Milestones

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The life of every Balinese Hindu is marked by a series of ceremonies beginning at birth and ending with the final cremation rite. In between are a number of significant occasions that track the person’s growth as an individual and community member. This week I happened to see the two such ceremonies. Together they represent the bookends of childhood: the first welcomed a three-month old infant into his world and community, the second signaled a young woman’s arrival as a mature adult.

Balinese child-rearing practices stress the constant presence and affection of family and friends. Babies are held almost constantly, safe from both spiritual and physical danger. This protectiveness is especially important for very young infants, whose souls are not completely settled in their new forms and are therefore vulnerable to malevolent spirits. For the first few months of life the child is not allowed to touch the ground and receives few outside visitors. At twelve and forty-two days after birth, ceremonies are performed both to protect the child and to cleanse the mother, who is considered impure after giving birth. The most elaborate ceremony is held at three months, when the child officially joins his community.

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When I arrived at the family compound, special precautions were still in place because of the infant’s presence. I stopped to touch the kitchen pavilion, a brief gesture that insures the guest’s spiritual cleanliness. The child was nowhere in sight, kept inside with his immediate family before his big debut. A group of priests soon arrived to prepare for the complex ceremony, which began with a procession around the family compound. The group stopped to sprinkle holy water, carefully purifying every corner of the home. Next the three-month old child was brought outside and formally introduced to his village community. His parents placed small gold rings around his ankles and wrists. Then in the safe embrace of his young cousin, the child touched the ground for the first time. A woven basket, traditionally used for keeping chickens, was briefly lowered over the pair and then lifted to symbolize the child’s world becoming open and unbounded. On the ground beneath them was the image of a turtle, which in Balinese mythology carries the world on its back.

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To give the baby boy a taste of what he has to look forward to, he was presented with offerings representing all the fruits of Balinese life. A coconut was cracked open so he could taste the sweet juice for the first time. An egg, a mangosteen, a roasted chicken, and various other foods were briefly touched to his lips.

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The rain drizzled continuously and the baby cried, but the ceremony pressed on. The child and his entourage moved back and forth between the family temple and a small pavilion where a priest performed blessings. Most of the guests opted to keep dry and stay out of the way. Their presence was important, but the actual motions of the ritual were left to priests and immediate family.

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This child will have another smaller ceremony in a few months to mark his first birthday on the 210-day Balinese calendar. After that, his next milestone will come around puberty, when his teeth are filed down to mark his transition into adulthood. Luckily I didn’t have to wait for that baby boy to grow up to witness this famous rite of passage; a young woman in my local village was having her teeth filed that same week.

While the baby’s three-month ceremony involved a lot of waiting around on my part, my second ceremony of the week came as a surprise. My teacher, Subandi, woke me at 6 AM to go play music for a tooth-filing ceremony. The traditional accompaniment for this occasion is gender wayang music, an old and very technically challenging form of Balinese music performed by either two or four musicians. As a gender (pronounced ‘gen-dayr’ with a hard ‘g’) player, Subandi is expected to play for many ceremonies in the village. Normally he would do this with his father or another local musician, but recently he has been inviting me to come play as well. Here we are playing a short piece called “Krepetan,” which literally means, “the sound of a crackling fire.”

We played non-stop for the entire ceremony while a group of men took turns chanting and singing text from the Hindu epics. The desired effect of all this sound and activity is called ramai, which means busy and full. Nobody was listening all that carefully (which was a relief for me); we were there to create an appropriately ramai atmosphere for the pleasure of both humans and gods.

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While we worked our way through my limited repertoire, a young woman entered the compound and laid down on a mattress set up under the central pavilion. The priest filed down the tips of her canines, symbolically removing her animal nature. Her village now expects her to control her emotions and take responsibility for her actions.
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A village official was on hand to take care of the paper work. The woman left the compound in a small parade, now an adult in the eyes of her community. The procession was our cue to play fast and loud for a few minutes, then our part was done. I was left to sip my coffee in a stranger’s home, while villagers toted off the instruments and life went back to normal.

