The water at White Beach rose and fell in its salty shifting moods. The sun had risen to its highest peak, bringing out the deepest cerulean pigmentation of the sea and it painted us both in blue. Our briny skins were being burnished in the world’s laziest slow-cooking cuisine.
Damien and I had been on the motorbike for the first half of the day looking for beaches and waterfalls. He was taking me around because I needed to say goodbye to Bali. In a couple of days, I would be flying to Malang, Java, to visit my childhood nanny, the woman who helped to bring me up until the age of ten.
“Here’s a thought,” I said to Damien as a wave slapped my head, “If we all came from God, if we’re all pieces of one consciousness, then, in a way, we were everyone who ever existed.”
“We are everyone who ever existed,” he tweaked. He seemed so haunting and real, then, like that moment in a film when a character is in a close-up and becomes a surreal echo of themselves.
I was still thinking about past lives, more specifically, the past life that Novi had brought out of its wriggling hiding place.
“And the past lives that we remember,” I continued, “are the ones that were meant to teach us on our path.”
“Or the ones we need to let go,” he added. In his case it was an American naval officer in the horrors of WWII.
A part of me secretly wanted to negate my own philosophy because I rather liked the idea of owning a past life all to myself…there it was again: Duality. Separation. Ego. It creeps into us even in those spacious recesses of our minds where we think we are close to enlightenment.
I recalled all those secret moments in my childhood psyche when I felt I remembered something, far off, from another time, and it buried me with sadness because that feeling was fleeting and so hard to touch or explain or understand. A creaking lonely seaside, dark forbidding abandonment, stark rocks moored on the shore. A little glass dome, so enchanting, and untouched, in heaven’s memory of winter. A child pampered and loved, like the ghosts of the Romanovs in their glittering ivory palace. A music box. All of these I remembered. But it was the memory, not of the chronological mind but of…well, something else I could not capture with any of the tools given to me. That was what I could never explain. Until now. Possibly.
We discussed the idea of my having been Victorian English in a past life, because, as a child - and very much as a teen - I had an unexplainable affinity for London and Victorian England. This led me to comment on the smatterings of Cockney in Damien’s accent.
“I speak proper English!” he protested, “This is how English is supposed to be spoken!”
“I don’t think Professor Higgins would agree with you!”
“Well, fuck Professor Higgins!” he said, grinning.
And that concluded our conversation about past lives.
But what remained with me was the soft persuasion of the events so far - that I have past lives - woven into a braid with skepticism and the unrecycleable remnants of old dogmas. Despite this dancing war in my mind, I was determined to follow the clues in this pilgrimage-turned-into-a-treasure-hunt. It was certainly more fun than preparing the morning show program.
Dewa came to pick me up. I have to comment here how important Dewa was to the pilgrimage. He was one of those people you would be lucky to be led to. A clean and tidy man, tidy even in the way he chose his words and spoke his sentences, with perfect little pauses, mmm’s, aaah’s and enunciations. By clean, I mean that his physical form had no irregularities, just a nicely molded Balinese man with the spirit of a well-mannered frangipani blossom. A bit hefty on the purse but absolutely crucial. Not only did he know where everything was and not only did he arrange for my meetings and appointments, but he also provided a quiet sort of companionship that grew on me. Dewa, even though he remained silent for most of my excursions with him, managed to let his silence speak for him in friendship.
Occasionally he did pepper the silence. As he was driving me to Uluwatu, he turned to me.
“Maram,” he said, in that intense vocal punch, like he was punctuating the air with my name. I jumped internally whenever he did that. It reminded me of the way my grandmother said my name, quietly and deeply, just before she was about to give me a scolding. But I soon learned that this was Dewa’s way of preparing to tell me something important. In this case, it was a question.
“Can I ask you something, maybe it’s personal?”
“If you are Muslim, why do you want to pray in a Hindu temple?”
It sounded like the question was troubling him so much he just had to relieve the confusion that was roiling in his forehead.
“Because I believe everyone is trying to find God in their own way.” I replied, “And I’d like to join everyone on their path. Because we are all one.”
He smiled. Did he like that answer? I was relieved! I still felt like I had escaped a scolding!
Uluwatu was two hours away from Ubud. Wrapped in a sarong I had borrowed from wife-Wayan, I was prepared to register my soul, as Novi put it. Mostly, I was curious about the importance of this temple. Why had Novi sent me there and nowhere else?
We arrived at the parking lot, the same way you would arrive at a theme park. There were swarms of tourists from all over the world. I had romantically imagined a quiet secluded place where I would enter in holiness like Fushigi Yuugi’s Priestess of Suzaku but, here, there were too many footsteps, odd shrieks and guffaws, and cameras clicking. Still, as we made our way through the courtyards and pathways, I was slipping into reverence the way you would slowly slip into a cool lake.
