Toni Morrison, Beloved, Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Chilling. Powerful. Mysterious. Beautiful. Like a painting.
Beloved is a work of art. And like many pieces of art, there are aspects of it that I don’t understand. I’m not too left-brained, however, to miss the beauty of Morrison’s words and phrases.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver. They live in a house, called 124, which seems to be haunted by the spirit of a baby—Sethe’s dead child. Upon the arrival of Paul D, an old friend/fellow slave of Sethe, the spirit left the house. But not long after, a girl about the age of Sethe’s daughter if she had lived arrives at 124 and catalyzes a series of reactions from the 3 main characters. This woman calls herself Beloved.
The confusion of who, or what, Beloved is remains a mystery, both to the characters in the novel and the readers. Sethe and Denver believe she is the dead child returning in flesh. Or, she may be just a confused girl who believes Sethe is her mother. Regardless, as a literary device, the character Beloved is brilliantly created to trigger the other characters’ development.
One of life’s greatest joys is meeting new people and finding kindred spirits, those you can resonate in particular ways of thinking. The effect is energizing, it’s as if you’ve been friends for ages, or should have been friends before.
What I love about this experience is that it can happen anywhere in the world, with any person of whatever background. This is what I love the most about my friends whom I count as like-minded: they come from all over the world.
Take my closest knit of friends, for example. I’m Chinese Indonesian. My two closest friends are a Zimbabwean girl (with a U.S. green card now) who philosophizes over many things in life, and a half Cuban, half black, American lawyer girl who is super articulate. Each of us is about one-tenth Korean because of the foods we eat and the people we hang out with. We love food and we love books. And because of that, we get along so well with our (just a tad bit) older, Korean American sister whose company brings out the nuttiness in us even more (in a good way. I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this).
What is the likelihood that four people from, literally, four corners of the earth can get along so well? And not just get along, but totally in sync in almost every thought and opinion. Don’t underestimate the amount of talking we can do with each other and the breadth of topics that gets covered. (And no, we don’t just talk about girls stuff. Absolutely not!). We have different personalities, different areas of expertise, and even different ways of approaching problems. By most natural standards, we shouldn’t even like hanging out with each other. But we do. Hanging out is our life philosophy.
In the larger circle of friends we belong to, the ethnic composition varies even more. At any given hangout session with different permutations of people, at least three continents will be represented easily. In multiple occasions when some 30 of us went out to eat, random people approached us asking if we were part of some program, like a mock UN or global youth type thing (except we don’t look that young). They thought someone forced us to be together. The response, No, we’re just friends.
And we’re not together just for special events. We can roll like this all day long, for multiple days. We actually like each other (most of the time), and find the communion of minds invigorating.
I’m talking particularly about the family of friends I’ve gained in Seventh-day Adventist communities in Boston, Michigan, and the Mid-Atlantic. More specifically, those who love to talk and think about how to reach and change the world, and those who love to hang out. These are they with whom I resonate in the deepest core. It so happens that they are the same people whose lives are intertwined in public campus ministries.
Really, there is no likely reason why we should be friends. We don’t even like the same food, at least not in the beginning. But the wonder is that we are friends, and there is one core reason why this is so: God. We know that each of us subscribes to a culture that supersedes any of our individual cultural and ethnic background, namely the culture of Christ. As a result, our lives are enriched by each other.
This culture of Christ and embracing diversity is something I’m very adamant about in my personal life, and especially in the church. (Read articles on racial segregation that some of us have written here). I don’t get cultural insularity, especially when there is a greater purpose to serve. In the community of faith that I belong to, this purpose is to bring the everlasting gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Rev 14:6).
When people see a diverse group of people who actually like and want to be with each other, no matter what skin color or hair texture, it tells the world that God has done something special not just in the individual lives, but also in the community. It bears witness that there is Someone who has “broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph 2:14), more powerful than any cultural ties.
I’m not saying that this multicultural friendship experience can only happen to a Christian; I’m saying that this experience takes place in my life because I’m a Seventh-day Adventist. When I gained Christ and started letting Him order my life, I gained a family of unlikely friends as well.
There are many ways to be a tourist. For example, one can remain in one’s own vacation bubble, as is necessary sometimes for recovery and rest from daily toils, or one can break through and be immersed in the world and culture on site.
I tend to like cultural experiences and usually try to discover the lives and customs of the local people. What is their reality like? How do they think? Et cetera, et cetera… I can’t pretend that I immerse myself completely, like those who would walk on foot and visit neighborhoods, shops, and houses, but at least I can ask questions to the people I interact with and to the local tour guides.
But in Bali, it is very hard to ignore its cultural and religious artifacts, since they are simply in sight everywhere you turn. Temples are ubiquitous, and the locals’ belief system is visibly displayed not just in their Hindu ceremonial precessions, but also in their architecture and daily customs. I would say it even dictates Bali’s economy and weighs in on Bali’s social progress vis-à-vis modernity and secularism.
For example, every morning the Balinese put out sesajens, or small offerings composed of flowers, rice, and salt in bamboo leaf trays all over the place. You would find them by the streets, statues, in front of houses, restaurants, counters… basically everywhere. These offerings, in oversimplified terms, are to please the gods and prevent their wrath upon them.
