Biking Near Selat

Rumi and I headed up through Klungkung, just off the southeast coast of Bali, and then up towards Selat before turning east and following a winding road through rice paddies and over a bridge spanning a wide river before parking the car and heading off on bikes.

biking with Rumi 6

biking with Rumi 4

To be more precise, before heading UP on bikes.

Rumi's photo 1

Rumi’s photo

We started with an arduous ascent that kept up for most of the first 40min of riding. We passed gorgeous villages, temples and rice paddies along with a handful of rafting companies.

biking with Rumi 3

Everywhere people yelled hello. Packs of dogs encouraged us to make haste through their neighborhoods. Rice farmers worked their fields or sped past on motorbikes bearing scythes.

Rumi's photo

Rumi’s photo

We were offered durian from front stoops and luwak coffee.

biking with Rumi 2

We stumbled upon an overlook where to the left were beautiful fields along the river and to the right was a giant mining operation, filling the beds of the endless trucks that drive past with the ore necessary to make cement and construct more villas in south Bali.

The sky was perfectly overcast, not too hot or cloudy, with a few smatterings of rain just to keep us cooled off as explored this little section of Bali.

biking with Rumi 1

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I love you because…

"I love you because of your mistakes."

“I love you because of your mistakes.”

I was lucky enough to have my good friend Nick Wightman send me a link to this website just before Valentine’s Day five years ago:

I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the way the messages and the imagery in the photos blended.

I taught in the Creative Writing Department at Denver School of the Arts at the time, and I knew it was a perfect challenge for them to undertake as a celebration of the holiday. Their ILYBs turned out beautifully. In fact two of my students continued to do ILYBs and submit them to the website. Here is a link to their projects:

When I presented it to my 4th graders yesterday, it was with some trepidation to be honest; I wasn’t sure if the concept was a little too abstract for their more concrete brains. It was interesting to see what they understood immediately and what they were confused by. Like this image with the saying “the ties that bind” was really confusing.

They didn’t understand this image until we defined the term vast.

This image they immediately loved and were able to explain the symbolism of the words being on the door as related to birth.

Overall, they got it. And they liked the challenge, immediately jumping up (even before the lights in the room were turned back on) in order to get started.

So here are the ILYBs that my amazing 4th graders created in celebration of Valentine’s Day:

Athena ILYB

“I love you because you teach me.”


“I love you because you lift me up.”

Chloe ILYB

“I love you because you so nice, Mummy”

Damai ILYB

“I love you because you are as sweet as flowers.”

"I love you because you are kind and always buy me what I want."

“I love you because you are kind and always buy me what I want.”

"I love you because you give me warmth."

“I love you because you give me warmth.”

"I love you because we support each other."

“I love you because we support each other.”

"I love you because you bring sport back to life."

“I love you because you bring sport back to life.”

"I love you because of all the nerf wars we play."

“I love you because of all the nerf wars we play.”

"I love you because of your mistakes."

“I love you because of your mistakes.”

London ILYB

“I love you because you are nice, meditative, let me hold you and take you for walks.” (for his monkey)

"I love you because you are my friend."

“I love you because you are my friend.”

"I love you because you are like a soft pillow."

“I love you because you are like a soft pillow.”

"I love you because you spend time with me." (for Dum Dum, his hamster)

“I love you because you spend time with me.” (for Dum Dum, his hamster)

"I love you because you are awesome."

“I love you because you are awesome.”

"I love you because you give us air."

“I love you because you give us air.”

"I love you because you push me on the waves."

“I love you because you push me on the waves.”

"I love you because you are the best teacher."

“I love you because you are the best teacher.”

"I love you because you always stay up."

“I love you because you always stay up.”

"I love you because you go to work to feed us."

“I love you because you go to work to feed us.”

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For Tanya and Andy



a crescendo of insistent frogs

call from the field behind my house

chanting incantations, discordant and ceaseless.


There are not words for when

my friends’ motorbike

arrives outside my gate

and this symphony is shared:

unpacking fears with conversation,

releasing laughter among the litany

of frogs.


Alone, sometimes the darkness descends.

And it is incantations instead of

mating celebrations.

It is an untethered moon

instead of clear, rhythmic cycles.

What gift in friendship:

to turn out from my own darkness

letting the past recede

and turn into the face of this day.

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When we arrived in Padang Bai at 11pm on Thursday to catch the Lombok ferry, the line was already long. While waiting, we met the members of a long-distance, Indonesian bike team of twenty or so men wearing matching red and white jerseys and flying flags, excited to bike around Lombok & into Sumbawa.

Despite the chaos of loading trucks

Tanya’s photo

and clear impatience to get upstairs and sort out our sleeping situation, I read Tanya and Andy an excerpt of a Whitman poem to start our journey from “In Cabin’d Ships at Sea”

Tanya’s photo

Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,

Here not the land, firm land, alone appears…

They sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,

We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,

The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions

            of the briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,

The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,

The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,

And this is ocean’s poem.

Upstairs was a crowded mass of bodies. The good mattresses were taken, but Andy rented a white one stained black with wear. Tanya and I elected to sleep in the car.

Tanya’s photo

Tanya’s photo

Tanya’s photo

The bathroom, like most on this trip, was without toilet paper or a hose. After pooping, I used the traditional method of wiping my butt with my left hand. Then I rinsed my hand in water (from the standing tub next to the squat toilet) by using the bucket to flush down my poop and clean my hand. There was not an actual sink, and there was no soap. This is why, traditionally, people only touch each other, exchange items or move through crowds with their right hang forward (the left hand is tucked back and behind). Luckily, I had brought hand sanitizer.

Despite the heat and the constant, metal moans of our mechanical shepherds, I slept soundly until Andy shook us awake and offered to drive through Lombok’s early morning light from the port in Lembar to Kuta.

