October 15, 2016
Here comes down the stairs my co-workers in Bali, Hussien (from Spain) and Juliana (Brazil), dressed and ready for tonight’s Barong! We are so very honored to be invited by our other Balinese co-workers at the Jiwa Damai Retreat Center. Bernardo (also Brazilian and my co-yoga instructor at Jiwa Damai) and I are helped next with our sarongs and provided appropriate headwear (called an “udeng”) plus pungent flowers we’re told to place behind our ears. We’re reassured that when we start marching in the procession through the village tonight we’ll see that all the men will be donning flowers in this way.
I’m also told this festival celebrates the full moon every 200 years! Are we lucky to be here! I indeed marveled at a huge and round, fat moon shimmering in the sky above Bali last night. My mom in Kenosha, Wisconsin also told me on the phone this morning she saw it as well. It was shining over Lake Michigan. The same full moon, all around this big planet Earth.
I did some additional internet research to find that a Barong is “a benevolent lion-like creature in Balinese mythology” and a costume version is featured often in celebrations here, so like a lot of things I’m told in Bali there’s often more than a few elements of ambiguity. Regardless, our Balinese friends are excited, generous hosts and I’m thrilled to be able to experience this night, whatever it turns out to be.
We catch up with the remarkable procession just getting going and wait for our turn to join in. Everyone is dressed so beautifully and there’s drumming, thunderous and continuous.
I start marching! As the whitest person there I get more than a few surprised looks, but they’re always followed up with that wonderful Balinese smile. I note most of the other men are not wearing flowers behind their ears. I keep mine on anyway. We pass a a contingent of teenage girls watching from the sidewalk. When they spot me they become very happy. So happy they elbow and hug each other, and laugh enthusiastically!
I see many parents carrying their children in the procession. Everyone patiently strolls along, the drums pounding up ahead signaling we’re still going where we’re going. Where that is, I don’t know.
The drumming ceases and here we are! The end appears to be a large space down below where the main costumed players in the procession converge and hang out. We are then escorted by our Balinese friends to a new, large SUV with three rows of seats. Everyone piles in and we’re off again, this time racing by fields glowing in a golden sunset. Darkness falls and we enter narrow village streets. I feel like we are gradually ascending on our way to something that has to do with the Barong…that’s all I got right now.
Solid dark now and we eventually get to and park at what looks to be a Balinese version of the county fairs we have in the U.S. during late summer. We park on grass, directed by men with flashlights. We walk on mud and around rain puddles, heading in the direction of tents with lights and music. There must be a thousand motor scooters parked, with dozens more continuously buzzing by me and the other people walking in. Not safe, I think, watching them navigate the boggy field and muddy road in darkness, but none of the drivers – most with one or even two riders onboard – seem fazed a bit.
Likes moths to a flame, we climb out of darkness to the brightly illuminated action: booth after booth selling a vast array of snacks similar to what is found at U.S. fairs – peanuts, chips, soda, beer, candies – and Indonesian street foods such as Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Mie Goreng (fried noodles) and Bakso (meatball soup). Plus, many stalls feature what is arguably Bali’s most famous dish, Babi Guling (roasted suckling pig). To attract attention the merchants selling Babi Guling showcase the real deal: an entire roasted pig – snout to back hooves – stretched out and plopped on a display table out front.
Now we reach the evening’s entertainment. This is where any similarities to outdoor county fairs back in the U.S. cease entirely. Rancorous, live percussion sounds ring out from the biggest tent. Inside I view spectacularly attired young dancers are performing on a stage. I have to move closer and see this.
The expressive, coordinated movements of fingers, arms and eyes reflect innumerable hours of learning and practice. Faces at times seem to show a dancer lost in a trance, and then, as if suddenly awoken, feature darting eyes coming alive and sternly staring right at me. And then, as if she was just joking, the dancer dons a mischievous smile, dancing away.
We watch set after set of dancers. They are all extremely talented and lavishly dressed. I feel so very fortunate to be here, witnessing this. As an indication of just how rare my experience is, a remarkably cute teenage Balinese girl with scholarly black rimmed glasses approaches and asks if she can pose for a picture with me. She wants to show her friends and family that there was a a very white man wearing a sarong and udeng, with flowers behind his ears, at the Barong Festival.