Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Re-Imagining Water: An Evening of Water Wisdom & Art

Open yourself to new worlds of water through art, music, film, dance and animation. These poetic and profound water sources will provide insights that help us re-imagine our relationship with this essential resource so we can preserve and respect it, rather than take water for granted.

This evocative evening will feature Mara Alper’s video art Sacred Waters of Bali, documentary excerpts, animation, political humor and compelling water works by renowned artists and poets.

MARA ALPER is an award-winning media artist and professor at Ithaca College, where she teaches video production and the online course “Water = Life.”

JOE SMELLOW will play live music accompaniment on bamboo flute, didgerido, and percussion. Natural soundscapes designed by LANG ELLIOTT of NatureSound Studio.

For more information contact Mara Alper at 
with Mara Alper, Joe Smellow and guests
Friday   11/11/11
7:30 p.m.
Community School of Music & Art (CSMA)
Ithaca, NY

Friday, June 10, 2011

C(h)okwah's New House

May 9

            As I leave for my last outing, we run into C(h)okwah, and he invites us to see his “small house” right now. We drive a short way from the royal palace where his uncles live, turn onto a side road and find ourselves in front of an incredibly intricate and imposing  sculpted entrance way towering above us still under construction.

            Inside is an unbelievable mansion/palace with intricate, stunning wood and stone carvings. There is a view of a terraced rice field. It turns out there was none there—he had it built for his viewing pleasure. As he did with the waterfall and stream we see. Incredible, especially considering that many of Bali’s rice fields are being sold and transformed into hotels and villas for tourists.

C(h)owah and his rice field
            During all the preparations and ceremonies  at his family temple, I have not seen C(h)okwah with any particular woman or children. He talked to everyone amiably, but no one particular connection. I wonder if he is single — just can’t help that “prince in the castle” fantasy! Too ingrained! My friend asks who will live here with him and he says his wife and children will live on the lower floor. Of course.  He is the lord and master, indeed. I make sure to get many photos of him at his “small house.”

            Farewell, quasi-prince of Ubud. I graciously thank you for encouraging my curiosity, inviting me into your family circle and fanning my prince fantasies. May our paths cross again soon.

Yes, I confess I  had a crush on him, if you didn't guess it already! What's a girl to do . . . blame it on those Disney films!

One more post coming about Bali in the next few days -- I left the day after I took these images. I miss it still and am making plans to return next year. Will probably organize a small group trip, so if you're interested in joining, let me know.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Royal Ceremony Day

May 7

Saraswati Goddess + Dragon (Naga) Banner
More offerings from the family and villagers begin to arrive to add to the already abundant offerings. C(h)okwah explains what each building in the temple compound is for, where the priest will sit. I ask if I can take the water blessing with the priest. Yes, of course, he says. Just follow what the others do.
I have seen foreigners do this and know the Balinese are always welcoming, but I ask since this is the family ceremony. When the ceremony begins, I do the series of prayers and feel deeply moved by the water sprinkled by the priest and drinking the sacred water (tirta). The women and priest giggle as I hold my hands incorrectly for the first drink. The women show me how, and I do it correctly for the next two libations.
Next, I sprinkle water on my face and head as they do, then do my best to place the cooked rice on my third eye, collarbone and mouth as the Balinese do, but mine is a bit messy not a smooth patch as the others have. Practice makes perfect. It is my first initiation of the evening. My friend Ati takes a photo for me.

Mara receives tirta (in gold sash) Photo: Ati Citron
The ceremonies are moving as always, and accompanied by laughter and talking and performances not watched by anyone but the tourists, as usual. C(ho)wah comes by to tell me the prayers will start soon. I go next door to my conveniently located room, refresh the battery and recording media, ready for the grand finale.

Only a video can begin to capture the multi-faceted sights and sounds . . .

I continue to record images, until I see a general movement of the crowd in one direction. I follow them eagerly to document the final prayers. My camera is on, but hanging at my side, pointing toward the crowd randomly.

