I’m standing in the glaring heat, trying to explain in school French to three retired backpackers that they must wear a sarong to enter the temple, according to the woman selling sarongs. But I am trying to add that I don’t think they need to buy one from her. The strict 30 minutes we were given for the first temple on our Bali temple tour, is ticking away in the carpark . I sneak out my own (unfortunately bright orange) sarong , wrap it around my waist and sidle off without being noticed.
The first temple had three stone goddesses, ageless, washed away through time in dents and dints and crumbs. They were pouring water into a basin. I entered the grounds, ready to be transported into ancient holy peace. But it was the dead moon day, so the temple was full to bursting with bustle and chat – the women in bright yellow and the men in bright white.
Everywhere I looked there was a table with offerings being made – piles and piles of them – more offerings surely than any self-respecting god could ever consume. I guess that is the point. It was a spiritual market – and all the bartered goods were tiny complex packages on banana leaves with twisted grass and verdant flower heads neatly arranged and then repeated over and over, until the tables were sagging under the weight of giving. Women in white lace glided past with great bundles of offerings in baskets on their heads, whilst the men were all together chatting, cooking, their backs to the world, in their own world. In Hinduism, to step into the middle ground of the temple is halfway between this world and that. It was a very busy place.
Our tour also included three Japanese students. They lounged against our car, their minimal-fuss white sarongs slung over their shoulders. We were waiting for the retired French backpackers. I worried they hadn’t understood the gestured 30 minutes, or worse, I had translated it as 3 hours somehow, as they had looked quizzically at the driver.
I sat in some shade, and watched a tiny Balinese woman, neat as an offering, manoeuvre a large scooter out of an impossibly small gap and zoom off into traffic. Whistle-stop tour driver wouldn’t put on the aircon until we were all there so we sweltered and waited. The driver went to look for them but came back alone. When they arrived some time later, and asked if they were late, I fudged the truth using French nasal sounds but no actual words, and think I fooled them. The tall Japanese students contorted themselves into the back seat, the French retired backpackers crammed into the middle one and I sat like royalty in the front, making a show with my stick so I felt less guilty.
Then, go within
At the second temple, Pura Gunung Kawi, we had 40 minutes for a holy experience, so I used it wisely. I spotted the ticket queue from the car, nipped out and was at the front whilst the others were still counting sarongs. A lot of temples in Bali are built near water where the gods and dragons live. This one was deep deep down in the bottom of a valley – over three hundred steps down. At the bottom a bridge crossed the river and as well as the intricate mouldings and bulging eyes of statues, there were gaping cave mouths in the rocks, like empty eyes. This was where the ascetics had lived. You had to take your shoes off to go into these caves, which were wetter and dirtier than where you kept your shoes on. I enjoyed the incongruity of the rough stones under my bare feet and my need for a walking stick. Somehow my stick goes with shoes.
And now I was in a sacred place – a dark place of the stone world, a living grey place, as old as the river dragon. I stayed there for my precious remaining minutes.
Loud complaints from the French women when they finally arrived back at the car and the silent Japanese. That was not enough time even for the three hundred steps, let alone getting back up them! Only left ten minutes for the temple. I silently agreed, my chest still hurting from the climb, but glad I had found the caves, instead of the gift shop. I remembered so many French churches on exchanges as a teenager. So much time in them, so much discussion. I felt for these women who had wanted an experience. But Whistle-stop was having none of it – we were back in the car and no sooner had the aircon kicked in than we were sweeping into a crowded carpark for the Holy Spring Temple.
I went in the back entrance by mistake and was suddenly in an enclosure containing a large pool filled with thronging, chatting pilgrims standing waist-deep in a winding line, like a colourful splashy version of an airport check-in queue. A white western guy was standing sheepishly in the line. I could tell he had been there for a long time and was regretting his decision to join in. Whistle-stop had told me that only Hindus were allowed on dead moon days. But I think he was just clock watching. At some point people seemed to pass beneath a stone elephant to another pool – they were now wet all over – joyously soaked, hands held in prayer, patiently standing in a new line for the blessing spouting from the walls of the basin. Holy, sun-splashed Renewal.
I am standing above a stepped valley of rice fields with the French women. The last stop on the tour, ‘Balinese Rice Field,’ after a volcano lake view and an animal poo coffee plantation. I had imagined a solitary farmer tilling, as monkeys played on the edges of the forest. It was luminous with sharp shadows. But there was no farming here. What there was, was a line of excitable tourists waiting to sit on an enormous swing and be released high over the stepped green valley. And squealing zip wire riders zigzagging back and forth across the valley.
I watched a couple of cows and some cockerels in cages at the edge of the road. The three Japanese sat by the car, whilst the three French agreed in ,slightly indignant voices that it was ‘tres jolie’ but so what? They wanted authentic.
If I had already been to Nyambu Eco-tourism village by then I would have been able to advise them to dump Whistle-stop, and go there…