Yes, I have fallen in Love with Bali, like most everyone does. It’s certainly true that Bali is the land of Goddesses and Gods, endless rice fields, iridescent blue water, temples, dance and lovely people. It’s easy to see why people develop quite a strong attraction to Bali, lured by a culture that embraces all that is vastly different from the Western world. It’s a place that entices those of us who gravitate towards traveling versus vacationing.
Yes, Bali is spiritual, exotic and contains the perfect mix of raw and refined. Although most of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali is different. The history is fascinating and worth a deeper look, but to put it simply, the Balinese follow a form of worship that merges Hinduism and Buddhism (literally through a historical and famous marriage) to create a unique blend found only on this island. Look closely and you’ll see that many of the concrete altars in the temples are wrapped in what appears to be black and white checkered tablecloths, the kind you’d see in a simple Italian restaurant. But don’t dismiss these as a simple decoration. It’s a significant symbol in which the major principle depicting the black and white is this: “In the good there is evil and in the evil there is the good.” With this in mind, the split between what’s right and wrong merge seamlessly into one and the difference between good/bad, ugly/beautiful, etc. becomes more and more questionable and vague. Ahhh what a concept! A concept that is evident to many Balinese people yet difficult, intriguing, refreshing and definitely thought provoking for many Westerners.
But even as good and evil merge into one, it’s hard for my Western eye not to notice the challenges. As in any love relationship, I’ll take the good and the not so good (usually). Bali, like everywhere has it’s rough side which mostly stems from tourism- the frenetic streets where motorbikes, cars and buses sit nose to tail in traffic because of the ever increasing amount of visitors. The onslaught of traffic with zero emission vehicles creates a visible brown haze in the air (along with the post harvest burning of the rice fields). There is an increasing water shortage and with that, the sinking feeling that the focus on individual wealth rather than the simple pleasures found in maintaining the richness of the land takes the lead role. Take the dry southern Bukit peninsula, for example, a spot known to surfers for big waves and long rides, where it’s bone dry for much of year so the need for water trucks is in high demand to pump in the water that we take for granted, to the tourist spots daily. Then there is the noisy and obtrusive construction of larger resort-like hotels are taking over the vast quiet cliffs that rise above the Indian Ocean. It’s an overtaxed land where the environmental consequences have already been devastating (major land erosion due to construction where the beach at a beach resort built up way to quickly was wiped out, is one example). There are also the rooster fights which are frightful (roosters are left caged on the street for hours to get them all riled up and “angry” before razors are attached to their legs to up the ante during the fight. And the caging and force feeding of the small animals in order to create the famous Luwak coffee (please don’t support this if you come to Bali) and the trash (mostly due to tourism) that is evident in the rivers and on the streets with no where to go. It’s heartbreaking to witness this and I know I am not innocent as I am a consumer as well, but as it does everywhere, it goes without saying that every little thing we do matters in terms of protecting the environment. Education and awareness are key. And in Bali, luckily, the awareness exists.
Trash and negativity aside, the beauty of Bali takes center stage. There are the flowers. The bright pink hibiscus blooms, delicate purple and white jacaranda flowers that hang down as you walk through the carved wooden doors and the multitude of plumeria blossoms that float effortlessly in the rivers and pools. And when you get a massage flowers are placed in small bowl on the floor as you peer down through your massage table. Oh and yes, massage! A reason itself to come to Bali! A massage will cost you anywhere from 7 US dollars for a simple Balinese style massage (they’re strong!) up to about 50 US for a complete over the top 2-3 hour experience. You can find healers called “balian,” and juices and healthy tonics known as “jamu” that heal the physical body and the soul also for a fraction of US prices.
Look beyond the narrow streets with zero sidewalks and you’ll find the secret hidden alleys that always lead to somewhere special- either a cafe (the food here is magnificent!) or spa, a “joglo” aka old Balinese style house, or if the air is clear enough, a glimpse of Bali’s two massive volcanos (Agung and Batur) that rise regally above the clouds. And again the flowers come into play as jasmine, ylang ylang and frangipani languidly scent the air and short but gentle rain showers often come at dawns first light. The glimpse of a Balinese woman setting out offerings outside of the family home to appease the gods is ever present and timeless and there are ceremonies that color the streets daily with gamelan music, dragons and families working together in fastidious preparation. Walk up the steep steps off the streets and you’ll wonder if you’re in a temple or a family house! Well, as luck would have it, you’re in both (there’s a temple in each family compound!). Look closely, everything here is art, prayer and presence, even what lies below the surface.
Bali is sealed in my heart.