Part I. New Surroundings:
I got the call at 4:35AM. After another night of restless sleep I was actually grateful to have a reason to get up. It was Robin: there was a birth, would like to attend? “I’ll be right there,” I said and hung up the phone.
I threw on a pair of yoga pants, a t-shirt and my flip-flops. I paused before leaving and looked fearfully towards the door. The pit in my stomach felt like my own child already and I thought, what the hell am I doing? I shook it off, knowing that this was not a time for contemplation, and ran quickly to the clinic.
The clinic was quiet when I arrived. Even the air had a calmness about it, like it was still sleeping in the bed I had so restless lied in only minutes before. I felt a desire not to disrupt it, so I tip toed in my flip flops over to Robin, who was sitting on a couch outside the birthing room, her legs folded around her. She looked calm, but focused.
About 3 minutes after I sat down next to Robin, it was time to go into the birthing room. There were two single beds that stood 5 feet apart on either side of the room. Robin sat on the bed with the mother, Eriya. She was probably 5’3” and petite, 25 years old. She lay on the bed, her head resting on her husband’s lap, who looked equally as young. Her arms wrapped around his neck, and he sat stroking them rarely taking his gaze from her. He also had the appearance of focused calm. This was their second baby, and you could tell he had been there before.
I sat on the other bed, legs crossed hanging over the edge of the bed and hands clenched tightly together. Eriya was naked except for a sheet that lay across her mid section. Her feet were planted on the bed with knees spread slightly apart, and I could see her vagina. It looked covered in a bloody, sticky goo, with other fleshy matter that I could not identify. It became clear to me at this point, as I sat awkwardly taking in the entire scene that I was the only unnatural thing in the room.
Part II. The Reality of Birth
If I hadn’t been sitting in front of Eriya and her husband, in a birthing room with her vagina open in front of me, I would have thought that her moans were those of pleasure. They were rhythmic, and she repeated the same thing over and over, as she exhaled. It sounded as though she was gently breathing out her lover’s name as they made love.
Robin sat patiently checking her vagina and feeling her stomach for about the next half hour. During moments when there was nothing to do, she showed me how to fill out the birth paperwork and talked with me about the Bali health department’s policies that forbid them from doing water births (which are often more comfortable for the mother) and asking me about being held at customs when I arrived. I remember how it seemed odd, talking, while this woman labored on, her moans sounding increasingly full of pain and discomfort. I almost felt silly speaking at all. But Robin sat there so certain and full of purpose, never taking her true focus off Eriya. At times I felt that if I could simply imitate her position, her movements and facial expression that I might develop the same sense of purpose.
This never came to fruition.
After about a half hour, Robin left the room briefly to go get something. I looked helplessly over at Eriya and her husband and felt like the three of us were on an island alone and all my arms and legs cut off, rendering me completely useless to them. I remember counting the seconds until Robin returned. It was an eternity – about 25 seconds.
When Robin returned she continued to make minor preparations for the impending birth, positioning sheets and rags underneath Eriya and generously providing me with information and instruction. During this time, I failed to notice Eriya lower her knee suddenly, unintentionally aiming her vagina in my direction. Had I taken note of this, I might have been more prepared for what came next. Robin, my mother and Jacinta would later call it my Baptism or Christening, but what I experienced was a sudden projectile of amniotic fluid that splattered across the room and on to my legs and feet. This came as a great surprise to me, naturally, though I tried desperately not to react. But even more surprisingly to me was that it didn’t gross me out. I remember noticing that it felt warm on my feet and being confused about what it meant. Is that bad? Is she in trouble? I needed only to look up at Robin to find my answer. I guess this was normal.
When it came about time for the baby to come out, Robin instructed me to put on surgical gloves. By now midwives Ibu Agung and Ibu Ketut were in the room as well, making dramatically more purposeful actions than me preparing for the birth. I remember feeling so relieved when they came into the room. Their smiles and seeming nonchalance about what was going on both astounded and comforted me. I longed to stand next to them and clutch their arms for support, as if they were my own mothers and I was a child looking to them for protection.
