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Bali Stories

Various writers explore the essence of our beloved island from a grass-roots perspective

These stories of Bali capture the uniqueness of life in Bali from equally unique perspective of long term residents looking in. The articles listed here have been specially chosen because of their relevance to life and culture… If you would like to submit a story, please do! We are looking for unique stories visitors and long term residents would like to share.

To submit a story, email us !

Dancing Around the World with A Stop in Bali

Interview by Shervin Boloorian, ©2012

Last September, Danae Dugardyn left a career in the corporate world to embark on an international tour and pursue her dream of discovering the dance styles, languages and cultures of the world. Trained as a dancer and acrobat since she was 13, Danae's travels led her to an unplanned stop in Bali. She came straight to Ubud to study with popular dance authority, Gusti Ayu Artati-- learning Pendet, Puspanjali, and Cendrawasi Balinese dance styles.

Within 2 weeks, Danae was performing at a temple on Bali's Eastern shores. "I loved this experience. And the Balinese people were so proud, grateful, and glad to see a visitor learning their traditional dances," Danae reflects, "I got close to them and will remain in contact with many of them."

Indonesia is one of several tour stops for the French native. Argentina, Brazil, and India are among the other countries she has toured along the way.

Ultimately, Danae intends to incorporate the different traditional dances from her travels into her own unique dance language. She is also collecting footage from her dance experiences to produce a motion picture that tracks her experiences.

Danaé feels inspired in natural landscapes, and can be spontaneously moved by the energy and atmosphere of these places to dance. Several videos on her website show Danae's passionate dance expressions in naturally rich settings throughout the world, "I'm always improvising when I dance in wild landscapes, and along the way the dances I've been learning are naturally influencing my inner dance."

Danae is excited about the prospect of returning to Bali next March for the island's internationally renowned annual gathering of yoga, dance, and music—the BaliSpirit Festival. "The most important thing for a dancer is to get out of the mind and deeply connect with the body, heart and soul. Dancing, like Singing or playing music, has a healing power. I can see how BaliSpirit Festival can be one of those reconnecting forces that can bring great joy and healing."

Impressed with Danae's talent and motivation, Festival Cofounder and Producer, Meghan Pappenheim had this to say, "Danae is a perfect example of a cross-cultural explorer who is interpreting the arts in a modern way. I believe her unique approach can inspire others to follow their hearts and their dreams."

Danaé continnues her dancing tour in South America. For more information, visit her website at:


by Ibu Cat, ©2004

The book and movie "Eat Pray Love" have turned the spotlight on balians, (dukuns/shamans) the traditional healers who play an important part in Bali's culture by treating physical and mental illness, removing spells and channeling information from the ancestors. Travelers seem to have added a visit to the balian to their Bali 'must-do' lists, right along with snorkeling, a cremation ceremony and a trip to the spa. But a visit to a balian is a serious matter, not a tourist sideshow. The balian is an instrument of divine healing, and the client enters a covenant to receive this healing with respect, reverence and humility. Ask yourself why you want to visit a Balian -- out of curiosity? To learn a little about traditional healing arts? Because you are ill and genuinely need a healing?

A Balian is committed to service, and may never turn anyone away. Tourists who casually enter the Balian's compound expecting to be seen often delay the healer from working with the genuinely ill Balinese who have come to see him or her. Because of this, foreign visitors (including resident expats) should make an appointment with the Balians who prefer this. Please dress appropriately with arms and legs covered, and don't point your feet at the healer (or any other Indonesian). Women should not be menstruating. Always take an offering with the fee tucked into it; never hand money directly to the Balian. The fee is usually Rp 100,000 for a consultation, and Rp 200,000 for treatment. If the treatment is extensive the fee may be higher; ask the Balian. Your hotel can make the appointment and supply the offering, and you might also want to take a translator as many Balians do not speak English.

What can you expect when you consult a Balian? Your experience will be very public, with all the other clients watching avidly. The healer may make magic, create fire, use mudrahs, draw patterns on your body, spit wads of chewed herbs on your skin, apply scented oils, poke you with sharp sticks and/or give you a deep tissue massage or manipulation that will be very painful indeed. You will probably howl; most people do. But you will probably feel better.

Every village has at least four Balians. There are about 8,000 practicing in Bali, which has about four times as many Balians as doctors. They are at the forefront of community health, and Balinese will often visit the Balian before going to a conventional doctor for treatment. The relationship between the two disciplines is interesting. The head of the Balian Association is a medical doctor whose father and grandfather were Balians, and the Hindu University in Denpasar has a faculty of traditional healing. Many Balians will refer a client to a doctor, hospital or pharmacy and doctors may discreetly suggest a visit to a Balian if mainstream medical treatment is not effective.

Pak Made Surya, an authority on Balians, has been studying the subject in depth for 15 years. He is the only expert I'm aware of who offers healing arts study tours to those interested in the culture of traditional Balinese medicine and magic, and the opportunity to visit carefully selected, authentic Balians during one, two and six-day study tours. He has translated and worked with scholars and educational film and video crews including National Geographic. Besides leading Healing Arts study tours for 23 years, he has served as senior research assistant for several scholarly books relating to the Balinese view of the After Death and sits on the advisory board for Sacred Sites International. He is collaborating on a book provisionally titled A Spiritual Kitchen, an Ancient Balinese Healing System.

