Friday, 20 September 2013

PART 2: religion reaches Cuca

The altar in our kitchen
Religion has also invaded Cuca’s life. As soon as the first employee walks in, the “canangs” are prepared and placed around the restaurant: on our cars, on the main entrance, staff area, in the office, on the reception counter, etc. Special attention is put on the main “pecati” in our kitchen, carefully decorated and daily taken care of. The ceremony of blessing all the key locations takes place at least twice a day and the Balinese masterfully organize themselves to take turns to carry out these intriguing tasks. 

Our priest 
For you to understand the degree of importance of the spirituality in Bali, let me tell you about our “Mlaspas”. Our initial plan was to open Cuca’s doors for the first time on July 20. However, a brief consultation with the priest revealed that we could only request permission from the Gods to open Cuca on July 22, a full moon day. Our staff explained to us that it was unquestionable to open Cuca without divine permission, so it was decided by the higher power to postpone our opening until July 23 and celebrate our Mlaspas on 22. 

The “Melaspas” is a traditional Balinese ceremony meant to cleanse and purify a new building after it has been completed and prior to its occupation. This ceremony is held by priests, relatives, neighbors, friends, etc.  for the people who will occupy the building to feel at ease and avoid undesirable tribulations (pain, frustration, conflict). During the day-long intricate ritual, we asked the spirits of our coconut grove to consent us to carry out our business in their land. We fed them with countless offerings so they leave us work in harmony and Kevin and I witnessed the endless series of rituals participating as we were told. 

Feeding the spirits with offerings
Cuca staff ready for the ceremony
Cuca's ladies discussing the ritual
Blessing Cuca
Blessing Cuca
The main ceremony
Taking the blessed water
On the way to the beach
The end of the ceremony: in the sea
A few weeks later, on August 10 we celebrated Saraswati Day. This is a very special celebration in which the Balinese give thanks for the gift of knowledge, for the ability to understand human nature, to write and to read. We got up that day leaving our bedroom to find incense burning on all our bookshelves at home. Cuca’s office was equally scented and we were recommended not to write by hand and seriously forbidden to erase anything written.  Schools are closed on that day and students pray for the success in their studies. 

On the morning of August 24 Cuca was a very busy restaurant. Our Balinese staff was waving dozens of beautiful offerings made of coconut leaves. We soon found out that we were celebrating "Tumpek Landep", or the Day of the Iron. Originally this day was about giving thanks for the swords but it has evolved to all things man-made from metal: computers, kitchen equipment, cars… That afternoon when we briefly left Cuca for a meeting we were amazed by the wonderful decoration on our cars and smiled every time we came across to other cars in the road similarly decorated. How nice look the streets of Bali with so many mobile decorations!

The front of our car

It is not easy to find out why you are supposed to do or not do certain things on certain days. Balinese take these beliefs in such a natural way that when you ask them why this or that they just look at you surprised at your question. Trust me, no matter how much you ask, you don’t get a straight answer, they simply tell you “don’t worry, just make sure you don’t erase anything today”, what leaves you with no option but to follow…  Life in Bali is a constant enigma. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

PART 1: Bali, all about religion

Religion in Bali is present everywhere and every day. It is literally a way of life where ceremonies mark every single step a Balinese takes and every event he or she experiences.

Hinduism came to Indonesia from India in the 5th century, was first replaced by Buddhism and later in the 14th century by Islam. However, Bali was the only part of Indonesia to remain Hindu and despite the foreign influence generated by tourism still until now Balinese people worship an elaborate array of deities: of fertility, fire, water, earth, sun, the mountains and the sea, gods and devils…

Several types of Canang
No matter where you are in Bali, you only need to look around to see signs of religion in every corner: the “canang” or traditional baskets reign over the island filled with the most unusual gifts to the Gods such as a candy, a tangerine, some frangipani flowers, a banana or a salak fruit, some leaves, even a cigarette! Balinese start each day by buying these items in their traditional markets, they then arrange them nicely in coconut-leaf baskets and finally they pray while placing them in strategic locations around houses or workplaces. These offerings are meant to thank the good spirits and appease the evil ones, keeping the balance between good and bad in the island.

Teeth filing ceremony
Apart from these daily rituals, ceremonies are a major aspect of the Balinese lifestyle and culture. From birth to death the Balinese celebrate a variety of milestones or rites of passage that they believe will guide the soul through the numerous stages of life. Some of these celebrations can be really shocking from a Western perspective, as it is the tooth-filing ceremony. This very significant ritual marks the step from puberty to adulthood for both males and females and it consists of filing down the canine teeth (the pointy ones) until they are even with the other teeth around them as they are considered animal-like and getting them shortened symbolizes the smoothing out of the animal aspects in a human's personality. If for whatever reason a person has not undergone this ceremony by the time he/she dies, then it will have to take place prior to his/her cremation, as the Balinese believe that the gods may mistake a human for a savage animal if his/her teeth are not filed.

Until recently, Kevin and I were exposed to religion in Bali just by watching the locals in their immaculate ceremonial clothes buying or preparing the offerings, walking to the temples, praying to holy trees... Or as we waited anxiously in traffic for a cremation procession to enter or leave a temple. Or when we witnessed from time to time the taking over of a beach by a group of worshippers to release their offerings into the ocean. But, as I promise to reveal in my next post, religion is now also part of Cuca and of our daily tasks and accomplishments. 

It’s time to go, Cuca’s dining room is filling up and dinner service begins!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Being a restaurateur

Although I have lots and lots of things to tell you about after my long silence, today I would love to share with you how does it feel to have your own restaurant. If you have been reading my blog from the beginning, you will know well the ups and downs of this year long journey. You will also remember the array of little details and great people involved in the making of Cuca so you will be able to perfectly understand me when I tell you that the opening night was truly magic. To see our guests walk through, touch, feel and taste everything we had so thoughtfully developed gives you the utmost feeling of accomplishment. The room around us that night was silently screaming “You made it!”.

Cuca´s first night

On that first evening we left Cuca exhausted but smiling and above all determined to tackle the second day of Cuca’s life with a long list of points that needed our attention and improvement: a bulb here and there, better signs for our guests to easily find the main entrance, a different selection of flowers, bigger candles for the garden and smaller ones for the oil burners, different lighting in the dining room, lower volume in the cocktail bar…

Kevin and I do pretty good getting things done but it is overwhelming to see that for every tick accomplished we discover another 5 new “to dos”. And whenever something seems under control, it just suddenly slips out of your hands and you need to reassess the situation all over again. One of the biggest challenges in the day is to combine our marketing efforts to get Cuca known with the daily operations of the restaurant. We know we have to do whatever possible to attract guests but at the same time we need to make sure we are ready to impress them so they return. Another tricky part is to be strict with our staff so they perform up to our expectations but at the same time to make sure they are happy and in good spirits to provide a heartfelt service for many years to come. You know that this is always difficult but it becomes a real challenge when you take into account that all our staff is new so we don’t count with the loyalty of any senior employees.

In a nutshell, to be a restaurateur feels like climbing a mountain every morning. You start full of energy and motivation, get going and easily skip the first obstacles, continue farther and start feeling a bit tired, go some more and begin feeling the pain and the weariness and when you are about to desperate…  you see the peak (the first guest of the evening) and forget how exhausted you are. You are at the top and feel great while admiring the view. By the end of dinner service is time to slowly pack up and descend… get home and feel a mixture of accomplishment and tiredness. And fall asleep realizing that tomorrow another mountain awaits you.