It’s been three months since my husband and I traveled to Bali.
With the holidays soon after our return, I thought I’d wait until the new year to share my experience. Besides, any good pilgrimage needs some time to sink in upon return, right? Now that it’s January, however, and things are likely a bit cold where you are (unless you’re in Bali!), I feel it’s high time to share.
Join me on an armchair pilgrimage, will you? There’s plenty of room on the Hello Kitty plane.
Before I left for Bali, I gave a little insight into why we were heading there and how, in a way, it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage to me. Like many, I’m sure, I first fell in love with Bali through Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love, which I read as I headed off to London to study abroad during my last year of college—a book that sparked my passion for pilgrimage, planting within me the idea that travel can facilitate personal and spiritual growth. To finally visit Bali at the close of a decade filled with meaningful travel, self-discovery, and spiritual expansion felt like an especially significant bookend—honoring my origins while also celebrating who I had become.
It was my first trip over the Pacific Ocean, and to skip an entire day as we crossed the International Date Line only added to my sense of jet lag—not only was my body confused, this time it was my mind as well! Still, when we arrived in Bali it was balmy, beautiful, and bright. I felt instantly transported to another world—the “island of the gods,” in fact—a name given to the Indonesian island in the middle of the twentieth century to promote tourism. A tropical island known for its rich cultural heritage, its major industries are agriculture and tourism, with its lush, terraced hills enveloped in fields of rice and its long sandy beaches dotted with travelers seeking a holiday in the sun.
As much as I was interested in time in the sun, now being a Seattleite, I most looked forward to encountering the spiritual atmosphere and traditions of the island. While most of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali stands alone in its Hindu beliefs, with a unique spin on the religion informed by the island’s spiritual heritage (much like the influence of Celtic spirituality on Christianity in the British Isles). Principal to their belief system are regular religious ceremonies and the daily practice of making offerings—a way to express both your attention and intention to the great Source of All.
Because everyone typically has their own personal temple on family compound (housing multiple generations of a Balinese family), the Balinese Hindus only go to the larger community temples for official ceremonies. These ceremonies are a village affair, where official dress must be worn to enter the temple and offerings can be so large that the women have to carry them on their heads.
Filled with prayer and traditional Balinese music and dance, these ceremonies often conclude with a feast, utilizing much of the food given in the offerings; it is the intention behind the offering given that matters, they say, and not leaving behind the content itself. We arrived during Purnama, the full moon ceremony, and were able to watch the locals with their colorful costume and bountiful offerings funnel into the temple like ants on an ant hill, eager to join the celebration.
Unfortunately, because we didn’t have the traditional Balinese dress (which includes a lace blouse, sarong, and sash for women and a sarong, sash, shirt, and headdress for men), we weren’t able to enter the temples during ceremonies, but we were able to visit at other times as long as we wore sarongs around our waists. Many of the temples throughout Bali are centuries old—some even over 1,000 years—and it was both a moving and mystical experience to explore these ancient temples, sometimes hidden deep within the Balinese jungle.
We were also able to participate in a purification ritual at Tirta Empul, also known as Holy Water Temple. Water is considered sacred in the Balinese Hindu tradition, and so water arising from a natural spring is especially significant (again, like the holy wells in Celtic spirituality!). It is believed that ritual bathing in the natural showers of Tirta Empul will offer healing and renewal, with each fountain holding its own spiritual significance. Because it is a temple, sarongs must be worn even in the water, and offerings are traditionally given before participation.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of all, though, is when we visited the home of our driver, Wayan (one of four common names in Bali, each signifying birth order). Because it’s fairly cheap to travel within Bali, we were able to hire a driver to take us around to various sites of cultural and spiritual significance. When we showed great interest in the Balinese Hindu tradition, he invited us to his home for a ceremony in his family’s temple.
When it comes to meaningful travel, there is no better experience than a local one, and it was such a gift to be invited by Wayan to participate in his family’s holy day. Although we arrived a bit late for the official ceremony, Wayan gave us a tour of his family temple, still dressed for the affair, and served us a traditional Balinese meal, including many foods that were given as offerings just hours before.
We did spend a day at the beach in Bali, but we loved the cultural immersion available in the center of the island so much that we skipped a second day lounging in the sun and decided to go back. Our entire trip was an exotic and enlightening adventure, and it has me dreaming of possible pilgrimages to lead in the future. (Theme idea: “Faces of God.” What do you think?)
After all, once a place has been woven into your journey, it’s hard to let it go.