Every house and building in Bali has its own altar, whether small or big, which is put at the front of the house near the entrance gate. Bridges would have statues of some manifestations of Hindu gods on both sides of each end, to protect the space and prevent evil spirits.
Many statues, poles in buildings, pillars, and even trees would have sashes of a particular kind around them. The motif is called poleng. It is a piece of cloth with black and white squares, a symbol of balance, akin to the Chinese yin and yang. But it’s not just any generic notion of balance; it particularly symbolizes the balance between good and evil. The alternating black and white signifies good and evil that coexist everywhere; one cannot be present without the other.
This concept, it seems to me, is very Hindu, for a lack of a better description. The three main deities that compose the Trimurti in Hinduism (kind of like the Trinity), Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu), and Siwa (Shiva), are the creator god, sustainer god, and the destroyer/transformer god, respectively. The destroyer god is feared the most, but he is not seen as evil, since his work is necessary to get rid of old things and transform them to a newer state.
Poleng around an altar.
Though I do not subscribe to the Hindu belief system, I admire its cohesiveness and pervasiveness in the Balinese society. Believing in something means that their whole lives revolve around it and it’s publicly displayed, even if their motives may be combined with fear of the gods. Their religion is not a private matter. It dictates how they spend their money, their daily activities, how they deal with birth, marriage, and death, and every aspect of life. There is not one thing that is purely secular. Take the economy, the emblem of development and modernity. If every building needs to have an altar, it means that every building project in Bali must needs to budget to build the altar, no questions asked. It is not a small matter, optional, or of a low priority, because in their minds, they simply would not tolerate an unprotected house or building.
It is refreshing to see something that is systematic and consistent in a world that is increasingly subscribing to a buffet style belief system. In a way, this is the kind of integration that I yearn for with my own belief system. I mean, the fact that every house has an altar is so mind-blowing to me. What would it look like if every Christian had the same regard for sacred things in their houses… to see their belief as central and pivotal to daily activities…
Breathtaking sights merged with a culture that is so rich and pervasive. That’s Bali, a Hindu island in central Indonesia east of Java. Famous to international tourists and travelers, it took a huge hit when the first bombing happened in 2002, and again after the second bombing in 2005. But the attraction of its natural beauty is hard to ignore for long, and the island continues to recover from those tragedies.
There are many awesome sites in Bali, so a 4-day trip can only cover so much. My cousin, who is studying tourism in college, is very knowledgeable in the culture and background stories of the sites we visited, so that was a nice bonus. Here are the places we visited, and each one of them is highly recommended (there’s hardly a place in Bali I wouldn’t recommend).
1. Uluwatu Temple
At Uluwatu, there is a Hindu temple (well, all temples in Bali are Hindu) on a cliff, overlooking the Indian Ocean. The complex also includes a monkey forest, which has cultural and religious significance, like they guard the temple or something like that. There’s also a back story to the temple, as is the case for every temple, that I’m not well-versed in as well (don’t remember what my cousin said).
Visitors are required to wear sarongs, which are available for free at the ticket counter. The back story of this custom is the believe that evil spirits can enter people through their feet, so you cover your legs to prevent it.
Monkeys are free to roam around the complex, though they stay away from the temple area where they conduct worship ceremonies. The monkeys are vicious! Especially the young ones. They would snatch every possible loose item on your body, so stow them away and hold your bag/purse close. One monkey took my cousin’s glasses, scratching her in the process. Afterwards, they took one of her sandals off her feet, despite her screaming and yelling at them. Then, they took the other one!
To get stuffs back, you need to trade with them, like giving them food, but sometimes they wouldn’t take it from you. The best way is to get the help from the guides, who roam around the complex. These guides are kind of like monkey whisperers. My cousin gave up and was walking barefoot already, but a while after, one guide came and asked what the monkeys took. And he got all of them back! Amazing. Not to mention these monkeys run around like crazy. Maybe he knows all of them by name.
But the best thing about Uluwatu is the ocean view from the cliff. It simply speaks for itself.
Gorgeous shades of the Indian Ocean
2. Padang-padang Beach
Padang-padang is one of the smaller beaches in Bali, as opposed to the hugely popular beaches in Kuta and Sanur. You get to the beach by walking through a narrow path in between rocks. The beach is not exactly the best place to swim in, since the sand is rocky and can be quite sharp. You’re basically swimming in the Indian Ocean and ocean water is usually cooler than sea or strait water. This is probably why it’s not as popular as Kuta and Sanur, which are beaches along the curves of the land, shores of small straits in between islands. These beaches would have softer sand and warmer water.
3. Dreamland Beach
Dreamland is not that far from Padang-padang, but it’s more swimmable. The currents are very strong, however, so beware of loosing pieces of swimwear when the waves come!
4. Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK)
GWK is a cultural park dedicated to the Hindu god Wisnu (or Vishnu). Garuda means eagle, and kencana means something like a carriage. The park is to house an ongoing statue project of Wisnu riding his eagle, which would be the tallest thing in Bali and probably one of the largest statues in the world. Currently, only sections of it are completed, and they are displayed in different plazas in the park complex.
