I’m sitting on our couch on a Friday morning, glumly inspecting an injured toe (grace is not my middle name), when Made (MAH-day), the groundskeeper for the 3-bungalow complex where we are living, kicks off his shoes and steps into our house unannounced. Without saying a word, he peers into our water dispenser then lifts up the jug to show me it’s empty. “Give me money to buy water,” he offers, so I produce 20,000 Indonesian Rupiah ($1.70). Before leaving with the 5-gallon jug swinging from one hand and singing to himself, he wanders into the kitchen and opens cupboards until he finds a saucer to cover the opening in the dispenser until his return. On his way out of the gate he steps over a pile of small offering baskets, 4 inches square and woven from strips of palm or maybe banana leaf, piled with tropical flowers, rice balls, and a piece of hardtack candy. A fresh offering appears each morning, and eventually the wind – or a motor scooter – scatters what remains after the chickens and strays have plundered the edible bits.
This will be my memory of Bali: an island so crowded with people that privacy is an unknown concept, tradition and religion are omnipresent, and generosity is the default.
Honestly, when we arrived, I wondered what all the fuss is about. The island is jam-packed with people, the food seems bland after Korea, and compared to the elaborate, airy temples of Thailand the chunky black volcanic rock of the temples here looked ominous. We settled in Canggu (CHAHN-goo), a recently discovered surf spot north of the really-horribly-tacky tourism of Kuta and Sanur, but in the past 5 years even this area has fallen prey to developers who chop Bali’s iconic rice fields into smaller and smaller quilt-like squares so that new hotels can charge extra for rooms with a view overlooking rice paddies. Plus it’s noisy in Canggu: not noisy like the nightclubs and party scenes of Kuta, but noisy like the roosters before dawn and the monks banging their gongs in the middle of the night and the relentless hammering from the inexorable parade of new hotels and bungalows. Yet gradually, as we rode our scooter through unbelievably congested roads and occasionally got lost on dirt roads leading to construction sites amongst rice fields, Bali made herself known.
Where Culture Is Alive
Bali is primarily populated (89%) by Balinese people, an ethnic group which migrated south through the present-day Indonesian islands in 3 waves, beginning in prehistoric times. Today, preservation of the island’s culture remains a high priority for politicians, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens. Nowhere else in our journeys have we seen such strong evidence of tradition kept so alive in modern people. One of the best examples is a warning when booking hotel rooms online: “Please be informed that Bali island celebrates Nyepi (Silent) Day each year on below dates. The Nyepi (Silent) Day is a day of absolute silence throughout the island. No outdoor activities are allowed including check in and check out from hotels.”
Balinese houses appear temple-like, and indeed the architecture is similar, with various pavilions surrounded by high walls in both temples and family compounds. “The Balinese do not live in houses in the conventional sense of the word. Instead, they divide their daily activities between a number of different pavilions which are situated within a family compound that is secluded from the outside world by a high wall.” The architecture traces from an indigenous style similar to Polynesian buildings and later melded with Hindu traditions via India and then Java.
As early as 1080 AD, a feng shui – type building code was written on palm leaves, called Kosala-kosali. If Google’s online Indonesian translator can be trusted, I understand it to be a concept in which buildings are oriented and laid out spatially to maximize “the harmonious relationship between man and his creator” (the temple portion of the complex) and to locate that area where positive energy can radiate in order best conduct inter-human activities (the living space). As one Balinese writer explains, “Through it we can determine the best place to locate a kitchen for instance. Oftentimes when a family is suffering bad luck or misfortune, the first place the balian or witch doctor will look for is any unwitting violations of the Balinese laws of building.”
Walking on the beach one day, lost in thought, I passed a group of four women on my right, kneeling in the sand setting large fruit baskets with burning incense near the water line. I glanced to my left and straight into a crowd of 20 Balinese, patiently waiting for me to get the heck off their ceremonial stage. On another day, we scootered past a small temple near our house in time to see the sacrificial rooster being lifted, feet first, into the temple.
