Feb 052020
 

29.November-5.February, 2020

[A prescript about photography:
I felt very uncomfortable taking photos of people, as if zooifying their daily lives,
and I was also uncertain about taking photos of spiritual acts and objects.
Also … many of my photos were taken from the back of a motorcycle.
My fastest camera being far slower than my perception,
I often wished to have the implants of Greg Egan’s journalists of the future.
To see the images larger, just double click on them.]

The first principle for the Balinese is the architecture and ritual of cosmology. The world is inhabited with gods and demons. They move in and out ofpeople and houses. The business of life is to get into good alignment with them. This structures the calendar, the day, the household, the community, and physical space.

Temples pervade the landscape. Each one is 1.5 to 2m tall and 50cm-1.5 m wide. Many look old and worn, but these are not relics. They are in contemporary production. Some are entirely stone and some have an elaborately painted wooden section, featuring gold leaf. The wooden ones have a roof, wood or thatched, for protection. Stone temples make do with a satin umbrella for protection. Most of them wear two-layer skirts, a plain petticoat covered with a color+gold lame overskirt.

Every house, business, and site (such as a farm or a highway works project) must have a temple, positioned at the North-East corner (which makes orientation easy for the traveler in Bali!). If the property does not have space on the northeast corner, the temples are ensconsed on an elevated balcony with a dedicated staircase. I asked a foreign friend if his new house will have a temple, “Absolutely. Otherwise no one will work for for you! They won’t step foot on the place.” Most houses have a small cluster of temples. Some houses have so many that the property is indistinguishable from the local temple proper, which is a site with many small structures. Home temples are serious spiritual business, even the family weddings are performed there.

In addition to the house temple, many establishments have an entryway temple, of slightly different shape. The public marketplaces have built-in entry temples at every stall.

In the countryside every building has an additional form of temple; a 4m high bamboo pole dangling a string of twisted bamboo jewels and bits of red ribbon. These bend over the road and move in the wind.

It’s also handy to have stone guardians at the door. These could be tigers, monkeys, dancing girls, or dieties, so long as they look properly alert and menacing. Temples, important buildings, and wealthier houses have these.

One of the highest and largest temple structures at the community temples has an alarm gong, to gather the community in case of invasion.  The community temple also have large raised platforms for ceremonies, which include singing, drumming, and dancing.

Domestic and community temples are made effectual through daily ritual. This ritual is called “offerings”. A person –best a woman but a man will do– wearing prescribed clothing, should with the appropriate reverence and concentration, place one or more small (<10cm diameter) trays of flowers and food on or at the foot of the temple, splash some holy water, and light some incense. The trays are made of banana-leaf, preferably by hand. On normal days they are filled only with flowers, but twice per month on full moon and dark moon, rice is included, and for weddings, ceremonies, and other special events, specific additional ingredients must be prepared. 

Offerings are made daily not only to the house or business temple, but to any important equipment or locations (the stove, the cash register, the water pump, dashboard of the car), and to entrances (driveways, gates, paths, doorways, even the beginning of the street leading to your home), and additionally at the local community temple.

Komang and Iluh taught me how to make the offering trays which they do during the slow times at their beach restaurant in Padang Bai. They sometimes use a stapler instead of the bamboo needle to fix the twisted leaves in place, but they said that only lazy people buy pre-made trays. They need to make about 75 of these trays every day to bless their home and business. They can do one tray while chatting in about 45 seconds. It took me about a minute with the stapler, and 3 minutes with the bamboo needle. Another friend came by and told me that the bamboo needle is easier to use if it’s dried a bit longer in the sun so that it’s harder and can more easily pierce the banana leaf.

Not everyone has time to make their own ingredients and trays, so both can be bought at markets, as separate ingredients to self-assemble, or even in pre-loaded trays sold by the bagful, even at the supermarket.

Many market stalls, shops, and craftsmen are kept fully occupied and in good livelihood producing and selling all the needed accoutrements. In this way the religion provides jobs.

 

Besides preparing the ingredients and the trays, women are responsible for conveying the appropriate number of trays to the temple, balanced on their head, in a beautiful basket or box designed for this purpose.

Once the trays have been correctly offered, their mission is complete. In some cases they can be taken back home and the food eaten by the family, in other cases they are left to biodegrade or be swept up later with the rubbish. They are basically biodegradable, except when people put plastic-wrapped cookies or candies inside.

