Balinese Glimpses

by Robert Tompkins, Jan 25, 2001 | Destinations: Indonesia / Bali
The sea's syntax was punctuated by a fisherman slapping the water with a wooden paddle.

The sea's syntax was punctuated by a fisherman slapping the water with a wooden paddle.

The sea's syntax was punctuated by a fisherman slapping the water with a wooden paddle.
Sarong vendor, "Cheap price for you, Boss."
Everywhere, there are statues of gods and goddesses; some are the personification of serenity and beauty.
The forces of evil are embodied in the malevolent witch monster, the Rangda.

It's difficult not to see Bali through paradise eyes. It is difficult to remain objective; there is the risk of tinting your views with the pastels of wish fulfillment, the hues of mythology, the colors of connotations. Bali can do that to you. Bali can alter your perceptions and make you think in terms of myth and magic.

1. Images of Bali flicker from the unreeling film of memory, melting and flowing together like a surreal collage by Salvador Dali. The emerald sheen of terraced rice paddies, the communal threshing of the mature sheaves, a water buffalo knee deep in the diverted mountain stream, lugging a wagon -- all merge and are mixed with the cows with deer-like horns lolling in fields, the fishing boats with outriggers, a painted grimace on the bow to ward off evil spirits, statues of gods, red hibiscus flowers behind each ear and draped with black and white sarongs, the woman on a bicycle balancing a three foot high basket on her head, the crippled beggar on a wagon no bigger than a skateboard being pulled at breakneck speed by two kids of about six, a yapping puppy in pursuit. The images meld together, threads mingling like a tapestry created by a slightly mad weaver.

2. On the beach, the sea's syntax was punctuated by a fisherman who was slapping the water with a wooden paddle. He wore what looked like a crash helmet and was waist deep in the water, whacking the surface in order to scare the fish into his net. When he saw our interest, he waved, and smile beaming, proudly displayed a plastic bag with the morning's catch.

3. "Excuse me, please. This money is broken." We were at the Nusa Dua Galeria, a vast shopping mall built to replace the ramshackle shops that abounded along the road to Nusa Dua only six years ago. The vendor was apologetic as he pointed out a small tear at a corner of one of the American dollars we had used to make a purchase. "I'm very sorry, but this one is broken. Could I please have a different one?" He smiled and was hesitant, hoping not to offend.

4. A taxi driver who bore an alarming resemblance to rock and roll legend, Little Richard, approached us.

"Hey Boss! Do you have a program for tomorrow?"

He then recited an oft-repeated litany of possibilities. "Volcano? Mt. Batur? Monkey Forest? Woodcarving village? Bat Cave? Elephant Temple? Turtle Island?"

Soon, we had a tentative schedule of tours for the next few days; the negotiation of the fee took considerably longer. He would meet us at our hotel at nine the following morning, Little Richard smiled, his teeth sparkling, making the hand gesture known internationally as "more or less". The Balinese concept of time has earned the label "rubber time".

5. To a degree unparalleled in the rest of Indonesia, perhaps in the rest of the world, art, music, dance and religion are inseparable, tightly woven threads in the fabric of life; religion is at the core of life and it is given voice in the arts.

Everywhere, there are statues of gods and goddesses, divinities and demons, heroes and villains. Their carved faces peer from hanging bougainvillea, they watch from the shade of a palm, they guard entrances, clubs clutched in fists, ready to protect from evil spirits; they are in rice paddies, along roads and sidewalks, in restaurants and hotels. Some have eyes bulging, nostrils flaring, and tongues lolling, their faces frozen in fanged smile or sneer; others are the personification of serenity and beauty.

A portion of daily life is devoted to the preparing and presenting of offerings to the gods. Palm baskets are woven and gifts of flowers, rice, and incense are bestowed in an effort to lure the spirits of goodness. The offerings are left at shrines and temples, and they are placed on the omnipresent statues of gods. The woven green baskets can also be found near fishing boats, at the corner of a street vendor's blanket, in the center of a painter's display, or on the dashboard of cars and buses. The gods must be appeased.

