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Sing ken ken

Offerings

Of all the words and phrases I’ve learned, sing ken ken is my favourite. It means something like “no worries”. The Balinese laugh whenever they hear foreigners say it, not only because it is such a happy expression, but because it’s in the local dialect rather than the Indonesian which serves as the common language around the archipelago and which is for the most part what outsiders learn.

My favourite day in Bali was also my second last. I woke up in Amed, a quiet fishing village on the east coast, in a bungalow which Made had thoughtfully reserved several days before because it is the only one with an ocean view at the hotel he likes best. “You’re slow this morning,” Made remarked when it was time to head out for the day. “The sea is making you like that. Did you remember your snorkel?” I sheepishly walked back up to the bungalow to retrieve it. He’d seemed a little concerned over the last few days that I wouldn’t have someone like him around while I’m travelling in Thailand, and at times like this, I could understand why.

A short drive away we did some snorkelling off the beach around a Japanese wreck from WWII. Later as we sat around in the shade drying off, we could hear singing coming from the parking lot above us. “The party’s starting,” Made explained. The next day would be Kulingen, which is when the Balinese thank their ancestors and send them back where they came from. “Usually, they drink, and then they start singing.” Yeah, those two things go together where I come from too, I told him. Sure enough, when we went back to the car a gang of guys on scooters was sitting around drinking arak, the local palm liquor with a bouquet reminiscent of rocket fuel, out of a huge plastic jug. Made took a swig, and they enthusiastically offered me some, but I politely declined, preferring to stick to the local Bintang beer.

Next, we followed a narrow winding coastal road with breathtaking panoramas to visit a palace surrounded by water. It was nearly deserted with only a few tourists in sight. Afterward, we found a nearby warung for lunch. Made swiped a fish satay off the grill, tasted it, then handed me another one with a cautionary look. “Might be spicy for you.” Nahh, I’m used to Balinese spices now. “Enak,” (delicious) I told the old woman doing the cooking. I hopped up on the pavillion next to Made, and she brought some more satay and rice. Ignoring the spoon, I dug in with my hand Balinese-style and chatted with her in my rudimentary Indonesian.
Beach monkeys
On the way to the palace, Made and I had noticed some empty, nice-looking beaches far below the highway. “There’s houses down there, and where there’s houses, there’s a road.” On the way back, we decided to do some exploring. We turned off into a village, and the curious and friendly locals pointed us to a steep staircase that led down to their beach. Shortly after we got to the bottom, the clifftops began to ring with calls of “Hello! Hello!”. We were soon joined by more than a dozen kids. “Just like monkeys,” Made laughed. They sat down quietly next to us on the coarse black volcanic sand and stared, responding only briefly and shyly when we spoke to them. After awhile some of them started to fish by throwing lines into the water baited with chunks of a mackeral, while others played in the sand.

An hour or so went by, just chilling out and watching the waves roll in, and then the sun was getting low and it was time to think about driving back to Amed. I pulled out my digital camera and took a couple of pictures of the kids. Suddenly the shyness vanished, and they crowded around to look at the display. “Thank you! Thank you!” they shouted. Waving hands and cheery calls of “Morning! Morning!” followed us as we walked away.

Amed

The next day went by far too quickly. We spent it driving through rice fields, touring the royal baths and Palace of Justice, and hanging out on the only white sand beach in the area. Before I knew it we had left the country roads and turned onto the big 4-lane highway leading to Sanur, the big but quiet resort town where I’d be spending my last night, and … to the airport. “Are you sure you want to stay here? I can still bring you to Ubud,” Made offered. “You can stay at my house there, and Ni-Luh can teach you to cook Balinese food.” No, I needed a few big town services before catching the plane the next day. He found me a nice, inexpensive hotel, and pointed me in the direction of a supermarket and a good restaurant before heading home.

