Day 9: Ubud, Monkey Chanting & the Fire Dance

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(HW pp. 32>37, 12-7-13, Saturday, 1.2 hr.)

A relatively chill day, especially, compared to what we’ve been through. Laurie and I are growing closer than ever – no fighting or tension whatsoever.

Me: "I've been thinking."

Laurie: "What's new?"

Me: "It's so nice here. And that village ceremony is calling me. How about extending our stay at the Villa an extra night?"

Laurie: "My sentiments exactly."

Laurie meets with the concierge. We can stay an extra day, but must give up a $75 deposit that we provided at the beach hotel.

Me: "Who cares about a little money compared to a 'village ceremony'."

 

We meet our neighbors at breakfast – a Korean couple who is living in Bangkok and a Singaporian couple on a weekend getaway – just married, a small child at home with the grandparents. In a comparison of travel times: a 6-hour flight direct from Bangkok, a 2-hour flight direct from Singapore, and a 24-hour+ journey from Santa Barbara.

 

Laurie and her Cup of Coffee

The Villa’s shuttle bus takes all three couples to Ubud’s tourist center. On the way, Dana, the bus driver, strikes up a conversation with me.

After asking the standard questions: where we're from, where we're staying, and how long we're going to be here, he asks: "Do you like it?"

Me: "Everything has been better than perfect, except for one thing. Laurie, my boss, hasn't had a good cup of coffee."

Dana's face rises with a huge ocular smile: "Then come to my home for coffee tomorrow morning. Dana's coffee is good. Drink 3 cups a day."

Me: "Where do you live?"

Dana: "In the village above Sarna."

Me: "The little village on top of the ridge?"

Dana: "Right. Do you know it?"

Me: "Aren't you having a ceremony tomorrow night."

Dana: "Yes. Would you like to come?"

Me: "We actually postponed our stay at the Villa Sarna, so that we could experience the village festival. One of your friends told us about it."

Dana beams another of his heart warming smiles. "Coffee with Dana tomorrow?"

Laurie and I look at each other knowingly. Silently, we agree enthusiastically.

Me: "What time?"

Dana: "9AM."

Me: "We'll be there. The boss needs coffee."

The Sacred Monkey Forest

Dana drops Laurie and I off at the Monkey Forest Temple, while the others go on to the main street. A countless number of monkeys of all ages begging for handouts and even stealing your food. Although warned, a quick monkey was able to steal an entire bunch of bananas from Laurie as she was guarding her produce from another monkey. When I appear threatening, perhaps to retrieve the stolen goods, the monkey thief first tried to scare me away by making threatening gestures, making himself large. When that didn’t work, exasperated he bared his teeth at me in a ferocious pose. “Stay away. These are mine. I stole them fair and square.”

     

Aggressive Monkey

There were also monkey mothers and their babies – certainly a big draw.

Mother Monkey and her Babies

However, this was no mere park. Paths led in multiple directions. There are ancient mangan trees, mini-lagoons, creeks, and stone pathways.

     

Ornate stone carvings decorate many surfaces in the multileveled landscape. Expressive Makura balustrades, unique from any I’ve seen, guide us from one level to another. A life-size serpent and snake guard a tributary to a small creek. The rendition is realistic, not stylized like much of the statuary.

     

At the end of our explore, we climb some stone stairs and arrive at an active crematorium, complete with graveyard and inner courtyard. It seems that this is where the religious ceremony presumably occurs. Although we can see in, the gates are locked to tourists. Only the initiated, the believers, can enter in.

     

On the outside walls beneath the raised platform of the courtyard, are striking and explicit scenes from Hindu Hell. Adam/Eve-ish figures are seemingly expelled from Paradise. A demon penetrates a naked woman from behind. In similar fashion, a demon thrusts a pole into a woman’s sexual areas, while another is fed to crocidiles – cheery scenes indeed.

     

Then out onto the streets of Ubud for a traditional yuppie shopping experience. What a contrast!

Shops and more shops with high quality items. Signs are mostly in English, obviously catering to the tourist trade, especially Australians. Cab drivers are everywhere, offering tours of the city. One of cab drivers is Wayan, the young man we met in the small village on the first afternoon. He recognizes us and tells about another performance that evening. After deliberating over lunch, we decide to attend.

Most menus are in both Balinese and English with typical offering of nouvelle cuisine, comfort food and local faire. All the meals we had were beautifully presented at reasonable prices. The exchange rate is good. We were especially impressed with Northwest style capuccinos and the black rice pudding that we had for dessert. Yum!

     

Sprinkled throughout the streets are mothers with a single child perhaps laying on the street begging for money. There are no men, no drunkards. The mother/child duos look quite pathetic, but not starving. Because of the similarity of the form, we suspect begging serves as a source of supplemental income for the family.

We buy a few items from the polite vendors, a hat for me and some trinkets for Laurie. One vendor even offers a price and suggests that we bargain. We go to the City Center to catch the shuttle bus back to the Villa.

