More lovely sights around Amed, Bali. A post with few words.
The tourist area known as Amed refers to a long stretch of coast in the North East of Bali, running from Culik, a traditional Balinese village located inland, and incorporating seven locations along the coast, Amed, Jemeluk, Bunutan, Lipah, Selang Banyuning and Aas.
Amed is the most recent district to be developed specifically for tourism in Bali. Over the last 20 years it has become a major diving venue and is very popular with French tourists and younger backpackers. Until recent times, Amed was one of the poorest areas in Bali. Local industries centered around fishing and salt farming- the land near the coast being too dry and unsuitable for farming. Kadek, our homestay host, happily chatted about the old days in ‘Amed’. His grandfather, like most other Balinese from the inland villages near Amed and Culik, owned a small plot of land on the sea which was used for salt harvesting by hand, a labour intensive process with very poor returns. Family members also went fishing during the dry season, and eked out a living with one cow and a few vegetables during the wet season. Most of the salt was bought by a large conglomerate from Denpasar each season. It was hand harvested and cured in hollowed out coconut tree trunks. There are still a few salt farmers today, including the central government run farm on the coast near the Amed end of the tourist strip.
Kadek built his first two homestay rooms on this small parcel of land 5 years ago, then added two larger rooms recently. Along with the income from running this accommodation, which is limited to the dry season, Kadek is a master dive instructor, driver, and fisherman. Kadek’s multi -tasking life is fairly typical of the other Balinese people along this strip. One morning at 7 am, Kadek purchased two tuna from one of the incoming fishing boats: he invited us to a beach BBQ that evening. The BBQ tuna had a wonderful smoky taste, and was served with sambal matar, rice and stir fried vegetables. During the day, various family members kept an eye on the business as he drove other tourists to visit the nearby water palace and temples inland.
We stayed in the area between Amed and Jemeluk, a three kilometre section of this funky paradise. As the purpose of my visit was to be closer to Mt Agung, Bali’s sacred mountain, this section of the coast, which faced north, provided a constant view of Agung to the west. I woke at dawn to the presence of the holy mountain emerging from the morning haze, and gazed in awe each evening at sunset, as Agung donned his more dramatic night cloak of cobalt and indigo, a divine and auspicious presence appearing to rise directly from the sea. Gunung Agung is 3031 metres high and viewed from Amed, it appears perfectly conical in shape.
Most tourists come to Amed to dive or snorkel. There are numerous ‘plongée‘ (diving) companies along the road- and most of these are signed in French as well as English, offering accredited courses in diving. Other tourist activities include early morning fishing trips, run by a local fisherman in traditional Jukung fishing boats- you keep your catch to bring home and BBQ at your homestay – as well as free diving, yoga and snorkeling off the beach, especially at Jemeluk. Mr T enjoyed his snorkeling at Jemeluk where the fish took a fancy to him, while I declined, deciding that the current and breaking waves were not conducive to happy snorkeling. Kadek explained that the sea is usually much calmer and less cloudy at this time of year, but the full moon created these stronger currents, and, due to some recent cremations, some of the ancestral spirits were still uneasy and had not yet been released into their next life, causing rougher water than usual. Hinduism informs everything in Bali and it doesn’t take long to appreciate that what appears to be an element of animism within Balinese Hinduism goes much deeper: a spirituality based on learning from the environment around you. I was happy to hang out on the day bed on my balcony and read, under the presence of my mountain friend.
