Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Neither 10/12/02 Nor 10/1/05: My Bali
A five-time visitor to The Enchanted Isle since 1987, the bombings in 2002 and, again, just the other day, hit deep. Here's the first piece I wrote after my third trip, in 1993: Bali and Its People: A Love Affair. Always.
BALI AND ITS PEOPLE: A LOVE AFFAIR
BY GEORGINA MARRERO
The things that I have loved most in my life are often the things I liked least when I was first introduced to them. This is how I feel towards Bali, the small, culture-rich island that is the Indonesian archipelago’s crown jewel. During my first trip there, in 1987, I was mainly preoccupied with what I perceived to be the squalid sights and smells of the place. Appalled by the open sewers, the squat toilets, and the brisk selling – and consumption – of unsavory-appearing morsels, I was even more dismayed by the consistent lack of air-conditioning, hot water, and sometimes even electricity. A healthy dose of “culture shock”: that’s what I was experiencing at the time (although I wasn’t aware of it). On the contrary: I was so overly concerned with my creature comforts that I never really let myself take a good look at the place. However, I did like the smiling, friendly Balinese people even then. Without my realizing it, the seed had been planted for my return.
My second trip, in 1989, proved to be eminently more enjoyable. The streets had been cleaned up a bit; I had (more or less) mastered the use of squat toilets; the electricity no longer disappeared during each and every rainstorm; the food was more appealing, both in smell and in taste; and – most importantly – my eyes were finally opening to the wonders of the place. I now beheld the rice terraces fashioned like stairs into the sides of the hills, stretching as far as the eye can see; the iridescent blue-green lagoon at Candi Dasa; the pink chicken in Tenganan, the Bali Aga (“Old Bali”) village where animals and plants are still worshipped, rather than the Hindu gods; and the women moving in stately procession towards the pura (temple) during festival days, with trays piled high with fruits, flowers, and sweets as offerings to the gods perched daintily – yet precariously – on their heads, while the men gathered at the cock fights. The cremation of a fourteen-year-old boy moved me greatly, as I joined mourners and tourists alike in the solemn, yet joyful, procession. Listening to the gamelan players, and viewing the lighting of the funeral pyre with kerosene, I felt nothing short of awe, watching it burn. This time not only had the Balinese people continued to win me over, but I had also fallen in love with Bali itself. There was no doubt in my mind that I would return.
I returned to Bali in 1993. Accustomed to early summer tourist traffic – when Americans seemed to overrun the island – I discovered that, as mid-to-late summer is European holiday season, many of my fellow paradise seekers now hailed from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Scandinavia. In addition, Aussies always abound, as they have to travel a mere three hours to get to Bali as compared with everyone else’s fifteen to thirty hour treks! A new group of visitors had discovered Bali: the Japanese. There were now busloads of them… with tour guides and cameras in tow.
The influx of Japanese tourists was but one of the many changes that seemed to have taken place in Bali over the course of my four-year absence. The street smells were now virtually non-existent; air-conditioning had become more prevalent; and a brief lack of electricity went for the most part unnoticed. In addition, the airport had been completely refurbished; the highways had been widened to accommodate the increasing number of tour buses and pleasure vehicles; and boiled water (for drinking) was now guaranteed in all but the smallest warung (restaurant).
However, in the midst of all the changes and increased tourism on their island, the Balinese people continue for the most part to lead their lives as they have for centuries. They still prepare and distribute the daily offerings (little baskets made of young coconut leaves, which are filled with flowers, banana leaves topped with a few grains of rice and grated coconut, and with a few incense sticks stuck into the baskets before they are lit to release their fragrant scent right before they are distributed in front of entranceways, statues, and wherever else custom dictates). They still cremate their dead, usually in mass cremations where often no fewer than eight to ten funeral pyres are lit. A wondrous spectacle to behold, made even more so by the Hindu belief that those being cremated will soon be reborn, hopefully having earned a better station in life. They continue to cultivate their rice fields, which from afar look like mirrors in which one can almost see one’s reflection. They dote on their children and grandchildren. They play their gamelans. They weave their ikat cloth. They fashion their carved masterpieces out of ebony, mahogany, sandalwood, and even tree trunks. All of these rituals and skills have been passed down from one generation to the next. They are all but a tiny part of the incredibly rich culture and sense of tradition that these extraordinary people possess.
It is to the Balinese people’s immense credit that they have managed to imperturbably proceed on their well-ordered paths in life, at the same time that they have assimilated only as much of modern-day culture as their needs dictate. Justifiably proud of this accomplishment, a number of the islanders indicated to me that they are, nonetheless, also wistful for the days before bumper-to-bumper traffic on their highways, an increase in crime (primarily theft), land over-development, and mass commercialism. I found myself feeling the same way: during the summer of 1993 I almost craved the dusty streets of old, the wayward electricity, and the undisturbed expanses of land that I remembered from the late 1980’s.
I have a love affair with Bali, and with its people. The island itself is an earthly taste of paradise, to be sure. It is the Balinese themselves, however, who continue to enthrall me. They are a people who are open and caring and who share with you if you share with them. The peasant woman walking along the side of the road with a basket perched precariously on her head still smiles at you if you smile at her. The young shopkeeper is still eager to impress you with her knowledge of English. The artisans still aim to impress you with their skill. The server in the restaurant still beams approvingly when you finish your plate. Five times, and counting: I’m not finished with you, yet.
Revised 2003 version of original 1993 manuscript 1075 words All rights reserved
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