How do you write about love and death? I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how to share this latest adventure deep into the heart of Bali with Yuri, with many false starts … often getting stuck in this idea … is this a love story? Or is this a death story? When my body responds with the mockery of, “Ummm, hello, it’s both!” Shyness, resistance, and fear creep in … complicated by images of dead bodies and deep love that aren’t fully integrated. My last article was titled “Love is Dead?”… it feels paradoxically appropriate for this one to be called “Death is Love?”
It was one of those mornings I had been missing Yuri. When you live with nine people and spend so much of your time practicing meditation in a group, the logistics, and even desire for one-on-one dates sometimes expands and sometimes contracts. And in our case, there’s the newness, the confusion, and sometimes claustrophobia, of stumbling into love with someone you already live with.
It was maybe 9 a.m. when I planted myself in the upper bale (a bale is an outdoor gazebo-bed-type thing … abundant in Bali, we have two on our property.) My pile of books … “Tantra,” “Aghora,” “Kali” … and journals surrounding me. Yuri comes up and greets me sweetly and then says, “You know I almost didn’t come over here because I need to get out of this house so bad.” I feel into that. I don’t often have the desire to leave our villa; it’s the perfect stew for me, but more recently I have had surges of “get me on a motorbike to anywhere” just to feel the wind on my skin for a few minutes. “Yeah, I get it. Thanks for coming over.”
Yuri says, “Do you want to go with me?” I feel my body light up, receiving the invitation and somewhere in my knee-jerk response, between coyness and a lame attempt to maintain some dignity, I ask, “Well, where to?” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know they are a hopeless lie … it didn’t matter where … in fact, it would be better if I didn’t know. I was a yes to him and a yes to the mystery. “Never mind,” I say, “that’s silly, yes … I’m a yes … give me 5 minutes.”
He tells me we are taking two motor scooters today, that kind of annoys me, but the joy of riding a bike is a bit more visceral when I’m the only one on it, so I get excited about that instead. For the first 15 minutes or so of following him through and out of town, I feel myself getting ridiculously high on the fact that I don’t know where we are going. The gratitude for this type of adventure, feeding my soul at such a refined level, there’s nothing I can do but smile widely as we begin to work our way further and further out of town. It doesn’t take long to escape the familiarity of Ubud, catered so precisely to the Western-vegan-yogi crowd, to find yourself in the Bali that doesn’t give a shit if you like organic green juice, because what they are proudly serving is fried chicken that’s been sitting in a dish in the window all day.
Yuri stops for some fried chicken. In a dance with our limited Indonesian, we attempt to order some to-go (known as take-away) food here. At first it seems like this isn’t an option, but with more smiles and hand gestures, two perfectly sized take-away boxes are produced from a back room. Though I’m loving Padang food more and more, I’m not too excited to see these particular offerings lined up in the window, and as I hesitate, Yuri says, “Ummm … I’m not sure there is too much food where we are going … so you might want to …” I laugh internally … thinking food is everywhere in Bali … you could be on the peak of a volcano and there would probably be a makeshift warung or someone selling fruit, but what do I know? Now, I’m even more intrigued about where we are going.
Next stop, filling up the gas tanks. While there are some gas stations in Ubud, the way most people get their petrol is from little roadside stands. When I first moved here, I thought, why is everyone selling Absolut Vodka? … curious about the murky liquid inside the branded glass bottles lined up in so many storefronts. I thought maybe it was moonshine. No, this is where you get your gas. At about $2 a tank, it’s quite convenient.
I hear Yuri ask for directions to Mt. Batur and I get a sense of where we are going, but I’ve never been there so the mystery is still alive in my belly. Driving up in altitude, it’s a nice relief to feel cool air on my back, to feel the shade of trees overhead and the peacefulness of being the only 2 vehicles on the road for stretches at a time. And then we get stopped. two polisi, roadside, wave us over. Now, most of the time, ex-pats know that they should just keep going, act like they don’t see or hear the police to avoid a long discussion of how much you are going to pay for a ticket. But, it’s not always possible, it doesn’t always feel right. So we stop. I remember reading in guidebooks before I got here … about the intricate choreography of these exchanges.