The atmosphere in Amed is laid back and there are still many reminders of old 1980s Bali, with a prevalence of smaller homestay accommodation options, fish BBQs on the beach, and jappels ( jaffles or toasties) on some menus. The warungs serve delicious food, especially local fish, such as Mahi- Mahi, Barracouta, and Tuna, which come simply grilled, accompanied with rice and urab– a Balinese vegetable dish. There appears to be a height restriction in place and most of the tourist businesses ( accommodation, restaurants, diving companies, small supermarkets) are small in size, as they have replaced the tiny sea front family salt farms. You won’t find much in the way of traditional Balinese culture along this strip. The Balinese don’t live here- they have never lived directly by the sea. The ritual of morning flowers and incense is sadly missing here, there are no temples, and no gamelan sounds or evidence of ceremony. These Balinese activities would be found in the villages nearby. It is a remarkable tourist locale and one can only hope that it stays small, natural and resort free, and doesn’t develop along the lines of the south- west coast tourist ghetto of Kuta-Legian-Seminyak.
The wealth of Balinese religious ceremony and the calendar of events which structures the life of the Balinese, both religious and lay, is impressive. We wake up early and note that the gardener is working dressed formally in a white udeng (Balinese male head wear), a double layered heavy sarong and a freshly pressed shirt. The young women in the restaurant serving breakfast from 7 am are dressed in tight fitting sarongs, kabaya and sashes, their movement graceful and appearance more curvaceous, as they busily bring trays to their guests. Every month, Balinese dress in ceremonial clothing to celebrate full moon and at some point in the day, they will visit a local or family pura ( temple).
On full moon two days ago, we left Sanur to travel up the east coast of Bali towards Amed, a long drive with many interesting spots along the way. We stopped at Goa Lawah Temple, one of the most important temples in Bali, perhaps second only to Bersakih, the mother temple. Goa Temple translates to bat cave, and it is in this darkened cave that Hindu priests conduct religious ceremonies on a raised platform. Goa Lawah temple was established in the 11th century by Mpu Kuturan, one of the early priests who laid the foundations of Hinduism on the island. It’s a popular stopover for holidaying locals, who arrive with offerings and prayers before continuing their journey. Every month, many Balinese visit the temple for full moon ceremonies, but prior to their visit, they must first walk to the sea opposite, wash their feet and collect holy sea water to sprinkle on themselves, a necessary cleansing ritual before prayer. Every six months, a much larger ceremony is held where Balinese from all over the island will visit for the day. It is a holy shrine, akin to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral or Rome’s Basilica di San Pietro.
Although we came prepared with our own sarongs and scarves, always tucked away in a bag for temple visits, we accepted the sarongs and scarves offered at the entrance gate. These days, the most famous temples charge a small admission price which involves dressing the tourist appropriately in a sarong and scarf: this ensures that tourists will not offend with inappropriate dress, and at the same time, raises funds for the upkeep of the grounds.
Despite this, some tourists offend through their behaviour. Picture this: within the darkened cave, a priest dressed in white makes offerings to the Gods, holy water is sprinkled, bells ring, incense is burning, and basket offerings are laid at the altar. Soon a small black bird will be sacrificed. The locals sit on the ground below, mostly dressed in white and gold, hands raised in prayer. Reverence and auspiciousness can be sensed, understood and respected by most of the tourists who, like me, stand and observe from a distance, taking photos from the rear of the temple. Then, out of nowhere, she arrives: she places herself midst the the faithful who, along with the priest, will form a backdrop to her poses for instagram. This young, ignorant young woman gives tourists a bad name.
The looks on the faces of the Balinese says it all. It is no wonder some Balinese Regencies are considering barring tourists from temples completely. Can you imagine this happening in the middle of a mass, or other religious event in a European church, mosque or synagogue?
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many cremation ceremonies in Bali, from one massive ceremony for a royal prince in Ubud years ago, to the smaller weekly cremations at a nearby temple. Often, you hear a cremation ceremony before you see it- a loud percussion band echos through the nearby streets, alerting all to the procession on its journey to the sea, down to the pura dalem, the temple associated with death. A special ancient instrument called a gambang is only played at cremation ceremonies. A large wooden xylophone with bamboo keys is struck by one band member holding two wooden hammers in each hand. Cremations are dramatic and colourful religious events, and westerners may attend if dressed correctly and maintain a respectful distance from the main family groups.