Instead, I put on my surgical gloves. This seemed like a perfectly innocent act at the time, being that I was in a room where someone’s innards were about to come out. It wasn’t until Robin asked Ibu Agung to move from Eriya’s bed and motioned me over that I realized the extent of what I had gotten into. Not an hour before, I had innocently and naively uttered the words “I’ll be right there” and now I was sitting next to Robin in front of Eriya’s vagina, waiting for a human being to come out.
I looked desperately over at Ibu Katut who was leaning over Eriya’s stomach and it occurred to me that I hadn’t breathed since I left my house. I took in a slow, quiet breath and was surprised to find that it actually did much to put me at ease. Encouraged, I experimented with taking another, and to my delight, the second one felt even better. I resolved to try and continue this practice for the remainder of the birth.
Just when I was feeling accomplished about my new found ability to breath, I looked back down at Eriya’s vagina and saw it open and close a bit. Upon opening, I noticed something dark grayish. Open-close, open-close. That’s a head!
I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing again by that time, because in that same moment Robin informed me I would be “catching” the baby.
Now, I’ve caught a great many things in my day: footballs, basketballs, random objects tossed to me in moments of play. But it took much practice to have the ability to do this, and I have never taken it for granted. As a child, I was unsure of my physical abilities, which resulted in a clumsiness that would define me for a long time. I remember this always frustrated me, so I learned as I got older to practice and develop technique, so that I could get better and not look like such a klutz.
The first thing I learned was to actually look at the thing I was trying to catch. This might sound obvious to veteran sports players, but for someone was not trained as such, I had to learn the hard way and not until much later in my young life. The second thing I learned, and in my mind equally as important to the first, was to make my hands available in the path of the object I wanted to catch and position them in the form of the thing’s shape. This, I ] learned, dramatically increased my chances of receiving a tossed item into my hands without fumbling or dropping it.
Thus, this was the logic I applied to catching a baby. At first, I imagined the head like a basketball, so I positioned one hand in front of the head (which had now begun to come out) and one at the side, as if I was going to shoot a basket. It took only a moment for me to realize the error in my strategy: I’m not trying to SHOOT the baby, I’m trying to CATCH it! So, I tried moving my side hand underneat
h the impending head, treating it almost like a highly lubricated football. I pictured myself as the key receiver, preparing to arch my torso as I caught the projecting baby and ran down field for the goal.
Unfortunately, birthing a baby isn’t anything like sports – not that I am much good at that either – and all my strategy proved useless. The head came out with a quick push followed by a short pause in movement as Eriya breathed in and prepared to push again. After that the baby came shooting out and Robin caught him confidently. I managed to get a few fingers on his head as I tried my best to help, but essentially all I did fumble.
Once the baby was out, Robin quickly placed him, placenta still attached, on his mother’s belly and the baby began to cry. I stared in complete astonishment at the scene in front of me, completely confused.
It wasn’t until then that I felt the impulse to cry, though I didn’t out of respect. This wasn’t, after all, my moment, and I knew that with utmost certainty. This was Eriya and her husband’s moment. This was her baby’s moment at the end of a long journey when she finally felt the fruits of her labor: the comfort of her mother’s touch.
Once the baby was out, there wasn’t much to do besides wait for the placenta to come out, which typically takes around 12-15 minutes, so we took to cleaning up the fluid that came out with the baby and now surrounded the mother on the bed. After the placenta was out, Robin applied a few stitches to the Eriya’s vagina, while Ibu Agung cut the umbilical chord, cleaned the baby, wrapped her in soft clothing, and handed her to her mother.
I remember standing motionless over Ibu Agung as she prepared the baby for her mother and being surprised that her eyes were open already. “Robin,” I said, “Her eyes are open already.” “I know,” she replied without judgment, and I was grateful, but knew at that moment that I had no idea what I had just experienced.
Part III. Afterward
I remember Robin asking me shortly before the birth if I could remember to ask Pastica to look at the generator. The power had gone out earlier that night as they had been working to stabilize a woman who had had an issue with her placenta. After the birth I attended, I thought about Robin’s request and realized just how little machinery was used to bring this baby into the world. Eriya lay on a bed completely void of equipment, surrounded by her husband, three midwives, me and some rags to clean up her fluids. Even after the birth, there were remarkably few tools required to complete the process: a metal basin for the placenta, scissors, stitches and one needle’s worth of medicine administered before the stitches.
