I wandered the hot and humid streets of Ubud aimlessly – just sweated and gawked and trekked up and down the oppressive, traffic-busy Monkey Forest Road, taking detours into markets, alleyways off Jl Hanoman, photographing batik shops, watching people in warungs and street cafes, stopping in artist places, smelling the incense, the rotting drains and jungle, the wafts of Balinese sambal goreng udang and nasi campur. I took rides with local boys on the back of their motorbikes in the coolness of the morning, said no thankyou more than 500 times to enquiring taxi drivers, spent lush minutes in the cool airconditioning of bank teller machine booths, admired the Pura Desa temple on Jl Raya Ubud Road, watched lines of local Balinese women walking dressed up for the dance shows and local teenagers gather on street corners. I bathed in rose petals, and found massages, got lost. At night walking down the streets, snippets of tourist conversation from curbside cafes, motorbikes up and down Hanoman Road, the highlights and shadows against temple walls, colourful glimpses of elaborate dances and gamelan music telling the stories, fireflies in rice fields, the sound of a bats wing through humid air close to my ear, distant lightning.
Walking to the outskirts of Ubud down the winding Jalan Suweta road there are the rural suburbs of the Gianyar district, nice house on blocks, washing on lines, surprised faces and smiling
children. Following a series of fortuitous turns and interesting paths, I come across a bare and silent temple and spot a well worn track down the side to a green and lush valley. There are many stairs and its oh so quiet – and feeling like an intruder but mystified, entranced. At the bottom of the stairs a river and a series of moss covered, bare breasted women, hanging vines, dragons and deities, voluptuous water pipes, the sounds of waterfalls and old bucket and some clothes hanging on a fence – what is this place? It feels alien and adventurous in a Hollywood blockbuster kind of way. I wondered if I should be looking for something. There was no one to tell me what to do so following some intuitive impulse I bathed under the water, soaking my head, reciting a mantra, feeling some purification. I walked right up the other side and walked to through the hot fields, feeling more and more remote and suddenly remembering – I don’t have to go forward or anywhere – so retraced my steps. This time the water temple was not deserted but an old toothless Balinese lady said something I didn’t understand and laughed uproariously. On my way out I passed a whistling man and his wife carrying buckets and they looked surprised but we smiled and said hello. Later I found out that this was the sacred Tirta Tawa Temple – the waters had the power to heal illnesses, people have come from neighboring villages for centuries to perform purification rites for recovery, and there is supposedly a sacred white eel guarding the temple.
Black magic, white magic
Around the back streets of Ubud, east of Jembawen road following little pathways and streams, grimacing gargoyles looked out from houses and businesses and street offerings and incense marked every shop and temple. Balinese believe in Pengiwa (black magic) and Penengen (white magic) and that all Balinese have sakti – a magic energy that every person has that makes it possible to resist evil powers that affect the luck of a family. There are spirits called Leyaks which use the black magic to attack the sick and wounded. Leyaks are a strong part of the myths of Bali and they are shape shifters who can change into animals or a flying head with entrails – they attack mostly family members out of jealousy and revenge. Mental illness in Bali is thought to be cause by the black magic and if the family cannot afford treatment (usually for schizophrenia) then the person might be kept in a pasung, chained to a wall or bed for ten, twenty years. Balians, priests and witch doctors are needed to ward off the Leyaks with rituals, charms and herbs. Balians are traditional Balinese healers or shamans and a part of Balinese life to whom a family member would go to in illness or needing help. Many of the Balinese myths and rituals and stories involve Penengen for neutralizing the black magic with white magic – like the daily offerings – Canang Sari – made from coconut leaves woven into a box filled with flowers and food for the gods and demons so as not to disrupt the harmony of the universe.
What lies beneath
I walked past the studio of the famous balian Wayan Nuriasih – there was a crowd of American women here on Jembawen road opposite the Bali Buddha vegan cafe – all at various stages of their sessions – but yes she could fit me in. The shelves and tables were crowded with jars of herbs, old soft drink bottles filled with yellow liquids, and many statues of deities to ward off evil spirits.
