I See Dead People
It’s another beautiful Bali morning and I’m up early with big plans. Dewa, my guide from the other day, has agreed to do a private tour for me on the back of his motorbike. We walk out to the bike, he hands me a helmet (both the law and a good idea here), we climb on and head for the hills.
Our first stop is in the town of Batubalan where I see a Balinese dance show. Contrary to many tourist beliefs, not all of the Balinese dance shows are at night and involve fire. This show is a basic story of good versus evil and involves, gods, witches, monkeys and servants. The costumes are fairly elaborate, the acting is pretty bad, and the dancing is, well, traditional. While most of the speaking is in Indonesian (which keeps the entire back-half of the audience in stitches), they supply leaflets in a variety of languages, which tell the story of each dance. There’s no translation, and none needed, for the multitude of penis jokes which also seems to be Balinese tradition as there are also an incredible amount of wood-carved penis bottle-openers for sale at the markets (for some reason my master wood-carver never showed me how to carve one of these). The show lasts about forty-five minutes, after which I use one fairly nasty toilets with no flushing ability, and we head off.
Our ultimate destination today is the village of Trunyan, about two-and-a-half hours from Ubud. It’s on the other side of Batur Lake (which we visited in Rice Paddies and Coffee Poo), at the base of Batur volcano. The village is inhabited by approximately 200 families and, though the residents practice Hinduism, the village is known for its unique burial ritual of laying the recently deceased near a certain tree to decompose.
Up until ten-years ago, the only access to Trunyan was by boat from across the lake. In 2005, the government built a road into the village in order to try to assist in creating some industry. It worked. The last time Dewa was here, fourteen years-ago, though he was clearly Indonesian, he was mobbed by locals begging for money. Today we only experience this a few times as farming, both fish and agricultural, seem to be the main income source for most here. Now, about that road. . .
After two-hours, including a short stop for Dewa’s bike to have a rest so it doesn’t overheat carrying two people up and down hills (and also to rest our bums as that’s an awful long time on a motorbike) we arrive at the new road. This road is a combination of some smooth patches, some rough patches, one flooded patch, and many very steep hills. I have an admission to make; though I’ve jumped out of airplanes (twice), scuba dived, ultra-lighted (or is it ultra-lit?), gone to trapeze school and even taken a run down an Olympic bobsled course, steep hills in vehicles scare me. People ask why and my only explanation is that perhaps that’s how I died in a previous life. Regardless, today I’m going up and down them on the back of a motorbike.
As Dewa has never been on this new road, we snag us a local whose job seems to be to hang out at the start of the road and lead people into the village on his motorbike. We soon come to a low-lying place in the road which the lake has flooded. As we stop, and Dewa recommends that I relocate to the other guy’s bike due to its stronger power (This is the most I’ve straddled two men in, oh well, never you mind.) I join the other guy as we play Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang on motorbikes, before hoping off to join Dewa once again. Before long, we come to a very steep hill. This Jewish by tradition, spiritual in practice girl has spent some time already today saying The Lord’s Prayer and it seems as if The Lord is now answering saying, “Get off the bike, stupid!”
I relay The Lord’s message by posing the question, “I can walk up this hill, maybe?”
The two guys head up the hill on their bikes while I make the short, but steep trek up the hill and meet them at the top. When I reach the peak, I find the two of them standing next to their bikes, smoking. I remove my helmet, grab my camera and take a photo of the hill leading into the abyss. Dewa and the other guy say something in Indonesian, look up, and Dewa tells me we should leave as there could be a landslide soon.
“Oh, okay,” I say as I dawdle a bit and put away my camera.
“Now, we should go now,” he says, looking up the hillside.
“Um, really?” I say, realizing that, when he said soon, he means any moment now.
I throw the helmet on my head, not bothering to secure the strap, while climbing on the back of the bike and we hightail it out of there.
After another few minutes, we arrive in Trunyan.
On the left I see small platforms out on the lake with tiny huts on top. These are fish farms, one of the major industries of the village. We soon pull up to some cement shacks along the river directly in front of a temple complex. Desa Temple (the town’s temple) was built sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The residents of Trunyon worship the god Ratu Skate Pansering Jagat and there are offerings being left as there will be a marriage in the town today.