Chokwah finds me and says: Would you like to pray with us or do you want to take pictures? I instantly reply I want to pray with you. Follow me, he says and leads me to where his immediate family sits, seats me next to his mother. Is your camera off, he asks. Yes, I say forgetting, it is still on. I see the red light, he says. Oh! I press it off, glad to find there are some things beyond the lens eye, too sacred for video.
Ibu Raka places a plate of various flower and palm leaf offerings in front of me. She lights a stick of incense, hands it to me. I watch to see what others do with theirs and place it on the plate among the flowers. As the priest calls out each phase, she lifts the correct flower offering, and hands it to me, shows me what to do. I follow gladly. There are five prayers and by the end, I feel truly blessed, accepted as an initiate. I will leave Bali with these blessings in my heart.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Family Temple Ceremony Preparations Continue

May 6

            Each day I return and record the progress in decorations and offerings. It is impressive, even for a culture so dedicated to beautiful offerings. On the day before the ceremony, a man who has seen me videotape each day comes over. He is handsome, important looking, very well dressed.  He is literally and figuratively a prince . He chats. I ask him questions about the occasion, the events. He tells me the ceremony is tomorrow at 7, invites me to come. I am pleased, though all ceremonies are open to everyone, but to be invited by the prince is quite lovely.

            He asks if I have met his mother. I say no. He leads me to the imperious looking woman who greeted my camera with scorn a few days before. Now her son is introducing me to her. She is Ibu Raka, gracious and regal. We both reassess each other, decide to begin anew. I compliment her on the beauty of the offerings, thank her for their invitation and their lovely bungalows where I stay.

Ibu Raka (in poor light and unfocused, but love her smile here!)
            The prince’s name is C(h)okwah. He has a CW monogramed on his shirt. He tells me he is building a small house up the road, I should come see it. Please note: I am at least 20 years older than this handsome prince, but nevertheless, I am flattered and intrigued. It’s just a small house, he says. Ha-ha, I think. A few days later I see it, but more on that anon . . .
C(h)okwah - CW

Blessings a few days before the ceremony (priests marry here-this seems to be a courtship moment)

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Family Temple Ceremony: Preparation Begins

3 May 2011

View from Puri Saraswati Bungalow room

             The bungalows where I stay in Ubud were built by the royal family in the 1970s. There was once several kingdoms in Bali, but though they are defunct, the royal family and their lineage remains. The kings palace s across the street and the family temple is here, right next to my room. It is a richly embellished temple, even when there are no celebrations. When I return to Ubud, extensive preparations are under way for a ceremony at the family temple on Saturday.  I am thrilled at my good luck and proximity.

Family temple dragon/naga for protection
            The sound of people talking and laughing wakes me up the next morning and at first I feel grumpy, spoiled by the usual quiet here in the early morning. I look out my window and see that the temple preparation room across from me is busy with activity.
View from my verandah toward the ceremony preparation room
           Clearly something special is happening and everyone is bustling about.  Sure enough an hour or so later, a woman arrives who is clearly the grand dame, the queen mother, so to speak. Everyone hustles. She is friendly to them all, though clearly they aim to please. Soon after an entourage of elegant women dressed in the best kebaya blouses and batiks, hair perfectly coiffed and adorned, enter the temple.

Ibu Raka in pink flowered kebaya creating offerings
            I follow with my camera later in the day, and  find them making exquisite offerings form colored dough. The lovely ladies all sit under one pavilion, the family pavilion I later find out and chat and laugh and make decorations. When I film them, I am not greeted with the usual smiles and openness I have experienced everywhere else in Bali. They are indifferent to me, not pleased with being a tourist attraction. They are royalty after all, and I a mere observer. (This will change a few days later, once Ibu Raka and I are introduced - see next posting)

            I move on to the men who are rigging bamboo arches, and decorating the statues with fabric.

           Behind the building, well out of sight, the serving women prepare other decorations, having a much livelier time than the fine ladies, and much more friendly and smiling toward me. I already know some of them from the hotel, we chat and laugh.