6. We were at Goa Lawah, the bat cave and temple; thousands of squeaking, furry, bulging eyed bats the size of robins hung upside down on the outside walls, their guano splattered everywhere.

"Bat chit," Little Richard explained, with a toothy grin.

7. When searching for a symbol that embodies the quintessence of Bali, the ubiquitous split gateway, "Candy Banter", always emerges. The twin right-angled triangles rise in tiers and taper to a point; the interior walls are smooth and straight, giving the impression that the gates have been cleaved from a single rock. They are everywhere: at the entrances to villages as well as temples, houses, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools and beaches, and they all proclaim the same single message -- welcome.

8. The mists of Mt. Batur hang like a veil over the entire fertile valley, the mountainside etched with lava fissures, the lush jungle flourishing, nurtured by the rich volcanic ash. Batur is one of two volcanoes that have erupted in this century; the other, Mt. Aging, last erupted in 1963, killing thousands. Volcanoes are sacred in this land that owes its very being to ancient volcanic rumblings. Volcanoes are the homes of the gods; all temples and shrines point in their direction.

Vendors of all ages besiege tourists at locations such as Mt. Batur. One, a lad of about ten selling a carved chess set that folded up like an attaché case, dogged our every step, constantly lowering his price and begging us to make an offer. His last price of ten dollars was shouted as the door was closing. The look of disappointment on his face still lingers, seen through a window that separated far more than air conditioning and humid air.

9. We were about an hour's drive from our hotel, and had just visited a number of villages, each famous for its particular artisans. The roads were bumpy and narrow and windy; chickens and dogs darted in front of the car, barely escaping in time.

"Close your eyes!" Little Richard suggested after a near miss, his gleaming teeth reflected in the rear view mirror.

"Hey boss, why did the chicken cross the road?" he asked, attempting to suppress his chuckling. When a suitable answer was not forthcoming, he told us. "To get flattened!" The tears came down his eyes as he exploded into uncontrollable laughter.

When he had recovered, he explained that it was a Balinese joke. Undaunted, he began another, something about lonely elephants being trained to play soccer, but he couldn't control his laughter enough to relate it, and finally, begging our pardon, gave up in frustration.

There was a sudden darkening of the skies, and then, a torrent. The downpour lasted less than fifteen minutes and then, abruptly, the sun returned and the hot pavement steamed and the hillside village was engulfed in the evaporating mists. Phantoms left their homes to bathe in the flowing temporary rivers. Sarongs came off in a flourish, brown bodies were lathering and splashing and laughing as if in a mirage, grandmother and mother and father and children, and then the trance ended, and all that remained was the feeling of harmony and innocence.

10. Popularized by the vagabond hippies of the sixties, Kuta Beach has a somewhat disreputable name; whether its raffish reputation is warranted or not, the souk-like shops reminiscent of Morocco, the good restaurants and reasonable hotels, the carnival atmosphere and the best beach in Bali combine to draw an international crowd of visitors, some of whom are still living in the sixties Kuta Beach sunsets are legendary. Every day brings the hope of a sunset orchestrated by the gods. And sometimes the gods concur. The ocean erupts in fire, flowing like burning lava, the waves flaming as shards of color stab and slice before sinking. After one last shimmer of crimson quicksilver slides along the horizon, the celebration is over. Night drops like a curtain.

The beach and streets are always busy with vendors. Preteen girls will examine your finger nails, frown at your cuticles, and offer a manicure; while dealing with the manicure girls, you will feel soothing squeezes on your shoulders as a masseuse grins from beneath her numbered, blue, pyramidal hat; "I make you a long massage, Boss. Good. Cheap. Okay, Boss?" Her skilled fingers will knead you into consent. Teenage girls giggle as they offer to braid and bead hair. There are vendors selling statues, copy watches, batik sarongs, seashells, earrings, postcards, and T shirts, all striving for your attention, studying your eyes closely for the slightest hint of interest, all the while undercutting their original prices between shouts of "How much you want to pay, Boss?" In the background, awaiting their turn, more vendors hold their wares high, trying to catch your eye and ear as they holler their ever-changing prices. And all the while, the surf of the Indian Ocean crashes on the shores, as relentless as the vendors.

