From Bali to Bala and back again and again and again

Posted by Laura Cohn on

Sitting back at home Philly in a dream state of a muzzy time warp, I can hardly believe I flew halfway around the world to my beloved Bali, and back again to my beloved Bill and Daniel. The time away – though measured in hours, days, weeks – feels like crystallized moments that filled my soul overflowing with experiences and emotions, now banked away to be drawn on as needed throughout the year. Such a sweet month, healing and restorative with the needed salve of lots of laughter mixed with tears. Hugging my dear friend Kerry’s daughter Tahlia, who I have known since she was born, as she let me sob in her arms, allowed me to accept her mother’s death in person (Kerry Pendergrast died late in November in Bali). She held me tight as I let go. Sitting with Penny and Meghan, two other old, special friends the day before I left, as we belly laughed and chortled all the while getting delicious head massages with chilled avocado goop smeared onto our hair and scalps by gorgeous strong Balinese masseurs. Trying to get to the airport to fly home, yet immobilized in the traffic with little time to spare, blocked behind a walking funeral precession of a Balinese village clanging gongs, chanting and carrying glorious foot tall colorful fruit and flower offerings for the gods, with such grace and beauty, I am reminded at once why I fell in love with this strange and wonderful island 25 years ago. At every turn, more opportunities to let go, and let in.

Of course there are lessons to be learned everywhere we look, but my Western self often forgets this gift. My Indonesian self accepts both big and small gifts offered up randomly throughout my day. I am more awake. I guess more adept at shedding layers in the hot tropical heat. After working my butt off (hardly possible) for two and a half weeks straight, my old friends from California Maru & Bill (whom I meet every year in Bali) arrived for their extended visit. Our trips only overlapped by two days, so we decided to hunker down in their brand new home and catch up on our year. Their little piece of Bali paradise is an open air home on the edge of a small but pristine rice field in an area that is fast being encroached on by an epidemic of villa building. They, just hours across the date line and all jet lagged, and me, in much need of serenity after weeks of hustling throughout the lands, were serenaded not with the chirping birds, but with the constant banging of nails and boards and building. All this knit together under a chorus of a sump pump that loudly hummed along trying to empty out (vying against head strong rains) a large partially dug muddy swimming hole. Sitting on the edge of such tranquil beauty confronted with a cacophony not of crickets and geckos, but loud construction noises made by the very same sweet Indonesian workers who built Maru & Bill’s villa the year before; oh the irony but of course. Bill tried to counter or harmonize with the noises by playing music loudly from his stereo, alternating between Michael Jackson dancing to Zen-like chanting melodies. Hours later we ventured out for a walk to take a break from the rigorous surround sounds, and down the road encountered yet another major construction project, this one with an extremely large generator running a cement mixer. (Grateful that they chose to build their home far from the road where we must walk down the lane into the fields – where the cement must be mixed by hand by the third world workers rather than by the more noisy first world generator fueled machine.) The roar was deafening, so much so, that when we returned once again to our own noisy villa building clacking neighborhood, the pump was but a low purr compared to the where we had walked just before. Once again, it is all relative, non?

Whether sitting on my friends’ porch or negotiating with one of my artists, I am confronted with the juxtaposition of the fast rate of change the Indonesians experience (due mostly to tourism and its development), and hence also which the foreigners who lay claim to this amazing landscape and culture experience through this very tourism. Surrounded by endless contradictions, I am just a visitor, fortunate enough to be able to come to and fro and also to choose the lenses through which I view this conundrum. As the Balinese rice farmer stares up at me, I am humbled enough to bow and ask his permission to pass him as I walk by. I am his guest and so appreciative for his sacrifices that he most certainly interprets very differently than I. But it is in these very contrasts, that I seek the balance, and find the gifts emerging if I am open.

Spending a precious few days back in Yogyakarta a few weeks back, I cruised around the area gathering my collections of batik wood and other Javanese crafts. This year found a newly heightened awareness there from my renewed love affair with the local transport vehicle the becak or pedicab (pronounced bay-cha). Those of you who either saw my very own becak at my show this year, or heard the thrill in my voice when I spoke of how I came to own one (a long held dream of mine), know how dear they are to my heart. Each year as I return home to Yogya there are fewer and fewer on the road, or at least, ferrying passengers to and fro. More than most sit idle off to the side, with their skinny drivers curled up asleep on their bench or conversing with other becak drivers in the local Javanese dialect. Perhaps an outmoded form of transport, with the standard car taxi costing less than the human powered pedicab, and many more younger Indonesians able to afford motorbikes of their own. Because of their reduced need and henceforth coming extinction, last fall I stumbled upon one that was shipped stateside for purchase, and now it sets idle in my garage by the side of the road. I like to imagine my Bala becak might have been one of the very same I rode in to the market on the streets of Yogyakarta back in the early 90’s, way before I dreamed of this other homeland that I have found. After my friend Dan helps tightens up the bolts and get it up into riding order, if anyone has calves the size of melons and sinewy muscles browned by genetics and decades in the sun, feel free to come over and take me for a spin around the hills of our neighborhood. I tip way better than the average Javanese.

Now, back to this reality, I just returned from a walk on this glorious warm spring day, catching a glimpse of the first clump of white snowdrops (early spring flowers) bursting from the wooded floor. Nearby, a withering snow bank held out hope of outlasting the thaw, stealing away the remnants of this wicked hard winter we endured. You all endured a bit more than I did, as I escaped for the last month. Yet I endured the extremes of heat and humidity each day, insisting that I consume liters and liters of water daily. You are receiving this letter after I returned home because my time was so full on with work day to day, infused with lots of great visits with dear loved ones, I hardly stopped moving. Now my soul is filled up and I am eager to start to plan this year’s garden, keeping an eye out for the first asparagus spear to poke up from the chilly earth. I will try to keep a keen eye to the contrasts between my Indonesian self and my American self, and remember to feed them both.

Sending you all my love from both parts of myself, Laura

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