Spirituality in Bali

Arguably the most difficult part of blogging about this trip (as I’m sure would be the case in any abroad experience) has been to capture the sea of subtlety that naturally comes when thrust into a world outside of your own. However, I feel that I would not be doing my religion major proud if I didn’t talk about the spiritual landscape of Bali. I knew coming in that it hosted a unique blend of Hinduism, but what ultimately struck me the most was its practice. I first felt its power in the offerings. Composed of little straw saucers filled with food, flowers, and often small amounts money; for what these humble offerings lacked in fanfare, they made up in sheer numbers. In fact, it was difficult to go anywhere without finding one on a doorstep, sidewalk, or street corner. Temples also had a similar prominence in Bali, as communities often hosted more communal temples as well as household shrines (seen above). Thus, while in the West it’s often easy to section off our Sacred and our secular, the world of spirit is infused into everyday life in Bali. All you have to do is walk around.

Another striking feature of Balinese religiosity was its emphasis on heritage, and how that would present itself in daily life. One one level, one need look no further than the prayers at our professor’s local temple; in the listing of prayers, one could always count on one including their ancestors. However, even beyond the setting of the temple, ancestry plays a major factor in the daily lives of the Balinese. It is believed that when a person dies and is cremated, their spirit arises from the fire and–with the help of the family and community–ultimately comes to reside in the family’s communal temple. These souls either will remain in the family’s life in spirit, or will reincarnate into a new person in the community. Such is the case for one of the little girls on the compound, who was found by the priest to be the reincarnation of our professor’s mother. In this way, one’s heritage isn’t only felt in services, but becomes a lived reality for individuals and their loved ones.

Tourism Revisited

To continue our journey through Bali with a a trip to one of the holiest temples on the island–Tanah Lot. Located on an island twenty yards off the coast of the mainland, at first blush this quiet sea temple (seen below) has an unperturbed atmosphere deserving of its sacred status. However, look anywhere around this island and you’ll find that it’s surrounded by tourists, shops, and even an 18-hole golf course. So many of Bali’s holy sites fall into this trap, in which the cultural (and specifically religious) tourism that served as the original appeal for the island become a hub for a hoard of tourist-centered businesses hoping to capitalize on their allure. As this push to expand on the tourism market that already drives Bali’s economy continues, many Balinese people have voiced their discontent towards this degradation of both Bali’s physical and cultural landscape. Our class’s position is particularly precarious, because as we have learned about tourism’s effect on the Balinese people, so too are we participating in this tourist culture not only in our purchases, but also in our being outsiders looking into another culture. After talking to the class ironically during a lunch at a beachside resort, the consensus seems to be that best thing we can do as students is to constantly seek to educate ourselves about Bali while also realizing the limits of how much we can truly understand this new culture, especially in such a short time. It is this very humility that allows spaces like Tanah Lot to not be merely a plot of potential real estate, but a temple with a significance that can only be understood from the inside.

Tourism and Kecak

So far in our virtual journey through Bali, we’ve covered forms of Balinese music and theater that predated globalization and the advent of mass tourism. However, as emphasized through Liz’s repeated questioning of “well what IS traditionally/properly Balinese?” a main point in this class has been about the fluidity of culture. Just as the indisputably Balinese Hinduism we see today was ultimately an import from India, so too has Bali needed to re-adjust its cultural mindset to accommodate its booming tourist economy. In terms of the arts, one such product is the modern kecak chant, which creates a soundscape for theatrical scenes using various patterns of the sound “cha.” Our class has been repeatedly practicing this popular tourist performance, and it’s honestly not hard to see where the appeal lies! As the chant excitedly continues, a tale from the famous Ramayana epic unfolds as the brave monkey general Hanoman (pictured above) sets out to save Sita and kill the evil rakshasa (played by yours truly). Even if I do meet my untimely demise by the end of the performance, chanting along to the kecak is an incredibly catchy way to explore Balinese tourist culture.