Last week’s ngaben, Balinese for ashes, was a well planned and anticipated event involving the cremation of around 500 bodies. A madeeng was held the day before the actual burning at the seaside temple. Thousands turned up for madeeng, with everyone dressed in their finest white and gold ceremonial outfits. Above a sea of white umbrellas, below 5000 people either marching or forming guard as it circled three times around the main streets, along the main Bypass road, and then back into the suburb.
A Balinese cremation can be extremely costly. It is important to put on a good show, to impress the spirits but also to maintain prestige in the family and community. For poorer folk who cannot afford $25,000 or more, group cremations are affordable but still very impressive. Bodies are buried for a period- often for two years or more- until the family can save up for a ceremony in conjunction with other families in the banjar or local community.
For foreigners who wish to attend Balinese cremations or preceding events, appropriate dress is essential. The dress code is simple. Women should wear a sleeved tshirt, shirt or lace kabaya, if you happen to have one, and on the bottom, a sarong, tied with a sash or scarf. Men should wear a plain cotton shirt and sarong. If not, long trousers are acceptable, along with a sash. It is important to observe the rituals from a distance and stay away from the actual burning ceremony, and generally not get in the way of the family. Attending a madeeng requires a similar dress code, though this event is not strictly religious, but does form part of the overall ngaben. Despite dressing for the occasion, you’ll still stand out as an oddity. I know Mr T always feels a little ill at ease in his funeral sarong- it’s never really tied properly, and he whips it off as soon as he is away from the ceremony. I wear a modern stretch fabric sarong that isn’t as comfortable as plain wrapped fabric in the midday heat, but at least it stays on and I don’t feel compelled to wear trousers beneath it. Being discreet, respectful and courteous to those around you goes a long way at a ceremony and makes up for your awkward appearance.
Having said, this, there are plenty of tourists who do the wrong thing, mostly through ignorance. Below, this bikini clad woman walks into a Balinese Temple area during a busy cremation ceremony. She continues on her path, determined to get her precious photo. Invariably, it is the European tourist who is completely ignorant and ethno- centric when it comes to Balinese culture, religious ceremony and dress code. For some reason, Europeans find it troublesome to don clothes after the beach. Photo taken, September 2018.
I’m in Bali still, which reminds me of a good song about London. A long stay of about 3 months is only made possible thanks to my beautiful kitchen here, which has become an anchor and refuge, a place to make a comforting meal, making this house a home. It is a galley style kitchen, and came equipped with very few cooking tools. To the existing small saucepan and frying pan, I added a pasta pot and a small wok. It surprises me how little you really need. I did visit a huge kitchenware shop in Denpasar, Dapur Prima, for a peruse, but only bought a jug for my palm sugar syrup, a few heavy spoons, ( I despise Uri Geller light weight spoons), a soup ladle and a grater. Storage containers to hold pantry odds and ends have been re-purposed from empty 2 litre wine casks, ( we have resorted to wine casks, given the price of wine in bottles ) ice cream containers for packets of rice and pasta, along with recycled durable brown paper bags to store a few potatoes. This takes me back to the sensible way we re-used most of these items in the 70s and 80s, before kitchenware became a fashion accessory. We used large wine cask boxes to store files and magazines, often nicely covered in wrapping paper for teaching topic notes, ice-cream containers for oddments in the pantry or for pegs in the laundry, and if we were lucky enough to buy wine in bottles, we would take them to the Scout bottle dump, where they would be sold to raise funds. A crate of lemonade in bottles was delivered occasionally in summer, then swapped when the next load was ordered. Newspaper and cardboard went to the Australian Paper Mills in Alphington to be recycled. Little plastic pots were used for plant cuttings, glass jars used for chutney and jams or for shed storage of nuts, bolts and seeds. Old suits and clothes were made into children’s overalls – my three children wore these when crawling about on our brick floors. Handmade clothes were seen as more desirable than a piece of junk from Target. Recycling, re-purposing and re-using was a natural practice then, but now the need has become more urgent. A new generation needs to learn the ropes in this throw away era, while the older generation needs to re-acquire the values and practices it once held so dear. I hope to start afresh when I return to Australia and attempt to move closer to zero waste.