I asked Komang what the offerings are supposed to do. “It’s for good luck, from God.” “Which one?”, I asked. “Any. Whoever is available. Hopefully a good one.”

In addition to delivering offerings, the entire family needs to dress up and get to the temple pretty regularly for a variety of different ceremonies, which include drumming, dancing, and singing… These seem to be happy events; people on the way to and from temple are full of energy and smiling.

For ladies temple clothing means an ankle-length sarong, a long-sleeved transparent lace top, and a colored sash tied around the waist. Almost every lady of every age has long hair, worn in a ponytail or bun with a flower or adornment tucked in. The sarong creates a pretty sexy profile on the ass, and under the lace top is just a camisole.

Men wear a knee- or calf-length sarong tied differently with a slit to allow more leg movement, and a white shirt, usually with buttons (but sometimes a t-shirt is ok, as long as it’s white) a headband wrapped horizontally above the ears with a knot at the forehead.

During temple ceremonies, men receive flowers which are draped over the top of the ears and they wear these until they fall off. Women leave the temple with a few grains of rice glued to the center of their foreheads.

While the ritual and iconography is to some extent similar, and abundant, every temple, outfit, and offering shows personal care, attention, and expression.

Bali is multi-cultural. Amidst this Balinese Hindu temple landscape live Christians and Muslims. In our neighborhood there is no mosque, but I can hear Muslims praying at home, interwoven with singing and drumming from the Hindu temples.

At the entrance of our closest local market is the most local temple. It’s about 7m square with steps going up so that people can enter. Just at the foot of the temple, every morning a Muslim couple sell a very delicious sweet breakfast soup.

Tourism

Bali is multicultural, but the only Buddhists are tourists. For them shops are filled up with Buddhas which resorts use as part of decoration.

I am staying in what I guess to be a middle-class Balinese neighborhood in Denpasar. We have to go at least 2km before we have much chance of seeing a foreigner. My experience of touristic areas is extremely limited. In 2 months, I have been just three times to the touristic area of Seminyak (now part of the same Metropolitan stretch as Denpasar, the airport, and two other formerly separate touristic areas, Canggu and Kuta). I have visited one waterfall, a mountain lake, and a scuba-diving industry village, Padang Bai, with its white beach.

Although I only witnessed this at the waterfall, I am told by other visitors as well as a hotel owner, that instagram increasingly shapes the production of tourist locations and experiences. At the special “white sand beach” in Padang Bai a majority of the visitors at any given moment seemed to be taking pictures of themselves, which was also the preoccupation at sunset at Seminyak Beach.

Hotels produce arrangements of plants and objects to satisfy the stereotype expectation of tropical serenity, and this does have some basis in the aesethetic presentation of entryways to middle-class homes in our neighborhood.

Long-time expat residents tell me that local Balinese have found their wells dried up because the tourist resorts suck the water. Tourists complain about harassment by vendors offering taxi rides and trinkets.

The prices for food and coffee in the touristic areas are about 10% cheaper than Berlin. Two uber-clones: GoJet and Grab employ motorcycle workers to offer taxi, food delivery, and courier services, often costing less than €1 per trip, to the consternation of local registered taxis.

Tourists on motorcycles do not know the Balinese traffic culture, and thereby pose carefree hazards.

I have to admit that on my one trip to the ultratouristic Seminyak Beach, I very much enjoyed lounging on the sand in a bean-bag chair under an umbrella, with loud techno music, cool breeze from the water, and no bugs – even though the watermelon juice was diluted and 4x the price in neighborhood.

A driver tells me about tourist women who pressure him to have sex like an exotic trinket. “We marry for love. Marriage is sacred to us. Our families support us during rough times. Facebook is causing divorce.”

In Padang Bai live a number of foreigners who run businesses for the tourist industry. There are a handful of European widows. Like most Westerners they dress very poorly relative to the locals, using the heat as an excuse for immodesty and dishevelment.

“Another day in Paradise”, they like to say. I’m not sure what they are talking about. If you stay in a touristic resort you get an image of paradise. But warm weather doesn’t soothe my concerns with inequality.

They dance impulsively. I understand that abandoned women may grasp a certain mercenary freedom. But there is something more that discomforts me. I feel that the foreigners sense of “freedom” here, is rooted in racism. Back home I couldn’t dress or move like this. I would have to follow some decorum.

They “let it all hang out”. Isn’t this what one is supposed to do at home, not outside? Who feels the need to break the rules, but doesn’t have the courage to do it in their own society? So they go to a place where “it doesn’t matter what you do.” What that means in reality is “I don’t care if these people laugh at me. Here I am free because these people don’t matter.” Doesn’t that logic depend on racism?

