Currently listening to: "Black and Blue" by Miike Snow.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

He Stabbed Himself in the Chest.

    What can I say, the experiences I’ve had in the past two years of my life all seem to jumble into a million thoughts, noises, picture frames, moments, memories whether realistic or imagined. Blurred, smeared, whatever you want to call it, it is confusing, and exciting and scary all in one.
    Bali. The most amazing part of it all had to be the people and their culture. For the first time in my life I felt as if I were in a place where I could hold full trust in whomever I met. And that is rare thing to feel, especially in our world today. At one point I had to get my visa renewed for another month and I willingly handed my passport over to someone I had known for less than 30 days, gave him some money in exchange of his word that he had a friend who was a cop and worked for the consulate who would easily extend my stay. I spent the next 4 days without even remembering that my passport, my one way ticket out of that country, was not in a safe place. It was not in a vault with all my belongings, or safely tucked away underneath that one shirt and in between those two books in my bag. And a couple of days later it was returned to me with an official visa stamp for another 31 days. Try doing that in the states - I wish you good luck.

    After spending almost 2 months in Bingin, Bali, I had become very acquainted with the family that owned the warung in which I spent most of my time. Nyoman and Sticky, their two sons Made and Wayan. They led a calm life. Sticky drank most of the time. Every day I'd come down from my room to greet him as he sat in his wooden chair, eyeballs glazed over like a cinnamon roll, cigarette in hand and a silly smile smeared across his face. His wife either lounged on their comfy sofa/couch, cleaned out the vacant rooms, or let her overly attached 3 year old suckle on her breasts as a way of comfort, although he was well beyond his breast feeding year. Slowly, but surely we became more comfortable with one another, and what was once a shy hello or goodbye turned into broken conversations, laughs, jokes, advice, and shots of the potent, and sometimes deadly, Balinese drink knowns as Arak. It tasted like pure gasoline, but it made everyone happy, so I drank it.

    One day as a full moon was approaching, Sticky extended the offer of taking me to one of their ceremonies in the temple of the village he had grown up in. The Balinese take their religion and culture very seriously, offerings are made at least three times a day and ceremonies can last for weeks on end with undoubted devotion. As sundown approached I got done surfing and showered before I met with Nyoman who led me up to the houses where her family lived. There, her mother nicknamed Kelly approached me to dress me for the ceremony. One thing needs to be mentioned here. Kelly owned the warung underneath Sticky’s and every time I ventured down that way and saw her I was terrified. She rarely smiled and I had heard rumors that she was powerful enough to put curses on people she didn't like. She had a serious brown face, her skin unaged and a beautiful coffee earth tone stretched like saran wrap over her toned jaw structure. She had sharp eyebrows that made the most unintentional glance feel like she had skinned my brain and knew everything I had ever done wrong in my life. She came up to me and motioned for me to take my shirt off. In front of their entire family I peeled my shirt off and stood in my bra. She wrapped a Balinese sarong high around my waist, and then wound a stretchy band tightly around my rib cage to hold the sarong up. I couldn't breathe very easily, but I felt like that was the point and she somehow was enjoying my discomfort. She then gave me a green knitted shirt with quarter sleeves which she slid over my head and then wrapped me once again with a white sash. Fast Balinese words whipped from her tongue and she handed me a comb. My hair was messy, and I felt embarrassed. Her and Nyoman laughed, so did their kids and so did Sticky. Great, I was a joke.