Tanya’s photo

We got a little lost, so we stopped to ask an old man directions. It was Idul Adha (a Muslim holiday commemorating the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah through the sacrifice of sheep and goats, whose meat is shared with friends and the poor), so he was crisply attired for the holy day. “Di mana Kuta?” “Di sana,” he said, pointing behind us. As we turned around, the man continued to speak in fast Indonesian. “I think he wants a ride,” I said. “You think that’s a good idea?” asked Andy. “Yes. Look at him—he’s ancient!”. We dropped him about 10miles down the road at his mosque, stunned by the distance that 80-year-old man had set out to walk.

Kuta was thatched roofs, white sand beaches, turquoise water and dead-asleep. As we decided what to do next, I spotted a car bearing surfboards. “Good eyes!” Andy said, and we piled back in my car, following down winding dirt roads to Segar beach. It looked chundry with a quickly receding tide, so we decided to go elsewhere.

Tanya’s photo

More winding dirt roads, tobacco farms, and clear waters before Grupuk, a quiet village by the Indian Ocean.

Tanya and I had to go to the restroom, but everything was closed because people were at mosque, so a woman offered to let us use her toilet. She led us to her home, explaining she and her husband had already been to prayer that morning. These acts of kindness set the tone for the island, the warmth and sincerity of the people we encountered.

I was exhausted after three hours of ferry sleep, so Andy joined some German guys to boat to the break while Tanya and I ate and napped in shaded chairs on shore.

Lunch was back in Kuta over-looking teal waters.

Tanya’s photo

Beach kids selling bracelets descended, and Tanya bought something from each after being reassured the money went towards school. (Schools in Indonesia are not free, so in many poor and rural communities, kids do not attend at all or they stop after grade 5. Girls especially are not encouraged to continue their education past a basic level; if there is money, it is saved for boys.)

Tanya’s photo

Tanya’s photo

Andy and I decided to sunset surf, giving Segar another try. It was a heavy wave with a dozen people catching the right break, so we paddled out to join the three others riding the left. I paddled hard but missed my first wave. I caught the second, but was too far on an edge and lost it. For the next twenty minutes, I was pummeled by heavy waves, losing my paddle while being dragged under. To retrieve it, I had to regular-surfboard paddle my 10ft-long 29in-wide board towards the rocks, thankfully able to scoop it, and start the arduous paddle out past the breaks again.

When Andy spotted me, he raised his hand & I raised my paddle. Out past the break he said, “Holy shit, I thought you drowned.” “Came real close. Lost my paddle for the first time; never good when you’re trying to surface while being dragged.” “Fuck, you ok?” “Yes.” “You want to go back in?” “Yes.” “Ok.” “Don’t feel like you have to come in, too. I’m not in a hurry to leave.” “No, I’m done out here, too. Too heavy.”

Later I stood alone on Kuta beach at sunset between thatched roofed houses with a few lights on in the distant hills feeling safe and open and yes, all I could think is, “There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be now.”

That night we met the Germans (Erik and Philip) Andy had surfed with and Juliana & Mitch from Chicago (who we’d met at our hotel) for dinner. Erik is doing a year studying abroad with his university in Jogjakarta (Java) and in Lombok on vacation. Philip is a graphic designer for a nightlife magazine in Geneva who’d been in Indonesia for ten-weeks on a surf trip. Juliana & Mitch quit their jobs to travel SE Asia for four months and decide where to live and work for the next few years. The stone-baked pizza was delicious and the conversation popped. Philip paused at one point, smiled at me and said, “You surf, you snowboard, you drink rum and you have a beautiful smile, I like this girl.”

The next morning, was my first experience taking a boat out to a surf break. The boat captain was an older Indonesian man with slightly rheumy eyes, a big laugh and a woven bamboo hat. He was taken aback by the size of my board (besar sekali!).

Tanya’s photo

After we motored out of the harbor, the bay opened wide and blue before us. To the right were jagged cliffs, reminding me of the Oregon coast. We headed there first, a break near the cliffs called Outsides. I have never been on such a crowded wave in my life.  The first wave I paddled after and caught, I looked up, saw an obstacle course of surfers to get through, freaked out, and lost my ride. I ended up staying to the far right of the break and catching a few short ones but didn’t feel confident enough to get in where it was really good.

Next we went to Insides. Trying to help lift my heavy SUP back into the boat and then hoist myself inside (I do not have the best upper arm strength) was a task. I ended up putting my legs in the boat first and then trying to maneuver the rest of myself in upside down, a pretty epic failure, so the boat captain came to help me up. “It’s like fishing for women. What a good catch,” Philip said.

The Insides were equally crowded, but it was a perfect, soft playwave that was a pleasure to ride. The first time I paddled for a wave, all the surfers were cheering me on, but I lost it. The second wave I did catch: my best ride of the day, a beautiful, perfect right that lasted for ages. When I finished, I lifted my paddle in the air in celebration, and then spotted Andy just finishing a great ride, too. We exchanged smiles and headed back to the line up.

About that time, 5 more boats arrived and 20+ people piled into the water. Where before, I was able to stick to the right of the wave and not have people to dodge, that corridor was crowded with bobbing surfers at various levels of ability. Looking down the coast at all the waves, I figured it was time to utilize my SUP. I paddled out around the break, let Philip know where I was headed and then took off down the coast on my own. It became obvious quickly why that slew of surfers was all at Insides instead of spread out along the coastline: the waves closed out pretty quickly. I caught a dozen short rides and then just paddled around a little, enjoying the clear, blue waters and being in the sun. Exhausted, I made my way back to the boat. When the others joined me, they all had the same complaint, “On each wave three people would drop in. There was no etiquette; it was dangerous.”