Apart from a country wide ban on single use plastic bags, Indonesia, and Bali in particular, has a scheme in place for collecting plastic bottles and cans. I save mine for one of the collectors at the beach. See Plastic bank in Indonesia. Over the past few years, I’ve often met an ancient woman, poor and dressed in a faded tattered sarong and white shirt, walking up and down the beach path all day, rifling through rubbish bins, dragging a huge bag of rubbish behind her. She is a street recycler and is part of the local scheme that offers a cash incentive for returning plastic bottles and cans. When her bag is full, she takes it to one of the plastic banks a couple of kilometers away, and then returns to start another round. Her toothless smile is radiant, as she greets us with a selamat siang /sore ( good afternoon). I find her enchanting, beautiful and her energy amazes me. I sometimes wait around on the beach in the afternoon, with my bag of recycling, to add to hers. Since this scheme was put in place, Sanur, a beach suburb of Denpasar, has radically improved. Primary schools also have recycling days for bottles and cans. Slowly the banana leaf wrappings are returning. Indonesia is determined to change it’s relationship with plastic. With a population of over 270 million, their need is even greater.
In my Balinese kitchen, I spend as much time sorting through flowers as I do preparing food. One of the morning routines I’ve adopted since coming here in July is collecting spent flowers along the paths in the morning before the gardeners sweep them away. These flowers last for one day. They are arranged in a saucer, bowl or platter, and placed on a fabric background: I then photograph them and post to Facebook, my daily antidote to bad news. Called the Dharma project, I have now posted 31 arrangements: each photo is chosen from a selection of 10, and explores the way colour changes with different backgrounds in the morning light. It is also a spiritual meditation on life, death, order, and transience. If I miss a day or two, the cleaning staff bring me flowers. I am touched. Balinese make daily floral offerings: canang sari follow set rules in terms of arrangement and colour whereas my arrangements are usually based on what falls from above each day, although I sometimes resort to a little selective pruning.
I’m very partial to kue tradisional, traditional Indonesian cakes. These sweet morning treats were available at the market last week- boiled sweet agar- agar ‘snakes’ with freshly grated coconut. I remember buying them in the 80s and 90s when they came wrapped in banana leaves: now they come in little cellophane containers.
These little sachets of Terasi come in chocolate wrappers, each one containing the right quantity to toast before adding to your sambal. Made from dried prawn, Terasi is a very stinky condiment and an acquired taste. I have very fond memories of my children as teenagers, taunting each other with an open block of Terasi. There is nothing more rousing than a putrid block of compressed fish waived under your nose while dosing in the morning. Now my eldest two children, who are in their late 40s, still play Terasi and fish sauce games when they get together at the beach camp.
I love these ceremonial dishes used by Balinese women to carry flowers offerings at small temples. The silver ones are usually left on top of family shrines and contain all sorts of oddities- everything a spirit could want, perhaps a cigarette, wrapped sweet, crackers, a jar of soy sauce, or a favourite drink. I use these bowls constantly in my kitchen, for washing vegetables or prepping the myriad of ingredients required for an Indonesian sambal cooking paste, for collecting flowers, or to store shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, galangal, white pepper and chili.
Candlenuts and garlic ( above) are an interesting substitute for pine nuts in pesto, made in the uleg.
