Hanging With Our Balinese Neighbors

The loud rhythmic banging noises wake me up early. I don’t mind, it is good to be out and about before the heat of the day sets in. But I am curious what is going on and poke my head out of the garden gate. The chop-chop-chop is coming from our favorite neighbor Ketut’s house, the one that shares our narrow lane. In a few steps I am in her courtyard. There is a bunch of guys, dressed in traditional clothes spread over every available surface armed with knives.

They are furiously chopping all kinds of meats on thick, well used wooden chopping boards. It is a familiar sight all over the banjars (neighborhoods) in Bali around the holidays and special celebrations. It is the men who slaughter the animals and prepare all the traditional food on their portable barbecues.

Later on when Ketut comes over to invite us to test the food the men prepared for her half yearly house blessing ceremony I ask her,

“Why are only the men cooking for the holidays?”

“Because women cook all the other days,” is her quick and simple response.

Ketut is my go to person for explanations about the Balinese families and life in general. She is a widow, a merry widow at that. She shouldn’t be, really, for her life is not very easy. As I am told she has an old, sick mother in law living with her, who is really mean to her, a twenty something son who is unemployed, and a souvenir stall at the market that is heavily in debt. She has a sister in law and her family who mooches off of her. She has spent her life’s savings on the medical bills for her late husband, who was a compulsive gambler at cock fights. Yet, with a ready smile, she raises every morning by five, goes to the food market, cooks for the family, makes offerings at her family temple and then at the neighborhood temple in our garden, babysits her baby granddaughter whenever needed and works at her stall, on a lucky day making $20. Whenever I am downtown I stop at her stall pretending to browse her wares to attract more customers. It usually doesn’t work, there are simply too many stalls all selling the same cheap elephant pants and penis beer openers. We brainstorm marketing options and Mirek makes her two laminated handwritten signs saying Spend 100,000 Get Free Fan.

Let’s hope it will work.

Mutually we correct our perceptions of the “other”. From the outside and from the general Western perspective we see Balinese as a tight knit, joyful community with loving extended families. Everyone comes together over numerous holidays and walks together to the temple ceremonies, clad in color coordinated outfits. Open the door to the family compound and scratch the surface just a little and you will find many similarities and dysfunctions to our western life; adultery, sibling rivalry and rifts, neighborly misconduct. Except that here, I am told in all seriousness, there is an additional aspect of black magic involved. The communities and clans are predetermined and the membership is a duty as much as a privilege. The many holidays and ceremonies and rituals are tightly prescribed and everyone is expected to show up and play their part. It is also quite an extravagant expense. But it is not to be helped. Ketut tells me she often has to borrow money so she can fulfill her ceremonial obligations. I try to argue that surely not the same is expected by the gods from a widow as is from a big family where many contribute. But the traditions are ingrained and it is vital that gods and demons are appeased and the forces of good and evil remain in harmony.

The beautiful morning blessings that we all like to admire can be seen as a chore and an expense in time and money. For a woman like Ketut making 75 tiny little baskets and filling them with fresh flowers bought at the market at sunrise and putting them to all the myriad of prescribed places is a big undertaking day in day out.

I always get a bit peeved when I see the signs at the temple entrance that women during their period are not allowed to enter the grounds. What antifeminists bullshit! But then my new friend says,

“Sometimes I get so tired of going to the temple for ceremonies and constructing offering baskets. At least when I have my period I get a 5 day break.” And I start to wonder if perchance it was the women who came up with the no entrance during the period rule?

In the evening we sit together on the floor in her courtyard, Ketut teaching me how to make the simplest of palm leaf offerings. Suddenly she says, “Western families are always nice to each other.”

I burst out laughing.

“What movies have you been watching?”

“I see families traveling together with their children, and everyone is happy. Don’t you travel with your daughters?”

“Sometimes. But, Ketut, people are nice and happy because they are on vacation. In every day life they are stressed and they fight and have problems.”