“One girl dropped in on me, fell off her long-board, and it slammed me in the balls. Luckily she was just learning, so it was a soft-top, but Jesus man.”

“The worst are the beginners. They are with their Indonesian surf guides, and their guides just tell them to go on everything. They don’t know what they are doing, so they are dangerous. And they are not learning the etiquette. If you don’t learn the rules from the beginning…”

I was grateful I had gotten out of the chaos when I did and just enjoyed paddling on my own.

Back in Kuta, Andy and I got Tanya and headed to lunch.

Tanya’s photo

The beach kids were back slinging bracelets. One in particular, Tom, had amazing English skills and dreamed of one day being an English teacher. When he found out that we are all teachers, he burst into applause with a huge smile on his face. He recounted stories, make jokes and quoted odd sayings like, “Supercalifragilisticexpadocious.” “ExpiALAdocious.” “Expialadocious. Expialadocious. Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious.” He paused after reciting it, looking thoughtful and asked, “What does it mean?”

We napped in lounge chairs. Then Philip, Erik, Michele and Ozzie came to meet us. We enjoyed pina coladas before returning to our hotel pool.

Tanya’s photo

Tanya’s photo

The water was slightly warmed, perfect for playing. I forget how much I love to swim until I am in the water. I couldn’t help but break away during pauses in conversation to swim a lap of butterfly, a lap of freestyle. As I enjoyed the feeling of my body cutting through the water, I looked up and saw Michelle teaching Ozzie butterfly. Ozzie is a Kuta, Bali surf instructor originally from west Java. He has crazy stories of the 10-years he lived in Jakarta. “I hear that they’ve installed metal bars to knock people down if they try to ride on top of the trains,” I say.

“Oh, they’re not low enough to knock you if you’re seated. I always rode on top of the train.”

“You did!! That’s crazy!!”

He shrugged, “The cars were so packed with people that if you waited to get inside, you’d never get to work. The population of Indonesia is almost 250million people and 28million of them live in Jakarta. The traffic is a nightmare. If you try to drive, you can be stuck in the same place for three hours. So there are trains. I loved riding on top: great view, fresh air. Inside the train, if you managed to get in, you’d probably never be able to push your way out at your stop. The roof was better.”

Ozzie, like most Indonesians, never learned to swim when he was younger, but he has picked up a little bit of freestyle, enough to allow him to surf. You could see his discomfort as he attempted to learn butterfly, chocking on water, eventually shaking his head and laughing before returning to comfortably floating. Most the fisherman, who spend the majority of their lives on the water, never learn to swim. In Indonesia’s archipelago of 17,000+ islands, swimming ability is rare.

In that moment, I was grateful for my parents who insisted I have lessons, who made it possible to spend whole summers at the public pool, who woke at 6am to take us to swim team practice and spent Saturdays in the hot sun for competitions. I had never thought to pause and be grateful for this gift of comfort in water.

To celebrate Tanya and Michelle’s birthdays, Philip arranged with his friend Mario to grill fresh fish and set up a bonfire on the beach. When we arrived, the smell was amazing. “Did you catch it?” Michelle asked. “Yes, with money,” Mario laughed, “That’s the best kind of fishing; you’re certain you’ll get a catch!”

Dinner was delicious, but already my belly had started to give me problems, so I had to use the restroom a number of times, which was in Mario’s house and required me to maneuver past his two children asleep on the floor. There was no light, but luckily some filtered through the wooden slats from outside. No toilet paper but a hose and hand soap next to the basin of standing water.

Michelle and I talked at length about her difficulties getting a work permit for Ozzie. She is from Australia and, as she said, “Bali has told me it is time to head home.” (This I understand, as I felt like Bali wouldn’t let me leave when I tried to go home last summer—no plane tickets were available to get off the island, and my boss kept calling to encourage me to keep my job.)

She and Ozzie had been together for three years. In order for Ozzie to get a permit, they’d had to fill out copious amounts of paper work, pay exorbitant fees, fly to Jakarta, and encountered innumerable problems, such as Ozzie testing positive for TB with the initial skin test, but then having the more accurate test of lung x-rays turn out negative, but not having the doctors send documents to the right place, so waiting weeks for the updated results to be processed. It had been immensely frustrating for her, a woman in her 40s in love with an Indonesian partner, to see the way her country was treating him, treats all Indonesians.

Tanya’s photo

We made our way to the beach for a bonfire. It was quiet and dark and beautiful. We talked about spinning fire. I tried to remember what it was called and shared about a former student into it. A French guy appeared out of the no-where darkness, sitting by the fire and chatting. Then suddenly said, in his thick accent, “Oh, I spin poi,” and pulled his balls from a bag, igniting them, and spinning intricate patterns, seemingly manifested by our conversation.

Suddenly eight motorbikes raced from the main road, across the sand and straight towards us, blinding us with headlights. Tanya’s flight or fight response made her jump to her feet. We were frozen in a moment of uncertainty; I flashed on the horror stories I had heard about locals beating and killing foreigners on isolated beaches in Indonesia. I looked to Mario. “We okay?” I asked. He paused, trying to discern faces, and then nodded at me with a forced smile, “Okay”.

The engines cut off and a brunch of drunk Indonesian boys in their early 20s with European, backpacking girls swarmed with guitars and bottles of homebrew. Philip explained that they were from a bar in town with live music and probably came to the beach because the electricity shut off. We sang along to songs on the guitar. The drunk boys insisted on trying poi, and bravado & minor burns ensued.

At one point, one of the particularly drunk guys threw a plastic bottle on the fire. “Don’t do that!” I said, “Poisonous.”

