Taking Liberties: Life & Love in Upper Middle Age

Friday, September 29, 2006

Saying "Goodbye" to Bali and "Hello" to Home

Sabbatical Letter #4 Bali and OrindaAugust 24, 2006
Dear ones,
This is my last pen-pal letter from Asia - actually sent from Orinda, where I am slowly, almost secretly, making the transition from global-traveler-with-spacious-life to North American homeowner, consumer and family member. Once again, Chuck met my plane and took me directly to Calistoga and then to our time-share cabin in the Sierras. If our reunion as a couple had occurred at the same time as my reunion with 3 ½ months of mail, deferred home maintenance, unpacking, photo development, social re-entry and the tsunami of hurry and worry that I am prey to, Chuck might easily have gotten the wrong impression. By spending time together first, our joy in seeing each other is clear to both of us. So too is my gratitude at being married to him at this stage of our lives.

Now, I will back up and describe my last month of travel in Asia. After Singapore and Vietnam, I returned to Bali and my "family" in the rice paddies of Penestanen. I never tired of hearing Putu Lia's sweet, excited voice announcing, "Mama Leah, Mama Leah!" Few things make me feel so special. It sometimes catches me by surprise when I remember that we do not even share a common language. No matter; Putu Lia and I share the language of play. Our games are mostly physical - clapping games, playing "which hand is it in?" tossing the inflatable globe in tricky patterns, playing with her puppy "Hugus," or taking photos while she dances and then showing her the pictures. Her skills at gesturing and pantomime are amazing, and mine aren't half-bad. Sometimes she chatters in Indonesian or Balinese - I'm not sure which - while I keep up a running patter in English. It's not really for the purpose of communication; it's just a habit. Even when their guest bungalow has not been available, I can still show up any time and Putu and her mother, Kadek, are at home and often her father, Ngoman, as well. As I explore each new part of the world, a pattern is gradually emerging. It seems I love being enveloped in a cozy, intimate, loving family without being the one who is always at home, shouldering the burdens of home maintenance responsibilities and daily domestic chores. Maybe with children launched, the "nest" outlives its usefulness - or at least its centrality - for some of the extroverts among us. After all, even birds vacate their nests once the fledglings are gone.

After a few slow and delicious days in the rice paddies, the Threshold Choir showed up in Ubud. This is a choir I joined five years ago that teaches members to sing at the bedsides of people who are dying. The choir's creator, Kate Munger, came to Bali two years ago and fell in love with the beauty of the island, the uniquely blended Animist-Buddhist-Hindu religion that infuses daily life, and the wise balance maintained by Balinese people between physical and spiritual life. She decided to offer a guided trip to Bali for interested choir members. So, three weeks before the end of my time in Asia, I joined 20 magnificent women for the perfect orientation to Bali. Our guides were Surya and Judy, a charming Balinese man married to an American woman. Surya is a skilled mask carver and dance performer; Judy has written and photographed a stunning book about Balinese masks. Both are immensely knowledgeable. For two weeks, our sweet group traveled and sang together. Best of all, we had such FUN together!

Here's an example. The Balinese celebrate every full moon with a special ceremony. (In Bali, there is something to celebrate approximately 19 days out of every month.) We made up our own full moon ceremony, singing all the moon songs we could think of in our hotel swimming pool at night under the stars and the full moon. It ultimately turned into a camp sing-along, my idea of pure bliss.

When visiting sacred temples and other tourist attractions, we discovered a gentle but effective way of interrupting the incessant harassment of eager hawkers. We'd burst into song. Our lyrics were "tidak mau" ("We don't want any.") The hawkers would stop short, step back and no longer viewing us as "prey", they'd observe us with interest and curiosity.

Kate thought our trip would be more meaningful if we participated in a service project. (This is classic Kate.) Judy works with a center for disabled adults, and she arranged for us to visit Senang Hati - "Happy Hearts"- every couple days to share our music and to begin learning theirs. The courageous and vibrant young people at Senang Hati quickly won our hearts. Polio, genetic defects, birth injuries and hereditary diseases have left these beautiful people severely impaired. Some have undeveloped limbs reminiscent of thalidomide poisoning, others have twisted, turned-under hands and feet, dwarf-like bodies, and quite a few are wheelchair ridden. Before the center opened, most had been totally isolated; some had never even left their homes. Now they are being taught computer skills, English, art and craft skills. Some among them are remarkably good painters and carvers. They thrive on the social contact and interaction at the center. The sight of two young men playing chess with their feet particularly moved me. I faced a personal challenge in getting past my initial squeamishness about deformity. But I was quickly won over by the genuineness and enthusiasm of their daily welcome. When a severely deformed hand was extended in greeting, I felt the warmth of the flesh and looked into a clear, direct and open gaze. That was all it took.

For most of the choir members, the highlight of our trip was taking the folks from Senang Hati snorkeling in the ocean for the first time. I t has been a longtime dream of Judy's - a dream born of the realization that these talented artists who paint vivid, colorful fish had never seen a live fish swimming in water. In spite of living on an island, they had never been on a boat and never been in the ocean. After practicing on one another in the hotel swimming pool, we were ready for the big event. Some of our group and their staff helped lower our new friends into the water from the boat. While in the ocean, they were supported by foam "noodles" and two choir members each. I wish you could have seen the radiance on Ayu's face, the woman I swam with, when she pulled her masked face up after seeing her first colorful fish. When the snorkelers grew tired, we lifted them back onto the boat in nylon hammocks. Afterwards, I asked Judy why in the world she'd chosen a group of estrogen-starved, muscularly weak, post-menopausal women to realize her dream of hauling these handicapped people onto boats and into the ocean. She replied simply, "You were the first ones who really seemed interested."

Leaving Bali to come home, I felt sad at first. Then I grew very excited at the prospect of being with Chuck again. As I walked through Ubud saying my good-byes, people thanked me for coming to Bali and helping this island get back on its feet after the terrorist bombings. "I feel safer here than at home," I replied. "So please tell your friends," they requested. (Consider yourselves told!) As I said farewell to the motor cycle drivers standing by the road offering transport, I realized with amusement that at one time or another, I'd had my arms around the waists of a good many of them, riding home on their cycles late at night.

There were times during the Asia portion of my trip when I wished I were home, away from the oppressive humidity and the scary seismic activity of the "Ring of Fire." I felt sorry to be missing the flowering of our spring and summer garden, the neighborhood swim club, family and friends. Sometimes I was simply bored, certain that other travelers knew how to make better use of their opportunities. However, by staying mostly in one place, I was able to experience the rhythm of life on Bali. People are outdoors and active much of the day; they are working, but with no rushing and with little stress. They always have time for other people. It is my hope that in my global travels I'm laying down enough "motor memory" of this saner, more satisfying rhythm so that my body will protest when I begin slipping back into frantic mode.

I'll be at home (or in Arizona doing Mama Care) until after Thanksgiving. Then I'll return to Latin America to resume studying Spanish. My new goal is to speak Spanish with the fluency of a five-year-old!
Love to all of you,Leah

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