Years before Eat, Pray, Love began to push waves of tourists toward Padang Padang beach, I found myself there on a quiet island morning in Bali.
Curiosity led me there, having heard that it was beautiful and that there was surf. Though I don’t rip or travel with a board, I wanted to check it out anyhow. I rented a board much too short for my skill set, but that’s what was available in the makeshift surfboard rental stands on Kuta Beach at the time. Next, I hunted down a long-distance taxi near Kuta Square, arranged for the driver to wait for me at the improvised parking area by the bridge, and trekked down the steep path onto the sand.
I was a lone traveler that July and came upon an empty stretch of paradise. With the popular reception of the book and movie, the luxury of being alone on Padang has since vanished.
That morning, at this famed surf beach, the ocean was as unmoving as hands in prayer. The sun was rising higher into the sky and with it the tide. I pulled out the orange pareu I had picked up in a Pape’ete market, already worn thin during my travels due to its usefulness (stay tuned for my inevitable post on the many ways to use a pareu when traveling), and lowered down to soak in the late morning light.
Within seconds, a woman in a bikini emerged from a sort of housing lodge at the back of the beach. From her “Hello,” I guessed she was British. Unwrapping her own version of a pareu from around her waist, she found a place only a few feet from me to post. We were sun lovers and, though over the balcony of the lodge was strewn other mismatched towels and few fishing boats could be seen way beyond the reef, we seemed to be the only two souls around.
Bali, an island of the predominantly Muslim Indonesia, is actually around 90% Hindu. Their religion is a Balinese Hinduism that is made up of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism.
Evidence of the importance of their religion and deities is prevalent in everyday life. While staying in Kuta, the major tourist hub of the island, I couldn’t sleep past 7 a.m. due to the noise from a main street beginning to brim with morning traffic and rituals. There’s not much of a lull between the partiers going on past 4 a.m., a large amount being Aussies, and the residents getting up early to start the work day by first cleansing their narrow sidewalks and doorways with water, sweeping away any remnants of the night before.
On my exploratory morning walks along the outskirts of town, I would see local shop and home owners open their front doors nestled in high stone walls and place their prayer offerings at the entrance ways. Bundles of bright fruit and flowers on large green leaves graced each stoop or wall nook, and incense saturated the morning air—careful prayers placed each day for protection and prosperity. The smoke would lift their hushed mantras toward the sky.
In these offerings, I saw orange mix with yellow, white, and green—bright colors of vitality, colors so certain of themselves. Prayer offerings for the Balinese Hindus appeared as not only a duty, part of their devotion to worship the divine, but as totally inextricable from daily life.
In the past few days, I had also attended a performance of a traditional Balinese dance. Through dance, music, song, and drama, the Balinese Hindus embody the characters of their sacred texts and transmit messages from the Vedas and other important religious teachings from sacred or literary texts.
I had come to understood in just a week’s time in Bali that respect and devotion play an important role in the daily lives of the Balinese Hindus.
It was just minutes after the Brit arrived that we noticed two people to our left, out in the bay, stepping haphazardly along the rocks around the cliff’s bend. The tide was high, so they had fewer rocks at their disposal, with only major ones poking out of the water, and had to stick close to the cliff wall that separated Padang from the next cove. I could tell that they carried something in their hands and realized it was snorkeling gear only as they came closer to shore.
Once the man reached the beach, he ran straight for the trail leading up toward the bridge. The young woman approached the sand considerably later since she was having a hard time, taking breaks to bend down while holding her heaving chest. The Brit got up and quickly jogged over to her. Though I stood, I kept a respectful distance as to not bombard the crying girl, not guessing what could be so wrong.
The girl was German and in a broken English that I heard from where I was standing, she told the Brit of a man that fell, drown, an Indonesian Man, water, fall, rock, fall, water, can’t swim. What truly happened one can only guess, but the gist was there: an Indonesian man who this couple was with had fallen into the ocean and drowned.
My thoughts rushed in: Who was this man? Why would anyone walk out on rocks around a bend at sea just before high tide unless they knew how to swim? Why would a Balinese man born and raised on an island not know how to swim?
The German man now approached from the entrance to the beach with another Indonesian man, their driver—slowly, much too slowly if there was a man that could be saved. The young man was speaking adamantly to the driver as they walked, the latter holding a pan face, and then the German couple argued in horror back and forth to each other in a language that I had yet to learn. It was gleaned through hysterics, yelling, and tears that these two had hired a local man earlier in the morning who offered himself as a tour guide, one who could show them where to snorkel around the bend of rocks. The Indonesian driver knew this man, actually a teenage boy, and knew he didn’t know how to swim. The tide had risen throughout the morning. While the German couple was snorkeling in the water, a ways away from where the Indonesian man stood, the girl had seen him attempt to move to a higher rock but slip and fall into the deeper water and had thought that of course he knew how to swim and could pull himself up on his own and went back to her business of enjoying the divine waters off Padang Padang Beach.
The Indonesian driver spoke little English but shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in response to a few questions from the Brit who attempted to act as a translator. “He’s saying there’s nothing to be done,” she explained to us. I had moved in closer to the group by now and could tell that she had been camped out on this beach longer than most stay in Bali. She was much calmer than the rest—except for the Balinese man—and must have already gotten an idea of how things work, or don’t, around here. I interjected with my questions, obviously rooted in First-World notions of how to problem solve in such a situation: How can we get a helicopter? Notify the Balinese Coast guard, perhaps—is there is such a group? Didn’t anyone call for help from the taxis at the top? Why isn’t there a search team out here already?
I looked up at the sky and there wasn’t a sound. I looked up at the bridge and noticed my driver perched casually against its railing, looking down at us. Had I been along the California coast I was used to, both sea and land would have been teeming with vehicles, sounds, and lights.