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As always, I am struck the willingness of most Balinese to share their community and religious life with strangers. This open spirit is especially impressive on an island that is flooded by millions of outsiders every year. Perhaps the stream of anonymous faces staring out of tour buses makes people that much more keen to share their culture in a more intimate way. As I take part in more activities in Subandi’s village, I am starting to feel less like the stranger and more like an honorary member of the community. When I ask permission to attend a ceremony I use the Indonesian word ikut,” which means both to follow and to join. It perfectly describes my status: somewhere between an observer and a participant. I may never have my own teeth filed down, but while I am here I have the opportunity to partake in the never-ending flow of prayer, ritual, and ceremony that defines Balinese life.
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The Singapore Run

Among Bali expats, the Singapore visa run is a rite of passage: everyone does it sooner or later. This week it was my turn.

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Bali and Singapore are both small islands in the Malay Archipelago, which stretches from the tip of Malaysia to the top of Australia. Their ethnic and linguistic heritages are connected, but today they represent different worlds. Bali is an unindustrialized and culturally homogonous island, one among thousands in a sprawling nation. Singapore is a country about the size of New York City that is packed with glass high-rises, boutique outlets, and a cosmopolitan blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and European ancestries. Traveling between them brings out the contrast. I left a country where traffic is a chaotic free-for-all, all transactions are subject to negotiation, and bustling activity is a highly prized cultural aesthetic. I arrived in a place where order and obedience are ingrained at every level of society, a place where chewing gum has been outlawed to keep the subways clean. In Bali most traffic violations can be settled with a well-placed ten-dollar bill. In Singapore, simple transgressions like eating on the bus and biking on the sidewalk carry $500-$1000 fines.

There is of course a connection between the island’s infamous strictness and its equally infamous wealth. Singapore’s shrewd leadership decided from the beginning that to keep their tiny, resource-poor nation afloat, they would make it welcoming to foreign trade and investment. Today it is rated the world’s easiest country for doing business: regulations are minimal, taxes are low, transportation is great, and of course the rule of law is absolute. But what does someone like me do in the world’s most business friendly city? Most of Singapore’s tourist attractions aren’t exactly geared towards budget travelers. The city’s latest development is a fully integrated urban resort, a play land of casinos and celebrity restaurants topped off with a park that spans three skyscrapers.

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I made it as far as the 15th floor before the elevator denied my ascent; turns out you need a hotel keycard to get to the Skypark. Following my knack for going where I am not supposed to, I found my way over a skybridge and across the rooftop garden of the boutique mall before wandering in the back door of the convention center, where everyone had collared shirts and passes around their necks. I pressed on through the clusters of mingling businessmen, resisted the buffet lunch, and wound my way down a concrete access stairwell. With no options left but the “Emergency Exit Alarm Will Sound” door, I stepped back into the oppressive heat with buzzers ringing and quickly made my way back to the esplanade. This was not the place for me.

Luckily Singapore has more to offer than futuristic urban scenery and high-end outlets. Beyond the gleaming edifices to financial capitalism are a number of neighborhoods reflecting the city’s diverse population. In Little India, celebrations were underway for a Tamil harvest festival. Cattle were decorated with bright colors and honored with offerings.

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A few miles away, Chinatown was gearing up for Chinese New Year. Side streets were turned into markets selling special foods and decorations. In the Buddhist temple people came to chant and buy special New Years charms.
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Chinatown can hardly be considered an enclave community today, as almost three quarters of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese. Despite this clear majority, Singapore’s cultural identity remains ambiguous. While Mandarin is commonly spoken at home, English is now the language of government, education, and commerce. The island’s original Malay heritage still has symbolic weight as well. The national anthem is in Malay, despite the fact that only a fraction of the population speaks the language. Adding to the cultural confusion is the fact that 40% of the city’s residents are foreigners, students and workers who gravitate to Singapore from all over the world. It is truly anyone’s city.