"There are plenty of bogus Balians out there," Surya warns. "Be guided by personal referrals." There are four kinds of Balians. The first kind is a Ketakson who acts as a channel between the client and God. Ketaksons evoke the spirit of a dead person, and pass on information to the family about what kinds of offerings are needed for cremations and other ceremonies. They can also channel living people to give guidance or locate missing objects. Most of the female Balians are Ketakson.

The Pica/Paica Balian is a medium who may not be a formal student of magic. This kind of Balian receives physical objects which appear and disappear spontaneously and are used during healing sessions. "I've seen a kris suddenly materialize during meditation, standing on its point and rotating by itself," Surya recalls. "The object may seem ordinary and may not be beautiful. These ritual objects appear and disappear of their own accord, and may manifest for up to five years." The Balian Usada is a person who either has the intention to become a Balian or may receive divine knowledge during a severe illness. These people decide to further their knowledge by studying the lontars (sacred texts) and with recognized healers. The lontars, thousands of ancient texts in Kawi script, contain information on ethics, anatomy, traditional herbs, meditation, yoga, tantra and other subjects. The Balians also study both white and black magic, which are very similar except for the intention of the practitioner. The fourth kind of Balian combines all of the above. Many may appear crazy or psychotic, or hear voices, while the wisdom in entering them.

"The Healing Arts Study Tours are learning journeys which offer the visitor an in-depth excursion into the culture of Bali through the eyes of the Balinese, for those who wish to observe, appreciate, and experience traditional healing methods," Surya explains. "Among other subjects, we explore the history of traditional medicine (Usada), the different systems and practices of the Balians and the mystical basis of the Bali Hindu belief system. The essence of Balinese medicine is the understanding of the magic of the Left versus the Right. We look at different healing modalities, love potions, black magic and their relationship to illness." Quite a number of Balians will not see foreigners at all, because they feel it's too difficult to communicate the subtlety and nuance of their work across the language and cultural barriers, even with a translator. For those who are neither students of Balinese culture nor ill but would like to experience a balian, the following will accept visits from foreigners without an appointment. Once you are in the neighbourhood, the locals will direct you.

1. Jero Dasaran. (aka Jero Roti) Banjar Tengah, Kerambitan, Tabanan (Channeler)
2. I Gusti Ngurah Rai, Puri Aseman, Kerambitan, Tabanan (Reads people and gives advice)
3. Pak Jero Purnayasa, Banjar Sayan Baleran, Mengwi, Badung (Unexplained illnesses)
4. Pak Wayan Tirtha, Banjar Tegal, Tegalalang, Gianyar (Balian Usada)
5. Jero Tapakan, Abangan, Tegalalang north of the cemetery, on the east side of the road (Channeler)
6. Jero Mangku Dasaran, Banjar Teges, downtown Gianyar east of the jail (Channeler)
7. Pak Bejug (Pak Dug ), Banjar Kedewatan, Ubud, Gianyar (Muscle and bone ailments)
8. Jero Mangku Nyoman Sudri, Banjar Abian Tubuh, Kesiman, Denpasar (Channeler)
9. Jero Mangku Bajra, Banjar Batan Poh, Sanur, Denpasar (Purification)
10. Nyoman Sumiarta (Nyoman Ata) Jalan Kepundung Gang XI, Denpasar (Mystical illnesses, spells)
11. Pak Ketut Suwitra of Munduk can be booked through Puri Lumbung Hotel in Munduk (Massages, gastrointestinal-related problems)

The following Balians require appointments:
1. Jero Mangu Gede Puspa, Desa Nongan near Besakih (Cancer, removing spells, mystical illnesses) tel: 081237033676 2. Pak Made Partha, Banjar Bantan Buah 30 minutes from Ubud (Sports injuries, sprains, bones, back problems) 081338430224
3. Ibu Jero Nesa, Jalan Batur Sari, Bet Ngandang, Sanur (Channeler, purification, mystical illnesses, possession and for those who hear voices) 0361287234
4. Cokorda Bagus Astawa, Banjaar Mukti, Singapadu, Gianyar 081338533037 weekends only (Reading people, mystical illnesses)
5. Pak Sirkus Banjar Tegal-Gundal, Kuta Utara Tel 0361739538 (Bones, muscles)
6. Pak Ketut Gading of Peliatan, Ubud Tel 0361970770 (Broken bones, muscular problems; does house calls)
7. Pak Man (Nyoman ) of Tampaksiring, who relocated to Ubud Tel 081338935369 (An energy healer/taksu who uses massage with medicated oil)
Cokorda Rai, now 80, has retired I have myself been treated by several Balians, and visited others in company with Surya. I've watched Balians cure stress and depression-related issues, chronic back and knee problems, headaches and many other maladies. There is certainly magic at work here, in company with learning, intuition and the profound ambient energies of this remarkable island. If you choose to experience it, please do so with the respect it deserves.

For more information about Healing Arts Study Tours with Surya,
visit or or contact him directly at

Keeping Bali's Herbal Heritage Green

by Ibu Cat, ©2004

Long before the Balinese starting popping Panadol and antibiotics, they had been dosing themselves with traditional herbal remedies from their fields and forests. They knew that turmeric and neem had natural antiseptic properties, cloves could be chewed for toothache or to kill intestinal parasites, gota kola leaves were good for fevers, headaches, memory and skin ailments, and unripe guava fruit for diarrhea.