Staggering into the supermarket, shedding sand with every step, for once I was grateful for the touts herding people into the spa for massages. “Cream bath?” I asked. “Yes! Yes!” They hurried me in. A cream bath is an exquisite 1-hour Balinese treatment which involves a hair wash, a deep conditioning treatment, a 30 minute scalp massage, a neck, shoulder and arm massage while the conditioner is steamed in, and a final wash and blowdry, all for about $7. It’s exactly what hair that’s had too much sun and saltwater needs. I’d had 3 or 4 since arriving in Bali. “Where you come from? How old are you? Are you married?” asked the esthetician as she seated me. After the creambath and a facial I trudged across the street to the restaurant Made had recommended, and ordered a Bintang, all too aware that it would be my last … for awhile anyway.

Made and Ni-Luh picked me up the next day to take me to the airport, and by early that afternoon I was on a plane bound for Kuala Lumpur.

And so this morning, I woke up in a heavily air-conditioned hotel room to the sounds of Monday morning city traffic instead of crowing roosters. No geckos scurrying around, no sound of waves breaking, no gamelan music. A bit of jalan jalan around Kuala Lumpur, and in a couple of hours I’ll be off to Bangkok and from there to Bhutan. I’m a little sad about leaving the magical island and my new friends, a little excited about the next adventure, but most of all, thanks to Bali, I’m in a sing ken ken frame of mind … .

BeachFishingBridge at Royal Baths

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Rice FieldThese questions come from all directions in Bali, from small children along the village roads we cycled through, random people on the street and beach, and grandmothers at the temple. After much practice I can proudly answer them all in Indonesian!

Ubud was hot and humid, surrounded by impossibly green rice fields and full of great restaurants where I met up with some of my fellow surf goddesses over the few days I was there. I avoided the Sacred Monkey Forest Ubud is famous for because I really don’t like monkeys very much. Especially mean monkeys that steal sunglasses, water bottles, and little kids’ toys. I also got away from Ubud with only 2 bracelets and 2 sarongs more than I came with, which goes to show I like shopping about as much as I like monkeys.

Made picked me up in Ubud the day after the start of the Galungan festival, which is held every 210 days to celebrate the triumph of dharma (truth/good) over adharma (untruth/evil). Kids are on a 2 week school holiday, streets are lined with elaborately decorated bamboo poles, city Balinese are getting out and enjoying their countryside, and gamelan music is everywhere. It’s a great time to be driving around the island. Our first stop was a rice field trek, followed by a delicious 80 cent lunch at a roadside warung, a visit to a lakeside temple and garden full of families picnicking and fishing, and a drive through the mountains to Pemuteran on the northwest coast of Bali where we spent two nights. Pemuteran is the base for snorkelling and diveboats which go to the spectacular reefs off of Pulau Menjangan, a small island in the shadow of the Java coast’s towering volcanos.

One day of snorkelling with Parisian and German tourists, and then it was time to drive to the next stop, Kintamani, the starting point for the trek up the Ganung Batur volcano. We got in early enough to take a drive around the small lake below the volcano to the temple where the lava flow stopped after the 1917 eruption. The area is full of small cabbage, onion, chili and tomato plantations that grow well in the rich volcanic soil. Next to the temple was a small warung, run by the brother of Made’s best friend. We stopped to say hello and get a cold drink, and his friend’s brother, who has one of the kindest faces I’ve ever seen, came out with some snacks and sat in the shade with us for awhile. When we tried to pay he laughed and shoved Made out the gate. In a place where people have very little materially, this was a big gesture. Made shook his head and said some people are just too nice.

Made has been doing tours like this for over 10 years, and has friends everywhere in Bali. He’s like a mother hen, always reminding me to bring sunscreen, making sure I have my camera, telling me to put my hat and sunglasses on, negotiating a few dollars off for me here and there, and checking public toilets to make sure they are clean enough before sending me to them (although I have yet to see a toilet in Bali that comes anywhere near on the revolting scale to the outhouses at North Arm Park an hour out of Yellowknife). As a safety-obsessed Canadian, I can’t help cringing and sucking air through my teeth everytime I see a motorscooter weave through traffic, a beautiful Balinese woman in sarong and lace blouse riding sidesaddle on the back and holding a tiny infant in her arms, placid little face unaware that it is in imminent mortal danger. I am somewhat more approving of the city Balinese women who wear jeans or shorts and can therefore sit “properly” on the bike, and who also seem to have discovered helmets. Having noted this, Made, without discussing it with me first, made arrangements with the hotel staff to wake him up at 3:30 am so he could drive me to the trailhead for the volcano trek unless they were going to send me in a van rather than on the back of a scooter (which is apparently the usual arrangement and would have been fine for the 10 minute drive I’m sure). Fortunately a German couple also signed up for the trek and the hotel needed to get a van to take us all anyway.