“Poison?!?” he said, then staggered towards the fire and started deeply inhaling the fumes coming off the blue flames from the plastic bottle. He came back to me, arms opened wide and said, “I’m fine! Not poisonous!” he made fangs out of his middle and pointer finger on his right hand and plunging them dramatically into his left arm. “Snake is poisonous.”

“Burning plastics will be the downfall of Indonesia,” I countered. “Poisonous.” He just looked at me and laughed, walking away. “In moments like this, I hate the Indonesian educational system,” I say to Philip.

“If he even went to school,” he shrugs. “You’re not going to change his mind.”

Watching the dynamics of western backpackers and local boys singing American songs and embodying imported ideals of beach life, I can’t help but ponder the impact of tourism, the way that being in a place irrevocably changes it.

A few of us headed back to our hotel for a midnight dip: the hot tub perfectly warmed against the slight chill of the night. A nearly-full moon, palm trees and the occasional arc of a bat.

The next morning, I was belly-cramping, bathroom sick. The crew headed surfing, but I stayed in bed, fluctuating between sleep and using the toilet (I found out when I got home that I had both typhoid and an amoeba).

Philip came to get me a little after noon. “How are you feeling?” he asked, pushing a hair off my forehead.

“Ok. Better.”

“We’re going to lunch. I came to pick you up. It’d be good for you to eat something.”

Lunch was delicious and cheap nasi campur. I only ate about half, and Philip finished the rest. They tell me about Ane Guling where they surfed that morning. “All of us ate shit. It was a huge wave. Heavy and big. I think we each got one or two good rides, but mostly we ate shit. It’s good you didn’t come out.”

“And the paddle back was 45min against the current. Rough day on the water but its always good to go out.”

By now it was nearly two, and we’d meant to head to the ferry at noon. I brought the map to the guy at the hotel desk to double check directions. He confirmed our route. “Are there signs?” I asked. He started laughing and said, “There are no signs in Lombok.” The drive was gorgeous up into the cooler hills, tobacco plants in flower, deep rivers and ravines, small villages, everywhere people waving, smiling and calling hello.

Tanya’s photo

Tanya’s photo

It was a Hindu holiday, so there are processions with galungan music, a nice reminder of life in Bali on this mostly Muslim island.

Tanya’s photo

Tanya’s photo

We passed a huge assortment of mosques varying greatly in size and opulence. Some of them drop our jaws—massive and gorgeously constructed.

Tanya’s photo

We entered Lembar to catch the ferry and were nearly to the shore, when all the people on the road waved at us—Turn around! Stop! You’ve gone the wrong way! “Di mana?” “Terus. Kanon.” We drove forward, looking for our right. The first street looked like an alley, so we paused unsure what to do, and a nine year-old boy carrying a huge stick spotted us and passionately waved us to the right. “Kanon! Kanon!” It was so amazing to have the whole community help to guide us home.

In the parking lot, we were told to park and wait. Immediately a crowd of vendors descended.

Tanya and I boarded while Andy waited in the car, hoping to get good spots onboard unlike our last trip. This ferry was twice as nice. There were bed-like areas for people to sleep for no extra cost. The seats were leather, huge and comfortable. And there was a deck with chairs where we watched the ship pull away from the dock.

Tanya’s photo

As we pushed back across the Straight of Lombok to Bali, a flock of brilliant, white herons flew past the reflected reds of sea and sky.

Tanya’s photo

The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,

And this is ocean’s poem.

            -Walt Whitman

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Camping and Snorkeling Trip to Menjangan

To get to Menjangan, you have to drive north to Labuhan Lalang and take a 30min boat ride to the island.

I organized with Nono, our amazing guide, to meet him there and do an overnight on the island, which is uninhabited because of lack of fresh water except by menjangan deer, who screech like birds. The deer survive by licking dew off of leaves in the early morning. Crazy they have adapted to be able to eek there.

We took the boat over and did our first snorkel at a place where there is an 80ft drop on one side and coral on the other. It is like being in Finding Nemo. We had great visibility but there was a ton of trash (unlike my last time at Menjangan). Nono explained that the currents had changed, bringing the trash from Bali. People routinely through garbage in rivers, believing that the cleansing power of water takes care of it, not considering impacts on the ocean.

We returned to the boat and docked on the far west side of the island where there was a new ranger station, heaps of trash and beautiful views of Bali and Java.

We were warned not too wander too far into the brush because of snakes, but there was a path between the ranger station and a Balinese temple. Wandering along it, I felt like I was in the African savannah.

The sunset over Ijen (a volcano on Java) was beautiful. Nono made us a simple dinner of noodles and eggs, the menjangan creeping closer and closer, making their eerie screeching noise.

Around 7:30 we geared up for a night snorkel. Wandering into the dark waters, five people armed with two flashlights, was surreal. The amount of life, and such different life from the earlier dive, was amazing: an eel tucked into its borrow, magnificently manned lion fish, giant puffer fish, a sea snake with a beautiful diamond pattern, giant blue sea stars, a disconcerting group of sea urchins, a stone fish I never would have noticed without our guide because of its brilliant camouflage, currents of warm and cold water changing the experience from temperate to freezing, beautiful manta shrimp, scorpion fish, massive porcupine fish and slender flute mouths. A sea cucumber that looked like a massive octopus tentacle stretched out on the ocean floor. Black coral that would spiral and unfurl its arms gracefully. My favorite moment was when we turned off our lights; when we swirled our arms, the bioluminescence looked like green fireworks. And each time I would surface, the pulsing stars overhead. A transcendent experience.

Our bonfire, fueled by the trash scraps discarded by park rangers, fisherman, and processions on their way to and from the temple, coupled with whiskey was a nice end to the night.

We slept in tents and hammocks along the beach, though the winds whipped through at over 40mph, so the hammock had to be abandoned in exchange for three people in a two-person tent in the middle of the night.

