"Have you been to Bali yet?" is the question that I've been asked by almost every single Indonesian I've met in the 3 months I've been here. Although Indonesia is a vast country comprising over 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups and 742 different languages, I am white and ergo I must be going to Bali. If any foreigner has heard about Indonesia it is invariably about Bali. For many Australians it is their equivalent to the Spanish Costas for sun-starved northern Europeans, and their way of holidaying there is not at all dissimilar. Yes, I was planning to go to Bali I would reply, but also Sulawesi, Ambon, Flores, Sumatra and Java. There is more to Indonesia than just one island. Bali's overwhelming presence on the tourist trail through Indonesia made me resent it even before I had set foot on it. I was sure I wouldn't like it and wasn't planning on staying long.
|My nightmare image of Bali.|
Whilst in the Togians I had met a trio of Swiss girls who were coming to Indonesia to volunteer teaching English in a Balinese village. Since I had no preference as to where to stay whilst in Bali (except that I didn't want to be in a beach resort) I got in touch with them and they said they could help arrange something there. And so via their contact Guru Wayan (guru meaning teacher, and Wayan being a common name in Bali, meaning firstborn (incidentally there are also specific names for the next four in line, after which it goes back to Wayan again - needless to say Wayan is a common name in Bali)), an English teacher and part-time Hindu priest I was given an unused classroom (that happened to have a bed in it) in the village of Kerambitan. Although initially a choice born more of laziness than anything else, being based in an unassuming village far off the well-trodden tourist trail made me truly fall in love with Bali in a way that I don't think would have been possible otherwise, and something I certainly wasn't expecting.
|A simple shrine, with a collection of offerings that have piled up over a few days, in the middle of a paddy field. It's these little touches of everyday beauty that made me particularly appreciate Bali.|
Kerambitan, though barely deemed worthy of a mention in tourist literature is culturally rich and renowned for its style of dance. Houses are well-maintained and generally boast a main building, pavilion for receiving guests and playing gamelan, and shrine, all of which are finished with curving architectural flourishes that display a certain level of affluence and care for aesthetics. Kerambitan even has its own king who lives in a palace in the centre of the village. It's not a very fancy palace though a I managed to inadvertently wander in and roam around the king's back garden and verandah until I spotted some faded, framed newspaper clippings of said monarch entertaining Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall pre-divorce. Which sort of gives an idea of what the place is like: life moves at a slower pace, people are never too busy to stop for a chat, or to invite you in for some food (in fact one evening one of the girls and I were wandering around in search of dinner we found an unattended food stall; after a few cautious "hellos" a lady came round from the house behind and invited us to join her family for dinner).
Of course there are many places where the people are friendly, generous and welcoming. But in Bali there is the extra twist of their unique take on Hinduism. It permeates the landscape and everyday life on the island. Every house will have at least a small shrine, if not its own miniature temple. Then there is a temple for each neighbourhood and at least a couple of village temples. Add to these a liberal sprinkling of smaller shrines at waysides or in fields and colourful little offerings, of frangipani flowers and little sweets in dainty banana-leaf baskets, that are made three times daily and distributed by ever-smiling matrons. Incense, flowers and decorations made of bamboo and sugar-cane leaf decorate all public spaces. It's what India might look like if it wasn't for the multitude of social problems: poverty, squalor and the like. It was this communal beauty and art, as well as the habit of the local womenfolk to go about topless, that brought the European artists in the 20's and 30's. The social nature of art on the island is still alive and well amongst the island's communities, although most women now wear more conservative clothing, and the small minority who don't still remember the 30's and, quite frankly, I wouldn't mind if they also followed the prevailing trends.
