Gunung Kawi: How I Found A Secret Way Out Of The Temple

Gunung Kawi is a Hindu temple in Gianyar Regency, Bali. I really wanted to see this temple, most of all because its history dates back to the eleventh century. When visiting such old places, I get an ambiguous feeling comparable only to what I usually feel when I look into stars. I feel that I am a part of a long history, which means I have a certain place and role in the universe; at the same time, I acknowledge this particular role to be fairly paltry, or even miserable, and that I was extremely lucky to be born at all, that the flapping of a bloody butterfly somewhere in the outer space could have prevented my parents from having a daughter. So one day I just went to Pura Gunung Kawi to get that feeling again.

To enter the complex, visitors must walk more than 270 steps down, since the temple is located in the valley of the Pakerisan River. But first they need to go through a challenging street where Indonesian women persistently try to sell clothes, sarongs and batiks to ingenuous tourists. I was tough, but somewhere between the 20th and 21st Ibu saying how good price she offers ‘especially for me’, when I had the extremely long stairway in front of my eyes, I sadly thought to myself that the way up the stairs and through the ladies again would be my Golgotha, and I would surely die trying to get out of the temple. As you see, I am still alive writing this post, but it doesn’t mean that I am exaggerating when describing that path. It means that I saw an angel who descended to Earth in the body of an Indonesian woman and showed me a secret exit of the shrine.

Before the miracle happened, I came down, looking at the genius architecture of rice fields on both sides of the stairs, and once I got to the bottom of the valley, where the complex is situated, I wandered around the shrines. I admired the ten old statues carved in the cliffs that this place is famous for. There are many legends about the monuments, which are hardly proven. One of them is that they were all carved during just one night. However, no one knows for sure to whom the temple is dedicated. It’s not even certain whether it was a Javanese or Balinese king, or both.

The view on the way down to the valley of the Pakerisan River
Beautiful and genious rice terrace on the way to the temple
Ancient monuments carved in the cliff
And some more monuments on the western bank of the river
And some more – on the eastern bank of the river
No shoes allowed in some parts of the complex
Water coming down the walls of the temple
The southern tip of the complex – somewhere here I was spotted by the Indonesian woman from above

When I reached the southern end of the complex, I heard a sound, which I cannot now recall what it was. It could have been a whistle, or a clap, never mind. The thing is that it did the trick, it made my head turn up. What I saw was an Indonesian woman standing on a maybe 10-meter high cliff, who waved at me and asked me with a gesture to come to her. We were so far from each other that the only possible way to communicate was body language. I showed her, shrugging my shoulders, that I had no idea how to get to where she was standing. She showed me with her hands that I had to turn back and go up somewhere. With a vague idea which direction the woman was pointing at, I started to walk back, looking for a path that would lead up. I was doubting if there was any path, because I had already walked along that way and hadn’t seen anything like a path up.

But the woman was right. There were a few trodden steps in the grass. I started the climb, and it was not long until the woman appeared by my side showing me the way, or even, in more dangerous places, pointing where exactly to put my foot and holding my hand on steeper parts. I was so slow, all sweaty and short-breathed. She was so fit and nimble, and walked barefoot. She was working in the rice fields above the temple. That day she was clearing the irrigation canals by cutting down the weeds that were blocking the flow of water; she was carrying a sharp sickle in her hand. The lady showed me the fields and a little shrine that had been built in the fields to ensure the abundance of crops. Soon, her son, daughter and husband came to us.

Selfie in the rice fields
Kadek – the youngest of the family
The crops are in God’s hands

We were communicating with broken English and even more broken Bahasa. And although the communication was limited, I think we understood each other very well. It’s true that a smile and a hug conveys more than a hundred words. My parents have never been very talkative and haven’t expressed much feelings with words. But when I was leaving for Indonesia, and my dad was hugging me like he didn’t want to ever let me go, and kissing my head with tons of kisses, I got the message.

Then, the head of the family, Agen, invited me to their house. My feet were all covered with mud from the field, and the wife brought me water so I could wash them, and after that, she dried them with her sarong, which I was obviously objecting to – this was too symbolic for me. But she was determined.

We spent some time together, unfortunately not being able to have a deep conversation. Technology helped. The father, whose name is Agen, showed me photos that he had on his smartphone. Among them was one from his and his spouse’s wedding ceremony. I showed a few that I had on my smartphone; Kadek, the little boy, was attracted by the picture of a henna tattoo which I had done on my hands when I was visiting Little India in Kuala Lumpur. He was gazing at it for a long while. Now I wonder whether he was thinking that the tattoo was done for my wedding, since in India this type of body painting is done for traditional ceremonies, such as getting married. If he had, it wouldn’t have been that bad, because whenever I say I’m 30 and I don’t have a husband, locals look at me as if I am a freak.

