The best way to learn about the culture and traditions native to the destinations we visit is through local people. Community-based travel experiences are the most authentic way to experience a place and live like a local. I was thrilled when Duara Travels invited me to spend some time at their homestay program in Sebatu. I made meaningful connections with my lovely host Wayan, his nephew Agus, and the rest of their family. I’m honored that they gave me an inside look into their community’s traditions. During my visit, I became fully immersed in their daily lifestyle, spiritual beliefs, deep-rooted superstitions, and cultural values. Read on to see how I discovered Balinese culture in Sebatu.
Get 10% off of a homestay by using the promo code FILATELISTA when you make a reservation on DuaraTravels.com until February 28, 2018.
Sebatu is a rural district is located just north of Bali tourist hub, Ubud. Duara Travels arranged for me to stay in Sebatu for four nights. Balinese villages are made up of several banjar, which are extended family homes. In the Sebatu banjar where I stayed, known as Jasam, there are around 60 separate family compounds. The compound where Wayan and Agus live is a space shared with nine other families all from the same lineage. The entire community takes care of each other with given roles meant to keep balance. The roles used to be hereditary but are now based on skill and desire. After getting married each member is given a role in the community to serve the banjar such as cleaning, music, dancing, or hosting guests. When young men are ready to be married they are meant to make an offering at a temple which their elder has suggested and then their wife will come into their lives soon after. Wives move into their husband’s compounds after the marriage ceremony. Each village also has its own school, graveyard, main temple, water temple, priest, and shaman.
A particularly transformative moment from my time in Sebatu was watching the family pray. Their commitment to the lengthy Balinese Hinduism ritual is astonishing. The banjar temple in the Jasam was built decades ago by their ancestors. There are several small shrines that worshipers pray at for specific needs such as financial issues, romantic woes, and health struggles. Balinese temples are always located in the northeast corner of a compound, it is a sacred space because it is the direction of the mountains, which is where Balinese people feel the most connected to God. Villagers even position their beds so that their head faces north or east, to face south or west could mean that death will take you as you sleep.
Part of the prayer ritual, which is done at least daily, but often more, is to shower and dress in traditional garments before entering their house temple. Both men and women wear sarongs and sashes tied around the waist, which is meant to hold the spirit up. While women are required to pull their back in a ponytail or bun men wear udeng headdresses which are believed to help keep the spirit in the body during deep meditation and prayer.
My Balinese host family showed me how to pray with their homemade offerings that contain flowers and burning incense. Wayan’s wife makes offerings every day to use in morning prayer and throughout the day. The bamboo trays are filled with different local flowers and petals picked fresh from around the banjar or bought in the local market. The flora is placed on top of a leaf and sometimes additional offerings are added such as crackers, foliage, or even cigarettes! Lastly, a stick of incense is lit and placed in the offering. These are used for prayer, as detailed below, and also placed on shrines, doorsteps, and the entrances to homes or businesses.
The prayer ritual at home temples begins by grasping empty hands together in prayer form parallel to the forehead, the second time worshipers use yellow or white flower petals and hold them between their fingers as they pray and then tuck them behind their ear, the second time more colorful petals are used, usually pink or blue, and tucked behind the other ear after prayer, for the third instance petals from each color are used and then placed on the back of the head. Lastly, empty hands finish the prayer ritual.
I was fortunate to be visiting during the full moon ceremony that is the biggest celebration of the year! The Purnama Kapat happens in October and is the 4th full moon of the Balinese calendar which is 210 days. I have a strong connection to the moon and am always eager to learn about how different cultures celebrate the full moon. It was extra special as the full moon was just a few days before my birthday making it the perfect time to reflect and set intentions. My host family let me borrow traditional clothing, which is required to wear when entering Balinese Hindu temples during festivities for both locals and foreigners. As a lover of textiles and fashion traditions, I loved the chance to wear the lace shirt, kebaya, and sarong, the Balinese outfit for women to the celebration.