    After leaving their house we went up the road to a local Balinese restaurant. Hospitality is something that always stands out for me in different countries and it is something I don't witness that often, at least like how I experienced it that night. As I walked into the restaurant I was offered a place to sit. Sticky asked me what I wanted to eat.
    “Whatever you guys are having?” I whispered shyly in my embarrassing English.
    He then went up to the woman who obviously was his friend and owner, ordered the food for me, Nyoman, his two sons and their grandpa along with two others who had joined us. He asked me what I wanted to drink and brought it over to the table. I couldn't stop saying thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Balinese people are very humble and simple. They do not live in mansions, even if they had the money to do so. They don't have an abundance of anything. They alternate shirts and wear hand me downs. They share 2 beds between the 4 or 5 in their family. They have 1 bathroom which was also used by the guests that stayed at their warung. The women carry loads that would break my neck up and down stairs all day. And when they take a break they are smiling and giving each other massages to get ready for the next trip. So on this night when I was the guest to Sticky and Nyoman, they treated me like it. The food came and we all ate rice, vegetables, goat skewers and egg. At the end I went up to Nyoman to give her money for my food and she smiled and gently pushed my hand away and paid for everything. I couldn't believe it. It was then that I realized that generosity, kindness and hospitality do not come with wealth and social class. It comes from culture, respect for other human beings, and just from having a good heart.

     I stepped through the temple doors and saw inside Balinese men, women and children swarming around in a state of celebration. It was 8 p.m. then, and little did I know I would only be leaving to go home only at 3 in the morning. As I walked further into the temple I saw intricate stone carvings and offerings that stood 3 feet high overflowing with fruits and flowers. To my right were rows and rows of instruments used in Balinese gamelan music. About twenty men sat with their legs crossed keeping rhythm with the complex song they played. Within them I recognize at least 4 different men that I saw every day. Made surfed all the time out in front in Bingin, Ares owned the warung at the entrance to the parking lot to Bingin, and a couple of guys who worked at the market on the corner. I looked around and saw Balinese teenagers dressed in their formal ceremony attire, but with cell phones glued to their hands text messaging. This was the most not normal, normal ceremony I have ever attended. Smell from the incenses burned my nostrils, and everything around me became somewhat of a haze. Some people looked at me and smiled wide and shook my hand. Others looked at me in disgust. There was not another white person within the walls of this temple. I felt alienated and welcomed with one breathe. What a peculiar night this was.
    Sticky took me through the rituals. I got down on my knees with a lot of difficulty considering the fact my circulation was cut off from my rib cage down.
    “Put head down once, then drink, pray. Head down again, drink again. Do this 3 times. Pray 3 times. Put flowers on ear, like this. Then rice on head,” he calmly went through the well known ritual to him and I tried my best to follow.
    An older Balinese woman stood over us with a silver pot which she poured out a water- like liquid into Sticky’s hands. This is what I was supposed to drink. For the first 2 prayers I held it in my mouth. Did I want to be disrespectful? I couldn’t just spit it out, could I? What was it anyway? I looked to my right and little 3 year old Made happily gulped the water his mom had in her hands. Ok.On the third I gulped the entire thing down. It tasted like jasmine water. I then took flower petals and tucked them behind my ears and put rice on my forehead and temples which stayed on until 3 in the morning when I left. 

Little Made
Balinese Gamelan
    After hours of just sitting around drinking coffee the ceremony began. The main representatives from each group that lived in this village sat on the floor around a huge offering and a person who carried a pot that expelled a thick fog of smoke covering the entire floor of the temple. They hummed and chanted among themselves rocking their bodies back and forth. The point of this ceremony was for them to pray and enter in a trance that would allow spirits to choose certain bodies from the group of elders to possess and speak to the community. The chanting got louder and more erratic. The climax within the temple built like a champagne bottle that had been shaken and was ready to burst. My heart was at my throat, was all this normal? I looked around and saw most of the spectators watching with bland faces. Then I noticed the young children. Some were crying, others had their faces buried in their mother’s chest. So I wasn’t crazy after all, this was scary. 