|A road of penjors in Jatiluwih.|
I was very lucky that my time in Bali coincided with Galungan,the most important religious holiday in the Balinese calendar, when ancestral spirits are supposed to visit their former homes. The most visible manifestation of the celebrations are penjor, elaborately decorated bamboo poles, that line the roadsides in front of every home. In the couple of days before Galungan everybody was busy preparing and erecting their family penjors (or setting up ones that they had bought, pre-decorated at the market) much like we do with Christmas trees. (I'm sure there's probably a bit of neighbourly competition as well to see who has the grandest penjor.) On Galungan day I joined Guru Wayan and his neighbourhood at the local temple where they held a ceremony, complete with offerings, chanting, lively gamelan music, symbolic dances, and esoteric rituals. I was just happy to sit by and observe, trying to soak in the peaceful vibe and not get in the way. I was particularly thankful to have some explanations from Guru Wayan who was partly officiating the ceremony as otherwise it would have been largely lost on me (as opposed to only partially). Later in the evening there was a traditional barong dance in a nearby village. I was happy to be able to see an authentic one, performed on a village street outside a temple, as opposed to an artificial setting, which is how most tourists see it. I was less enthusiastic about the length of the dance, which crossed over the wrong side of 2 hours and was very static with much dialogue. However that was redeemed by the finale where dancers (and spectators pulled from the crowd) had large steel kris (a type of wavy dagger found throughout the Indonesian archipelago) poked at their stomachs. Everyone was hoping for blood (which is not an unknown possibility) although on this occasion the knives all bent before causing any serious harm.
|The people of Kerambitan praying during the Galungan ceremony in one of the neighbourhood temples.|
However quaint Kerambitan was, I wasn't going to just stay there. Getting around Bali's labyrinth of country lanes requires to do like the locals and take to two wheels, preferably motorised. Luckily Guru Wayan's family had a spare scooter and, after a few tentative sallies to show that I did know what the various pedals and buttons were, they allowed me to borrow it (I thought it best not to mention my last scooter-related adventures). And so, given as much freedom as the petrol I could afford, I set off to discover Bali's nooks and crannies. It was a joy to speed (responsibly) along the reasonably well-maintained roads seeing the well-ordered villages and lush paddy fields climbing up gently sloping hills. Green is the prevailing colour and its various hues assail you from all directions.
Many points of interest revolve around Hindu temples, many of which date back to the 15th-16th centuries when the court of the Javanese Hindu Majapahit empire, crumbling under pressure from expanding Muslim sultanates, retreated to Bali. The Hinduism and architecture have taken a uniquely Balinese flavour, and although I couldn't recognise any Hindu motifs that I had grown to recognise in India, the temples are peaceful oases of calm with large courtyards enclosing numerous pavilions and shrines to various deities. The Mother Temple of Balinese Hinduism is Besakih in the east of the island, where the complex of many connected temples climbs the foothills of Mount Agung, Bali's highest peak (at 3031m) and a sometimes active volcano. I had read of unscrupulous and persistent "guides" operating at the temple so was somewhat apprehensive when I arrived, but instead I found the place almost deserted and with a calm, peaceful atmosphere, laced with wafting incense, that few places of religious worship manage to capture.
|One of the many separate temples at Besakih with Mount Agung towering in the background.|
Having been beguiled by the cultural richness and cultivated natural beauty of the islands interior I decided that I could not be a proper traveller if I did not experience every facet of a location, and decided to make for Kuta beach, the epicentre of the archetypal Bali beach holiday, and the only brush with Indonesia many visiting foreign tourists get. I was expecting it to be grim and I wasn't disappointed. Wall-to-wall stalls selling kitsch tourist tat; restaurants with entirely Western menus (at Western prices) with only the briefest nod at something resembling Indonesian cuisine; boutiques selling surfer chic, and numerous clubs and bars advertising their happy hour specials (since I was visiting during the late morning I didn't have to deal with the inevitable consequences of said happy hours). It is the latter aspect in particular that precipitated Bali's darkest day back in 2002 when a popular nightclub was targetted by Islamist terrorists who planted a one tonne bomb in front of it, killing 202 people.
|The memorial wall in Kuta commemorating all the victims of the 2002 Bali Bombings.|
I suppose Bali is what you make of it. If you want it can be an easy, relaxing beach resort with all the comforts of home coupled with cheap prices, spas, massages, nightclubs, happy hours, debauchery, gentle locals as well as some culture thrown in should you feel like it. Or it can be a fantastically colourful, sweet-smelling, vibrant vortex of smiles, gamelan music, dances, flowers, invitations to tea and chat and while away the hours sitting under a pavilion. An image of what Indonesia was like before the advent of Islam (it may sound like I don't like Islam more than other religions, but it's just that Indonesian culture evolved for centuries under very different influences and the two do not seem particularly compatible). You can have either. I suppose it just depends on which you prefer.