It is now the Bali Arts Festival, a month-long free celebration of all forms of Balinese culture held in Bali’s capital, motorbike Mecca, Denpasar. Last Sunday my camera and I meandered amongst a magnificent kick-off parade of colors, sights, and sounds. Cherry red dragons danced spun mid-air while beautiful, Balinese dancers flicked their delicate wrists and necks as golden flowers rhythmically bounced atop their heads.
Even the hot sun danced its own delightful jig amongst their elaborate costumes, highlighting the brilliant hot
pinks, lime greens, and deep yellows. My ears delighted in hearing everything from traditional Gamelan orchestras (played on a range of xylophone-like instruments) to American-style marching bands with a Balinese spin!
Two days ago my adopted Auntie (the Balinese princess, Cok Ratih) dropped me off to visit the Bali Arts Center where the festival is held. Under the hot Bali sun I strolled around the beautiful outdoor facility. I glance to my left and see a stadium where modern music from a Balinese band spills out from over the high walls. I continue walking straight ahead, along an adorable little river that spans the length of the Center, with bridges crossing at the head and feet of the complex. To my right are different performance pavilions surrounded by stretches of grassy areas. Farther down I see brightly colored booths selling everything from food to jewelry to antique knives. Surrounding me is the familiar hum of people, all local Balinese families enjoying themselves. I am amazed at how this complex is abuzz with activities and exhibitions, yet manages to maintain a certain serenity. There are quiet spots where one can peacefully just sit and stare out at the lotus and floating lily pads.
I allow the traditional sounds of a Gamelan band lure me to the right, past a row of policemen and food booths where fresh chicken satay on the grill taunts me. A young Balinese woman has just begun her traditional dance routine and is gracefully swirling around the large center stage. I decide to play my “ignorant foreigner with a camera card” and carefully inch my way towards the front of the packed pavilion. People seem happy to make space for me. I brush many shoulders, knees and other parts as I pass by; their warm, curious eyes urge me to move forward, proudly inviting me in to experience their culture, to see their lives. I remove my blue striped espadrille shoes and take a seat at the front, on the thin red carpet among the children. Some greet me with huge toothless smiles while others sneak peeks at me, too shy to offer more than a glance at a time. I can’t help but chuckle and wave. One young girl sitting near me is beyond adorable. She has a short mushroom haircut, pink shirt, beautiful large brown eyes, and a 10,000-watt smile. Her shyness keeps her from doing anything more than smile at first. I ask to take her photo, but she shakes her head no. Too shy! We continue exchanging smiles and after a bit, she scoots backwards and nods, giving up her space for me to get closer with my camera. I’m so touched that she’s willing to sacrifice her view for me. I scoot partially forward to receive her gift, but leave space and pat the floor next to me so she can still enjoy the view. I have made a new friend!
We watch the graceful dancers and laugh together as they begin to interact with some of the audience, pulling them up on stage to dance with them. I still can’t quite figure out if some of these people are “plants” because they are so good and know the routine, or if this many people study traditional Balinese dance and are just that talented. I soon learn that not everyone is a “plant’.
A couple of the fathers around me wave their hands to call over the dancer, as they have decided (against my will) that I should join her. Her face lights up when she sees that it’s a western woman that she has been summoned to pull on stage to dance with. She ties a sash around my waist that indicates I am officially dancing with her and the crowd cheers in excitement (and I’m sure entertainment)! They soon erupt into a roar of claps, cheers and laughter as I flex my fingers, turn my wrists, and squat down, assuming the Balinese dance position that my Auntie has taught me. I smile, knowing that they are shocked that I know any parts of their dance. With every foot flex, twist turn, and arm motion that I make in my attempts to mimic the dancer, the crowd goes wild in support. I can’t describe the elation and energy that I felt running through every fiber of my body. As the dance continues, I kick off my constraining shoes. The crowd goes wild. I have crossed over and am now really a part of the dance, of the people.
I return to my sitting area and everyone is all smiles, holding up big ‘thumbs up’ signs for me, the little girl especially. She smiles at me proudly. The walls have come down and now she even allows me to take a photo of her with dad. We sit and enjoy the dancers for a while longer and I decide to move on to explore more of the Festival.
There’s a serene space on a bale (pronounced bah-lay) perched over a tranquil lily
pond where two soft pink lotus flowers remain in bloom. It calls my name. I sit at the edge letting my feet dangle over, pondering life and a bunch of nothing. I soon
hear the patter of small feet approaching and see that my new friend has come to join me. Her shyness as left the building and she has come alive with chatter. I just wish my basic grasp of the Indonesian language allowed me to understand more of what she was saying! My friend (who’s name I didn’t quite grasp) soon pops up to go find her father, as its time to go home. I ask if she’s coming back again and she says yes. We say our goodbyes with the promise to see each other again the next day.
It’s the next day. The day got away from me and it doesn’t look like visiting the Art Festival is in the cards. But memories of my friend stay with me, warming, then haunting my thoughts. I sit on a sofa outside on the large granite patio to write about the great time I had meeting her the day before. Rocks start forming in the pit of my stomach. The clickety clacks of my fingers on the keyboard seem to trigger ever-growing feelings of dread and guilt. Is she there? Has she been looking for me today? Is she upset that I didn’t show up? I attempt to console myself with thoughts that maybe she forgot, they didn’t go, or some other excuse.
Deep inside, however, I know that isn’t true. How many times do adults disappoint children by things they promise, but never do? Shoot, adults and their shallow promises still disappoint me! I didn’t want to be that adult. I stop typing and look at my watch. Only 5:00. Maybe she’s still there! Resolve takes over. I call over Wayan, the driver (yes, my auntie employs a full-time personal driver) and ask him to take me there. My heart beats faster as adrenaline pumps through my veins. I can’t disappoint my new little friend. His motorbike races through the traffic-laden streets and we soon arrive at the Art Center. A crowd ten times larger than before has replaced the serenity that I felt the day before. My heart sinks. How on earth can I find her in such a crowd? I start to scan every bright-eyed, adorable face under 4 feet. We make our way through the vendor stalls, across the park, to the pavilion, and back to the bale where she and I spent time. I start to feel silly, almost child-like that I thought I could just come back and bump into her at the right time and place. But magic like that happens to me all the time in Bali!
The sun starts to set and my hopes of finding her wane with each ray of light that disappears over the horizon. I never did find my friend. As I mounted the bike behind Wayan to ride home, I glanced back over my shoulder to look once more at the grand spectacle of the festival. I tried. I came back to look for her. I want to believe that she did the same. Somehow that makes me feel better. One may think me silly for making such a big deal out of a simple interaction with a little girl. But for me, life is about the connections that we make every day. The energy exchanged and given from one to another, sometimes in its most simple form, like a genuine smile. I connected with that adorable girl, and our short time together has warmed my spirit and united me to Bali in such a special way. She became my family. Even if I never see her again, I will carry her beautiful smile and loving energy in my heart always. Perhaps she will feel the warmth of my love too!