Ghosts – In The Literal Sense

I have never believed in ghosts. I don’t believe in them now. But I did see ghosts once. If I were placed under oath I would have to swear that I saw them. I don’t expect to see a ghost again (because they don’t exist!), but I will be pleased if I do.

In 1981 I fell in love with the island of Bali. Over the next twenty years I visited ten or twelve times. I explored most of the island, but I am a creature of habit (ten or twelve visits) and I would also re-visit my favorite places each time I came back.

One of my favorite places is the water garden and temple at Tirtagangga in the Karangasem District. (If you ever go, take the road from Rendang to Selat.) Tirtagangga sits on the edge of a long triangular valley. The valley is broad at the base and comes to a point about a mile above Tirtagangga. The valley is nearly flat and no more than a few hundred feet below the surrounding hills. It is entirely covered with rice paddy fields (sawah) and is one of the prettiest places in a place that is already pretty beyond my ability to imagine.

The road to Tirtagangga goes up the left side of the valley and takes a chicane to the right and then the left as it negotiates the small side valley of the Tirtagangga spring before getting back to the edge of the valley proper. The temple and a few accommodations are just before the first turn. The road then crosses a stream, climbs past an abandoned house on a point overlooking the valley, and turns left with a spectacular view over the valley and the low, tropically wooded hills on the other side. It always takes my breath away.

But at night it is even more of an adventure. It is very dark at Tirtagangga, even near the several restaurants and accommodations. On the road you feel your way with your feet if you don’t have a flashlight. What little sense you get from starlight of the hillside to the left and the valley to the right, combined with the slope, camber, and curves of the road cause a bit of vertigo. And at night Bali already feels different from any other place I have been.

When you get as far as the overlook you sense the valley more than see it––unless there is a bit if the moon out. Either way, unless it is raining, you will see thousands of fireflies down in the valley. So many at once that your mind will start to create patterns between the several hundred that are visible at any given time. It’s like a Nova representation of how the synapses of the brain work.

The first several times I went to Tirtagangga was with my (future) second wife and we always walked the road together both day and night. I returned to Tirtagangga by myself after we separated and set out at night to see the valley and the fireflies I loved so much. I couldn’t get there. I became too afraid to go up the road to the overlook. I wasn’t afraid of anything in particular. I just had a feeling of overwhelming dread.

Several years later I went back to Tirtagangga and again tried and again failed to look over the valley at night. I never had a problem during the day. By day it is a very benign place. But at night it terrified me.

Two failures had me confused and concerned. I didn’t know what to do about the fear. I was very curious about what was causing it and decided to push through my fear on my next trip.

The night I pushed had intermittent, thin, scudding clouds drifting above the valley. Stars were visible between the clouds. There was just enough light to stay on the road without using a flashlight. I had one with me but I didn’t use it––I didn’t think that what ever was out there was going to jump at me; or if it did I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway.

I felt that I was going to die as I walked up the road. I accepted the risk because it was so irrational. When I got to the overlook I was very agitated but in no physical harm. The valley was as it always was––except that there were no fireflies. There were the scattered clouds above, several lights from houses on the other side of the valley, and the dark, featureless valley below. No big deal! What a relief!

There was no spectacular view that night, but I stayed for a while enjoying feeling the adrenalin fade away after.

As I watched the valley I notice some new, lower clouds drifting slowly down the valley several hundred feet out at about my height. I was a meteorological observer in the army and I pay attention to clouds. Each of these clouds was a collection of several score to several hundred individual shapes unlike anything I had ever seen. Each shape was like a stereotypical ghost––a flowing shape with a big “head” and a tapering tail, but with no facial, arm, or leg features.

I believed this was a figment of my imagination; the result of my recent extreme fear and my straining to see in the dark––until one of the shapes passed between me and a house on the other side of the valley and momentarily blocked the light. That is when I knew I was seeing ghosts.

I spent an hour watching hundreds and hundreds of ghosts gently float down the valley in one cloud group after another. Some were close (never closer than several hundred feet), some far, some slightly higher, most of them slightly lower to the valley floor.

Initially, I was frozen in place but I decided to make myself known and face whatever additional fear there was. When I did move the ghosts didn’t react at all. They just continued to drift down the valley. Eventually, they became, somehow, comforting.

I was told by someone smarter than I that the true nature of reality is counter-intuitive. When I think hard enough about anything in this world I come to the conclusion I don’t understand most of what happens.

That time at Tirtagangga I saw ghosts––and as a result I found comfort.

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