Dewa (Goddess) Saraswati and her attendant
(before her "face lift" -- see upcoming post)

Friday, May 20, 2011


2 May 2011  
          My driver, Yoko, comes to pick me up for the day's excursions. I ask him what he did last night after he left me at my place. I expect him to say he hung out with his friends or family.  Instead, he tells me he went to the rice field to help his father with the cows that are used to till the fields before planting. Then he went home and tended to the four pigs he is raising to sell. Each morning at 5 or so, he takes some onions or beans to market to sell, then tends the rice fields. If it’s a good day and he has a tourist to drive, he does that too. 
Terraced rice fields in Tegallang
            I am amazed. I ask him how much he gets of the $25 fee for being tour guide, translator and driver. He tells me he gets $5, the rest goes to the car owner, a business man.  The day before, I bought him lunch as a tip. Today, I give him as extra $5. I had been told the average Balinese person earns $60 a month. Now I understand more about how it comes to pass. We are so fortunate and we barely know it.
Yoko, tour guide and rice farmer
            The man who manages the bungalow I stayed in for two nights explains that his wife is going to school to become a teacher and how he supports her in this with both enthusiasm and financing to pay for it. I met her the day before and we had a very good connection in our brief conversations. He says that she is doing well in school, but even if you graduate top in your class, you still have to pay the government about $15,000 to even apply for a teaching job, with no guarantee you will get it. I am speechless. Again, we take so much for granted in our system.
On way to village school
            Putu Paja and his wife Ani are both so sweet and positive, that I feel moved to make a small contribution to her education. I give her some money and when I say, “This is only for your education, not for the children, not foranything but you,” her eyes tear up.  I believe in you, I tell her. She thanks me and says I am the first foreign friend she has had. We are both moved. 
Putu Paja & Ani in Tebola
            Ironically, when I return to Ubud the next day, the streets are draped with red and white banners, and the school children are dressed in uniforms and costumes. It is a national education celebration day. The hotel where I stay is hosting a meeting at 4 p.m. for the education dignitaries.
            Here is the photo I don’t take: all the soldiers seated in rows listening to four high ranking military men talk about education, while military police in camouflage escort them all. This is all taking place on the patio where guests normally have breakfast and we must walk past this as we go in and out. It is grim. On the other hand, the military police are not armed and some are friendly and jovial towards me as I walk by. I decide to venture a smile at the old soldiers, but they glare back.
            I do not have a good impression of the Indonesian education system from these two days events. I have heard other tales that are dismaying. But then, we don’t have a lot to brag about for our educational system either, especially these days.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Sunday May 1, 2011 (delayed for pix processing)

Community/ Tebola Part 2

            I hire a driver/guide/translator to take me to Tirta Gangga, the Water Palace, focused on my water mission. It is an hour from the small village of Tebola where I stay for five days amidst impossibly green mountains and terraced rice fields. Tirta Gangga is okay, not impressive to me, built as a recreational place for a former king in the 1800s.
Tirta Gangga view
            What is impressive is the small mountain road we take to get there. Here I see village life as we drive through endless green vistas. I stop to shoot video at many photo ops, terraced fields, the village dam, the water canals. But what interests me most are the towns devoted to a craft, like the metal smiths making utility knifes and ritual kris knives used for the Barong ceremony. They hone the metal in wood or gas fired furnaces, display their wares on strings.

           One family shop makes the cremation towers used by the upper class Brahman families, like Raka used for his wife. I video details of the incredibly beautiful work. A young son learns his craft with simple sticks.

             It is Sunday, they are working at a leisurely pace, singing along with the radio, laughing, talking.  It makes no difference to them if I wander about and take photos, speak my meager Indonesian.

             I realize it is this sense of community and connection that I yearn for, this easy relationship with each other, with their trade, with life. At one turn in the road, we come upon a whole village making decorations for a cremation, the more simple kind for people with less money who cannot afford the elaborate towers. The men make a simple white box, to be painted with beautiful decorations, weave palm leaves into shapes to decorate a simple tower, strip palm fronds into slivers for ornate bowers that will grace the road.

            They graciously let me take all the images I want, ask me questions in Indonesian that I answer with all the Indonesian that I know, about 6 -7 sentences that answer their questions about where I am from, how long I am in Bali, where I stay in Bali and my name. Since my name with an “h” at the end means angry, I have  learned to make a joke in Indonesian that says, “Saya Mara, tidak marah,” I am Mara, not marah (angry) and it always gets a laugh. Pretty good for a language I barely know!