One dish I enjoyed making recently was Terong dan Tahu Balado, eggplant and tofu balado. Balado is a Sumatran word, a Padang cooking term meaning red sambal. I love the long thin green eggplants here and hope to grown them when I return to Australia. They don’t carry any bitterness, and soften easily when cooked. They are also the perfect eggplant for light smoking. I used my Aldi fake Nutribullet for making the balado sambal. It churned through the shallots, garlic, long mild chilies, terasi and tomato in seconds. My stone Uleg looked on dejectedly, feeling suddenly obsolete, a kitchenware anachronism.
The two photos above are not from my kitchen but from Massimo’s Italian restaurant in Sanur. On the left, is Amarena ice cream with Chantilly cream and Amarena cherry syrup, served in lust- worthy Amarena blue and white bowls. And on the right, burrata with rugola. This cheese is made daily and served with home made chunky bread, and a bottle of EV olive oil and balsamic to apply your own dressing. In between this entree and shared dessert, we ate a wood fired Napolitana pizza. This is the sweet Italian-Indonesian life, la dolce vita, away from my kitchen. I have a regular table, naturally. Massimo is from Salento in Puglia, but has been operating his Italian restaurant in Sanur for more than 25 years, is married to a Balinese, and has Balinese- Italian children. Many of his recipes emanate from Salento. His business now includes many sidelines, including the production of gelato, hand rolled pasta, wood fire pizza and cheese- making, including some hard cheeses. A booking is required at night, but I like to pop down there at lunchtime when the big barn of a place is almost empty.
This Indonesian style tomato soup featured in my recent post. A quick and easy soup, it really does require luscious vine ripened tomatoes and fresh stalks of lemongrass.
If you’ve read this long rambling post, thank you. I know, it seems to be more about the urgency of dealing with recycling than kitchen things. But then, most of our recycling problems start in the kitchen, ours or someone else’s, if you happen to eat in restaurants. I usually try to make my posts ‘plastic free’, but not wishing to appear hypocritical, I’ve included some lovely Balinese items that came wrapped in plastic, cellophane or plastic foil. It happens here and it happens at home, and then I wonder where it’s going to go. The header photo was chosen after Dale, from daleleelife.101, mentioned recently that it looked like a fruit salad of flowers. And thanks once again Madame Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series.
It takes a while to adapt to cooking in Bali, given that the local restaurant and warung food is so alluring and economical. You could think why bother, but in the end, when living in another country for around three months, cooking with local ingredients becomes part of the experience. It involves getting to know what locals pay for things, observing seasonality, enjoying chats with stall holders at the traditional market, buying less more often, and learning ways to cook with unusual ingredients. It is also nice to relax at home, and not feel compelled to go out to eat.
We did bring a few items from home, including a large block of Parmigiano Reggiano and a kilo pack of good dried spaghetti. Extra Virgin olive oil is available in Bali, but only Italian brands of dubious source. My 1/2 litre bottle of good Australian olive oil was eliminated from my packing at the last minute in order to lower our overall luggage weight: Mr T had added a second stringed instrument to his list of essential items! Good parmesan cheese is much harder to find in Bali. A quick pasta dish sauced with shallot, garlic, chilli, and fresh tomatoes, liberally sprinkled with parmesan, is a quick and comforting home style meal. We also brought along our Aldi brand copy of a Nutribullet electric blender: its powerful motor churns through tropical fruits in seconds, so useful for an afternoon fruit smoothie, and handy for making pumpkin soup and Jamu.
My market shopping list usually includes the following basic ingredients: red shallots ( bawang merah), garlic ( bawang putih), snake beans, limes, potato, tomatoes, bananas, small pre-made packets of Bumbu Bali, sambals, peanut sauce ( pecel), and a few small cakes ( kua). The large supermarket sells herbs such as basil, oregano and mint, as well as very reasonably priced tempeh, and tofu( tahu). Unfortunately I haven’t found a source of fresh coconut milk, and so rely on small tetra packs for santan ( coconut milk). The ladies at the market sell small rounds of palm sugar for around 20 cents a piece. Palm sugar, gula merah, is extracted from the coconut palm tree: the nectar is boiled and then shaped in small coconut containers. It is organic and very tasty, with hints of caramel, coffee and other minerals not noticeable in regular sugar.