I realize how easy it is to see what we want to see and how lucky we are to be able to get a little bit closer to the real picture here. Of course when we are invited for the house blessing ceremony we join in playing the game of one happy family.

For all the times I have been to Ubud and followed the colorful processions I have never managed to break into the inner circle of the main temple. Even dressed in a traditional sarong, blouse and sash I was only allowed to get to the outer courtyard during the ceremony.

Well, this time I have been adopted by the lovely wife of our gardener/priest and taken along  with her clan. It took quite an effort to find appropriate (=fitting) clothes and Ibu Ayu had a lot of fun stuffing me into their traditional elastic stomach belt. She then proudly paraded me around at her local temple and introduced me to all her women friends, all dressed in identical white lacy blouses. And all that without a word of English spoken. We then all headed out with pretty girls in the front carrying tall offerings of many tiers of fruit, flowers, and cakes on their heads and men supporting their giant scary Barongs and Rangdas on their shoulders. On the main road Jalan Raya (King’s Road) we joined the river of the processions from other banjars. The whole traffic was stopped for miles. All along the road the curious tourists were gawking and taking pictures. And for once I was not amongst them, but held firmly by the hand of Ibu Ayu, who trotted along in her high heels, with every single hair of her fanciful coiffure in place, (while carrying a large donation basket on her head), red lipstick accentuating her beautiful white teeth. This might be a religious ceremony, but it is also a place and time to show your beauty and your collection of best gold jewelry. I, on the other hand had to hike up my tight sarong to be able to stumble along in my flat sandals, wiping my sweaty face every few minutes with a soaked through bandana. When we got to the big Campuhan temple, she grabbed my disheveled self more firmly. We went through the first gate and then amassed with all the other women and their baskets at the stairs leading through the gate to the inner circle. As dusk fell there was a surge and we all squeezed through and I was buoyed along to the top balustrade where the baskets were offloaded. We then walked down to the flat area where everyone sat in straight lines waiting for the blessings. it was sweet to see the families in their Sunday best. It was especially gratifying to see the dads so caring and attentive to their children. Balinese children are indeed loved, cared for and appreciated as few others. In fact, for the first three months a Balinese baby’s feet are never to touch the ground for the baby still connected to the spirit world and considered holy. And indeed they do not , as the baby is always in someone’s arms.

I did my best to copy the people around me. It was cool to be with the in crowd, but it was also a bit of a let down. There was nothing that special going on, nothing mystical, no chanting or angels singing. In fact all the multicolored reflectors on the statues gave the place a gaudy, Disneyland tinge. The way I see it it is the music and dancing and drama and socializing that is the more exciting part of the celebration rather than the “religious service” itself.

Learning that Ibu Ayu was a traditional Balinese dance teacher I arranged (=invited myself) to visit her class in her elementary school in Denpasar. You have to start young to be able to bend those fingers backwards and move your neck side to side. I don’t know who was more excited by the visit, me or the little girls. It was clear that some have been taking classes for awhile and some were just beginners, but as this was part of their daily school curriculum they were all together for the hour. It was wonderful to see their teacher so animated when showing the movements and making jokes all the while. Even without understanding the language I could see her funny imitations and the girls cracking up. At the end of class I asked each girl to take a photo in her favorite dance position. On the way back to Ubud I was showing her the pictures and she was classifying the girls by their talent.

April is wedding season in Bali. In farming society it must be associated with the traditional end of harvest season when people are free to celebrate. It is a hot April this year, with no refreshing rain to cool down. Our landlady is convinced that the priests have stepped in and stopped the rain for the weddings. White magic is used to stop it, and black to start it. I am told by our driver in a whisper that the temple in the corner of our garden is the one people from all of Ubud can go to, to ask to stop the rain. We have not seen anyone but our gardener/priest and our neighbor praying at the temple. So perhaps the newlyweds can thank the global warming.