The policeman will attempt to scare you and intimidate you … respond by giving them the satisfaction that you are indeed scared and intimidated … this is the best place you can start your negotiations, by giving them the pleasure of knowing they are doing their job well. What follows is a dance of half-truths and half-lies that I can see makes Yuri’s skin crawl. I don’t know why, but this game doesn’t make me uncomfortable, it occurs to me like a melodrama … an improv skit, where the best outcome is a win/win and both parties feel like they won a little and lost a little. We should feel like we paid just slightly more than we needed to, and they should feel like they got a little more than they wanted … the rest is negotiation, acting, playing.
The ticket for not having an international driver’s license is threatened to be $100. We end up paying $10. And not only that, if we come back the same way, he will let us go for free on our way back. How kind. How Bali. This particular policeman was pretty dramatic. I wondered if acting classes are part of the training for the Bali police force? I’m happy to pay my dues, as long as they are not extravagant. I feel like this is just part of the economy, and even perhaps the art, of Bali.
We head up the mountain, pulling over for a sip of water and to regroup. It’s a definite shift in energy to deal with the police. Yuri says he’s not attached to going to Mt. Batur and asks if I want to go there. I say yeah I’m not attached to anything either. He asks if I want to lead for a while. I say yes. We take a right turn to find ourselves in a long stretch of farmland and bamboo forest. I’m definitely getting hungry and pulling over roadside to eat crosses my mind. But we are nearing the entrance to Mt. Batur, and I’m getting more and more curious. Like many things worth seeing in Bali, there’s an entrance fee of a few dollars. I see Yuri hesitate, not from the having-to-pay thing … but from the bureaucratic power structure of having to pay to continue on a road that had been free up until that moment. It’s my decisive yes that gets us through the gates, Yuri bargaining for a bag of delicious and probably overpriced mangosteens as we proceed.
A simple road, now transitions into what Yuri labels later as the “gated community feel” where for at least a mile there are fruit stands on either side of the road with perfectly stacked pyramids of exotic edibles and really no people, vendors, or buyers in sight. The cool mountain mist is getting thicker, the trees more forest and less jungle-like. It’s a different universe than Ubud and it feels good. This is a part of my new home.
As you approach the town, you can see Mt. Batur in the distance. There are many overlook restaurants and pit-stops where you can see the beautiful volcano, fresh with lava flow prints carved into its landscape and a lake at her feet a few kilometers down below. We are about to make the turn away from the town and descend, when I feel called to stop where a few Balinese men have stationed themselves by an orange pylon in the middle of the road. I quickly realize they are selling tourist attractions, which isn’t really what I’m into, but something about one of these men intrigues me.
About a week earlier, I’d been speaking to another lover about my desire to go to the cremation grounds, to experience more death, to meditate with fire. Explaining that when Yuri and I read the “Aghora” together, I definitely feel this desire to link our appreciation for these extreme Tantric practices in ritual, and that we’ve even fantasized about making love at one of these sites. She tells me that she’s heard of a village in Bali where they hang their dead from trees for years before burying them. I’m fascinated, but she doesn’t have any more information.
Probably about a sentence into my interaction with Wayan Donal, in the middle of the road in Mt. Batur, was the proposition, “Do you want to see the dead bodies that don’t smell?”
The dead bodies that don’t smell? I repeat in my head. And then a burst of exuberance “You mean the ones in the tree?!”
“Yes, yes, the ones in the tree that don’t smell.”
I may have blown any chance for solid price negotiating power in that instance because my body lit up with a “hell fucking yes, take me there now” energy. But I continued the dance a bit longer. We were to share a boat with some Swedish tourists. I looked over at Yuri a few times. His eyes were wide. I was a little worried he might jump ship on this desire of mine mainly because we didn’t drive all this way to go on a lame tour. He reassured me, “I’m along for the ride, I am surrendering. I’m not sure what is going on, but I’m okay.” I make the final dance of negotiation with Donal, which by now has turned kind of comical because they price really isn’t going down much, but I’m still a yes. We shake hands; the deal is done. I look at Yuri, he’s smiling, “I fucking love you, you are insane, I love watching you. Thank you.”
