We worry and scurry, stock extra water, fill the fridge with slow-to-perish edibles, buy protective masks, seal air conditioners, take what precautions we can against the possible chaos ahead…and wait…and wait…and wait.
Tourists are upset. They’re stuck at an airport that closed suddenly because of ash blowing in from a burping grumbling mountain. They have appointments to keep, deadlines to meet, responsibilities to fulfill. Some have flight insurance. Some do not, but the overriding question is: Can’t someone please do something?
These are Western concerns.
Villages on the slopes of Mt. Agung have been home to thousands of Balinese for generations. Evacuation means leaving their land and livelihood behind not knowing if they’ll return.
For Bali Hindus, the questions go beyond personal inconvenience or even survival. My friend Ketut and I have spent hours talking together about the mountain since the tremors began in September. His fascinating perspective reflects a culture that is light-years removed from mine.
Mount Agung is sacred for Ketut and most Balinese. It is home to the magnificent mother temple, Besakih, pictured below. Besakih is the most important and holiest temple in Bali. Its tiered spires and terraced courtyards lead worshippers upward and ever closer to the mountain.
The past six years have seen an ever-increasing flood of tourists touring the temple and trekking Agung’s holy slopes. Some visitors are respectful. Many are not. The implications are disturbing to Ketut and his peers. Cleansing ceremonies help repair the damage but Ketut wonders if they are enough.
The Balinese Hindu belief system incorporates ancient animism, imbuing objects, places, plants, animals, and natural phenomena with a spiritual essence. These spirits have an obligation to maintain balance between good and evil. To the Balinese the action is justified even if it takes the form of a violent eruption that destroys lives and land.
I’ve learned so much about Bali Hinduism since my arrival six years ago.
And yet, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Ketut’s patient explanations grow more complex as my grasp of the Indonesian language improves. But as my
understanding increases, a gap I can never cross widens.
Only those born into the traditions, who have watched them enacted every day of their lives, have the necessary background. It’s in their cells. They don’t have to learn it, they just know.
Religion is central to the Balinese Hindu’s existence. Intricate offerings accompanied by prayers happen multiple times each day, in homes, shops, bank lobbies, restaurants, and hotels. The same scenario plays out at street corners, riverbanks, rice fields, and bridges. Offerings proliferate and incense sweetens the air.
These outward signs suggest a culture shaped by unseen forces. The invisible is equal, if not greater, in measure to what is visible. And the Balinese people exist in both worlds.
With this in mind, it isn’t surprising that Ketut’s response to the uncertainty at hand, the shuddering and belching of Mt. Agung, is different from mine.
As we mused together, these were Ketut’s thoughts:
“Maybe the land needs to be replenished. The fallout from an eruption would give Bali the most fertile soil on earth. It will be better for our children.”
“Maybe the trucks have taken too much rock and sand from the mountain to build all the new hotels and villas. The mountain is ready to give us new rocks and more sand.”
“Maybe the spirits are angry because there is too much trash. Rivers and oceans are being destroyed and the beauty of Bali is eaten up.”
“Maybe it’s a lesson. Maybe Agung is saying time to start again and do it better. Maybe prayers and offerings won’t help.”
Conversations like these tug at my heart. While grumpy travelers moan about foiled vacations and missed appointments, residents grapple to make sense of their changing reality. Each planeload that leaves the island takes more than people. Even the Balinese living far from the mountain watch their careers – as laundry operators, restaurateurs shop owners, taxi drivers, masseuses, tailors, or hotel staff – dissolve.
I want to point a finger, to blame someone. But my effort to identify a culprit, comes up empty. There’s no one but the avenging spirit of holy Mount Agung, and for now, that will have to suffice.