Woman to Woman in Bali

It’s the name that immediately comes to mind when you think of the romantic ending of Eat, Pray, Love. The lush, languid island of Bali lingers, embedded in our imaginations from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book and the movie starring Julia Roberts.

As much as Bali is known for its romantic resorts, sandy beaches and luscious green landscapes, it is also known for its fascinating women. In Bali it is particularly easy to chat with the local women about their lives, and their joie de vivre and happy attitudes are contagious. Whenever I become disillusioned with the crowded beaches and tourists sights, I take a hike and meander through villages looking for the opportunity to strike up a conversation with another woman.

On a recent trip to Bali I wasn’t looking for love, or a lover, like the woman in Eat, Pray, Love. I was looking for insight into the intricate culture from a female perspective. What would I learn about myself by seeing the world through their eyes?

Amankila Resort
Little girls share their joie de vivre with visitors at a welcome ceremony at the Amankila Resort. Photo Credit: AMAN RESORTS

Women Appease the Spirits

A Balinese mother and I walked together one morning outside her village in the highlands. She was balancing on her head a three-tiered basket filled with flowers, fruit and a roasted chicken. She had perfect balance and I wondered if I could carry such a large load on my head for any amount of time. I don’t think the balance poses I do in yoga class would allow me to be as graceful as she was. She was also perfectly content with the heavy load. We struck up a conversation and I learned why.

I promised myself that I would be more like Wayan. I’d slow down and enjoy the process of offering thanks.

Wayan, a slight but strong and graceful middle-aged mother, told me she had two children, like me, but unlike me, she doesn’t live in a home with her immediate family. She described the large compound where she lived with her husband, children and extended family, including grandparents, aunts and uncles. There is no strife, she explained. Her 18 family members live in harmony, cooking for the clan, watching each other’s children and caring for aging relatives. I was invited into the family compound and met the grandparents, cousins and siblings. It was obvious that everyone got along and helped each other.

I concluded that Wayan would find it lonely to switch lives with me and live in a home with just one other adult and only two children — a home that is empty most of the day — unlike her family compound, which pulsates with the comings and goings of everyone: caring for the chickens, tending to the family altars and preparing meals. And I also wondered what it would be like to live with my extended family. I doubt it would be as harmonious.

As we walked a dirt path together, Wayan explained the significance of the offerings she carried on her head. The women of each family, from grandma down to the teens, are tasked with making regular offerings to shrines within the compound and take offerings to nearby temples. Every day they weave tiny banana leaf containers, no larger than an iPhone, for offerings of rice, coffee, hibiscus or orange flower petals and an incense stick. Before each meal, women take this exquisite array of food and flowers to their shrines. She confided that she was happy to make offerings to show the family’s gratitude and to soothe the household spirits. I thought about the peace and gratitude I feel when I make offerings and prayers to a greater spirit. Travel teaches us to open our eyes, to see other ways of life and to learn more about ourselves. I promised myself that I would be more like Wayan. I’d slow down and enjoy the process of offering thanks.

As we parted, Wayan urged me to attend a cremation. Women, she went on to explain, also take care of the spirits of the dead. The Balinese don’t grieve as we know it. Weeks, sometimes months after a death, relatives throw a big bash culminating in a cremation. In Bali this is a festive and celebratory passage into the afterlife. If you want to see a big, dramatic party, join in the festivities of a cremation.

You have to be in the right place at the right time to see a cremation because the date and time depends upon the phase of the moon, position of the stars and the community priests. Often even the Balinese don’t know when a cremation will be staged until the last minute. I hoped to see a cremation but didn’t know how to go about it. I mean, do you just invite yourself to someone’s funeral?

Later, I was lounging by the pool of the Amanusa Resort in Nusa Dua when the manager casually asked me what I wanted to see in Bali and offered to help. He had no idea what a demanding request I would make. “I’d like to attend a cremation,” I told him. He smiled that knowing smile that told me I had asked for the impossible. However, I was staying at an Aman Resort, world-renowned for luxury and discrete service. The guest list reads like a “Who’s Who” of movie stars, royalty and business tycoons. I’d heard the staff could work miracles to please guests. Turns out, that was right. Two days later a car drove my traveling companions and me to a small village in the countryside near Ubud to join a joyful crowd of well-dressed family members and friends of the royal family. A mirage of ethereal women dressed in golden silk, shaded by pastel tasseled parasols, glided through the crowds with silver bowls and pyramids of fruit and flowers poised on their heads. It was cremation day and a percussion orchestra set the tone with energetic, syncopated music as men carried the body to the cemetery for burning inside an ornate three-story high tower, balanced on a bamboo platform.

Balinese women labored for weeks preparing the food and offerings for this ceremony and it went up in smoke in an instant. Well, I thought, that’s not so different from women preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, which is also an offering to family and friends, and also disappears quickly.

