Thursday, February 5, 2009
Feeding the Family Cow is Not as Simple as You Think
Our breakfast veranda is surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. The rooster next door crows incessantly and has been doing so for the past 4 hours. It is now 9:45 am and the gentle morning breeze caresses our senses and foretells of a pleasant low humidity day ahead. We are the lone guests at the Samhita Garden bungalows here in the northern hills of Ubud on the island of Bali.
As we await our farm fresh eggs, Balinese coffee and daily savory bread basket from the Café Luna bakery down the road, We begin to wonder about the meeting we’ve arranged with the American Mary Knapp. The arrangements, like much of this project so far, have fallen into place with serendipity. In this case, a chance conversation with Bridget Joyce our downstairs neighbor in San Francisco, led with amazing directness to Mary who now resides in Bali working as a local community organizer. After several e-mails and a phone call upon arrival in Ubud, we discover that Mary lives less than a 5 minute walk from our garden bungalow enclave.
We finish our ample breakfast and head down the road to the prearranged meeting place. Mary has offered to escort us up to the house so we don’t take a wrong turn and wander aimlessly through the sumptuous rice terraces that surround her property. Shortly after we arrive, a motor bike driven by a handsome Indonesian man with a lovely young woman on the back, descends the gentle slope of the road. We know in an instant that is must be Mary and her fiancé Wayan. His broad smile, like most people’s on this island, radiates kindness. A quick glimpse into Mary’s stunning blue eyes as she steps down off the scooter, divulges a sparkle that signals an immediate welcome and confesses the character of a genuinely good soul. We exchange a knowing glance that telegraphs amazement at how quickly two new friends are found. Then, we all turn and head up the road.
Rights of Passage, we are convinced, needs to have authentic voices in order to become what we envision. So an opportunity to sit and talk with people like Mary and Wayan is essential and we take full and shameless advantage of their openness and knowledge of Balinese culture. Our conversation ranges across many topics and in fact goes beyond the borders of gayness for a much fuller picture of life on the magical island. Some things we already know or suspect, others are a revelation. Here are a few of the nuggets we gleaned:
Male-on-male affection is extremely common in Balinese culture but does not signify a sexual relationship. Hand holding in public, hugging, even sleeping in the same bed together, is standard operating procedure for Balinese men. Whether this closeness ever spills over into same-sex lust is anybody’s guess. The reverse of this coin is that male-female public displays of affection are frowned upon. Why? Because it may appear boastful to flaunt your relationship in this way. Saying, in effect: “See what I have!”
Gay men come to Bali from other parts of Indonesia for several reasons: To escape persecution, to avoid the scrutiny of their families and to enjoy a more tolerant atmosphere. Also, there are a number of out, foreign gay men living, mostly in the south of Bali, often with Balinese lovers.
Marriage is extremely important not only to carry on the family line but for economic reasons. Once a girl gets married she becomes the financial responsibility of her husband’s family. This includes the money it will cost for her cremation ceremony, which is the essential exit strategy for any Hindu. In a society with limited financial resources this is a big deal.
Women and girls are at the bottom of the pecking order when it come to acquiring an education, which is costly even for attendance at a standard public school. A true story brings this point home: A very bright Balinese girl, who made it all the way through high school, in itself a rarity, was offered a scholarship to university. Her parents denied her this nearly unheard of opportunity because her younger brother was entering junior high school and she was needed at home to take care of the family cow.
And last, but not least, gay is OK as long as it is secret. Something we’ve found over and over again as we talk with people from many parts of the world.
Photo: Mary and Wayan on their veranda in Ubud.