“The Balinese women are doing so much for the island but they’re unseen”

A conversation with Balinese entrepreneur and priestess Luh Manis.

When I first reached out to Luh Manis for an interview she invited me to join her on one of her “Sisterhood retreats” to Kintamani, the area in Bali where she is originally from. Together with eight other Balinese women and another foreign woman we went on a full day of visiting temples, sleeping in a glamping site and practicing yoga, climbing a volcano at sunrise and going to a hot spring for bathing. Luh guided us with passion, humor and a determination to let us reflect on our lives. We shared our life stories amongst each other and our dreams for the future. A month later I visited Luh in her home in Ubud where we had a long conversation about her own life, about the effect of COVID-19 on Bali and the difference between the foreigners and the local community on the island.

Luh Manis (✍️ by Kazuaki Senno)

Curious to go to the other side of the world

Luh Manis (38) founded her company Pranasanti ten years ago, based on the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, referring to harmony amongst people, harmony with nature and harmony with God. She organizes tours, retreats and yoga classes and before the pandemic she had a team of ten people working for her.
She lives on her own in a cozy house at the end of an ally in the south of Ubud and welcomes me with tea and lots of fruits. She has two younger brothers who are both married and have children. “They’re good husbands”, she says. And continues: “My mother is worried that I live alone, it’s unsafe to her and she rather wants me to live with my brother. She used to ask me what’s wrong with me, emphasizing that most women in Bali get married before the age of thirty. I explain to her that not all marriages are beautiful. She herself works as a farmer and lives happily with my father in the village where she was born.”

At age 26 Luh was in a relationship but when she found out that her boyfriend was cheating on her, she broke up with him. “I often asked myself ‘will this end up in a marriage and us having kids together?’ but it never felt right. Maybe he felt it too and that’s why he started an affair with someone else. On one side, I felt so sad and on the other side it was a reason for me to leave Bali, to go as far as I could because I had nothing to lose”, she tells while sitting on the couch comfortably. She’d always dreamed about snow and decided to go to Norway. Luh: “There wasn’t really internet back then so I didn’t know much about Europe but I was curious to go to the other side of the world.” She remembers seeing white Western women travelling by themselves and visiting her village in Bali when she was still a young girl and imagined that one day she would do the same. Her parents supported her idea but also let her know she had to pay for it herself, explaining:

“I grew up in a simple family and even though I always felt I was going to live a good quality life, I didn’t know where that would come from.” 

Experiencing the constant stress of a modern European lifestyle

Norway was the base from where she visited different countries in Europe and experienced a totally distinct view on the position of women from the patriarchal society she grew up in. “I saw that life was more liberal, women were able to make decisions about choosing their profession, getting married or traveling around the world and having children or not. It was ladies first and the men would even open the door for me, they would clean the house and they’d like to cook!”, she tells me laughing with a glance laden with disbelief. She studied Norwegian history and culture amongst an international group of people and it taught her about what it means to be a Balinese as well. Luh:

“In Bali we make a strong distinction between the Balinese and people outside of Bali for example. But when you’re abroad you’re all Indonesians. Whether you have a different religious belief, it doesn’t matter. And people would ask me a lot of questions about Bali, it made me feel proud about my birth place.”

Her travels in Europe impacted her life back in Bali. During her journeying, she witnessed the urge for control and the constant stress of a modern lifestyle. She states: “It made me question what happiness is because these women seem to have everything and still they were tense and found it hard to relax. When I returned back home it was as if there were two people in my body, one of them wanted to be in Europe and the other wanted to be in Bali. And I felt depressed because I couldn’t find happiness in either one of them.”

From being weird to being an inspiration  

Before leaving to Europe Luh had studied tourism in Bali (“because that’s what you do here”, she says shrugging her shoulders) and worked different jobs in the hospitality business from a young age to provide for herself. And it was through reading lots of autobiographies about mostly local women heroes that inspired her to follow her own interests: “Balinese psychologist professor Ni Luh Suryani was all over the news after the Bali bombings (2002, red.) when she helped many people dealing with their trauma. It made me realize I also want to find work to support humanity and not just a job for money. And I felt strongly that I wanted to focus on women because in my home village the first priority has always been the men. For example, if there is a meeting in the community about a new local law it’s always men who decide according to the tradition what is right, regarding marriage, regarding land and regarding social life. I don’t see much women involved in that process. We as women can do so much more if we get the right support. In Bali, most women end up with nothing after a divorce, that’s the reason I wanted to set up my own company with my own income and own a house”, she proudly clarifies.  

Her friends often tell her how “revolutionary” she is, but Luh has always felt like an outsider. Even when she returned from Europe she wasn’t the more stylish, more modern woman people expected her to be after travelling abroad. “People found me weird because I was depressed and confused. I expected that more money and a liberal life would bring more happiness but my soul didn’t feel happy at all. I decided to visit the high priest because maybe my depression came from black magic and I should do another ceremony. The priest told me that I’m born with a special gift and that I’ve been delaying to follow my mission in life for too long. He told me to follow the training to become a local priest, primarily for my own inner healing and to find my calling. I did fasting, water purification and strengthened my body through yoga and meditation”, she points out smiling and says: “Now, water purification has become a tourist attraction but for me at that time it was revelatory. I spent a lot of time in nature, going from one holy spring to the other and from one mountain to the other, all by myself. And I’d share some pictures in Facebook where people would comment and ask where to find such a beautiful place. So I started to ask some friends to join me, just because I wanted company. At that time, I was already teaching yoga in Ubud, where there weren’t many Balinese instructors for tourists and I’d ask people to join me to the mountains for a full moon trek. I was not planning to found a business but people were enthusiastic and started to book. It made me realize this is a great way to earn a living.”