The climb up Batur was made entirely in the dark, which was a good thing because had I been able to see above me how far I had to go, I would have given up halfway I’m sure. At the top we waited for the sun to rise from behind the silhouette of the neighbouring island of Lombok, a sight well worth the effort, while our guides cooked breakfast in the steam vents. For the first time since arriving in Bali, I was slightly cold, so I bought a coffee for $1.50 – an outrageously high price here. I heard a “bonjour” from behind me, and turned around to see one of the French couples I’d been snorkelling with 2 days earlier. The tourist crowd has thinned out substantially since I left Ubud, and I won’t be surprised if I run into more familiar faces before leaving Bali. After some touring around the crater and the trek down the volcano, I headed back to the hotel for a second breakfast, and then Made and I were off for another day of driving, this time to his hometown of Sawan.

I was really looking forward to staying 2 nights in Sawan. Made had warned me that his house was very “simple”, but I assured him I’m not a city girl and that the small Northwest Territories communities that I travel to for work on a regular basis, apart from the climate of course, are probably not as different from Sawan as he might imagine. Although Made still keeps a house in Sawan, most of the time he lives near Ubud as that is where the work is. I could tell he was glad to be spending some time in his real home. I was also happy to hear that his wife and daughter would be in Sawan while I was there so that I could meet them. On the way we stopped at Pura Luhur Batukau, perhaps the most beautiful temple in Bali, hidden away in a peaceful, cloudy mountainside forest. Not long afterward, Made received a phone call from his father asking if he’d be home by 4. His other vehicle was back from the mechanic’s shop, and his family had planned a ceremony to bless it.

The Balinese, the majority of whom practice a form of Hinduism that is, as I understand it, very different from that found in India or anywhere else, are known for their frequent and elaborate ceremonies and offerings. Every home has a temple within it, and offerings, which consist of flowers, foods ranging from rice wrapped in banana leaves to eggs to Ritz crackers to Washington Red Delicious apples, the odd cigarette, and incense sticks, are placed daily throughout the home, in shrines, and on sidewalks to appease both good and evil gods.

Shortly after we arrived at Made’s house, many of his family members began to turn up, with offerings piled high for the ceremony which would bless not only the truck back from the shop, but the truck we had been driving in, his wife’s motorscooter, and his cousin’s van (because it’s usually parked at his house). Made’s father excitedly left with the tuna and mahi-mahi I’d bought on the beach from a fisherman’s wife on the way. Made sent me with his niece and nine-year-old daughter, Tuti, on a short walk to a place where we could watch the sunset. Tuti held my hand all the way, giggling and grinning from ear to ear. When we got back to the house, I went to rest for a bit as I’d been up since 3:30, and asked him to wake me if I slept past the time we should go to his mother’s for dinner. He’d had his cousin tidy up one of the neat little rooms for me, which came complete with a small framed picture of a polar bear lolling in the snow. I soon drifted into a half-sleep as gamelan music and chanting began to waft in from the garden.

When the chanting ended an hour or two later I got up and went outside. The ceremony was still going on, so I sat out of the way on the side of the house next to Made’s cousin who valiantly tried to make conversation with me despite my very limited Indonesian. Abruptly, Made’s cousin stood and motioned me up, took off his sash and tied it around my waist. At the same time, a woman brought a stool over, placed it behind Made and his wife, and hustled me over to sit. Apparently it had been decided that I should be blessed too. I had a small idea of what this involved because Made and I had stopped at a roadside stand earlier that day to get a new offering for his truck and a blessing, and he had explained some of the symbolism to me, however, this time was more elaborate. The priest shook holy water over me and into my hands. “Ring ring ring!”, she insisted, much to my puzzlement. “Drink drink drink,” Made translated, “3 times”. She held several sticks of burning incense in front of me, which I waved over myself as I would have sweetgrass smoke at a smudging ceremony. This earned a thumbs up sign. Next, she pressed rice onto my forehead, placed a string over my head, and tied another around my wrist. “Thank you!”, she exclaimed. “Terima kasiyh!” I replied. This brought another round of laughter.

