The Penatahan Diaries – Part I

I just returned to Ubud after spending the past five days living in a house on a hill, deeply immersed in nature. Even if that particular corner of the world shows up on Google Earth, I’d be hard pressed to give you an address, because the Balinese understand coordinates best when they involve names of places; then they easily figure out the rest. So here’s where I’ve been staying: Rumah ke bukit, di Desa Penatahan, Kecamatan Penebel, Kabupaten Tabanan – otherwise known as the house that Bill built and rents out to Ibu Patricia.

As the crow flies, Penatahan is probably less than half an hour’s drive northwest from Ubud. But with Bali’s road networks being what they are, it took us – Patricia, Sangtu, Eric and I – more than an hour to get here last weekend. Here is where, on a large patch of land leased (long-term) from Pak Putu, in the shadow of the Batukaru mountain range and the holiest of Bali’s peaks – Mount Agung – Patricia is building a silent meditation retreat center.

I was virtually surrounded on all sides with picture postcard views of of nature: Rice fields, coconut groves and mountains. And sky; a whole lot of sky. But rather unexpectedly in these parts, I have also been overlooking a construction site. So it’s just as well I couldn’t connect to the internet; I’ve had work to do…

The first day, I read a book titled Anticancer, from cover to cover. I cooked and ate well. I wrote, sketched and watched movies uploaded to my laptop. I also spent many hours walking around the property, the banjar, into the neighboring village; down the road to the hot springs, skirting umpteen rice fields.

Vegetation flourishes wildly in these parts; durian trees, jackfruit trees, banana trees, guava and papaya and palm trees. Coconuts are plentiful. So are the chickens and roosters. Not so with motorbikes (amen!), dogs (amen, amen!), and burning toxic trash (triple amen!!) Still, I succumbed to the strangest allergic reaction when I arrived, which reared itself a few times a day (inexplicably), throwing me into sneezing fits lasting a few hours – disappearing as quickly and inexplicably as they appeared.

Once the others left, I had Patricia’s house to myself; the top floor a large room with 2 beds and windows with expansive views. If you seek solitude or sequestering for some time, I can’t think of a better place. The sunrises – if you don’t mind waking at 5:30 to catch them – are breathtaking, each morning a new variation on a theme. I can’t help thinking of Symphonie Pastorale as I scan the horizon, Lucky, lucky me.

And the animals that become my constant companions: Birds roosting, cooing, swooning on the roof. Swallows circling low at dusk, then flying smack into the window in front of me, as if blinded by the glass. Cecaks sprint across the walls and underneath the roof, dropping their black poo-pellets all over the floor.

I visit the site daily, sometimes twice a day. Mostly to walk about, get a feel for the land, sketch, take measurements. Just after returning to the house from a site visit, the sky clouds over and the winds pick up speed. Within moments, the skies open up and rain falls, but not just any rain… I stare out the window, wondering what happened to Patricia’s angels who tend to keep the showers at bay. I send her an urgent text message: I think yr angels are on hiatus. Monsoon in progress. Power is out… Minutes later, this reply beeps in from Ibu Patricia: Oooops. I ask for a little rain for the newly planted vetiver at beginning of road. The volume thing is a mystery. Maybe if u just ask it to move on to the mountain? Thing is: I was serious – and so was she. The angels have a funny way of being omnipresent in Bali – especially with, and around, certain people that I’ve come to know.

I’ve met Bill and his wife Mita before, but not the kids, D and I. I pop into their house a couple of times, for tea and a visit. I drop into Bill’s office, once for a chat, another time to ask to borrow his laptop. Bill and D play ball in the front yard often, so I join them there too. And I’m even invited to attend a wedding, Mita’s friend’s brother’s (!); apparently it is good luck to have a tamu (guest/foreigner) at a Balinese marriage. But when we arrive, after the heavy rains have subsided, it’s clear that we’ve missed the ceremony! Tidak apa apa (no problem)!

We’re invited to take a tour around the elaborately decorated grounds, and to feast on Balinese traditional (but more elegantly cooked and presented) dishes. The groom is, after all, an “Agung”, considered royalty (or at least aristocracy) in Bali; the extended family lives in a Puri (palace) with its own grand temple and many extensions and new rooms for a growing family. It’s by far the most ornate and luxurious wedding venue I’ve seen here thus far. They even have a musical trio (a la Bali) playing bamboo instruments for guests while they eat; rare in Bali, but consistent with the more sophisticated tastes of the upper castes.

After a couple of days, D musters up the courage to befriend me. He knocks on the door, walks into the house, tentatively climbs the stairs to where I’m writing and drawing. I let him play with some stuff lying around – a cheap telescope, my headlamp, speakers, colored pencils. I teach him the words (approximately) from the classic children’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Even though he was born and lived in America, he’s never heard of it. D gets a kick out of the singsong and we continue to improvise with silly additions for a long while.

I know he’s taken a liking to me when we together notice that hundreds of coconuts keep falling from the roof onto the floor; there are so many that we have to collect them and place them on the table and the couch, and in the fridge. Who says you can’t play pretend when you’re an adult?! Mita later recounts that D had said with absolute seriousness: No, mama, like is not as strong as love, so I love her. Ahh… how’s that for honesty from a six-year-old boy?

I’m plugged into my work when I suddenly hear a new sound in the distance, a sound that clearly does not emanate from nature… It takes me only a moment more to realize I’m listening to the unmistakable rumblings of a cement mixer. Ah yes, they’re pouring concrete into the circular foundations of the meditation deck.

In the late afternoon, I set out for walk in the banjar – population unknown (but no likely more than 100). As I reach the bottom of the driveway, I see the petite figure of Ibu coming toward me. She’s without a doubt the grand dame of this hamlet; despite her shriveled and shrunken body, I bet she is the oldest and hence most respected elder of the community. She recognizes me because we first crossed paths two days before; and her face breaks into an easy smile. We greet each other, she with her hardly-buttoned top, dirty towel swung over her shoulder, her sarong hanging in the same way, with the same folds and creases, as it has for decades.

I head out to the site at eight to meet Dody, but he’s running late, buying screws in Penatahan. I pull out the industrial-size metran (measuring tape) and, using a stone to hold down one end, I walk across the width of the cleared terrace to take measurements. I’m suddenly distracted by something I feel gnawing on my foot. I look down and see a gooey brown creature slithering along the top of my foot: a leech! Memories of the day-trek I attempted with Charlotte and Jamil up to Saranghkot (Nepal) flood my mind…

While we’re setting about taking measurements, I get a message from Patricia: We’re coming to collect U tomorrow. (And have 500 meetings – ha!) Wud u check the water purifier + see if there’s water going into it? If not maybe dodi can move to gudang. After Patricia clarifies the gudang reference (storage shed), I chuckle to myself, because though she’s referred to me as if I were a castaway (about to be rescued), I feel anything BUT; I am blessed and grateful to have been gifted respite in this little slice of nature’s paradise.

Sure, I had work to do (designing a labyrinth), but imagine waking up every morning as I have, to spectacular sunrises, working, writing, reading and walking in nature. Total body and soul immersion.

Vis medicatrix naturae. The healing power of nature.

Oh, and those sunrises…


  1. Welcome back! Now I know why I havent heard from you…you were in paradise…all so green…so ancient-looking and those sunrises, wow!
    xo oj

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