One has to ask whether it is too late to go to Bali. How does a tiny island endure millions of visitors and maintain that rarest of things, a harmonious, talented, giving people living in a Garden of Eden landscape?
The answer is found in the laughter of Balinese children flying homemade kites and the fertile land covered with verdant rice fields and gardens. A Hindu king invaded Bali 800 years ago, while retreating from Java. He brought with him his court of musicians, dancers, artists, intellectuals. Isolated, the island flourished as an artist colony. The combination of tropical beauty, easy living due to climate and agricultural skill, and a religion whose gods delight in decorative arts, has led to a creative web of life so supportive of the human joys, that the Balinese have been able to resist most of the onslaught of Western pop culture.
Bali is a small island in Indonesia about the size of the island of Hawaii. It is densely populated with almost 3 million inhabitants most of whom are Hindu. The Balinese are extraordinarily creative, cooperative and courteous. I have been in Bali four times. I keep returning because Bali shows me the human race at its best. I have never seen another culture so supportive and so open. The gardens, the temples, the art, the delicious food, the dance, the music are an example to the world of how a society can work. The unique experience Bali has to offer a traveler is being in a culture based on art.
It is a 30 hour plane ride from the Bay Area, counting all the airport time. One flies to Los Angeles on a commuter plane, there is a stop in Hawaii for fuel, than one is on the long leg to Southeast Asia, either to Bali directly or to an intermediate stop in nearby Singapore or Jakarta. Bali is about 9 degrees south of the equator so there is no time difference between summer or winter and the sun always sets about 6 pm. The tropics are warm, but in June through September the austral currents bring cool dry evening air from the Australian continent. By coincidence the monsoon season, hot and muggy when its not pouring, is during the bay areas wet season, late November to February or March.
Arriving in Bali after such a long flight means a day of relaxing is essential. Simply take a taxi to Ubud, about 20 miles away and you are immersed in the culture. You will be struck by the pungent aroma of Bali. It is a mixture of cooking smells from the open air kitchens, perfume from blossoms, incense from offerings and car fumes. The streets are lined with graceful bamboo decorations 20 feet high, whose function is to bless the mountains as they sway gently in the breeze.
Ubud, the cultural center of Bali, is a town in the mountain foothills and is a good place to get acclimated because it combines gourmet restaurants complete with espresso bars, plentiful homestays (the Bali Bed & Breakfast) with a town which has a thriving marketplace and is a center for painting, music and dance. The area is surrounded by rice terraces and is the heartland of Balis rice production, making it ideal for hiking. Many westerners, the ex pats, come to Ubud to study the arts with a guru, the Balinese name for teacher. Students can find rooms for under $10 a night while others with Robin Leach tastes can hobnob in luxury for perhaps $600 a day at Amandari, along with owners David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Actually most of the homestays are in the $20-$40 range and include breakfast, coffee, clean, beautifully furnished rooms and often a swimming pool. Every evening, performances beckon: dance with gamelan and shadow puppet plays with a dalang or puppet master.
After a few day you can plan to travel about - with a tour bus for the timid, a rented mountain bike for the fit, a motorscooter for the insane or a bemo, a Bali bus, for the public spirited. We rent a car to carry our cameras and friends. Bali has left hand drive and the roads are used by everything from three legged dogs to mammoth buses. Driving is very congested and wild, everyone is jockeying for position and the golden rule is Might makes right. Strangely, a car with a local English speaking driver costs almost the same as driving yourself and is a good alternative.
I feel that one should attempt to learn Balinese culture by spending as much time observing the local activities that the Balinese do, join them in a pick up game of volleyball, play with their children. Just like we pride ourselves on our local knowledge and pity the poor summer tourists in shorts freezing in our fog, so learning the Bali way means learning to adapt physically to their climate as well as the more important lessons of how they relate to each other.
It is a society in which conflict is rare, friendships are easily made and people try to help one another. Generations of people live together in a family compound, a series of individual buildings which contain bedrooms, a kitchen, a family temple. The pavilion like buildings are well suited to provide shade, ventilation and privacy at night. The Balinese finish work by five, wash up and afterwards go out and socialize in the evening, perhaps stopping at the omnipresent Balinese coffee shop and candy store, the warung. Except for occasional teenage sweethearts, one never sees men and women displaying public affection though one often sees people of the same sex holding hands. Children are everywhere... they greet you when you enter a village yelling Hello!