Wayan’s daughter ran around taking bookings and a toothless and smiling old man assistant took me to a dark and dingy old bathroom to sponge-bath my back, neck , face and legs with clumps of herbs, followed by something applied with pointy sticks on my neck and front. He gave me some leaves to chew. There are no secrets here – all secrets are Wayan’s to share.I have to hold the chewed leaves in my palm now to clear my hand of old energy for the reading. Wayan correctly guesses the number of lovers I have had and how long each of my relationships was (and triumphantly tells everyone in the room) followed by a blessing from her spirit guides and information about my 8 generations of incarnations and future love life. Wayan’s advice for a happy life? Whatever you want to do just keep going and going and you can build it. Later my driver says conspiratorially that Wayan is only popular because of THAT Eat Pray Love book and she learned from a master who is a better healer. I wonder then about the jealousies and competitiveness that underlies the healing business in Ubud and if there is more behind the smiles that I am permitted to see. This is the border –the expression of the faces of the Balinese, in dance, in shops, in healers vs the irritation, competitiveness, gossip, black magic, the unseen mentally ill, the hard work – the unspoken energy that runs through a village, a town and human life.
Paradise and Penengen
Early this century, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson reported back to the centre of the magical quality of the Bali and the Balinese as aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature. Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welsh biogeographer travelled to Bali in 1859 and in his travel memoir ‘The Malay Archipelago’ was reportedly delighted by the villages and houses and the luxurious rice fields watered by an elaborate and sacred water irrigation system.
Bali now has over 2 ½ million visitors a year. Made Pastika in the ABC’s 2012 Foreign Correspondent story ‘They paved paradise’ says that the greatest threat is not from the tourists but from greedy developers. The ugliness of Kuta, and the environmental vandalism and unchecked commercial development, the get rich quick schemes benefitting political cronies and their families –this is what no one wants to see in Ubud, whose traditional rice fields are quickly being sold to build more hotels and villas.
In Ubud I saw that the Balinese people welcomed visitors to be part of the dances and ceremonies. In the Balinese worldview all can benefit from the Penengen and so all are welcome. As many critics and tourists brochures have said – the Balinese do seem genuinely happy. For the tourist – spiritual or otherwise – mindfulness, gratitude and respect are the antitheses of greed and imperialism.
So question of why I was in Bali – to appreciate and learn about the Balinese culture, to understand humans and their myths and rituals, to tread the fine line between awareness of the impact of global consumerism while seeing the beauty in the world, to learn some yoga moves, to be lost and fully present, capable of being in uncertainty and mystery and to record the experience. “To find the joyous humming silence of the travelers solitude, the liminal state of the pilgrim “of being in the world on the cusp of past and future personal identity – a state of possibility” (Rebecca Solnit, Wunderlust).
Sources for last three posts
‘They Paved Paradise’ Matt Brown ABC Foreign Correspondent 2012
‘Bali Culture Notes’ Nevin Odden Baliblogodden.blogspot
‘Yoga on Bali ‘ Tara Khadro Bali Advertiser 2012
‘Reader, tourist and psychogeography today – a categorical imperative of travel’ – Arup K Chatterjee2014 http://www.coldnoon.com
‘On the Actual Street’ – Nick Couldry 2003 London School of economics and political science
“A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk,” Robert Macfarlane, Times Literary Supplement, London, October 7, 2005
‘The Old Ways – Journeys on Foot’ Robert Macfarlane
‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ Rebecca Solnit
“Eat, Pray, Love: Producing the Female Neoliberal Spiritual Subject.” 2011 The Journal of Popular Culture. http://www.ruthcwilliams.org
“Eat, Pray, Spend: Priv-lit and the New American Dream” – Josh Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown, Bitch Media 2010