#TBT: Travel Flashback Part 6: Culture, Tradition, and Ceremony in Bali

Balinese people hold strongly to their traditions. If someone dies and they must have a cremation, everyone in the community closes their business for however many days they need and they all attend the cremation. Their strong sense of community trumps their need to make money. This is something I love about the Balinese people.

The Balinese traditional dance is not just a remembrance of past traditions now used to entertain tourists. Until this day the people still perform these dances at ceremonies held throughout the calendar year. At these ceremonies the men still play Gamelan, traditional Balinese music comprised of different instruments including gongs, flutes, drums and a wooden piano like instrument played with a hammer on metal keys. Both the dance and music are learned from a young age by girls and boys.

On Saturday night, we attended a traditional Legong Dance. When we arrived at the Ubud Palace, an ensemble of Gamelan instruments hugged the center stage. The men sat at their metal keys ready to play. When the show started the men created a cacophony of sound by beating against the metal keys with thin hammers. As each key vibrated, their hands followed the hammer, holding each key to stymie its reverberation. At times, the music sounded very dissonant.

After the second song, beautiful women adorned with golden crowns and pink and gold costume dresses pranced on to the stage. The women moved very fluidly, telling a story with each bend and curve of their fingers and hands. Each kept a serious face with their eyes darting back and forth. It gave me the chills.

Different sets of women emerged on to the stage in varying colors to dance. Some wore wooden painted wings to resemble a butterfly and fluttered around the stage. The famous masked man with heavy bannered robes and a sword, a symbol of good luck, moved jerkily over the space.

A man dressed as a woman dressed as a man wore a rainbow skirt and represented the new prince. Then a Demon appeared, meant to scare everyone, and invited a woman from the crowd to dance with him. She was awkward in front of the audience and sat down. Throughout the elaborate story, the men continued playing Gamelan. Although we couldn’t understand the story very well, we enjoyed the performance.

On the following day, we visited Goa Gaja. Goa means cave and Gaja means elephant. At the bottom of a long stone staircase, a skinny Balinese man greeted us and named himself our guide. He told us about the Hindu temple that they excavated from beneath the earth. All of the remains of the stone statues and structures lie in a pile. Some remains in tact.

A fountain with three women statues pouring holy water back into the pond stand below ground level. We walked down the steep steps to dip our hands in the water. Another site, which gives this place it’s name, was the intricately carved entrance to a cave. I don’t understand why it is called Elephant cave when the faces at the entrance to the cave are monkeys.

Inside we found a damp, cold temple with the Hindu God Ganesh, who is represented by an elephant, featured on either side of the T shape. Incense wafted through the air. We left and wandered down a hill past the enormous cottonwood tree to a waterfall. This served as the top of a river also named Elephant river for the path of the river resembles an elephant’s trunk. Disclaimer: No elephants have ever been here.

We followed the path to a fallen Buddhist statue, now taken over by moss. The water poured above it. The paths all snaked around the forest, where we found more caves with statues of Ganesh and monkey faces carved into the stones. On our way back we balanced between two rice paddies just planted the day before.

That week we had the pleasure of volunteering at a local elementary school. We joined the English teacher in his different classes and helped the kids practice their English. They took turns interviewing us, singing songs, and playing games.

Each class was extremely enthusiastic. They even begged me to teach them salsa. So I taught the whole class. Two young 4th grade boys performed Bruno Mars songs for the whole class. We were so delighted. On our second day volunteering we participated in the teacher’s yoga class with the kids.

He spoke to us about how important community is to the Balinese people. He spoke of how a man concerned with only money will never be happy, but a man concerned with his family and community will have more happiness even in sad times. As I said above the Balinese people they will close down their business if there is a cremation or an important community ceremony. They always live with their families into old age and the sons and their wives build their houses around their parents and the family temple. Women join their husband’s families. We all felt moved by this culture even if in ours life is very different.

On our last day, Ketut invited us to experience one of these community ceremonies. She dressed us in the proper blouses and sarongs with one worn as a skirt and the other as a

sash. We joined all the people at a nearby temple. The men sat barefoot with cigarettes poking out of their lips and played Gamelan. Little girls, wearing doll-like makeup and the same golden crowns and pink costume skirts as the Legong, performed traditional dances. Then a man with the many masks and jerky moves told the whole history of the Balinese people from different character points of view. We couldn’t understand, because he spoke Indonesian but we enjoyed the performance. He seemed to make everyone laugh.

The women brought out tea for everyone and little snacks. We ate a fried banana covered in chewy dough. Nag champa incense filled the air mixed with the scent of turmeric and curry. Some of the women performed a dance and giggled when they messed up the steps. Some seemed too shy to be up there. All of the women wore bright colored lace blouses making a fluorescent rainbow.

To the side, a man chanted and told the stories using flat puppets. In the other part of the temple, where the statues stand, everyone prayed to the ringing of the holy man’s bell.

When the entire ceremony finished, we filled our plates with mysterious Balinese dishes including Gado Gado, a tofu dish, and other spiced green beans and chicken curries. We grabbed spicy deviled eggs and slices of watermelon. Everyone ate with their hands. So we did as well. For the first time I scooped rice with my hand and shoveled it into my mouth. I felt the mushy texture of curry and the stringyness of the Gado Gado. My mouth sizzled with spices. My lips screamed in fiery pain. I sucked on watermelon to cool my senses. I ate what I could without igniting a fire on my tongue. The girls enjoyed it.

Back at Wayan’s family temple they held a small private ceremony. The women blessed each statue and monument in the temple with rose water and coconut milk. An old holy man chanted. They lit an offering on fire. The women sang prayers. We watched as they each prayed several times to the rhythm of the ringing bell. Even the children prayed. Then two women brought around the rose water and dripped it in each persons hand for them to sip and sprinkled it on their heads several times. We guessed the water may be holy.

Then they lit all the offerings on fire and ended the ceremony. We felt so special for them inviting us into their ceremony. We truly experienced something unique that not many people get to see in Bali. What a wonderful way to complete our time here. We left the next day for Sanur.

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