Obat Asli Bali, or the healing herbs of Bali, has been mostly an oral tradition. For hundreds of years, healers and herbalists passed down information by word of mouth to their children and students. But in the last couple of generations there have been fewer and fewer young people interested in mastering this body of traditional knowledge. The same is true in many other parts of Indonesia, where knowledge and understanding of traditional plants is dying out as quickly as the plants themselves are disappearing in the face of rampant development.

Many of the potent medicines the West takes for granted were developed from herbs. Lymphatic cancer is treated with a derivative of the Madagascar periwinkle. Opium poppies give us morphine, still the drug of choice for pain control. Digitalis is derived from foxgloves, aspirin from willow bark - the list goes on for pages. And yet the healing potential of most of the world's plants is still largely unexplored. Who knows whether Bali's herbs may contain magic bullets for cancer, heart disease and other ills?

A young couple near Ubud have committed themselves to help keep the tradition of Obat Asli Bali alive. Westi and Lilir met at a guiding course about four years ago and quickly discovered that they had a garden of things in common. Lilir's mother and father were, among other things, healers and herbalists and relied heavily on traditional remedies for their brood of 11 children. Westi's parents were farmers who remembered how much healthier the soil was before chemical farming became widespread. They were both inspired to use their position as guides to help preserve Bali's unique indigenous heritage. They felt that one way of doing this was to teach tourists about local medicines and plants.

After they met, Westi often spent his evenings poring over books on herbs, deeply involved in qualifying himself to teach others about Bali's living pharmacy. He asked endless questions, picked specimens for identification by elders, and researched the Balinese, Latin, Indonesian and English names of healing plants.

"I became deeply interested in herbal remedies," he says now. "My father thought I was crazy at the time - he couldn't see the value in it. But he was quite knowledgeable about herbs and I spent some time learning from him before he died. Now I study with three traditional healers, but they are also very old. There is a real danger that this wisdom will die out if it is not recorded."

Together with local Yaysan Anak Bahagia, Lilir and Westi helped to write an illustrated manuscript on Balinese healing herbs which is now almost complete. They hope it will be published this year.

About 12 years ago Lilir was working as a pembantu with Melanie Templar, who has lived in Bali for 14 years. Melanie became fascinated with herbs, and started to work with D'ayu Suci, Lilir and other friends to develop products from them. In 1997 Utama Spice was established to bring herbal products rooted in Asian tradition to the world.

Utama Spice has now grown into a company that works with other local producers and herbal businesses such as Bali Asli to develop new products. The company directly employs 15 staff and about 15 others indirectly. Westi is one of these, making herbal aromatic candles for Utama Spice. His family help supply the company with organic herbs.

"Utama Spice is a fair trade company," says Melanie. "This means living and working together harmoniously by caring for each other, our planet and its resources. We've done a great deal of research in developing our products, which contain no chemical additives. Most producers of 'natural' products in Bali are using synthetics in natural packaging. There are actually very few people doing pure, natural herbal products in Bali."

Utama Spice is proud to be among these. The first product was a massage oil made according to traditional Balinese methods. They then experimented with a formula for a natural incense without sandalwood, which is endangered. They have also come up with a unique glue to hold the herb powder to the incense stick. "Now our range includes a natural insect repellent, candles made from coconut wax and tree resins, bath and massage salts based on sea salt with plant extracts, body scrubs made with local healing tubers and many more products for home and spa."

All but 5% of the ingredients are sourced in Indonesia, and it is the company's long-term vision to grow all the herbs it needs through local farmers' cooperatives. The goal is to be as organic as possible, "But it's hard to be organic when the subak upstream is using chemicals," Melanie sighs.

Lilir and Westi, now both qualified guides, offer 'Herb Walks in Bali', a 3-4 hour journey of exploration through Ubud's rice terraces and ravines which Melanie helped them develop. Along the way, walkers are introduced to the wealth of natural herbal remedies that grow in the fields, and refreshed by traditional Balinese snacks. Westi is also learning Japanese in order to broaden the scope of their clientele.

"Foreigners can play a valuable role in strengthening human resources in Bali so that people can develop the skills needed to manage their own businesses," Melanie points out. Lilir is now director of Utama Spice, and Westi proudly produces organic herbs and continues to research his book, proving that entrepreneurship can mix very comfortably with tradition.

For more information on Herb Walks in Bali or to place an order for 'Healing Herbs of Bali', please contact Westi or Lilir at (0361) 975051 /081 2393 0408 or by email at

For information on Utama Spice (PT Supa Dupa Spice) products, call (0361) 975051 between 9 - 5 or email

If you are interested in taking part in trials of an herbal anti-flea / mite oil for pets, ask to speak to Melanie at the above number between 2 - 5 pm or contact her through

Copyright © 2001 Greenspeak

Magic On The Mountain

by Ibu Cat, ©2004

High in the mountains between Bangli and Kintamani lies a village which is not really called Bintang Kaja. Approaching it, we drive through tidier, more prosperous villages. Bougainvillea and alamanda spill over garden walls, rice dries by the side of the road and the children are chubby. Then as we drive higher, the scenery changes. The fields of crops are behind us now. The villages are poorer and less well-tended. There are few flower gardens, no rice drying. The children and dogs are thinner here.

