When you walk somewhere in Bali, you have to watch your step: There are offerings everywhere.
Little squares made of woven palm leaf, filled with colorful flowers, grains of rice, grasses, crackers or small slices of bread, wrapped candies, small coins or bills, and burning sticks of incense, together called canang sari – they punctuate the sidewalks, beaches, and doorways with signs of devotion and prayer, sometimes alone, sometimes in small clusters or piles. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, but the island of Bali and its surrounding islets are mostly Hindu, and it shows. The hundreds of offerings that we’ve seen so far are all dedicated to the Balinese version of the central Hindu divine essence, the Brahman, the Acintya, the unifying force that connects all and of which all other gods are aspects. These offerings are meant as thanks for peace in this world and are signs of self-sacrifice due to the time taken to make and lay them out (although at least some of them seem to come pre-made – a sign of modernism, perhaps). These little bundles of goods given up to a higher power confront our steps as we go from place to place, requiring us to be mindful of what is below us as well as what is around.
Sometimes, the offerings are not on the ground, but are situated on small pedestals carved from rock in angular, tiered patterns that resemble small thrones, reaching up to about head height, or hanging from walls at the same. Wrapped around or near the pedestals are fabrics made either of black and white checkered cotton, or shiny yellow cloth with patterns woven in. These fabrics apparently are also offerings and protective layers for sacred spaces and sacred trees, of which there are many. The checkered fabric highlights the entrances to small temples and pillars topped with offerings, showing clearly how frequent these sacred spaces are, tucked in between every few buildings along the street, or attached to the front or side of larger establishments. (That being said, the black and white pattern seems to be more generally popular as well – it was featured on our lampshade and box spring in our first hotel, among other very likely secular uses).
The uneven but persistent distribution of such sites and sights has led me to think a lot about rhythm and tempo. For too many years now, I have found it hard to keep my mind from buzzing with thoughts and worries about all that I need to get done in a short amount of time (grad school will easily do that to you), which is one of the many reasons why I have become such a fan of my regular yoga and meditation classes the last few years. It has been as though the tempo in my head at times was too fast and busy, and it started tripping over itself like we sometimes did back in high school band when trying out a difficult piece for the first time – sometimes making it hard to focus or stay calm as a result. But this trip has really been helping so far, even in just this one week of being here, as there is not too much for us to figure out in a given day, not too much to worry over, and a whole lot of new experiences to just revel in. I’m really enjoying the quiet in my mind, the new places and people I get to learn about and interact with, the companionship with Toby. Our daily tempo as visitors to Bali has been very relaxed, and that is something for which we’re grateful. It makes me think about the outrigger beams on many of the traditional-style boats around here (see featured image from the previous post), where the beams to the side of the boat help to balance it in the water, despite the waves that would otherwise rock or capsize the narrow vessels. I think we all need a little help from outriggers to balance out our lives at times.
I imagine a lot of local Indonesians don’t have the same experience of these places, though. Too many people are obviously poor and trying to make ends meet. In Sanur, the first town we stayed in, and Padang Bai, the second, there were numerous people waiting in areas where they knew tourists would walk or head to the beach, sitting and chatting with their friends until an obvious foreigner (like us) would walk by. Then they’d get up and ask insistently if we wanted transport on their motorbike or boat or in their car, or if we wanted to buy one of their goods, such as fruit, or a fan, or a scarf. More men seem ready to give us a ride (“transport?” or “taxi?”, with more emphasis on the second syllable), and more women follow us around asking in persistent, high pitched, nasal, broken, drawn out English, “You want massaaaaage?”. (I’m sure the resonance of those words derives from the accent bestowed on their English from their native Indonesian, and I don’t say it to make fun of them, just to describe the sounds we’ve heard dozens of times.) Some of them seem despondent or resigned when they finally give up, which might not be until we’ve spent several minutes turning them down in both English and Indonesian.