One morning as we eat breakfast in our open living room Ketut tells us she will go to the neighbors around the corner for the wedding ceremony. Would we like to join her? Of course, we have seen the elaborate entrance gate decorations going up and were dying to look inside. Quickly I throw on the borrowed ceremony outfit and we head out. There are many people entering the groom’s compound and greeting each other happily. They all seem to be chatting amicably with little attention paid to the wedding ceremony going on. I am tickled pink that I can gauge the gist of the actions without understanding the language. A woman is giving advice to the elaborately bedecked couple, and there is some embarrassed laughter. The bride and groom are symbolically acting out the traditional work, working in the rice field, going to the market.

The ceremony concludes with an act of perforation of a woven mat (held by the bride) with a sharp kris, an asymmetrical dagger (held by the groom). Not much room for different interpretations here, hm! Though in this case it really has a very symbolic and somewhat redundant role, as it is a well known fact that the bride is pregnant.  Nobody is much bothered about that, in fact, it seems this is becoming a norm in Bali. People only get married when both sides have proven they are capable of begetting a child. Which is a very important duty of a Balinese couple to fulfill so the family traditions and the worship at the home temple and the core of the whole Balinese social structure continues. In fact having a child as a couple is so important that if a couple can not have one, they will be able to take on one of the relatives’ babies to bring up as their own. When a young Balinese woman first told me this, I was not quite willing to accept it.

“Are you telling me that you would willingly give one of your own children to your sister or cousin if she was not able to conceive her own?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “but then of course I would not really loose the child, I would still see it every day as part of my extended family.” A challenging concept for a Westerner whose concept of nuclear family is much above the concept of extended family. Glad to see that this will not be an issue with the newlyweds we wish them all the best.

When not celebrating we enjoy searching out local artists in their working environments and having time to chat with them about their art, or perhaps the wood they are using. There is much talent to be found, but not necessarily on the main tourist drags of the city. The Balinese are incredibly skillful, but they particularly excel in crafts and copying a design. Creativity and ingenuity is harder to come by. I had a rewarding time talking to an old painter about his classical countryside paintings, but despite his special offer of 20% discount this painting stayed with him.

Not so at the carver’s place where a few special pieces came with us.

Sometimes we venture further afield, but away from the tourist crowds. One of the loveliest memories was created when we took a trip with our landlady to the countryside and we stopped for a dip at the temple, where the locals go. The beautifully decorated areas for ladies and men are separated by a wall. On our ladies side we joined two teenagers and a grandma with her little granddaughter. On the gentlemen side Mirek was accompanied just with a dad and his young son. Instead of using swimming suits we went in in our sarongs. The free flowing water was refreshing and clean and

there was not a tourist in sight!

12 thoughts on “Hanging With Our Balinese Neighbors

  1. You’ve really out done yourselves this time. Gorgeous shots along with wonderful explanations of some of the intricacies of Balinese life. Loved it!


  2. It’s funny how as a tourist it’s so easy to romanticize another culture. The grass is always greener, indeed! When I was in Bali I very much admired the daily rituals as I felt it was a nice reminder of things you should be grateful of. But, I can certainly see how it has been taken to an extreme to the point where it is a burden, expense, and a chore.

    Regarding your penetration of the inner circle temple – some things in life are best left as mysteries, I think!



  3. Ksenija!

    YOU are an awesome writer. I’m chuckling all the while as I enjoy your subtle tongue-in-cheek comments!

    Great photos too.

    I was in Bali in Feb. Even knowing there will most likely be more traffic and a few more buildings – I LOVED each day. Stayed on Jalan Bisma at Homayoon Villa with an outdoor shower and bath. Soooo lovely. Have you tried the Bintang with lemon?

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice! And super interesting! What happened to yoga? Had to ask… Otherwise my thoughts are in line with the other comments


    1. Well, I decided that yoga is not my cup of tea after all as my spine is rather stubborn. And I still could not sit on the floor with my legs crossed. BUT you should be happy to hear that Ksenija did take another class!


  5. Wonderfully engaging insights and experiences that you’ve captured here! Of course, the photos are tops, as always!


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