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.

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