We have only seen a scant few people ever give in the countless invitations. I’m not sure how they make enough money to get by.
In Padang Bai, there were more obvious signs of poverty on streets where locals lived, in contrast to those mostly populated by hotels, restaurants, and dive centers targeted at tourists. There seems to be too much garbage and too little infrastructure to handle it. Some of the buildings seemed to be partially falling in, and many were quite dirty. Behind the warungs (little family-run shops and eateries) on the beach, there were large heaps of rotting coconut husks; and those were the more pleasant of the piles of waste just sitting out in the sun or littered on the road or in the bushes. Some were burning. Several of the coral reefs we’ve snorkeled at thus far have had plastic of all sorts floating and drifting around the fish, and the cove off Nusa Penida where we went swimming with giant manta rays (!!!) yesterday had enough garbage in it that my skin felt prickly and crawling, and not just from the thought of it. (Poor mantas, trying to skim food amidst all that.)
But I don’t want it to sound like it seems none of the locals care about all this – there are many signs about cleaning up the trash or protecting Bali’s natural resources, and in Padang Bai we saw a large group of teenagers in matching shirts going through the beach and surf collecting trash to clean up. And there’s a resourcefulness we’ve observed in many of the hawkers’ sales pitches; there are quite a lot of things they are willing and able to do for you, and they’re clearly trying to make something out of a tough situation and an ever-present tourist market. The same can be said of how we’ve seen people bring goods from place to place on their motor bikes. The bikes are considerably more common than cars, probably due to the cost, and people fit an astonishing number of items into the spaces by their feet or behind their seats. Stacks of egg cartons (without lids), buckets of liquid, bundles of bottles, several bags of groceries, with up to three or four people riding at a time. They travel slowly on most roads, but it’s still impressive how they get everything to stay on without breaking or dropping. We spoke with a couple from Delhi, India, yesterday, and they said that the number, density, and effective usage of the motorbikes was very familiar to them, but it is a surprise to us.
Something that is quite pleasant and not really a big surprise, given how much it is part of the reputation of Indonesia, is how smiley and friendly people tend to be. Numerous people have gone out of their way to be helpful to us, and they know far more English than we know Indonesian, so we have felt fairly comfortable being able to figure out where to go and how to get there. We haven’t seen any signs of crime, and people at our accommodations and restaurants have told us about good places to visit, safe places to walk and good routes to get to our activities. I know a lot of people expressed concern for our safety when we told them about this trip, so I feel I should add that we have not felt unsafe in any of the places we’ve been, and we’re being quite intentional about keeping it that way as much as we can, while still exploring and having a good time experiencing Bali outside the biggest tourist centers.
Today we’re just taking things mellow and our only real plan is for transport between one island and another (Lembongan to Serangan). We’ve been spending a lot of time at beaches, pools, and snorkeling thus far (or walking through the towns around these waterholes), and this morning has been spent hanging out outside at our current accommodation since just before sunrise, in good part by the infinity pool at the top of a small mountain overlooking a strait between Lembongan and another island, Ceningan. Nothing to complain about except a few too many photons that made their way through our SPF 110 sunscreen while snorkeling yesterday (because yes, being on the equator when you’re as Ithaca-pale as we are really does mean that much SPF sometimes isn’t enough). This afternoon, we’ll be taking a “fast boat” (not a speed boat, it’s a lot bigger and covered) to our next location, which will require a touch of wading from the beach to get onto, and will bring us through the relatively quiet waters to Serangan, where we will check out sea turtle and shark conservation centers tomorrow. After that will be another trip to the airport to head over to the large island of Java for four days, where we will visit the city of Yogyakarta, in order to see the temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan. Before we do that, we’ll make sure to write some more about our experiences in Bali (and post more pictures).
May we all find our own form of outriggers to help us balance when we can’t quite do it on our own, and our own offerings of gratitude to the peace and goodness in our lives, despite the challenges that will always come along.