For an American I'm not particularly American. For an American traveling in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, I'm SUPER American. I will admit it. I ATE MCDONALDs. I did. I am so sorry, but I just couldn't force another weird egg or strange meat down my throat. Coca-Cola was my best friend, and toilet paper my boyfriend. At the end of my trip I tacked on 5 days in Bali. I foresaw these last four days as a sweet and relaxing journey into bliss. Alone.
I will tell you right now. Elizabeth Gilbert is a liar. Bali on a budget is not bliss.
All the research I read said you need someone to drive you around, a guide if you will. Driving yourself was a bad idea, and everything I read said DO NOT RENT A SCOOTER. Had there been another person with me I might have been more likely to throw caution to the wind and hop on a vespa, but images of my dead broken body on the side of a Balinese back road floated across my brain. My parents sitting at home wondering, why, why oh why did she insist on that scooter. CNN running a "backpacker slain" story in irritating repetition.
I had a theater instructor in college that would visit Bali yearly. He worked with Balinese masks. It was not my favorite class, BUT it was my only connection to Bali. I sent him a facebook message and he sent me the name of Yasa.
It took me forever to get out of customs. Finally I extract myself from bureaucracy and standing among the hordes is Yasa, a good looking mid 30s Hindu holding a sign with my name on it. I walked up and said, "Hi Yasa I'm Gillian."
"You are a girl."
"I thought you would be a man, but you come out, 'Hi Yasa'"
Yasa speaks English pretty well and taught himself. He doesn't however quite understand how to say my name so he just calls me Gill, not Jill, but Gill like on a fish. He was always asking me "Gill, are you tired?" "Gill are you hungry?" Over and over. "Gill did you sleep?" Gill did you shower?" "Gill are you still on your period?" This of course drove me nuts, but I figured out eventually it is a cultural way of asking, "Are you okay?"
One day out of my trip Yasa had been kind enough to invite me to his family’s cremation ceremonies.
The ceremonies work like this. A person dies. They are buried and then a few years later when family has saved enough money they dig the body up, and cremate it and grind the bones into dust. Then they carry the remains around to multiple temples all over Bali so that the spirit of this individual is brought to these temples to worship. It is a Hindu ritual, but apparently Bali Hindu and Indian Hindu are very different. Same gods but different customs, no bindis, different clothes. You know a catholic versus Baptist deal.
The ceremony goes all day. 4am until 12am.
I had to be in traditional Balinese dress. Which means, batik sarong, a batuk this like lace shirt, and a sash. Basically Victoria Secret asked me to model when they saw me, but I didn't have time because I was doing ceremonies.
Did I mention I was on my period? Turns out this makes a lady unholy. You can't enter a temple on your period. The problem was if I didn't go with Yasa I would be stranded in a fishing village in the middle of Bali. So I decided to take my chances with Shivah. I begged for forgiveness and lied. I metaphorically sucked my blood back up me.
No one spoke English except Yasa. When I say the “family” I mean about 30 people. We are in a caravan of three cars, one minivan, one pickup, and the SUV Yasa has been driving me around in. All the women were carrying boxes and banana leaf baskets of offering. So many offerings. Eggs, fruit, live chickens, incense, small banana leaf bowls of flowers. Rice. Rice. So much Rice.
Each temple is passed on through families. So families have been the priest and priestesses for generations of the same temple. It's hard for me to describe what a Balinese Hindi temple looks like, think Indiana Jones, or Inca. It is a stone compound in the jungle. There are different walled areas for different things. Statues galore, all ages old and covered in green moss. Seriously it looks out of Indiana Jones. The weird thing is, these places are super sacred to the people, but there is litter everywhere. It is built into the culture to litter.
So the ceremony starts and the priest begins to make a series of intricate hand gestures while saying prayers, the women are singing chanty music, the offering are all laid around and incense is flowing. Then everyone picks up little pieces of flowers from the banana bowls and holds them to their third eye, lips, and then their hearts. This is done three times and then the priest sprinkles everyone with water and goes to each person, puts water on them and puts water in their hands and they drink three times. I imitated everything that happening and all 30 people watched, rapt to see the American participate. I kind of faked drinking the water for fear of parasite. Then I suddenly became terrified that there was going to be a curse placed on my head. I was trapped between the Gods and a parasite.
At the end of the ceremony they leave all of the offerings at the temple. Which to the untrained eye looks like a whole lot of litter, but I guess to the Gods it looks different.
So then we move on to the next temple, and things repeat themselves. Then the next temple.
It’s at the base of a volcano by a lake.
So it all starts again. However this time it starts pouring rain. I mean pouring. We are all clinging to the sides of the huge temple structures to stay out of the water that is flooding the worship space, which is of course filled with old offering. So that is all floating up as the water is rising. We are trying to use the hutched roofs around the alters to protect us. In shifts people are taken back to the cars under umbrellas.
Then it's off to the next temple. We go through the whole process again. I wait in the car because it pouring still. I do at this point have to pee, and of course there are no toilets. I had watched the women just lift up there skirts and go. So I just went for it. I did okay. I didn't get pee on the sarong. :)
So we finally finish, and then move on to the temple located at the deceased parents' house. So a Balinese house. Oh man. Basically walls, a tiled, floor and a TV. Very little furniture, and dirty. DIRTY. The temple was in the front yard, and the women preformed the ritual while the rest of us sat in the living room on the floor. I spent the next hour being told I needed to eat, but I just couldn't make myself do it. Literally everyone would come over and have a rudimentary conversation with me about eating. I refused enough for them to just run out of time.
Then the last temple, the big family temple, and the rights were again preformed. This time the temple was in a rice field and it was pitch black. The rice field was filed with the sound of frogs. I honestly couldn't tell at first if it was frogs or music. It sounds just like music. The ceremony was finished and the remains were left in the family temple.
Yasa and I then had an hour and a half drive back to Ubud. We start driving and we are trying to stay awake on these jungle mountain roads. Yasa loves English speaking music. So we start to sing. I'm racking my brain for every Beatles song I know. He tells me what he loves is Rock n Roll. I'm trying to think of Guns and Roses songs and Bon Jovi, and eventually we do a rousing rendition on Bohemian Rhapsody. Neither one of us knows the words entirely, nor does Yasa actually know what the words mean, but who gives a shit. We rock it. Guitar sounds and all. :)
Then we ran over a dog.
I know it's a sad detail but I feel like it's important because it feels like Bali in a way. Beautiful moments surrounded by harsh life and death.
We finally make it back to my Homestay. A homestay is a room inside a Balinese home compound. A home compound looks a lot like a temple. Think Indiana Jones. I finally make it into my room and take a shower in the limited hot water.
I pull down the covers to sleep, and the bed is covered in gecko poop. COVERED. There is just nothing to be done at this time of night so I pull out my wipes and just wipe off the entire bed. I begrudgingly go to sleep.
Maybe that’s what happens when you are unholy. You end up sleeping in shit.