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Reflections on a month in Bali.

As I sit here with a head cold which has become something nasty in chest and ears, and reflect on a month in Bali which already seems to have gained such distance as to be a phantom or dream in the mind of semi delirium, certain aspects of Balinese life come into clearer focus, as though the dream is trying to impart some other understanding.

The cynicism which has regrettably but inevitably become a part of the Balinese psyche in respect of dealings and interaction with tourists is not something evident or overt in any way. At first the warm regard and punctilious attentiveness on the part of waiters and service staff is taken to be emblematic of the actions of a people who acknowledge the divine in others; a part of what it is to be Hindu, but nothing in relation to the service of tourists is performed without the hope and expectation of reward. For people whose wages are a tiny fraction of that of the foreigners they serve, tips are not only expected but depended upon. Good espresso coffee costs pretty much the same in Bali as it does in any cafe in any city in the world, amounting in Bali to the cost of a meal for two in most places, which inclines the tourist who might frequent a cafe more than once a day to reserve his largesse for the cheaper warungs and eateries where he thinks it might be better apportioned. This is a mistake. He must realise sooner rather than later that the staff in the expensive cafes make no more real income than those in the warungs, and ensure that he calculates his expenditures accordingly.

The women who implore you to buy the same clothes from their shops as are sold in all the other shops, upon finally wearing you down to the point at which you agree to buy just one article, will quote a price they know is over twice its worth and expect you to haggle it down until a mutual satisfaction is reached, treating with open derision anyone who won’t haggle vigorously and pays anything close to the asking price.

Having understood that nothing is undertaken, no social transaction with tourists is made without remuneration or the promise of some commercial contract at the end of it, one is then almost fully acclimatised and fit to be immersed in the life of Bali. One can’t escape the feeling though, as the people smile and greet the tourists with light banter, that their contempt for the apparent wealth and ease with which the tourists appear to be thoroughly availing themselves of all the extravagances and comforts Bali’s low exchange rate and cost of living affords is only just thinly suppressed.

The tourists we constantly passed in the streets seemed to have solved the problem of continual harassment to buy things by simply ignoring the street sellers and drivers as though they don’t exist, a ploy which one day towards the end of our stay even we were driven to employ following a particularly unpleasant encounter with a bevy of hard sell women at the beach at Sanur, who were determined to follow us with haranguing and impertinences when we tried, with cheerful but firm assurances with thanks, to explain we were merely interested in taking a walk. But upon reflection I realise that it’s entirely possible we were the only tourists to actually engage the people as individuals and therefore posed an anomaly to these women who, in being thus engaged on a personal basis, took unaccustomed liberties with us and didn’t know where to draw the line. One day in Lovina, a black sand and rock beach locality at the north of Bali, we took a walk along the main street and passed an old man sifting through garbage on a pile of reeking refuse. He was collecting the discarded plastic water bottles and bags to sell as salvage, a necessary but lowly occupation for those seeking to earn a few rupiah by disposing of the enormous tonnage of non biodegradables which threaten to overwhelm the island. I greeted him with warm cordiality saying “Selamat pagi,” (Good morning) to which he very nearly did a double take and passed out. When he’d recovered his faculties he returned the greeting with smiles, and some time further along the road he passed us on his dilapidated scooter, a huge sac of plastic on his back, and very excitedly and happily waved at us, nearly wobbling his vehicle into calamity with other traffic. For all I know he may be relating the story of the day tourists stooped to greet him to his grandchildren, and they to their grandchildren for several generations to come.

We met tourists from northern Italy, Germany, Holland, Canada, Korea, Austria, Poland, America, Belgium and France, and enjoyed them very much, and passed others from Japan and China who, divided too much by language and culture evidently, ignored other tourists and wouldn’t so much as give equal way on the footpaths, but expected others to take to the tarmac with the vehicular traffic. But apart from the people with whom we struck up conversations and shared pleasant times, tourists in general in Bali, particularly the Australians, sad to say, were gross feeders and ample cause to develop in Balinese a revulsion which they admirably seem to hide. The mere thought that those beautiful girls in Ubud, having sweet innocent faces and delicate frames and hands, would every day massage some of these specimens was enough to make me shudder with horror, and I won’t permit any mental pictures to develop in my mind even now.