The women here get personal treatment. Eriya came here, to a by-donation clinic that was founded to help families who cannot afford medical care, got personal attention by three midwives, one of whom is widely recognized as one of the best in the world. And Robin wasn’t just there, she was right there. “Maaf, maaf,” Robin said softly to Eriya as she administered stitches after the baby was born. She apologized for the pain she knew she was causing Eriya, even though the procedure was necessary. That kind of tenderness can only come from someone who truly cares for the person she is working on. Robin had only known her for a few hours and she spoke to her as if she were her own daughter.
That is when I knew that I had witnessed a miracle. It wasn’t the birth, though that was by far the most miraculous thing I have yet to observe in my short life. The miracle for me was in the intent.
You see, there’s no money to be had in this clinic, and there is certainly no shortage of challenges that they face in funding and conflicts with the Bali Health Department, who are a constant threat to their long standing clinic license. There are only women and there impending babies.
I almost, in my naive amazement, compared the midwives here to soldiers, but I quickly determined, after attending a birth, that there is no place for war in birth. After all, birth is not a fight, but rather a force. It is not something to be fought against, but rather accepted, welcomed and then made way for. The midwives, then, are not soldiers but assistants to nature itself.
Part IV. Lessons
I learned something last night, though for now I cannot say exactly what. I feel no such enlightenment or divinity from what I saw. Birth, as it turns out, is remarkably practical. What I feel instead is an immense feeling of gratitude: To Eriya for allowing me to be there; to Robin for including me in this beautiful process; and to my mother for challenging me, by invitation, to come here and fight my fears of uncertainty to discover what is truly meant by the miracle of life.
As I write this, I am brought back to the moment Eriya’s amniotic fluid sprayed me, and I was deemed “baptized.” For someone who grew up without organized religion, this is the only baptism I will ever know. Yet the more I think about it, even if I were a member of any kind of organized religion or spiritual practice, I think that was most divine initiation I will ever have the privilege of receiving.
I. The Invitation
I had no idea what to expect when I came to Bali, so one of my plans prior to coming here was to make as few plans as possible and let the experience itself guide me where it thought I should go. In that was an unspoken understanding with myself that I would say yes to as many things as possible. I looked at it like reading my life to myself, instead of writing it. The yeses would be like unfolding a letter written to me by whoever my higher power might be and simply reading all the things he had in store for me.
Thus, when Eka invited me to attend the Goddess festival at a local temple, where Bumi Sehat was holding a free satelite clinic I took it as an opportunity to read the next line and accepted.
I was a little nervous about going. Being on the island not yet a week, I barely spoke enough bahasa to say good day, let alone take any kind of direction. How would I even be useful? I felt helpless to the situation, almost resenting the invitation, since I knew I could not say no but also wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go.
I decided to ask Eka about it and see what she thought I might do, but she didn’t seem to have a clear vision beyond my simply being there and taking in the scene. “You could register patients, or take pictures as they hold the clinic.” Now that was something I could do. “But you’ll need temple clothes,” she informed me. “I have clothes that you can borrow. Come over and we will find something for you to wear.”
II. Eka’s House
Eka’s house, like ours, is located directly behind the clinic. In fact, the path through my yard leads directly into her compoud, and I learned that Jacinta and I actually rent our place from her. Her “house” or family compound as they call them here, is also the first I’d actually been inside since I got here. I had walked by them on the streets, but could never see inside, as each is typically surrounded by a stone wall interupted only by a single arched doorway at the top of at least 5-6 stairs.
In each family compound, a single building divided into rooms is replaced by several individual structures: kitchen, dining area, bathroom, family temple, bedrooms, etc. Each member of the family (or couple or group of children) has their own bedroom, which is its own small building. Also, several generations of the family live together, so the complexes can be quiet large. Common areas, from what I have seen, tend to exist largely outside and come in the form of covered verandas. Since the weather never changes much here (it’s either hot and raining or hot and not raining), then there is not really a need to keep an indoor living room.
III. Dressing for Temple
When we got to Eka’s bedroom, she began pulling out the various components of a traditional temple uniform. It consists of three main pieces: a sarong (large piece of cloth tied around the waist and falls to the ankles), a kabaya (long-sleeved cardigan lined in lace that fastens in the front with hook n eyes and falls just over the hips) and a selendang (a sash tied around the waste). I was dressed handsomely in a brown patterned sarong, maroon kebaya, and a mesh, sequin, tangerine colored selendang tied around my waist.
