by Ibu Kat
There’s a FaceBook page called Ubud Community, which has over 17,000 members. The active membership is divided between long-term expats, newcomers and a few Indonesians. Discussions can be lively, with old-timers sharing cultural lore, newcomers wanting to know where they can get their eyelashes tinted and everything in between.
Then there’s the other Ubud Community.
I’m sitting buttock to batik-clad buttock in a tight row of Balinese women. We’re resting on a bamboo bench inside the peyadnyan — the long, open bamboo structure built to shelter the offerings for dead relatives. Last week a mass cremation for five banjars (communities) took place here. Taking advantage of the fact that the infrastructure was still standing, the banjars are now holding a mass tooth filing for almost 300 people. The mostly young folk are all ceremoniously dressed in gold and white and are being processed with great efficiency in batches of ten. Wayan Manis’ teenagers are numbers 240 and 241; I suspect that I may not make it that far. Numbers 81 to 91 have just been called. It’s going to be a long day.
(In the endless protocol of Balinese ceremonies, the teeth must be filed before the person can be cremated, and everyone has to be cremated.)
A week ago I was sitting in this same spot, squeezed between Wayan Manis on one side and a cheerful old lady on the other under the photo of dead Dadong. We were hanging out during the mass cremation under the pictures of the family’s three deceased relatives. The stacks of offerings under the pictures included a tethered young chick which would be sacrificed for each person to be cremated. Their cheeps mingled with the usual cacophony of the upacara — gamelans, shouting children, barking dogs, loudspeakers, ringing handphones and gossiping grannies. A total of 117 lembu (bulls) and petulangan (fish, elephants and other creatures) had been assembled, each to hold the bones of up to five (but never three) deceased relatives. Preparations had taken weeks, with each adult member of the community involved in making offerings, building the structures, preparing the cremation ground and many other tasks. Before the cremation the whole banjar sat up all night praying in the graveyard and cleaning the bones of the disinterred deceased. Village Balinese are usually buried immediately and then dug up again months or years later for mass cremation, which is much more cost-effective than a private one.
Cremation day combined the noisy energy of an ogoh ogoh parade and Christmas, with each lembu accompanied to the burning ground by a jazzy gamelan and shrieking, excited kids.
After the flames died down, there was still much to do. The peyadnyan was cleansed with many prayers, the ashes of the cremated were taken to the sea in coconut shells, prayers were chanted at several temples around the regency and as far away as Besakih, the Mother Temple itself. A week later was the mass tooth filing, with more offerings to be made, decorations and costumes prepared, more prayers.
So you see, there wasn’t much time left over to look after the foreigners. The Balinese are ordinarily happy to make our cappuccinos and drive us to Seminyak and clean our houses, but when a big ceremony comes around, that all goes out of focus.
Cremation season in Bali is in the months of August and September which just happens to be the height of tourist season. In another country it might be possible to spell off staff so that they can take turns coming to work and fulfilling their community commitments. But the work ethic as we know it is a very new concept here and when Bali is in full-on upacara mode, it becomes irrelevant. Even if a banjar member now lives and works on the other side of Bali, when Uncle Made is cremated, he has to be there.
It’s always hard to maintain consistency in a restaurant in Bali, no matter how good the training. During a month like this when so many staff are committed to days or even weeks of ceremonies in their villages, it becomes even more challenging. When the chefs/sous chefs have to disappear for 10 days preparing for a mass cremation a restaurateur has the choice of closing — during the highest of high seasons — or hoping that whoever’s left can manage. Sometimes they can’t. Please be patient, diners. The commitment to family, community, ritual and prayer far outweighs the importance of their jobs to the Balinese during these times. That’s not going to change. If you’re going to live here, you’ll have to roll with it. If you’re just visiting, choose to think of it as exotic and interesting instead of inconvenient.
I’m very far from being an expert on Bali’s culture. The longer I live here, the less I understand. My Indonesian is poor and my Balinese non- existent, so what I pick up in the village is not language-based. It’s a vibe, a hum under the surface, a finely woven net made up of several hundred people who will gather together often between birth and death. During ceremonies, the community seems to operate as a single organism. They will gossip, pray and eat the same food over and over with the same people year after year. They may not like one another but as strands in the net they are irrevocably bound together even if, as happened during the terrors of 1965, neighbour killed neighbour.
Over the years I’ve been invited to attend odalons, dances, ceremonies in the family compound, processions and cremations in desa Singakerta. I put on my best kain (a fine old batik from Java), my kebaya and my sash to walk, pray, eat and hang out with the banjar. My only serious fashion error is my hair; mine is the only messy head in sight. I can tell that all the grannies are itching to tidy my flyaway tresses into a neat bun. Other than that, I seem to pass muster.
There’s a great deal of waiting around at all these events. Everyone looks tired after weeks of preparation and ceremony. We hang out for hours: standing, leaning, lying, sitting, chatting, texting, snacking, dozing… Two old ladies nap on a mat on the ground under a table covered with offerings. To a Balinese, waiting is an integral part of the ceremony, but I can only take about two hours of this at a time.
After the last mass cremation Wayan Manis’ father and father-in-law both ended up in Mas Hospital with Upacara Exhaustion. Too many sleepless nights, missed meals, too much coffee and too many cigarettes. After a few days of rest and rehydration they were fine again. The women, of course, are expected to continue to shop, cook, clean, look after children, make offerings, walk in processions, pray all night and keep their day jobs. Meanwhile, at my house, I miss my dear housekeeper. I am a very poor cleaner.
Wayan and Nyoman turned up this morning for work at last, but they were so exhausted I sent them straight home again. Tomorrow perhaps we can return to what passes for normal in Bali… until the next odalon.
Ubud Now & Then thanks Cat Wheeler for permission to publish this piece.