Uncommon Carriers

On my way back from yoga earlier today, I walked behind this woman for nearly 10 minutes. I couldn’t take my eyes off her: She never wavered, didn’t miss a step, turned left and right with ease and grace, and bore no look of pain on her weathered face. There was an incongruously regal elegance to her posture and stride. Oh, and her legs, darkly burnished from constant sun exposure, looked as lean and muscular as if she were a teenage track star.

The sight reminded me of how constantly struck I am by the immense strength, sure-footedness and agility of similar Amazon-like looking women I see every day.

Just the other day, I stopped cold in my tracks at this sight: A small group of women of slight build – some well past middle age – lifting heavy boulders from a pile on the side of the road, settling one or more onto their heads and carrying them down a path, towards a construction site just beyond.

A day later, I watched a group of women approach, each with a large plastic tub filled to overflowing with earth; they used bamboo canes to climb a steep of stairs in Penestanan, then they placed the sticks against a wall and continued along the path: Not a single one tried to catch her breath as I passed them on my way down the hill.

I have crossed paths with women carrying a vast spectrum of weighty stuff; rocks, bricks, large bamboo or rattan baskets laden with food or their belongings; plastic baskets filled with Balinese snacks or thermoses with steaming kopi (coffee).

I’ve seen elderly women loaded down with large piles of chopped wood, large bunches of leaves, massive sacks of who-knows-what.

By now I’ve learned not to gawk in disbelief, because while men typically carry tools or ladders on their shoulders (they tend to be the lightweights), tradition and culture dictate that women do the bulk of the heavy lifting and carrying on this island – and nearly always on their heads.

And nearly always, the sight of these women triggers a twinge inside of me…

When I was young, I was the tomboy of our family. It was a rare moment when I wouldn’t attempt to lift, push or pull, lug and carry around. My body felt strong and stable as I was growing up, so I felt invincible; the heavier the object, the more I was up to the challenge.

Once I reached adulthood, every time I moved homes, I would do all of the packing, and much of the carrying – of boxes, plants, posters and furniture. When I was collecting my belongings to sell and store before leaving on my great Asian adventure a few years back, I ended up driving and dragging many items to one place or another – mostly by myself; amongst which were heavy boxes that I lifted and piled one on top of the other. Then also, I felt strong and invincible.

But then I fell through a bridge and together with a heavy landing, much of my body’s stability and strength fell apart (sacral insufficiency). I can no longer carry heavy loads, says Dr Tanat; so I no longer lift and pile, no longer push and pull furniture. Now I let others do for me. My involuntary and far-from-desired transformation into a lady of leisure. And what I steep learning curve it has been…

Oh, how I long to regain sufficient strength in my sacrum to lift a heavy backpack… or a child that needs a hug… or the end of a table that needs to be moved. But I’ve been warned: those days are over.It’s been a profoundly jarring and humbling experience to witness all these fearless-looking load-bearing women, capable of such strength that once I knew very well. I admire them from afar, impossibly straight-postured, gliding almost effortlessly down the main road, with a mixture of envy and acceptance; knowing that my strength, rather than reflected in the weight that I can carry on my back or head, is meant to be cultivated in my soul and spirit instead.

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