The best place to appreciate this cultural mélange is the city’s food centers. The first few times I wandered into one of these sprawling dining areas, I walked around in circles just trying to take in my options. The offerings covered all of Southeast Asia as well as endless variations of Chinese and Indian cuisine. Soon I learned to just go for the first thing that looked intriguing or for whatever vendor had the longest line.

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For me, the food centers capture what is fun and unique about Singapore. The scene is a blend of your typical food court in a western shopping mall and the kind of bustling open-air market you find elsewhere in Asia. The tables are clean and the prices are fixed, but rather than a series of fast food chains, you find tiny food stalls churning out super tasty food at bargain rates. I could picture these same vendors hawking their wares from a street cart or an improvised tin structure, but this being Singapore, they are organized into government-run food centers.

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A model of Singapore at the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority

The image of Singapore as an obsessively organized and strictly managed country may be a little inflated, but things do tend to run pretty smoothly here. The city is like a massive conduit, with people, goods, and money constantly flowing in and out. Who knows how many travelers came and went, how many cargo ships unloaded, or how multi-million dollar financial transactions occurred during my three days in Singapore? I was just another element in flux, dropping off my passport on Monday, picking up my visa on Wednesday, and heading straight for the airport. I landed in Bali in the middle of the night and was surprised to realize that I was coming home. The experience of leaving and coming back solidified for me the fact that I live here. It didn’t feel like arriving in a foreign land. I already had currency in my pocket and a visa in my passport. As soon as the plane landed I could switch on my Indonesian cell phone and call my friends who were waiting to take me home. I guess this is where I live.

March of the Barong

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For an island people, the Balinese have relatively little connection with the ocean that surrounds them. Most people can’t swim and are generally fearful of the water. Seafood is not a major part of the diet. In Balinese Hinduism, the island’s towering volcanoes are a much more significant feature of the spiritual landscape. There are, however, a handful of religious occasions that bring people down to the water. One of the most dramatic is a cleansing ceremony that takes place every Sasih Kenam, which is the sixth month of the lunar calendar. For this occasion, each temple parades its Barong through the streets and down to the sea. This mythical beast is typically some combination of lion, bear, tiger, and boar, although there are many variations. The Barong often appears as a benevolent character in dance dramas and is believed to protect the village from malevolent forces.

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The first stage of the Barong’s journey took it from its special enclosure to the main village temple, where it was joined by the Barong of other neighborhoods. Each of these oversized furry puppets was born on the heads of two men who clacked the beast’s jaws as they sauntered along. Once all the Barong were assembled, a short ceremony was performed before the entire caravan went to the beach.
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At the village temple, we were joined by a small gamelan orchestra that served as a kind of marching band. Here is the music that accompanied our parade:

Like so much Balinese ceremonial music, the tune is simple and repetitive. You will never encounter this style of music outside of a ceremony in Bali; it wouldn’t make any sense in a concert hall or on a world music compilation album. It isn’t performed for tourists or taught in universities. This style of music exists solely for its ritual context. In this role, as part of a mile-long parade of banners, offerings, and mythical beasts, its effect is quite powerful. And before you think the music is a breeze to play, consider this: to make the ensemble portable the main melody is broken down so that each player contributes just one tone. Each man marches along with a single tuned going in his hand and must strike his note so that it connects with the others in a seamless melody. This is musical collectivism at the extreme.

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We walked for over an hour while men with batons held up traffic and the gamelan played on tirelessly. Occasionally the men under the Barong were swapped out for fresh legs and offerings were passed onto new heads. Bells rang, songs were sung, but mostly people just strolled along talking to their neighbors and greeting those we passed by. When we reached the beach it was already bustling with pilgrims from other villages, as well as the swarm of food vendors that always assembles around ceremonies.
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At this point most people grabbed a light meal and relaxed in the sand. Kids flew kites and threw stones in the water; it was basically a day at the beach (except no one went swimming). This is one feature of Balinese Hinduism that I just love: religious ceremonies are designed to be enjoyable. They are always highly social affairs involving good food and lively entertainment. Music, dance, comedy, card games, and even gambling are to be expected when the Balinese gather to worship. It is really no wonder that their religion, and the arts which are so integrated with it, continues to flourish in modern times.

