Outward Bound

It was an uncharacteristically busy week: I spent most of the first two days at a private luscious organic garden a few kilometers outside of Ubud, dined on freshly picked vegetables and herbs, drank lemongrass tea and topped it all off with beetroot chocolate cake one day, mint raw chocolate the next. Not a bad start!

Wednesday morning, I lucked out when I called the Besakih bone healer’s clinic because, notwithstanding my broken Bahasa, I still managed to score one of the first appointments of that day. After joining in the requisite prayers (sarong and sash duly tied), handing over my offerings to the priest (money duly tucked in to each flower-covered palm tray) and sticking bits of wet rice on my forehead and neck, I waited only a short while before he called my number, had me turn around on the bale, re-checked my sacrum, explained (via my driver Joni’s able translation) that I was to keep up hot presses, showers or baths. Nothing else for him to do…

Then, after bypassing a steady stream of fume-belching convoy of trucks on their way to and from a massive sand quarry, we made an ear-popping stop at Pura Pasar Agung, a 20-odd year old temple erected on the southern slopes of Mount Agung, reaching the highest altitude possible by car – before you need to hire a guide and tie on your trekking boots. Early afternoon, the temple parking lot was utterly and unusually empty. With sarong and sash, I climbed the 300 steps to reach the mouth of the temple – already festooned with tri-colored umbrellas, in preparation for an important upcoming ceremony.

The day came to a close when Joni drove us down into a valley, so green and lush, without trucks, few cars and hardly any tourists: Sidemen (pronounced SEED-e-men), Karangasem. Welcome to Banjar Tebola. I stumbled across one of the newer home-stays in town, where I met Jero Ratna and her husband Gusti. And over the next two days…

I chatted with schoolgirls who showed off their English amidst plenty of giggles and offered me a snack called Alé-alé. I met a young Balinese man called Komang who wanted nothing more than to get out of town, find a foreign girlfriend and start his own business.

I passed endless farmers and villagers walking, cycling, riding motorbikes to and from their fields. Most carried tools – scythes, hoes, spades, knives – and nodded in my direction with a slight smile; others ignored me completely, causing me to wonder whether they were deep in thought or offended by my (= foreign) incursion into their village. One elder walked along in a group, holding a large dried banana leaf above her head in place of an umbrella.

An endless array of animals and insects surrounded me – goats and cows on the farm next door; roosters, dogs, sparrows, herons, frogs, lizards, geckos, tokeks, flies, ants (oh lord, endless armies of ants!), butterflies, dragonflies, bees, wasps and other UFOs.

In my outdoor bathroom, an assortment of elkhorn and staghorn plants cascade along the stone wall, stones on the floor, hot and cold water at the ready. With all doors and windows open, a steady breeze creates one scene after another of billowing curtains. And at night, even with all openings drawn shut, a noticeable chill wafts into the room, forcing me to don a hoodie and ensconce myself deeply within the sheets and blanket.

But from the first moment, what really had me enthralled was the view: As soon as I’d entered the room and walked out onto the terrace, I knew in an instant that I was here to stay. I don’t know whether to compare it to the front-row seat at an IMAX-Dolby-surround-sound film, or to standing in front of a hyper-realistic panorama painting, but take your pick: it was yet another jaw-droppingly stunning view of fields, jungle, mountains and sky. Dotted with bungalows across the valley and to the sides, farmers and their shacks, and at night, tiny spotlights flitting here and there – signs of a passing motorbike.

Nocturnal sounds were typically few; knocking on the kulkul, chanting, the errant rooster or dog. But by the middle of the night, I’d awaken to a full-on white-noise heading into crescendo mode; crickets and cicadas (?) on steroids.

I read and wrote a lot, meant to do the proverbial rice field walk and rest more… but Jero kept me busier than I expected. There was a visit to an outdoor area off the main road, rendered holy for an upcoming special post-cremation ceremony (I’m still not entirely sure what it is); an early-morning shopping trip to the market – we bought egg-sweets but passed on the pricey mangosteen; finally corralled into helping out at the pura dalem (main temple), where a major renovation is taking place.

Today, nearly the entire community turned out – young and old alike, many on their motorbikes – to carry dirt from the road up to the temple, and (the men) to dismantle an 80-year old pavilion on the temple grounds. They came bearing tools – scythes, hoes, spades, towels and buckets and everyone pitched in.

I took turns, helping Jero prepare snacks by mixing glasses half-full of Bali kopi and placing crackers on trays for everyone to help themselves; and watching the men pound away at the wood, bricks and rocks.

They pounded and pushed, dug and jabbed, snorted, laughed, jostled, until finally, with many pairs of hands steady on the white peeling paint, with a great shove, greater drama and even greater thud (heard, I’m sure, right across the valley), the temple wall finally came rumbling and tumbling down.

Every once in awhile, I am reminded of how blessed I am to now live in a place where most of my time is spent outdoors – and even if not completely without cover, then mostly so. Even if I have to share my space with ants…

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