In front of the temple I run into an old lady, the first of a few people who put their hands out and ask for money. I give her some money and ask if I might take her photo. She agrees after pulling her scarf discretely over her low-hanging, bare breasts.
Once we exit the temple area, another tourist arrives on a rented Vespa (He’s rented it for $100 for a month.) We know he’s a tourist because, anyone who isn’t Indonesian here is definitely a tourist. His name is Mario and he’s a solo traveler from Poland. He’s surprised that I, a woman, is traveling alone (I get that a lot).
Dewa steps aside to negotiate a deal for a boat to take us, and Mario, to the cemetery (the only way to get there), which is where the tree for the dead people is. As the negotiations are happening, another white girl on a motorbike arrives. Her name is Mare and she’s from Belgium. Another girl traveling alone, and this one on her own rented motorbike (for $5 per day); consider Mario’s mind blown.
After a while, we have a price for the four of us set (Dewa is joining us as this is something unusual even for locals and he was last here fourteen years-ago). As we approach the rickety, old, row-boat, Dewa suddenly says, “Oh no, that’s the boat, I won’t go.”
This is how we find out he can’t swim and has a paralyzing fear of the water. I talk to him telling him how scared I was on the bike and that, while I understand, I’d really like for him to experience this with us. I assure him that the boat will be fine and that, if we were to end up in the water, the life-jackets which we’re handed will definitely keep us afloat and that I won’t let him drown. It’s clear that he’s incredibly frightened yet he bravely (okay, maybe bravely is an exaggeration) steps into the boat.
After about ten minutes, we arrive at the cemetery, climb out of the boat and walk up to the tree. There’s a long story about how this tradition began here in Trunyan. The short version goes that many people were coming to the village as they’d heard about the sweetest smelling tree there. The town was becoming overwhelmed with people and, to prevent this, the King and Queen ordered any adults who died of natural causes to be left out at the tree so that the rotten smell would overwhelm the sweet smell and no more people would come. (I know some touristy towns around the world that might do well to heed this advice.)
We walk up a path covered in coins and, what looks like random trash. It turns out these coins and this “trash” are the former possessions of the recently, and long-ago, deceased which survivors bring to assist them in the afterlife. On one side of the path are rows of skulls from the departed whom have been left there. Further up on the other side are a group of about six tent-shaped, bamboo cages where the dead bodies are initially placed when they die. Once they’ve fully decomposed, their bones are thrown into the lake and their skull is lined up with the rest. Inside one of the bamboo cages, we spy a recently deceased whose body is partially decayed. Perhaps the better word is dried-out as there is no scent, either good or bad.
After spending some time there, we go to climb into the boat. Dewa is still quite nervous and asks Mario if he really needs his life jacket as Dewa would be more comfortable wearing two lifejackets. I feel his fear as I’m wondering if I might wear these life jackets back on the motorbike ride as they seem as if they’d make great cushions should we roll backwards on one of the ridiculously steep hills, lose control and fall to the cement.
Contrary to Dewa’s belief, we make it back to shore safely and it’s time, once again, to face my fear. I’d hoped to take the boat back to a part of the road past the steep, hilly section but Dewa tried to negotiate this and the cost was prohibitive. So here I am, holding in my emotions and pretending he’s Tom Cruise in Top Gun and I’m Kelly McGillis holding on while Take My Breath Away plays in the background. I guess my fear has built those hills a little higher with the anticipation of repeating them from the opposite side because, on the return, they don’t seem nearly as scary. One last transfer of bikes to ride across the flooded part of the road and we head back up into the hills to enjoy a quick lunch at the same restaurant overlooking the lake and volcano where I ate the other day. (At the request of some readers, I took better photos and I hope you enjoy.)
By 5:00, we’re back at the hotel where I head for a quick dip in the swimming pool before heading out for a night of listening to the great music on Ubud.
If you’re in Ubud and want a fantastic, professional tour guide who speaks excellent English, I highly recommend Dewa whom you can E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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