It seems that Rena, our bus driver, is of Indian descent. His family lived under the Majapahit Empire until driven to Bali by the Muslims some five hundred years ago.

“Where were you before that?” I queried.

“My family came from Southern India to Java one thousand years ago.”

“In what capacity? Traders?”

“As Brahmin priests.”

Hindu missionaries from India. What an ancestry!

Back at the Villa, we take a swim in the Villa’s lagoon style swimming pool that is guarded and watered by Ganesha, the elephant headed god.

Villa Sarna Pool

We order room service for dinner. It’s getting to be a habit. A clear broth with noodles and shredded chicken; a crispy duck with spicy sauce; spicy dipping sauces served in banana leaves and mango shakes. All quite flavorful.

[An immediate aside: seems as if I’m hearing some local chanting and music now at 6AM sunrise as I'm journaling. Now fading.]

Taking a nap, I'm awakened by a strange annoying repetitive sound. Slipping into consciousness, I think it is Laurie's alarm clock, which has jarred me from slumber so many times. Then I think it must be some kind of construction. The Villa's front desk informs me that it is a single insect. "Don't worry. It only goes on for an hour, at a different place everyday." A small price to pay for our time in Paradise.

Annoying Insect Sound

Midway through,We arrange for a driver to take us into town for the performance. Certainly like nothing I’ve ever seen. We climb some steep stairs and enter through a ornately carved stone gates of an seemingly ancient temple complex, almost standard by now. The ceremony is held in the open courtyard with fold-up chairs in a full semi-circle around the stage. Really old ladies offer beer, soft drinks, or water for sale. The performance commences with a Buddhist blessing this Hindu ceremony.

     

An uncountable number of men (perhaps 40 or 50) emerge from between elaborately decorated gates that are set about 5 to 10 feet above the audience. They walk and creep down the stairs until they surround a central altar, likened to a campfire. The men are dressed simply, naked on top, sarong on the bottom. Their ages range from 20 to 70 in all stages of fitness, from muscular to fat. Evidently they are meant to represent the monkeys in the story of the Ramayana. Their movements throughout the hour and half performance are thoroughly choreographed in the sense that the collective gestures are precise and deliberate.

     

Monkey Chanters

The men begin chanting – perhaps simulating monkeys chattering in the jungle. But again their chanting is very precise, including the type of random sounds that can be made. It is obvious that long hours of practice time have gone into the precision of their sounds and movements. Although there is much room for error, all men start of stop in unison – wild cries from one section are followed by everyone sighing, gurgling, or making other unimaginable sounds. The sections also talk back and forth – front to back, side-to-side and in-between to in-between. There is incredible variation in their chanting all sung along with the ritualized movements. The monkey men perform their dance/chant throughout the performance. Swaying as if in trees. Lying down in a circle – heads in laps, then suddenly standing and fighting.

The performance was based upon a scene for the Ramayana. First, a dramatic appearance by the demon king Ravana. He emerges through the same raised gates as the monkey men.

Ravana in the Balinese Play

The costumes of all the dance/actors are elaborate and unique – very few similarities between them. Ravana, the Demon king laughs diabolically as he attempts to trick Sita into believing that Rama is dead. To dispel her hope, Ravana shows Rama’s decapitated head to Sita.

Sita in the Balinese Play

As Sita attempts to stab herself, in stylized Balinese dance style; a white ghost-like dancer grabs her hand. Hanuman the white monkey arrives to inform her that Rama is coming to save her.

Hanuman in the Balinese Play

Again, these are suggestive movements. No words are spoken or even sung. Sounds, gestures and costumes indicate what is happening. It is presupposed that the viewer is well acquainted with the tale. Rama and his brother are trapped; Garuda, a divine bird, helps to saves them; and a booming demon giant enters the fray on Ravana’s side.

Rama

The monkey/men arise to assist in overwhelming the monstrous demon. After killing the demon with his arrow, Rama slaps the dead body and sends his ghost to heaven. The performance is seemingly over.

The Monkey-men don’t leave the stage, but just move to the back. A load of coconut husks is dropped in the middle of the performance area. A Buddhist monk blesses them. A bonfire is lit. An MC comes on stage to tell the audience that this is not just a performance for tourists, but instead an important ritual that has deep meaning in the lives of the Buddhist/Hindu locals.

Fire of Coconut Husks

A barefooted man dressed as a stylized horse dances out and kicks the burning coals around – even startling some of the audience, as the hot coals come within a yard of us.

The Fire Kicker

Two men shovel the coals back in the pile. The ritualized horse-man kicks husks again. The sweepers reassemble the glowing stack.

Fire Sweepers

The kicking/sweeping process is repeated quite a few times. Finally, two other men emerge from the sidelines to capture and subdue the horse-man. Another day in Bali.

 

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