(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

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Mermaids in the Temple — حوريات البحر في معبد

After midnight in Selat, the temple filled with well groomed men all dressed in white. Women and children sat mostly along the sides of the stone courtyard and towards the front, where the entranced Barong and Rangda dancers would contest the great battle of good and evil. Little musicians sat on their fathers’ laps to learn the ropes while the gamelan boomed and rang, brilliant against the cloudy night sky. Others in masks and bedecked in recognizable costumes retold stories through dance and song in classical Balinese. It seemed like everyone was waiting for something.

Upacara, Balinese temple festivals, are inescapable all across the island. Every village has its temple, complete with several courtyards and heavy pagodas often springing up from the rice paddies as if from nowhere. The traditional calendar weaves together weeks of three days, five days, seven days, and ten days, and at some blistering number of important intersections, they party. For example, the common first day of the three day and five day week — every fifteen days — is considered very powerful for evil spirits. (A fallen tree blocked a road and prevented us from reaching a friend in the hospital on one of these days. For Jerry, our friend — relatively superstitious by his own standards — there was no need for explanation.) After 210 days, the full year starts over with a bang.

In the fields of Payangan, things were more casual. The procession strolled by in the morning with cymbals and drums and at night everyone relaxed. At night in the temple’s central courtyard, girls all in yellow danced the Legong, a dance reserved for the young and marked by darting of the eyes and fingers and faces; the village watched. People hang out until two or three in the morning or later, until the series of dances has ended, or the complete drama has been performed. Outside, men stood and sat and played kochok or mokochok or koprok, a betting game with easy rules: a board has six painted pictures of three colors — a red lobster and a red mermaid; a green eagle and a green mermaid; a black elephant and a black crab. Betters toss rolled up rupiah notes onto their choice. The dealer in a Daytona Beach sweatshirt took two homemade die, each with the faces of the creatures on the board, closed them in a tub, flipped it over, and shook once firmly. Sometimes, I watched him knock the chin of a tiny cat on the tub three times for luck (I’m not sure whose.) The bottom is lifted off and the men groan in despair or gloat victory — Red, I knew it would be red! I lost three times in a row. I knew it would be red, too, but I went for the mermaid.

In Selat, the village of our nightwatchman Agung, the mood turned with a swift change of the music. A gong. Instantly, women flocked towards the altar with hundreds of woven baskets of offerings piled high with fruit. They take it home afterwards, but the essence has been consumed by the gods. Some say they can taste the difference. The gong boomed again. Palms pressed together were raised to foreheads in prayer.

Under the rising smoke of the incense, the Barong and Rangda —the good and the evil, — stood watch under heavy costumes and masks topped with long, flowing horse hair. Two men emerged from the shadows to make careful preparations at their feet, one in a black t-shirts and sarong, the other wearing a short-sleeved white jacket, white headdress and white sarong. One held a black crow. The other carried an adorable, well groomed piglet in formal porcine attire: floral garlands and paint, and the shimmering of something precious.

These animals were also for the gods’ consumption, and from behind the shoulders of the man in black, we watched the foot-long blade fall. “He will be reincarnated as something very good,” said Agung. “A person.”

More pictures from Bali here and here.

Videos coming soonish.

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