Transport, Moni, Flores, Indonesia

Transport, Moni, Flores, Indonesia

Typical transport in Indonesia (though just as often there’ll be a goat on top instead of–or in addition to–people). Climb aboard!

Me and the monkeys, Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Me and the monkeys, Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Things got a little funky at the Monkey Forest, when the monkeys started to pull at–and then go under–my skirt.

Toilet, Borneo Global Backpackers Hostel, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia

Toilet, Borneo Global Backpackers Hostel, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia

Best toilet brand name EVER!


Potato chip bag, Bali, Indonesia

Ever wondered where your potato chips come from…?

Indonesia is a vast country and home to multiple religions and ethnic groups. So while you can certainly identify elements of an overall ‘Indonesian’ culture, in some regions the distinct subculture of the people who live there is what comes across most strongly. This is true in, among many other places, Bali, the areas in and around Bajawa in Flores and the Tana Toraja region of Central Sulawesi. Intricate rituals are part of daily life in all three of these cultures, and I was lucky enough to have witnessed death rituals in both Bali and Tana Toraja. And, of course, have some pretty fascinating photos and videos to share with you as a result.

Balinese culture, as you may have gathered from previous photo albums I’ve posted, is quite unique. People refer to it as Hindu, but Balinese Hinduism differs greatly from that practiced in India, and is really a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and the animist traditions of the people indigenous to the island.

While in Bali I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a cremation ceremony—which I know may sound a bit odd. As a fellow American (who has attended numerous cremations over the years that he has been visiting Bali) pointed out to me, in Western cultures you would of course never think of inviting random strangers to the funeral of one of your family members. But funerals and cremation ceremonies in Bali (and elsewhere) are events attended by the larger community, and outsiders are welcome and even encouraged to attend. I was invited to this one because it was in the village of Nyuh Kuning, home to the Bumi Sehat clinic at which I was to volunteer, and one of the people being cremated was a member of the family in whose compound Robin Lim, the clinic’s director, had lived for many years. But as it turned out this didn’t really matter, as the ceremony was attended by a good number of tourists, many of whom I’m sure didn’t have any connection, even as tangential as mine, to the families involved.

The Balinese, in fact, are so accustomed to the presence of tourists in their lives that in several paintings I saw at museums in Ubud, scenes depicting village life and all the attendant goings-on (cow-milking, rice-harvesting, bathing in the river, etc.), also included a random Westerner or two with a camera looking on!

Cremation ceremonies are held by every village for all of their dead at once. How often they do this depends on the wealth of the village, as the ceremony is an expensive one and, as in most things, economies of scale prevail. Some villages do a cremation ceremony every year, but Nyuh Kuning holds theirs every five. The one I was to attend, I was told, was for 32 people.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Balinese cremation ceremonies and can’t even explain everything I saw, but I will tell you what I can and the photos and videos will illustrate, if not elaborate.

After someone dies there is a funeral and a burial, but it is believed that the person’s soul will not be at rest until cremation takes place. When it comes time for this, the body is dug up and the remains are taken out to be cremated. They are placed inside the body of a wooden animal that serves as a sarcophagus, usually a horse or bull, which will be burned, thereby conveying the soul to heaven.

The first part of the ceremony (which I did not attend) involves carrying the body from the burial ground to the cremation ground. When I arrived at the cremation ground I found that there was an entire hall full of elaborate offerings—flowers, clothing, intricately-folded money and many a roasted baby pig (some laid down among other offerings, some impaled on large sticks).

At the appointed hour the families of the dead begin to pick up all of the offerings and carry them in a procession to the area where the actual cremation will take place. The family members, one carrying a photo of the dead loved one, parade around the sarcophagus (now we know why the roasted pigs are on sticks!) and, when the procession has finished, place the offerings on the ground at the base of the sarcophagus.