The faces of these people are very different to those from the south of Bali – lean, weathered, slightly wild. Bintang Kaja straggles along the edge of an ancient caldera. Often a light mist rises from the valleys on either side, giving it an other-worldly, slightly out of focus effect. The eruption of nearby Mt. Agung in 1963 reduced the quality of the soil and changed the course of the river that ran near the village; since then, the people haven't been able to grow rice or most kinds of vegetables. Many subsist on leaves, what fruit they can grow and ketela, a kind of root vegetable that offers little nourishment. They tend a few straggling coffee and cocoa trees and some salak and jackfruit as cash crops, but these generate pathetically little income. Other than a few who moved to Denpasar for work, most villagers farm the few crops. There are two silversmiths in Bintang Kaja, but since the bombing in Kuta they have nothing to do. The only other activity is wood-carving. Several of the village men are engaged in producing the tall wooden cats one sees everywhere. We visit a couple of carvers and watch them work. Who buys the cats? Well, no one has been around for a long time. They are not filling orders, just building up stock for an agent who may never arrive. The carvers can each make two cats a day. When they can sell them, they earn Rp 6,000 per cat, but half of this goes to pay for the wood. The wood itself is a kind of pine that is cut and brought in from elsewhere. It's so wet the carvers practically hack the shapes out of it. The cats at the bottom of the pile are already beginning to deteriorate.

The touchstone for this community is a radiant woman named Ibu Jero. She's a powerful balian, a healer who draws clients from as far away as Java. Jero presides over a neat new compound, provided by grateful clients and friends, where people queue up with baskets of offerings for healing sessions. The small cash and food donations they bring are used to support Jero and the young people who help her and turn to her for both spiritual and physical nourishment. Jero also uses the money she receives to buy rice, and other food and medicines for those villagers who can't afford it. She is consumed with compassion and despair for her people. They are proud, they want to work. She struggles to support them in many different ways in the face of their bleak future, beaming positivity.

Enter a foreign woman who for the purposes of this narrative shall be called Nyoman Weda. A healer who has lived in Bali for many years, she met Jero just before the October bombings in Kuta. The two women became close friends, and Nyoman began to visit Bintang Kaja several times a week, bringing Balinese and Western friends for healings. Then, when she became aware of Jero's despair over the dire economic situation in the village, she gave Jero sacks of rice and money for medicine and doctors to help out the villagers, but handouts weren't the answer. She and Jero spent hours discussing the situation and trying to come up with ideas that would start the village on a path to self-sufficiency, if not actual prosperity. Then... together Jero and Nyoman, herself a vortex of positive energy, began to spin magic out of the clear sky above Bintang Kaja.Two months ago, Nyoman wrote an impassioned letter to her friends and family, who responded with enough seed money to purchase eight sewing machines and some fabric. Two of Jero's young cousins came from Bangli to live at Jero's house and teach sewing. A tiny back room in the compound has become an ad hoc workshop. The machines are crammed into that little room and into an alleyway next to the kitchen, and the cloth is cut on the balcony outside. Now the pretty, laughing teenagers who help out in Jero's compound, yet have much idle time, are learning to assemble simple garments, intently finishing seams and cutting out patterns. Their enthusiasm is boundless; they work hard and learn quickly, thrilled to have real work to do. An established clothing designer has sent her tailors to the village to teach the girls to cut and sew. Nyoman cast about for local sewing projects, then decided to draw on her own past experience in the rag trade. She's now designing eye-catching garments for export, and is confident that she can keep the orders coming in. Her intention is to guide and train them to run their own sewing business.

The next initiative was born when Nyoman met Kees, a Dutch agronomist who was looking for places in Bali to raise ornamental plants for export. Nyoman took a deep breath and she and Jero contracted 44 are of land adjacent to Jero's compound. After the water and composting systems are installed, they, along with Kees, will organize working groups among the villagers and teach them to look after the plants until they're large enough for Kees to buy back. Nyoman and Jero hopes this will inspire villagers to grow these plants on their own land. Some of Nyoman's and Jero's new land has been set aside for a building for the sewing group, which now numbers 2 teachers and 9 students, ages 12 to 21. She's now looking for the money to build them a simple, workshop with enough space and light to work comfortably, and store the cloth and sewing machines securely. On my last visit, Jero is electric with excitement. She leads us onto the land and Nyoman and I follow, laughing, as she points out the new 'edible' fence that is made from bamboo and vegetable trees. She shows us where the fruit trees will go, the workshop, the water tank, the flower garden. There are so many ideas in the air now – new concepts for cash crops, value-added designs for the wood carvers, more projects for the tailors, training... "Hopefully more people will join us in what we are doing," says Ibu Jero.

"They can add to the energy with building materials, skills, money, ideas..."

There's a new dynamism in Bintang Kaja these days. The inspiration of two remarkable women has created the space and potential for something wonderful to grow. What's happening here is much more than the sum of its parts, and everyone can feel it. There's excitement in the air. All the people in the little village are moving ahead on its momentum, moving a little higher, a little closer to self-sufficiency. If reading this has touched something in you, get in touch. Maybe you can be part of the magic at Bintang Kaja.

