Our first day in Bali began unexpectedly and amazingly when our landlady mentioned that a big ceremony would be taking place soon in a community temple around the corner. So, of course, we postponed our plan to visit the national museum to check that out instead.
The street outside the temple was closed to traffic, and a big bamboo canopy had been erected to shade people from the sun. We stood on the sidewalk watching people mill about in their temple finery: women in lacy blouses of every hue, men in crisp white shirts and head wraps, and both sexes in sarongs with sashes tied around their middle. The sashes are especially important as a symbol of keeping negative emotions (which are thought to come from the navel) in check.
As we watched and waited, no one seemed to mind our presence, so as people began moving inside, we were emboldened to follow them. But Melissa had read about the symbolic importance of temple sashes, so we felt it would be more respectful if we wore them too. Half an hour later, after scouring nearby streets in search of the right kind of shop, we were back with orange-gold strips of cloth tied around our waists by the shopkeeper.
The temple, a series of courtyards and passageways between raised pavilions, was mobbed. As we followed the crowds in, we kept wondering when we were going to reach some limit where we shouldn’t pass. But when we sidled our way into the main courtyard, people smiled, showed us places to sit, offered us sticky sweet cakes, and made halting attempts at conversation. Melissa felt comfortable taking pictures when she saw other people recording the occasion with phones or fancy cameras.
And so we found ourselves, our first morning in Bali, the only non-Indonesians in a colorful sea of people gathered to witness an important coming-of-age ritual for about a hundred local teens: a ceremony at which a priest files the tops and bottoms of their teeth to a smooth row. That filing marks the recipients’ transition from animal nature to human nature and to control over human evils such as anger and jealousy. A man sitting next to Melissa explained to her that after the ceremony, Balinese were considered ready for marriage.
The actual tooth filing took place somewhere out of view, with groups of candidates and their proud family members disappearing around the corner at intervals. What we saw were the beautifully dressed candidates (some of whom wore elaborate gold head dresses) nervously waiting their turn, friends and family milling about greeting each other in a festive atmosphere, lots of food being set up for a feast later on, songbirds in cages hanging from the eaves of the pavilions, men playing ceremonial metal xylophone-like instruments, and far across the courtyard on a dais, members of the local royal family, dressed in gold, being greeted by a succession of people. It was the most fascinating people watching we could imagine, and none of it was planned. Surprises like that are the very best parts of travel.