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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 132: Balinese Mass Cremation, Arung’s World and the Yin-Yang Dance of Gender

First week in Bali was quite the experience…

Mass Cremation of Nelli Sukawadi:

I’m not usually a fan of crowded gatherings in super tropical heat, but oh my wordddddd, Balinese mass cremations blow my mind in every way.

Think Burning Man meets an explosion of Balinese performance, live gamelan music, and sarong wearing locals featuring three special guests – a black bull sculpture at least 20 feet tall on top of a bamboo carrier, a colorful jeweled cremation tower mounted on a vehicle (a la Burning Man art cars), and a royal lady whose body the ceremony was about celebrate and cremate.

Hello up there...

Hello up there...

Not a proper mass cremation without Balinese men riding the black bull

Not a proper mass cremation without Balinese men riding the black bull

Lady of the hour (she doesn't look Balinese to me?)

Lady of the hour (she doesn't look Balinese to me?)

It dawned on me why the Balinese must always be smiling – they can’t help but wear their inner child on their faces, also manifesting their guiding principe of Tri Hita Karana: man and woman’s connection to others, nature and God. Their way of expression is always effortless, in their love and detail for color, craftsmanship, ceremony, floral get up and revelry in the Balinese Hindu offering, a combination of flowers, incense, dry seaweed textures, biscuits all artfully laid inside banana leaf origami.

There is nothing ever mundane about the Balinese touch. Everything has warmth and expression here.

Surely, this mass influx of tourism and gentrification may be the cause of “too much of something good,” tipping the scales of consumerism and balance in a culture that strives to find harmony in nature, man and God. I mean, how many healing centers, spas and organic shops selling this vegan popsicle and that organic high vibration beard balm do we actually need? I say this all with love, of course this is not a bad problem to have (surely there’s too much of just the unconscious opposite), but I’d like to think that balance can and should be the intention always.

This is pretty much the norm in Ubud!

This is pretty much the norm in Ubud!

Should I buy this for Wylie?

Should I buy this for Wylie?

Anyways, I digress; back to all things cremation. The event drew a massive crowd all donning some aspect of traditional Balinese wear, be it a flower behind their ear, floral head wrap or many shades of batik-inspired sarongs. Drones flew overhead in the happiest anticipation of what was to come. All the camera phones and DLSRs (including mine, obviously) were rolling and waiting. The production brain inside me was working double time to understand how this performance, parade, cremation combo was about to work.

Waiting in the scorching heat before the ceremony begins. Women are dressed to the nines!

Waiting in the scorching heat before the ceremony begins. Women are dressed to the nines!

After what felt like the longest swampiest hottest standstill ever, the ceremony took off. With the swift stroke of his conductor stick, an elderly Balinese man set the whole spectacle in motion. A huge mass of Balinese men decked in orange and white floral uniform raised the bamboo edifice, supporting that giant black bull sculpture with their collective body weight. No easy situation in scorching hot heat. Charging forth at once, the sculpture triumphantly paraded forward into the streets, leading the large band of gamelon performers in a swell of insanely loud and percussive music. Bells and gongs of every timbre harmonized in call and response in a surge of sound that exploded onto the streets, magnetizing the eardrums of awestruck locals and tourists alike. I’ve never heard, felt or seen anything like it.

Coolest sounds ever

Coolest sounds ever

And the smiles!! Such timeless medicine that will simply never get old.

The moving celebration and chaos continued down the whole main street in the direction of the temple. As the giant edifices were 100% Balinese man-powered, the conductor’s job became utmost important to ensure his crew could bear the weight evenly on all sides of the structure and rest for hydration. When they stopped, the gamelon musicians got crazy, increasing in tempo, ecstasy levels and smile sizes. A moment to rest, throw around water, breathe in large gulps of sweet but sweltering oxygen, and revel in the sun.

Conductor holding down the fort

Conductor holding down the fort

Shade please

Shade please

Rambutan break....these cost so much at Whole Foods back at home, but here on the streets, they're just a few cents. Tastes kinda like a lychee.

Rambutan break....these cost so much at Whole Foods back at home, but here on the streets, they're just a few cents. Tastes kinda like a lychee.

The procession finally landed in the temple where the cremation would soon begin. A special group in uniform carried the colorfully crafted casket down from the cremation tower, followed by a line of Balinese women circling the black cow sculpture. On top of their heads, they carried the most incredible woven offerings of palm leaves, fruits and handmade décor.

They finally moved her body into the black bull by way of opening up a door into the sculpture. I could feel the stickiness take over my body and smokiness fill my lungs once they opened fire. It was worth every drop of sweat and showed me what celebration can actually look like in times of death. Beats any funeral I could ever imagine!

Agung’s World in Ubud:

Sitting on my porch waiting for breakfast to come, I am always amazed by how much life surrounds me. I’ve just finished daily ashtanga followed by a 15-minute forearm, core and head/handstand challenge, finally coming out for some morning jungle air.

Simple and delicious. Who knew sprinkling some lime juice on a fruit salad can taste so damn good?

Simple and delicious. Who knew sprinkling some lime juice on a fruit salad can taste so damn good?

Adding to the daily AM symphony of Balinese pleasantries, I can’t help but entertain in the elder German couples across the way who are following some sort of exercise video on their iPad, while lighly punching their buttocks in a tai chi rhythmic way. “Close your eyes and be aware of the outer world” beckons the soothing digital voice emanating from their screen. It’s exactly what I imagined European retirement looked like in the tropics.