As it turns out, traditional temple dress in Bali can also include a corset. I have never worn one at home, but I wanted as authentic an experience as possible, so when Eka offered it up, I conceded to try it on. It turns out that it fit. And by fit, I mean that the bodice captured my torso like a glove and the breast portion, structured in the formation of a more generous B-cup, barely grazed my tiny orbs. I felt like the corset was mocking me, as it’s preformed cups stood out proudly erect, one whole size larger than mine. I felt like a 12 year-old trying on my mother’s fancy undergarments dreaming of the day when I would have the body to fill them out. Only to my disappointment, my day had already come.
…and I have never been hotter in my entire life, except on purpose in a sauna. I considered this for a moment and realized that if my sweat were broth, I could make enough stew to last me a year.
IV: The Festival
Pastica drove myself, Ayu, Raka and Iluh and Putu along with some supplies and a couple of handmade grass boxes filled with what I assumed were offerings for the goddess. Ayu suggested that I sit in front, which seemed to me a friendly gesture, so I accepted gratefully.
The festival took place in a temple complex at the end of a dilapidated market. We turned from the main road onto a dirt road lined with halfhearted stands stocked with chintzy knick knacks. They reminded me of the kinds of items sold in a shopping cart on the the fourth of July. Little plastic noisemakers and such along with some hand carved items. None of which resembled the intricately crafted items I’ve seen at other markets in Ubud.
At the end of the market stood a line of food stands called warungs, and accompanying eating areas consisting of folding tables and chairs set-up on the grass, all covered by tarps. Following these was a large entryway with two large statues of a man and a women dressed in temple clothing, sitting in prayer on either side. They looked like they were made of paper mache or painted plaster. The entryway looked like it led to a parking lot, only there were no other cars parked there. Pastica pulled up, dropped us off and drove away.
With our supplies and offerings in hand, we turned to left and walked toward the temple compound. The compound itself was surrounded by a stone wall, which was interrupted by various entrances. Each entrance was a set of about 5-6 stone stairs guarded by intricately carved columns on either side. We walked up the staircase only to walk back down again to ground level, and I rememeber thinking that it seemed odd that they would require you to walk up a set of stairs, only to walk down again on the other side.
Inside the temple compound were a series of covered platforms that served as various offering sites, stages for the womens musical groups (called Gamelons), or places to sit. In front of the offering platforms was where the people prayed. Each platform was about 3 feet high, so when an average sized person sat on the edge, their legs dangled over and their feet touched the ground. The bases were made of stone and fashioned like the crown molding of a house, only these had been carefully chiseled into intricate patterns and shapes (all by hand). They each had roof held up by four columns. The roofs were made of the shingled brick rounded at the top and shaped at a shallow slope to graduating to a point in the middle.
We held the clinic in one of the largest of the covered platforms towards the back of the temple complex. There we set-up two folding tables: one for registration and taking blood pressure and the second table for the Doctor and medication. Ayu and Raka took care of registration with the Dr. and Putu conducted check-ups and dolled out prescriptions.
Dr. Bayu arrived when we did and helped set-up the medication table. As he began unpacking the various medications: Ibuprofen, allergy meds, antibiotics, various vitamins, etc. he motioned for me to help. I stacked boxes along the table as best I could with the help of Putu, but since they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Indonesian, it was a rather clumsy collaboration.
Suddenly, I found myself alone at the table with Dr. Bayu as patients also started arriving. Dr. Bayu prescribed a medication of unknown dosage to me, but when he tried to tell me, I could not understand a word he spoke. He tried to motion to the medication and indicate the dosage, but it was a painful process and took and unsustainably long time to execute. I was quickly replaced. Thankfully, Ayu soon approached me and asked if I would photograph the clinic as record of their service. Relieved, I embarked on this task with determination and passion, happy to have something to do.
After a while, there were no more pictures to take, so decided to I walk around the festival. I was a little nervous, because I had never been to a temple ceremony before, and I didn’t know where I was allowed to go or what I was allowed to take pictures of. No one had really given me direction, so I treaded lightly at first, returning to the clinic often to check in. As I wandered the festival, I quickly realized I was the only non-Indonesian there. I passed some women praying and when they saw me they pointed and laughed. I was dressed perfectly by Eka for temple, but it did no good. I was, after all, the only white person there.