No surprise then that the foreigners who persistently ignore the structure of dignity here find the locals make unreliable employees.

Food & Agriculture

“I don’t know. Eat it.”

Every morning I walk 300m to the local market. Like every Balinese market it is organized into sections with vendors who sell specific categories of products. At the biggest market in Bali, each category has its own floor of the multi-story open-air building. The categories are:

  • ingredients for offerings
  • spices: chilies, garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, curry leaves, limes, tomatoes and other ingredients used to make sauces
  • dry and packaged goods (rice, oil, sugar, flour…)
  • processed treats (desserts and fried snack foods)
  • prepared foods (cooked meals packaged in banana leaf or small plastic bags)
  • fruits (no vegetables)
  • vegetables (no fruits, but tomatoes may be here too)
  • soy products (tofu and tempeh)
  • meat and fish (I don’t go in this area, so I don’t know how well-separated the types are, but to accommodate Muslims, the pork is kept separated) 

Although Bali and Indonesia have abundant agriculture, it does not necessarily land in my neighborhood market. The top quality fruits go to hotels or export. The next qualities work their way through the distribution system based on the wealth of the middle-man at hand. In the countryside, households sell products from the roadside and this is probably the best quality you can get.

There is a tiny organic farming and permaculture movement. I’m told that rice farmers want to do 3 crops a year, with corn or peanuts in between. This doesn’t give the land much recovery time. They use fertilizers to make it all possible. On a trip to the mountains in the center of Bali, we passed many small farms. The houses were not poor. They were similar to the houses in the nice suburbs north of Denpasar. In the east of Bali, we visited forests where we saw old women living in shacks beneath the palms and bananas, with a pig or or cow or two.

We stumbled over the home garage-warehouse of a ginger and galangal farmer and bought a kilo of the freshest ginger I’ve ever tasted for Rp25K / €1.60.

At my neighborhood market I can buy bunches of spinach and other greens for about €0.30, but I can’t get Balinese cinnamon or vanilla because these vendors can’t afford it. I can get reasonably good bunches of rambutan (lychee) for €0.80, but only overripe and mediocre mangos and avocados (€0.60/kilo). The chilies are fine, but the ginger is rotten. Most of the tomatoes don’t look good, but when you find good ones they cost about €2/kilo. Once I found at the supermarket a pint of delicious yellow mini-tomatos for €1. The supermarket gets higher quality produce and keeps it in better conditions, but no matter where you buy leafy stuff, it’s rotten in 2 days because it hasn’t been transported in cold storage. At the supermarket I can buy sweet corn, €2/ear in Europe, for €0.25. Much of Sumbawa has been razed for sweet corn, which for reasons I can’t yet trace is being exported to Vietnam, while Indonesia imports 60% of its soy for the popular tofu and tempe from the United States. 

Food Safety is not a thing here. (Another thing that is not a thing is women’s legs.)

The main food is chicken, and most Warungs (restaurants) have no electricity or running water. Even if you only eat vegetables, it would take strong leap of fantasy to believe that the chopping areas, knives, and cooking utensils have not also been in contact with chicken bacteria. At the markets, vegetables lay on the ground. In restaurants cooking pots sit on the ground. The ground is not strikingly clean.

Every restaurant makes their own version of sambal (hot sauce) because “it’s personal” (like how you make your yerba mate). In addition there are different styles of sambal. One restaurant offers 5 or 6 different types; this was the only place I saw doing that.

My favorite foods: tiny leaves of “Balinese basil” generally served with Lalapan (one of the several forms of fried chicken, without coating), but I ate it with everything, rambutan (the fruit with spiny red skin) Malaysian Roti Canai (flaky bread served with a curry dipping sauce), and Serabi, a street food dessert. It’s a tiny pancake with a bit of coconut pudding in the center that you must eat immediately. In the touristic area are very very good donuts at Dough Darlings.

In the mountains at Bedegul Traditional Market I meet Budi. She grinds, roasts, and mixes all her spices herself. She taught me that it’s nice to break a small piece of cinnamon stick to chew on it. This is how you figure out if it’s good, “because it should be both sweet and spicy”. But now I have a new dessert alternative. Also I learned that the rather harsh local alcohol, Arak, improves markedly after soaking a cinnamon stick for a week.