It is usual to greet or acknowledge a passerby with a nod or hand gesture. The Balinese are shocked to see isolation - as they say We are happy together and sad together. People live in small villages their whole lives and they have developed social skills to live in peace. We have never seen Balinese fight or argue. They love to joke, can be brutally sarcastic, but seem to always maintain their dignity and poise. During bartering for goods, sale or no sale, they are friendly and polite, but they are known for their love of excitement, drama and creative pyrotechnics.
Traveling around the island brings one to the beaches which range from isolated coves to the giant Kuta Beach, now a Waikiki like strip full of raucous partygoers - mostly Australians with a love of sun, surf, and beer. It is a great beach for body surfing, a good place to buy clothes and find a date, but Bali it aint. If you never leave Kuta, you will think of Bali as a place where you are constantly barraged with merchandise to buy. Street vendors are no longer allowed on the beach so it is possible to retreat to the sand. However the best approach is to leave Kuta and explore the many small villages. This is when the magic of Bali will be revealed.
Driving along a small road on the lookout for people, bicycles, motorcycles, animals and potholes, you will turn a corner and find a procession of people carrying temple offerings, accompanied by the sounds of an angklung, a small portable percussion ensemble.
Gamelan is the music of Bali, the equivalent of our symphony. It is an orchestra of about 30 members, who play cymbals, xylophone like instruments and gongs, creating sweeping cascades of sounds. The instruments have a special tuning so that pairs of instruments make shimmering harmonies and beat frequencies which swirl through the air.
Concerts are held in open air pavilions elaborately decorated with flowers and palm leaves. The musicians are dressed in matching costumes of sarongs and silken jackets. People sit, entranced by the music, and then beautiful young dancers, their bodies tightly wrapped in gold brocaded fabric, appear dancing in unison and throwing flower petals on the audience. They are legong dancers performing dances originally choreographed to delight the king. Even their eye movements are perfectly coordinated. Other dancers appear, old men with masks, fiercesome witches with dangling tongues, lion figures with two men inside snapping its jaws menacingly. The performances are in the evening and include scenes of Hindu mythology, commonly from the Ramayana.
The Balinese learn by example, as part of a creative team. In carving for instance, the beginning students or younger children will cut out the crudest simplest parts. The people with more experience will do more of the detail and perhaps the grandfather or the father will put in the very finest and subtlest expressions on the faces in the carving so that there is a progression of skills through the family.
Each village and town is divided into banjars, cooperative associations, who generally meet monthly to discuss and arrange all aspects of the communitys life. The banjar owns the gamelan and dance costumes. The members of the banjar vote for their leader, however this is usually a unanimous decision and everyone knows who is going to be the leader. This position is an honorary one, with people being very proud to be elected head of the banjar. In a sizable village there will be about 200 families to each banjar.
There is very little crime in Bali. Being a society which believes in karma, the Balinese do not want to impede their spiritual development by committing a crime. Also as most people live in banjars the perpetrator of a crime is soon discovered.
The glue that holds the Balinese community together is its spiritual life. Perhaps the most revealing comment I found on life in Bali was the astonishment on a Balinese mans face when I told him that going to church in the west was not generally considered fun. He could hardly believe me.
And it is not surprising for in Bali, going to temple is a spiritual as well as a colorful, noisy, sociable occasion. Everyone dresses in their best temple clothes with sarongs edged with gold and beautifully woven temple scarves. Music is an essential part of the temple ceremonies as the gods and goddesses are lured from heaven with music. Women carry elaborate temple offerings on their heads, sometimes three or four feet tall, with layers of beautifully arranged rice cakes, fruit, eggs, roast chicken and flowers. The gods are lovers of the arts so the offerings need to be aesthetically pleasing as well as good to eat.
In addition to being very religious, the Balinese are also very practical. After the offerings have been blessed and the gods have eaten their share, they are taken home again to be eaten by the family.
The Balinese always seek a harmonious relationship between Man and God, Man and Nature and between themselves. To achieve this, they make offerings, morning and evening, in their homes, the rice fields, the market, their place of work. A simple offering of a few grains of rice, a pinch of chili pepper, flower petals, incense and a sprinkle of holy water is placed in all common thoroughfares of the home so that the Bhuta kala or evil spirits will not venture in and cause problems.