We rose with the sun climbing slowly over Bali. During our breakfast of bread, jam and boiled eggs a 4ft marlin dove out of the water in the distance.

At 8, we loaded back onto the boat and continued west around the tip of the island before doubling back on its north side.

Nono pointed out garden eels, which looked just like sea grass waving in the water, their tiny bodies swaying in search of plankton. Twenty or so squid moved past, like balloons inhaling and exhaling air in order to push through space. Large barracuda, a stingray scooting across the ocean floor and around a rock tower, a huge triggerfish, epic tabletop coral, angelfish, porcupine fish, parrot fish: thriving tropical coral.

I had hopped to see sea turtles, reef sharks and octopi on this trip, but rather than feeling discouraged, I feel invigorated by all the changing landscape and life the ocean has to offer. Not seeing them is an excuse to return to Menjangan’s screeching deer, bonfires and abundant marine life.

* Note: Our guide Nono set up the Friends of Menjangan, a nonprofit that works to protect and maintain both the island and the reef. They have installed 21 bouys, so boats can tie up instead of dropping anchors and injuring the reef. He would like install six more. He also led a team of divers to remove an invasive species of starfish that was bleaching the coral, successfully restoring the habitat through weeks of hard work. Additionally, there are educational workshops with the island’s youth. He hopes that Bali’s next generation will bring a wave of environmental consciousness. Nono is the most passionate Balinese ocean steward I have met. Check out his organization here:

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In Bali, Ancestors Walk the Earth

Ibu Ayu always greeted me with a smile. No matter how tired, her petite frame sometimes sagged under the weight of life, she would smile and ask how I was, delighting in conversations that mixed my little Indonesian and her little English. The last time I saw her, she was mopping the floor to my classroom, smiling, asking about the field trip to the butterfly park I had gone on with grade 1 that day. Did I take pictures?

That afternoon as she was leaving school, riding the winding road past rice paddies, shops and a futball field, the same drive she’d been doing for nine years, she didn’t follow the road and turn right, but instead continued straight into a deep, open drainage ditch, breaking her neck and dying almost instantly.

I had been tutoring after school and came outside to discover the Indonesian staff sitting together, quietly talking, attempting to process the tragedy. The next day, our classes made cards, talked about death and mourned the loss of Ibu Ayu and her smile.

This past Sunday, I joined most of my school’s staff—three of the bule (foreign) teachers and almost all of the Indonesians—for Ibu Ayu’s cremation. On the drive to the school, where we met, the traffic was horrific, backed up for over a mile & periodically entirely stopped. Finally I reached the cause: four, huge tourist buses that had somehow smashed into each other. The one at the back was most damaged, the front of the bus collapsed inwards, but all had shattered windows and lights. None of the accident had been removed from the street, instead cops haphazardly directed traffic through the wreckage. The sidewalks were packed with people watching, taking pictures, chatting.

Finally arriving at school, Ibu Putu graciously brought me a sarong to wear with my dark colored shirt (which she also helped me put on and tie—a feat I could not have accomplished on my own). All the women and men wore sarongs; men additionally wore traditional head wraps. Our procession to the funeral was two cars and fifteen motorbikes long.

We traveled to Ibu Ayu’s family compound, already full of neighbors and relatives. We made our way to a raised section of floor and sat cross-legged, shoeless, and cramped together. The family brought out water and snacks. A Balinese priest changed into a white long-sleeved shirt, a jeweled necklace and an ornate crown. He sat cross-legged in front of a table covered in religious objects, chanting, ringing a bell, burning incense.

Unlike a funeral service at home, there was not a somber silence. The guests chatted, exchanged stories, caught up on each other’s lives. Ibu Nia explained that the Balinese believe you should not cry at a cremation. It will confuse the spirit and make it harder for it to leave the body. When she was a girl, she had cried at her grandfather’s cremation, and her mom had ushered her away from the body, explaining intensely that she could not cry near it; they must to help its safe passage into the next world.

While the priest was chanting, there was a song/story playing out over a loudspeaker. It is a sound common at Balinese ceremonies: a retelling of the Ramayana accompanied by singing.

Some Balinese believe that when the spirit first leaves the body, it can be communicated with to find out its wishes through a medium. Ibu Nia shared about her grandfather’s passing and how they went and talked to him. Through a medium he told them what he wanted for the ceremony and reminded Nia about a ring that he had worn in life that he wanted her to keep. She said it was an amazing experience, like being in the room with him again.

When Ayu first passed, her body was taken to the hospital for a week. During that time, her family helped her spirit find its way home. First they went to the location of the accident, on the road near our school, and performed a ritual. Then they returned to the family compound and prayed and performed rituals to help her transition to the next world. The body is not allowed to be in the house during these ceremonies, which are particularly important because they help remind the spirit where the temple is in the family compound, so it is can continue to visit; in Bali ancestors walk the earth.

We sat together, snacking and chatting for two and a half hours. Then a woman brought a palm-leave talisman to the priest for a blessing on behalf of Ayu, and suddenly there was movement. In Bali it is considered bad luck to travel at noon or midnight. In order to get Ayu’s body to the cemetery before noon, we needed to leave.

Penjors (bamboo poles woven with palm leaf decorations that symbolize dragon tails) were gathered. The gamelan musicians moved to the front of the procession. The guests waited in the local banjar (neighborhood council) structure (an open air building) for the procession to begin. Ayu’s coffin was carried out of the compound and placed on top of the bade. A bade is traditional for funeral processions. At its base are bamboo poles, which male relatives and community members use to carry it. It towers in the sky and is decorated in vibrant symbols and colors. A picture of the deceased is placed on the back of the bade

and a related child—always a boy and typically a son or grandson or nephew—sits atop the coffin. Ayu’s relative was carrying a bird called manuk (bird) dewata (goddess), which makes the spirit free from sin.