    Then like a Jack-in-a-box about 5 different elders from the crowd shot straight up in the air and fell to the floor, their bodies going into some kind of spastic seizure that was so violent others around them had to force them down. After they had been controlled, each of them was dressed in an attire that set them apart from the rest of the group. In all black. Their faces were a mixture of blank stares, crying, shouting, anger and incoherent mumbling. They each spoke over each other, yelling at times. Fainting, throwing punches into the air. The others around them fanned them, fed them Arak and listened to them whenever they spoke. After they had addressed the community they began the last part of the ceremony. The main possessed representative, the one that had spoken for most of the ceremony, was to do a special dance in which he took huge daggers and put them in different parts of his body to show to his people that the spirit which inhabited his body was so strong, it could withstand any pain. I watched in horror and in fascination. He pushed the two daggers on either side of his chest as he floated around the altars within the temple. He had the palms of his hands on the daggers, and the shiny metal swerved until it pierced his black canvas shirt. He then took the daggers and put them above his eye lids and danced as if they were just feathers gently touching his face. The chimes from the Balinese music vibrated through my body. I was beside myself. When I looked around, everyone was wide eyed and attentive. Even the children now, none of them cried or looked away - this was their culture, their lives and they were just as much part of it as everyone else in the community. As the ceremony ended they undressed the dancing man and I watched blood slowly trickling down his chest. The music continued to play as they filed out of the temple. The head man that had stood in the middle with the pot of incenses came up to me, took my hand in his and bowed his head to me with a smile. 

 Dagger used in Balinese ceremony. It is called a 'kris'. "Both a weapon and spiritual object, they are often considered to have an essence or presence, with some blades possessing good luck and others possessing bad."
       This whole night was a whirlwind of experiences. I had felt every emotion in the book. I was cared for by Sticky and his family who not only took me out as their guest, but introduced me to all those around them and let me have the pleasure of seeing something that not many outside their culture get to experience. I had felt hated. An older woman had come towards me earlier in the ceremony and grabbed my wrist in her hand as she mumbled fast sharp words in Balinese. She clicked her tongue and shook her head in disapproval. I felt as if I were being chided like a child that had been caught with chocolate all over my face and hands, but on a much more serious account. I had personally offended her by trying to pretend of I was one of them. She looked me up and down - to her me being in those clothes, in her clothes, was not right. But, I had felt included by all the younger people around who tried as best as they could in broken English to explain to me what was going on. What the possessed men and women were saying and what it meant for their community. I felt humbled by their display of devotion, of strict rituals and believes. Their family values, although kids still ran around throwing paper balls at each other and teenagers were sneaking texts away on their phones - they were all there for their community.
    As I walked back to my room that night I felt incredibly small and insignificant. What had happened in there? I was exposed to a faith I had never seen before in my life. How many other religions are out there that are like this? What do I even believe my own religion is? How could that person have put a knife into his body for the sake of his community and walked out of that ceremony as any regular person around him? He probably works in a market nearby. As everyone else in that temple that night. They were all normal people who worked for their communities. Who produced and benefited for and from one another. These rituals weren’t just about their religion, but about their bond. The Balinese for ages have kept the most important thing in life at the top of their priorities - their family. And it wasn’t just child, wife, and husband. It was the workers that paved the road, the people that had warungs, the cooks, the women that day in and out carried garbage from houses to dumpsters, children who went to school and at night spent their time cuddled in their beds watching television with their brothers and sisters. They all knew each other. My final feelings were of comfort. That there is a place out in this world where the integrity of family bond still remains intact.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Video of Nicaraguan kids making art.

These kids were amazing. Their individual smiles could light up an entire room.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mostly scents and smells.

Smells drive me crazy. There is something about them that, over the years, I have grown very attached to. When I think of Brazil, the first thing that comes to mind is the sweet intoxicating perfume that sneaks its way out of the sliding glass doors of one of my favorite malls in the town of Leblon. Indonesia - the sheets. So flowery and fruity, the smell stains your skin for the entire day. Nicaragua - the honey humid taste of the trees, the salty ocean mixed with the river water, fresh grilled red snapper, passion fruit pies, coffee (oh, the coffee). Nicaragua was my first destination in December, 2008. It has changed my heart forever. 