Throughout the centuries in southeast Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism have competed, influenced one another, and even mixed. Bali is an example of the latter: While the entire country of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, 90% of Bali’s population practices a unique form of Hinduism which incorporates Buddha and Buddhist saints as well as ancestor worship and ancient indigenous beliefs. Religion is such a part of everyday life that, as visitors, we literally tripped over it. Everywhere, in every household, multiple times a day, people ask ancestors for support by leaving small offering baskets around the house, in front of shrines, and at the end of the driveway. The baskets include sweets, rice, flowers, and even a pack of cigarettes if things are really dire; around 8 am the streets smell like incense and walking along the road I often came close to stepping on the baskets which had been placed in the shoulder.
Ceremonies abound: funerals (cremations) and celebrations of an annual “temple day” are central to each family’s individual traditions (full moons are auspicious, so temples are scheduled in advance like a Vegas wedding chapel once every 28 days). The island observes 10 official ceremonies (plus up to 10 days of preparation/activities before or during each ceremony) with exotic names such as Galungan, Siwa Ratri, and Pagerwesi. Top these off with 22 national holidays, and you won’t be surprised when I say that we witnessed ceremonial processions almost every day on the island. According to one observer:
Balinese “are a rather passive race with a very active religion that encompasses everything the Balinese do; sometimes quietly, often very noisily. … [Balinese believe that] the universe is structured – things do not happen at random, and it is essential that a balance is maintained between order and disorder. Spirits are everywhere and ultimately control nature, and so must be honoured regularly to maintain balance. Rituals and festivals are the way that Balinese maintain this order. The festivals thus have great meaning and are an integral part of the Balinese culture.”
Where Art is In the Gene Pool
Music, dance, painting, puppets, and sculpture: all are longstanding and valued parts of Bali’s artistic identity. It’s generally accepted that the Balinese are more artistic than the other Indonesian islanders, and they credit an old clash of religions: with Islam moving onto Java (the closest island to the northwest of Bali) in the 15th century, many Hindu artists, craftsmen, and musicians relocated to Bali.
Ubud, in the central mountain region of the island, is famous for its art culture. Upon arriving for a visit, we chose one of several art museums in the town for an introduction to Balinese art: the Neka Art Museum houses a collection of more than 300 pieces of traditional and contemporary Balinese art.
Later that afternoon, returning to our rented house, we met up with the owner, a community leader who had come to perform his evening rituals (30 minutes of lighting incense and placing offering baskets at 6 different spots around the yard and in shrines). When he was finished, we chatted and learned that he’s an artist and had sculpted the giant Ganesh statue in the entrance! [Hindu god with an elephant head – there’s a photo in the collage above.] He then invited us to attend a public performance of the Kecak Ramayana, an elaborate dance around a fire with a chorus of 100 women chanting throughout the recreation of a famous story from within the Hindu epic Ramayana. (Each of the 6 villages from the area performs a dance one night of the week, using admission fees to cover … guess what! …the cost of village ceremonies.)
Walking through the rice fields the following morning, we encountered perhaps 20 art stalls, each with an artist at work. We bought a few pieces and the familiar sting of travel-guilt sank in when one artist shared that his family can’t afford to keep a rice field due to inflated property prices paid by hotels for the land.
I hope this gives you a feel for the Bali we came to love. In fact, when we split for our annual sanity break, KC – who never vacations in the same spot twice due to the large world still outstanding – chose to return to Bali for 2 weeks. Our friends Keith and Angela came for a visit and I asked about the response they had when they’d announced their vacation destination. As I would have predicted, they confirmed that people either said, “Where?!” or “Ooooh! An exotic beach vacation!” They also reminded me that the “Love” portion of Elizabeth Gilbert’ navel-gazing memoir-made-into-movie, Eat Pray Love, was set on Bali, so the island has become doubly romanticized in recent years. We found it to be so much more…