Bali of the mind
NEW YORK CITY — Despite the long haul from this city, taking advantage of a mileage program, I visited Bali for a week as a break from the cold of January, before another spring semester of teaching began and the incessant demands of academe resumed their clamorous role in my life.
Ah, Bali! Or is it Bali Hai? Or Hi, Bali? Or perhaps Bali High? Even though Indonesia metes out the death penalty for drug users and dealers, as it just did recently, executing a Dutch person and a Brazilian despite protests from their respective governments, according to my friend Ricker, a painter and writer who grew up in the Bronx and now lives on the island with his Chinese-Indonesian wife Jovita, you still have a sizeable number of people willing to take that risk for either profit or pleasure, or both. I suppose drugs would be one snake in this beautiful tropical island garden.
The other would be terrorism, from Islamic fundamentalists. In Kuta, the seaside town favored by backpackers and fervent partygoers—think Boracay on a larger scale—there is a memorial to victims of the 2002 bomb blast that leveled a bar and killed 202 patrons of varying nationalities, with more than a third from Australia. The Jemaah Islamiya, the extremist Islamist group suspected to have links with the Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao, was behind the bombing, and in 2008 the plotters were convicted and executed.
Alcohol, of course, is easily available here, unlike the rest of this sprawling archipelago of more than 13,000 islands, with the largest population of Muslims in the world. It is consumed, often in great quantities inevitably leading to bar brawls and unruly behavior on the part of visitors, frowned upon in a culture that prizes decorum—what the sociologists like to term as Smooth Interpersonal Relations—and obviously, venomously, detested by Islamic fundamentalists.
Unlike the rest of the country, Bali is mostly Hindu, with its largest minority being the Muslims and the smallest being the Christians. Hinduism is the legacy of centuries of Indian influence, which peaked with the 13thcentury Majapahit Empire that included Java. Once the empire declined, coincident with the rise of Islam towards the end of the 13th century, a significant number of intellectuals and artists moved to Bali from Java. (Islam would then spread to the southern Philippines by the 14th century.)
In the town of Sanur, where I stayed, the earliest visible legacy of Hinduism is the Blanjong pillar, encased in a large wooden-and-glass enclosure at a nearby temple, with its Sanskrit inscriptions dating from the 9thcentury. The day I walked over from the hotel, I was the only visitor, except for an elderly woman who had come to place floral offerings at the shrine, over which loomed a very old and giant banyan tree, like some guardian deity. The woman reminded me of another middle-aged woman performing the same function at the hotel, which has two Hindu shrines, one by the entrance, and the second, larger one within the hotel grounds. Every morning I would watch this woman, dressed in a sarong and a white collarless blouse, pad about both shrines, placing fresh floral offerings and lighting votive incense, then sweeping the ground of leaves.
The island is full of temples and shrines large and small, and one finds offerings, usually an arrangement of flowers and palm leaves in doorways, driveways, gardens and on the beach. To my mind, this is really where the magic of Bali resides, in the manner with which the Balinese way of life coexists with tourism, able to accommodate the attendant pressures of modernity without giving up its soul. The revenues from tourism are substantial, as the island has on the average 10 million visitors a year, a figure that the Philippines can only dream about.
Sure, Bali has spectacular beaches, palm trees, emerald-green rice terraces, postcard-pretty tropical landscapes and weather that encourages informal or little wear at all. (Bikinis are commonplace here, not so in the rest of the country, according to Jovita.) But so do many other tropical islands, the Philippines among them. While the Balinese cater to the tourists, they seem to do so sans obsequiousness. Comfortable in their own skin, they display a certain grace and, like the true sophisticate, feel no need to demonstrate that they are on a par with the visitor, not economically perhaps, but certainly culturally and socially.
On a day trip with Ricker and his wife as my guides, we visited Ubud, not far from Sanur and situated inland, and the surrounding countryside, so I could get a better sense of Bali. Ubud is the island's cultural capital, where the royal palace, still inhabited by the royal family, is. Other attractions included the Sacred Monkey Forest, held up as an example of the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature and rice terraces. Apparently, the rice terraces were the backdrop to scenes from the 2010 movie "Eat Pray Love" (based on the 2006 eponymous memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert), with Julia Roberts in the lead role. Ricker says, laughing, that for a while you had a number of Julia Roberts wannabes in town, all "looking for the perfect Balinese lover."
Ubud is hilly, with an atmosphere quite different from the beach towns along the eastern and southern coasts. After exploring a handicraft shop, we had lunch at a place the couple favored: a lechon house, only here it is known as babi guling. Again, a dish that you wouldn't get in most of Indonesia. The skin and meat were almost as tasty as our lechon; I did miss the liver sauce that renders roast pork even more delicious.
It isn't difficult to see why Bali, with its unique culture, along with Gauguin's Tahiti, occupies a central place in the popular Western imagination, helped along by the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "South Pacific" (based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific), where the island of Bali Ha'i can be seen in the distance, seemingly within reach but really unattainable. Often described as "the morning of the world," Bali, or more accurately, the idea of Bali, is the epitome of a tropical paradise, an equatorial Shangri-La, a warm-weather Brigadoon. It can, of course, and has been a site of the Orientalist imagination, and that it most certainly continues to be, for many of those who traipse there. But to limit one's approach to the Orientalist looking glass is to miss the deeper significance of Bali, there in the beautiful gestures of lives lived simply, not in opposition to but in harmony with Nature.