             They direct me across the road where the women make small offering baskets and decorations and cook baskets of rice, prepare glasses for tea, fry splayed chickens as offerings and then to feast on. It is a wonder of busy communal work, with everyone talking, smiling, laughing.  The cremation is a in a day or two.

            This is how the village sends you on your way when you die,  making it beautiful for you all together, doing everything they can to free you from this life and send you swiftly to the next one. If you have very good karma, you reach nirvana. If you have the usual mix of good and bad, you return as a human again, and with bad karma you become an animal. I cannot explain my wish to return as a well-loved house cat like my cats Tango and Mango, because all cats are feral here, small, lean and alert.
            Everyone comes together to send you on your way, as a village, as a community, as a celebration.  I understand that this is what draws me to Bali, the sense of beauty and of community. I tell my driver I want to come back my next life as a Balinese person. He laughs and says it is better if you come back for your next trip to Bali and buy a house as a foreigner and hire me to work for you. He is young, but wise!

            On the short walk downhill after dinner, with rushing water channels for the rice fields on either side of the dark, narrow road from the restaurant to my bungalow, I see the first fireflies and am delighted, reminded that in a month it will be firefly season back home too. There is nothing more magical than dozens of fireflies lighting the woods’ edge in summer.

            My dinner, by the way, cost $7 for tuna and a big salad, with fried banana for dessert. The protein portions are smaller here than the hearty American style. Meat and fish are costly so are used sparingly but well. I head back to bustling Ubud tomorrow for the last ceremonies and water temple excursions. I will miss this serene hamlet and the warm, friendly people here. Even in five days I have developed affection for many of them. It is a place to come back to again.

            The water channel outside my room rushes so strong and loud that I had to wear earplugs last night, even though I loved the insect and frog orchestra. Ironic indeed, on this water journey.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Heat Relief!

Okay, today I broke down after sweating for hours as I recorded details of another cremation's water rituals --
I confess, I found an air conditioned chain store like a 7-11, stood in front of the AC and ate an ice cream bar with Belgian chocolate and vanilla ice cream and it tasted sooooo good. Like childhood. I felt blessed indeed! Back to the ceremony revived!

The family temple for the royal family has been preparing for a ceremony all week and each day I record images as it becomes more and more beautiful. After I spoke with the son of the family for a while and interviewed him briefly, he invited me to be part of the ceremony tomorrow. I am delighted!

More pix tomorrow . . .

Friday, April 29, 2011

Among the Rice Fields

From Tabulu, in the Central Mountains of Bali

            The utter luxury of laying on abed on the verandah overlooking the rice fields watching the clouds reflect the last rays of sun is astonishing. A lotus pond with a small waterfall makes water songs for the swallows swooping by.

            Day turns grey. The lush green fields, fruit trees, distant blue mountains all lose their color and the distant lights of freighters, fishing boats and cruise ships glitter on the Bali Sea, many miles from this verdant valley.
            I wish you were here, all of you, to share this deep pleasure. The cicadas and frogs begin to sing. My dinner vegetables are rhythmically chopped in the open-air kitchen and there is nothing but utter peace in this moment. I am quiet, I am alone, I am joyful. A gecko chirps, my food arrives. It is delicious, tofu stuffed with vegetables in tamarind sauce.

            This morning, I left the outrageous palace of my artist friend Symon on the north coast (more about him soon) and rode up the mountains to Gunung Batur, the second highest peak in Bali, the mother volcano with Bali’s largest freshwater lake. Dewa Danu lives here, the goddess of the lake. I video the temple devoted to her, Pura Ulan Danu Batur. It is grand and beautiful, with Hindu spires against the sky, and Chinese and Buddhist temples within it too. 

Pura Ulan Danu Batur, dedicated to Dewa Danu, the Goddess of the Lake

            There is no ceremony here today, or it would be filled with people, as all the temples were that I visited last week. But on the way down the mountain, I see a village preparing for the next week’s ceremony, and the beauty of their red dragons halt my descent.