Many tourists we encountered appeared to have precious little regard for the ways of the Balinese, and complained unreasonably about almost everything. The gardeners, some of whom catch colds whenever there’s the least change in temperature or humidity, don’t spend half their wages on wads of tissues to blow their noses into but snort and spit, or blow through the nostrils straight onto the garden beds. The tourists seem to find this disgusting and make complaints. What the?… you’re in Bali now, not your clinically devised and engineered hometown…

Every restaurant or warung has its own particular way of expressing Balinese or Indonesian dishes, and no one recipe is the same as another. But there were tourists who, finding fault on receiving their plates, took it upon themselves to point out the errors in this or that dish and in whining tones dripping with sarcasm tried to teach Balinese cooks to prepare their orders their way.

Others, clearly having taken up the chant and adopted the creed of the popular media, regard smokers as terrorists who are trying insidiously to kill them, and made complaints over having to share the open air with them, whilst making nothing, of course, of the endless stream of traffic billowing and blasting them with noxious fumes and chemical particulants. So annoyed was I by them that I had even rehearsed a cutting retort, loaded with irony which they probably wouldn’t understand, but direct enough to impart a sense of their manifold hypocrisies should their brains be not too withered by bigotry to grasp a few home truths. But alas such is the frustration of life that no provocateur within discreet reach of my voice presented a suitable occasion upon which I might brilliantly deliver my few scathing words.

The kind of tourists who spend around a thousand dollars a night in the big resorts are, quite naturally and as one would expect, never seen on the streets or at music venues or restaurants or cafes or (perish the very thought) at warungs. They remain within the plush and breathtaking grounds of their hotels, and eat in the various restaurants thriving under the shelter of the hotel complex. They are not bothered by the street sellers and beach hawkers because such are not allowed to encroach upon the parts of pathways and beach directly in front of the hotels or resorts. When they want to experience something of Bali they rely upon the hotels’ drivers to take them on expensive tours for which their every wish and whim is well catered.

People who don’t depend on tourism for their living but eke out an existence on the farm or in small shops catering to their own communities tend to ignore the visitors, used to the indifference and arrogance of tourists who treat their island as their own, and have learned to mentally block them out and live their lives as they’ve always done. The gardeners employed by the hotel at which we stayed in Ubud gave us the best insight into the Balinese personality, being independent of any direct benefit gained by social intercourse with tourists. They are gentle people, sweet in their simplicity, interested in the lives and ways of people from other lands, and happy for opportunities to expand their English vocabulary, which they regard as providing opportunities for better jobs at higher wages. Their families and family traditions are the focus of their lives, local religious festivals and celebrations the events which strengthen their ties with their neighbours. There is in them both an acceptance of their lot in life and aspiration to overcome it, seemingly working simultaneously and without conflict.

Having spoken of the quid pro quo which shapes and informs relationships between Balinese and tourists, there is one example in particular which reveals the nature of these people and which constitutes exception to the rule. One night in Lovina, having stayed until after dark at a big hotel’s cafe where there were two musicians employed to entertain on the beach, we made our way back towards our lodgings. Being a stretch without lighting and having no warungs still open, we had to carefully move around fishing boats and their anchorage ropes made only just visible by a clouded semi moon, and not recalling how far along the beach we’d come nor how to recognise the intercepting jalan (street) on which our bungalow awaited us, we overshot it. Oblivious, we came at length to a rushing inlet spanned by a concrete bridge in such bad repair that in trying to obtain it we had to clamber over disarranged boulders which had clearly at one time been the concrete approaches to the bridge but had badly broken up. Not recognising anything in the dark we nonetheless pressed on, crossed the bridge, clambered over the same boulder strewn shoulder as on the other side, and found ourselves at the opening to a jalan completely obscured by darkness. At that point we might have reasoned that even owing to the visual changes wrought between day and night we’d encountered nothing during the afternoon when we arrived and decided to explore on foot that in any way resembled where we now found ourselves, and retraced our footsteps, had it not been for the sudden appearance of a pack of snarling and growling dogs. Espying a dim light afar off up the jalan, we determined to make for it with all efficiency, and donning an air of prepossessing valour we strode through the pack and appealed to some shaded figures we could finally see standing near the light. An old woman, as we approached saying we were lost, looked over to her husband who moved into the light as we turned in his direction, but neither of them understood English and the eldest son was fetched, while the woman kindly swept a tiled step for us to sit on and we admired the beautiful children who emerged to gaze at the hapless tourists. No sooner had we explained the situation to him than both he and his father pulled out their scooters, saw us installed on the back of each, and by a mysterious path delivered us to the jalan we described, and into the care of our hosts who stood by as though anxiously awaiting our return. We scarcely had time to thank the men before they sped off. The thing is, you see, that they had both opportunity and cause to come to some deal over restoring us to our lodgings, and we would have been delighted to pay them any sum they might propose. Touched deeply by their generosity and kindness we wanted to give them something which would not embarrass them, and finally settled on a gift of drawing paper and coloured pens and crayons for the children, which we took there in daylight with many thanks.