Copyright © 2003 Greenspeak

Cuisine Unseen

You can tuck into all kinds of different food in Ubud – fusion, Greek, vegan, Japanese, Italian, Padang, French or Indian. But the search for authentic Balinese food usually dead-ends at overpriced smoked duck with all the trimmings at 24 hours notice. Smoked duck is divine, but it's hardly everyday fare.

Why is the local cuisine so elusive? Janet de Neefe's book Fragrant Rice, recounts her passionate love affair with its aromas, tastes and textures and reminds us that preparing it is a slow labour of love. There's no written history of Balinese cuisine, no ancient recipes handed down on the lontars. Pungent, savoury and multi-dimensional, the distinctive dishes were passed down the generations by word of mouth. It's also very labour-intensive. Traditionally the spice mixtures are blended in a stone mortar with a pestle, meat is minced finely, vegetables are reduced to microscopic dimensions and all ingredients are mixed by hand. Short cuts don't seem to work. Wayan was delighted with a new blender but we both found that the Balinese food didn't taste the same; the flavours were too homogeneous, less distinct. We soon went back to the mortar and the blender is gathering dust under the sink.

Most dishes are built around a bumbu or spice paste, and I'm intrigued that so many basic bumbu ingredients also serve as medicines in their own right. Garlic crushed in hot water with lemon juice and honey treats colds and flu, and the raw bulbs swallowed whole combat intestinal parasites. Ginger is taken for indigestion and nausea. Turmeric is known to be a potent natural antiseptic and antibiotic, whether taken internally or applied to the skin. The juice (popularly known as jamu) is taken as a general tonic and for menstrual pain. Kencur, a related rhizome, is ground with rice and water to make boreh, a paste that is applied to the head and body for fever. Lemongrass and onions cool the body and tamarind purifies the blood. The chili arrived in Bali fairly recently, some time after the Portuguese brought it to India in the 16th century. It contains capsaicin, which releases endorphins (the body's natural painkillers) and thus reduces stress. Chili also thins the blood and speeds the metabolism. Ground to a paste in the mortar, the bumbu is an amazing amalgam of flavours as well as a formidable pharmacy for the diner's wellbeing.

There are some interesting parallels with other cuisines. The ancient Romans valued a seasoning they called garam or liquamen. (In Indonesian, garam is salt.) This mixture of fish or shellfish and salt (to inhibit bacterial growth) was left in an earthenware pot in the sun for several months until a clear golden liquid could be drawn from it. This singular liquid somehow found its way to Vietnam and Thailand where it's widely used today under the names of nam pla and nuoc mam. The residue was compressed and dried into a hideously pungent block and by a similar mysterious route arrived in Indonesia where it is known as terasi udang. Minute slices of this noxious seasoning are roasted and added to the bumbu, which does not seem to suffer from the addition.

While I was in the pantry curling up my nose over the household jar of terasi, Wayan volunteered that the Balinese made a different, even stronger variation from rotted garden snails which is called terasi hitam. "It smells very bad when you're making it but if you add just a little bit, the food is delicious,"she insisted. Who on earth dreamed that one up?

Another menu item favoured by many Balinese is blood. "You can boil it or fry it," Wayan instructs. "Not in this house," I demur. Blood is a key ingredient in lawar, a ceremonial food prepared by men. If offered lawar, it may be strategic to enquire whether it is lawar merah (with blood) or lawar putih (bloodless). Blood has been a traditional food for nomads through history, requiring no packaging or cooking if taken in small amounts from the living animal. The Irish ate blood boiled with milk, butter and herbs. In France in the 1890s, ladies would drop by the local slaughterhouse for a bracing glass of fresh blood. Blood sausage is still popular today.

Since we were on the subject of interesting food, I asked Wayan if she had ever eaten dog. "I don't really know," she admitted. "I'm not brave enough to try it. But sometimes if you're sick, people will give it to you to make you strong and tell you it's cow meat." As an afterthought, she added, "People who donate blood and feel weak should drink dog's blood."

As everywhere else, people in Bali are busy these days. Many women are too busy to cook from scratch. The shift from traditional foods to white bread, processed food, instant noodles and the ubiquitous fried rice have had a dramatic negative impact on the health of the Balinese.

Largely unknown to the outside world, Balinese food is appetizing and unique. There are several cooking schools in Ubud, the newest of which offers an excellent two-day hands-on immersion course into the Balinese cuisine. Ibu Iluh, the teacher, hails from North Bali and brings with her several unusual regional recipes. The dishes have been selected to be easily replicable in Western kitchens, with alternative measurements and ingredients. Currently the course is offered in conjunction with a 3-night stay at the Secret Garden in Penestanan. Details from <>.

(If you're really craving smoked duck, your pembantu can probably get it from her village for about Rp 35,000.)

You can read all past articles of Greenspeak at BaliAdvertiser

Copyright © 2004 Greenspeak

Bali At Prayer

by Ibu Cat, ©2004

Anthropologists marvel at the adherence of Balinese Hindus to their faith in the face of overwhelming exposure to Western 'culture'. The Balinese seem to have a unique ability to live in both worlds, to enjoy outside influences while maintaining the connection to spirit, ritual and the integral thread of religion that is so deeply woven into their community.