Playing in the Gamelan

Throughout our time in Bali, the class has had the opportunity to play in one of the cornerstones of Balinese music–the gamelan (or “ensemble” in English). Composed primarily of bronze instruments to withstand Southeastern Asia’s notorious rainy season, these gamelans serve multiple ends here in Balinese society. On one level, one cannot understate the religious significance of the gamelan instruments, which are believed to have their own spirit that deserves reverence from players and bystanders alike (so if you get rebuked for trying to step over one, now you know why!). The gamelan also finds its way into numerous ceremonial contexts, such as the funeral our class saw earlier in the block in which the gamelan served as the center of the procession. Beyond the realm of the spirit, the gamelan also finds a prominent role in the competitive realm as well! Our class got to experience this firsthand at the Bali Arts Festival as we watched gamelans representing different regions of Bali duke it out in front of thousands of excited fans. Though the class (seen in the picture below) may need a few more blocks before being competition-ready, we have also been practicing gamelan daily both for the immersive experience and in preparation for our upcoming show! FUN FACT: if you’re curious about this multifaceted type of Balinese music and culture but want to save the trans-Pacific flight, CC has a gamelan group that performs once a semester! Be sure to keep an eye out for their shows!

Barong in Bali

This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was an incredible look into the power of the Balinese arts. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!

Krimidinner

On Thursday night, as we neared the end of another busy week, the students of German 202, and a few members of the Max Kade house, CC’s German language house, gathered together at Professor Ane Steckenbiller’s house to eat a delicious home cooked, Mediterranean dinner, and to play an exciting German murder-mystery game. The game was set at a dinner party, and was centered around a group of characters, each one played by a different player. Through a series of clues and dialog between players, it becomes clear that the characters all have some connection to one another, and some connection to a murder that’s been committed, and that the murderer is in their midst. The goal of the game was to solve the murder by the time the dinner was complete. It took three hours, but with the help of the two native German speakers who were present, and some ice cream sundaes, we successfully completed the game.

Week two in German 202

Each week in German 202 our course work is centered on a specific theme from our textbook. The vocabulary, discussions and readings that we do each week usually have some connection to these themes. Past themes in this block include traditions, regional specialties, science, and technology. This week’s main focus was on law and the environment. On Friday, in the spirit of our theme of the environment, our class took a field trip to Red Rocks Open Space. On our way to Red Rocks we stopped to buy some food from Wimberger’s, a local German bakery and deli. After fueling up with delicious German snacks we began our walk through Red Rocks. As a challenge, we tried to speak only German during our time in the park. Many amusing attempts were made using German to try to explain the various natural phenomena that we observed. After about an hour and a half of walking, we stopped by a small pond to eat our German snacks and to read and discuss a series of famous 19th century German poems. This series of works, which included poems by Goethe, Joseph von Eichendorff, Theodor Storm, and Stefan George, all had to do with nature and human interaction with and perceptions of the natural world.

 

  

 

 

 

Bavaria

This week in German 202 a major theme of discussion was the German federal state of Bavaria, or as it’s known in Germany, Bayern. Bavaria is known its modern cities like Munich and Nuremburg, stunning castles, and idyllic countryside. As a Bavarian native herself, Dr. Ane Steckenbiller, our professor, was able to provide our class with her own experiences and perspectives about life in Bavaria. Together we were able explore the traditions and history of Bavaria and were also able to unpack some of the common stereotypes that exist about Bavaria, for instance, that Bavarians are more conservative and provincial than other Germans.

I have been fortunate enough to travel to Bavaria on several occasions. In my time there, the thing I have always noticed most, other than the stunning beauty of the region, is the wonderful contrast and balance that exists between the modern and the traditional. I have witnessed Munich transition over a single day from a bustling, impersonal city, to a city in which nearly all the inhabitants had donned their traditional garb, and had transported themselves and their city back through time, to enjoy the celebration of “Oktoberfest.” This same contrast can be seen as you leave the cities and make your way into the countryside. Ultramodern cities and highways gradually give way to quaint towns where the highest building is still the town Church. The dozens of languages that are spoken in the large international cities are replaced by the dozens of different dialects of German that can be heard as you make your way through the countryside. It’s this balance in my opinion, that makes Bavaria a truly remarkable place.

 

View of the Bavarian Alps                                     Marienplatz: Munich city center

 

                            

 

Schloss Neuschwanstein

 

Research and Pizza

The past two and a half weeks have been filled with various Chicago explorations but the nature of the block plan is bringing me back to reality. The pace of the class is definitely quickening as we wrap up third week.

