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Published: February 4th 2017
Back in 1983 when I first visited Bali I fell in love. “I’m in love with the Balinese people,” I wrote in my journal. They weren’t just friendly, or kind, or helpful—there was much more. It was their hearts. They spilled beauty and warmth and light, and their smiles radiated an inner peace. Unconditional love was there, offered to the foreigner, and I soaked it in.
When I continued on my solo journey then and moved on to Java and Sumatra, I couldn’t say I was in love with the people. Not like in Bali, where I had felt my heart expanding and growing warm when I was around the people there.
So after a long time away, I returned to Bali this trip, remembering that extraordinary expansion of heart that I felt back then, and hoping I would find it again. I went directly to Ubud, where I had spent so much time, in the cultural center of the island. I arrived at night and I dreaded what I saw.
Non-stop buildings, motorcycles, cars, noise, activity, movement, restaurants, boutique stores, guys yelling, “taxi?” women calling, “massage?” The place is unrecognizable. Gone are the quiet streets I had
walked so long ago, when I could amble out Monkey Forest Road from my homestay, and become enveloped by rice paddies, ringing bells, clacking bamboo contraptions twirling in the wind, and croaking frogs in the evenings.
Two older women whom I met remembered those days. One had a guest house then that I still remember, but now she has a new lodge with a swimming pool. “There are too many hotels and restaurants and shops, there’s too much competition,” she said. The other woman told me she had started her shop in 1970, and we talked about the quiet of that era that has left Ubud.
The location of the homestay on Monkey Forest Road where I had stayed is now a shop, or a restaurant, or a modern hotel—I can’t tell. I wanted to find that homestay family. Also the man from the tourist information office that I had befriended then, whose dream was to have his own homestay. But I knew I could never find him, either.
In the Monkey Forest, where hundreds of macaque monkeys cavort and climb visitors’ legs, I came across a cemetery, a temporary resting ground until the bodies can be
cremated all together at a future date. On a new headstone was the name of my friend, buried in May, 2016. But I could not be sure it was my friend—there was no birth date, and countless people in Ubud have the same name. I saw that grave with the headstone, and I thought about my friend, Ketut, and hoped that he built his homestay so he could fulfill his dream of welcoming travelers to Bali.
He was one of the gentle souls from my first visit. And now I’m meeting the sons and daughters of all those lovely Balinese people in Ubud—young people, pursuing work in the tourism industry. One young man drove me to Ulu Watu temple on the coast, then to his village, where he took me into a family compound where his relatives were doing their traditional woodcarving and fashioning offerings from leaves for the temple. He carves wood, also, and instructs woodcarving workshops, because he wants to carry on the tradition.
Another young man, Koman, who drove me to three sacred locations outside of Ubud, told me that he had two young children—but the second had recently died at seven months because of
a heart problem. He was looking forward to welcoming that soul back into the world again with their next baby.
He drove me to Tirta Empul Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a most sacred place, with a mighty bubbling spring and pools where people cleanse themselves with the holy water. Many tourists like myself visit now, snapping photos of the cleansing ritual, where people enter the pools and splash water from each of 30 spouts, say prayers and offer flowers and incense, and collect plastic bags of the holy water to take home.
“Do you want to do this?” Koman asked. Sometimes foreigners also participate.
“No, I can feel the water spray around the pool, and I feel good just being here.” It was true—the spring was powerful, gushing clear water into the spouts, and the energy of the water and bathers invigorated me.
Koman had declined to walk with me earlier, down the 300 or so steps to Gunung Kawi, a place supposedly dating from the 11th century where massive sculptures were carved from rock faces. But he only declined the trek after I assured him several times I would be fine.
I was the first visitor that morning to pass through the doorway tunneled through rock, into a rather secluded, sunken world. For nearly thirty minutes I enjoyed that extraordinary energy by myself. The stream below crashed, tall bamboo waved, and banyan trees and other thick vegetation fed the air. The temple sculptures stared at me—they beamed powerful, solid statements of their existence.
The Balinese people say that a man with supernatural powers scratched them out of the rock with his fingernails in one night. One of the workers at my hotel told me he believed that person actually existed, but admitted he was feeling some conflict between the Balinese and the archeological stories. This man, who grew up in a village, also told me of the importance of traditional medicine men, to whom villagers still turn. But now, they usually consult Western medicine first. Only if they can't be helped will they go to the traditional healers.
I found my own healer. At the “energy massage” place, he started feeling my shoulder when I complained of knots, before I even arranged a treatment. Within ten minutes he had relieved the constant tightness I had carried. “Who are you?”
I asked. “Are you one of the massage therapists, or what?”
”I’m a healer,” he said. Indeed. He treated me again a bit later, this time unfreezing my other shoulder that had been paining me for over six months. And the dizziness I had experienced when I bent my head a certain way disappeared.
My driver to Munduk, a village in the highlands, was 40-year-old Ketut, the youngest of twelve children from village farming parents. He worked in hotels, taught himself English, established an export business, and now supplements his business with driving tourists. He is saddened by the declining health of his 92-year-old mother, but wants to remain positive about his life. He questioned me closely about my experiences at the temples. “Did you feel the spirits? Which spirits were the strongest? What was it like for you? How did you feel? Which did you like the best?” The Balinese people believe that everything has a spirit, so such questions are not so unusual.
But then there was Ibu Boyan. This small woman was sweeping the leaves on her driveway in Munduk. As I passed, she said in English, “Where do you want to go?”
I replied in Indonesian, “Around.”
Her beautiful wrinkled face lit up. “Oh, you speak Indonesian!”
To which I replied in Indonesian, “a little.” We chatted a few minutes more, and she said, “You come to my house and we talk.”
So arm in arm we climbed her steep driveway to her outdoor porch and sat and chatted, she in Indonesian and sometimes English, me in English and sometimes Indonesian. She brought me black coffee made from the beans grown on her family land, and boiled taro-like root sprinkled with salt. Her two young dogs barked at me, and she had to shoo one off the chair.
She said she couldn’t believe my age, saying I looked like I was 50. And I couldn’t believe she was 80—she was lively, and happy, and laughed when I told her she was beautiful, and how we should teach each other English and Indonesian and become fluent. Her husband had died, but she had five children and fifteen grandchildren, and was there visiting her son from her home in Jakarta. She married at age 28, she said because she was busy with her career with Shell Oil company, where she
“Why did you come back to Bali?” she asked. I had to think how I would answer, hoping my combination of English and Indonesian would suffice.”Because the Balinese people have good hearts,” I said.
We chatted for over an hour, while the rain beat fiercely. Then I decided to brave walking the narrow road with unpredictable traffic, back to my homestay where the family loves to eat stinky durian fruit.
So as my time continued in Bali, I didn’t mind so much the traffic and the noise and the flashy boutiques and the tourists and all the buildings, or the absence of the rice paddies in places I had known long ago. The Balinese people are still here. With their wide open hearts.
I’m falling in love all over again.
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