Where Even the Trees Are Sacred

A little way out of Ubud center, from the comfort of my room at Wild Ginger, resting on hand carved wooden furniture, I listened to classical Balinese music as the sun began to set over the village and beyond to the jungle. 
  A couple of days before I had been waiting in Singapore airport ready to board the plane.  Sitting next to two hippy dippy twenty somethings, with their hair freshly bleached blonded from the equator sun.  The young man wore board shorts, his longish hair wouldn`t have looked out of place on a Yorkshire Terrier.  Her hair was the colour of lemons, wavy, like sand upon the shore imprinted by tides.
"I need something to eat" The Blonde Manamal mumbled, just about to wonder off to the sound of his stomach.
"Now"? Blondie protested in her south London accent, gesturing to the que going through airport security
"Just ten minutes".
"Five"! She protested
The Blonde Manamal mumbled something into his beard and shuffled across the loud carpeted departure lounge.
Inside the plane whilst air bourne, in my cramped seat, I could smell my neighbours breath as he slept with his mouth wide open. It was a rancid foul smell, that people have if they forget to brush their teeth in the morning.  My neighbours to my left were equally as bearded with flip flops, making fun of the recorded message over the tannoy as we began to land. "You are now free to take off your seat belt and wonder around the carriage" they mocked the mistake with Bayern accents.  What synchronicity, I thought, as we prepared to land on Bali, between mountainous islands. 
   The drive to Ubud was like watching a show-reel from a air-conditioned Disney car. My driver, with his American accent, cheerfully spoke of Balinese Hinduism "We believe in one god, but in many forms". He pronounced proudly.
    We took a short cut, past a village selling Gargantua style polished, wooden art works as well as doors and handcrafted wooden sculptures, reminiscent of Henry Moore.  One looked like an array of arms reaching out towards us as we whizzed by.
    Arriving at Wild Ginger, my home-stay for the next few nights, my eyes, not accustomed to South Asian temples as houses, searched in a somewhat bewildered fashion for the entrance.  Finding several, I froze until Butu, dressed in a fresh, white sarong welcomed me in with a smile.  Their garden instantly calmed my fear of the unknown.  Large golden carp reminded me of my quiet exile in Japan.
   The apartment was offered in a part, gift exchange context.  In late capitalist society, pockets of the gift economy can be found where bonds are stronger than any capitalist transaction. I know I will return.  
   Before walking around Ubud, I passed by their restaurant, to be greeted with a ginger drink with lemongrass and cinnamon served with spicy, chili chicken. Over dinner Nyoman told me in English that was broken, but confident of his life as a poor, youngest child who had a thirst for knowledge. Luckily his family had worked for the Royal Family who decided to take him in and send him to school only in return for bringing them water every morning.  Since his younger sister and older brother didn`t want to go, he thought he would take his chance.  They paid for him all the way up to high school.  Afterwards, he was able to enter into several "respectful" professions such as the police service, banking and finally farming.  With farming he could run the guest house and spend more time with his family.  He instilled a strong need for education in his children and encouraged them to study, but they also had to work in hotels and in their kitchen alongside their studies at university.  I admired the way in which the family pulled each other together to empower themselves, beyond their means, creating a welcoming and loving atmosphere for all those that came to eat at their restaurant.  No wonder it is one of the most popular in Ubud.
  Walking through the lush garden with his glasses perched upon his nose, Nyoman chatted away to me about his hardworking daughter.  We past his yapping white dog, who was doing its best, despite its size to scare me.  Nyoman took off his glasses and, to my surprise split them in the middle   like the Kanji for gate/exit/entrance as he proudly introduced me to his daughter who gave me a toothy grin.  She had joined the traditional Balinese dance school but she had not had the chance to continue because of starting to work at a huge resort in Denpasar.  Being a party town, they were so afraid that she was not coming back, that they would lie awake at night until she was safely at home.  The strength of this family gave me hope.  
    In Bali, unlike in many Western cultures, where individual values are upheld above and beyond the collective, here I found another perspective where the family bond gave each member just enough strength to make their own path, but remained solid at its collective core.   The daily ritual offerings in their temple homes to deities, sometimes contained pieces of meat and rice laid out on a bamboo tray decorated with pretty petals. This punctuated their day and gave their family gravitas.  When they were younger, Butu confided over dinner one night, that as a girl, when she had gotten too hungry from working and forgetting to eat, she use to pinch the meat off the deity offerings when no one was looking.  Giggling with her into the night, my world view was meanwhile doing somersaults.

   Almost alone in the Neka gallery, I imagined what it must have been like for Ari Schmidt who came before the war with the Dutch trading routes when he was part of the military and being inspired by a classmate at school.  The tourism that littered the Royal Family temples with their selfie sticks and haphazard ambling, would have been a distant nightmare. Instead all the mystery that is evoked through his paintings would have been omnipresent.  Walking a little way up to a door in the temple that had a sign "Stop! Private!" emblazoned on the front, I glimpsed through the gap to see girls giggling as they stepped out of the family terraces, wrapped in golden sarongs holding bamboo hats.  I felt angry and awkward to be part of the tourist buzz.
   Nyoman saw my frustration and offered to take me into the mountains.  Solitude at Gunung Kawi I walked through the heaven gates to the meditation caves.  On my way up, a man who was selling coconuts, offered me a Balinese coffee. When I declined, he insisted "no, no, free, free"!  His smile felt so genuine it  guided me to sit upon the tree stump next to him.    He quickly prepared the dark treacle mixture in a steel cup over a naked fire.  We sat next to each other, just two humans enjoying black coffee and a calm day under the palms.  He offered a sticky rice pocket wrapped in banana leaves, which I gratefully declined but accepted upon his insistence.  Biting into the moist rice, the sweet coconut dissolved into my mouth. As he chattered away I found myself struck and humbled my someone who had almost nothing and was so willing and open to give.  

Further down into the jungle there was a man selling hand carved coconuts.  It took him one day to 2-3 weeks just to do one, especially with difficult motifs. One cost around just 5 to 10 euros each.  On the edge of where he sold them, there were rice paddies filled with farmers making the most of the rain upon the ancient irrigation system. It felt like there was an invisible wall between us that I could not cross. The tourist trail must not meander into the workers path, yet I wanted to know, to understand.  It felt so artificial to stay with the crowds. 

 At Tirta Empul I followed a group of women who were carrying tiles on their heads.  They made their way into an open enclosed space and dropped the red slates one by one onto the floor.  This was their work, their livelihood.  I wondered about their homes and lives. Did they long for more meaningful work, or was this just my Western projection onto their lives. I wanted to talk to them but they disappeared with the elegance and grace with which they had appeared.   

 At Tegalalang Rice Terrace, I stopped and had lunch with Nyoman. A group of young German tourists jumped out of their four-by-four, as he was telling me  about his life with the Royal family. They quickly took a selfie snapshot with the back drop of the ancient irrigation system and jumped back in their jeep again squealing with ignorant delight.
  I was grateful to have uncovered the deeper aspects of Balinese culture through my host family at Wild Ginger and would encourage anyone to do the same.  In a place where even the trees wear sarongs as a mark of respect for their spiritual presence, there is a need for understanding beyond the tourist trail before it disappears entirely.  Retreating back into the shadows away from any outside view, Baliense people and culture could quite easily display a powerful facade that tricks outsiders into thinking that they are exploring the "real deal". You have to find it. Look closer. Listen. Respect and open your hearts to understand the warm gentle, ritualistic way of life and the people of Bali before it is cloaked and wrapped within an enigma of an enigma.