Then I showed the boy the world map, pointing out Bali, Java, Sumatra, etc., then I zoomed out and showed him Poland. You must also know, that most of the times locals are impressed that I come from such a distant country, but they have no idea where it’s located. However, they do have some knowledge about my country, which I described in the previous post – A Typical Conversation With A Local Person.

Agen’s family, who made that day magical

At the end of the day, I was given a ride to the place where I left my motorbike. It was the father driving. I was a passenger, but not the only one. Kadek, the son, was sitting on the bike too, as well as his dog. In this way the family saved me from the long and exhausting way out of the temple, and showed me a little bit of their everyday life.

A Typical Conversation With A Local Person

A typical conversation with a local person in Indonesia sounds more or less like the following:

Most often they start by saying: ‘Hello, Miss!’. Even in Lombok, a much less touristy island than Bali, in a small fishing village not visited by tourists at all — in fact we got a bit lost there, having been confused with false information on Google maps (happens a lot in Indonesia) — children were coming to the road where my travel companion and I were riding, saying ‘Hello, Mister! Hello, Miss!’.

Some of the kids continue the small talk and say ‘give me money’, reaching out their hands. The other day, in a shop, a bunch of children came to me asking if I could buy them ice cream. When I replied in English, they would not understand, probably because they could articulate only that which brings them benefit. My first thought was that they must be very cunning, the little sneaky monsters. But then I realised that I use Bahasa Indonesia in the same way as those kids. I can only greet, order food and bargain – all I need to survive the following months here.

Children in Lombok, watching a football game, and most of all, watching two Polish people sho joined the audience.
Children in Lombok, watching a football game, and most of all, watching two Polish people who joined the audience

I normally reply to the locals with selamat pagi or selamat siang or selamat sore or selamat malam (depending on time of the day, but I still haven’t fully figured out when one ends and another begins). And then it starts. Siang! Ahhh, bisa kamu Bahasa Indonesia? They just speak Indonesian to me. I listen with my eyes wide-open, and then say ‘I can only say a few words in Bahasa ‘, trying not to say aloud what comes to my mind at that moment, which is the Spanish phrase un poquito.

It seems that I have a few boxes in my mind dedicated to languages. One box is for Polish, another is for English (two languages that I can more or less express myself in and don’t mix up), and the last box is for Spanish, Russian and now also Indonesian, together. I don’t normally mix up languages that belong to different boxes. For example, when I speak English, Spanish words don’t come to mind. But I mix the languages from the last box. It happened when I was in Ukraine: whenever I tried to say something with my broken Russian, I only recalled Spanish expressions.

So I am having a mental fight with Spanish words, and I continue the conversation saying that I can only say a few words in Bahasa. Then they ALWAYS ask:

Ahhh. Dari mana? (‘Where from?’)

– Dari Polandia. – I reply, fighting with: ‘De Polonia‘.

– Ahhh, Po-lan-di-a!!! – They always look impressed, so I ask:

– Do you know where it is?

– No.

– Europe.

– Ahhh, Europe. I have a friend in Polandia.

– Oh, really?


So it’s official – the era of Wałęsa, or John Paul II, is over. Now it’s only Lewandowski that matters. Not Skłodowska Curie, not Copernicus, not even Chopin!

Tanjung Aan beach, Lombok: We got invited to have some meat floating in sambal chilli sauce. Delicious!
Gili Trawangan: Snorkeling with Taat. Our skin tones look identical, don’t they?
Pingu village, Bali: Eastern Europeans having fun with Ibu in a warung
Jimbaran, Bali: A woman placing offerings in a temple, happy to pose for a picture for me
Tetebatu, Lombok: Getting ready for a cockfight

Some time ago, after a hundred talks with a similar level of superficiality, not being able to speak to anyone about anything deeper, I had a little crisis. But now, when I met a few really nice people here, I am much better. And also, thank God for Skype. I don’t know if there is a Nobel Prize in Psychology, but if there is it should go to Mr Skype.


What Indonesians know about Poland is at least a bit more optimistic than what I heard a few months ago from an Australian guy about what he knows about Poland. Firstly, he’d heard that the public media is controlled by a very conservative government. Secondly, that we invaded Czechoslovakia with tanks in ’68. We don’t have a very good PR in Australia, I am afraid.

But my trip to Australia was so different from living in Indonesia. Back then, I was impressed with the detailed knowledge of the Australian man, although what he knew was not very flattering for my country. Here the problem is the opposite. Indonesians have in general positive associations with Poland, but we are unable to go any further than where I come from, or how long I will stay in Bali.

The latest update on the Aussies’ knowledge about Poland – an Australian guy whom I met in Nusa Penida island watched a few films by Kieślowski. He was impressed with “The Double Life Of Veronique”. This time I was embarrassed by not having seen it and not being able to have a deeper conversation about the masterpieces of Polish cinema. Another thing which I have in common with Indonesians.