When the procession began, women balancing offerings on their heads and men carrying penjors led the way. Next the gamelan musicians banging cymbols. Followed by the bade hoisted on shoulders. And then friends, family and coworkers.

On the main street, where traffic had been stopped to allow us to pass, we in the back of Ibu Ayo’s procession were quickly overtaken by another group. It was an auspicious day for cremations, so a neighboring man’s ceremony was being held at the same time. (In Bali, there are auspicious days for everything: getting a haircut, getting married, building a fishpond, cremations.) The two groups merged into one.

Women from the second procession carrying offerings

Gamelan musicians from the second procession.

The second bade in the procession.

At the intersection where we turned left to go to the cemetery, the men carrying the coffin raised and lowered the platform while turning in three circles and chanting. Ibu Putu explained that this was to let the spirit know it was time to let go. At each corner this ritual was repeated.

The cemetery was nearly-mid-day hot. The two bodies were pulled, wrapped in white fabric, from the coffins and placed on bamboo beds. People brought offerings of woven palm leaves, babi guling (roasted pig) and fruit to each of the two bodies first, and then placed them on a separate table.

After the offerings, the priest blessed the bodies with holy water. And then, as we sat under the shade of a giant tree, rice paddies behind us, the bodies were set on fire.

Pak Bayu explained that the bodies used to be burned on wood, but it took many, many hours. So starting in 1998, they began using flame throwers. At this point, many of the guests rose to leave, and Bayu nodded at Tanya and I to come, too. “If we stay, it will take two or three more hours. After the bodies have burned, they add the bade and coffins. Then the offerings. Finally, the families will collect the bones and ashes and take them in another ceremony to the river or an ocean. They will take Ibu Ayu to a river.”

Walking back in the midday heat, I felt very grateful to be able to attend this ceremony to honor Ibu Ayu and for the school community that supported me and the two other foreigners in attendance, explaining the traditions, showing us where to sit, what not to do. I felt held by the wonderful staff I am lucky to work with.

This was the second funeral I have attended in Bali. The last one, for a student’s father, was the first Hawaiian-style, surfer funeral I have been to. The family went out on a boat while hundreds of his friends stood on the shore and 30 or more friends and family paddled out on their surfboards. The surfers formed a circle, holding hands, as his widow poured his ashes and flowers in the middle: such a beautiful way to honor a man who loved to surf and loved the ocean.

In the same way, this ceremony was a beautiful honoring of Ibu Ayu and her passage from this world to the next, ensuring Ayu can always make her way back home.

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Komodo (5/28-29/12)


Flying from Bali to Flores is breathtaking— the ocean bursts with islands and phenomena like Mt. Rinjani on Lombok (the second highest volcanic crater in Indonesia, its brim filled with lakes). We arrive at one small terminal with a surprisingly large runway (proof, as we saw everywhere, of the economic boom in Flores). We walk through the single doorway into the terminal and wait for our bags to be carried inside. Immediately cigarette smoking Indonesians barter taxis price with us. 100,000rp offers one cab driver; E laughs outloud. A few yards down, we are offered a ride in a bemo (a small, normally green bus that loosely has a required route); 20,000rp for all four of us.

Boy lifting bags onto bemo.

The bemo takes us through Labuan Bajo, a dusty, frontier-feeling town, to the dive shop where we meet E’s friend Ed. Ed is tall for an Indonesian with slightly graying hair and a warm smile; he and E worked together here five years ago. Ed takes us to a snorkel rental place; Em & J are fitted (E already has his own), but I have such small feet none of their fins work. “She has Indonesian feet,” they laugh. They will give a pair to the boat captain in the morning.

Then Ed introduces us to our captain; a short man with the demeanor of a pirate. He has an inherent inability to be ruffled, which may belong to all men of the sea. What is human interaction when you’ve withstood squalls? He will pick us up tomorrow on Pungu, a small island forty-five minutes off Flores, which E’s company uses as an oyster grow-out site.

Then we meet Ir, Pungu’s manager. He is quiet, mild-mannered with a quick, sharp look and an obvious ability to understand much more English than he speaks. We wait for the bemo driver to bring back final supplies, standing on the dock until the unrelenting pulse of the midmorning sun is too much.

the bay

“How long will it be?” I ask E. He laughs. “You know; it’s Indonesia. It could be 5minutes or 5 hours.” Em spots shade nearby, and we go crowd under it, watching men weld iron for the dock expansion, kids gather plastic trash to trade for money.

Finally, the motorboat takes us out of Flores’ small bay and onto the open ocean. Ahead there is a vast expanse dotted with small islands and a handful of boats fishing or transporting people from one location to another.

Pungu is beautiful. It is tiny with eight nicely constructed bamboo houses lining the shore behind the kitchen and dinning room that jut out onto the water. There are buoys placed periodically where oyster lines hang and a large cleaning boat for the daily lifting and scrubbing of different lines required to keep the animals healthy.

Ir is a superb host. He has outfitted a house specifically for our arrival: four, brand-new, twin mattresses, new sheets and toilet paper. As we await lunch, the staff brings a thermos of hot water, coffee, tea, sugar, & mugs. A lovely afternoon treat. As we sip tea, we hear a huge heard of goats. We watch old, bearded goats and the tiny kids tottering after their moms. They are all sure-footed on rocky outcrops, just like mountain goats back home, but with the colors I associate with cows: swirling brown, white and black.

And then there is lunch: delicious cabbage and carrots, freshly grilled fish, tofu. We eat heartily and nap.

When I wake, I walk a path past the other houses and to the shore where I sit, meditating, reading, drinking in all this ocean.

