Step after step we climb the steep mountain path, focusing, meditating, concentrating. The rain dripping through the trees and down our necks, monkeys calling, feet slipping in the mud or on uneven steps.
The obligatory sarong, hung badly, falling off and worn over trousers as a token of respect for the temples we will pass through, feels superfluous. The respect – awe – we feel for where we are comes from the beauty and other worldliness of the location, not the cloth catching between our legs, tripping us up.
Bali is an island that has captured our imaginations, hearts and respect. It is ethereal and magical. The mini pilgrimage we have chosen to go on as an expression of our gratitude to the island does not feel like a tourist’s trip. It is heartfelt and genuine, a way of giving thanks to the gods of the island for the wonderful times we have had.
Yes, the sarongs feel superficial and superfluous, but internal respect cannot be seen by others – we wear them anyway, as is expected of us.
And so we climbed, high, into the clouds, mist and drizzle.
We did not mind the rain – it added to the atmosphere. We did not mind the mud hampering the climb – pilgrimages aren’t meant to be easy. We did not mind the building sites along the way – temples were being repaired after a landslide. We did not mind the crowds of pilgrims coming the other way – they laughed and smiled and waved.
We were entranced and in love with everything.
As the day wore on and the mist and rain increased, the singing, clapping and chatting groups making their way back down the mountain thinned. Fewer and fewer people were crossing our path until we were, it seemed, climbing completely on our own.
Our sense of wonder and magic increased as doubts about making it back by nightfall began to make their way into our minds and a sense of danger and urgency encroached. Visibility decreased, the path became more uneven and the temples more remote.
As we approached the fifth – or sixth – temple (we had lost track), undulating, sinuous shapes appeared out of the mist. They moved gently and subtly, with a grace and beauty rarely seen.
Gradually, step by step, they solidified.
A man stood, motionless, as another knelt at his feet. A female porter stood to one side, uninterested, lost in thought and serene. And all the while, slowly, seemingly invisible to everyone but us, a woman danced and wound herself seductively around the men. They didn’t touch, they didn’t acknowledge each other, they didn’t notice us – they were elsewhere.
My fingers itched as my camera started tingling in my hands. The usual conflicting voices inside my head made themselves heard – “you’re intruding”. “What an amazing opportunity”. “You hate having a camera in your face”. “This will look stunning”. “Don’t do it to them”. “you’ll regret not doing it”. “Leave them alone, for christ’s sake”.
I watched, drawn and entranced, fingers still twitching.
She moved, danced, made shapes, drew energy, gave energy, existed with her surroundings.
Needing to know more, I turned to the porter.
Whispered sign language and expansive pidgin english followed as we attempted communication – it seems the two brothers had lost some family members and had had a run of bad luck. The dancer, priest, witch doctor or exorcist was drawing the bad luck, evil spirits and karma out and away.
And no, they would not mind at all if I took photographs.
“See? What an opportunity. Stunning. The mist, the shapes, the atmosphere….I told you!”
The triumphant voice echoed round my head…a curious absence from the other, reticent voice.
The itch in my finger increased. The anticipation and nerves grew as my mind shifted into photography mode.
Still silence from the other, precautionary voice. I wanted it to speak…but…nothing. My arm moved, my camera lifted, I glanced through the viewfinder. Briefly.
It wasn’t right – this was their moment. Yes, I drank it in. Yes, I lived it, shared it, felt the power and energy pass through me and disperse into the mists, but I let it go. I couldn’t do it. It would have been wrong to steal any with a hungry shutter or curious film.
I scanned for the other, silent voice and listened…hearing nothing but a slow sigh as my conscience sat back, deep within – quietly, gently proud.
With a brief backwards glance, Katz and I walked on, up into the misty unknown, back to our own humble pilgrimage, leaving them behind to continue theirs.
Eventually we got to the top, the temple shrouded in cloud.
It was far from a beautiful location – there was evidence that crowds of people regularly passed through and the monkeys were aggressive and expectant. But what it lacked in beauty and cliche, it made up for with magic and atmosphere.
We breathed it all in, gave our silent thanks to the gods of Bali, made our wishes and meditated on our lives. As we did, the emotions, stresses and dreams carried up the mountain spilled out and mixed with the prayers, hopes and demons left there by thousands of pilgrims over the years.
Eventually, dropping temperatures and wet clothes pulled us back to reality. We came to, vaguely aware of the passage of time and setting sun. Turning to head back through the mist, down the mountain, we watched our newly liberated stresses, wishes and dreams wave goodbye and disappear into the temple, playing and chatting with those already there – new friends, already at home.
The magic of Bali lived on for another day as we rolled down, gathering pace. Uneven paths and steps gradually turned into tarmac. Civilisation crept up on us as the light left, but the peace remained.
Occasionally, photographs that never were remain as powerful in my mind’s eye as those that came to be. But too often the regret from not having taken them remains strong, eating away inside.
Not this time.
Bali had been so magical and fulfilling, the hole left from the unborn images did not grow and consume – it intensified and inspired.
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