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Around sunset, priests passed through the crowd sprinkling holy water. We held our clasped hands above our heads in the typical Balinese gesture of prayer. We tucked small flowers behind our ears and pressed wet rice to our foreheads. For most of us the prayer ritual lasts only a few minutes (priests were busily presenting offerings and performing blessings the entire time). It is the culmination of the ceremony but my no means the most important part. As far as I could tell, the main purpose of the occasion was to spend time with the village community and get some exercise. After prayer had concluded, a final offering was carried offshore in a boat and left in the water. We then walked back in the dark while the Barong returned to their homes after their day in the sun.
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New Years in Japan

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It just wouldn’t be right to pass an entire year without wearing a winter hat, so I flew up to Tokyo this holiday season for some cold weather and quality girlfriend time. My stay happened to coincide with Japan’s biggest holiday: New Years. While people around the world took to the streets and had a raucous time, most Japanese gathered with their families to eat traditional foods and watch the very popular New Years TV special. The closest we got to any end-of-the-year revelry was at Tokyo’s fish market, the worlds largest, where mobs of shoppers surged through narrow alleyways in search of candied chestnuts, pickled radishes, octopus legs, and the perfect slab of tuna. The market reaches its peak frenzy in the end of December before closing for the holidays. Fish egg sellers stood on crates calling out prices while eager buyers waved money in the air. One vendor selling sweet omelets, a New Years staple, had people waiting around the block, with flags marking the path of the line as it crossed busy intersections. After forcing our way through the crowds and waiting an hour to get sushi, we picked up some New Years treats of our own and made for the exit.

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After living in Bali these past months, Japan had the appearance of a completely secular society. Tokyo’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines seemed to exist primarily as tourist attractions. They were often crowded, but mostly with young people taking pictures. New Years presented a different scene. At midnight people all over Japan gathered at Buddhist temples to ring bells. We’d read that they are supposed to ring 108 times but there were clearly more than 108 people queued up at the local temple. Here is the pagoda where they rang in the New Year.

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 After sounding the bell, people went to pray in the temple or wandered back out to the street. The night was eerily quiet; if there were fireworks we didn’t see or hear them. The next day a similar scene was played out at Shinto shrines across the country (the Japanese like to cover all their bases when it comes to New Years). People waited patiently for their turn to toss a coin in a bin and say a prayer. The atmosphere was calm and pious, so different from usual scene found in Japanese shrines. I didn’t even see a single camera, and that is really something in Japan. The whole city felt still. Many shops and restaurants closed; people stayed at home with their families. Buildings displayed ornaments of bamboo and pine branches, reminding me of the small offerings I often see adorning houses and automobiles in Bali.

I returned home a couple days later with a slightly revised impression of Japanese culture and spiritual life. Tokyo may have all the trappings of an industrialized western city, and its people may come across as highly rational and non-religious, but it is still home to a strong and deeply foreign culture. The beliefs and practices of Japan’s unique blend of Shinto and Buddhist tradition live on in their own curious way. For example, the lead researcher in my girlfriend’s neuroscience lab, a professional scientist mind you, always submits her journal articles on auspicious days determined by an antique Japanese calendar system.

Bali is often touted as a land where traditional culture lives on undiminished by the flood of foreign influence. Here, religion remains a dominant force in everyday life, demanding a never-ending cycle of offerings and ceremonies. This ‘Island of the Gods’ is a truly remarkable place, but it is nice to see how another Asian island has continued its own traditions amidst such different economic and political circumstances. And there is no better time to see this than New Years in Japan.

Other highlights…

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The anonymous lunch: at this Ramen spot you order on a machine, then mark your flavor preferences on a card, and finally receive your bowl of noodles through a curtain at a counter with wooden dividers between each patron.

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The Japanese spa: here we are at a traditional hot-spring Inn, where scalding hot mineral-rich water is pumped into pools where you sit with a small towel on your head and take in the view of Fuji-san. Very decadent.