Into the Soul of Bali

It’s summer, and Ubud is heaving with tourists. Sunburned and bemused, they peer at their travel books and iPads looking for the cheapest home stays with WIFI, the closest yoga studio or a nice photogenic cremation to post on FaceBook. They scratch the skin of this rich, multi- dimensional culture before moving on, but in the right company they could dive more deeply into Bali’s very soul.

Every once in a while I like to feature small, local enterprises that sensitively support Bali’s culture and economy. I first met Made Surya when I was researching an article about Bali’s traditional healers. I’ve always been allergic to the idea of taking a tour, but tagging along with one of his Healing Arts educational tours gave me introductions and insights that I could never have gleaned on my own. Surya’s personal relationships with many traditional healers along with his classical religious and cultural training made him the perfect companion for my quest. I got over my bias and found him a treasure trove of cultural information. After hanging around with Surya and his wife Judy I developed a huge respect for their combined knowledge and experience of Balinese culture, which they share through their small educational travel business Danu Tours.

Modest as he is, Made Surya is a modern Renaissance Bali man. He’s an expert mask carver and professional mask dance who performs internationally at universities and arts institutions. He sings traditional Balinese kidung at ceremonies. Surya’s father was a priest, so he had a broad religious education and is one of few Balinese who understands why rituals are performed. He’s constantly studying texts on Balinese culture in Balinese, Kawi, Sanskrit and he can read the lontars. An accomplished cook, he’s been guest chef at several restaurants in California offering Balinese cuisine. And he’s an expert on the subject of Bali’s traditional healers.

Judy began her career as a Theatre Instructor at University of Maryland, then a California college, using a sabbatical to study mask dance and textiles in Ubud in 1978. After three months she decided to lead a study tour and returned to Ubud with a group. At that time the only other foreigner leading study tours was Bob Brown who conducted music tours of Indonesia. Her tours encompassed painting, mask dance, women’s dance and mask carving. A yoga practitioner since 1972, Judy led the first yoga tour to Bali in 1985.

After intensive study with 17 authorities on Balinese masks all over the island, in 1986 she wrote what is still the seminal book on Balinese masks (‘Balinese Masks’ by Judy Slattum is available at Ganesha Books). “There were no materials on the subject at that time,” she told me. “I had to learn about the religious and mystical aspects of masks and every phase of their production. Surya was my translator and he was inspired to learn mask carving and mask dance through these interviews. Those early connections give us access to master carvers, performers, dancers, musicians and academics around Bali with whom we still have deep friendships. Our clients are able to meet authentic masters in these fields.”

Surya was studying to become a chartered accountant when he met Judy in 1983. They married in 1986, and their shared passion for Bali’s richly textured culture led them to develop a range of study programs that take visitors into Bali’s very soul. The core of their philosophy is to guide people who want to delve into the culture and its many dimensions and spend time with the Balinese people.

“It’s sad to see so many people coming here now who have no idea what a unique and special place this is,” Judy points out. “Until a few years ago, people coming to Bali stayed longer and really wanted to learn about the culture. They’d done some research and were informed enough to recognize high quality masks, carvings, textiles and silver to purchase. Mass tourism has lowered the bar.
“We only do what we enjoy, with only a few tours a year limited to about 14 people. We’ve been challenged to create a wide range of tours and because of our relationships with so many Balinese from all walks of life, we’re able to put together unique programs. The Institute of Noetic Sciences asked us to develop a study tour on child rearing practices. The Sacred Sites International Foundation approached us to create a tour of the sacred sites of Bali, which also includes Borobudur and Prabanan. The Threshold Choir asked us to develop a study tour of Bali’s death traditions, and we’ve responded to requests to develop health and fitness trips and to manage writing and yoga workshops. Creating new programs takes a lot of research but it’s so much fun, very exciting. We’re never bored and really enjoy coming up with something new.”

Surya is deeply immersed in the world of Balinese traditional healers and a few years ago began a three-day Healing Arts study tour. The book Eat Pray Love drew attention to Bali’s culture of traditional healers (balians, dukuns or shamans) and travelers now seem to think that a visit to a balian should feature on their must-do list along with a spa visit and surfing lessons. But a visit to a balian is a serious matter, not a tourist sideshow. The balian is an instrument of divine healing and the client enters a covenant to receive this healing with reverence and humility. A balian is committed to service and may never turn anyone away, and tourists who casually enter the balian’s compound out of curiosity expecting to be seen often delay the healer from working with a Balinese who is genuinely ill. As a result of this trend, many balians decline to see westerners or groups. (For a list of healers who do accept visits from foreigners, see articles/greenspeak/2010/healers. Many balians prefer visitors to make an appointment. Dress appropriately and enquire about the fee.)

Surya’s Healing Arts study tour includes comprehensive lectures on traditional healing in Bali and visits to powerful and authentic healers round the island. As with all the other Danu Tours, it also includes tools that help participants appreciate and understand what is around them — background on manners, customs, basic Indonesian, temples, the banjar system, the structure of Bali Hinduism, bargaining, the caste system, rites of passage and much more.

The study tours used to spend more time in Ubud but now give equal time to Candi Dasa and East Bali. “We want to turn people on to this area — there is so much to see. We have friends in Tenganan which gives our clients special access to the households of weavers, basket-makers and musicians. There are still unique relics of the Dutch colonial past from the 1920s in the Puri at Amlapura, the palace of the Raja who was father to Bali’s fabled Dr Djelantik. Tirtagangga has the most magnificent scenery in Bali. The ceiling paintings in Klungkung actually define moral codes for the Balinese. And for fun, we visit Charlie’s organic chocolate factory.”

When choosing accommodation for their study tours, Surya and Judy look for hotels that have an awareness of environmental sustainability as well as good food, ambience, good management and comfortable rooms. One of their favourites is Puri Lumbung in Munduk, Bali’s original village-based eco-hotel. Munduk offers amazing treks, hikes to the waterfall, walks through coffee and clove plantations, rice fields and small hamlets. This is one of the oldest settled areas of Bali, with archeological evidence of Chinese presence 2,000 years ago and sarcophagi dating back 4,000 years.

The informative Sacred Sites study tour includes Gunung Kawi , a wonderful 11th century site dedicated to the pre-Hindu king Anak Wang Su. Its seven monumental tombs, dedicated to the king and his three wives on one side of the river and his three concubines on the other, are carved from living rock. Beyond is a warren of meditation chambers that housed hermits, monks and pilgrims.

The benefits of having long term relationships with so many Balinese specialists are mutual. Study tour clients have access to the home workshops of carefully selected crafters, painters, weavers, basket makers, and carvers who have been well known to Judy and Surya for decades and have the highest quality products. And the tours also bring income to local businesses, small restaurants and hotels.

Judy and Surya manage a Student Sponsorship Program for teens who would like to attend high school but whose parents can’t afford it. Any tour participants are eager to offer support to help the kids stay in school. There are usually about 20 such students at any given time, most in Munduk, and over 100 have now been sponsored through high school.

Yes, you can learn a lot from books and websites. But it’s not easy for a visitor get under the skin of this amazing island. There’s nothing like being in the company of passionate experts to penetrate the abundant dimensions of Bali’s soul.

Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – – Freefall off the Tourist Trail is Available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud and Seminyak
– downloadable as a PDF file
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle

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