Monday, November 23, 2009

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 11, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

Back at the hotel, we’d been forewarned that we’d have to be properly attired to take part in the ceremony. I’d gone to my room, traded my pants for shorts, took off my Timberlands and put on flip-flops, so I could be wrapped in an unflattering but proper green sarong and matching gold belt. We weren’t the only guests going, so I hung back and brought up the rear of our procession as we made our way to the village. I hadn’t realized just how hard it would be to walk uphill without stepping on my skirt. We finally made it to the clearing where the cremation was to take place, my sarong barely still wrapped around me. The area was sectioned off into four parts representing the four castes (Sudras - peasants, which are the majority of the people; Wesian - the merchant class; Satrias - the warrior class; Brahmans - priests and holy men) of Balinese society.

When a member of the village dies, he or she is buried in the local cemetery for a period of 3 to 5 years, depending on how fast the cemetery fills up. Then the village as a group organizes a ceremony to relieve the land of its human burden, cremate the remains and spread the ashes in the ocean. It begins with each caste carrying in a large wood and papier mache effigy, in this case a black calf. The interior is hollow to accept the human remains and the grave goods that are being sent with the deceased to the afterlife. The male members of the family carry the human remains wrapped in a cloth bundle, while the women bring the funerary gifts in brightly colored wrappings. They assemble around the effigy and carefully fill the interior with their loved ones and gifts that they hope will speed them on their way. A priest or bishop comes and gives the invocation and his blessings for the deceased, then fire is used to help lift them toward the heavens.

I don’t want to be an overbearing guest or “imperialistic photographer,” and it's hard to guess the rules of what’s acceptable and what is offensively intrusive. I try to tread as lightly as possible, but it is hard to overcome my enthusiasm to capture as many visuals as possible.

The island of Bali is part of the nation of Indonesia, which has decreed that “sharia” (Islamic law) will be enforced in Bali in the next few years. (Opinion: The lace dresses that you see the women wearing will be outlawed next year. This and other changes that are sure to come will, I believe, change the character of Bali and its ability to draw tourists to its shores. Bali is 90% Hindu, while Indonesia is 90% Muslim. They have coexisted for a long time and the government should let the status quo stand before they cut the throat of the cash cow that helps keep their country afloat.)

We shot for about three hours, getting back to our rooms about 2:30. It had been a beautiful day, a little overcast, so I had to shoot everything wide open, but I was hoping I got a few good shots out of the 12 GB's worth of images I had taken. We decided we’d change and have a quick lunch and then spend the rest of the day in Ubud. ( Cuisine Tip: I have found that in Southeast Asia, I could have Spaghetti Bolognese anywhere, for lunch and dinner, it is always delicious and I’ve never gotten ill using this strategy. Then again, I am one of those people who can eat the same thing again and again without getting tired of it, so take this tip with a grain of salt.) We engaged Dewa and a van for the afternoon, it takes about 20 minutes to get to town and another 15 minutes to make our way through the local traffic jam to the money changer. I was changing $100 (new bill, no tears or marks) into Indonesian Rupiah, roughly a little less than 10,000 Rupiah per dollar. I made the exchange, got my receipt and barely make it across the street without getting sideswiped. The traffic heading back into town was miserable. Dewa suggested that we visit Pura Bukit Dharma Kutri, the local temple. Ann mentioned that she’d like to stop somewhere on the way and purchase a sarong so that she’d have her own the next time we needed one. There was a small working-class strip mall not far away that the driver knew, and we stopped to see what they had to offer. It took about 15 minutes to find, bargain for and purchase a couple of sarongs and a few miscellaneous pieces. (Almost every purchase in Bali involves bargaining. You ask how much?, they say a price, you offer half of that, then in the end you meet somewhere in the middle. This way of buyingstuff can get a little tiresome, but don’t lose your temper, and keep smiling.)

Pura Bukit Dharma Kutri is made up of ground-level temples and a hilltop shrine. We got there near closing so we had the temple to ourselves with the exception of an ancient nun and her little white dog. The sun was setting and we had to hurry to grab a few shot before it was totally dark. Most of the temples are built in a very similar manner, it’s very difficult to tell one from another, so after awhile I wouldn’t shoot that many frames because all my pictures were look alike. The stairs up to the shrine were closed so we weren’t able to view the statue of Durga, the six-armed goddess of death and destruction. I guess they just didn’t want us climbing at night.

After a fast stop at the western-style market -- a little larger and better stocked than your normal 7-11 in the United States -- for cokes and snacks we were back at the hotel by 7, another helping of spaghetti washed down with a diet coke at 8 and into bed by 10. Golden time comes early.