By Hannah Black
The Bali Times
SILAKARANG ~ Day-to-day living in a Balinese compound isn’t an especially exciting experience – people do a lot of sitting around and a lot of repetitious tasks – but once in a while I’m surprised by something or someone who makes me thank my lucky stars I live where I do.
A few days ago, late in the afternoon when everyone is hanging around outside their houses gossiping and waiting for the bakso man to pass by, my husband Ongky said he wanted to show me something.
Off we went, wandering into a compound just a few down from our own. We said hello to everyone going about their business and Ongky explained all the much-too-complicated family relationships to me.
He had actually taken me to the house to see the view, as it faces the same way ours does, but the jungle behind had been cleared so you can see rice paddies stretching for miles.
As beautiful as the view was, the real surprise was a small alcove in the compound packed full of framed newspaper clippings, official-looking letters and old photographs along with some of the most gorgeous and intricate carvings of Balinese scenes I have seen.
Asking if I could investigate further, I was told that my neighbor, and somehow family member, was in fact legendary Balinese craftsman Wayan Rabeg.
The shrine to his achievements made me assume he was dead. So when Ongky asked if I wanted to meet him I was pleasantly surprised and said of course.
Ongky knocked and entered a small room beside the shrine, emerging with an ancient-looking man with papery skin and not an inch of fat on his body.
He was totally blind, but asked to meet our daughter Lola, by holding her hand, and obviously very happy to have visitors got busy smiling and chatting away.
He talked about all the photographs and letters like he could still see them; despite his blindness and age, his mind and memories were undoubtedly still very clear.
He told us about meeting former president Sukarno and how he was chosen be part of the Indonesian delegation at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and was doubly enthused when I told him I was born in New York.
His descriptions of landmarks like the Empire State Building, which he had been to the top of 35 years ago, were as clear as day and I was able to tell him the names of the places he had been.
It was hard for me to imagine a Balinese man who spoke no English wandering the streets of New York, Hong Kong or even Jakarta, especially after my six-year-old niece Rara had told me that morning she had never been to Ubud, less than 10 minutes from her house.
It’s easy to presume the people living around me are less well traveled or educated than I am, and I don’t mean to sound elitist, but I love being surprised when I meet someone who has traveled so far from their tiny, comfortable island and come back with a world of experiences to share.
Living gems like Wayan Rabeg are one of the highlights of village life for me and I think for many others living here as well as everyone enjoys listening to his stories and even boast to people in other villages about the experiences of their famous neighbor.
It’s amazing to me that Rabeg has been away and seen what’s out there past the sandy shores of Bali, but said, “Nope, not for me. I want to be with my family and my religion and die in the same house I was born in.”
The Balinese seem not to have the “grass is always greener” syndrome that most Westerners have, although it seems as I am losing the feeling, young Balinese people are getting those itchy traveling feet.
When it comes to this change, I just can’t make up my mind whether it’s positive or negative. I suppose I have to accept this effect of globalization as progress.
I have to remind myself without the present-day ease of travel, I may never have come to Bali, met Ongky and ended up living in the village.
One thing I do hope for though, is that when Ongky and I are old and grey, younger generations will still come to visit, looking for stories of travel and adventure we experienced way back when we were young and free.