What do you think of Bali? the temple priest politely enquires as he drives us to his village in Sidemen. I pause. The answer is a complicated one that has more to do with me than the island itself. It’s really beautiful, I offer, and leave it at that.
Before our divine trek to Pura Gunung Merta, the Balinese temple atop the 600-meter mountain overlooking his village, Ngurah takes us to his parents’ home to freshen up. The heat rises as we sip piping hot Bali coffee. There’s a rural serenade of crowing, clucking and peeping from chickens that aren’t just pets. Small plates of coconut-sprinkled rice flour pandan pancakes with banana appear. Bellies full and plates empty, we’re ready to begin.
The tour is also a way for Ngurah, a mangku or Balinese temple priest, to support his community. The three women assisting him today would otherwise be working away in the rice paddies—earning far less for their time. They lead the way with large woven baskets effortlessly perched on their heads. We fall into rhythm down the dirt road, our crunching footsteps punctuating the stillness.
At the foot of the trail we pause. The Island of the Gods is also the land of ritual, and it’s our first of three: here we make an offering to the spirits and ask permission to enter the forest. What follows is a mesmerizing blur of bougainvillea, frangipani, holy water, rice, incense, song, and whispered prayer. When we begin again we move so slowly, so deliberately that it becomes a sort of walking meditation.
in bali, you cannot tell the difference between ritual, real life and ceremony. it’s just all there together. it’s in our blood.N G U R A H
Eventually we hang a left and stop once again. Halfway there! Ngurah says declares and we realize there’s still a very long way to go. A family of macaques size us up from afar, impatiently waiting for the second ritual to finish so their scavenging can begin.
The trio of women reach the temple long before we do. The monkeys replace them as our new guides through the thick, late summer air. The temple’s size is surprising once we fully understand what it takes to build here: each bag of 40-kilo cement mix is divided among four villagers who wear their crowns of devotion all the way up the mountain. We can’t help but admire this literal labor of love, built slowly and deliberately.
The last ritual is similar to the others yet still just as ethereal. For the third time our eyes close, our hearts and ears open. It ends with grains of uncooked rice gently pressed onto our sweaty skin at the throat and third eye chakras.
Suitably purified and blessed, it’s now time to eat again. The contents of each basket the women carried on their heads becomes clear as an enormous home-cooked spread lies before us: vessels of banana leaves holding sticky rice with dried coconut, corn fritters, hardboiled egg with sambal, tempeh, tofu with sambal, preserved fish, slices of cucumber, fresh papaya, plus a thermos of hot water for coffee or tea. In my three weeks on the island, I will remember this meal as the best.
“Ubud” comes from the Balinese word for “medicine” Ngurah explains, and with this my entire experience suddenly makes sense. Bali was a mirror. I was in search of something outside myself, and the reflection I was so quick to label and criticize was actually my own. Just like our ascent to Pura Gunung Merta, the lesson would come through slowly and deliberately, over and over and over again: happiness exists right here, in this very moment.