Our hut stood precariously on a tiny penninsula between the ocean and a small, freshwater lake. However, being housed so close to the waves was a thrilling experience, and we would only be here for eight days.
The peninsula was gradually being claimed by the ocean. A great deal of work was being done to slow the speed with which the inevitable would happen. Balinese girls worked conscientiously carrying pans of cement and rocks on their heads in flowing, single-file formation while the men constructed walls. I contributed to the effort to earn my keep and get into the spirit of the Ashram's principles. Apart from the threat from the ocean, the freshwater lake was hungry for a conclusion. Viewed from the top of the hill behind us, it was clear that the row of diligently constructed huts, between the shimmering blues and greens of the lake on one side and the infinite grey-green sea on the other, could not be saved for long by walls.
Rising before dawn to join the prayers, it was a challenge to navigate in the darkness across the garden to the little building which housed the altar and the library. The hiss of the waves stroking the sand set the scale, counterpointing with our spiritual melody. Little by little the sky woke up the miriad of colours around us, note by note, until the singing was done. Then the world was ours again; the sea now diminished into sparkles; our feet visible on the pathways.
'You look like a real Balinese lady,' says Ibu Oka as I approach the breakfast table in my sarong kabaya, 'Come, sit down, join us.’ The smell of the hot coffee circulates on the gentle morning breeze.
‘Emma is an artist and a singer, Susan is an architect, Judith is a nurse, Peter has just started college.'
Bathed in our exquisite surroundings, everything open to the sky, specific details seem inappropriate and an intrusion; even a corruption of the truth. The truth is, we are all students; novices in life. But the genteel Ibu Oka enjoys a little old-fashioned grandiosity. Every day she rises for the dawn prayers, first ravelling up her river of black hair that is streaked with silver and almost reaches the floor. Then she wraps her tiny, lithe body in adept folds of batik fabric. Next, she leads everyone in prayer, her own voice reedy and strong. She will finish with specific prayers for pressing concerns. Just now she is most worried about the cinema being built not half a mile away from the Ashram and the trouble it will bring. But she also prays that the sea will be kind to her huts which provide some income for the Ashram. She truly believes her prayers will work; she has to, as she is a role model for those in her care. There is Sitep, whose mother abandoned her because she sees fairies, and whose fingers work like magic with strips of palm leaf to form magnificent altar offerings. I took a picture of her with a huge tray of glasses balanced on her head, trying not to laugh too much. Then there is Leci who breaks the heart of every man who sees her with her perfect features and her exquisite dancing. Her brother owes his life to Ibu; she enables him to spend his hours carving bowls from coconut shells and embossing their curves with Sanskrit. All this taken into account, she commands the table at mealtimes unchallenged by her youthful companions.
Today we have arranged a trip to a black beach in search of underwater delights. Ibu tells us the reef there is untouched by the coral pickers who have blighted the best of the reef on this part of the coast. Indeed it
has been a disaster. Old women come with their skirts gathered into hammocks moving up and down the shallow water picking up pink coral that has been brought in by the tide. But these are just the spoils of the more determined who go out in boats with sharp implements to hack away. Their boats are painted with the mythical half-elephant, half-fish and the prows have eyes giving them powers to see in the dark. The coral goes to the people who build roads. No doubt soon they'll need to build a road to the cinema.
Ibu Oka despairs. When we have eaten our fill of black rice pudding and tomato jam, we prepare for the trip. A driver has been found from the village, but Ibu warns us to discourage him from running over animals. This is because, recently, a party of primary aged children, fresh from the closeted condominiums of Singapore, screamed in horror as one of her men drove unflinchingly over a creature that had ventured onto the road. He cared little, but later stopped mechanically to make offerings on the roadside altar. Our bags packed, we boarded the mini-bus and set off in the direction of our special location. On the way the driver told us in broken English that he couldn't wait for the cinema to be finished, how wonderful was this modern technology that would bring the rest of the world to his doorstep. He remembered the arrival of electricity with delight and was excited by the hotels springing up all along the coastline. I was amused when he told us that Ibu Oka's people sneaked out without her knowledge to taste ice-creams in these new places with refrigerators. I remembered a little piece of culinary history I'd seen: an ice house hidden in the wilderness garden of a Welsh castle, its entrance shaped in brick to mimic an igloo.
Being opposed to the cinema was evidently a position maintained from a standpoint of privilege on Ibu Oka's part. She was immensely learned and had travelled to America and Europe as well as her beloved India. Her devotion to the teachings of Gandhi were the result of a long view gained from many years of experience, but also from a position of relative priviledge. Her subjects had not had the benefit of that experience. We were amused by their transgressions away from the rationed rice bowls.
Our journey almost over, we crossed a junction, passing a small eating establishment advertising 'Fresh Fish Water'. We chuckled at the mistake as the bus descended to the beach. Behind us towered Gunung Agung, the largest volcano on the island. Sacred to the islanders, the now inactive volcano is, we are told, the navel of the world, and the father of all creation. The great temple of Besakih sits half way up its slopes.
