There’s nothing like diving straight into a new environment with an intense day of cultural change. No seriously, I actually think it’s a good idea. Sometimes sliding into the water only makes it harder to handle the temperature, what you should really be doing is going for the cannonball. This is what I decided (read: was roped into by my mother) to do on my first day in Bali, Indonesia. I’d arrived the previous evening and managed a few hours of, albeit somewhat disturbed sleep, before my alarm blared the next morning.
Note to self: Don’t sleep curled around your phone, you will injure yourself when your alarm sounds in the morning.
Luckily, I’m not strong enough to knock myself out, or perhaps I was too shocked to really put my all into it, so I rolled out of bed and onwards to my chariot of adventure. In this case, that chariot was a somewhat beaten up car, already filled with a few friends and the leader of our odd pack, Ketut Darmika. As far as my mother is concerned, Ketut Darmika is the go-to guy for spiritual journeys, or journeys to spiritual places depending on your perspective. He’s a Balinese man with, I would wager, an almost unrivalled knowledge of a great number of Bali’s sacred places.
Our first stop was Goa Garba (Tua) in Tabanan. Actually, this wasn’t what I originally thought the first stop would be, nor was I aware of several of the other stops. But, as I’ve found is often the case with Balinese road trips, there is an attitude of “seeing as we’re already so close”, which tends to elongate them much past the limits of their participators. Anyway, leaving Kuta at 8am, Goa Garba (Tua) is a few hours away, some by highway, but most by pleasant winding mountain roads. Due to the fact that Goa Garba (Tua) is a sacred place under the care of a priest, before we visit there we must ask permission. In this case the situation is a little different. Instead of a priest, the temple at Goa Garba (Tua) is under the care of a priestess named Jero Mangku.
To say I was surprised at this development would be an understatement, as in all the time I spent in Bali I didn’t meet a single female priestess. Ketut Darmika tells me that being a priest is not about gender, and anyone can get what the Balinese refer to as a ‘calling’. The priestess is beautiful, and I’m struck by how much of a calming presence she seems to be on our motley crew. With grace she invites us to pray at the temple in her home, to ensure our journey is blessed and everything is in order. We follow her in prayer, the high-pitched ringing of the small bell echoing around the room as the incense rises above our heads and collects on the ceiling. She murmurs words of prayer, and feeling very out of place (but with prior permission) I snap some photos. If this is the start of the day, I have a feeling things are going to get very interesting.
Back in the car we pile, a little bit more squished this time as the priestess has decided to join us, and off we go to Goa Garba (Tua). Luckily the drive isn’t a particularly long one, and pretty soon we’re pulling into a car park near a pretty average looking temple. This seems odd. All this blessing and permission gaining for a temple on the edge of a (to be honest rather small) cliff. But, Jero Mangku and Ketut Darmika breeze right on past the temple, deep in conversation, and we follow a small path downhill to the beach. As I’m walking, I’m overcome with a chunder-inducing smell. What the hell is that, I ask, and receive an answer in Indonesian that I don’t understand. Ketut translates: It’s the bats.
Yeah, he said bats.
Down onto the beach by way of a slippery rock path, I’m finding it pretty hard to manoeuvre in the sarong I’m wearing. Obviously the attire underneath (shorts to escape the heat) is hardly temple appropriate, but with the risk of breaking my neck looming closer, I have to wonder if it might be worth some divine wrath. By now, my nostrils are flaring and I’m having that uncomfortable feeling of gagging rising from my stomach. Guano is definitely not my favourite perfume. Turning the corner, I’m confronted with a whistling noise and the opening to a massive cave in the cliff. A spring in my step despite the smell, I surge forward.
The cave is a yawning hole in the rock face of the cliff. It towers above me and add of a sudden I’m overwhelmed, and not just by the smell. Hundreds, probably thousands, of tiny bats hang from every conceivable surface, chattering away with a passionate fury. Every second several detach themselves from the rock and fly around, seemingly without purpose to find another roost. It is impossible to keep track of just one in the melee. I inch closer to the inside of the cave, feeling a breeze that I can’t seem to place. Of course, it is the sound of those thousand bats flapping their tiny wings and flying back and forth across this place claimed as their territory. Indonesia’s version of the butterfly effect.
Jero Mangku tells me that if you can walk into the cave and pray without feeling the sting of bat leavings, you life is a lucky one and your spiritual focus is spot on. Smiling, I tell her I’d rather not test my own focus just yet.
After placing offerings on the temple next to the noisy cave opening, the priestess motions for us to join her and pray. She kneels on the sand, and Ketut Darmika sits next to her. I look at the sand questionably. All of the sand further down the beach is a wonderful shade of yellow, the sand at the opening of the cave is black. Three guesses what that is. Still, I brace myself and get up close and personal with the ground, feeling certain smells rush up to greet me. Luckily one of these smells is incense emanating from a sizeable bundle that Ketut Darmika has lit with what looks like a blowtorch. Ahhh, modern faith. He hands me two, which I nearly snatch off him in my excitement to shove them up my nose. Finally, delicious odours have won against the guano.
With the incense removing the unpleasant smells, I feel that I am looking around with a different perspective. Sitting on the sand directly in front of the cave it seems to rise monolithic above us. The noise from the bats makes an effort to drown out the sounds of our presence and our praying but in the end the ringing of that tiny bell breaks through. Inside the cave is chaos, and I have to wonder why the Balinese would worship a place like this. But, as the prayer stretches on and the incense burns down to nothing but a charred wooden stick, I think I begin to understand. To find serenity, like what I see Jero Mangku and Ketut Darmika finding as the bell rings on and the prayers are uttered, is a special thing. Goa Garba (Tua) might be a place that tests it, but it also rewards you with a sight like few I’ve ever seen. Or perhaps that’s just my own interpretation. So, instead of thinking too much more on it, I sit and stare at a thousand bats living their life inside a sacred cave, and wonder what they think about it all.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.