Eight years ago, during one of my first trips to Bali, I was walking along a beautiful river gorge that runs from the outskirts of Ubud. By accident or serendipity, I had the good fortune of meeting Ketut Karni.
The sun was setting when, all of a sudden, I became violently ill. I knew I could not make it back to Ubud before the sun was completely down and I saw a few houses up on a hill in the small village of Bangkiang Sidem. I managed to make it along the dirt road to the village and saw a woman standing in an open area of a house that was filled with paintings. I must have looked very pale because after she smiled and waved, a look of concern came over her face and she asked me if I needed something to drink.
She gave me water and I sat down with her, feeling better right away. She told me that the artwork was all from her family. There was so much that I liked that I told her I would come back tomorrow so I could think about which one I wanted. Then she did something that felt un-Balinese. “Buy one, just buy one now. You don’t need to think about it.” She was right. And, again by accident or serendipity, I chose the only piece that the older of her two sons had painted. He had died a few years before. The smile on her face told me that she knew that was the one I would pick. My life changed at that moment.
Ketut introduced me to her younger son, Wayan and to his daughter, Putu, then six. I later met all the members of their extended family and to many people who lived in Bangkiang Sidem. I was welcomed as a member of the family and as a brother by Wayan. I still am.
Ketut showed me how Balinese women live, which was very different than my original impression of Balinese wealth. Many of the people who live there, especially those in rural areas are quite poor. Look at a rice harvest with people-mostly women-- working from morning until night. Ketut could be seen every day taking care of the family’s cows and working in the rice fields.
She showed me that Bali is a deeply spiritual place. Ketut would perform the ritual blessings before and after work by preparing small baskets of flowers, fruit, rice and incense and then placing them around the property. She showed me the deep gratitude that Balinese people show about life, family, and animals that they show through these daily offerings. During the day, she would also take some time alone to go to the family temple where she would perform her own ceremony privately. One day, I found her one day praying in the temple at her mother in law's house, a short walk down the road. In these photos, her beauty and her soul shined.
Five years after we met, I received an email from Wayan. His mother had passed away from cancer. Wayan then asked me for a favor. Could he use the portrait I had taken of his mother for her cremation photo? There was nothing Wayan could have asked me that would have made me feel more honored. The photo now hangs in Wayan’s house.
I will forever be grateful to Ketut—for the warmth she showed me, for her introduction to Wayan and his family, and for showing me how people in Bali live, love, work and pray.