It’s a sacred space; as villas are squeezed in between neighboring properties, that meeting place, the zone, becomes an endangered species. Some might call it tender, others severe; a harbinger of sadder things to come.
It’s in that ubiquitous zone that traditional life coincides with the escalating and seemingly unstoppable incursion of expats seeking to build a life – and home – in Bali.
This phenomenon, and its attendant challenges, came home to me the other morning.
I was awake just after the dawn, standing on my front terrace in my pajamas, tending to my laryngitis with a cup of hot lemon in hand.
Outside my front gate: a few tiny remnants of rice fields that not long ago were expansive swaths of green gracing the land – an uninterrupted landscape much more spacious than that which existed when I first moved into this (older) house about 18 months ago.
The tracts of field just beyond the little patch in front of my house, on land owned by a local farmer, had barely dried out before being swallowed up by bags of cement, lava boulders and wooden planks. Perhaps the farmer was tired of growing, weeding, harvesting crops; tired of shooing off birds nibbling at the grains. Maybe his children refused to take over, deeming the sawah a piece of earth considerably less valuable than a tourist, the labor physically demanding. There might have been dissent in the household; or there may have been enthusiasm at the prospect of income from a rising flow of expats seeking villas.
This farmer’s last tract of land, abutting the road, remains unfarmed, untended but untouched. An overgrown square of weed-filled greens left abandoned… until rent income transforms that too into another solid block of grey.
Whatever transpired among the family, one blessed thing stays its course through thick and thin: tradition. The matriarch, rising early, dresses in kebaya and sarong, brushes her grey-streaked white hair into a bun, prepares offerings and carries them to the land. There, between the harshness of a towering grey cement wall and the soft and swaying sheaths of green, she re-enters a place of harmony, between man and land; between man and his gods.
It’s that farmer’s mother, the clan’s dadong, whom I spot early that morning in front of the rice penjor (in this case, a temporary shrine), as she goes through her paces of prayer and ritual. With the stalks grown so high, I only see the top half of her body, and nothing at all whenever she bends down to lay offerings.
Dadong, the penjor and her basket of offerings seem out of place. As if to validate my thoughts, she crouches down in that middle space, that zone that has buried part of her past – with her back to the wall. She lowers her head to pray, now completely hidden. Standing up again, dadong rearranges her hair and the offerings on the penjor; collects the smaller baskets and trays, container with holy water, turns to see me looking on.
In that early morning cocoon of peace and quiet, from a no-man’s land of wall and weeds, a zone where tradition meets tourism (gone awry), dadong and I find a fleeting moment of connection. She smiles, waves, places the largest basket on her head and walks off – disappearing behind the wall.