The ceremony over, it was time to walk over to Made’s parents to eat. While the ceremony had been going on, someone had been doing some serious cooking, and there were huge plates of fish, both plain and sate, as well as bottled water and less spicy versions of the dishes for my weak Canadian stomach. Supper over, we went back to Made’s house, where I soon fell into a deep sleep.

By the time I awoke early the next morning, Made’s wife, Luh, and Tuti had already left for the temple where they had work to do. After breakfast, Made, Pandi, the fifteen year old son of one of Made’s friends, and I set out for a trek to a nearby waterfall. There are waterfalls on the tourist trail in Bali, but this is a local gem which hasn’t found it’s way into the Lonely Planet yet. After a refreshing swim in the pool under the waterfall, we trudged back up the 700 or so steps, and headed back to the village for a delicious lunch of vegetable soup and rice at Made’s mother’s. Next, Made had arranged for his ex sister-in-law, who works in one of Semyinak’s spas, to come over to his house to give me a massage, which was very welcome after all the climbing I’d done the last two days. Then it was time to get ready for the temple ceremony, which would be in the next village where Made’s wife is from. I was especially looking forward to the ceremony, held every 210 days on the temple’s anniversary (according to the extremely complex Balinese calendar), because Tuti would be one of the dancers.

Made drove us to his in-laws, where we visited for awhile. Made’s mother-in-law was busy trying to coax a small boy into a bathtub, despite his shouts of protest. “He’s mad because he doesn’t want to take a bath,” Made explained. “Oh yeah,” I said, “that’s international.” The occasion ended with the enraged boy jumping out of the basin and upending it as Made’s mother-in-law tiredly shook her head.

Made then left me in the care of Luh and her mother, who he said would dress me. I had warned him that I would be too big for the blouses here, and sure enough none of the blouses Luh gave me to try on fit. When all the other women were ready, Luh instructed me to walk with Wayan, another of her female relatives, and rode off on her scooter. After a short walk in the dark, Wayan shouting “hati hati” whenever I got too close to the ditch, we arrived at another house where Luh was waiting. She motioned me into a room, where she pulled out more clothes, and finally a blouse that just barely fit. Miraculously she managed to pull together a respectable-looking outfit of blouse, sarong, and sash for me. Tuti and her friend arrived, dressed, coiffed, and made up for the temple. Luh and Wayan hurried off with them, and another older woman who I hadn’t met yet pulled me along by the hand for the short walk to the temple.

The rest of the evening was dreamlike for me. We hurried through the area outside the temple surrounded by food stalls, and then into the temple itself, which was already crowded. I saw Wayan up ahead motioning us forward. Briefly I worried about losing them, and then just as quickly realized that it would be impossible for them to lose me – I was easily the tallest person there and definitely the only blonde. We went to a second area of the temple, where Tuti and the other dancers were receiving a blessing. “Duduk!” I was instructed to sit. Next a priest came around to bless all the others who were seated. He looked at me, then inquiringly at the woman who had led me there, and she nodded, so he proceeded to bless me. By now, I knew more or less what to do, and he seemed pleased, laughing as he continued on. “Ok, up!” Luh, appeared, anxiously motioning me back to the first area of the temple. Tuti and the other dancers were all standing together nervously as proud parents took photographs with cellphones. Made asked me to wait there while he and Luh went to receive their blessing, and Luh’s mother motioned for me to sit with her on the ground, then to turn to face the stage where the gamelan players were already in full swing. Other friendly ladies sat down with us and asked me all the standard questions. Made reappeared a few minutes later, and the dancing began. Tuti was a wonderful Legong. When the dancing was over, we went back to Made’s mother-in-law’s house for a bite to eat. I would be spending the night alone at Made’s house as he was on temple duty that night and had to sleep there. On the drive back to drop me off, he asked what I thought of the Balinese and all their ceremonies. I said they were very beautiful and that I was glad he had explained some of the meaning to me, but that I knew there was much more I didn’t understand. He agreed, saying that he didn’t want to confuse me with too much information.