Wisnu, one of the Hindu gods.
5. Tanah Lot
Tanah Lot is one of the most popular sites in Bali, and one of my personal favorites. The sunset there is absolutely gorgeous, although it is hard to catch a perfectly clear day to watch the perfect sunset. Of all the years I’ve gone to Bali, I’ve only seen one perfect sunset when I was seven or eight. The horizon and the circular line around the sun were defined and crisp, and the sun sank into the horizon quite swiftly. It was probably the first time I experienced real awe and wonder. It just did something to the soul; my entire being was …wow-ed. I still remember the feeling.
The Tanah Lot temple, or Pura Tanah Lot, sits on a rock which would be on or offshore, depending on the tides. The shape of this rock and the temple is pretty iconic and distinctly Tanah Lot; you would recognize it in paintings or abstract pictures.
Sunset at Tanah Lot.
Pura Tanah Lot.
6. Nusa Lembongan
There are one-day cruise packages now that you can get in Bali to a smaller island called Lembongan. The package would include a buffet lunch, water activities such as banana boat, snorkeling, submersible, kayaking, diving, etc. We did this for an entire day and it was tons of fun. There are 3 main cruise lines, Bali Hai, Bounty, and … I forgot the other one. And the prices are relatively cheap compared to other countries (but maybe not so much for locals).
I didn’t dive in Lembongan, but from the snorkeling sites, I don’t think it would be the best place to dive in, since a lot of the corals are dead. They are still impressive and colorful, but wouldn’t you want to see live corals with even more vibrant colors instead? If you wanted to dive in Indonesia, then the place that you should go is Bunaken in Manado, North Sulawesi, or the islands in the eastern part of Indonesia. They are more remote, but I’m sure the experience is worth the travel.
7. Kuta Beach
Kuta Beach is the most famous beach in Bali, usually packed in the evenings. Sunsets there are gorgeous too. The beach is perfect for swimming, since the sand is soft and the water not so cold. There are lots of vendors along the beach too that would offer hair braiding, temporary tattoes, soft drinks, boogie boards and surfboards, etc.
(Uluwatu, Padang-padang, Dreamland, GWK, and Kuta are in the southern tip of Bali. Tanah Lot is a bit north and west of the island, and Lembongan is an island off the east part of Bali, though it is still part of the Bali province).
Two Sundays ago my mom took me to a place in Jakarta that I had never visited before, even though I was born and raised in the city. Located in the recreational complex in North Jakarta (Ancol) where you would find amusement parks, marinas, Sea World, etc., Pasar Seni, or the Art Market is one of the less popular subsections of Ancol.
We went there to get a customized wood carving for a gift, and there were plenty of shops to choose from. The market is comprised of many small galleries and shops, and its setting natural and open, producing the feel of a traditional market, devoid of modern and sophisticated architecture. The artists are local or regional, and nearly all pieces displayed there, statues, paintings, shadow puppets, etc., are original and handcrafted. In many cases, the artists themselves are attending the shops.
Pasar Seni Ancol, North Jakarta
In other words, it was a sea of talents. One may expect that such a place would be buzzing with visitors and tourists. But that Sunday, the market was empty. The shops were open, the artists were there, but the entire time we were there, we did not pass by or see another visitor. This is not always the case of course, since there are local events and festivals held at Pasar Seni from time to time. But if one were to compare the statistics of the parks in Ancol, I would venture a confident guess that Pasar Seni is the least visited part of the complex.
It really is a shame that Pasar Seni and the artists there are underappreciated. Indonesian artworks are usually very intricate and elaborate, and their price tags would be much higher if they were brought to other countries. I got a 31″ x 23″ oil painting for about $9 USD – not the highest quality, but still very good. Some of the large paintings there were simply breathtaking, and they cost about $600-$800 USD, way lower than similar pieces found elsewhere.
The oil painting I bought.
At a gallery with the most amazing paintings, made by the brother of the shop attendant.
Wayang, or Indonesian shadow puppets.
The guy that I bought the wood carving from sold it for about $16 USD, including customization. He was from Bali, as were many of the artists there, and I think he made the carvings himself. When we asked when we could pick up the final product and whether his shop would be open on Idul Fitri (or Eid ul-Fitr, end of Ramadan, extended public holidays in Indonesia), he said we could pick it up any time we want. He would be there 24/7, since apparently, he sleeps on the floor of his shop, about a 5 meter x 5 meter space with many wood carvings of different shapes and forms.
I’m very curious about the livelihood of these artists…
I really think that more people should visit Pasar Seni in Jakarta, even just for a walk. It’s a fascinating place, one that stores many interesting stories, I’m sure. You get to see beautiful artworks, interact with the artists themselves, and get a good deal. If you were looking for a gift or a piece to decorate your home, try visiting Pasar Seni instead of art shops in malls or department stores. You will likely find a better deal and you get to support local artists directly. You can bargain for lower prices, but I’d say don’t bargain too much. I’m sure the artists would appreciate it.