Saturday, May 19, 2012


WARNING: This blog contains very little copy, but many pictures. 




The tooth filing ceremony is usually done when one becomes a teenager, unless the family cannot afford the cost. When that is the case, the ceremony is put off until the family has enough money, but it must be done 
                                              before the person is cremated.

So, what happened recently, in a family compound in our village, was a case of a family having enough money to pull of a big ceremony celebrating many events including tooth filings for every member of the family who has never gone through it. When a family has a ceremony everyone is invited and if the ceremony is large enough there is gamelan music, puppet shows, food and traditional Balinese dancing. The canine teeth are filed, more ceremonially than otherwise, in order to rid one of animal instincts.                                                    

This small island, set amongst the huge archipelago of Indonesia and atop the largest volcano and earthquake field in the world, has a religion and traditions like no other place in the world. 

We are constantly surprised by a procession of villagers dressed in their finery walking through a village on the way to a ceremony; or a cremation procession with a huge black bull carrying a corpse on the way to the burning of the body; or we may just be driving past a temple where a ceremony is taking place. 

With the thousands of temples on the island--each family compound has one, as does ever community, village, city, region and state--there are ceremonies for every occasion one can imagine plus many for
reasons one cannot imagine. There are ceremonies for 6 month occasions, and some for 1 year, 5 year 10 year, 30 year, and so on. Then there are the Balinese holidays which require more ceremonies.

The Balinese also put little offerings out in front of and around their homes and businesses every day of the year. So you can see how much time and money is spent on their religious practices, as these events are time-consuming and expensive, what with making elaborate decorations and preparing offerings of food and flowers. These preparations usually take many days with both the men and women involved.

 A great deal has been written about the melding of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism that exists only here, in Bali, a small island (pop 3.5 million) in Indonesia, a country of 17,000 islands, and, with 238 million people, the largest Muslim population in the world. There is a lot of focus on the island now, what with the constant rise of tourism, but there is also much poverty and superstition that needs to be addressed here.

What I have written here is but a taste of the complex nature of the rituals here, and I am ill-equipped to get much further into them, although I am learning more all the time.

The pictures on this page are from a few recent ceremonies, not only from the tooth filing. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012


New Year's Day in Bali--  

Here we are, in Ubud, the cultural heart and soul of Bali, reporting on Nyepi, the traditional Balinese New Year, and the Ogah Ogah festivities on the day prior to New Year Day.

Nyepi must be the most unusual new year celebration anywhere in the world. Of course, Bali is a small island with many events and occurrences found nowhere else in the world, but, that said, here comes Nyepi.   

On this day the island goes dark and quiet in order to
fool the evil spirits, who fly overhead, into thinking there is no island below. So--from 6:00 Friday morning until 6:00 Saturday morning no one is allowed on the streets, even tourists; the airport is closed; some towns turn off electricity: the satellite TV service is cut off; and everyone must be quiet. For tourists this is a popular time to go to a resort hotel for a couple of days, and for locals, they stay home and maintain an aura of quietude, meditation and fasting. The only people allowed on the streets are the Pecalang, or religious police, who are very strict about enforcing the Nyepi laws. This year was our third Nyepi and we are still highly impressed by the vigilance and dedication of the people to adhere to the confines of the holiday.
The adherence of the Balinese to their religious beliefs is all-pervasive and ubiquitous. Every day, in every house and at every business, offerings to the gods are made and laid out front--I stress--every day (except Nyepi). The sheer number of temples and celebrations that take place every day is amazing, and the young people, who are as hip and and aware as any young people anywhere in Asia, do not eschew the religious beliefs, but embrace them, alongside all the modern cultural doings.

This is a Hindu society, but with a Balinese twist, which includes Buddhism and animism. There is a large population of Muslims, and some Christians on the Island but they all get along and do and admirable job of respecting each others beliefs.

And, now,--the day before Nyepi--

So what are these monsters? They are the ogah ogahs, and they form the heart of the day before Nyepi, which is a most joyous and festive day and night. For weeks before Nyepi. in villages all over Bali, the young people make these monsters out of bamboo, wire, styrofoam and papier-mache', and on the afternoon and evening before Nyepi, the ogah ogahs are paraded around every town on bamboo poles to the accompaniment of kids and teens making a lot of noise with instruments, and anything they can bang together. Why? You may ask? Well, in order to scare away the evil spirits, silly.

 I spent the afternoon before Nyepi driving around, taking pictures of the monsters, and what a great communal feeling in the villages!
Late in the afternoon when the kids pick up the monsters to parade them around, the warm feelings among everyone is contagious, and locals and expats and tourists alike get totally into it. We really love this time!

