While gallivanting around the artists' village of Ubud, I learned that on April 14, the Balinese celebrate the birthday of Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, who consorts with Brahma, the male aspect of the Creator. Saraswati has four slender arms and hands holding four gifts to her followers: an open flower upturned to face the sun symbolizing devotion, a traditional musical instrument symbolizing creativity, a string of prayer beads symbolizing meditation; and a lontar (a book in Balinese script, written entirely on palm leaves) symbolizing wisdom. She stands on a lotus, signifying the openness that is necessary for true learning and creativity. On her birthday, students bring their books and notebooks to the temples to be blessed. At home, people lay special offerings before their computers and bookshelves.
I hungrily and hastily cut her out of a local magazine, and I place her on my hidden altar, alongside Ganesh, Athena, Quan Yin, the Buddha, and St. Joan of Arc. Today I place fragrant flowers before them, floating in bowls of clear, cool water. I light candles and incense and bring them fruits and rice. My altar is no place in particular. It fits in the back pocket of the well-worn blue jeans of my mind, and there I carry it with me all the time. Sometimes I picture it in a hidden mountain cave with wet, glistening walls. Sometimes I picture it on a shelf in a small, white-washed house filled with yellow sunshine and reflected ripples from the sea. Most of the time I forget about it and I neglect my gods and my saints and the altar gets battered in the laundry whenever my filthy mind-jeans need washing. ('Washing', in Baguio parlance, is that final bottle of beer before everybody heads for their chosen beds at the end of a night of heavy, mixed drinking.)
So this is what Bali can do to me. It reminds me that I have gods, and that gods are everywhere, even in the heart of a scarred exotic theme park such as this island has become. Surely, Bali remains a mystical homeland for some of its people. I pray that this aspect of Bali remain hidden from the ruinous touch of the hungry ghosts of unknowing tourists such as myself.