We make a quick stop at a fancy hotel overlooking the volcano to exchange some money. We would not have easily figured this out without Donal’s guidance. And then he tells us to follow him. He’s on a motorcycle, and we begin our three-bike convoy down toward the lake. The road is pretty steep, there are big trucks carrying volcanic ash that intermittently interrupt our flow. We hit lakeside within ten minutes. I’m thinking we will see a dock with a fairly large motorboat complete with Swedish tourists soon. But we don’t. The ride carries on, weaving deeper and deeper around the right bank of the lake. We are passing farms and shed after shed of onions and chilies being dried out in big heaps. At one point the lake is flush and overflowing onto the paved road a few inches deep. We keep following.
It’s exhilarating. I’m realizing I didn’t ask Donal a thing about where we were going or how long it would take to get there. There are definitely flashes of he could be taking us to some remote cabin to rob or kill us, but that’s kind of on par for the course of any really good adventure. It’s those thoughts that let me know I’m on the right track, a big payoff is coming soon, the mystery is unfolding and it demands a healthy dose of my fear. But I relax. As with most Balinese, I have already fallen in love with Donal and Yuri’s right behind me … I’m safe and more importantly, I’m a thousand percent alive in every cell of my adventure-seeking body.
It’s probably 30 minutes, when we reach our destination, a small fishing village. We are ushered into a earthen-floored home/convenience store on the lake side. You can buy cookies, cigarettes, or soda here. Donal tells us to sit down. He says the Swedish tourists have already gone and comeback, and now we will be waiting for our own boat. Yuri says he’s about at his limit energy-wise. Both of our bodies are aching from the long ride already, and luckily in this moment we remember our take-away food. The shop owner hands us some silverware and we devour this goodness, feeling the nourishment, the grounding and relaxation seep in again.
At this point, we realize that this isn’t a huge motorboat full of tourists. If fact, we will be on a rowboat, with two men rowing. Donal says these boats are better for the environment, and then I realize I’m not hearing any motors, wondering if they are banned altogether. A boat pulls up to the dock, and by dock I mean one long 2×4 plank that juts out from the dirt into the water. Donal insists they bring a different boat with a canopy cover in case it rains, so we wait a bit longer, ravenously devouring our food in the meantime.
It’s time for us to go. I ask Donal if he is coming with us. He says no, he wishes he could but this work is run on a rotation basis. He points to a microphone, “When they call my number, I get to go, but I already went this morning. But don’t worry, I will wait here for you when you return.” Yuri and I enter in the long rowboat, seated in the front under a canopy, with 2 strong men with tanned and weathered skin at the rear.
The lake is quiet. The air is thick and misty. Ominous for sure.
Yuri says, “Thank you, wow this is amazing.”
I say, “This feels like we are paddling into the heart of darkness.”
Our guides don’t speak English; we interact a bit but mostly there is silence. Every once in a while, as we circumnavigate the lake’s edge, we see a man in a canoe carved from a tree trunk, fishing. I am feeling shy about taking pictures, but I do it anyway.
The beauty and the silence of the boat ride are almost satiating enough for me to forget that we are about to go commune with the dead. I’m leaning into Yuri, in awe … in amazement of the adventure we create, when I see we are pulling up to a small dock that leads in the forest. The sign says “Welcome to Kuburan Terunyan,” and there is a human skull resting just below it.
There are no tourists. There are no guides. Our boatmen say, “You go in, we wait here.” I take some pictures at the entrance. Hesitating, waiting for Yuri to join me. I feel nervousness, aliveness, each hair standing on end. We walk in together. It isn’t a large space. There aren’t any bodies hanging from the trees and multiple layers of observation and understanding start their slow unravel and will continue to do so over the next 30 minutes.
