It’s 9pm as our first full day in Bali quietly peters out. Energy levels waning, Lisa is on the laptop, I’m buried in the Kindle and we’re ready for an early night after another busy day – we spent the morning walking around Monkey Forest and Ubud’s temples, and the afternoon hiking the Kajeng Rice Fields trail.
Just as we’re about to lock the electronics away and retire to bed, Komang, the young hostel manager, breezes into the lounge area and approaches us with a smile. “We are outside drinking tuak,” he said. “Alcohol made from palm trees. You want to join us?”
There goes the early night… “You’re drinking what?”
“Very strong. If you have a bottle between two of you, you won’t be able to stand up.”
Of course, two minutes later we’ve joined the circle outside. It’s a group of local men in traditional Balinese dress supping this ‘tuak’ concoction, sharing food and puffing on smokes. With cordial gestures they make space for me and Lisa, and pass us some satay sticks. Komang gives Lisa a cigarette.
It happens that the hostel we’re staying in – New Ubud Hostel – is situated in the grounds of a new temple, and this gathering seems to be a continuation of a ceremony we had interrupted earlier in the day.
After lunch we had popped back for a quick rest, and at the entrance encountered a huddle of women in red-and-yellow dress, singing and clapping to the sound of drums. Once we had made our way inside, the beats grew louder, and we saw two people dancing in colourful masks to the delight of some children, while men draped in white garments sat and observed.
Pouring us another tuak, Komang explains more. The ceremony was to initiate the new temple inside the complex, which was recently completed – the hostel itself hadn’t been there long.
“To build a new house in Bali you must apply to the prince, and show him the plans,” he continues. “There are strict traditions that must be followed. Our grandparents have to sleep in the north of the building. The toilets have to be in the south-west. The kitchen must be on the west side.”
The hostel is actually situated in Komang’s family home, but he tells us that anyone who stays is considered family and so can share in their food and celebrations. Sure enough, a large buffet of Balinese food is soon up, and we are invited to take what we like. If only we hadn’t already eaten in town!
Lisa asks the question that had been on my mind also: “Where are all the women?”
“They are in bed, asleep,” says Komang.
While this part of the tradition contrasts our own values, there is mutual respect; Lisa is welcomed into the circle, as are two young women from Argentina and a Spanish couple staying in the hostel, and we all focus on the generous hospitality and story-telling being offered.
Komang goes on to tell us about wedding traditions in Bali, and in particular the huge amount of formality and various stages involved. To begin with, the groom visits the bride’s family to ask permission for the marriage. If this all goes to plan, they visit a priest, who sets the date.
The wedding is a series of ceremonies. After it’s all finished, the bride will move into the groom’s family house, and so before the big day she formally commits to leaving her own house and her rights to family inheritance. She is relieved of any traditional responsibilities towards her family.
The wedding itself can then take place at the family house of the groom. This is the main spectacle, where offerings are given, rituals are observed, blessings are made, and a feast is held. But it’s not over yet. The next day, a final ceremony takes place as the married couple and the groom’s family visit the bride’s family with gifts.
“A Balinese wedding costs about 200 million rupiahs,” says Komang. That’s somewhere in the region of 15,000 US dollars. In the context of the Balinese economy and living costs, it’s an absolute fortune.
We continue to sip tuak with Komang, the Argentinians, the Spaniards and the last remaining locals as the hour gets late. He has been all over the world on a cruise liner, which was part of his higher education programme. Another young local is preparing to do the same thing. Not a bad gig if you can get it – Komang shows us hordes of pictures from his travels and they’re amazing.
Finally – what’s this stuff we’re drinking again? Komang explains how tuak is made. Palm trees are split open and juice extracted, which is put into containers and boiled. Bamboo pipes are fixed to the top of the containers, which distils a liquid into bottles – this creates another, more potent drink, called arak. The remaining juice in the original containers is tuak.
We’re drinking it from repurposed water bottles, and the closer we get to the bottom, we can see a clumpy residue collecting. “Don’t drink it all!” says Komang, as he tips the last dregs of his bottle onto the ground and passes us another bottle. Looks like the early morning rise is now in jeopardy too…
Spontaneous evenings like this are one of the best parts of travelling, and it’s great to learn about local customs first-hand from someone who is proud of them and happy to share. Even if we don’t agree with everything they believe in, good hospitality goes a million miles.