Neighbors And Friends

During any given week, we are routinely visited at home by 4-5 people. Foreigners who own or rent in Bali are required to hire a pembantu, or helper. Usually young women, they clean house, run errands, or can cook for their hosts. Finding a good and trustworthy pembantu is not always easy. Ours is named Kadek. She was recommended to us by our friend and neighbor Ruth who lives 3 villas up the path. Kadek looks 16, but is about 30 years old. Her cute-as-a-button daughter Amelia turned 4 yesterday. Her husband Wayan makes wind chimes, and has kindly given us 2 that hang beautifully in our home. Kadek comes twice per week, and works 4 hard hours each visit. She cleans the house, answers our questions about language and culture, and takes and delivers our laundry. She is grateful for her work, and appreciates us as much as we do her, and hugs us goodbye.

Our large yard is kept beautiful by Made (ma-Day), who came with the villa, and comes by 2-3 times per week. He’s a sweet, and hard working man, who also works as a security guard at a swanky hotel in another village. The trees, plants, flowers and grasses grow fast here, and the ponds need constant attention too. Lawns are rare in Bali, but we have a large yard of it. Made cuts it the old, old-fashioned way: squat-crawling along, swiping at the grass with his curved kris. Periodically he’ll gather a stunning group of flowers together and arrange a bouquet for us. He works rain or shine. We’ve seen him out there, completely drenched, in a torrent, clipping away, or sweeping up the fallen leaves with his long Balinese whisk broom. Yesterday, as I sat on the deck, he pointed out a 5 foot-long snake crawling across our lawn. It swam through the pond, and slithered into the rice field next door. Made was not concerned, as it was not the dangerous type.

We get our weekly water and monthly gas delivered by Wayan, who runs a small shop nearby. She is small in stature and at least 50 years old, but like the other women around here, carries the heavy containers and canisters upon her shoulder effortlessly. Most all of the women in Bali have perfect posture, men too.

Nyoman harvests coconuts and delivers them in a canvas sack draped over his shoulder. He pulls out his kris and quickly cuts out a small square at the top. There’s enough milk inside for 2 days. It’s the most refreshing (and nutritious) drink around, and at about 90 cents a pop, can’t be beat. The empty shells are not thrown away, but are instead turned into bowls or utensils or wind chimes, or something else. One often comes upon scores of coconut shell pieces, left out to dry along the paths. The Balinese reuse most every part of every thing that grows here.

A different Wayan is the wife of Kuntia, who owns and manages our villa and several others nearby. She has a key to our gate and lets herself in quietly most every morning. If we’re lucky we can catch her, dressed in beautiful ceremonial clothing, performing the quick, delicate blessing ritual that accompanies the small offerings she leaves for the Gods. Small, square, woven plates hold flowers, grasses, incense, tiny baskets of rice, and crackers -which the cats appreciate. Two of the offerings are placed on the ground inside our gate, and another is placed on our porch. There are more offerings placed outside of our gate -and outside the neighboring gates as well- and flowers strewn along the gangway that connects these villas to the main footpath further up the steps, where 2-3 larger offerings lay.

Three weeks ago, some of Kuntia’s workers appeared with a ladder, and hung a couple of reed ornaments in the upper corners of our house, and a white flag above our gate. They did the same at all of Kuntia’s properties. Then I learned that a newly decorated threshold in front of a home that I’d been passing is where Kuntia lives, and it’s been his family compound for generations. It was time to bless the family temple, a very important event that the Balinese do roughly every 30 years. Kuntia invited us to attend, along with neighbor Ruth. We dressed up for the occasion, and carried baskets of fruit as we walked the 10 minutes to Kuntia’s home. We didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t something as huge and elaborate as what we encountered.

You wouldn’t guess just how far back the private compounds stretch, once past the front threshold -but it’s at least 200 feet. On the right side of the corridor were doors and buildings to his home. But it was on the left side where the action was. Courtyards within courtyards, and varied thatched pagodas (bale). Ornate cement walls and steps with traditional flourishes and cornices separated and connected one to the next. Everything was adorned in ceremonial cloth, ribbon, flags, parasols, golden ornamentation, and checkered fabrics that symbolize the balance of good and evil. Colorful piles and plates of offerings were magnificent and stacked everywhere. Tall and elaborate floral displays were -upon closer inspection- actually made of meat and fat, or dough. There were at least 250 people there, all dressed in their traditional ceremonial best, some of whom we knew and spoke to, which was nice.

This was a spectacular event. One couldn’t take it in all at once, since the grounds were too big and compartmentalized, but at any given time there were interesting things happening everywhere. Kuntia’s Gamelon band mates, looking sharp in their maroon shirts and sarongs, occupied one bale, and lead the proceedings forward. Elsewhere, an elderly shadow-puppet master performed a delicate piece of story-telling, surrounded by young girls who were waiting to perform their special dance later on. A traditional Tabon dance ceremony was performed, by a male dancer who wore 3 different costumes and moved in sharp concert with the Gamelon orchestra. Past him, in the neighboring courtyard, I could see that the high priest had arrived, and was going through his elaborate and slow costume changing ritual as he sat on his high throne. The temple courtyard in front of him was full of kneeling worshipers already, so I studied him from the side path. Wearing a tall velvet crown, and long necklaces, his rituals and movements were precise, and frequently involved ringing a bell, burning incense, and flicking away holy water and flowers. A prayer service ensued for those within earshot, which included stirring chanting, the sprinkling of holy water, and a lovely traditional dance performed by the women, having risen from their prayers. Meanwhile, another priest somewhere else sang a familiar but still mysterious and fascinating guttural, grumbling chant.

Kuntia graciously invited the 10 foreign guests to eat first, in the back part of the compound. We were served a scrumptious Balinese meal of rice, veggies, tempe, meats, large shrimp crackers, fruit and tea. As we said our goodbyes, the musicians arrived and lined up to eat. It had been a wonderful event and experience, and we felt honored to witness it. This event occurs every 30 years in part because it costs a lot of money to put on. Kuntia’s father last sprung for this ceremony when Kuntia was a boy. He will be a grandfather the next time, when his son foots the bill. The Balinese spend much of their money on private and communal ceremonies throughout the year. Some foreigners question why these relatively poor people would spend so much of their money on frequent ceremonies. But clearly the Balinese are quite content to remain materially poor but spiritually -and communally- rich. They put their money where it matters most to them. We find their priorities to be inspiring and refreshing.


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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mary
    Jan 27, 2014 @ 19:10:37

    wow how amazing…thanks for sharing felt like I was there


  2. Raphaelle McMahon
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 02:34:46

    My favorite so far is Neighbors and Friends. Favorite photo on N&F is the entryway decorated with a splendid mask (god) and infinite details of color and what? is the building material — food? Hearing about the people you encounter is like putting flesh on words. Rapha


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