Is this it? I thought. Could this be really all we could do to try to save this guy? The Germans must have been thinking along the same lines since the girl became insistent that they go back to look for him, though her partner was not so sure that was the right choice. The Brit explained, “They see things differently here,” in an attempt to stay her. But off they went as their driver walked back up to join mine on the bridge. The woman and I lingered a while before strolling somewhat hesitantly back to our pareus. Speaking felt irreverent. I considered joining the search party out by the rocks but thought of safety first and of a drifting bloated body second and both kept me on the sand. No one close to me had died before this moment, and I was in no way prepared to face death with the calm the Indonesian man had shown.
With the reality of this young man’s death pressing on me, I couldn’t enjoy my stay at Padang much longer. So I gathered my things and hiked back up to the taxi waiting for me. Once in the car and driving away, I tried to discuss my confused feelings with my driver, seeking a sort of affirmation that this was truly OK with them. Although his English wasn’t much better than his compatriot’s, he was able to explain that the Balinese don’t see death as a bad thing but as part of life. I seemed to be forcing words out of someone who didn’t want to talk about it, so I dropped the topic and hardly ever spoke of this incident again.
Since my mind sometimes returns to this day, however, I decided to search for some meaning in the death of this young man that went without mourning or ceremony.
For the Balinese attitude toward death I looked towards the sacred Hindu texts.
There are two—though of lesser authority than the Vedas which are said to have been transmitted instead of authored—that have had great influence in Hinduism today: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (the world’s longest poem containing over 100,00 verses).
From the Ramayana, we gather, “life and death, joy and sorrow, gain and loss; These dualities cannot be avoided. Learn to accept what you cannot change.”
This is a pretty good synopsis of the sentiment that I was getting from the two taxi drivers. But what about the kind of pain of loss that penetrates the soul?
I continued my search for answers to death in the Bhagavad Gita (Sacred Song), which is a large section of the Mahabharata and considered to be one of the holiest books in the Hindu tradition.
As a teen, I found a number of different versions of this book in my parents’ bookshelves. My father is Jewish and my mother Catholic. I was baptized Catholic and raised attending Buddhist prayer services as my parents chanted their mantras. I was sent off to Jesuit schools where I was encouraged to take classes like Meditation and World Religion. The Bhagavad Gita is not a foreign text to me. However, I must have missed its elucidation on the acceptance of death. I remembered that Hinduism encompasses karma and reincarnation, that Hindus believe one is to live ethically and in line with dharma outlined in sacred texts in order to reach Brahman, liberation/oneness, and break the cycle of rebirth. But how does this translate to not grieving the dead?
In the Bhagavad Gita’s conversation between Krishna (representing the God realm) and Arjuna (representing humanity), on ethics, morality, and reaching Brahman and joining Vishnu in the eternal realm, we can find soothing wisdom on the soul for anyone who might otherwise mourn or fear death:
“Never is the Soul born, nor does he die at any time, he has never been brought into being, nor shall come hereafter; unborn, eternal, permanent and primeval. When the body is slain, he is not slain.”
“As a man casts off worn-out garments and puts on new ones, so the embodied soul casts off the worn-out body and enters other new ones.”
“He is spoken as invisible, unthinkable and immutable;
therefore, you ought not to grieve comprehending as such.”
“For death is certain to one who is born; to one who is dead, birth is certain; therefore, thou shalt not grieve for what is unavoidable.”
“At the end of life, whoever departs the body remembering Me attains my nature without fail.”
The sacred text offers that one does not die since the soul is the true self, where God lives, and is eternal. Death is not to be feared and mourned but instead, in order to do justice by the soul—the true essence of life—we must respect death and celebrate it.
The Balinese Hindus have a cremation ceremony called Ngaben, which means “to make into ash”; it’s a rite of passage, death being the final stage of life itself. They use fire to cleanse the spirit. Cremation is a whole town affair, usually held on an auspicious date. In addition to dance, music, and drama, there are large mounds of food and lots of bright clothing—after all, this is a celebration. The Balinese Hindus are said to hold back tears, believing that crying would deter the soul of their loved one from joining the Supreme Being. Once cremation is complete, the Balinese don’t keep the ashes at home as Westerners might. Instead, ceremony demands ashes to be dispersed in the ocean.
These actions embody Balinese Hindu beliefs in the disassociation of the body and soul. Once the body is gone, the soul has left. Why would the ashes be kept when there is no beloved to hold close, only a soul to wish well on its journey? Released from its bodily form, the soul is free to enter eternal bliss. Then, what is there to grieve when one’s ultimate goal of life has been achieved in death? The young man at Padang found a faster route to the sea and hopefully eternal life. We can only pray that his body was cleansed with water instead and his soul sent toward Vishnu.
This unforgettable episode of my travels has led me to reflect on the way I go through my own daily life. Am I beginning each day by cleansing the energy and welcoming blessings from the universe with an offering? Am I walking through the world prepared to die at any moment and accept death as a release into a higher state of being? Am I leading a true, kind, and conscious life on a daily basis that may garner good karma to not suffer in a cycle of rebirth onto Earth (plagued with want) but to instead, at death, be freed into eternal bliss?
This is a tall order, one naturally expected of any Balinese Hindu and one that I don’t think I’m up to every day. But I can try. If anything was born from this young man’s death, it was a reminder to be a more considerate and conscious being in all corners of the world.
Visit: Padang Padang Beach, Bali Indonesia. You won’t be alone. These days, with the influx of tourists thanks to Julia Roberts, you can more conveniently rent surfboards on Padang Padang Beach itself.
This a lighter version:
This is the version I first read as a teen: