10 - People Across The Lake (Trunyan, Bali, Indonesia)
“You are a tiny little soul propping up a corpse.”
— Marcus Aurelius
I saw dead people. Maybe they saw me. A village like no other. So many ways to revere the fallen…and create one hell of a side hustle.
by The Nostomaniac
IN THE MORNING, I GOT HIGH. In the afternoon, low. I breathed rarified air after my volcanic solitude…and then I faced death. Nyoman had mentioned the people across the lake (insert eerie music here)—Trunyan village. Trunyan, its corresponding cemetery, and a few sub-villages, are on Lake Batur’s east side. Two ways to get there. A twenty-five-minute boat ride from Kedisan at the lake’s south end, or a dilapidated road to the village where you can hop a boat to the cemetery (less than ten minutes). I chose the latter. Motorbike, then boat.
The residents are reputed to be descendants of the Bali Aga, the island’s original inhabitants who predate Hinduism. They’re well known for, among other things, unique “burial” methods. The dearly departed are placed on the ground, not in it. Bamboo enclosures serve as temporary mausoleums in an isolated cemetery accessible only by boat. And there they lay to decay the old-fashioned way. Have a nice stay…’kay?
After advanced decomposition, or if more space is required (I was told there’s room for eleven bodies in separate bamboo pens), the remains are set in a pile adjacent to the enclosures until leftover flesh rots away and bones dry. These “piles” looked remarkably similar to a trash heap. The bones are then moved to an earthen display, skulls lined up neatly.
There was a recent arrival (a woman I believe) resting quietly in her bamboo hut. When you pass away, your belongings come with you, serving as a cushion for stage two. Junk and Bones. That’s what I thought because that’s how it felt. Dishware, clothing, furniture, bamboo shards, humeri (arm bones), femurs (leg bones), skulls and miscellaneous cadaver parts are strewn about in what feels like haphazard disarray. I also spotted a rat milling about. Um, reincarnation?
And the smell? Engulfed in the stench of decay, you say? Gotta be horrific, right? Wrong. Fragrant. Aromatic. Perfumy. Pleasant. Huh? Two words: Banyan tree. Referred to as a Taru Menyan (“nice smelling tree”), it neutralizes the foul smell that normally accompanies putrefying flesh. I was thankful.
By the time bones reach the display shelf they should be free of tissue, but I noticed a skull with stubborn bits attached. This the final resting place…sort of. The cemetery lies at the bottom of a ravine. I was told every few years there’s a particularly heavy rainfall that floods the area. Surfs up. Grandma sleeps with the fishes. Time to restock.
Scuba diving anyone?
This experience unsettled me, much to my chagrin. Here’s this open-air ossuary filled with disorganized death and…tourists. Cameras. Fanny packs. Selfies. My guide offered to take one of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. One woman (an Indonesia tourist) asked if I would pose with her next to the Banyan tree. She liked the cut of my jib for some reason. This was to be a fairly common occurrence, especially in the less traveled bits of Indonesia. Tall, white, and ignorant. What’s not to love?
Obviously, I took pictures. Should I have? Dunno. It felt like a violation, but was it? The guides aren’t losing sleep. What about the rest of the village? Are relatives okay with it? Do people know they’ll end up in the circus? If everyone agrees and everyone is okay with it, am I okay with it being okay? What if I worked for National Geographic? Discovery Channel? Would it be okay then? How’s this different than cremation celebrations elsewhere in Bali? I guess it’s the capitalistic fervor combined with rotting flesh that got to me.
According to Nyoman, this village is notorious for its avaricious inhabitants (I found this out later upon recounting my experience). They even hassle other Indonesians. Case in point: I was buggered royally on the boat fare, paying the same price for the ten-minute ride I would have from Kedisan (around thirty-five dollars). Dum-duh-dum-dumb. The local “attendants” in the cemetery also had a donation basket. Wonder how they divvy that up? My guide later asked for more money claiming he received no share of the boat fee. And, like an idiot, I believed him. I think it’s safe to say they exploit foreigners’ preconceived notions regarding funeral rites. Naughty, Bali Aga. They exploited the shit outta me. My fault. Do your homework, putz.
Did my guide tell me the whole truth? Was the scene authentic, or did the locals manipulate the setting? Let’s leave bodies exposed and strewn about to captivate tourists? Does the rain really wash grandpa into the lake, or is he transplanted there to make room? I would hope they stay true to tradition, but my Spidey-Sense flared…again.
I was so disheveled I forgot to shoot video and even failed to photograph the air-freshening Banyan tree. I returned to Trunyan, mounted my hog, and got the hell out. I felt like part of a conspiracy to commit sacrilege and wanted to separate myself from the crime scene.
Disappointment. That’s the word. Should’ve done better. I should’ve asked more questions. I should’ve returned to Trunyan, day after day, until satisfied. I’ve read the Bali Aga don’t appreciate the term “Bali Aga.” They prefer Bali Mula. Why? “Bali Aga” is insulting, akin to “mountain fools” or “hillbilly rednecks.” Is this true? Dunno, but I should’ve asked. I should’ve found a translator and spoke to every person willing to do so. Is it true only married people get to rot above ground while spinsters and bachelors go in the dirt? I look back and think, What in the hell was ya thinking? You really half-assed that shit. I behaved like a dipshit tourist, not a curious sojourner. I missed an opportunity. I’d miss many more. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve…Didn’t. “Boo” to the fucking “hoo”, right? At least I was there. We regret the things we haven’t done, not the things we have. I’ll embroider that on my boxers.
Ahhh, Pah-ree. The food. The architecture. The culture. The underground ossuaries. I spent five days in Paris during what I dub the standard “American College Student Asshole Tour Of Europe.” Je m'appelle gringo. The guidebook, “Let’s Go Europe”, recommended a visit to the Paris Catacombs, so I obeyed. My feeling at the time was not dissimilar to my experience in Trunyan. I remember thinking, Should I be doing this shit? Look at the stack of poor bastards.
The rationale in Paris was practical in nature. What do you do when you run out of cemetery space? Stockpile the dead like firewood and call it a day. Actually, the tidiness came later. In the beginning, they just chucked bones into disorganized mounds. Sound familiar? Only a small section was open to the public when I was there, but I’ve read the tunnels are extensive. They’d have to be to stack six million people. Six million people? Jesus.