     I traveled with 2 bags and a board bag that contained 2 boards within it. I arrived at the Managua airport somewhere around 8 pm. As I gathered my bags I looked around for a cart to pile them up, but all the men working in the airport had taken them to help the Nicaraguan women. I dragged my belongings to the immigration officer, spoke my ridiculous portuguese/spanish with him, paid my fee and walked into the unknown country. I soon saw a tall, bulky Nicaraguan man with a mustache and a goatee holding a sign with scribbled crayon writing that read my destination. At this moment I went on trust. I was 22 and by myself in Nicaragua. Sure, I'll go with the bulky man with the sign. I came up to him and introduced myself, and he very shyly introduced himself as Juan. He quickly picked my bags up and started swiftly walking to the parking lot and I soon realized why. Small children covered in dirt with sorrowful eyes came after everyone exiting the airport begging for money, for anything. Grabbing onto my surfboard bags and my shirt, they pleaded and pleaded and Juan harshly commanded them away. I got into the car with a broken heart, like I always feel in situations like that. We started to drive away and I started a friendly conversation with him and asked how long the car ride would be. 1 hour and forty minutes. I had just gotten into a stranger's car, with a strange man in Nicaragua. I had no cell phone, no way to contact anyone. And I thought of all the scary movies where women get in cars with strange people in the middle of nowhere and die. And then I realized that I was doing what I've always wanted to do - travel, be lost and feel uncomfortable.
       We soon hit a dirt road and Juan informed me we had about an hour to go. All around us all I could see where sugar cane fields, and blackness. Soon we passed a lit area and Juan told me that is where he lived. He started telling me about his wife, his kids. He told me he had 4 children, but now he only had 3. One of his daughters had passed away when she was younger. 
     'How old are you?' He asked.
     '22,' I responded.
     'My daughter would have been 16 by now.' 
And for the first time the whole car trip we looked at each other. His dark soft eyes twinkled with the darkness and moonlight. I knew he wasn't someone who would ever harm me. He looked at me as if he saw his daughter 8 years from that moment. And then we didn't stop talking for the rest of the car ride. We discussed soccer and politics and freedom and beer. And surfing. Juan liked to surf. He dropped me off at the eco-lodge I was staying for 2 weeks and told me goodnight.
       Los Cardones was an interesting place. And when I say interesting I mean it was remarkable and amazing and humbling in every single way possible. There was no electricity here. Only candle light and small lamp posts that were solar powered. The bathrooms were out houses, and there were only two. The lodges were made with brick and hay ceilings where I was told I should watch out for snakes falling out of. There was a concrete path that intertwined all of the lodges and common area together and around it was all sand and small purple and orange crabs that took over as soon as darkness set in. When walking blindly through the paths, the air was filled with a mixtured of crashing waves and the clicking and hissing of the crabs scrambling in and out of their holes. During my first night there, peace was the most unsettling thing I have ever experienced. Not many people can say that they have slept somewhere that there wasn't a buzz of a street lamp, cars driving in the distance, water dripping, ticking of a clock, the sound of any type of electrical gadget plugged in, music playing - just anything. Here there was nothing. Nothing for hours around. And it was said that guests visiting here would leave with the memories of untamable dreams. People who have never dreamed before would find themselves at night riding wild horses, fighting dragons, falling through an infinite abyss of sky and morphing into butterflies. It was so quiet, it scared me and I spent my first whole night wide awake listening to the crabs and the hushing of the wind through the leaves outside of my window.
          The best experience this place brought me, besides the amazing perfect empty waves that I surfed every single day, was meeting the people that lived there, especially the younger generation. One Saturday I was lucky enough to be invited to go to a local school and teach an art lesson to children of all ages. School now has a different meaning to me. This wasn't a school that could have met any American standard. This was a room. It had about fifteen chairs. The roof was poorly attached and every now and then a strong breeze would blow shaking it like an electric rattlesnake. All of the foreigners (us) would jump, startled with the noise. The children just sat there, timid and impervious to the falling apart roof of their school. If I could live this day over and over again for the rest of my life, I would be one of the happiest people on earth. Most people might not be like me, I cry during commercials for the Olympics. My heart hurts when I see homeless, poor and sick families and children on the streets. When I go out to dinner I purposefully try not to finish my food so I can get in my car afterward and look for someone in the streets who needs it more than I do. But, the most phenomenal part of this day was that these kids, although poor and shy, opened up like bursting kernels of popcorn. Their pure happiness was intoxicating, and all we had for them were a couple of pencils, popsicle sticks, paper and glue. I looked at my own life and asked myself: what does it take to make me happy? And ever since then I strive to be like those children. To only want some paper, glue and pencils. To make art when I feel like it, and to laugh and smile and play. That's one thing I found most people tend to forget. Playing is not just for kids. 
Dear Nicaragua,