The same tattooed kids with streaked hair who strum old Elvis hits on their guitars on the street can be found a few hours later in full ceremonial gear playing the gamelan in street processions and queuing at the neighborhood temple to pray. Little prayers decorate doorsills, sidewalks, walls and computers. Prayers flutter from tall bamboo poles, rooflines and cars. There are special days and prayers for books and metal objects. When Kasey went missing last week, Wayan made a special prayer for lost dogs and he instantly reappeared after a 14-hour absence. She was not at all surprised.

Prayer is as much a part of everyday life as breathing and bathing and preparing a meal. It must be among a child's earliest memories — the scent of incense, the sound of temple bells, the sight of orderly rows of people with heads bowed and hands outstretched as they wait for the flicker of holy water from the priest. Toddlers follow their mothers on offering rounds, making graceful gestures with their tiny hands. Later they will learn to weave dozens of kinds of offerings, to perform the old dances, to move with confidence between the ornate instruments of the gamelan. It's all a form of prayer. The Balinese have no terms of reference for people who don't pray; they are beyond all understanding.

For two years I was an observer of Bali at prayer, admiring the regal women filing by with towers of fruit on their glossy heads, watching convoys of trucks packed with pilgrims roaring into the mountains or down to the sea. Then last year my staff sat me down with the dictionary and explained that someone had died in a traffic accident on the road leading to a friend's house where I had been spending a lot of time. They wanted me to come and pray at the temple nearby, and were so relieved when I agreed that I understood there was probably some subtext involved too subtle to be explained.

Since then, from time to time, they've asked me to pray with them on special days or at special temples. I'm honored to join them.

Once we went to a village temple where, after praying, we joined the community to watch a concert given by the children who were studying the traditional dances. There was the usual interminable wait, punctuated by small, exquisite children peeking at the audience through the curtains. The night air vibrated with the aroma of grilling satay, the perfume of temple flowers, the ringing of the prayer bell. Everyone was dressed in their best, down to the tiniest children. We sat on our shoes on the concrete floor of the wantilan. Babies slumbered across batik laps, plump dogs checked out the bungkus wrappers and one little boy howled in terror every time he looked at me.

Finally, the performance began. Two gamelans played alternately, and the brilliantly painted and costumed children performed remarkably well. There was no applause. The villagers of all ages watched each dance intently, as they must have done for generations.

I was struck by the timelessness of Balinese culture. Outside the wantilan it was the year 2003, complete with a global economy, microcomputers and space travel. Inside, it was 1903, or 1703. Apart from the electric light, the scene was as it had always been. Then when the dancing finished, people got into their Kijangs or mounted motorbikes and went home to watch video movies. The Bali paradox is alive and well.

Last week I went to Besakih for the first time. Nyoman and Wayan had of course been many times but this was to be the first visit for their children, aged 3 and 5. I picked them up at their compound before 7 in the morning. The journey had the flavour of a family outing from my childhood, complete with complicated preparations, an early start and excited children. The car was duly blessed and we loaded it with snacks, offering baskets and water and then tucked our appropriately attired selves into the battered little Suzuki.

It was a glorious morning. We drove up into the mountains, through village gardens dappled with sunlight. The crisp profile of Mount Agung dominated the horizon. Wayan handed round fruit and homemade tamarind sweets and pointed out the lakes and volcanoes to Putu and Kadek. In one place, a rather disturbed gentleman clad only in a pair of tattered pink knickers and with a hibiscus behind each ear stood shaking his fist at the traffic. "Orang gila," said Nyoman cheerfully.

In an hour we are at the Batur temple. Although it's still early, the prayer enclosure is already crowded. We sit on our sandals on the cold concrete, waiting to pray. The air is crisp here and the children have never been so cool. They keep touching their skin with puzzled expressions. "Like AC outside," notes Wayan. Some women are wearing jackets over their flimsy lace kebayas. We pray, find the car again and retrace our way along Batur's spectacular volcanic lip on our way to Besakih.

I'd been hearing for years about the massive crowds that gather to pray at the Mother Temple. The parking lots begin a long way from the entrance, and Wayan tells me that she has spent as long as 12 hours here, waiting to pray. We are lucky today, the parking lots are still empty. Dividing the load of a heavy offering basket and two children between us, we make our way up the hill past hundreds of little warungs selling toys and snacks. I offer to carry the basket at one point and manage for about 100 yards before allowing Wayan to reclaim it. It's very heavy, the sun is hot and the stairs go straight up. All around me are women coping with big baskets on their heads, babies on their hips and leading toddlers by the hand, unfazed.

Nyoman leads us up the stairs and along a labyrinth of passages off to the right into a private clan temple. I learn later that there are dozens of these little oases in Besakih, dedicated to certain castes and areas of Bali , where prayers are offered before joining the crowds of pilgrims in the temple below.

This small temple is magical – a pocket garden of grass hedged with flowers, its ancient bales finely carved, a pot of water lilies in the corner. We light our incense at a special flame. The priest smiles kindly. There is only a handful of people there besides our little group. We sit on the cool grass with the offerings and incense before us and Kadek settles into my lap. Ritually we cleanse our hands in the smoke before raising them to pray. The next prayers are made with blossoms between our fingers, the final one with empty hands again. Then the priest blesses us with holy water. We drink it from our cupped hands, bless ourselves with it, and press grains of rice to our foreheads and throats.