Visitors are welcome at most ceremonies,even weddings or cremations, if they are wearing appropriate dress with temple scarves and sarongs. Cremations are the most important ceremony in a Balinese persons life. The Balinese believe in reincarnation so the soul needs to be freed from the body in order to attain higher levels of being. To accomplish this, the Balinese cremate the body in an elaborate ceremony, both expensive and requiring much preparation. After a person dies, they are temporarily buried directly in the ground of a cemetery while the family makes arrangement for the cremation. Unless the person is a Brahman (in which case the cremation takes place promptly), it can even take years before the appropriate amount of money has been saved. Often families from several villages will combine their resources and hold a big ceremony.
A cremation tower is made to carry the body to the cremation grounds. Depending on the caste of the person, it can be as much as 20 feet high. Decorated with flowers, gold foil and cloth and often having a colorful phoenix in front symbolizing the flight of the soul, the tower is transported on bamboo poles. Women lead the procession to the cemetery carrying a long white cloth which is attached to one end of the towers platform. The bearers of the tower run from side to side to confuse the soul of the dead person so it cannot find its way back to its home and haunt the surviving relatives. The body, wrapped in a white sacred cloth, is taken from the tower and put into a coffin, which often takes the form of a black bull. Strict rules used to dictate the type of container used but nowadays people sometimes choose beforehand what kind of animal they want to be used for their cremation.
In a recent ceremony in Ubud we saw 20 pyres burned, mostly black bulls, and were told that some contained as many as six bodies. With so many people to be cremated I was somewhat nervous that the fires might get out of hand but the Balinese are very experienced and all went according to plan.
To a Westerner, a cremation is a strange mixture of reverence and carnival. While the priest is performing the rites, a gamelan is playing while others are involved in selling ice cream, temple scarves and sculpture. It is not considered appropriate for people to express public sorrow. I have never seen tears at a cremation. After the cremation the ashes of the body are gathered up so they can be dispersed in the sea or in a river. Thus the soul is finally freed.
Another important rite is the tooth filing ceremony. The Balinese believe that pointed teeth, being a characteristic of animals, encourage animal and demon like behavior. The filing usually takes place at adolescence though occasionally the even the teeth of a corpse will be filed so they will be admitted into the spirit world. The participants are blessed by a pedanda, a Brahman priest, who then performs the filing. The teeth filings are carefully gathered together and buried in the family temple. The ceremony is very costly, sometimes a family will spend 2 million rupiah ($1,000). A Balinese youth told me he planned to wait to have his teeth filed until he got married so that it would be more economical. He would have it with his younger brother and sister and possibly other people from his village so that the expense could be shared.
The Balinese are always interested in your program and eager to show you local places of note. One day we were advised to visit a particular village way up in the mountains. An hour later we found ourselves in a procession of 3 000 people all dressed in ceremonial costume. There were about ten foreigners at the procession. The occasion was the blessing of the barongs, magical creatures who take the form of lions, wild boars, tiger, elephants or cows. During Galungan, the Balinese New Year, the barongs are taken to the temple to be blessed and their good energy recharged. At this ceremony several villages had pooled resources for the blessing of eight barongs.
Although tourism is increasing, agriculture is still the major source of income with rice being the main crop. Bali is a maze of rice fields interweaving down steep slopes, little waterfalls, carefully controlled, taking water from one level to the next. Irrigation takes many forms, the most common being streams along the road which are also used for washing and bathing. All rice growers belong to a subak, a community association which regulates the use of water. Members contribute work towards the upkeep of the irrigation, the amount of work depending on their water needs. The subak meets once a month.
Near each rice field is a shrine where offerings are made to ensure a good harvest. Most of the work is done by hand or with the aid of a hand pulled plow. Occasionally a water buffalo is used but many of the terraces are too steep to use the assistance of animals. The Balinese rice farmers are considered amongst the best in the world. They produce three crops a year of a hybrid rice developed twenty years ago. The traditional Balinese rice yields two crops annually. It is considered tastier and is used for temple ceremonies. Ducks eat insects in the flooded rice paddies. They provide fertilizer and combined with rice are themselves considered a local treat!
For those returning to Bali after an absence of a few years, Ubud is the place where they will find the greatest change. It has grown from a small quiet town to a bustling center with traffic problems. They are dealing with traffic gridlock by diverting commercial traffic around the main street. Fortunately the Balinese rule of allowing no building higher than a palm tree has been strictly enforced.
If you are in the bay area and need a local Bali fix, you can attend a concert of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, an accomplished troupe of American musicians and dancers who frequently perform in the bay area with Balinese guest artists. For concert information click here.
Kathleen Goodwin ©2004