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Spirited Away

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What’s out of sight is not always out of mind

I have to admit that I can’t relate whenever I hear the line in the “Ghostbusters” theme song, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost”, because I am! That includes spirits of any kind – except for the ones I drink, those, I can handle. As a scaredy-cat, I am glad that I’m not blessed (or cursed?) with the ability to see, communicate with or sense this kind of beings. That being said, there might’ve been creaking doors or hair-raising presence that I have shrugged off in the past, but we’ll get to that later. Moving from the great urban pandemonium of Jakarta to Bali, one of the things that came across my mind – other than tropical paradise and cool beach hangouts – was that I’d soon be living on the island where religious and cultural beliefs are significantly incorporated in the everyday life, ones that involve the great unseen. Yes, Balinese people believe that there are two realms, one is that of humans’ and the other is inhabited by supernatural beings – including ancient ancestral spirits, those who are considered as lower beings and, of course, the gods.

It’s not the case of one or the other, because the two worlds actually co-exist. It’s evident in things we see daily here: big banyan trees wrapped in poleng and canang found almost everywhere. In case you didn’t know, poleng is Balinese sacred black and white checkered cloth that symbolises the duality needed for a balanced universe – good and bad, order and chaos, and so on. Poleng is often wrapped around a massive banyan tree, because Balinese consider the tree sacred. It is heavily associated with numerous ceremonies in Bali, including ngaben – the cremation ritual. The trees are usually tens to hundreds years old, so the archaism of it and its association to life and death contribute to the belief that there are spirits in the tree. By wrapping it with poleng, Balinese also uphold their Tri Hita Kirana philosophy and pay respect to the nature and the divine entity.

Canang, on the other hand, is said to originate from a verse in Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita that says something in the line of if you want to worship Hindu gods, you can make an offer as simple as a piece of leaf and a grain of rice. Canang these days are more elaborate, a tiny tray made of coconut leaf filled with flower petals in assorted colours, few grains of rice and basically anything that the worshipper wants to put in – cigarette, candy and others. It’s the simplest form of gift for the gods, and you can find it anywhere – changed daily – showing how the gods are a big part of the everyday lives in Bali.

Those are just the tip of the spiritual iceberg. Of course, to say it’s an iceberg might be misleading, because after years of living in Bali, I find it more fascinating than frightening. I’d like to think that the aforementioned customs are practised by Balinese people as a way to accept that there are beings that we can’t see living around us, and also as a way to maintain good relationships with them, if you will.

I didn’t find this kind of merging juxtaposition in the previous chapter of my life in Jakarta. The unseen was always considered as something foreign, a menacing random stranger that made you sit a tad straighter and up your guard a little bit more. That might have been the reason why I shrugged off the things that go bump in the night. I walked faster when passing cemeteries, I wouldn’t be caught dead living in a house with an eerie-looking tree, and I tried my best to detach myself from the supernatural side of things.

“I’d like to think that the aforementioned customs are practised by Balinese people as a way to accept that there are beings that we can’t see living around us, and also as a way to maintain good relationships with them, if you will”

Here in Bali, though, it feels more like I’m welcomed by this harmonious understanding between the mere mortals and the presumably immortals, and while I’m still the same oblivious ingénue-self, I have a sense that I have been doing a pretty good job blending in the mix. I now live in a house with a big, polengwrapped banyan tree on the yard, next to the small shrine where my Balinese landlord puts a pile of canang daily, and none of these things feel unsettling anymore. I no longer feel as uncertain as I used to, and if anything, it feels safer, like I have these invisible roommates that are okay with me being there, and vice versa. More than anything, being in such spiritual island has been a humbling experience, where I learned that I have to share the world I live in, and that there are things I simply can’t explain, and surprisingly, that is absolutely okay.


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