The celebration was of special significance as the whole island of Bali was gathering in their home and village temples to pray under the full moon for safety as Mount Agung was threatening to erupt. During Purnama Kapat Balinese ask for blessings from Sang Hyang Widhi, the Hindu almighty God. Balinese believe the God descends to the earth during the full moon and gives blessings. Locals craft many offerings and believe that good deeds or religious activities are rewarded a hundred times more during purnama. The full moon day is also the best day of the month to pick fruits and many farmers wait for the full moon to cultivate in order to have a better harvest.
I went to the main Sebatu village temple with Agus and his family after the sunset to witness the Purnama Kapat celebrations until well after midnight. It was a beautiful, colorful evening. I was astonished at the procession of the entire Sebatu village, thousands of people filed by including musicians, dancers, and many women carrying massive golden offerings that were nearly 3 feet tall and overfilled with everything from fruit to fried chicken. I watched with Agus as he beamed with pride as his mother passed and cheered for Wayan when he came by in his full traditional regalia for his dance performance.
Decorations hung from every corner of the massive temple in beautiful arrangements. Local children put on dance recitals as men gambled over cockfights. I joined the entire village for their prayer after learning the ritual earlier–I focused on sending positive energy to this group of people who are beautiful inside and out. There were no other foreigners in sight. After the prayer, the traditional dance performances begin. We were the only people watching this moving art form. I suppose these events become commonplace and lackluster for villagers but it was a joy for me to get to witness native dancing in such an intimate setting, especially when Wayan took the dance floor!
Agus suggested we stay until the early hours of the morning to witness something he thought no foreigner had ever been invited to see before at the temple. I won’t divulge too much but at the closing of the ceremony, a few men are selected to meditate until they reach a trance-like-state. In that moment they’re possessed by the spirits and are overpowered by a ferocious energy as the swing a massive spear over their heads. Decorations flew left and right as the crowd dodged the sharp edges of the weapon. No one was injured, this time.
Beyond the full moon, the Balinese calendar is the guide for local culture. The 210-day Pawukon calendar is a system of 30 with two cycles in a year (420 days). The calendar is followed by Balinese for religious purposes and also to know which days are best for events such as sacrifice or marriage. There are auspicious days for farming, starting businesses, and just about anything else. For instance, in October 2017 it was best to dig a well on the 10, 16, 24, 26, 29, get married 22 or 26, or get a haircut on 18, 23, 25.
Agus and Bonita were happy to answer my never-ending list of curiosities about their lifestyles. I was most intrigued to learn about how deeply enfolded superstition is to their culture and beliefs. Agus told me stories about how the spirits have led him away from danger or pulled him towards darkness. He shares that spirits are usually our ancestors and that part of the Balinese habit of creating offerings is to appease the spirits of deceased family members. He explains that spirits are usually kind but can be very dangerous when they’re enraged. Balinese follow an assortment of strategies to appease the spirits which can be as simple as honking when driving through a haunted space in order to ask permission to pass by the road safely. Another key practice is not wandering around at dusk between light and darkness, and similarly to never stand in a place of half shadow and half light as that could be where angry spirits are lurking. Agus was even able to shed some light on a strange occurrence that happened to me in the Nusa islands and explained that I had encountered a spirit. You’ll have to stay tuned for that story in another post!
After living in India for 6 months it was fascinating to discover how different Hinduism is on the Indonesian island. Shiva is the most prominent Hindu God but unlike Indians, Balinese believe that all other Hindu Gods are Shiva taking on another form. Balinese Hindus have a tooth filing ceremony when they come of age. Villagers that I spoke to swore the process isn’t unbearably painful, but they’re likely putting on a brave face to maintain the spiritual purpose of the filing. The front six teeth are filed into a straight line, each tooth is associated with a sin such as gluttony, greed, and pride. By filing them down they are removing the deadly sins from their bodies. Balinese people have beautiful grins that are a symbol of their deep religious beliefs and superstitions.