Amandari Dance Students
Students prepare for their after school dance class in Ubud. Photo Credit: Aman Resorts

Women and the Dance Tradition

One afternoon, I stumbled upon a dozen young schoolgirls changing from crisp blue uniforms into elaborate silk and ikat costumes in the opulent gardens of the Amandari Resort, in Ubud. What do kids do after school in Bali? These girls walked from the nearby village to take dance lessons. They helped each other apply make-up and style their hair. Like typical pre-teens, they giggled and gossiped as they prepared for the class. Their teacher invited me to take photographs and join them for an evening performance in the lobby. The kids gather for free after-school dance and music lessons, made available to the children of the Amandari employees.

Women and young girls are the predominant dancers in the Legong, perhaps the most beautiful dance in Bali. Dancing begins at a very young age, three to six years old, often passed on by a mother or an aunt. The teacher explained that children are eager to train but many do not have the discipline or dedication to continue for years when they discover the intensity and difficulty of the hand motions. A Legong dancer must master detailed precision in each minutely choreographed movement from her eyeballs to her fingers to her toes. Each tiny movement has meaning in the dance drama of ancient Hindu stories.

A Legong dancer must master detailed precision in each minutely choreographed movement from her eyeballs to her fingers to her toes.

As an orange sun slipped behind the palm trees by the infinity pool, hotel guests and families from the neighboring village turned out to watch the six- to eleven-year-old girls. The Legong dance, and in fact, all performances and festivals in Bali, revolve around the community. Brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents watched with pride. Although the local crowd may have understood the ancient Hindu love story much better than us visitors, we were equally enchanted by the melodic magic of the music and the graceful young dancers.

My Search for a Balinese Healer

Most visitors to Bali spend blissful hours being massaged, scrubbed, perfumed and perhaps even healed by female masseuses in hotel spas, on the beach or in local homes. The quality of the massage depends upon the place, price and training of the masseuse. I discovered you can take it to the next level if you find one of the authentic spiritually charged female healers who have inherited their power from an elderly healer in the family. Traditional healers, I was told, balance the inner and outer worlds — in other words, they create a total fix for the mind, body and spirit. I made it my mission to find a female healer.

One of the benefits of staying at an exclusive, small property is extraordinary service. Again, I asked for help from the Aman Resorts’ managers who have lived for years in the area and have local knowledge that you won’t find in a guidebook. At the Amankila resort in Eastern Bali and several days later at the Amanjiva Resort in Java, the managers painstakingly contacted local healers in nearby villages and transported them to the tranquil haven of my villa’s tropical garden. In Java I asked for yet another favor: a translator to help me speak to the village healer after the session.
Diriyah, a short, wiry 74-year-old widow, entered the garden balancing a heavy massage table and a pot of hot herbal tea. Energy, like static electricity, radiated from her tiny body. Her body language and posture indicated that she was used to being respected and in control.

A Perfect State of Bliss

Amanusa Beach Private Dining
Amanusa Beach Private Dining

As I relaxed on the massage table, she blew several soft breaths across the crown of my head and chanted quietly. Slowly her powerful thumbs and the palm of her hands explored the soles of my feet to diagnose my physical and mental health. Then she concentrated her intense touch on the core of my body, opening energy channels, stretching and increasing blood circulation. My body melted, my mind went blank, and I slipped into a hypnotic state of calm.

After the healing session we talked through the interpreter. I learned that Diriyah has been healing people in her village for 42 years, from pregnant women to arthritic elders, as well as those suffering from heartbreak and emotional distress. She hasn’t identified anyone in her family who has inherited her magic touch yet, although she has six children, 19 grandchildren, and an eight-year-old great grandchild. I was once again awed by the strength of the women of Bali.

Whether you eat, pray or love, attend a cremation, join a woman in her daily offerings, meet dancers, or find a healer — sampling the Balinese state of bliss will inspire you to return home looking at your own life with different eyes.

For more than three decades I have explored Bali and sampled all styles of guesthouses and resorts. Accommodations on the island run the gamut from a very economical $20 a night bed in a local home or guesthouse to the very exclusive and memorable private villas at $2,000 a night (including, of course, a plunge pool, garden and valet). Many well-heeled global travelers return to Bali year after year to unplug and be pampered at quiet properties.

I keep clicking my fingers and hoping for magic to transport me back to Bali.

Bali and Java 411

When to Go: The weather is always warm. Located just north of the equator, Bali and Java sit in the exotic reaches of the Indonesian archipelago just eight degrees south of the equator, northwest of Australia.  Indonesia has a tropical climate, meaning warm and humid in the summer months. The cooler dry season is April to October. Average temperatures range from 78 to 82 degrees.

What to Pack: A bathing suit, shorts, sundresses, T-shirts that cover your shoulders and capris for visiting temples, sandals and a wrap for air-conditioned restaurants. Tourists in Bali dress casually.  If you plan to do serious shopping (and it’s hard not to!) bring an extra bag.

Where to Stay: The Aman Resorts offer exquisite service and accommodations in locations across the country. For something truly unique, Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report Reader Survey ranked the Amankila, a secluded cliff-side property in East Bali, among the top 20 beach resorts in the world. Do they sound out-of-this-world expensive? That is part of their appeal. However, five Aman Resorts, including the Amanwana Nature Reserve on Moyo Island,  can now be combined in a seven-night experience for around $800 a night. www.amanresorts.com

Marybeth Bond

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor and National Geographic Author

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