Back at the house alone, I took a refreshing cold shower and tumbled into bed, falling straight to sleep. Made had kindly brought over an electric fan of his father’s, but now acclimatized I had to switch it off in the middle of the night because I was too cold.

The next morning Made and his family returned around 8:30, and after breakfast, Made, Tuti and I drove to Lovina, a quiet beachside town where I’m spending a couple of days before Made and I head to eastern Bali.

For the record: Dari saya Canada. Umar saya tiga tujun tahun. Belum. Nama saya Colette.

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Surf Goddess Recovering in Ubud

Kecak Fire Dance
Surf Goddess week flew by unbelievably quickly, leaving me with some impressive bruises, a few sunburnt patches, a little board rash, 3 Tshirts, a certificate that says I’m officially allowed to use words like “gnarly”, a gang of really cool new friends, and most of all a great big smile. Who knew that doing underwater somersaults in rapid succession with a board strapped to my ankle could be so much fun! Fortunately the Rip Curl instructors didn’t give up on me and I managed to make a little progress over the week, but let’s just say I won’t be riding the tubes at Ulu Watu anytime soon.

Highlights outside of the water included the Kecak Fire Dance on the clifftop Pura Luhur Ulu Watu temple grounds, grilled “yellow crazy fish” on Jimbaran Bay in air filled with smoke from the bbqs all up and down the beach, more spa treatments than I could keep track of, and of course the obligatory sunset cocktails at oceanside bars in Semyinak.

One final surf lesson yesterday morning, and then I said goodbye to my fellow goddesses and hello to Made, my guide/driver for the next couple of weeks. Goddess Kelly hitched a ride with us to Ubud, where I’ll be hanging out for a few days “rest” … if trekking through rice paddies, power shopping, and cycling down volcanos count as rest.

I have dreamt of coming to Bali and especially Ubud for 10 years or so (if anyone’s counting, that’s about 7 years before “Eat, Pray, Love”, or “That Damn Book” as the Lonely Planet claims it’s referred to here), ever since my friends Angela and Keith came back with rave reviews. Many times I have heard Keith speak the name “Ubud” with the same fondness as when he speaks the name “Cesky Creampuff” (known to most of the world as Cesky Krumlov). I have been to Cesky Creampuff, and it is pretty damn sweet, so I think chances are pretty good I’m going to love Ubud…

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Semyinak SunsetLearning to surf, I was warned, is like learning to ride a bicycle in a washing machine with the bicycle chained to your ankle. Or, as our retreat’s yoga instructor put it, “surfing is violent” (she doesn’t do it). My bruised and swollen second right toe would probably agree with her, but the rest of me is exhilarated. It’s day 2 of Surf Goddess school in Semyinak, Bali.

On day 1, I was happy to manage to get up in a crouch for a few seconds before flying spectacularly off the back of the board. I know the flight was spectacular not because I remember it, but because a photographer with a massive telephoto lens captured the moment from the beach. Our lessons are followed by a slideshow screening of many such moments in the surf school’s locker room. A 3 hour spa treatment, a yoga class and a delicious dinner back at the villa rounded out day 1. Aaaah, it’s good to be an aspiring goddess.

You might wonder what kind of women besides me go to a surf goddess retreat in Bali, and I have to say, my surf sistahs are a pretty awesome, fun-loving, adventurous bunch. The majority are from New York City, California, or Australia. Two Swiss German ladies also braved the language barrier to join us. The group is made up mostly of professionals, including a few of us lawyer types, an orthopedic surgery resident, and some very cool moms whose teenage and twenty-something sons are definitely going to be impressed.

Day 2, I took several more spectacular flights, but stunned myself by managing to ride the board twice to shore and step off intentionally. I set the bar low, ok?

Pardon me, I think I have some seawater about to gush out of my nose…

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