Tutu, my trekking guide, stops for the fourth time and points to another plant. “Christmas.” He says.
“Christmas?” It takes me a minute to sift through his thick accent and broken English. “Because it’s red and green? You mean the colors?”
“No, no.” He shakes his head and rubs his temples, a universal sign of frustration. “Um, you mind I ask you question?”
“Ok.” I brace myself. So far, the Balinese people have posed many questions this way. They are typically regading my age, why I’m ummarried, and when I will find myself a husband already. I wait.
“You celebrate Christmas?”
“Oh.” Not holding back my relief, I laugh out loud at the question. “Yes, I do.”
“Ok,” Tutu uses his hands to mime decorating. It looks a little like he is playing an invisible accordion. “This plant is in the Christian church at Christmas and everywhere as decoration.”
When I was teaching, I was sometimes given as many as three from my students the week before Christmas vacation. The sweet memory stings a little. “Do you mean a Poinsettia?” I ask.
“Poin- how you say?”
“Yes that’s right.”
“Poinsettia, poinsettia, poinsettia.” He laughs at the word and lifts his hands with such enthusiasm that I think he is going to cup my face in his palms and kiss me. Shaking his head with sheer delight at the word, he turns and we continue hiking the narrow dirt path.
“How old you are?” He asks when we finally reach a wider portion of the trail.
“I am 33. You?”
“Your face doesn’t match your age. I say you young. I’m 25, but my face is old.”
“It isn’t. And thank you.”
“Um, you mind I ask you question?”
Well, here it is.
“Why you travel here alone? Not with family?”
Tutu told me about his dream of moving to Panama City in October, cleaning the rooms of a Carnival cruise ship, and saving enough money to open his own warung back home. So, I don’t mind him asking me such a personal question. It is never the asker of the question, but the question itself that can create a dull ache in my gut.
Why am I alone?
How do you answer a question like this? Because there was a man who loved me for a long time and I loved him back, then he left. Because I waited too long for him to return. Because something inside of my heart seemed to die a little while I was waiting. Because loving people doesn’t stop them from going or getting cancer. Because I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want my heart to open up and beat like it did before everything seemed to go to shit. Because I knew I had to walk through that kind of fear alone and what better place than on the Island of the Gods?
I say none of that.
“Because I am.” I smile and he smiles too. We continue our hike. Tutu talks about his brother and his mom. They are at home getting the house ready for Galungan, a Hindu holiday which commemorates the triumph of Dharma over Adharma, or good against evil.
Later, I am sitting on the porch of my cottage watching the white smoke lift from the valleys below and listening to the murmuring geckos in the trees. It’s a cool afternoon in the Munduk mountains. Reaching for my camera bag, I consider the angle I’ll need to capture all of the beauty. I can’t. I can’t capture the spicy sweetness of nutmeg, cinnamon, and turmeric cooking in the wood fires or the musty incense burning in the temples. I can’t capture in a photograph the heat of the sun on my shoulders or the cool, damp breeze blowing in from the mountains.
I leave the camera where it is and lift my tired legs onto the wooden table. A Balinese woman dressed in white lace and a yellow sarong moves quietly below me. Her black hair is pulled back in a tight bun and decorated with red flowers. She is carrying a basket made of banana palms, inside are coconut leaves folded into small squares that have been filled with bright flowers, rice, and incense. I’ll later learned are these are called canang sari, daily offerings Balinese Hindus make to thank the gods.
Her movements are graceful and methodical. She places the offerings under trees, at the feet of statues, and on mossy stones. She pauses over each one, closes her hands in prayer, raises them to her forehead, and speaks softly, reverently.
I turn away and close my eyes, wanting to be in the presence of such devotion, but also give her privacy. Just being close to such beauty is enough.
“Because I am.” I think to myself and feel so fully in the world it scares me a little.
I will try to explain this to a friend back home, but stop myself. How do you explain what it feels like to be alone on the other side of the world, but not feel lonely? To feel, for once, so much a part of the world that it is sometimes hard to breath?