Shifting the focus from Western to Balinese women

Her business took off so successfully that she was booked two years in advance and hired ten employees who now work part time due to the pandemic. Luh: “Just before the coronavirus hit our island, at the end of 2019 I got sick. I went to the hospital and did a spiritual check in my village and realized I was focusing too much on creating a stable lifestyle instead of following my mission. I suffered from a hormone imbalance, I couldn’t enjoy life anymore, I couldn’t enjoy food, my soul was dying again. I told myself that once the house was finished I didn’t want to work like crazy anymore.” And then the pandemic came. Where most people felt stress due to a lack of income, Luh slept better than ever. Less calls, less emails, no pressure for work, her life was harmonic. “I was home alone for a few months and so many local women asked me for emotional, financial and mental support. During the full moon in August I felt a strong calling to help the Balinese women. And because not everyone earns money during this crisis I decided to do some of my work based on donation. A Facebook post about a trip to Kintamani attracted 25 women in only 24 hours and made me realize there is a big need. I saw that more women like me now think about empowering themselves”, she recounts.  

Before the pandemic her work focused mostly on Western women, even though it took a while before she felt at ease in the so-called Ubud spiritual community. Luh: “Most foreigners talk a lot about the beauty and culture of Bali but don’t always invest in good value to this island or hang out with the local community. They’re visiting cafes where only foreigners go and they’re networking amongst other expatriates. I actually felt stupid at first when I heard them talking about higher dimensions, auras and channeling energy. It made me feel like a stranger in my motherland. I found it hard to connect and to have a deep conversation with Western yogis in Bali. But when one or two of them got interested in and curious about Balinese life, I brought them to ceremonies and started with a small community. I discovered that we don’t speak the same language – I talk about rituals, symbols, ancestors, traditions – but we can still collaborate. Instead of focusing on the differences between us, I focus on the similarities and learn not to criticize.”  

Westerners in Bali don’t always take responsibility

There was a moment when she saw a Western woman leading a Balinese ceremony at a spiritual festival a few years ago that awakened a responsibility inside of her to become more active in the spiritual community. The execution of the ceremony wasn’t done well and Luh decided it’s better to bring tourists to the temple instead of organizing ceremonies in hotels and festivals. “I want to be a voice for Bali and show Westerners the women of Bali”, she expresses. And there are things to learn from each other as well. The discipline she developed in Europe is something that she inspires Balinese women with. “Here in Bali people often delay things, they live more by the day. In Europe people have a goal to work towards, here we leave it up to God to decide for us”, she says giggling about the contrast.

The daily offerings and huge amount of ceremonies create a strong community and a family orientated society, much stronger than in the rest of the archipelago. As a priest, Luh goes back to her village in Kintamani often to fulfill her responsibilities and do her service. She visits the high priest and a Balinese shaman who is her mentor monthly, to check with them if she is still going in the right direction with her life. Luh:

“I’m quite Westernized for Balinese standards, I’m not afraid to speak up, people might find me too wild, but I haven’t forgotten about my own family, my community and the ceremonies where we connect with our ancestors. I think it’s important to root down in the place where you’re born. Westerners who come to Ubud sometimes seem lost in that sense. They’re not taking responsibility to establish themselves completely in this place because they feel like it’s too controlling whereas it’s more about taking a decision to go where you want to go.”

Please ask a different question

The pandemic gives both foreigners and Balinese more time and a better understanding of how they need each other. More foreigners learn the language bahasa Indonesia and take cultural classes or participate in a full moon ceremony. And Balinese women became more creative due to the situation and aware of the quality time they can spend with family. “Before COVID-19 everybody was always working and family life and community life became more difficult. Now the women decide to stay with their kids longer or take care of their parents. They’re looking for sustainable jobs and instead of working fulltime in one of the big hotels they rather start their own smaller business that’s less dependent on tourism”, Luh describes. On her retreats, she asks the women questions about their mission in life and encourages them to develop more skills so they can have the same skill as foreigners do. And she adds: “They never think about their goals in life. They get married, have children and make sure that their family stays happy. They don’t think about their own happiness.”

And even though Luh Manis was perceived “weird” at first, nowadays she gets asked about her secret in maintaining her happiness: “I feel like a strong woman, after ten years of building my business I don’t care about what other people say anymore. People now want to know how I can still maintain my lifestyle without working twelve hours a day. And how I recovered from my sickness so fast after being in hospital. I then question them: what is your skill? How do you support your community? And what if you don’t get the support of your family, how do you deal with that? Instead of running away I convince them to work hard and prove their community wrong. One woman who joined my retreat already started teaching yoga in her community, another pursued her dream in becoming a gardener even though her family didn’t approve because it’s not considered a normal job for a woman. But she is doing it and developing herself and it works.”

There are tons of stories about women like these in Bali. Luh: “The Balinese women are doing so much for the island but they’re unseen. They’re also afraid to be different and instead of empowering each other they rather gossip about one another.” It’s exactly this mindset change that Luh focuses on in her work and when other women ask her about why she’s not married yet at age 38 she now responds:

“Do I look miserable to you? I look happy right? Then please ask a different question instead of assuming something is wrong with me.”

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