Most obvious at first is a large altar at the right, that has about 50 human skulls lined up and piled a few layers deep. There are huge banyan trees surrounding us on all sides, and these are the trees (according to the Balinese) that supposedly (and mostly do) absorb the smell of death. In front of us are nine bamboo huts with umbrellas scattered overhead. The ground is littered with coins, trash … hundreds, if not thousands, of years of accumulated offerings for the dead. The air is dense. The atmosphere is cold and heavy. It’s a lot to take in, and I still find myself looking for signs of bodies hanging from trees. Feeling drawn in closer to the bamboo huts, I crouch down and look in.
I’m at the foot of a decomposing body. I see feet bones, and leg bones, with deep dark mounds of hardened flesh still clinging to them. Further back, I see a skull, mouth-open, white teeth, black flesh around the face and base of the skull. She is adorned with offerings. Lipstick, conditioner, flip flops, a bra. Oh, I get it. Here we are. It’s a little shocking at first. I call Yuri over.
I take a few paces back and begin to take in the scene more holistically. Yuri and I are in a cemetery where they place their dead above ground. This is the ritual of the Bali Aga, the ancient pre-Hindu culture of Bali. To the left, there are mounds of big square offering baskets, so ubiquitous in Bali. There is such a casual haphazardness to how this space is kept that it communicates the comfort, the ordinariness of death. Yes, these bodies each have their own bamboo hut, adorned with offerings, and they are open to the elements, open to the eyes of adventure-seeking tourists, many of whom don’t have the deep respect for meditating with death that we do. It is ordinary. It is beautiful. I’m intrigued why each body seems to have three pairs of flip-flops at their feet.
Yuri points to a small bone, about four inches long at his feet: “Do you think that is human?” Surprisingly my gut, response is no. Not from logic, but from memory. I have no context for being surrounded by human bones, and this one is small enough to be an animal bone. It’s fascinating to see my mind create this story. We crouch down in front of each bamboo hut. Looking, honoring. Yuri, curious, humbled, has his forehead to the dirt and is talking to them sweetly, “Awww, babies … thank you … thank you.”
We sit down together a few feet away from the huts. Mosquitos are attacking us, and I need to do something as mundane as put on bug-repellent oil to make sense of all this. As we are seated there, on mounds of coin, buttons, and as is becoming more apparent, hundreds of years of bones … I see a stray scapula, the ring of a vertebra, a rib. Is this really happening?
We contemplate having sex for a moment. Looking to see if our guides can see us. How long will they wait? It’s too much, the gratitude for having this experience alone together is penetrating enough, and I don’t think either of us is brave enough to pull it off. I can’t even imagine taking this in with chatty tourists around. I’m so grateful we are alone. This is sacred place. It deserves reverence. We place some coins inside the bamboo altars. Another layer reveals itself when Yuri points to a place in the pile of the offering baskets, where there is an entire torso skeleton … I can see the pelvis, spine, rib cage … ribs with black organic matter still holding on. It is just in the pile. Nothing fancy or specific or purposeful about its placement. Ordinary. Beautiful.
We stand up. We hug and breathe together for a long time. Yuri steps away and then comes back toward me, holding my face for a kiss that is sweeter than any we have ever had.
It’s a lot to take in and we could stay there all day, but we hear our guides saying “hello!!!” loudly from the boat. We don’t jump up and leave. We take our time. I go back to the two souls that had most captivated me and put my head to the rock in front of them. One is the women I first laid eyes on and kept coming back to, feeling connected to her, feeling her call for my loving attention. To her right, the only body that isn’t visible. The only one that hasn’t decomposed enough to be seen through the layers of fabric it’s swathed in. But the flesh of this body has girth, it’s fresh, I can smell its death. I realize I haven’t inhaled death before. I take it into my lungs more consciously. I take it all in more consciously.
There’s more to the story, but that is where it ends today. Loving you all.