of visa renewal quite heavily on the net and listened carefully to other travelers’ experiences regarding extending their visa in Bali.  We had hired a car for the day, booked a hotel for three days very close to the visa renewal office, and had our application paperwork already filled out.  

We were ready to breeze into the visa renewal office in Denpasar today actually feeling pretty proud of ourselves for being so prepared and then breezing out thinking that we had covered every possible eventuality.  In hindsight, that confidence should have been our very first warning that things were not going to work out anywhere close to what we had planned.  

At first, as we encountered obstacles and unforeseen circumstances, we were able to adjust our plans, quickly inserting Plan B and then Plan C into the slot formerly known as Plan A.  But as things kept unraveling - the visa renewal office was closed for remodeling and the new temporary office across town was now exactly opposite where our hotel was, and once we did finally arrive to the temporary office we were told that the typical three-day wait time was now between seven and ten days, and that the electricity outages meant that they might have to process our visa renewal manually, which might take even longer - we realized that we were chasing tilting windmills.  

As we settled back into the car, Goomba started snaking across town towards our new hotel. We had just met him that morning, but our time together made us feel like friends, and for that experience I was grateful.  

Goomba turned on the air-conditioning full blast so that it reached the back seat.  What will you do now in Denpasar? he asked knowing about our original plan of being in Denpasar for three days waiting for our visa renewal.  

Adam and I looked at each other and shrugged.  We didn’t know yet.  

We would have to jettison our plans that we had made for Bali and make new travel arrangements to leave Indonesia in a few days.  To be honest, it was a blow to leave behind people and plans in Bali that we had made recently and were really looking forward to.  We had some unraveling to do.  

I don’t know. I answered Goomba honestly.  But we really appreciate all of your time today driving us around.  It was really great to meet you and learn so much about Bali.

Both Adam and I had asked Goomba tons of questions throughout the day.  What did that mean?  Why was that?  What was that?  How did you do that?  Why did that happen?  He pointed out things of interest as we drove past, talked about the exploding growth of Bali and how that impacted his community - both good and bad - and how and why Balinese Hinduism was unique, how Bali interacted with the larger Indonesian population, what a typical day in his life was like and how the lives of his two college-aged daughters were both similar and different from his. He was willing to answer any question we posed and we were willing to do the same.   

We shared our perspectives about what we had seen and experienced in Bali, as well as traded information about our own ideas, experiences and observations about the United States.  The hours that we spent in traffic we gained in knowledge and insight.  It was a worthwhile exchange.  

Well, Goomba said looking at us in his rear-view mirror, if you’re not busy tomorrow, I’d like to invite you to come with me to my cousin’s wedding.  

Yeah!  I exclaimed.  That would be great.  We’d love to go!  

Adam poked me in the thigh.  I look at him and was surprised to see him shake his head no.  I puzzled my face into a question, What? 

Adam mouthed, Clothing.  They wear lace and religious sarongs, and we don’t own any. 

I nodded in understanding.  That was true.  What would we wear?  

We have jeans and tee-shirts and I knew Adam’s question was right.  We had seen several wedding processions while we were in Ubud and the wedding wear was beautiful, colorful and in keeping with their religious beliefs.  We didn’t have anything close to what would be acceptable to wear.  Besides, Adam was reluctant to wear the sarongs that the men were required to wear when entering a place of worship.  It is like wearing a long skirt.  We had passed on entering several temples for that reason.  I foresaw a bit of a problem.  We wouldn’t be allowed to enter the celebration if we didn’t wear the appropriate clothing.

This is a typical offering brought to a celebration at the temple.  I was drooling over the lace tops the women wore in Ubud.  Such bright and beautiful colors.  
She's ready to go to the celebration
We saw many celebrations while we were in Ubud.  People mostly walked in a group to the temple, but occasionally they rode on the back of a motor scooter.


Umm, Goomba, what would we wear? I asked. 

He replied.  I’ll take care of everything.  I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 8 in the morning.  

I turned to Adam.  He shrugged and smiled.  He was up for this.  

The next morning Goomba met us at the hotel downstairs lobby, arms laden with colorful material, thicker fabric belts and a matching hat for Adam.  In short order, we were dressed right on the sidewalk in wedding style, with our jeans and tee-shirts tucked away underneath the wraps of material that swathed us, and back in the car heading towards Ubud.  



Right away I noticed that the wrapping of my sarong made it difficult for me to walk or jump up into the SUV.  I found it difficult to breathe in the tightly wrapped material and I knew that it wouldn’t be long for me to wriggle loose of the sarong. I wasn’t so sure I was going to like being bundled up like this.  

