by Michelle Larson
Traveling is my thing. It’s why I work and where I see the value in spending my hard earned cash. I don’t have diamonds or a fancy car, but I have had some of the most incredible experiences in far-off lands that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I am often asked, “With all of the traveling you have done, what is your favorite place?”… without hesitation or contemplation for a moment, my answer for the last seven years, has been “Bali.” No place I have experienced has become such a part of me that it calls me back like a lover who has left me permanently changed; beckoning me to return again and again. My magical romance began in 2005 during my first visit to the mysterious Indonesian country with my two sons and my mother. I returned again with my boyfriend for a wonderfully intimate and special trip to celebrate our 3rd anniversary in 2009. And here I am going to Bali with my mother again and a girlfriend. This time it seems I am going for the pure love of the place. The adoration I have for Bali is like no other. It fills me up. It shows me what is important. It shares its stories and teaches me to let go of the meaningless and trifle. Bali gives me balance and with this visit I am in need of equilibrium. I know I will find myself there and when I do I will discover a new layer and depth to who I am.
There is a spirit to the island that is so tangible and alive; it seduces your senses.
The moment you arrive the air smells distinctively Bali. The scent of flowers; a frangipani placed behind your ear; the moist and musty smell thick from the humidity, mingled with the fragrance of over ripe fruit and a touch of incense lingering in the air. The rain leaves behind the delicious scent of life, like the wet forest floor, a mixture of everything living, the aliveness accentuated and pungent.
The distinctive sound of the gamelan being played in tandem with a bamboo flute, immediately you have the sense that you are in a different culture that acknowledges and nods to simplicity. The motorbikes hum and putter, and the thunder rolls, then rain taps on the roof for a while, slow then fast, then slow. And then it stops. In the evening, at exactly the same time, a million melodic insects fill the air with a chirping that grows in tone and pitch as if it’s the only time they are allowed to speak and they have so much to say. The early morning birds call to one another across the rice fields. The roosters crow, wild chickens cluck, stray and family dogs bark. Chanting from a temple fills the air and travels through the village, calling those it reaches to stop and breathe deeply and remember to be in the moment. And then there is the quiet. Like no other quiet I have ever experienced. A peacefulness that silences the mind, relaxes your shoulders, slows and deepens your breathing, and allows the stillness to penetrate your being.
The beauty of Bali has depth, texture, and detail. Pure and rich are the colors, like every exotic spice in the world laid out in a palette of exquisite composition. Lush green from the blades of grass to the moss covered stones, to the towering palm trees that nearly touch the vibrant blue sky. Every tropical plant that exists seems to grow and thrive in harmony, creating levels of emerald, chartreuse, and jade; dappled with vibrant red, orange, yellow, pink, purple and white blossoms.
Villages specialize in unique artistic creations. As you drive along the open storefronts display their goods, showcasing stunning carved stone statues, featuring Buddha, Quan Lin, and other spiritual and peacemaking icons. Store after store will offer the artistic representation that has long been the tradition of that village. Craftsmen hand down their skills from generation to generation. Everyone appears to be an artist in Bali. The next village will feature wood carving pieces; intricate, precise, amazingly detailed work. And on and on, as you pass another town you will see silver jewelry, blown glass, batik fabrics, paintings in galleries, furniture, all made by the people of that particular village.
There is a devotion to tradition in Bali, an unwavering dedication to the way that things are done, and always have been done in their culture. An admirable quality in this fast-paced world filled with attachment to the next big thing. Time is not spent wondering what career they will have, where they might live, how nice their car is. Their way of life is established. When a woman marries she moves in with her husband to his family compound where his mother and father, and siblings, possibly his grandparents, may reside as well. This compound sits within a village where there are many other family compounds and everyone in the village is considered family. They celebrate and mourn together, support and work with one another. This is the custom. They stay together, committed to the role that each person is responsible for. If the link is broken someone will not be cared for. It is just not done.
What has impacted me the most in Bali is the religion. You spend five minutes in Bali and you immediately realize that these people are immersed in their faith. A combination of Hindu, Buddhism and Balinese tradition, wherever you go, it is visible. There are over 22,000 temples on the island. Each family compound has their own temple, each village a larger temple, a community temple, royal temple, even market temples. Then there are shrines…in each rice field, in front of the stores, restaurants, one will even be rigged up on a stick for a small merchant stand along the road. On these shrines and within these many temples, lay offerings; small woven baskets made of palm leaves. Some more elaborate than others, but all containing flowers, crackers, coins, candies, rice, incense… all offerings to the Gods to bless their families, their businesses, their crops, their homes, their cars, and just about anything else. You will find these baskets on the ground, an offering to the bad spirits to keep them away. And higher up in the shrines, to the Gods and good spirits, inviting them in and giving gratitude for all that they have. These offerings are made after cooking, but before eating each meal. They are made at the open of business and later in the afternoon. At any point during the day, you will witness people (mostly women) delicately carrying the offerings, usually in beautifully hand painted baskets on their heads, to the temple or shrine; and ceremonially placing it while holding a flower between their fingers, saying a prayer and lighting a incense stick. It is a wonderful and meaningful practice that is just a way of life for the Balinese. Everything is considered sacred. A new motorbike is sacred and therefore a ceremony is performed to bless it and give gratitude for the transportation it will provide and ask the person riding it be protected. The Balinese Hindus follow a belief that holds them to four rules of living: 1. Maintain a connection, respect and love for the Gods. 2. Maintain a connection, respect and love for other humans. 3. Maintain a connection, respect and love for all animals. 4. Maintain a connection, respect and love for the land and the environment. The offering baskets carry flowers of four different colors that represent each of the four commitments. And holding each of the flowers between their fingers with palms together in prayer, raised above their heads, they ask for what they need and acknowledge all that they have. If something isn’t going well in their lives, they don’t blame other people. They believe that bad spirits are to blame and therefore they pray and give offerings to eliminate the bad spirits, sometimes going to a healer to ask for assistance.
The Balinese are the most gentle and demure people I have ever been graced with. They are genuinely kind and sincere. I have stayed in touch with a friend that I met on the first trip to Bali. His name is Gusti and he has been so generous with his time and has proudly shared his culture. I have had so many amazing experiences that I would not have otherwise been privileged to if it weren’t for this wonderful man. To be able to go behind the touristic scene and witness real moments with real Balinese families, has been a true blessing and an honor. I have an insatiable curiosity and fascination with this culture and Gusti has been more than happy to answer my continuous questions, listen to my theories and thoughts, and sometimes my teasing about how it seems the women do the brunt of the hard work in Bali. He is always a good sport and shows me in so many ways that he is grateful we have returned.
So, reflecting on this third visit to this most magical place called Bali… I know that it has become a part of me. I hold it close in my heart and though I don’t know quite when, I do know that I will return. And when I arrive again its familiar embrace will capture me and hold me close…
Bali and I have a thing that I just can’t shake.