I truly miss you. Cannot wait until my travels take me to you again. I hope the coffee is still just as strong, the nights just as solitary in the most pleasurable way, and the smiles, laughs and waves are just as beautiful and potent as the people. 


Here are some pictures that sum up that trip. Beautiful place and amazing new friends.

These next pictures I owe photo credit to Greg Glass:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Getting Started

I'm 23 years old. I graduated college 2 years ago with a degree in English Literature from San Diego State University. Now if you ask me what I've been doing with my time since then I can only say that I've been lost. Wandering, searching, discovering, running away, running towards, and hopscotching through experiences in my life that I have left in the irresponsible hands of traveling. Some people may interpret that as not having a job. My parents some days seem like they are worried and other days proud. When I meet people and they ask me what I do and when I reply "travel" I can never tell if their responses are sympathetic, jealous, impressed, unimpressed, curious, or amazed at the fact that I do not have a job. I just the other day got a template to write my first resume. 
        In the past two years I have traveled to 4 countries and am about to discover a 5th. I have taken at least 24 planes, a couple of train rides, scooter rides, motorcycles, and boats. I have slept in over 15 different beds. I have surfed in the most amazing places of the world, sometimes walking for an hour without seeing a single human being. I have hiked and driven and have gotten lost. I've gotten injured and sick. I've been scared and also so happy I've cried. I've bribed cops out of getting tickets, and I've been in situations that I wondered if I would ever make it out of them. I have revisited my childhood and found a bag I used to keep my teeth for the tooth fairy when I was younger. I'm not sure if most people will find this interesting, but I do.
        I was originally born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and came to the U.S. when I was 8 years old. That was when my childhood got packed into boxes that would not be opened until this January 2010. I am not an American citizen. I have a green card. If you met me, you would think I was joking. I speak flawless english- I mean come on I'm a Lit major. My brain is a very confusing place. Somedays it speaks English and some days it speaks Portuguese. If I'm counting something I'll start in one language and finish in the other. Over my 23 years of living my identity has become an entanglement of memories (some of which I'm still not sure are real or made up), smells, nostalgic feelings and seeds I have planted everywhere I've gone. I'm not sure I have a place to call home, or which place I should call home. Maybe that is where I get my nomadic urges. Since I was 18 years old I have worked as an L.A. County Lifeguard at the beach during the summers. That job has given me not only the opportunity to be able to travel during the winter months, but also a great sense of self confidence and an urge to want to help people. There have been days where if I had not been at the right place, at the right time - someone would have died. And for that reason I find peace in helping others. 
        Now that I've started this blog it's as if I'm not even sure where to begin. Nicaragua, Brazil, Indonesia, New York, California. The fact that I'm completely foreign and when I arrive in Brazil with my passport the officials say "welcome home" and when I arrive in the States with my green card they repeat the same phrase. This blog will be an experiment for myself. Not only to share the tales of my travels, but to figure out what in the world I am doing with my life, and seriously - where do I belong?