When I return, Em & J are geared up for snorkeling. I change. Near the beach, in the tidal pools, there is mostly sand and swaying plants, but as we go out further, the numbers of fish multiply, and there is all this healthy sea life. I swim over a huge sea snake, its body mostly wrapped, huge and thick, around seaweed. I know they are not dangerous unless provoked, but seeing one just below makes me turn back to shore. All the crazy things that live under the surface of the water…

E pushes for a sunset hike. It is rocky & slick, but after a short ascent, we see the ocean stretching in all directions. It drives home how tiny Pungu is. The sun sets. Goats hike. I become viscerally aware of what I have known intellectually: Indonesia is a chain of islands that stretch an incredible distance. Being on Bali, you see ocean, but there is not a sense of being a part of a chain of little islands in this huge country.

JJ’s photo

On the boat the next day, looking at all these uninhabited mountains rising dramatically from the ocean, I think about the difference between the ways I love this place and the mountains back home. I realize at home all this water would be valleys and have a surreal sense of connectedness between two worlds.

Waiting for dinner back on our balcony, Ir brings five cans of Bintang. It is such a sweet and generous gesture on this island with no beer, and we each enjoy one, lukewarm and perfect in the rising darkness. A fire is lit near the kitchen to grill the fish Ir caught for dinner. We watch it roast, witness the dramatic shift of low tide (water barely covering the furthest points we snorkeled hours earlier). In the distance, the lights of Labuan Bajo. And so many southern hemisphere stars it takes away the breath.

Our boat arrives at 8am, and Ir wishes us well, helping load bags. Talking with him and finding out he is from Java, I am again aware of Indonesia as a collection of islands, as a transient population of sea people. Bali is an island devoted to its own identity– its own reverence of its own land. Most Balinese I meet have never been off the island. I had an inaccurate sense of Indonesia as a series of isolated places. I now see Bali as the exception rather than the rule, that these islands have given birth to nomadic people who somehow, which I ponder as we motor from Pungu into the expansive stretch of islands and ocean with our Indonesian flag flying proudly, has a sense of national identity.

Two hours later, we arrive at our first Komodo island: Rinca. We hike to the ranger station, where we pay entry fees (5,000rp with a work VISA, 50,000rp without) and are connected with a guide bearing a large, forked stick. The sticks are to push the necks or heads of dragons that aggressively approach. As we start out, we find five dragons (from a foot to six in length) lazing in the mid day sun under the park kitchen. The rangers do not feed them, but the komodo dragons, like snakes, use their tongues to track smells, so they end up congregated under the kitchen. *Only one dragon they feed, a large male that injured his leg fighting for breeding dominance last year. The guide indicates him and explains, “He has a broken leg,” he turns to look at us, face dropping, “and a broken heart”. This must be one of his favorite jokes, because he repeats it a few more times to make sure it sinks in.*

*As we head out of the ranger camp into the dryland jungle,* our guide shares that yesterday a fellow guide was bitten by a dragon; it rushed him from the bushes. Komodos are not poisonous, but they have over fifty strains of bacteria in their mouths, which immediately start to rot away flesh and cause disease. Komodos are normally slow, lumbering creatures that walk like doping weight lifters. They hunt by laying in wait for prey near watering holes. When prey gets close, komodos sprint at twenty miles per hour, delivering a slowly fatal bite. The water buffalo or deer limp away as the dragon follows in the distance, smelling its dying prey. Yesterday’s unlucky guide was put on a boat to Labuan Bajo and then a flight to Bali, the only place the required medicines are available.

In America, the medications would be nearby, ready to administer. But in America, too, there is no way this hike would happen. A guide with a forked stick leading tourists through an area where it is entirely possible a large lizard could attack from the bushes? No way. I pick up a stick just in case. Want to give myself a fighting chance, since I suck at climbing trees.

Dragons, when they are born, are in immediate danger of being eaten by just about everything, including their parents, so they have the evolutionary ability to climb trees. They keep this ability until they are about three years old, and then they become too large to climb, growing into the massive land animals with which we are familiar.

After saying goodbye to our guide at the ranger station, on our ¼ of mile walk back to the boat, we pause on a small bridge to watch fish in a tiny creek and mudskippers(fish with legs). As we stand taking pictures and talking near some European tourists, the girl asks, “Do you see the dragon?” We look up and realize that one is lumbering out of the woods towards us, probably headed to the kitchen to join his fellow lizards in wait. “Jesus,” says J, “It’s funny how when we said goodbye to our guide, it was like walking out of an amusement park. Like ‘oh, the rides over; let’s go back to the car’ and an immediate sense of safety descended. When really, I should be more scared right now. I don’t have a large forked stick or a guide.” We walk quickly back to our boat.

On board, the captain and his crew member somehow managed, on a single burner, to create a feast: tofu and fish in sauce, stewed vegetables, rice, noodles, and sliced cucumbers. We enjoy our meal while speeding across the ocean.

Next we stop at Pink Beach for snorkeling. It is one of the conservation successes in Komodo. Instead of dropping anchor, our captain ties to an existing buoy. My fins have not arrived, but the water is calm and the coral breathtakingly amazing: the most healthy, undamaged coral I have seen. Diverse and vibrant schools of fish swim throughout the reef. *Parrot fish, surgeonfish, trigger and puffer fish. Serpentine pipefish with long stem-like jaws and a tiny mouth. Wrasses darting in and out of the gaps in the corals. Clownfish hiding in the protective custody of anemones. Small grouper warily keep their distance.* Em even sees a manta ray. Pink Beach is so named because of the red coral that breaks down naturally and coats the beach with a pink hue.