The Bali musicians are divided into two groups in my thinking: those who play for the joy and finesse of it and in understanding make the songs their own; and the others who haven’t understood the lyrics but having learnt the sounds which approximate can render a pleasant version and keep the customer satisfied. Whatever the case, Balinese musicians adapt to a broad range of playing styles and genres, and in the south west at Jimbaran on the beach was even a group of musicians, one of whom had a banjo and who had mastered frailing and double thumbing perfectly, who all were completely adept with Bluegrass music, delightfully singing parallel harmonies, and, apart from their accents, might be taken as an ensemble from Kentucky. They and those from other beach or bayside towns and localities such as Sanur, and those in Ubud, many of whom are Reggae musos, were very cool dudes indeed. It seems in retrospect that they are the happiest people in Bali. But……..

There is this convention in Bali which governs the conduct of couples to the effect that the women don’t go out with or play music with their men, so one never sees a female musician or singer, unless of course she’s a tourist or visiting foreigner, and the music venues and bars are devoid of Balinese women and girls unless they’re wait staff. Far be it from me to criticise the ways of other people, but it would rather seem that Balinese women have the life of drudgery whilst their men are free to do as they please. However, whatever strictures prevent the Balinese women from the happy pursuits of their husbands and boyfriends does not seem to affect the relationship between the Balinese musos and any visiting female musicians. In fact in all instances there seems to be no special deference or treatment of female tourists, both males and females receiving handshakes and the same polite address.

I have discussed my observations of the Balinese attitude of and relationship to the dogs and cats, and of the geckos and frogs, and the monkeys, but there is another animal of which I might make mention, a scurrying bushy tailed creature which must be a squirrel. It travels along the branches of trees and up and down tree trunks with awesome speed and agility, freezing whenever it becomes aware of being watched. As soon as the offerings are put out and the prayers silently uttered with graceful hand gestures, the squirrels dart out of hiding and quickly steal the edible parts;  a small biscuit, some rice, perhaps a little fruit and the odd flower or two. This doesn’t bother the women who have ceremoniously placed the offerings – whatever happens to them after the placement and prayer is inconsequential, the execution and purpose already achieved. There seems to be a true symbiosis in Bali, an independent interdependence between animal and man, and whatever creatures run or swim in the rice paddies foraging for food are considered sacred.

And now to speak of the wonderful Sumatran elephants, the smallest of all the species of elephant, which we met at the Elephant Safari Park. Rescued by an Australian from lives of hard labour in the jungles of Sumatra where they hauled heavy logs, they are now installed and living lives of luxury and contentment in magnificent parklands. Each elephant has his or her own keeper, and tourists take rides in little wooden seats on their backs, the keepers sitting on their heads, through a jungle leased from the property of a farmer. Ola was the name of our elephant, a sweet natured girl who paused along the track from time to time to help herself to grasses and coconut fronds which had fallen in her path. After the little trek we humans gathered with the elephants to pat and feed them, and I went to some lengths to tell Ola what a sweet, wonderful girl she is, and I’m sure I’m not mistaken in having observed her face break into a smile and an expression of love reflect in her eye.

Everywhere in Bali the examples of fine craftsmanship in carpentry and wood carving, in stonemasonry and sculpture, in batik and weaving, and in fine drawing and etching abound and can be seen as part of the fabric of Balinese life and culture, forming a significant part of the ubiquity of the everyday and the commonplace. It’s as though the very life of the Balinese breathes through these things, the expression of Balinese creativity and genius which no pressure of poverty can subvert or depress.

Oh Bali. Land of contradictions and enigmas, of paradox and mystery, I feel the call of your allure and know I won’t be truly happy again until I’m thrust once more into the midst of your ridiculous busy streets and marketplaces and am at the mercy of your insistent drivers and hawkers. I won’t feel comfortable or healthy again until I’m panting with exhaustion and dripping with sweat moving from one shaded venue to another. I won’t feel completely free until I haven’t been able to get a hot shower again for at least two weeks and it really doesn’t matter. And I won’t feel okay about having to live in this frightening world with all its bad news and evil works until I can hide myself once more in the splendour and squalor of Bali.

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