It’s hard to resist home meals using tempeh and tofu. The first picture below features a classic Tempeh Manis. This involves a few preliminary steps but then it comes together quite quickly. The tempeh block is cut into strips then deep fried in neutral oil then drained. A paste is made from shallots, garlic and galangal which is then fried in a little oil. Lemongrass, chilli, daun salam leaves, are then added, followed finally with the kecap manis and palm sugar. The tempeh is returned to the sticky sweet sauce and tossed about. This is one dish you can make in advance.
To cut the sweet stickiness of the tempeh, I also made a quick cucumber and dill pickle, a recipe I found on Moya’s instagram post a few weeks ago.
Another tofu and tempeh dish is a quick stirfry consisting of shallots, garlic, whole chilli, snake beans and pre-fried tempeh and tofu. To bring it together with a tasty sauce, I heated a small block of pecel pedas ( spicy hot peanut sauce) in a little water, then added it to the stir fry. The result is very similar to the Balinese classic dish Tipak Cantok, a local version of gado gado. A few prices are of note here. A block of tempe and tofu costs around 30 cents. A bunch of snake beans around 50 cents. A little block of very tasty Pecel– why would you make your own peanut sauce when it tastes so good- around 20 cents.
Sometimes we enjoy a simple light meal of a cheese, tomato and shallot toastie. This is Mr T’s specialty, always served with Sambal ekstra pedas or hot chilli sauce.
Fruit from our friend Wayan is always welcome. The salak (snake fruit) comes from his parents’ farm in Sideman. He often brings large papaya and other lovely tropical fruit, knowing we have a blender.
Yesterday afternoon I decided to make some Jamu, given that fresh turmeric is prolific and cheap. Jamu is a traditional tonic used by the Balinese as a cure all. The recipe involves peeling around 150 grams of fresh turmeric and some ginger, then blending it into a puree with a couple of cups of water. The puree is cooked for 10 minutes or so, which is then sweetened (I added a touch of grated palm sugar). Lime juice is finally added. It is then strained and stored in the fridge for up to a week. I was pretty excited yesterday when making my own Jamu, and didn’t think through the process entirely. Now my manicured painted nails have turned from pink to an odd coral/orange colour, the skin on my palms is still bright yellow, the white kitchen sink stained, and the threadbare tea towel I used for straining the Jamu looks like an abandoned saffron Buddhist robe. I’m imagining my innards stained a psychedelic yellow and look forward to dying some cotton for crocheting with fresh turmeric on my return. The colour on the cloth is sensational.
One of the first things we invested in is a 19 litre returnable water container ( around AU$4) which can be refilled for AU$1.80. A nearby store has a swap and go system. I use this water for washing vegetables, cooking and drinking- it lasts for about a week. I am very aware of my plastic consumption while I’m in Bali, and have tucked away all the soft clean plastic to bring back to Australia. Despite the fact that the Australian plastic recycling industry is now in strife, with much of our recycling being added to landfill, the soft stuff is coming home with me: I’m not going to add to Bali’s plastic problem. I take small net bags to the fresh market- the ladies are impressed with these. Like Australia, Bali has banned the single use plastic bag but also like Australia, small plastic bags are still available for fruit and vegetables. Being part of the problem involves being part of the solution.
Thanks Sherry for hosting the monthly event, In My Kitchen. You can find other world kitchens on Sherry’s Pickings, or you can join in, a very supportive way to join a blogging group.
Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.
Krishna tells Arjuna what God expects and requires of an offering in the most famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita, (ix:26)
This passage lies at the heart of the Balinese tradition of preparing offerings : leaves, flowers, fruit and holy water are presented with devotion. Today’s offerings for Galungan, featured in the images below, however, differ in the sense that they are made to the returning spirits of ancestors and are placed in front of family homes in small enclosed palm leaf or bamboo cages.