            I am stunned by these magnificent creatures. Fifteen or twenty people from the village sit at the temple and create offerings. Yes, there is poverty here, and tragedy and sorrow, but the richness of spirit permeates all. No matter how luckless you are, you make beautiful offerings each day, you chant mantras, you create beauty, however humble  so the gods will come visit. The devotion here inspires and amazes. Our lives in the west seem fragmented and separated by comparison. 

Here's to our deeper connections, dear friends. May they thrive.


Gunung Batur, the mother mountain  

 Rice field views in next post, with the water tunnels and intricate canals

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Balinese Ceremony

Yesterday I had the honor of being invited to a Balinese ceremony by my friend Anak Agung Gde Raka, my translator when I studied in Bali years ago. Here is a summary of the occasion, that lasted from early morning until evening.

The ceremony is at Raka's home and I am the only non-Balinese person present. Surprisingly, it is a cremation ceremony for his wife, who died four days before I arrived on Bali. We would never invite an outsider to one of our funerals, but Bali is the only Hindu island in Indonesia (the rest is Muslim, or older traditions) and believes in reincarnation. Unlike our Western funerals, these are lively occasions with complex rituals to send the deceased person on their way to the next life. Of course family and friends are sad, but there is no weeping, no overt mourning. A less final, more accepting view of death is observed.

Water is essential to every Balinese ceremony, with sacred water collected from specific temples, springs and lakes, then used often in the ceremonies for purification. In the photo below, a priest is blessing the family members with an arc of sacred water called tirtha.

Balinese priest uses sacred water at ceremony.

As a sign of respect, I wore traditional Balinese ceremonial garb for women, a blouse called a kebaya with a sash and sarong. Both the white kebaya and the yellow sash symbolize purification. The women gave me many compliments and approving smiles, so apparently I did it correctly.

Mara in Kebaya at ceremony
Mara & Wati

This high caste Brahman family is honored by taking their final journey in the sacred bull. During the procession, the tower that carries the body to the temple cremation ground is turned rapidly so the demons will not follow the deceased to their next life (or so I understand it). I ran ahead and captured this video of it.

The body is in the tower in a simple white box. It is transferred into the bull at the temple. Offerings from the family are also placed inside, with mantras from the priest.

Sacred water is thrown over the body one last time, the fire is lit (with gas these days, not wood) and the family watches the loved one released from earth into water, fire, air, and ether.

Burnt bone shards are ground and mixed with sacred water for the final stages of the ceremony, and a last water journey when the ashes are floated on a small decorated vessel out to sea. Born of water, returned to water.

(No fire and last water images here yet -- the Flip camera battery ran out and I had to use another video camera not as easy to upload here.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011


At last, a post from Bali! The Global Social Change Film Festival here in Ubud is great -- amazing films and people. To be with so many talented people dedicated to many aspects of well-being is uplifting -- and fun! My talks about different ways water issues are approached in documentaries, animations and other media forms were well-received, with much interest in the Water = Life online course.

Water is abundant here, with a river running right past me now as I write. Channels flow through the rice fields, priests dispense sacred water during ceremonies . . . and the bottled water is everywhere, deemed necessary, unfortunately.

Here's the first video post with some views. More details to follow. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Water Rituals in Bali

Soon I will be experiencing the water rituals in Bali, with water temples, priests, goddesses and a cooperative system for irrigating the terraced rice fields. I am thrilled to be going on this journey. It ties my soul connection to water with the practical world in an eloquent way.

Check back here for posts and videos next week.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Daily Water Rituals in All Forms: Liquid, Gas, Solid

Wash my face (turn off the faucet while washing)

Brush my teeth (turn off the faucet while brushing)

Heat water for my tea or coffee. Watch steam water vapor rise (filtered water from my kitchen               faucet)

Drink many glasses of water each day (filtered water from my kitchen faucet)

Refill my cat’s water bowl (filtered too, why not!)

Water my plants (about 25 of them, my own indoor jungle, green all year - regular tap water plus water recycled from boiled egg water, steamed vegetable water, whatever good water I can save— still need to collect from shower water too)

Watch frozen water out my window, bright white snow, dazzling icicles.

Take a shower (chlorine filter, low flow shower head not yet installed – guilt. Appeased by only             showering for a short times a few times a week, not every day.)