Such conversations and discoveries were sadly a bit rare for me. I could buy food, but I didn’t meet many food vendors who had stories to tell, and of course I couldn’t draw them out because I don’t speak Bahasa (fittingly, that word means exactly “language”).

Frustratingly, I didn’t get the story or the mechanics, I just got the salt and the photos at the Black Sand Beach Natural Salt Farmers.

The Experience, Bali

I stay in a large house with a large garden. The bathing and washing water comes from a well on the property. The sewage goes into a sinkhole on the same property. I am instructed not to ingest the well water. Drinking water comes in plastic containers. If I want to eat vegetables raw (which has been my preference for the last few years), I must wash them in drinking water. Salad is not really a thing here, almost everything is cooked.

The road from the house to the market is not paved. Most of the homes in the vicinity are large 80-100m2 single-family homes (“middle-class”?), but I pass two 2-story, 8 or 10 unit apartment buildings which I might call “working class” and one single story apartment building that looks very poor. Nearly all houses are walled about 2 meters high. Most, but not all, owners take care with cleaning in front of the wall and beautifying their piece of the street with potted plants. But many streets are not cared for. 

 

I cross a creek, odorous with its burden of garbage. I know all of the street’s dogs, some of whose offspring live inside our compound as guard dogs. In addition to barking at strangers who approach their gardens, dogs are responsible for dispatching rats, Balinese cats being too tiny and so sickly it’s really hard to look at them.

One of the loveliest things about the neighborhood is the soundscape. The prayers are joined by birds. Like most houses, ours contains many cages of birds (parakeets, lovebirds, cockateels), joined by neighborhood roosters, and the drums and bells announcing the various meal vendors as they pass the houses (soup, gado-gado vegetables with peanut sauce, ice cream…) I spend a lot of time talking to the turtles, about civility and depression.

Less lovely is the smellscape. The incense is nice, as is the smell of burning garden waste (more about that later), and the omnipresent frangipani trees, but the day is punctuated by encounters very bad smells from the daily market rot, fish and durian stalls, the pigs next door, and the garbage dumps.

The women market vendors and shop clerks clearly want my attention. They are shy too, but curious, calling to me to get my attention so they can have a look at me. I wear frangipanis in my hair every day, and they tell me I look beautiful.

Someone says something unintelligible. You smile and laugh. No one knows if the other one understood or not…

The vendors watch your eyes. When they figure out what you are drawn to they make a better offer.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of hot weather. It took me weeks to discover that walking in and out of the swimming pool every 45 minutes could keep my brain within operating temperature specifications.

When I first arrived I was taken aback by the ubiquity and necessity of motorcycles as the means of transport. Perhaps the “system” indeed renders them safer than their reputation in the US. We only know personally one person who has died on a motorcycle since my arrival (hit the front brakes while riding one-handed and helmetless in the rain). Anyway somehow I now own three motorcycle helmets. Helmets are required by law, except apparently for children and ladies wearing hijab. Motorcycles may carry up to five persons, if one is an infant. Passengers on the way to temple in sarong ride side-saddle and without helmet. Smoking cigarettes while riding motorcycles is generally accepted, but sending text messages is not. Most of the cars on the road are low-powered SUVs and they drive very carefully.

Besides the swimming pool and the motorcycle, the other saving grace is watermelon juice, which costs between 0.60 in a and 2.00 for a massive half-litre glass, depending what part of town you’re in. I appreciate the affordability of fresh juice, but I’m less sanguine about the affordability of servants, which seems to be a main attraction for the expats living here.

The first part of the day, from 0830 until 1300 is spent supervising (or in my case jumping out of the way of) the 4 servants who come to the compound every day except Sunday. They are sent for groceries, propane, filtered water, and fresh coconuts, which they decant into 2L Coca-cola bottles for the day’s use. They wash, iron, and fold the laundry. They wash the dishes and clean the floors. They cook the dogfood and feed the birds, turtles, and hedgehogs. They trim the foliage. clean up after the dogs. and take the garbage somewhere.

I am instructed not to feel bad about this, because the housemaid of 10 years can thereby afford to send her daughter to college. Nevertheless, I find the frantic work of directing them terribly distracting. Although I wouldn’t want to clean the mud off the floor from the daily traffic of dogs and people passing in and out from the wet garden to the house, I would prefer an electronic dishwasher.

The fact that others’ societies are economically impoverished doesn’t entitle you to have another person do your laundry.

