Indonesia: island paradise  & an introduction to Balinese Hinduism.

28th March, 2017 – 18th April, 2017

‘We hit the sunny beaches where we occupy ourselves keeping the sun off our skin, the saltwater off our bodies, and the sand out of our belongings.’ Erma Bombeck

From the country of soaring mountains and freezing snow, to the idyllic islands of Indonesia. The sun parched lizard within me was delighted when we were set down on the sandy shores of Gili Air, one of the three Gili Islands of the west coast of Lombok. Mainly Muslim (and therefore not celebrating Nyepi, the Hindu day of silence which closed the Balinese international airport), Gili Air was a little piece of paradise, which occasionally reminded you that there was a real world out there through the clockwork calls to prayer.

Gili Air provided me with the opportunity to enjoy scuba diving in tropical waters for the first time since my conservation project in Fiji, four years ago now. I completed five dives in Gili Air and witnessed many animals including cuttlefish, octopus, reef sharks, puffer fish among many others. This took me back to my reef survey days as I automatically started estimating numbers! I was lucky enough to see turtles (my particular marine obsession) on every dive. On one occasion a large green turtle swam by a group of divers exploring a pinnacle and one instructor noticed that it had a fishing hook stuck in its neck. The diver swam up and tried to free the obstruction, but it was well and truly stuck and rather than overly stress the turtle, he eventually let it swim away. This incident brought to light the reality of negative marine interactions, which it is often easy to forget in the idyllic underwater world of tourist scuba diving. This realisation was made further apparent to me when I visited the Turtle Conservation and Education Centre on Serangan, just off Bali. Here they look after and rehabilitate injured or rescued turtles and many of the turtles had police district initials painted on their shells, as they were still being used as evidence after police raids. It was disheartening to see the evidence of the illegal turtle trade, but uplifting to see the good work this centre was doing and hear our guide proudly claim that turtle numbers are growing around Bali after a large “save the turtle” campaign. If you visit the centre in May or June, for 200,000 IDR (roughly £12) you can “adopt” one of their turtle hatchlings and help release it into the ocean.

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After an idyllic week on Gili Air, we headed to Bali on one of the infamous “fast boats”. Having fully prepared our expectations after reading some terrible reviews, we had a relatively uneventful journey and arrived safe and sound in Ubud. Upon stepping out of the taxi, it is impossible to miss the daily canang covering the pavements in Bali. These are  small, square, woven baskets made from cut coconut leaves and filled with flowers and assortment of gifts for the Gods, topped with a smoking stick of incense. Along with these the streets were lined with penjor sticks which were tall, curving bamboo poles which were elaborately decorated. Each household had one and it was  to our surprise and delight our homestay owners told us that these penjor were special decorations to celebrate the upcoming Galungan day and invited us to join them on the day. This is a day which celebrates the victory of dharam over adharma (good over evil) and the time that ancestral spirits visit the earth. This day is calculated according to the Balinese 210-day calendar. I was a little apprehensive about celebrating a Balinese Hindu day as I considered myself naive to their customs and did not wish to insult, or feel socially awkward like my inner English soul dictates. My fears were quickly quashed by the open friendliness (indicative of the Balinese) of the whole family, and their desire to share their religion and culture with us. Nyoman dressed me in her beautiful traditional ceremony clothes (see picture above), while her husband Wayan helped Chris with the male equivalent. It is interesting how just donning the ceremony “uniform” made me feel a more genuine part of the celebrations. It turns out that even this clothing was symbolic in Balinese Hinuism: the sarong is respectful and presents humans in a beautiful way to the Gods. The sash around my waist was to cover up the naval, as it is considered to be a source of anger and jealousy. When you enter a temple you need to have clear and calm aura, thus the sash is worn to limit the negative energy.

The extended family gathered in the temple courtyard attached to our homestay and they explained to us the significance of the different temples dedicated to ancestors or gods. They then knelt on the ground, in all their finery, and began their prayers. A large part of Balinese Hindu prayer practice is the use of ritual offerings, often flowers, held between the thumbs and lifted to forehead, in the anjali mudra (hands palms together in prayer). This is done five times, with five separate offerings with many intricacies involving incense smoke (the smoke of which carries the essence of the offerings up to god). This is accompanied with various mantra chanting. After the five prayers and offerings are completed, a flower is dipped into a bowl of tirta (water taken from a holy spring) and delicately sprinkled over the upturned palms of each family member. They then sip the water twice, and on the third time they pass the water over their face. Then rice is placed on the forehead and chest, as well as eating a couple of grains: this represents the notion that you will live with a clean mind, soul, and words. After going through this process in their family temple, we all walked to the local village temple in Peliatan. Here we waited and chatted for about an hour (a distinct contrast to the timetabled worship within Christian churches) and then all knelt in colourful lines. This time I got to join in and was doused with the water for purification by a young Balinese girl and then completed the rice ritual. After this ceremony we joyfully made our way back to the homestay where we all shared a savory Balinese breakfast (as we were not allowed to consume anything but water and fruit prior to the ceremony). The whole morning was such a wonderful, unforgettable experience and I felt very grateful that I was staying in a homestay rather than an isolated resort, and that Nyoman and Wayan went beyond expectations to share their way of life with us. For the rest of the trip, the many temples were passed took on more significance and it was with fond memories that we witnessed the colourful ceremonial outfits donned by the Balinese again ten days later to celebrate the end of their festive period with the day of Kuningan.

A particularly entertaining tradition of the Balinese Hindus is their naming system. We asked one of our taxi drivers for an explanation as to why this naming system exists and he just laughed, shrugged and said “it is tradition!”. In its most simple form, the firstborn child is named Wayan, the second is named Made, the third child goes by Nyoman, and the fourth is named Ketut. If a family has more than four children, the cycle repeats itself. When using their full names, Balinese people also add a prefix to indicate gender. ‘I’ is for men and ‘Ni’ is for women. It was therefore with less coincidence than we had thought that most of the homestay owners we had met were called Wayan!

From Bali our next destination was Australia and while I was looking forward to Western delights such as a hot shower, I knew I would miss the friendliness and fascinating cultural differences of the Balinese people. It was therefore with a sad smile and a determination to return that I said goodbye to Bali.

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