On the other hand, Adam’s sarong was wrapped differently and allowed him to move freely.  I found out later that there are actually different ways to wrap the sarong around the male and the female.  Adam also wore a hat and we both had belts cinched tightly at our waists.  Ironically, Adam didn’t seem to mind the wearing the sarong, belt and hat.  Plus he looked pretty good in his outfit - very regal, I thought.  

As we drove towards the wedding, Goomba filled us in about what we could expect for the next several hours.  There would be two wedding celebrations: one at the bride’s parents house and one later that day at the groom’s parents house.  We were going to the bride’s - his aunt and uncle’s - house.  There would be lots of food and, oh yeah, here’s the envelope for the wedding gift.  

It is typical - and traditional - for each guest to provide cash, not just as a gift for the future couple’s new life together but to help pay the cost for the wedding celebrations.  The typical cash gift is 50,000 IDR, which in US$ was $3.85.  For a little perspective, we found out that the average wage a person in Bali receives is around $150 USD/month.  So this typical offering would represent about 2.6% of an entire monthly salary.  


The bride's uncle and my new young friend, Leia.  The outside of houses are extraordinarily decorated with bamboo and silk.  It is a symbol of celebration and welcome.
The bride and the groom
Some of the women I met at the wedding celebration.  They were incredibly gracious, kind, accepting and funny.  The woman sitting in the middle wearing orange is the bride's mother.  The woman slightly to the right wearing yellow has the rice blessing on her forehead.  Here rice means life, both literally and figuratively.  We often saw both men and women putting bits of rice either on their lower neck or on their forehead.
The wedding celebration was held outside in the fresh air at the bride's family compound.  Behind the front entrance walls were six different buildings with a central temple.  This picture shows some of the wedding offerings brought for blessing by the priests and were incorporated into several wedding ceremony rituals.  

The men and the women tended to segregate in different areas throughout the family compound.  
The activity swirling around preparing for lunch.  The steamed rice was made in huge pots and served in plastic laundry baskets.  I wandered around and picked up cooking tips as the Balinese food is really, really good.  What I really appreciated about these women was their good cheer.  Everyone pitched in and helped and seemed to have a really good time together. There was a lot of laughter.
One of the family pavilions being used for snacks.
Lunch is served.
Adam, Goomba and I standing in front of the marriage arch.  Goomba insisted that we take a picture here because you are a good couple. 
I love these two girls:  Angelica and Leia.  Their mothers are directly behind them and we had a lot of fun together.  They were shy about speaking English until we made up a game of "Do you like.....?"  It was a perfect way for me to learn Balinese and for them to practice English.  It went something like this....Me:  Do you like pink?  (Pointing to Leia's dress) The two girls would put their heads together and giggle.  Then Leia would say, "Yes, I like pink.  Do you like blue?" (and point to something blue and using the Balinese word  And I would say, "Yes, I like blue (and try to repeat the word in Balinese).  Do you like yellow?" (Pointing to Angelica's top)  The two girls would put their heads together and think about the word yellow, usually giggling, and then respond in unison, "Yes, we like yellow. Do you like ........" and so on. There's literally no end to the number of items that we could like and we played this game - along with the moms joining in - for over an hour.  After the game, Leia never left my side and I enjoyed spending so much time with her.  
The immediate family of the bride and groom receiving blessings.
The bride and groom receiving blessings with young rice shoots.
Feeding each other rice
Congratulations to the newly-married couple.  They will leave in a few minutes and go the groom's parent's house for a repeat of the ceremony there. 

A few hours later during a lull in the wedding festivities, Goomba leaned over towards us and asked, Do you want to go see a funeral?  I wasn’t quite sure that I understood him right.  A funeral?  Adam said, sure.  We thanked the hosts and congratulated the bride and groom and then headed back out onto the winding, narrow roads around Ubud.  


On the way to the funeral, Goomba stopped at his wife's roadside fruit/vegetable stand.  There he offered us fresh coconut water.  Completely hits the spot on a very hot day!
Adam, me and Goomba's wife

Goomba said that he could see the smoke from the cremation and we craned our necks in the back seat to see.  Suddenly, Goomba stopped the car in the middle of the highway and told us to walk down the small side road and through the group of people we could see in the distance.  We had arrived at the community gathering. He would meet us when he parked the car.  

My sarong was coming undone again.  I had struggled with the sarong wrap most of the day.  It was very hot and humid and that heat seemed to fuse the sarong into my jeans adding layers of heat and becoming more and more unwieldy to manage elegantly.  At first, I was pretty self-critical of my droopy look and felt uncomfortable as I met other women beautifully dressed with bright lace tops and cooperative sarong wraps.  But as the day progressed and I watched the other women - with the full range of body types - I followed their lead:  Do the best you can.  I could completely support that strategy.  