I’m sure it’s different and easier if you are in the touristic area, but I’m pretty overwhelmed by garbage, motorcycles, heat, and food safety. You can get used to things, but that doesn’t make it ok. I don’t want to live here.

I’m not sure it’s so different for the tourists. When I see them being chauffered around around in SUVs they look dissatisfied.

Although one of my friends announces –in the midst of a seriously uncomfortable day unrewarded by good food– “well this sure is different than sitting in an office.” That gave me a new perspective. When I describe my newfound appreciation of basic cleanliness to another well third-world-travelled friend, he explains: “yes, people are different. I want the most adventure per €.”

I do love the experience of reading a landscape when you have little context. “never give up” cigarette ads. I thought it was govt anti-corruption propaganda or bodybuilding supplement.

And I love affordable fresh coconut oil on my skin every day. Komang taught me how to make it:

  • Use old (not young) coconut
  • Remove shell. Grate meat with machine, very small.
  • Then put in towel and squeeze by hand to get liquid. This is very hard. Get help from husband.
  • Cook liquid over fire until fire goes out and oil is on top. Let cool.
  • Cook oil again to make sure there there is no water inside.
  • Feed leftover meat to pigs and chicken
  • 5 coconuts are enough to make ½ litre of oil

 

Points East

The rest of Indonesia is majority Muslim so as soon as you change islands, the aesthetics change abruptly.

I visited Lombok and Sumbawa by motorcycle along the Indonesian Superhighway, a system of ferries connecting the islands. The ferries are expertly loaded up with passenger buses, banana trucks, and even trucks containing a few cows, with motorcycles tucked into every gap.

After stowing the motorcycle and squeezing perilously between two trucks, we are assaulted by vendors plying us with the fervor of beggars. Equally wary of the water they use for the instant coffee as of the egg and chicken in the banana-leaf wrapped breakfast, I subsist on excellent sweet potato chips.

The official entertainment system for the journey is karaoke, regardless of the hour. 

At the appropriate times, the call to prayer is played over the sea. I pray to somehow survive twelve hours on two ferries and 3 motorcycles without needing to use a toilet. There is another pair of Westerners on board, headed to the surf spots on the south side of the islands.

In the middle of Lombok we stop to stretch the things that need to be stretched after motorcycle riding. Because of the heat, we pull off our helmets, magnetizing an entire schoolyard of children who press against the fence screaming to get our attention.

In Sumbawa it’s still poor, but with goats. Homes are on stilts.

Saudi Arabia is pouring money onto these islands in the form of Mosque-building, nearly every 2km along the main road.  The mosques are huge, glassed, air-conditioned. No one goes to the expensive mosques. Prayers blaring and empty. We’ll take the construction money but it’s not necessary to be so religious. The other development going on around here is banks and convenience stores. In Sumbawa, instead of working with the natural mangrove shrimp ecology, there are massive shrimp farms.

The deforestation is heartbreaking, worsening the drought. (Monsoon is already 8 weeks late when I arrive.) I try to convince farmers to “chop and drop” mulch instead of burning the cleared plants.  Burning is not appropriate for this ecosystem. They are very good with natural fences.

The thin and fragile wet tropical soils need every bit of organic material (kitchen compost and garden mulch) that can be returned to them. (Burning is helpful in other ecosystems; not here.) But the soils can’t use plastic.

The rugged farmer who cut the path through the brushlaughed as he told us that the steep uphill hike “your stomach will hurt tomorrow.” So he is using his “core” strength, not his legs…

Nearly all the women on the Muslim islands here wear Hijab. I am withdrawn and shy, sure that I am offending everyone even in my longest skirt.

Garbage

Either the first thing you see or the second –if you notice the temples first– is the garbage. It’s in the gutter, at the edge of the surf, in the rivers and streams, piled up behind the restaurant, and on every hillside, empty lot, or other unused space. Some people remove it from in front of their house and shop, others don’t.

My first question is whether there is a garbage infrastructure. The soundscape and smellscape do not include garbage trucks. Definitely not at our house. Apparently there is a pickup service at the house owner’s business location, and our home garbage is delivered there for pickup. Most people in our neighborhood seem to avail themselves of one of the empty lots and purportedly in this way the garbage will become landfill for whatever is eventually built there.

Many houses burn what they can. It doesn’t smell like they are burning the plastic, but I’m not sure about that.

Some plastic is recycled. 2L Coke and water bottles fetch a hefty 1000 Rp each (which will buy you a bunch of spinach or a guarded motorcycle parking place). But most of what you see on the ground is disposable plastic packaging from instant coffee, chips, candy.