Wash dishes (using the smallest amount of water possible, as if camping in an arid region as I've seen in the dry mountains of Mexico with the Huichol tribe. I imagine them and others with little water as I wash, although I am fortunate to live in a moist region) 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Islands and the Sea

            The radio announces a story about the islands of Kiribati, its people anxious as they watch the sea levels rise around them, spill into their dominion. The coral reefs die, the water approaches, they try to hold it back with granite boulders. But "water wins" is one of my mottoes. These small islands are the canary in the coal mine, their anxiety the herald of things to come. I should go there with my camera and document it or find others who are. This is a story we should all be watching.

More info: Climate Change and Kiribati

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Water Fowl in Winter

           Watching the sunset on the lake, 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but the sea gulls don’t seem to care. They float tranquilly in a large gathering. One cadre swims steadily upstream, moving fast compared to the ones who sit still. Is there a reason they move this way? Are they the patrol group? The ones who get cold if they’re still? All I can do is guess based on human patterns, with no idea about sea gulls in water in winter.
            As I drive away I see the lake source cooling building uphill, wonder if its outflow is warmer and that’s why the sea gulls congregate right here. It was very controversial when it was proposed, taking in the lake water to cool the huge university campus. People were concerned it would raise the lake temperature with the warmed water it cycled back into the lake. The gulls might be a sign of the outcome.
            For no apparent reason, I think of the constructed wetlands built at the Omega institute. Maybe because it is the opposite of this building, since it was designed to have a definite positive effect on water, not just to save money for a big institution. When I think of the Omega wetlands, I get the idea of making short video vignettes of “Ways Water Works,” positive, possible, inspiring. Why not?

            Apologies for not writing in a while.  My vacation ended, my Mexican water stories dried up, so to speak and my primary vocation began again, teaching video production. Water is my passion that haunts me all the time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Greening the Desert

Before and after for Geoff Lawton's desert rainwater collection project

           The great thing about having a passionate interest is friends send you things about the topic. So the water stories keep pouring in! My friend Ingrid in Vancouver sent this terrific link about greening the desert. It’s an amazing, optimistic story about creating plants and growth in utterly arid, saline  desert  simply by collecting rainwater and planting properly. 

         Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Institute of Australia describes the process in this brilliant 5 min. video on Youtube.

A must see!

Visit the Permaculture institute of Australia site at:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Nathalia's Water Stories in Mexico

Yelapa view          Photo by Mara Alper

           Nathalia tells me several water stories. I’ll start with the one most likely to happen. Here in Yelapa at Los Narajos Guest House where she lives with her husband, Jarrett, she hopes to create both a rain water storage system and a water filtration system using constructed wetlands to create grey water suitable for watering the beautiful, extensive gardens on the land. The plan she draws for me is simple yet impressive.
          She recommends Natural Systems International as a resource @ )Turns out they built the constructed wetlands at Omega Institute that I've seen in Rhinebeck, NY. See a video about it on Vimeo at
Source: Natural Systems International

            Natalia is a civil engineer in her late 20s, trained in Guadalajara. She first came to Yelapa hired by a well-known firm to consult about building a sewage system in this small village on the Pacific. After several months, it became clear to her that people wanted a reliable water system to replace the black hoses they run up the town waterfall for their water source. Up to thirty hoses cascade over the waterfall edge, a parody of what a fall should be. Sorry I didn’t get photo of it myself to show you.
              The townspeople wanted an effective water delivery system more than they wanted the sewage system. When Natalia heard there was a plan to bury the electric wires for the electricity brought here only seven years ago, she realized it would make sense to bury the sewer system and water pipes at the same time in the same place to save future money and time.
              She talked to the local government and suggested this unified plan. When word got to his government superior, she was contacted and told to stay out of it. Instead they buried the electrical lines, and left both the sewer and the water lines undone.
                That’s all I’ll say about this saga right now. Suffice it to say, this bright, young woman civil engineer saw a reasonable solution and was told to keep it to herself. Frustration is too mild a word. The town still has uses only the black hoses from the waterfall or from springs up the mountains although it is growing in population and the summer rains are not necessarily reliable as climate shifts.