I stopped comparing myself to the other women and instead focused on how kind, gracious and welcoming those women were.  They didn't care that I had a droopy look.  I had a great time hanging with the women, communicating as best as we could, eating and laughing together.  

Food and laughter is an unbeatable combination when making new friends.  


The funeral ceremony as we came in from the back.  The men are directly ahead while the women are a little bit forward and to the right.  The 'spirit' priest is on the raised platform, while the 'ground' priest is in white to the front and to the right.  The cremation is in front of everyone on the right.  When we arrived, the cremation ceremony had already been going for many hours.
The women bringing their offerings.  The smoldering cremation is just to the left and behind the standing woman in the turquoise shirt.
Some of the offerings
The men praying
The 'Spirit' priest
As we drove back to our hotel in Denpasar, I couldn't help but notice that we were always surrounded by rice paddies - the symbol of life.

Adam and I stood along the sidelines and watched the cremation proceedings.  The prayers.  The chants.  The incense.  The fire starting to die down, although you could still make out where the body had been.  The women sitting together.  The men sitting together on the other side of the field.  Other men and younger men sitting on the road, smoking and having a drink. 

I was deeply touched by the cremation ceremony.  By the ritual.  By the community coming together in honor and in support.  By the time they gave each other to mourn, reflect, pray and support.  By standing in front of a burning pile of embers and ash and remembering that regardless of religion or faith, we all end up as ashes.  

There was something very honest and real about conducting the cremation in the open like that, in the middle of a field, next to a stream, down the road from the main highway.  Not behind closed doors, but under the heat of a yellow sun in a bright blue sky with the roosters and chickens walking around squawking every so often and local dogs wandering aimlessly through the crowd.  

There is no doubt that we both were initially disappointed about not staying in Ubud for another month as we originally planned.  But the other side of that statement is this:  If we had not ordered a car to take us to Denpasar to get our travel visa renewed, we would not have met Goomba.  If there hadn’t been the horrible traffic and being stuck in a car together, we wouldn’t have had the time to share our lives with each other and we wouldn’t have attended both a wedding and a funeral the following day.   

Everything worked out differently than what we had expected.  But isn’t that the case that sometimes, what actually happens is better than what we could have planned for?  

Life.  Love.  Live.  Death.   We saw this cycle of life come full circle in Bali.  We saw the lush green shoots of rice which serves as the symbol of life.  We witnessed the rituals of hope and excitement of two people taking their first steps together as a couple.  We watched the rituals and the intimacy of saying goodbye to someone who once walked among us with fire. 

We wound up leaving Bali earlier than we wanted to, but I left Bali with a strong connection to the beauty of life  - and a reminder of how there is a season for everything under the sun - and a desire to come back once again.  


Anonymous said...

Hi Karen and Adam. Many thanks for this amazing blog post. I love how trials and tribulations lead to better and brighter in ALL cases. Take care and have fun in your remaining days. Let us know if you are arriving in the States earlier than planned. We are still in San Francisco on April 2nd.


Janice L. said...

I loved this post! How awesome to witness and be part of these rituals, thanks to all the welcoming souls you met. Bali will always be there for you to see another time, but opportunities like this are once in a lifetime.

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Gregor! I find that the longer I am out on the road traveling, the easier it is to go with the flow and enjoy whatever happens. Slow travel helps with that idea. If we don't see something today, maybe we'll try it again tomorrow. I'm hopeful that I will be able to keep that skill/ability up once we go back to our more "normal" life. We'll keep in touch.....we fly into the Bay Area on April 26th. Karen

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hey Janice! Thanks! :) It was a pretty awesome day. Those types of experiences are such gifts - we felt pretty grateful to have been offered such kindness and hospitality. Major congrats to you guys for concluding your recent adventure! I wish our timing could have lined up better to get together with you in the Bay Area, but at some point soon - for sure! Continued safe travels - and best wishes always!


Gunnlaug Aae Tjåland said...

Utrulig hva de opplever, Og deler. tusen takk .I am well here in Norway, With the snow falling Down. But spring is coming!! klem fra Gunna

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hei hei Gunna! :) Jeg er så glad for at du likte historien. Fargene var så lyse og blomstene luktet som honning - du ville ha likt å besøke med kvinnene i bryllupet. De elsket å le - som deg! :) Ta vare, kjære Gunna. Mye kjærlighet, Karen

Anonymous said...

Karen and Adam
I enjoyed your new travel update. You two are so special. Happy travels. Love you.
Aunt Joyce and Uncle Bob

Anonymous said...

Hi Adam and Karen. Thanks for another outstanding blog entry! Steve S

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hey Aunt Joyce! Thanks - we think the world of you guys too! :)

Love, Karen

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Steve!

Thanks - we're a bit behind...but working to get caught up. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment! :) Take care,