flute and basket

Betty: Meeting Alit and seeing Denpasar by night

Our hotel was a small one, in a Denpasar suburb,  nothing smart. The mattresses were a little  hard and the bathroom had just a large, square, concrete cistern of water, with a plastic dipper for dousing.

We went out to explore the town. In front of the hotel, was a grassy square where children were playing. `Hello turis!’ they called out to us and, smiling widely, reached out upturned palms. They were beautiful children, Siregar’s smiling children, against a background of green.

Small, shrill, three-wheeled trucks  with stuttering, two-stroke  engines, careered on the streets. Bemos they were called. They sat six passengers in reasonable comfort on two benches… even more with a bit of a squeeze. They followed routes as would our buses and were the usual, least expensive and most convenient public transport in Denpasar. Lithe boys stood on the hind step, hanging on,  eyes out for custom. One such boy  waved us to his bemo. We asked for the post office, because that was an Indonesian word we knew,  and he nodded vigorously. We sat close against the comfortable thighs of turbaned women who regarded us without expression.

At the cross-roads in Denpasar is a large four-faced statue, Tertagangga that looks, at the one time to North, south, east and west. The main square of the town spreads over maybe ten acres, and along one side of it are the low decorated roofs of the main Hindu temple of Denpasar..

The post office, mother substitute for tourists, squats close by, behind a wall and a carved gateway. Her grounds were deserted and her faded doors closed tight: the day was a Balinese holiday. Nevertheless, we were not alone for long. In through the carved gates sped a bicycle with a young boy astride it; he circled us three times, braked, dismounted and, speaking English, introduced himself.

`Sir, Madam,’ he said, ‘from which country do you come?  I would like to show you Denpasar and explain anything you want to know.’  We were a little taken aback; but we liked this boy immediately. ‘My name is Alit’  he said,  ‘I am not a tourist guide and I do not want money’ then softly,  ‘but I would like you to help me with my English.’

Alit wasted no time:  ‘The population of Indonesia at the last census was almost one hundred and twenty million people.’ he began. We would learn more from Alit as he would learn from us.

He suggested that we go that night to Denpasar’s great temple on the alun-alun. There would be gamelan music and shadow puppet peformances of the Mahabarata, for this was the day to honour Dewi Sariswati, the benign and beloved goddess of the arts, of learning and literature. Nobody should pick up a book to read on her day; but a new year of reading would begin with the rising of the sun.

When Alit arrived at our hotel to escort us, other tourists were quite cynical.: `They’ll always say they just want to learn English!’ they said knowingly. ‘In the end, they want your money.’

In the town centre were small, colourful  pony carts, called dokkars, drawn by pretty ponies with bells and pomp-poms on their harness. Crowds of people in bright clothing walked slowly across the grass of the alun-alun. Beside the temple walls were sellers of food and drink: turbaned women knelt behind low tables, fanned charcoal fires and sticks of sizzling pork.

Women wore bolts of cloth (kains) in batik patterns wrapped about their thighs and reaching to their ankles and bright, patterned, narrow sleeved blouses called kebayas. Men wore neat shirts over their kains,  which they had tied carefully to fall in pleats in front and  on their heads were embroidered cloths tied intricately. They were good looking people, colourful and happy. Girls walked arm in arm with girls and boys with boys.

A large, white screen for the shadow play was built high on a bamboo platform ande penyors, long tasseled bamboo decorations, curved gracefully beside the carved gates. From inside the temple came the sound of chanting. We were intrigued by what might be going on inside the temple gates. Alit thought it should be all right for us to see whatever  ceremony  was happening.  He went away for a few minutes to check, then led us into the temple grounds.

When Alit took us through a narrow doorway, we saw a crowd gathered around an open-sided pavilion. Inside, an old man sat, cross-legged at a low table, reading from a Sanskrit text. To his left another man sat, repeating each sentence, actively and artistically, giving dramatic life to the reader’s monotone. His voice rose and fell, richly resonant.

The performance was pleasing to us and even more appreciated by the Balinese spectators and participants who obviously understood every subtlety of the text. Facing the two at the table sat a group of six men, deep in meditation, perhaps even trance. One was a particularly distinctive man, dressed all in white, with his long grey hair was pulled back in a knot. I watched the graceful movement of his shapely hands with their inch long finger-nails. His eyes, in a refined face, were black and intense.

Quite suddenly, the chanting with its dramatic repetition ceased. Beautiful, slim young girls, richly dressed in glittering sarongs and kebayas (long-sleeved, fitted blouses) and embroidered sashes binding the waist, approached the pavilion, then stepped on to the dais. The girls had thick black hair, lustrous in the soft light, coiled at the neck and decorated with frangipani. They placed food  in silver bowls before the men, who first cleansed their mouths with water, then broke their fast.

David had taken out his sketch-book, and was drawing,  His concentration was intense and seemed to suggest there was not a moment to be lost.  I could only marvel at his industry. Soon he attracted the interest of others:   I looked around to see him surrounded by small boys.

I stood on a step of the dais intrigued by these new sights and sounds, but soon I had an uncomfortable feeling. I had become aware that my presence was considered an intrusion. Strangely enough, David had the same feelings at the same moment and, with one accord, without speaking, we turned to leave.

Talking later, we agreed that the feeling came from the old man, a pedanda or priest of the Brahmana cast. His appearance and gestures both fascinated me. I was watching him intently when his glance caught and held my gaze. His eyes were burning with a fierce light and I under­stood at once that we were not wanted there.  I understood why: we were a distraction and apart from that, our heads were on a higher level than that of the sitting priest.  We were ill-mannered. we had not shown proper respect, we were not wearing temple sashes and we had received a silent, Oriental admonition that we would not forget.

The Wayang puppets would perform until morning. We were too tired to last the distance. We returned to our hotel and wearily lay on beds covered with just one sheet. I wrestled for a while with a hard bolster, a `dutch-wife’ they call them,  and finally fell asleep.

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