At one point Ayu called me over to ask me an important question. She leaned in and said, “I forgot to ask you this before. Do you have your period?” I paused for a moment, less for effect than out of sheer surprise. I was not offended, of course, just not used to the question coming from a virtual stranger. “Um, no,” I stammered, and Ayu looked relieved. “You cannot enter the temple while you are on your period.” Right. Queue further mind expansion
After about four hours of snapping photos, wandering around and generally feeling hot and useless, it was time to go home. Before we left, we went to one of the warungs and ate a meal. I got fried rice and Ayu asked if I liked goat satay. I said sure, tried it and liked it. It was cooked with a kind of tomato soy sauce that was delicious. As we ate, I sat lonely amongst the group, unable to understand a word they said. Ayu tried to engage me occasionally by asking if I would like this or that, but I sat otherwise listening, trying to glean some meaning from a string of completely unfamiliar words.
V. Homeward Bound
Dr. Bayu drove us all back to the clinic in his car, and I spent the entire ride trying to memorize something I had wanted to say to him earlier in the day when we were introduced, but had forgotten. Sitting in the front seat, at the suggestion of the group yet again, I focused my gaze out the window as I ran the phrase through my head repeatedly. I was interrupted only once by Ayu, who tapped me on the shoulder looking suddenly concerned: “Does your stomach feel okay?” she asked. Confused, I said yes. She was nervous about how my stomach would handle the goat. I giggled and said thanks.
When we pulled up to the clinic, I nervously turned to Dr. Bayu before getting out and blurted out “Senang bertemu dengan anda” which means “pleased to meet you.” He smiled and chucked politley saying something I couldn’t understand. Then, feeling a little encouraged, I turned quickly and opened the car door to leave.
It was then that I almost smacked the car door into a truck. I had already forgotten that people drive on the other side of the road here (the “right side” as Jacinta always says, being from Australia), so I unknowingly opened my door into traffic. Normally, on our quiet street in the village this would not be an issue, but it just so happened that a large truck was going by at that precise moment, so I just barely avoided hitting it and ruining the doctor’s car. Even more unfortunately, the truck driver stopped and proceeded to yell at Dr. Bayu for several moments before moving on.
Victory averted yet again.
I remember a few days later Jacinta explaining to me the philosophy behind letting someone sit in front. Apparently it is widely understood that the person who sits in front is likely the first one to die, so no one likes to sit there.
My first full day in Bali was positively overwhelming. Jacinta, my housemate and a volunteer midwife from Australia, has been here for 8 months, so she took me for a tour of the clinic, and then rode into Ubud on her motorbike to get lunch and do some shopping.
The first thing I noticed was that I don’t know a lick of Indonesian. Despite studying for weeks before I arrived, it is nearly impossible to understand complete conversation.
The second thing I noticed is that the only way to get around is on a motorbike, which I find terrifying. The roads here are tiny with sharp turns and people ride on the opposite side than the U.S. I actually woke up in the middle of the night last night wondering how I was going to get around, because I was sure there was no way I could ride a motorbike here. However, after a brief pep talk from Jacinta, I am encouraged and will give it a shot.
Aside from that, Bali is the most rich and densely beautiful places I have ever seen. I have been to several tropical islands, but Bali is the least Americanized place I have yet to visit. Instead of houses along the road, there are family compounds, so all you see are these ornately carved stone entryways. Inside are individual living quarters for the family members with shared common areas, like the kitchen.
In Ubud, Jacinta and I got an early lunch at a Warung (small cafe). I ordered a pineapple juice and was delighted to find that their version is actually the juice of a pineapple: a chopped pineapple, blended it and served. We don’t know how to live in the U.S.
After lunch we did some shopping – groceries (so we can cook in our outdoor kitchen with no oven), a fan and a flashlight (no light on the outside of our house and the stairs to get down from my room are outside).
At about 6PM I went up to my room to study my language cards and fell asleep about 15 minutes later. I slept with a light breeze from my fan in a light wrap with the sound of bugs and chirping in the background singing me to sleep. I slept for 14 hours, and it was magnificent.