Freedom

We just passed our 4 month milestone. That’s 2 1/2 years in dog time. By now, we have started to establish routines that work for us, and are not out seeking new sights and experiences everyday as when we first arrived. It feels good to settle in here that way, and it reflects our sense of having the time to stretch out and adhere to the notorious “rubber time” of Bali. My favorite sort of experience is the unplanned type anyway: when you just stumble upon something that you easily should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve missed

For a couple of weeks, we began to see the Indonesian flag appearing alongside streets and shops. One half solid red. The other half solid white. This is not a common sight. The Indonesians don’t routinely fly their colors the way America does. But when it’s time to do so, their pride comes out in a full bloom of flags, banners, and streamers. The occasion was Independence Day. On August 17th, 1945, the Japanese formally relinquished authority over Indonesia. The Dutch would still try to regain the strict control it had over the region prior to WW II, but would eventually see the writing on the wall and go home, leaving a young Sukarno at the helm of a new country in a quickly changing world.

We’d seen the prep work being built on Ubud’s central football (soccer) field for a few days prior, but wanted to avoid the crowds, and decided to find the celebrations somewhere else. (In retrospect, nothing here is that crowded). It was also an excuse to finally scoot down a particular side path that we’d put off for far too long. The narrow, shaded, isolated, trail twists and rises and sinks around the edge of the Monkey Forest, past many of the hairy namesake creatures, who scamper or sit or just monkey around. It’s a really fun 90 seconds of scoot, before it opens up onto the northern end of the village of Nyuh Kuning. We’d been there a few times before -via the southern route, and really like the long main street and neighborhood. The forest essentially separates it from the busy heart of Ubud. So close yet so far, it’s suddenly far quieter and more authentic an area to be than just 2 minutes north.

Seek out the tallest Banyan trees in a village (they can be very tall and wide, and jungle-awesome) and you will likely find the local Banjar / community center and most important temple. Such is the case with Nyuh Kuning. Across the street is an open field, which as we approached could see was lined with scores of parked motorbikes. In the middle of the field, stood a tall greased bamboo pole. At the bottom was a large cluster of shirtless boys, working together to get to the top, where there dangled a bounty of prizes and colorful ribbons. This was no easy task. The boys tried hard many times, with grimaced faces and aching grunts. Different boys would take the lead, and try to first tie a shirt into a knot around the pole as high up as possible to use as a step. But just doing this proved to be very difficult. They sort of almost came close on a few occasions, but the greased pole was just too tall, and one boy after the next eventually, slid back down into the pack, sweaty and gassed. Finally, an athletic looking 30-something adult was asked to put the children out of their misery. He somehow climbed up that tall greased pole very quickly, and then cut the strings to each of the many goodies, that dropped or floated down to the outreached hands below.

Meanwhile, a short distance away, smaller kids -mostly girls- were competing in a slow race to the finish line, while balancing an empty coke bottle on their heads (Aha! This is where that skill starts). Then the adult’s fun began, with the tug-of-war rope pulls. The large crowd gathered around on both sides, and cheered for whichever of the village’s Banjars they belonged to. (Typically, each village has 2: Kelod, which resides closest to the sea; and Kaja, closest to Gunung Agung -the mother volcano). The women went first, 2 out of 3, and it was all fun, with lots of laughing and pleasant camaraderie between opponents. But not so with the men, who took this annual event very seriously. After the first match, there was a 40 minute wait and debate about the rope itself. A second -and then a third- replacement rope was rounded up, measured and marked before the event continued -with the same result: the uniformed team beat the non-uniformed group. On one side, the thrill of victory, on the other the agony of rope burn.

But more than anything else, we were (once again) impressed with -and envious of- the strong display of community that we saw. These people know each other. The adults know all of the children. The children know all of the grandparents. They all depend on each other. They make up a village indivisible. The trust, the cooperative spirit, the smiles, the laughter, the sweetness of the people -children, teens, and adults, is beautiful. We’ve heard it from many expats here, and have seen it ourselves: the people of Bali, are special.

The next day, probably as another excuse to scoot that same Monkey Forest side trail, we passed through Nyuh Kuning again. This time, that field was empty and all of the activity was over, and the neighborhood looked mostly like it usually does -with one long and memorable exception: a standing line of 35 women, dressed in their fine ceremonial clothes, each with a towering basket of fruit stacked upon their head. A minute later, the band of boys from the caboose began banging their drums and symbols and such, and the line began a long march to a temple in a neighboring village. We’d never seen such a line like this here before, and it was a real treat. It’s the sort of wonderful thing that goes on around here all the time, that one easily should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve missed.

-matt

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