Spirituality in Bali
If you know me, you know Bali is one of my favorite places in the world. The quality of beaches and life you are able to sustain on the American dollar (privilege) is hard to beat, but beyond that it’s home to some of the most creative and kind people I’ve ever met. Visiting Bali for the first time spawned an entire collection, and when I returned a couple years ago to live there, I birthed Unbound, our first sliver jewelry collection. Soon I will return to photograph the Wanderfull retreat and work on the latest Purposerosa collection (yay!). If you’d asked me six years ago where Bali was on a map I couldn’t have told ya. To be returning soon for my third time is honestly a bit of a surprise, but is in complete alignment for the vision I’ve set forth for how I want to do business and travel for Purposerosa. Below is a short recount of one of my most memorable days in Bali. Enjoy.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Over breakfast, Orly casually mentioned there was a religious beach ceremony happening close to where we lived. I had yet to see a Balinese religious ceremony up close, but I tucked the information away in the back of my mind and went about my morning. I oil-pulled, stretched, combed my hair and settled down to work from my computer on some personal projects. Lunchtime rolled around and I hopped on my motorbike through the rice fields down my usual path towards the market. I was on my way to the thai spot (if you are ever in Canggu, Bali, I highly recommend you try their pad thai) that I dined at nearly everyday when I remembered the beach ceremony Orly mentioned. My appetite was roaring but I decided to ignore it and took a quick left onto a secret path that led to the beach instead. I was headed to a completely new experience and I had no idea what I was in for.
I drove up slowly, scanning the scene of native balinese people milling about in various shades of white fabric, pops of bright flowers adorned on their ears and hair. As I scanned the crowd, I quickly realize I was under-dressed for the occasion and needed to cover my legs and shoulders out of respect. I pull over, grab a sarong out of my trunk as well as a long sleeve shirt. I hop back on my bike to find a parking spot amid the mass of shiny black motorbikes and luckily find one patch of sandy grass near the beach entrance to park. I grab my camera, delve into the mob and am immediately astounded by the sea of white I see on the beach as I walk up. The shoreline is full of people swarming in thick mobs, music is booming from all sides, vendors are bargaining in terse voices and I take a moment to absorb it all in; the tapestry of colorful fabrics, the beautiful people, the golden instruments. There was so much to see, I didn’t want to blink. Then I saw this family and stopped in my tracks, amidst the frenzy of people around them they stood out and seemed to be in their own world.
I asked if I could take their portrait and the man in the center laughed and then began to nod yes with a nervous smile. They each arranged themselves slightly and prepped to be photographed. Even their friends in the back got involved by clearing the area for them to shine. This family became my anchor of confidence to ask more people for photographs. We weren’t best friends, but they offered a special form of acceptance to step out confidently and document ‘til my heart was content.
Just beyond this family a hubbub of people chatted, exchanging everything from chickens to coins to rice - it seems folks were bartering offerings for the gods. In the near distance, several thick plumes of smoke emerged from bonfires that peppered the shoreline and clouded the soft blue sky. Animated conversations and mystic music filled the air as I walked past a band of teenage boys playing the cymbals in unison. Something kept pulling me forward. Perhaps it was the adrenaline of “girl you’re here on the other side of the world, you may as well enjoy the moment,“ maybe it was the enchanting music or sheer courage, but somehow I found myself at the center of a slowly swirling crowd, a hurricane eye closing in on itself. I stumbled backward to observe and met the eyes of a woman who saw my camera and nodded that it was OK for me to document. I pressed record and just watched as people walked before me, wrists twirling as they chanted slowly under their breath. I had zero idea what I’d just stepped into on a spiritual level, but I felt safe in an array of colors, smells and movements that were all new language to me. I was hesitant at first but eased in as I realized no one cared about me in the crowd.
Nearby, a group of women sat in a circle singing hymns and the lull of their soft voices drew me near. Their song was off key but they patiently hummed in unison, tuning themselves slowly, gradually. I gathered the courage to get closer and closer, feeling for any signs of resistance as I approached. They ignored me and so I sat down to listen and photograph quietly. I knew it was a rare honor to be allowed in such sacred space and all I wanted to do was be fully present and appreciate all that was unfolding before me. I thought of all the mommas and aunties in the black choirs I grew up listening to. Despite the language barrier, spirituality, like music transcends words. Whether you understand the language or not, it’s hard to deny the magnetic pull of Balinese custom.
Living on an island breeds a certain sensitivity to the magic of the natural materials around you. From my Honduran grandmother carving bowls and cups from skinned coconut shells to my Puerto Rican grandfather shredding pounds of coconut meat to make dulce de coco in his back yard, I’ve always known my people to hold a deep appreciation for and expertise of the land we live on. My family and I have come to understand our environment as both sustenance and art, so when I first landed in Bali and saw these gorgeous palm leaf offering trays filled with flowers, deserts and detailed adornments, it felt familiar. Each offering is made by hand from natural repurposed materials and the amount of patience and time it takes to make each one is absolutely awe-inspiring. Palm leaves, rice, flowers and banana leaves come together in one palette to create a brilliant show of respect for their gods.
Repurposing is a way of living in Bali that shows up daily in drinking straws made of fresh papaya stems, baskets woven with dried leaves and brooms made of bird feathers. Living with Orly taught me how to recycle in a way that I never learned living in the US. My understanding of the ecosystem of trash was forever changed. Her compost was not a plastic or metal trash bin, it was an area of dirt in front of her kitchen sink. She did not use plastic shopping bags, she went to the store with her own bag and when she returned with groceries, she stored them in glass containers in her fridge - no styrofoam or plastic trash, just fresh ingredients. Her living room was open to let the natural breeze in, but it also meant insects came in and out as they pleased. The rice patties surrounding her property are home to many critters, but by being a mindful resident, she’s been able to live in harmony with nature.
Ironically, though there are many eco-conscious people living in Bali (both native and foreign), the island struggles with a huge plastic problem, pollution and land devastation. Due in part to the influx of western expats moving to Indonesia and a lack of strategy and infrastructure to support the growing population, Bali is a site of constant eco-re-evaluation. It’s why doing our job as visitors to sit down, listen and learn from the people who have lived their whole lives in places we visit is so important. Traveling mindfully to Bali means researching how you can not be a liability to the land and people.
I have so much more to tell you about my time living in Bali, but I’ll stop here for now. Next time I’ll tell you about what happened to me there that almost made me never want to return to Bali. It’s not all peaches and roses, even in paradise. To be continued…