The remarkable thing about the beach was its black sand, a testament of the volcanic life of the island. Bali owes much of its blessings to the eruption of volcanoes, though only one of them is still active. It is one of the most fertile places on earth. There is almost nothing that cannot grow here. There are two thousand square miles of lusciously fertile land, most of it cultivated, and much of that cultivation done with respect and love for the land. The decorative terraces of the rice paddies are perhaps the most memorable vision taken home by the visitor - the multiplicity of reflective pools, each painted with an ever-changing image of the sky.
We settled our things on the beach among the rocks, weighing our clothing down with large pebbles as we prepared to swim. No one else was around. The driver would return later. It was hard not to expect the black sand to dirty our feet. Looking at it closely you could see that, in fact, the grains were a multitude of colours dominated by a dark dust - dust from the bowels of the earth. The sun didn't seem to know how to cast light onto its surface, playing tricks on our eyes as the breakers brought each fresh soaking.
I had done a certain amount of snorkelling before and enjoyed it immensely - delighting in the otherworldliness of the underwater experience, the silent kingdom. But nothing had primed me for what I was to discover here. Wading out until waist deep I didn't realise how long and to what degree I would leave behind all sense of the here and now. Putting my face in the water and adjusting my mask for comfort, then checking the angle of my air tube I began to acclimatise. At first, close to the shore, there was little of interest to be seen. As I swam further out, however, coral formations and plant life began to appear before me. Then with astonishment I was alerted to the unique experience this strange place had to offer. As I swam further the first fish came into sight. Yet it was not just the fish, but the way that they were illuminated by the black background, that mesmerised me. The iridescent colours of fish from this part of the world are stunning to see in any context, but this setting was surely a very rare vision. They seemed part of a surrealist painting, vivid and entrancing, elusive and mysterious. Swimming through shafts of light I followed them, startling more of them from their hideouts. My heart would pound at the sudden flash of a shoal of small silvery bodies seeming not to notice me, coming within a yard of my face. There were strange, sometimes unidentifiable creatures creeping along the sea bed; some I knew to avoid for their poisonous quills, so stopping to rest was a dangerous business. The landscape beneath me became gradually more complex, as if I were approaching a great city from the suburbs. Rock formations and corals grew larger and larger and the variety of sea life multiplied vastly. I turned around and around in places where the natural architecture intrigued me, trying to take stock of what I saw, picking over the rock surfaces with my fingers. Of course the water was getting deeper all the time. Then suddenly, and without a trace of a clue to indicate what was to come, everything that was firm and solid utterly disappeared from view. I was faced with an emptiness and vastness I'd never experienced. The underwater cavern reached down and down and I floated above, dizzy and petrified. Who could tell what lurked in those depths - I resisted visualising my worst imaginings. I believed that there was room in there for the Titanic. I raised my head out of the water and squirmed about like a fish caught in a net, looking all around me to find some sense of place. For a few seconds there seemed to be none, only the dazzle of the water's surface and the blinding rays of the sun. I caught sight of someone else swimming a little way away and then could see in which direction the shore lay. I swam in that direction steadily, breathing rhythmically.
Comfort came in the form of a large sun-warmed towel and a firm place to sit; the familiarity of my back pack - an old friend. Even struggling to unzip it, which had come to be a frustration on this trip, was now a deep joy. I refused to look out to sea for a while or at the volcano behind me. No one else mentioned the abyss when we came to talk about what we had seen, eating our Ashram packed lunch. I took solace in the thought of the human hands that had wrapped the palm leaves around the sticky rice to make them into glutinous solid shapes, and the process by which they had been steam cooked. I relished the tiny orange banana, a gift to the palette.
Accepting the whispered apology of the lapping waves I gradually relaxed.
The journey home was a bumpy ride. Feeling less comfortable, my hair stiffened with salt water and feet stuck with sand, nails gritty, I looked forward to a much needed wash. The narrowing late afternoon light drew us home, where we separated to dress for supper. Within each hut is a little tiled room with a ‘mandi’; a tank of water siphoned off from the freshwater lake. To wash, you must stand next to the tank and, using a plastic scoop with one straight handle, throw quantities of water over yourself - a bracing experience. The water then navigates its way across the tiles and out through an open drain on the floor to be absorbed by the sand.
After we had moved away from supper we sat on the stone steps leading down to the beach. We marvelled at the southern hemisphere stars, the Milky Way - a stretch of clustered pin-pricks of light. We all spotted shooting stars, a not uncommon phenomenon in this part of the world, but our starved western hearts still craved their luck. It occurred to me at that moment that the shooting stars offered by Bali were a fair exchange for the cinematic experience arriving from the West; for it is a well known cliché that many visitors coming to this part of the world are looking for new experiences.
However, when I extinguished the lamp in my room that night and climbed in underneath the mosquito net, all I could think of was the abyss.
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