Wandering the suburban back streets today, I was rather taken with these elaborately decorated cages at the base of each penjor, filled this morning with special banten or offerings. These offerings are more family based and idiosyncratic, with each basket protected from marauding birds and squirrels, so that the little rice cakes and other treats for the dead might survive for the whole of this auspicious day.
Today’s religious ceremonies start at the home temple: each family compound will have one small temple, usually found in the kaja-kangin corner of the compound.¹ Offerings are made here first, before travelling, on foot or by motorbike, to the larger community temples located in each banjar or district.
Dressed in their finest ceremonial clothes, the Balinese are enjoying their holiday. For the modern Sanur based family, this means a cone or cup of Massimo’s gelato after the family prayers: the queues outside Massimo’s gelateria are long, as men in ceremonial white udeng and finely woven sarongs, and women in white lacy kabaya and coloured sarongs queue for a sweet treat.
¹ Kaja-Kangin, two aspects of Balinese orientation, will be discussed fully in a later post.
After an early morning stroll to visit the morning of the world, I wander to my nearest temple, a small seaside Pura with statues swathed in yellow cloth and pay my morning respects from a polite distance. Mt Agung has been very shy this July, hiding behind a shield of cloud and morning mist, though his twin, Mt Rinjani in Lombok, sometimes pops up on the horizon. I know Gunung Agung will appear one day soon.
Today has been rather quiet on the streets, as the day before Galungan is considered by most to be an important preparation day for tomorrow’s holiday. Some men were still busy creating and installing their penjor. There’s a sweet and spicy aroma in the air aroma as men prepare the lawar in the courtyards of their homes: 5 spice, sweet kecup and other exotic ingredients are mixed for the Lawar. The shops are closed and aimless tourists wander around, wondering what the big holiday is all about.
Down the back lanes and in the suburbs of Sanur, the penjor are rather lovely as they wave their earthly offerings to the spirits above. There’s always someone keen for a chat along the way too. That’s what I love most about the Balinese.
At the base of each penjor is a little basket which will hold the offerings of rice cakes for the ancestor spirits. I look forward to further documenting this special Hindu event tomorrow.
There is a calm urgency about my mornings in Bali. I’m keen to arrive at the beach a little before 6 am, drawn by the dawn but also by the anticipation of catching a sighting of Mt Agung on the horizon. When Guning Agung is in hiding, I admit I’m disappointed, and move along with my day a little more quickly.
I head along the beach pathway in the direction of the cake lady’s stall, situated on the brick wall at Pantai Sindhu. You have to be early to buy her freshly made Dadar Gulung. All her special cakes have been snapped up by 7am. She is round and sweet, just like her cakes and greets me with Selamat Datang if I’ve been away for a while. If it’s her day off or if she has ceremony, I wander down the road to the Sindhu market to buy cakes there, along with a hand of bananas or a few mangoes. Indonesian cakes are light and sweet, and incorporate three main ingredients- sticky rice, coconut and coconut palm sugar, and come in an endless array of shapes, colours and textures. They are boiled, steamed, baked or fried, often enclosing a secret ooze of bean or palm syrup and are small enough to wolf down in two bites. I’m very fond of green cakes, a colour extracted from the Pandanus leaf and striped jelly cakes made from agar-agar.
Yesterday’s Pasar Sindhu was alive and more frantic than usual. By 6 am, motorbikes and trucks had filled the small carpark entrance. Something was going on and I had to find out. The rows were crowded with vendors of cakes, ceremonial nic nacs, chicken stalls and flowers: I could sense excitement and frenzy, that buzz that permeates markets before a big festivity, akin to the mad rush in Melbourne markets before Easter or Christmas. I sought out my friend Ketut: she runs a little kitchen ware stall at Pasar Sindhu and is a goldmine of information. Today, she informed me, was Tumpek Wayang.
