Celebrating The Day Of Knowledge – Saraswati Day In Bali

Saraswati Day is dedicated to the Goddess of Knowledge. We had a chance to participate in the ceremony, as well as in the preparation of the temple, which takes place one day before the actual festival.

Prayers in the day preceeding the Saraswati ceremony
Saraswati – getting ready for the big day

Like the Balinese, we wore traditional clothes used for all ceremonies. We had sarongs, girls wore kebaya (a top made of lace), and boys put on udeng (a head cloth). Why do only men have to wear a hat? Because it reminds them that they need to control their mind, and it’s men whose thoughts go wilder than women’s.

A Balinese boy wearing udeng. Are this boy’s thoughts already wild?
“When I grow up, I will be exactly like mummy” – mother and daughter wearing kebaya
Tradition and technology

Everyone wants to look their best, wear the most beautiful clothes, and girls put on their make-up. We have been told that meeting God is comparable to meeting your real love: you want to look astonishing and you are ready to spend any amount of money to make this meeting worthwhile. If not, then it’s not the true love.

Canang sari offered to the gods

The ceremony started with bringing offerings: Balinese canang sari made of flowers, banana leaves, rice, and cookies. Balinese gamelan, the orchestra which consists of mostly percussive instruments, accompanied he ceremony. I was melting from the heat, but once the dance performance began, I was speechless and forgot about any discomfort.

In the Balinese war dance, called Baris Gede, men carry various weapons. In the one we watched they had spears and wooden knives. But for me, female dancers were absolutely stunning. Even in full make-up, tight costumes, and complicated flower constructions on their heads, they were able to move with the finest precision. The dance, called Rejang Dewa, involves the whole body, together with fingertips and eyeballs that move to the rhythm of gamelan.

Baris Gede – the war dance performed by Balinese men
Each dancer carries a wooden spear
A Rejang Dewa dancer
Rejang Dewa dancers entertaining the gods present in the temple

After the dance performance, we sat together and prayed with the locals, and at the culmination of the ceremony we had a pinch of rice applied on the middle of our foreheads between the eyebrows – one of the chakras in our bodies. The rice did not last long on mine, but I hope the blessing is still working.

Hindu prayers on the day of Saraswati
Pinch of rice on our foreheads is supposed to keep the blessing which we received during the ceremony
The rest of the day will be spent at home with family

Mount Bromo – Easy To Reach, Harder To Exit

Bromo in East Java is my first volcano. I would like to say that it’s the first one I have hiked – but not really. Reaching the crater does not require hiking at all. To the Tengger Caldera, a 5-hectare desert full of volcanic sand, and to the viewpoint that is situated at 2,770 m above sea level, one can get by motorbike, or by car. Then 250 concrete steps ascend to the top of the crater (2,329 m).

The crater of Bromo
The crater of Bromo

Although reaching the volcano does not require much effort, it’s not that easy to find it at night – we got lost twice on the way. First, we didn’t notice a turn that we were supposed to take just after we entered the territory of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, and almost reached the highest summit of Java – Semeru. Prior to our trip I had read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that some people lose their way to Bromo and try to hike Semeru instead. “Stupid tourists,” I had been thinking at that time.

The next time we got lost was while riding through the caldera at night, trying to get to the village adjacent to the caldera called Cemoro Lawang. Google Map shows a road that looks very straightforward, but in fact at some point the road was over, and in front of us there was the Sea of Sand. We were following the tail lights of other motorbikes, but it turned out that the actual road was quite far from us, and in between there was a trench impossible to cross on motorbike. But luckily we were not alone there – as everywhere else in touristy places in Indonesia, there was a crowd of people – so together with them we got back on the right track.

Sea of Sand in the Bromo caldera
Sea of Sand in the Bromo caldera

A crucial part of Bromo experience is seeing it from the viewpoint at the sunrise. Pictures taken from that point, which I had found on the Internet or on postcards, left me speechless. So we were very determined to get there at night.

Before the trip, finding information on how we can reach the viewpoint was impossible. Travel blogs in English were giving tips about renting jeeps, about horses in the caldera, and about reaching the summit of the volcano (which involved just the stairs). We got to the nearest village, built a tent there, and started asking people. None of them could give us clear information. I expected a local guy who worked in a hotel to have basic knowledge about this place, given he worked in the tourism industry in an area where everyone’s livelihood was connected to the volcano. And according to this guy, the viewpoint was not possible to reach by bike, because the road was very steep and slippery, with a lot of sand coming down.

I still don’t know what is the problem with the information about that place, because in the end we got to the viewpoint without difficulty. Not only is the whole road made of asphalt, in very good condition and easily accessible, but also there are lots of tourist facilities – warungs, toilets, parking lots, and even a mosque.

What we did was wake up at 2 am and follow the Indonesian tourists. A crowd of people on motorbikes was heading for the viewpoint for sunrise. Since it was New Year’s, obviously we were not the only ones who wanted to spend the first morning of 2017 looking at the active cone of Bromo. The ride started with crossing the sandy caldera, which felt like riding through a desert; at night it was thrilling and gave me goosebumps. Then there was just asphalt for a few kilometres to the top of Mount Penanjakan – to the top, which was supposed to be the most rewarding view, worth a mostly sleepless night and a long ride in the dark. But in our case the view was not so impressive because the place was floating in a dense fog. Nothing we could see but other people’s backs – hundreds of Indonesians were waiting for the sunrise with us, no luck that morning.

"B" for Bromo. A spectacular view behind us, all in the fog.
“B” for Bromo. A spectacular view behind us, all in the fog.
It was New Year – so we dressed appropriately
Mount Batok – no longer active. The smoke is coming from Bromo, hidden behind.

We rode back to the caldera to climb the crater and for me that was the hardest point of the whole expedition. We had to face this touristy clamour. Horse rides across the caldera offered for a couple of dollars, snacks and drinks all around, and, of course, groups of people hunting for bule to take a picture together. It all looked like a big tacky picnic.

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A big picnic in the Bromo caldera – not much of a pristine place that I expected
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A horse among trash
Bule hunting
Bule hunting

But we survived, reached the top, looked down and saw the huge hole from where a massive amount of smoke was coming out. And when I smelled the sulphur – it was as if hell had its ‘open-door day’ and everyone was invited to see and check if they would like to spend the life after death there. The Earth is alive, and I saw evidence to that. And what I saw was frighteningly powerful and beautiful.

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To get out of the Tengger Caldera was much more difficult than getting into it. We were stuck in a few horrible traffic jams for a few long hours. At one moment I asked people in front of me if they knew what had happened, because I was curious whether there had been a car accident, or a tree blocking the road. The answer I got was: macet. I asked: Macet apa? They replied: Tidak bisa jalan. The conversation was short, but insightful. Macet means ‘a traffic jam’. I asked what is a traffic jam and what I heard was: ‘you cannot go’. Thanks guys for telling me this, I wouldn’t have noticed myself. Indonesians do not investigate. Macet is macet, and only patience can save us.