The coos and swirly chirping of nearby caged birds pull my gaze towards their colorful feathered bodies, feeling delight in their song but also guilt of “wait, why are they caged again?” It’s hard to make out. They are fed fresh daily papaya and “love” from the Agung family, but somehow their frenetic stir-crazy restlessness seems to indicate some other sadder story. More to investigate here.

Meet some of my feathered friends….

Deep convos with my friend who talks to himself....ALOT. The little Balinese girl in the distance always sends funny looks my way (I don't blame her).

Deep convos with my friend who talks to himself....ALOT. The little Balinese girl in the distance always sends funny looks my way (I don't blame her).

Best feature = her eyelashes

Best feature = her eyelashes

And furry friends of course…

Who votes to free them?

Who votes to free them?

I spy the bed

I spy the bed

And my favorite human at Agung Cottages…Agung himself. I haven’t had a chance to catch him for a photo yet as he seems to always be in a flow of preparing an offering or overseeing the build of his bamboo ceremonial hut around his temples. His graceful Balinese presence is as gentle as the natural foliage that brings this compound alive, and one of these days I’ll find a way to sneak in a photo opp.

His smile radiates forever joy, not to mention the care and craft he pours into his daily outfits – flower petals dropped on his head or behind his ears, and a bright floral sarong wrapped snuggly around his waist.

Basically, I could spend way too much time here on this porch, taking people and bird and nature watching to seriously new levels.

Now, don’t even get me started with the monkeys at the famous Ubud Monkey Sanctuary – home of 600 macaques and their loyal human bodyguards. Thought you should know that I HAVE been exploring Ubud beyond the four corners of my porch J

Monkey 1 + Monkey 2

Monkey 1 + Monkey 2

These monkeys have no reason to venture outside their natural habitat, see why?

These monkeys have no reason to venture outside their natural habitat, see why?

Babies stay with their mommas for 10 months before they separate and begin to self-feed independently

Babies stay with their mommas for 10 months before they separate and begin to self-feed independently

They have the best diets in town: bananas, sweet potatoes and other fruity delights

They have the best diets in town: bananas, sweet potatoes and other fruity delights

Balinese woman keeps law & order with her monkey stick

Balinese woman keeps law & order with her monkey stick

I can't seem to read the emotion on this monkey's face, but I crack up every time I see this.

I can't seem to read the emotion on this monkey's face, but I crack up every time I see this.

Don't eat my sweet potato or I'll kill you.

Don't eat my sweet potato or I'll kill you.

Monkey guards in their schmancy outfits keep the peace around these parts. I talked to another guy who knows 50 monkeys by face. Crazy! 

Monkey guards in their schmancy outfits keep the peace around these parts. I talked to another guy who knows 50 monkeys by face. Crazy! 

Gender is a Yin-Yang Dance:

If there’s one pattern I’ve seemed to pick up on this trip, it’s this – when I feel the newbie syndrome kick in at full force, my natural impulse is to find some sort of women’s community, which in Ubud could be found no further than the Yoga Barn.

Yoga Barn, like many other spots in Ubud, is the epicenter of all things yoga, healing and expat vibes. What seemed to make this place stand out amongst the herd is that it also happens to be the co-creation of the masterminds behind Bali Spirit Festival, which I’ll be volunteering for come March 19th. Despite the FOMO of choice paralysis, it made sense to give this spot a try and check out their women’s circle.

The impulse to seek out women also happened to align with the full moon lunar eclipse combo on a super rainy evening of tropical thunder and moisture. The experience was my first official women’s circle, an ancient ritual thousands of years old and still actively held all over the world. Led by a woman who left her job in the UN to pursue a life of yoga and the healing arts, I was obviously intrigued to participate and find out more.

Held in a beautiful indoor-outdoor rustic space warmed by a centerpiece of candlelight, rose petals and tarot cards, Nadine created a sacred space for sharing, creativity and release. I happened to pull the tarot cards “pay attention to the signs” and “self-discipline” which as a skeptic of tarot, made every bit of sense considering my 2017 intention was centered around the practice of presence.

I have a good feeling I’ll be back again, though the participation in a women’s circle got the wheels turning in my mind…why aren’t there men’s circles? Maybe I’ve been missing the signs but it dawned on me that between living in Rishikesh and now settling in Ubud, I’ve never seen anything promoted in the realm of male spaces.

The card I pulled must have created a ripple in the universe because just a day or two later, I began to see all the signs of a strong spiritual male community, beginning with the Balinese live dance form of cecak. Inspired by the Indian epic the Ramayana, this style of song and dance was powered by an accappella style chant “cak” (pronounced “cock” ironically) sung by men in all tones, volumes and rhythms. Layers of sung “cak” guide the story and tribal choreography propels dynamic movement and the most intriguing style of Balinese dance. The literal circle of men holding sacred space for live dance-driven storytelling gave me a new appreciation of male culture, not to be confused with the patriarchal culture wreaking havoc in the world today.

This Balinese performer kicked around hot fiery coals with his bare feet?!!!

This Balinese performer kicked around hot fiery coals with his bare feet?!!!

Always smiling, those Balinese...

Always smiling, those Balinese...

Lesson learned: pay attention to the signs, the signs will always come!

Tiffany Wen