All twelve of us spent most of today in the Newberry Library. While Lena braved the meat-locker temperatures in Special Collections, the more faint of heart set up camp on the second floor.

 

I definitely wish I spent more of the first two weeks familiarizing myself with the request process at the library. However, I  feel like I finally have a strong foundation for my research project. I am exploring the history of Chicago’s parks and to what extent they have served as vehicles for social and environmental change. Meanwhile, Mary is working on a paper about Gwendolyn Brooks. She even interviewed a man in Bronzeville who knew Brooks! Other projects include a look at the history of women and mental health, Jazz in Chicago, art and the Chicago Fire, and the Peruvian Amazon Company’s atrocious treatment of native Amazonians. Next week, we will present our findings to our classmates and turn in our papers.

 

It’s hard to believe we only have one week left in Chitown! Thankfully, we checked one box on my bucket list last night. Bill took us to Pequod’s, a pizza place in Lincoln Park that’s famous for its deep dish. While we munched on mozzarella sticks there was a contentious debate about what pizza to order. Some argued for a thin-crust option but Bill demanded that we order strictly pies because we are in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, the man footing the bill got the final word. I was just happy that I got cheese and carbs in various forms (somehow, our table was populated by mozz sticks, cheesy garlic bread, and pizza all at the same time). We finished the night with a fantastic view of downtown and a discussion about Michigan Lake vs. the ocean. Personally, I need the wild energy of the ocean to feel grounded. Others said that any water that extends into the abyss has a calming effect. The jury is still out I suppose.

 

 

A Trip to the Museum

In the past two weeks, my classmates and I have wandered through various parts of Chicago. From Uptown to the UChicago campus, we’ve passed walls of murals, popped our heads into random music venues, people-watched at Lincoln and Millennium park, and eaten nearly everything in sight. Nevertheless, visiting the Chicago History Museum illuminated many aspects of this city and helped me to see the various neighborhoods through a historical lens.

We visited the museum in lieu of class on Friday and were encouraged to take our time at each exhibit. I savored every moment, as I hope to do my final project on the history of Chicago. This coming week we are working on these independent research projects at the Newberry Library. While we are permitted to explore any topic that the library’s collection specializes in, I want to learn more about Chicago. I am particularly interested in the planning of the city. In what ways did city planners push a segregationist agenda? What measures have been taken to create more integration of race in class in this city? Do the lines that were drawn between neighborhoods limit certain groups’ access to public spaces? These are all questions that I want to explore by utilizing the Newberry’s collection.

The Chicago History Museum placed a focus on this topic through its various exhibits. One plaque read, “the contours of the city have been shaped by successive waves of people from various parts of the U.S. and other nations.” While this can be said of practically all of America’s cities, I found it particularly interesting because it connects to something we discussed in class during our first week here. That is, we learned that it’s important to understand that a city is a palimpsest. Like a piece of writing, cities often have a layered history wherein certain aspects of it may be erased but traces of its history remain. Each neighborhood has a legacy of its past. For example, a few students took the wrong bus one day and ended up in a neighborhood called “Back of the Yards.” We later learned that this name is an allusion to the area’s history of stockyards. Chicago is known for its meatpacking past. I learned in the museum that a combination of labor struggles and negative environmental impacts contributed to its demise.

Also in the museum was an exhibit about Chicago’s jazz scene. While jazz has its roots in New Orleans, it spread north to Chicago during The Great Migration and legends such as Louis Armstrong took the windy city by storm in the 1920s.

I scribbled various notes throughout my exploration of the museum. Each serve as a sort of “seed” for my research. I want to know more about A. Phillip Randolph and the Chicago Housing Authority. I hope to explore the intricacies of the 1996 “Plan for Transformation.” Most of all, I’m excited to delve deeper into this city’s influential figures. From Superintendent Ben Willis—who is notorious for school segregation in Chicago—to the admirable nurses and doctors at Provident Hospital, the first African-American owned and operated hospital in America. Overall, I learned a little about a lot of different topics at the museum which will serve as a broad base of exploration in the coming weeks.