When Ketut mentioned Wayang, or puppets, I almost ran home to my books and internet, keen to find out more about the day and the ceremonies that would follow. Along the footpath and business doorways of Jalan Danau Tamblingan, I almost tripped over the elabourate displays of Canang Sari. Today’s floral offerings were completely different, much bigger than the usual little baskets, with rectangular bedding of palm leaves and another jagged edged leaf, as well as flowers. Each business had the same leafy arrangement- another mystery to uncode.
Tumpek Wayang, occurring every six months, is a festival when puppeteers perform purification rites to purify their bodies both physically and mentally. It is also a day of the performing arts, when offerings may be made to musical instruments and dance equipment. On this day, puppeteers (Dalang) throughout the island will present offerings to their shadow puppets (wayang kulit) with the intention of honouring the Lord Iswara. The puppets are taken out of their cases to be blessed by their owners and placed as if an actual performance is being held. This ceremony is staged at the different temples, and is called Sapuh Leger. In short, this is the day of puppeters and the puppets themselves.
I have profound memories of the puppeteers and Balinese shadow plays, Wayang Kulit, of old Bali. On our first trip to Bali in 1978, travelling then with two young children, aged 8 and 7, we set out at dusk on a horse and cart into the countryside to see this famous shadow play. The night was dark: no street lighting or electric lighting of any kind lit the streets or houses back then. The village was lit by kerosene lamps. On that occasion, we were the only Westerners in the village. Fortunately we were met by the local schoolteacher. He spoke English and kindly offered us some tea and green cakes – my love of Indonesian cakes began on that day. The Wayang Kulit stage was raised and broad, covered in a long stretched white sheet and back-lit by a flickering lamp. The exotic sounds of the gamelan orchestra tinkled through the night, as hundreds of villagers sat below the stage in the dark and watched in awe. We took our place in the audience as the puppets performed the Ramayana, a show that lasts for 6 hours or more, as we soon found out. At some point we realised that we needed to exit gracefully: carrying our sleepy children, we managed to find a horse and cart to take us back to our palm thatched losmen.
Today’s Tumpek Wayang celebrations were in full swing by mid afternoon. As the amplified voice of the puppet master, exaggerated and theatrical, emanated loudly from the nearby temple, I wondered whether the voice I heard was that of a real working Dalang or a recording: there aren’t so many working Dalangs in Bali these days, ( in 1990 there were around 2-300 Dalangs but only 30 working Dalangs ¹) not because of any demise in tradition, but because the role of Dalang is a demanding one, requiring skill in story telling, improvisation, comedy, linguistic skill, religion, singing, music, orchestra direction, puppet making as well as stamina.
As food stalls began to line the streets, groups slowly gathered, dressed in white and gold, the colours of purity, and walked towards the temple for the ceremony, due to start at 4.30 pm.
Most days go like this in Bali. After 40 years of visiting, I’m still trying to fathom the mysteries and joys of Balinese Hinduism. Sunrise to sunset and the time in between may bring an afternoon ceremony, a seaside cremation, or a purification ritual. Read the signs and keep your senses alert to gongs, bells and gamelan, then ask the locals about the day’s events. If you wish to join in, or visit any temple or ceremony, you’ll need the right outfit- a top with sleeves, a traditional printed cotton sarong and a scarf tied around the waist. While Balinese women tend to wear a lace kabaya, it is acceptable for westerners to wear any other sleeved shirt or T-shirt. Balinese men go for the double sarong on ceremonial days and look extremely dashing. Western men need only learn to tie their sarong in the appropriate way, worn over shorts.
¹ For further reading on Balinese ceremony and culture, see Bali, Sekala &Niskala, Essays on Religion, Ritual and Art. Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. Tuttle Publishing 1990. A remarkable book and a must for lovers of Balinese culture.