During my stay at Sebatu Agus took me around the village to meet various family members and friends. We came across packs of schoolchildren giggling and playing as they ran home for lunch. We visited the pigsty located just behind the compound where a family member raises hogs. I had never seen such a large pig in my life! They were practically the size of a donkey. I have been a non-meat eater for a very long time so this part of village life can be difficult for me but it is never my place to judge, instead, I chose to observe. There were dozens of piglets being raised for slaughter but they have spacious pens, are well taken care of, and provide a way of income that supports an entire village.
We hopped on a motorbike and rode down to see the village’s beautiful water temple but could not enter as I was not dressed in traditional Balinese attire. The temple is tucked away at the bottom of a hill in a tranquil oasis of palm trees and bamboo. I can just imagine how peaceful a purification ceremony here must be.
We continued on to the local rice terraces which spread out across the horizon behind Sebatu. Here the lawns are not perfectly manicured, tourist can’t be found snapping whimsical shots in the evening light. Instead, we meet a few farmers who tell Agus about a recent celebration. A few days prior there had been a day that celebrates rice in the Balinese calendar. The temple was overflowing with stacks and stacks of offerings and a few special decorations were still left in the fields. We rode into the sunset across small ridges along the rice paddies and enjoyed the simplicity of it all.
One afternoon Wayan invited me to his workshop. Wayan is a wood carver and a fantastic creative artist. He’s been an entrepreneur for decades and is very well known for his decor items. Sadly he has no clientele demand for Balinese artwork or handicraft. His biggest client is based in Canada and sends him Native American art to replicate. This saddens me knowing that the Canadian businessman is taking jobs away from local artisans back in the Americas, and likely paying a deeply decreased price per item by outsourcing the work to Indonesia. Wayan loves the challenge of learning new crafts but does hope that someday more foreigners will appreciate the beauty of Balinese crafts. During my visit, there were five employees handcrafting various wooden goods. They work as an assembly line with each artisan focusing on their particular skill-from dwindling, varnishing, painting, and more.
My favorite thing to do when traveling is to visit a local market to pick up produce and see the real way of life. The Saturday morning market in Sebatu was an absolute joy of color, smiles, flavors, and tastes. It was well worth the 6 AM wake up call. In the market bamboo baskets overflow with colorful farm-fresh produce, livestock, endless stacks of trays for offerings, traditional clothing, and more. Women scurry through with bamboo baskets overhead full of guava, chili, lettuce, garlic, carnations and just about anything else. I picked up some mangoes and dragon fruit to have for breakfast back at the homestay.
The absolute beauty of traveling slowly and supporting locals is that everything you come across is completely authentic. Looking back at these photos I am astonished at the beauty of everyday life in Sebatu. Nothing here is for show, it is simply beautiful because it is. Each day that I spent with Wayan and his family was incredibly memorable. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience to learn more about the wonderful Balinese culture.
If you’d like to experience a homestay with Duara Travels they partner with villagers in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Get 10% off of your homestay by using the promo code FILATELISTA when you make a reservation on DuaraTravels.com until February 28, 2018. You can expect to immerse yourself in local life and partake in the local way of life, visit markets, join events, help with cooking, and more. I trust Duara because of their transparent approach to creating sustainability in a village through community-based tourism and applaud them for publicizing their breakdown of profits. The family that hosts the homestay receives 40% of the payment, 10% goes to directly to the local village contact who organizes the visit, 10% of payment goes to village savings group which is used for microloans, funding festivities, nursery schools, youth organizations, handicraft training, and other associations which are usually women lead. 10% covers international money transfer costs, the remaining 30% goes to Duara Travels to cover administration, marketing, and service.
If you’re visiting another destination outside of the Duara Travels area I recommend browsing through the listings on Homestay.com. Tell me in the comments where you’ve experienced homestays so I can go visit them too someday!
Thank you for this wonderful experience, Duara Travels. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links, please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.