After all this work and fun, in order to complete the purging of evil spirits, the monsters are set aside and burned, although, some remain in the villages for a while after Nyepi.

 Scroll down to see the rest of the photos, and you can see the full day's worth of picture-taking by following this link: 
Hope you like them.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Catholic Portugese Goa with its beaches; Hindu Madurai; French-Influenced Pondicherry on the Sea of Bengal; Mysore with its Palace; Hampi and the temples dating back to the 10th century. This is but one stretch of India, from the southwest coast through the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, ending in Mammalapuram on the southeast coast, and it's the stretch we took. This was our fourth trip to incredible India and we wanted to be sure to visit areas, sites and places we'd never seen before. Barbara did a great job planning and booking the trip with a little transportation help from an old friend (she is not old) who leads tours through India.

Daughter Sasha came along for the first week even though she had just spent two weeks in Thailand with us, and we met a friend from Bali in Mumbai who planned to stay with us for entire three weeks in India.
We were a little tired when we landed in Mumbai at midnight, after spending the past 5 weeks traipsing through Myanmar and Thailand, but we got about 4 hours sleep before arising to a 10 hour train ride to Goa. 

Goa is where the LSD-fueled, full-moon parties (including huge sound systems) originated in the late 60's on the beaches, with traveling hippies from the world over dancing the night into oblivion. Goa was occupied by the Portugese for hundreds of years and hence is a Catholic state with many Christian Indians and a number of beautiful old churches. We had a great little guest house outside of Anjuna, which is a Yoga center; and our hotel had classes in two rooms going all day. Anjuna has become overrun with dread-locked backpackers on motorbikes, stalls selling cheap clothes and trinkets and some very good seafood on the beach. We were charmed, what with the toned-down madness of India, the ubiquitous cows, the beach hawkers and of course, the food. There are still full-moon parties and music blares out from eateries all along the beach, but now what we hear is techno, house or some such thing--awful! I'm sure the music in the 60's & 70's was more to our liking! But it was so good the be back in India eating those wonderful Indian breads--naan, puri, parathi, chapati, and fresh seafood.

Next, a short car ride to Benaulim, also in Goa, but much quieter, catering to an older, more sedate crowd, which was revealed to us pretty quickly as we walked along the beach and heard the music--no techno, just some crooner singing My Way. But the beach here was lovely, wide and had big waves. So after six days in Goa we hopped on a day train to Hampi. This is a fairly recently discovered city which is known for the ruins of a 10th-12th century Hindu civilization which abandoned the area at the heels of invading armies.
The cool thing about staying in Hampi was where we stayed and the location of our guest house. We arrived via a taxi from the train station and were let out by the side of a river--it seems we had booked a hotel in the backpacker area and had to take a small, outboard motorboat across to reach it, and all the other hotels and restaurants. We had to traverse this river in order to spend the day touring the ruins and have lunch, then back again in the evening--fun! Our hotel, the Mowgli Guesthouse was right on a curve of the river nestled among huge boulders and beautiful trees. It served excellent breakfasts and we had AC rooms all for $16/night! A super spot to chill out and meet people.

Typical of these backpacker areas in India is the predominance of young Israelis (and, of course, falafels), and now Russians.

After three fun days here, Sasha left us (hope it was nothing I said!) and we boarded a first-class car on an overnight train to Mysore.

The overnight trains are comfortable in the AC 2nd class and even better in 1st class--wide beds and a locking door with four to a cabin. The food on the trains is pretty tasty, especially the constant Chai sellers.



We had heard Mysore called "India light" because most of the city is fairly quiet with a large, clean middle-class neighborhood complete with a rotisserie chicken restaurant--sounds good! The houses in this area were private and mostly upscale. Luckily for us, our hotel was in this area so we could stroll to dinner spots and stop on the way back for some good ice cream. (I do miss fresh salads, but there are always cooked vegetables, and of course, butter garlic naan, or cheese paratha.) This is where Barbara did most of her clothes shopping, (in a real shopping center) finding those colorful kurtas she likes. We checked out the fabulous local market, overflowing with fruits, veggies, flowers, and hardware--excellent.

The main tourist attraction is the spectacular Maharajah's Palace, which was was rebuilt 100 year's ago and is in superb condition. It is one of the grandest of India's royal buildings, and although the interior is a bit over-the-top, with it's gaudy colors, stained-glass, mirrors, carved wooden doors and mosaic floors, the palace is a fascinating visit. No photos allowed--too bad.

Another overnight train heading east, next stop Madurai, a typical Indian city--busy, chaotic, dusty and garbage filled. Okay, I know I've said it before, but you have to see the cities in India to fully comprehend how rundown, funky and shabby the streets and buildings are. And then there is the garbage. The common modes of transportation in most of India is a taxi (usually old cars), or, more commonly a tuk-tuk or auto rickshaw, which is a 3 wheeled vehicle, the front of which is a motorbike, with a covered 2 wheel backseat. There are backseats which can hold 3 people and some which can accommodate 6. Of course none of this matters to the Indians who cram as many as 8 or 9 in the back!

There is obviously a growing middle class here, which is evident in the well-dressed Indian tourists traveling around their own country. They love to talk with us westerners and have their picture taken with us.

On the left is a huge bull carved from one piece of granite and on the right is typical Hindu temple.
So, we are now in the chaos of Madurai, preparing to see the famous Sri Meenakshi Temple, considered by many to be the height of South Indian temple architecture, as vital to this region as the Taj Mahal is to North India. It is more of a complex than just a temple, enclosed by 12 towers all carved with gods, goddesses, heroes and demons. There is a marvelous and erotic legend behind this temple which is much too long to go into here; suffice it to say it involves a goddess born with 3 breasts. By coincidence the 3 days we were there was the annual temple festival during which the gods are taken out, paraded around town, then brought to the big lake in town and floated out to where some erotic stuff goes on amongst them. We couldn't get a good look.

Madurai wasn't all "city", for we took a day trip into the hill country and that was pleasant except for the ride down the mountain--a small bus, narrow roads, and a driver in a rush to get home--a white knuckle experience. We had some friendly Indians on the bus with us, so we talked a lot with them, which made for really good day. A plus here was the rooftop restaurant at our hotel which served good dinners, and the city being what it was ended up being our dining spot.

Getting tired yet? We were holding up okay, but all the traveling and sleeping in different hotels can be wearing. Okay, so to move on--Puducherry, on the east coast, with a rocky, non-swimmable beach, a 1.5 mile promenade and French cafes and restaurants (hey--croissants!). Puducherry was a French colony at one time, so there remains a little je ne sai quoi about the town, although it is only a small strip of streets that the locals are attempting to keep stylish. There were a number of good cafes, and breakfasts do include decent croissants and baguettes. (Now this is still India and the rest of the city is like any other Indian city.) I especially loved walking along the promenade in the evenings.
On the left you see me with my new-found buddies
and on the right, Barbara is standing in front of the golden dome at Auroville, a new-age
community which hopes to
change the world by example. We visited Auroville for an afternoon and had a super lunch at their restaurant, before touring the grounds. We were impressed with their idealistic goals, but, although they still going strong after 30 years, they have only 2,20 souls from all over the globe, a little shy of the projected 40,000.

Also in Puducherry  is the Aurobindo Ashram which gives Yoga classes every day. One night we saw a classic car show with some American cars and a concert of inspiring Indian music.    

Our last stop was a 2 hour car ride up the coast to Mammalapuram.  Another beach city, but this time with real sandy, wide beaches--even surfing for those younger than us. The
big attraction here, besides fresh fish grilled on the beach, are the stone sculpted temples dating back to the 7th Century, and they really are worth a visit. Many are whole rooms carved into the face of boulders, and they are beautiful. This is another example of a civilization that thrived until invading armies chased them out of town.



 After a few days in this laid back city we drove to the Chennai airport and caught a plane to Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia to spend a few days before heading back to Bali and home. It was refreshing to be in a city where streets have lanes and cars follow laws; where the is no garbage in the streets and where there is a public transportation system (and a good one). The Chinatown in KL is exceptional and the food fabulous and cheap. We spent a day in the old Dutch city of Malacca, a 2 hour bus ride south of KL, and well worth the time. The colorful bicycle rickshaws are all covered in artificial flowers and we cruised around in one stopping at mosques, churches, an old house set up as a museum (loved it!) a restored sailing ship and just enjoyed to old town feel.
Back in KL a most memorable afternoon was spent at the Islamic Art Museum which was world class in both it's contents and presentations. The main mosque in town was spectacular, and once again, we loved the seafood meals.

We enjoyed the city but were anxious to be back in Bali among such warm and wonderful people and the relaxing and nurturing environment. I'm writing this from our home in Ubud after having a great fish and chicken dinner with friends, looking forward to our movie club meeting tomorrow night (we're hosting and we'll prepare a fresh salad and pasta primavera).

Hope you are all well and happy and I'll write again soon.