11. On another outing with our taxi driver/guide, Little Richard informed us that there would be a special tour the following day -- a cremation ceremony on Kuta Beach. His smile faded when the news brought little enthusiasm. There was a cultural gulf here, one side viewing a cremation as a solemn, sad event, the other seeing it as a celebration of the soul's release for rebirth, a time for rejoicing and merriment. Tourists, Little Richard explained, were welcomed. I visualized the tourists' cameras clicking and whirring as the flames consumed.

12. Music here is synonymous with "gamelan" -- an orchestra of gongs and drums and timbrels that features the "gangsa", a xylophone-like instrument with bronze keys over bamboo resonators, which are hit with padded mallets. Predominantly percussive, gamelan music is engaging and intriguing as the varying gong tones are juxtaposed with melodies that are soft and lilting only to burst abruptly into a cacophonous crescendo, deep resonance counter pointed with staccato pings, and then there is a blending, only to change in volume and rhythm yet again. A haunting flute melody plays hide and seek over the percussion. The players, all men, squat barefooted on the floor. They seem entranced, their faces an expression of transcendence.

13. Dance is an important component in Balinese life and although there are many different dances, all are religious in origin. Many of the dances tell stories from the epic poem "Ramayana" or dramatize the eternal conflict between good and evil. The dances are highly stylized and ritualistic; the young female dancers, most of whom have been training under the tutelage of grandmother or great grandmother, reflect their dedication with the graceful flow of arms and delicate fingers, the tilt of head, and changing facial expressions. Under the night sky, against the backdrop of statues, a "Barong" dance was staged for the benefit of hotel guests. As a prelude, a number of elaborately costumed young girls performed a welcoming dance, scattering yellow and white frangipani flowers on the audience, the fragile petals floating through the cigarette smoke.

The Barong dance is an enactment of the timeless conflict between the forces of good, symbolized by the benevolent Barong, monster and the forces of evil, embodied by the malevolent witch monster, the Rangda. Throughout the performance, tourists squatted in front of the dancers, cameras clicking and whirring. One rotund gentleman wearing his Bermuda shorts tucked below his stomach, gestured to those on stage to move closer so that they would fit into his frame. Three ladies at the next table smoked and laughed and talked between return trips to the buffet's dessert table. A group of four couples, wives sitting at one table, husbands at another, all obviously inebriated, seemed to be having a contest for which group could be the most boisterous and inconsiderate. The dancers continued, apparently accustomed to such behavior.

Suddenly, there were a dozen bare-chested young men on stage. All were wearing sarongs, all had hibiscus flowers behind each ear, all brandishing a keris --a wavy bladed dagger. They seemed mesmerized, and, in a trance induced by the evil Rangda, attempted to stab themselves, gripping the keris with both hands, the points dimpling their skin, their eyes in terrorized pain. The gamelan was a frenzy of gongs and drums as Barong overcame the forces of evil. For the moment, the ladies at the next table watched with interest, and the loud laughter from the noisy octet ceased, although some photographers snapped away, their flashes punctuating the night, and the spell. In the sub equator night sky, the crescent moon curved on its bottom like a happy face. Here, even the moon wears a smile.

14. It was about eleven o'clock in the evening on our last night in Bali. On our way to the pool, we passed a hotel worker taking a smoke break; the unmistakable smell of his clove cigarette was not unpleasant.

"Good morning, madam. Good morning, sir," he said, smiling. The importance was in the greeting, not the words.

15. We were neck deep in the thermal waters of the deserted pool, the sultry sea air perhaps a degree or two lower than the water. Barely discernable above the crash and roar of the Indian Ocean, we could hear the low whispers and muffled laughter of the gods, and, under ancient constellations, we felt strangely in harmony with the Universe. Bali can do that to you.