The ancient carvings of the little temple stand in stark relief against the clear blue of the sky. Penjors snap overhead. Divine energy bathes the air around us. We sit quietly, sharing a scared time and place. Down in the parking lot it is the year 2003. Here, it is as it has always been.

Copyright © 2003 Greenspeak

Endangered Textiles

by Ibu Cat, ©2004

We pull on our clothes every morning without a thought for the thousands of years of learning that lie behind that ordinary cotton shirt or woven scarf. But the textiles that clothe us and decorate our homes evolved through eons of research and expertise.

It's a toss-up whether the world's first industry was pottery or weaving. As soon as Ibu Homo Sapiens figured out that cooked food and warm garments made life a lot more comfortable, she began to experiment with the raw materials around her to devise cooking vessels and clothing. The results live on in many pockets of Indonesia.

There's no record of the complex skills and techniques involved in locating the right kind of fibre and then spinning, dying and weaving it into an intricate cloth. The tropical climate and voracious insect life of Indonesia doesn't permit the survival of fragile textiles beyond a few generations. But when spun threads and woven cotton were found in a dry, 4,000 year old tomb in Mongolia , the textiles were still in good condition and natural dyes still vibrant.

The East Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia is a cradle of expertise in complicated dying and weaving techniques. Its ikats are fiendishly complex in strategy and construction, with many taking years to complete. Women weave the fabric of their societies both literally and figuratively. Along with the physical threads, they hold in their hands is the threads of their culture. The weavings' motifs are rich in cultural lore, ceremony and tradition. Many are still used as bride-wealth and in ceremonies for house raisings and funerals.

"Tying, dying and weaving a textile over many years brings a lot of life-force energy to the piece," says textile expert Made Lolet, who has been studying Indonesian dying and weaving for years. "The finished textiles hold a lot of power."

Young women today aren't interested in spending years producing a single piece of cloth, leaving that labour-intensive task to their mothers and grandmothers. But as the older women die, the rich tradition of spinning, tying, dying and weaving ritual textiles in this country will probably disappear within a generation.

There's another reason the traditional weaving has been laid aside. The ripple effect of Indonesia's monetary crisis that began in 1997 soon reached even the remote shores of East Nusa Tenggara. The impact would have been slight a generation ago in these communities where barter economies were the norm. Barter is still common, but now people need cash to send their children off-island for schooling and to purchase essential commodities. Not only have the women begun to sell their traditional ritual textiles for much-needed cash, they are now too busy producing cheap weavings for both the tourist and local markets to create the time-consuming heritage textiles. The market demand is for cheap, small weavings using chemical dyes and pre-spun fibre.

Threads of Life, an Ubud-based organization, was created in 1998 to sustain the traditional textile arts of Indonesia and to educate the world's crafts markets about the true value of these unique textiles. It has become a remarkable little centre of excellence that helps keep East Nusa Tenggara's natural dying and weaving traditions alive.

Balinese staff members of Threads of Life visit remote communities on a two-fold mission. They interview the weavers to collect data on the traditional techniques used to spin, tie, dye and weave the textiles, and they commission the women to create new pieces of museum quality for sale to collectors. The women are paid a deposit to sustain them during the long process of producing the textiles, and the balance when the cloth is delivered. This recognition of and reward for creating traditional textiles is now bringing young women back to the dying vats and the looms.

The intricate process of creating a traditional textile is almost unbelievably labour-intensive. The fibres are selected, spun, placed on a frame, then meticulously bundled and tied off to create the desired pattern. The weaver does this by imagining the three dimensions of the entire finished piece as she ties each group of threads to resist the dye.

Then natural dyes are collected and processed according to jealously-held secret recipes. The indigo bush produces blue and the tiba tree produces red tones. Another wood brings a tan colour to the spectrum, and brown is derived from roots and mud. This is the full palette of the traditional weaver, who adjusts the tones according to the length of time and number of trips to the dye vat.

Threads of Life has created a Textile Arts Centre in Ubud, with an Educational Studio demonstrating each step of the intricate dying and weaving process, as well as displaying textiles for sale and an engaging collection of photographs taken on the various trips to the islands. Classes are offered periodically on textile appreciation and natural dye techniques, with delicious Balinese food available from the Rumah RODA Restaurant above the Centre.

Baliphiles will be delighted to find several characters from Williams Ingram's book "A Little Bit One O'Clock" playing active roles in the Threads of Life initiative. Made Lolet, Made Pung and Wayan Weti are deeply inspired by the depth of knowledge and commitment demonstrated by the women they work with in Flores, West Timor, Lembata, Sumba, Sulawesi and Bali . They are helping to gather a virtual encyclopaedia of research on traditional techniques, natural dyes and motifs in East Nusa Tenggara.

The work of Threads of Life sustains this ancient tradition in village-based development projects that address women's issues, poverty alleviation, micro-finance needs, and environmental and cultural sustainability. The crafts market is informed through the activities of the Textile Arts Centre in Bali and overseas exhibitions. As this article goes to press, an exhibition of commissioned textiles is being prepared for the Mary Place Gallery in Sydney , Australia , between July 22 and August 2.