Uluwatu led Dewa and I up a long flight of steps. Are you worthy of this, the stairs seemed to ask. Well, I am gradually upping the incline on my treadmill runs so, yes, I answered.
We were told to wait for the priest to come if I wanted to pray in the temple. Dewa suggested I take a tour around the temple walls by the cliffside until he arrived. The atmosphere here was a pearl encased underneath the fleshy clouds in the sky. It was the type that summoned mermaids, pheonix gods and - in reality - shipwrecked strangers. The temple was feminine in the way that it rambled into the jungles and the way the jungles rambled around it, masculine in the lines and the towering height. The sea below the cliff called out everything holy and everything lustful.
Note: A local family that decided I was cool enough to take a picture with!
I was still curious to know what Uluwatu held for me. What was it I was supposed to feel here? Or achieve? There went my outcome-hungry mind. Expectations! Expectations! Expectations!
I tried to meditate inside the forest with the monkeys, hoping that something magical would happen but only one thing did: I got stung by an army of mosquitos. I got up in frustration with my ceaseless romanticism and decided to huff my way back uphill.
At last Dewa came to fetch me. The priest was ready. He led me to a small iron-wrought gate that secluded the shrine from the tourists. As soon as I walked through, I felt the tourist falling away, fading. I had only imagined them.
There was a long courtyard to cross, white stones, scrubbed and aged. It began as I was walking, the strange recognition.
The courtyard led us down a few small steps into an alcove that was encased by luxuriously carved walls on the tip of the cliff. The sun shone here brighter and whiter than the skin of a papaya, young and ripe, but older than anyone on the planet. Coconut trees surrounded us to remind us of the Earth. The cries and laughs of the tourists were a distant insolent babble.
The recognition grew here until it had the effect of a reverie. I was walking into a dream within a dream, zipped up and packed away centuries ago, eons ago. I felt drawn instantly to the floor. I wanted to kneel there and touch it. It was not a choice or a fancy. I needed my knees on the stones and my palms brushing the roughness and goodness of it. My mind was seeing this place for the first time. But my body knew it. In those instances of recognition, you hover between intellect and deeper cognizance, just like I did when I was a child, possessed by those memories. I was possessed here with the feeling that I had been here once and it was glorious.
There was unspeakable presence now. None of the monkey-mind business that wanted things to happen. All thought was washed away with the sea foam. Nothing needed to happen because I had arrived. I sat on my knees in that whiteness, before the alter that was dressed in palm shavings and frangipani. I put my forehead on the floor like I would in a mosque and thanked God for bringing me here and for this unexplainable and sheer feeling that had enrobed me like a thick gown.
Then I watched Dewa performing his prayer with a flower offered to God between his palms. It was so sweet and endearing, I could not help copying him. The young priest - who I thought to be the caretaker of the alter, and in a way he was - blessed us with holy water. Then I sat for long in a meditation that was composed solely of light and the sound of waves coming, coming, coming.
By the time we were back in the car, I was thoroughly confused. The mind kicked in again and began, with the voices of many people I knew, to tell me everything about that that did not make sense. So I tried to describe it to myself. I will refer to my little Bali journal for the description I desperately wrote. I cannot recall ever being so at loss for words, trying to describe something. It was like a spell was keeping me even from coherence so that I would forget, the way dreams fade, the way my soul had to forget where it came from when it was born here.
“Light. Palm trees. Frangipani. Fantasy. Kings. Priest advisor. The priest was by the sea. The one I saw in my vision. It was like my body knew this place? I really don’t know how to write about this because it was far from conscious…But maybe by repeating it, I can put my finger on it. White sunlight. Gentle. White sand. White rock. Majesty. Mighty…The might of the sea, the tower, the temple, the shrine encased on the tip of the cliff. The king. Entourage. Peace disturbed. Paradise taken. The game of politics with kings. The temple must remain hidden…
I don’t know. All this felt familiar, in one stream of consciousness that came over me. Once I sat there on the sun-warmed white stone, it came back and for strong moments…complete presence…”
This was what I could make of it and until now, I don’t know which side of me wins, the one that carries skepticism in a delicate silver tray or the other one, the one that just wants to fall into belief. But I do know that, in that window of time, when I was arriving at the shrine…there was a layer of existence just beyond reason and handfuls short from another reality.
Very close to Wayan’s guesthouse, there was shop of women’s clothes. I had been drawn to that shop ever since I arrived at Ubud, frequently stopping to look at the window. I walked in a couple of times. I never bought anything.
As the car rolled back to Ubud, that day, I remembered the shop. It was called Uluwatu.
Note: If you like to stay updated about this blog please sign up here.
Also feel free to share your own stories here.