By the time we redock, a canoe had pulled up with a man selling wares. Pearl necklaces, carved wooden dragons. Are we interested? Em likes a pearl necklace, which E & the seller confirmed to be legitimate. She is the shrewdest barter I have ever seen in action. She decides on a price and is unwilling to budge. So either she walks (or in this case, he would untie his canoe from our boat) or they bite. As he leaves, Emily wearing her necklace, he says to E, “She is really good at that.”

Motoring to our next location, a school of dolphins come into view. We anchor for the night, dolphins dancing on the horizon as the sun starts to set. E and J take turns on the SUP around the nearby island, E catching up with the dolphins, hoping they will play, but finding them intent on catching fish.

Dinner is the same delicious meal, complimented by Bintang besar. E gets the wild idea to go out SUPing in the dark, which we think is a terrible idea. When he comes back, he describes all the bioluminescence. Anybody else? I put on my swimsuit.

Paddling away from the ship in the dark is a terrifying moment: alone in the thick of night on an ocean far from home. When I escape the boat’s light, I see the bioluminescence; it is magical. I paddle, watching the brilliant green swirl, and then just stop, kneel down, and move the water with my hand. It is a transcendent experience.

J goes next and comes back radiant. We talk and laugh until late, and then make our beds (sheets over mats on the deck). For the first time in my life, I fall asleep on the rocking of the ocean.

We wake at 3:30am to rain. Pull down tarps draped from the roof and lashed to posts. It is an arduous experience; even after the rain had stopped, the first mate is still on the side of the boat with his flashlight between his teeth, tying up the tarp.

I cannot get back to sleep and lay listening to the rain. The rocking of the boat. My friend’s dreams. When first light hits, I rise and sit on the banister, watching the nearby island where flying foxes call and circle. E wakes, “You want to paddle?”

As the sun rises, I glide over clear, coral rich waters around an island where flying foxes swoop, watching fish dive and rise. I see something five or six feet in length. ‘Is that a harmless fish or shark?’ I think.

I return in time for noodles, and we are off, motoring along the edge of Komodo. The sky is perfectly overcast. Our new guide again warns us of the attack two days before, and then we are off.

Immediately, we spot deer. The jungle is thicker, more lush than yesterday. Around a corner, we stumble upon a huge komodo six feet or so in length. We stop to take pictures, and I pick up a stick. Knowing how fast they can dash, the guide’s lackadaisical relationship with it makes me keep a wary eye.

As we rise out of the forest, cockatoos sing across the morning sky. Komodo Island is home to over 150 species of birds.

I move to the front and start to talk to the guide in Indonesian. At some points, I lose the details of the conversation and only understand the ideas, but it is lovely. Guide, stick in hand, black bird with a yellow breast swooping over, and us communicating in his native tongue.

After our tour, we walk by myriad stalls, pedaling identical wares. In this din, a man E used to work with in Flores five years ago spots him. They embrace warmly.

Back on the boat, we make our way to where the manta rays often are (you can jump in and snorkel along the current with them for awhile, and then the boat will pick you up, depositing you at another twist the mantas have taken to continue to swim with them), the waves grow large and choppy. The boat seems to rock almost horizontally. We watch the captain. If he shows any fear, we know to move closer to the SUP and prepare to grab hold of it as a flotation device, but he stays stoic, calm.

We did not spot any mantas, but the captain drops anchor and invites us to get in and snorkel. The current is strong, and I was without flippers, so even as I get in and try to swim away from the boat, I find myself in all-out crawl stroke (arms and legs pushing), barely moving. ‘F…’ I think. As I drift back towards the ship, looking to see my flippered brethren in the distance, I decide to call it, but the captain throws me a life preserver attached to the rope, indicating I should grab hold and drift. So I hold on and let the current take me, observing beautiful, damaged coral. Our captain has tossed the anchor in a bed of healthy coral, so I realized with a pang, we just killed a chunk of it with our stop. When the rope comes to its end, I hold on with my right arm and kick to relieve the drag, watching the wildlife below. For 10min, it is amazing, and then I start to think about how, if I lost hold of this life preserver, I would be sent out into an endless sea. So I surface, wave to the captain, and he pulls me in.

Eventually E comes back happy as a clam but with sore calves, having dived down to look at all the sea life and spotted a large school of mutton snapper, a stingray and wild pearl oyster shell.

Then the waves pick up, so I try to meditate. It is a painful, incessant series of rocks. I lie, grimacing. “You looked like you were crying on the inside,” E says later, which is an apt description. Luckily he has some anti-nausea pills, so by the time we near Flores, I feel settled, strong.

We hike up a hill to our hotel, a bright green building with a pool that’s been transformed into a pond. AC and towels make us feel like we’re living large. We head back into town for a drink,

and make our way up steep, stone steps to a lounge filled with backpackers, mellow music, and wifi. When E lived here five years ago, it was only him and one other buleh (foreigner) on the island. There was one dark, dirty bar in town that he never visited. Now we are sitting in an open-air lounge with wifi and fifteen other foreigners. Labuan Bajo is changing, rapidly.

I pick our dinning location because it looks like a hippie tree house and has a view of the ocean. We watch sunset on the bay from the second floor and order delicious food from a menu this restaurant has taken and copied from another, so most of the items offered on it are not actually available. They serve us a glass of arak (an Indonesian homebrew distilled from palm sap) that must be 100 proof and comes in a pint glass without a mixer for only $1. Crazy. We all share one and then make our way back up the hill to our hotel.

In the morning we catch a flight home. The whole way, E and I talk about Flores, its transformations, and the possibilities of our own future paths. Flying over Indonesia’s myriad islands (there are over 17,500 that make up the archipelago), the future’s infinite possibilities seem so present, so real, so endless.

* The parts between these stars* were additions by Evan Durland.

Many thanks to JJ & Emily Clark and Evan for their photos.

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