Life lessons from the real Bali

After arriving in Seminyak and the warmth and ice-lattes had done their work I began to crave something more. There is a place for sun loungers, a rack of smokey sticky ribs from the famous Hog Wild and daily massages but pretty quickly my toes start to wiggle and I want to get out of the tourist bustle.

I looked up Bali food tours and came across Bali Sunday Morning tours. The website showed a young guy with a huge smile and photos of people who looked like they were having a great time together. His blurb was simple and punchy. He wanted to show people the real Bali, the when you wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning and look out over the peaceful rice fields and watch the sunrise Bali. It was a no-brainer. I was in.

Berlin (yes his dad likes capital cities) and his cousin Wahyu picked me up already sweaty in the morning heat in their pristine silver Daihatsu for my personal tour (because they said they didn’t want to make it awkward by having someone else come along). With beats to rock to and aircon blaring, we zipped through Seminyak and soon moved out of the tourist zone. Berlin had excellent English and the love the boys had for each other was obvious when Berlin gently helped Wahyu finds words when he got stuck. They joked with me about taking me to secret locations they couldn’t tell me the names of, and I relaxed in the backseat sharing some of my stories and enjoying the banter and giving over control.

Berlin and Wahyu getting ready to tuck in

Pulling up at our first stop a huge ‘whomping willow like’ tree brought welcome shade for our walk to the women sweating over the coals. Turning smoking sticks of meat with bare hands, the women were shy but finally allowed me a photo, giggling like children. Here we would sit around a basic stone table amongst locals who nodded om swastiastu and inspire our tongues with firey, garlicy, sweetness — plate-lickable sate like I’ve never eaten before. We grinned at each other with loud mmmms on our lips, sipping our coconut water from the coconuts now empty and discarded in a heap against the stone wall.

It was here that my life lessons from Bali properly began. I was curious particularly about Balinese culture — the bubbling beautiful cauldron of magical, superstitious, religious beliefs and folklore. I had had an introduction at the yoga retreat the last time I had come but I wanted to know more. And so Berlin and Wahyu began to teach me under the shade of the sacred tree.

The Balinese believe in God called the One, in Balinese: Ida Sang Hyang Widhi. The One is in everything and that is why you connect with your karma through everything. There is a saying here ‘tatwam asi’ that means you are me and me is you. Later in the week I would think of this as my driver to Amed, who is about 25 and lives a life by and in the ocean, tells me he tries to become a better person by doing good to others everyday. Similarly in Amed the homestay owner tells me he wants me to enjoy being in his home. He even offers to find me a new hotel if after a few hours I am not happy. There’s a deep integrity in people.

Berlin tells me about Trisula. There is a saying here that if you do without spirituality then you will get blind. If you only do spirituality then you will go crazy. The Trisula is like a cross, a swastika, that points up towards God, horizontally for humanity and down for nature. It’s a guide for how to live your life in balance. It makes me think about my life at home. I’ve been lucky to fill my life with rich friendships and deep conversations. I love trying to solve the world’s problems over a cup of tea, and I’m drawn to helping others. But what about the other parts of the Trisula? How much time do I spend in nature? How much time do I spend in connection with my spirituality? These things often fall away in the busyness of city life.

For a moment I zoom out and am struck by the beauty of this conversation. Two young men deeply connected to their culture and religion, gifting me with a life audit. It seems natural for them to talk about these types of things. It’s as though they regularly assess their lives by these values, asking themselves how am I living today? Culture and religion seems plaited into Bali, like blood running through its veins. And its people are the arms and legs living it and the mouth sharing its stories. They have given me much to think about.

As we begin our walk to the car, the boys tell me about the big tree we’ve been under that is protected within the stone walls. They say it houses a spirit that mirrors your own. The spirit shows itself as a beautiful woman or as an angry witch, depending on your spirit or energy. I wondered what it would show for me. I suppose in all the ‘doing’ back home you forget a little about the ‘being’. And yet isn’t your energy what people sense in you and the most important thing. The tree had a pull, the roots that weave around each other to create the trunk and rise up to dwarf you and your significance. We stand side-by-side gazing into it wishing to see something before pulling ourselves away. Back to the car for a quick drive to our next stop.

We pull in through an unassuming archway to stop at a stall next to a large empty community meeting space. Stepping out a looming animal statue is ready to rip us apart with an oversized foot and claws. We get gentle nod from a lady stirring and grinding spices in a large mortar and pestle and join a couple of guys lapping up what’s in their plates and smoking. Cool dudes. After taking our seat we choose our fruit. Then chop-flicking it into the bowl with a sharp knife she looks around nonchalantly and then stirs it to squeeze the delicious spices into the fruit juices. It’s clear she does this everyday. Nothing special. But for us, it’s dessert. Wahyu, who I soon learn loves his food, practically inhales it.

Zipping around Balinese streets I soon get another lesson on Bali — what Berlin calls the ’Power of the Mama’. It seems here in Bali mothers hold a lot of power; the Mama is always right, even if, Berlin exclaims cackling, you are sure she is wrong. For me, this not only evokes images of strong women leading families and communities, but also of my dad’s jokes at home, as he says to my mum ‘Yes dear!” with a cheeky twinkle or “If your wife wants yellow curtains and you want blue curtains, you get yellow curtains”. Yes dad is surrounded by strong women and knows just when to step in and step back. We love him to bits. As we cross the street at a pedestrian crossing, one motorbike continues from the pack and whizzes through, narrowly missing us. Berlin and Wahyu look at each other and then at me and shout ‘The power of the mama!’. And we laugh and laugh.

What struck me the most about the day was how natural it was. One minute the boys were telling me stories and complex historical or religious information and the next we were sitting on Wahyu’s verandah slipping in and out of a delicious snooze. On our walk through the rice fields bordering their village in the afternoon, we meet a little old lady cleaning around a little temple with a roadmap of life deep in her tiny face and a huge smile. With pride gleaming through her shiny tiny round eyes, she gushes about her grandchildren through gums and occasional slurps through where her teeth used to be. Berlin respectfully listens and smiles along with her and later translates for me with a respect that I’m sure comes from growing up with and around your community elders.

And so it came to be that at the end of the day watching the sunset over the rice fields on the rooftop of Berlin’s uncle’s soon-to-be villa I learned about their spiritual teacher. Balinese people often consult a spiritual person, a Balian when making life decisions or to find out about their life karma. Berlin and Wahyu were perplexed. They had been told some news about their business and they wanted some advice. Tonight was the night. Of course I asked if I could go along. We hatched our plan over delicious Bali takeaway — Babi guling wrapped in a banana leaf.

…to be continued

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