A Few More Twists in Bali

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There are more layers in Bali than in a hen house. There’s the idyllic island life of magazine spreads, and then there’s a whole pile of other stuff.

Ubud had been recommended as a great place to relax and indeed it was, but it’s not the place to let down your guard.

First, there is the traffic. We were well accustomed to Indian and Asian roads by this time and quite adept at jaywalking (which is the only option), but Bali takes it to another level. Narrow roads, few sidewalks, more cars (along with the motorbikes), and a faster pace. It seems to me that Bali has adopted the Western sense of urgency and need for speed. For the first time since landing in India, I felt uncomfortable on the streets.

Bali is bustling and booming. If you were here ten or twenty years ago, I suspect you’d be surprised by the difference. Ubud has become a mecca for those seeking yoga, alternative lifestyles, or an affordable pampered lifestyle. We opted for the latter, and reveled in our two bedroom villa with a ‘house boy’ to make our breakfast and keep the place clean. Like most of the countries we have visited, tourism is a growth industry and one of the few opportunities to rise above a subsistence income. No wonder villas are being built everywhere. No wonder you can’t walk into town without hearing “Taxi?” at least a dozen times. “Maybe tomorrow?”

Balinese culture runs deep. It is a Hindu island in a Muslim country, with its own distinct approach to Hinduism. Temples are built within family compounds and offerings to one’s ancestors and the gods are a part of daily life. Tiny woven baskets of rice, fruit and flowers are everywhere, and they are replaced daily.

It should be a culture clash of west and east, but it isn’t. Westerners come here to embrace the Balinese way of life, and the Balinese have adapted and integrated western aspects into their society.

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Physical and spiritual protection

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Offerings to a rusty bridge

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Go, go Ganesh!

We met a couple of fellow Western families while in Ubud. Brie and Bjorn had taken the bold step of selling everything back home and had been in Ubud for several months. Their kids, Luka and Zora are unschooled, meaning they are completely free to learn about whatever they want and to follow their own interests. There is much debate about unschooling, but if you don’t believe in the Western, corporate, money-driven lifestyle, there is a lot to be said for letting kids focus on learning a skill, trade, or career that they may find rewarding in itself. The second family we ran into down a back alley – the path to the village library. Liz and Remy are from Calgary, and they are also on a year tour with their 14 year old son, Bowen. Much like us, they had packed up for a year of travel, and of course, like us, they have a blog.

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Luka, Bjorn, Zora, Brie, and us

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Roadside with Liz, Remy and Bowen

Our last day gave us another beautiful glimpse of Bali. We were to check out of our villa by ten in the morning, but our flight didn’t leave until ten in the evening. We had a day to kill, and so we had arranged for our driver, Wayan, to meet us in the morning.

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Wayan, our driver. A sidenote: if someone is called Wayan, you know he is most likely the eldest child. We were told the firstborn will be called Wayan, the second Made, the third Nyoman, and the fourth Ketut. Male and female alike, maybe with a slight variation. Start again if you get to five. Just another insight into the simplicity of the Balinese way. Not much variation, and certainly no made-up names or different spellings like Aran.

We had a few more temples and a beach on our list of sites to see, but Wayan threw us a curve. Would we like to see a cremation? There was a communal cremation ceremony at his village, and we were welcome to attend. Liz and Remy had told us the night before that they were going, so why not?

We had already seen the ghats at Pashupatinath, outside Khatmandu, but this was to prove an entirely different experience. The ceremony we saw was a communal event, where the bodies of the deceased had been temporarily buried until the next available group ceremony. The cremation field outside the village had several dozen pyres with wooden statues of buffaloes or coffins. Mourners arrived in a parade, with each family carrying offerings and the remains of the deceased. The ceremony followed a close script, broadcast by PA system across the field, as each family said prayers and placed offerings and remembrances in the cremation boxes.

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The procession, with each family carrying the deceased, perfumes, and offerings

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No procession is complete without street vendors

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A group of nine pyres

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Preparing for the cremation

Next, the pyres were lit in order from one end of the field to the other, fueled by gasoline and flame throwers. At times it was a bit tricky not to get caught too close to the heat and flames of several fires.

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Preparing a second flame thrower to stoke the fire

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Posing for photos

Cremation (ngaben) is but the first step in Balinese funeral rites. It releases the soul from the body and the five basic elements (earth, wind, fire, water and ether). The ashes are gathered, and then in a second ceremony they are cast out to the river or sea. The final ceremony involves transporting the sanctified soul back to the family temple where it is worshipped as a god. Even in death, Bali shows us a different approach to life.

It was an amazing two weeks, and we left with the sense that we had only scratched the surface of a beautiful and complex culture.

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Posing for a last photo by the sea

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You have to love a place that sells gasoline in vodka bottles by the roadside.

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