Friday, March 9, 2018

Ash on the Bamboo Floor — Bali Stories

I love people’s stories but I will never really know the Balinese. 

Sure the drivers and tour guides do their best to let me glimpse their culture, their politics and their struggles. They answer my persistent questions the best they can. But it feels like I will always be more of an outsider here than with any other country I’ve visited.

I can enjoy watching them play on the beach on Sunday, their only day off. They arrive on motorbikes, swim in their clothes and ride home wet. Simple pleasures.

I know they need us tourists and a good day is when they catch a taxi fare or nab one of us for a massage. But I’ll never really  know their stories.

 So instead I listen to the stories from us foreigners and reflect on the attraction of Bali.  

The Dutch came to plunder the spices in Indonesia for over three centuries and the Japanese to conquer. But why do the rest of us come? Are we allured by the conclusion of the book, “ Eat, Pray, Love?”  Do we hope to find ourselves? Lose ourselves?

The climate is gentle. Flowers decorate the bathrooms and beds and float on the pool. Adornments are the norm.

Beaches surround us. 

Amazing food.

 The people smile, sometimes enigmatically. Temples and colorful offerings are everywhere.

 No other part of Indonesia has the tourist draw. Because it is an exotic blend of Hinduism, animism and demonism? Because of the plethora of exquisite arts?

“Why do you come to Bali?” I ask.  

And from the answers of total strangers I have concluded that Bali is a lovely container that holds and even changes our stories. Think about it! The cottages I have stayed in are more like spas, for $30 a day including breakfast and pool.

Massages are $7 and fresh grilled dinners of snapper served on the beach $7 also. Yoga classes are the most expensive outlay of the usual American rate of $10. It is affordable luxury. It is comfort and support as we experiment with new ways of being.

For many Australians it is an easy time-out. One cottage neighbor has been here 35 times! She sits in a rented bean bag chair, smokes and reads a book, gets two massages a day and soon will return refreshed to a job in a nursing home and life on a sheep farm.

Over seafood pizza, an American School Principal in Singapore and her husband who works at the internship camp for Syrians trying to escape to Australia, tell of their romantic meeting in extreme danger in East Timor. Obviously they come here to decompress. And having saved little for retirement will be able to afford retiring here.

For some it is love, and of that there are interesting variations.

I heard a really wild story today while resting under the shade at the Museum le Mayeur in Sanur from a Dutch woman. Her 25 year younger Sumatran live-in boyfriend  fell asleep while she described her lifestyle. It would make a unusual book although the husband might not appreciate the exposure! 

She is wife number two out of three of a wealthy man in Dubai. He supports her lifestyle which includes the boyfriend in Bali, and she helps him design custom yachts and diamond jewelry. My prying conversation: How do you get along with the other wives? We are a team. But what about sharing your husband, you know, sex? Well, there are the yard boys, the gardener… Really! And what happens if your husband dies? I get 1/3 of the wealth.”
It works for them! One type of love story.

As for Le Mayeur— he arrived in Bali in 1938 to paint the lovely topless ladies and tropical scenes. Falling in love with a much younger dancer, he painted and then married her. Apparently they lived together happily and productively for twenty years and upon his death their house and collection was donated as a museum. See these window shutters carved with a scene from the Ramayana, a Hindu classic love story.

And in this sweet place with fading art I could sense the genuine devotion of this Belgian and Balinese. Here are their memorials.

Do some of us come for prayer? 

I can’t see us praying to their gods or making three times a day offerings, and more on full and dark moon. Even if we were Hindu or connected to aspects of Nature (animism), can we really relate to the demons and fierce protectors?

But some do definitely come to shake out their demons!

An English woman I met at yoga suffers from psychosis and post- traumatic-stress syndrome. In Bali she is stable on meds, lives inexpensively, and takes good care of her health.

I talked at length to an American and Australian who were totally up front about their alcoholism and narcotic addiction. They’ve stayed in Bali for months, coming clean in the mellow tropical atmosphere, letting go of shame and facing the truth. They are supported by good therapists, 12 step programs, healthy fruit juice and genuine hospitality. And with the hard work of introspection, self-acceptance and service, they are totally positive about long-term success. And they start me thinking about my behaviors. “We all have addictions, Kathy.”

And my story? Because that’s what this adventure is really all about. 

Not just about adding months of experiences to an already rich life, but about real change. I will truly understand what has happened in retrospect, when I come home. But I’m getting a glimpse in this magical container called Bali.

After months of veiled threats, Volcano Agung is finally exploding.

As in — airports closed, ash in the air, and the not knowing weighing heavy for everyone. The worst affected are the refugees from the danger zone who have lived in camps for months. They had to sell their livestock for a fraction of their worth and have no income. But the affluent rest of us are also worried. How will I get home? Should I just get a ferry to Java, then fly to Dubai, then Australia? Have I lost the value of the plane ticket? What if I’m here for months? Has Paradise just turned to a Prison? 

(And we won’t even discuss my fears of tsunami! The Prama Hotel has promised me a space on their fourth floor if I can get there in time. And if not, I’ve placed a ladder next to the tallest coconut palm! I sleep with my passport and flashlight…)

Here is Trevor, an Australian flight attendant with a positive attitude the next morning, when we didn’t have to climb the coconut palm— “We’re alive!”

In the meantime, I do yoga.

 The only class I can actually accomplish is Restorative Yoga. 

Ade’s voice is loving, gentle, and refers to my two gimpy knees and torn shoulder as “injuries,”not failures. With enough props and bolsters I can relax totally into poses. Nothing to accomplish. No pain. No forcing. Just relaxing, releasing and moving from one comfortable pose to another.

Bali is starting to get to me. I’m starting to believe that I can let go of a life-time incessant drive of countless accomplishment. Is there a 12 step program for “accomplishment addiction?” It has gotten me far in life but at this age seems silly if not delusional.

Ade gives me a push I need towards enlightenment. 

“Reach out and touch the bamboo floor. Feel the grit? That’s ash from Agung. Think about the volcano. It is neither good or bad. It is just nature. We have to accept it. What can Agung teach you?  And let an intention come to your mind. A heart felt understanding or resolution.”

Then the room goes quiet. Some are sending compassion to those whose farms are being destroyed. And for me? This is what the power and fury of Agung says: “If you can’t control something, let it go.”

That simple. Can’t change people, places or things. Can’t stop a volcano. Can’t make the airplanes fly. No accomplishment on earth can bring lasting happiness. No lifetime of projects can delay death. It’s time to just, “Let go, girl.”

And just as the recovering alcoholic friend reflected that her addiction was the best thing that ever happened to her because of how she has changed, I have to be grateful for this prolonged and unintended stay in Paradise. 

Thank you Agung. Thank you Bali

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