It’s not a particularly somber event, perhaps because in most cases the person has been dead for several years, but the parading around the sarcophagus is probably the most solemn part. A priest is then presented with a tray full of jars and bottles containing several types of liquids (holy water and various herbal concoctions, presumably), and each is sprinkled in turn into the cloth-covered box with the remains in it. A very elaborate and lengthy ritual.

Once all of this has taken place, everyone stands back and the entire thing is set on fire and all that is left to do is watch it burn.

One thing I found strange was how small the sarcophagi seemed to be, given that each was supposed to able to hold a dead body. This confusion was compounded as I watched them cut quite a small hole in the top and place what appeared to be a very small amount of remains (wrapped in white cloth) inside. I learned later that in this particular ceremony, the bodies were not actually burned. Apparently after the last one five years ago everyone in the village got sick, so, instead of assuming that, for example, something was amiss in the lunch that followed the ceremony, the village elders decided this was a sign from their ancestors that they should no longer burn the actual bodies. Make of that what you will; as it turned out, this particular cremation was all symbolic.

You can view the photo album (which includes several videos) here.

Coming soon: Death rituals (part two)—a Torajan funeral.

Having used up my 60-day Indonesia visa, I’m currently in Borneo applying for a new one so I can return for another six weeks, this time to explore the western islands of Java and Sumatra.

So with nothing else to do and free wifi at my hostel, I’ve been a busy little photo-editing, blog-post-writing bee, and I’ve posted links to three new albums below.

By way of background: after the month I spent in Bali (doing very little except waiting for my knee to be ready to be walked on properly again), I traveled across the island of Flores, then did a boat trip between Flores and Lombok, the main purpose of which was to visit the Komodo islands to see the dragons, then headed even further east to the island of Sulawesi.

You can see the photos and read the descriptions of my Flores adventures in the albums listed below.


Crossing Flores
Komodo Island Boat Trip (includes video)

Up next: Balinese cremation ceremony post and album.

Greetings from Sulawesi, in East Indonesia. I have much to tell and many photos with which to tell it, but I need more time and internet access than I’ve had lately to do so.

I have, however, brought my trip up to date (inasmuch as this is possible) via the magic of six-word memoirs.

So until I get my act together (no comment, please), feel free to visit my SMITH magazine profile page for some tiny little updates.

Greetings from Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi in northeast Indonesia. I left Bali two weeks ago and went to the islands of Flores and Lombok (took a three-day boat trip in between), and just landed here yesterday.

Hopefully in Sulawesi I will have more access to both electricity and internet than I have had…as well as time so that I can write a post about my recent experiences and upload some new photos.

In the meantime, I have plenty of other new photos ready for you. Three new Bali albums, including some videos from Monkey Forest, are on the photos page, and listed below. Enjoy!

Last Days in Bali
Monkey Forest

First off, I’m sorry I haven’t written any new posts in so very long. As most of you know, I’ve been recuperating from a fractured kneecap and, while you would think all that time spent doing pretty much nothing else would have made it an ideal time to write, I just haven’t been able to muster the will to do so. I’ve been pretty down, actually. Not being able to walk around and explore the few places I’ve managed to get myself to has really been a drag. But I am on the mend, and am now walking—still with a bit of a limp, but not hobbling like before—without my half-cast-thingy (called a backslap), which I wore for over six weeks after the original cast was taken off (about a week after my fall).

Now I’m in Bali and still doing pretty much nothing, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing things and have finally gotten around to editing photos and posting the albums online.

I’ve also been doing a very small volunteer project for a great organization called Bumi Sehat, which is a birthing clinic that also provides general medical services to poor folks here in Bali. They run completely on donations from individuals (and fees from those who can afford to pay), so if you’re feeling generous, do check out their website, where you can donate via Paypal. What I’ve been working on for them is a proposal to raise money to send four young women to midwifery school, a project that has its own website where, if you prefer, you can donate so that the funds go directly toward these scholarships.

