A Compound of Joy

Vulcanologists, priests and authorities urged villagers to remain in evacuee camps, and exhorted all travelers to stay far away. At alert Level 4 – awas (danger!) – Mount Agung was yawning, shaking, still showing signs of seismic activity. But we had a day trip planned – and come what may, N95 masks in bag, we headed out early towards East Bali.

Under a dome of flat blue sky and brilliant sunshine, we skirted the coast, spotting the hazy outline of Nusa Penida that looked much like a sleeping giant. We drove inland, to visit a traditional Balinese village where life is so insular that young villagers are ostracized if they decide to live – and marry – outside the village’s perimeters.

And then.. with Agung’s crown peering out above the clouds, without advance warning, we entered the red zone.

It was slightly eerie, twilight-ish. We drove under a bamboo pole delineating the border between safe and risky zones; opened for reasons that were unclear to us. But we were not stopped. And our feathers were not ruffled.

Shops were shuttered. Roads were quiet, with only an occasional bike riding by. A few cows grazed in fields, dogs and chickens dashed across the road, all of them oblivious to any threat of disaster.

Then one car, and another, and more motorbikes lined up on both sides of the road than we could count: A wedding was under way, less than 10 kms from the holy mountain’s base. I peeked through the brick split gate. Inside the family compound, magnificently-dressed guests were seated on plastic chairs. Red plastic bags filled with cardboard boxes of food were being handed out.  

Priests and a flock of male guests sat in a circle, smoking and drinking kopi. What was on their mind: The ebb and flow of the earth’s burps and gurglings nearby? The degree of danger that they were exposing themselves to? The blessing that a sunny and quiet day, free of strong tremors, would bring to the newly wedded couple? Or the impact of long-term displacement on the village’s economy?

All around the island, a week before the key festival of Galungan, marriages were being celebrated; it was an auspicious day for nuptials, as we’d seen throughout our ride.

Photo Credit: Anik Ross

The people of Karangasem are resilient, almost defiant; their hopes and plans would not be dampened. With weeks of displacement, loss of income, trauma – and much unknown still ahead, what else could they do but live and laugh to the max? The ceremony and blessings and food and gamelan took place despite the portent – as if belching magma were nothing more than a reminder of the sacred spirits that inhabit the island, and the precious sanctity of life.

To all of this, as much as to all of life’s travails and celebrations on Bali, Mt Agung stood by, as a silent and omniscient witness.

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