With an immanent Indonesian plastic bag ban, sellers will do their best to cooperate when we say “no plastic”. They use one bag to weigh each item and then dump it into my cloth bag and retrieve the plastic one from me. In the supermarket they will print out a separate price code for each vegetable that needs weighted pricing and then stick all the stickers onto a single bag.

The absence of modern garbage infrastructure and recycling is far from the only, or even the main problem.

Every time I go down to the surf on the way back I pick up as much plastic as I can carry en route back to the shaded table. At first I imagine I’m cleaning up after other tourists, sharing the responsibility for visitors’ impact. One day after a storm there is both an overwhelming amount of plastic refuse, and extra tourists. There is a mood of helpfulness and a number of the tourists are collecting garbage. I adopt about 10 meters of beachfront and its water and fill a carton offered by the nearby restaurant in about 15 minutes, without managing to retrieve everything.

It’s not just first world tourism that delivers garbage here. When China stopped importing recyclable waste from Europe and North America, illegal imports to Indonesia increased. And Indonesia’s own consumption of plastic is especially high. (Learn more at Jakarta Post and National Geographic.)

But in reality the garbage is probably getting washed into the sea from Bali’s own garbage “system”: pile it over there.

We don’t talk about the fact that the only way for the garbage to get out of the beach is for someone to pack it up on a motorcycle and drive it __ where? More likely it will just go in the ad-hoc dump right behind the restaurant.

Whoever invented plastic packaging should be tried for crimes against humanity. Like cigarettes and other post-colonial symbols of development, Indonesians see plastic-wrapped foods as a sign of wealth.

In fact, plastic is useful for transporting anything too liquid to be contained by a banana leaf. The problem, more precisely, is single-use plastics. Just imagine if potato chips were sold in zip-lock bags… People here get this. For some reason the preferred container for motorcycle fuel is an Absolut Vodka bottle, and you can’t buy Arak (the village spirit distilled from red rice) in anything but a plastic water bottle.

Bali’s dependence on tourism is driving some cleanup, but neighboring Lombok and Sumbawa look like garbage dumps. Even with a reduction of use, the plastic has to go somewhere. What could be produced from every kind of plastic from candy wrappers to broken buckets with locally available non-toxic process and be sufficiently motivating to get people to reclaim plastic from the environment around them? What about a simple locally-produced building material like roof tiles? A simple, well-known shape that could be made in a metal or even concrete mold. Broken or defective tiles could be immediately tossed back into the melter.

We passed through one town north of Denpasar who had public garbage and recycling

A few months ago in Berlin I had already developed an intuition that anything that required plastic to get to me might be something I didn’t need to eat.

Living with the Sacred

When in Italy, I spend hours staring at the antiquities, trying to make sense of them, trying to drag their messages into the present. The historic architecture is left in the past, left to slowly die.

In Bali, the landscape of temples is alive. They are new. They are still being built. New architecture must reference the sacred. This means it must be beautiful, a commitment Alain de Botton would laud. I am told by a cynical expat that the necessary house temples and roof adornments are just a status symbol. So social reputation can protect the cheapening of architecture and degradation of the landscape.

In Bali, the prescriptions of the sacred make reality. They make the landscape beautiful, the sustain livelihoods, and they make space and time for family. They also provide psychiatric care. I attend the “Barung Dance”. Foreigners are asked to dress appropriately. I wear “women’s temple outfit”; many don’t bother. I sit with the band, who play sturdy xylophones as if they are drums. There are some synchronized dances by girls, and then a story is slowly acted.

The sound of the music becomes more and more intense. Behind me I hear a teenage girl wailing. Then the crowd lurches as four men push through holding the arms and legs of a violently flailing, now-screaming girl. They find an open place and hold her firmly but tenderly until she calms, stroking her forehead. I think it’s an epileptic fit or some such. Someone brings small stools for the supporting men to sit on. I notice that no family has clustered around her. Maybe her father is one of the caretakers.

Ten minutes later, another scream rises. And another. A small army of strong men now kneels at the ready next to the performers. They seize and hold people who are losing control. This was expected.

I ask my friend Aku what this is. “The aura of the gods come inside to you.”

Has it happened to you? “No. You have to concentrate very hard or they don’t come.”

How often does this happen? “This kind of ritual is about 8 times per year.”

It seems like a good thing to be able to lose it occasionally and know you will be supported.