The need for a pay-as-you-can clinic in a poor country is, of course, quite obvious, but what I also learned in talking to the clinic’s director, an American named Robin Lim who’s lived in Bali for decades, is that the hospitals here, as well as many village midwives, will actually keep the baby until the family comes back with the money to pay for the birth. She told me of one horrific case where twins were born and the parents couldn’t pay the full fee so the midwife kept one of the twins and then sold it. (Robin got human rights lawyers involved in that one and they eventually got their baby back, but in most cases like this the families would probably have ended up with someone else’s baby. Because this was an identical twin they were able to know it was truly their child.)

I know, too awful to even wrap your head around. I’ve been to the clinic when births were happening and it is truly a wonderful, comforting place where the women are getting very good—and compassionate—care. I of course am hesitant to ask anyone I know to donate (as I told the clinic’s volunteer coordinator from the outset, I hate fundraising), but, since a very small amount of money goes a very long way in a place like Bali, I’m just putting the information here in case you feel so moved.

On a lighter note, I’ve had some very funny experiences here thus far, so I thought I’d share a few anecdotes with you. (And don’t forget to catch up on the photos of the day, as there are some good laughs there as well.)

My friend Rob and I met an American guy who studied here back in college and comes back to visit every few years. He invited us to a dinner the family he stays with was giving in his honor. After dinner, some of the kids were playing and one boy said to another, ‘You’re fat and you have no teeth.’

The other boy didn’t react at all. Apparently, here things that we would take as insults are just really statements of fact that no one gets too fussed about. Like when Brad (the American) arrived at his family’s house this year. They greeted him and said, ‘You got fatter.’

Rob and I were at a bar seeing some live music when two street dogs came in. (This itself is not so unusual. Street dogs are everywhere in Bali and are mostly ignored.) They were playing, biting each other’s faces and rolling around, and ended up right between our table and the next. Suddenly, one of them started mounting the other, which caused a big laugh among the patrons, one of whom was a young English guy who said, ‘I didn’t think this was that kind of bar!’

I was hobbling home one night (wearing my backslap, which kept my knee from bending) and passed some men sitting on the sidewalk. (There are always men sitting on the sidewalk. Sometimes they are there to call out ‘Transport?’ to you. Sometimes they are just sitting and chatting.). As I walked past, one of them said, ‘I think you are a little bit sick.’ (Sick seems to be a catch-all word here, since most people’s English is limited, so I guess it covers being hurt, injured, etc. That or he had some other kind of insight without even talking to me…)


This one is actually hearsay only: My friend Rob went to another island, Flores, where he met a really interesting man who took him on a tour of some local villages. The people in this area are Catholic but also retain a lot of their animistic traditions and rituals, including animal sacrifice (you can see Rob’s photos here). They got to talking and this man told Rob that he’d seen God several times, and started describing what he looked like: a sandal, a foot. The foot, he said, was white. And had hair on it. “Like a tourist,” he said. Which was followed by: ‘Jesus was white, right? Like the old Jews.’

I’ll leave you with that—and the photo albums, which you can check out on the photos page or use the links below where, to make things a bit easier, I’ve listed which ones are newly-posted (some of them are actually, chronologically, quite old). In the Ubud album there are a number of videos as well. And, as always, the stories are told in the captions to make up for all I’ve not been writing. Hope you enjoy!

July 2009
Ubud (includes Kecak Fire Dance)

June and July 2009
Pehrentian Islands

Cameron Highlands


The Accident

April and May 2009
Last Phnom Penh Snapshots

Buddhalicious cocktail list, Menu, Laughing Buddha, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Buddhalicious cocktail list, Menu, Laughing Buddha, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I believe I have found, without question the best-named drink in the entire world, ever. (For those who need to know, it contains arak, cranberry juice and mint. And no, sorry, I didn’t order one. I opted instead for the arak mojo (mojito). As it turns out, I should not have ordered any of those drinks, as several tourists have died recently of bad arak. Someone’s mixing methanol into it and apparently even a sealed bottle from the store isn’t even safe. Talk about arak attack… So, no more araktails for me.)


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