Like so many valuable activities in Indonesia , this initiative depends on donations and the sale of textiles by the weavers supported by Threads of Life. Ideas for funding or new concepts to sustain tradition textiles are warmly welcomed.

Visit the Textile Arts Centre at Jalan Kajeng 24 in Ubud, visit the website at or contact the Centre directly at

Copyright © 2003 Greenspeak

Balians and Snake Oil

by Ibu Cat, ©2004

I avoid the medical profession on the principal that doctors always seem to find something wrong me when I go to see them, and I'm perfectly well when I don't. We treat minor physical malfunctions ourselves. My garden is punctuated with plants to treat everything from fever to wasp stings and mental sluggishness, the pantry is lined with jars of infused oils and home-made tinctures.

Wayan is delighted with this do-it-yourself attitude and constantly adds to our pharmacopoeia. When I get a cold, she plasters me in pungent pastes and presents me with slimy green drinks. When she starts to sniffle, I bombard her with Vitamin C and Echinacea. It all seems to work.

In between home remedies and the standard medical profession lies the gray area of what my father used to call the 'Snake Oil Men'. For centuries, if not millennia, this subculture has sold mysterious patent medicines for what seem to be mankind's three major embarrassments: baldness, hemorrhoids and sexual dysfunction.

The Javanese equivalent of Viagra was recently brought to my attention during an Indonesian language lesson. It was a particularly grueling class in which our young teacher was trying hard to help us understand the tricky verb prefixes. We had just read a simple story about bus schedules when one of her more unruly students pulled out a recent copy of the Bali Post and asked her to translate an ad. It featured a photo of a grim looking granny and some text with exclamation marks.

Ketut welcomed alternative learning tools and encouraged lively discussions about all kinds of things. On this occasion she shifted seamlessly from transitive verbs to penile enhancement as she helped us put our newly acquired language skills to use.

"Memperbesar... to make bigger. Memperpanjang... to make longer." Those damn verb prefixes were starting to pay off. "Sampai 15 - 20 cm." Penny pulled a tape measure from her purse; Americans still think in inches. "Ejakulasi dini... the only thing that is early in Indonesia," explained Ketut. This was a lot more engaging than bus schedules. "This medicine is effective for all religions. Free sample!" Impotensi was clear, but what was dll? There were several of these ads, all with photos of unsmiling men and women which were probably meant to be reassuring. Prices ranged from Rp 400,000 to 600,000.

A whole new world was opening up. We scanned the other pages, alerted to what was evidently a major industry. Quite a lot of advertising rupiah were dedicated to this very subject. Here was another big ad for Renaissance Oil, Formula Special for Men, Imported, featuring a large picture of a charging bull. It promised the usual improvements to dimensions and performance. ("Snake Oil," I could hear my father snort.) So did Cina Oil, the ad for which included quite a few words that were not in the dictionary and some that were ambivalent. Kencing, for instance, can mean urine, kidney stones, blood in the urine, sexual intercourse or to be urinated upon. Indonesian can be a very tricky language, and you'd want to be sure of your prefixes before you embarked on a discussion of this nature.

When I got home I showed the ad to Wayan and Nyoman, who viewed it with casual interest. "Oh yes, I've seen this on the television." Good grief. "It's usual for rich people, but not for Balinese," Wayan enlightened me.

"These people just want money," said Nyoman. "They promise, but it's just big talk, not true. It's for the Javanese. If the Balinese have this problem, they go to the dukun and pay Rp 10,000." Of course, the Balinese had to have the last word and get a better price as well.

(All this thinking had made me tired and I went to lie down. When I woke up, I found that Wayan had finished all my homework about bus schedules. "We learn this in elementary school," she explained kindly.)

For stress and depression, I swear by a visit to Cokorda Rai. A friend took me to see him after a terrifying house fire left me depressed and off balance, a disagreeable condition later diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I certainly felt out of order. The wise old man looked at me, then at the air around me, then palpated my skull rather urgently. After that I lay down on a woven mat as he took a sharpened twig and poked under my toes. "Heart, liver, spleen," he murmured as he prodded. There was no discomfort. "Kidneys, lungs..." Suddenly I arched my back and squealed in pain. "Ah," he intoned. "The Story Body is sick."

It was interesting to learn that the mind was considered a physical organ like any other and to be found on the same menu, so to speak. Western medicine puts them in completely different restaurants. But Cok Rai said, "Your mind is frightening your body. And..." he glanced around my head, "... there are tears in your aura; I can see the colors leaking out. I will fix it." And he did. A few minutes later when he poked the same spot with the pointed stick, there was no pain at all. I immediately felt much better, and was quickly back to normal. I've taken several people to see him since then, all with the same results. A major mental tune-up with no medication, all for Rp 30,000. ("Expensive," points out Wayan. "Cheaper for Balinese.")

So we try a little of this, a little of that. Working in the garden one day when I had houseguests, Nyoman was stung by a scorpion and we brought together the accumulated wisdom of our various cultures to treat him. Whether it was the paste of crushed limestone, the urine, the antihistamine, the ice or the Reiki, within an hour the pain and swelling had disappeared. Or maybe it was the Snake Oil...

You can read all past articles of Greenspeak at

Copyright © 2004 Greenspeak
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