His house was out past the rice fields and the cocks crowing in the late afternoon. Through the narrow stone entrance, small stone houses gathered together with roofs like the bristles of a broom. In an open hut on stilts, Jero the tapakan sat on a white tile stage at his guests’ shoulder height, dressed ceremonially in white sarong, white shirt, and white headdress.
My family and I were seated below him on a wooden bench, introduced by Bagus, the son of the high priest of Ubud, who spoke in a mixture of High Balinese and vernacular Indonesian. Bagus had suggested we pay this visit in the spirit of openness and curiosity — the business of the tapakan (literally, “foundation”), his role in the community, was to communicate with the dead, with spirits, with the pasts and futures we had no access to on our own.
[Listen along here:]
He sat flanked by offerings of flowers and fruit, and the basket my mother had presented to him from her head, as custom demands. From atop the bananas of our basket, a wrinkled woman plucked a 50,000 rupiah note and left the tapakan to his work. He lit three sticks of incense and pressed his head to the plastic wrapped, wooden post of the hut.
There were few other formalities of introduction. To Bagus, whose name is conferred on all members of the priestly class and may translate to “good” or “posh” or “beautiful” or “dandy”, our host confirmed that we were Christians. (We weren’t — still aren’t — but dared not interrupt.)
Speaking nimbly under the crowing and the occasional dog’s bark, Jero invoked the necessary spirits to answer the only question we knew to ask: as whom, in our current lives, were we reincarnated? Names were to be revealed to him in this state of voluntary trance. After a minute, he made a sound with his lips like an engine letting off steam and lifted his head to speak louder. My mother was first.
Four times with fading intensity he repeated: Mike Sally, Mike Sally, Mike Sally, Mike Sally. Western names would be understandably difficult, I realized — perhaps the names appeared to him in writing. “Michelle,” I suggested.
The spirits of my father’s past were fast and clear. Moments later Jero jolted and repeated a word three times vehemently, a fourth for our own confirmation, like someone who just remembered the name of that actress we were all thinking of. He sounded also as if he were checking that he had heard correctly: “Alfred! Al, al–pred, al–al–pred! Alpred!” (Efs are famously difficult for native speakers of Indonesian and Balinese.)
A young woman swept the stone grounds of the compound. Birds chirped and something larger made screaming noises in the forest. For a moment, it seemed as though no one in the great beyond had any information on me, but then the tapakan spoke with great force: “Gabriel. Gabriel.” (It may have been “Gabrielle” — Bagus traces his soul back to a distant grandmother.)
With another puff of steam, Jero the tapakan appeared to close the channel of communication. The conjured names of Michelle and Alfred resonated little within our mostly uncharted, keenly Semitic family tree, but the ritual, as such, was perfect. Whether or not this was a window into another world, it was most definitely a window into our own.
And with our departure from the land of the spirits, we returned to our own with a thunk. “Something like this is 350,000 rupee [almost $40],” Bagus communicated. Jero was twiddling a rectangular cone of tan stone between his fingertips, scratching it lightly with his extraordinarily long thumb nail — a traditional status symbol for those who have no need to hold a hoe. Known as lus, it was a piece of petrified wood upon which offerings had been made. We declined, politely.
On the drive back into the city Bagus spoke of his father, the preeminent religious figure in Ubud, to whom many Balinese pose questions similar to those asked of the tapakan. “This is what happens in Bali,” he said. “Everybody asks about something.” The high priest, Bagus let on, cloaked his own skepticism. His role is often to provide answers, and while they may not literally answer the questions as supplicants believe they are asking them, they are not without social power and utility.
We asked Bagus how Jero found his answers. “Actually he was in a trance,” Bagus said. “Some people believe that — ” And then his phone rang, and he had to answer, and we never asked again.
A fellow trumpet player in legend (though not in text), Gabriel and I sat in the back seat laughing.
Many many many more pictures from Bali here.