The van ambled past fields littered with fire colored saffron flowers and past emerald rice fields with birds swooping down to steal rice ready for harvesting. Bali’s terrain is laid out quite simply. In the valleys, rice is grown and as you ascend up to the mountains, cloves, cocoa beans, guavas, bananas and the fiery dragon fruit grow in abundance. Much like the terrain, the Balinese people live a simple life mired in the Hindu religion and brotherhood.
Bali is known as the island playground for the Aussies. A local, Ucock pointed out, “Bali is like sugar. Ants will come to it.” Hippies and surfers have been flocking to the island’s lush landscapes for many years. Surfers are in perpetual search for the perfect wave whilst spiritual bliss seekers venture into the mountains to concentrate on their headstands.
My guide was Wayan (pronounced “WHY-YAN). He stood 5’6” medium build with jet black shoulder length hair that was sometimes gathered into a ponytail. What I liked about Wayan, was that he was not the typical ennui guide. His smile was easy. He had a sharp sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to divulge his political opinions.
The traditional Balinese way to greet and say goodbye is clasped hands in front of the chest, a bow and a smile. At first I found this a bit demeaning. But a conversation with Wayan changed this perspective. He told me that the every Balinese is raised with three tenants:
- First take care of nature.
- Take care of each other.
- Take care of God
- Offering of flowers and sweets in the Ubud market
Although Indonesia is primarily a Muslim nation, 92% of Balinese practice Hinduism. Their religion is inextricably bound up in their culture and daily lives. Hindu Bali does owe credence of its origins to India, but the religion has developed independently in Bali with elements of Animism from the indigenous people. Animism is the belief that there are gods and goddesses in all things. Everything in nature from the ant to the bamboo tree possesses its own power. There are also elements of Taoism and Confucianism in religious practices. Art and rituals are celebrated in a highly dramatized form. This can be seen in dances and the daily offerings. These offerings are contained in a square container formed out of coconut leaves. Flower petals, candy, money and incense are usually the offerings to the gods for good luck and well- being.
The dance performances are legendary. Through movement, Hindu folklore is shared and intricate stories are told. The Sadekawa and Barong Dances are popular dance performances for tourists to view. These dances are passing on Balinese culture through the generations. On stage there are multi-generations, the young and the old all telling the stories of Balinese way life and mythic folklores.
As I moved from the cities of Seminyak and capital of Denpasar to the hills of Ubud, the energy felt unhurried, even in traffic. Everywhere I looked there was evidence of this religious culture. Incense smoke wafted lazily around street corners, bright flowers decorated religious statues and Hindu deities. Offerings were on street corners, in public shrines, in front of businesses and homes.
On a particularly hot day, we were driving through the town of Seminyak. The van whizzed by stone Buddha statues decorated with flowers behind their ears. Wayan was under a firestorm of questions and he answered each thoughtfully. Suddenly he turned around and said, “America thinks our country is a piece of shit. Australia doesn’t give us visas to work. They think we are all terrorists. Bali people don’t have time for terrorism. Our religion is a very busy religion. We are too busy with offerings every day, praying at the temple three times a day and other celebrations. Besides, we are not a violent people.”
Wayan explained that local customs are being reinforced because Muslims from Sumatra and Java come to Bali for jobs because of its booming tourism industry. Extremists have bombed a nightclub in 2002, killing 202 people and in 2005 three restaurants were also bombed. These events have given Bali a bad reputation on the international scene and have slowed down tourism. I began to understand Wayan’s last sentence more when I delved deeper into Balinese society. Sadly, the media doesn’t separate Hindu Bali from Muslim Indonesia.
I am not religious, but I consider myself spiritual. I’ve always known that there was more to spirituality that was taught in my Sunday school. I was baptized Catholic and I’ve attended Moravian, Baptist, and Pentecostal and Jehovah ’s Witness congregations for much of my life. As time passed, I felt exhausted and conned by the church. My journey off the beaten path begun with my unorthodox uncle. I learnt about the healing powers of Chinese herbs and tai chi movements. As I practiced tai chi, I felt a stirring that I didn’t get from any choir singing or church meeting. My desire for something different has led to meditation and becoming reiki practitioner. Visiting a place a mythical as Bali awakened my spider senses and I craved more.
As the drive continued through the streets out to the country, the traffic thinned and I noticed a woman on a pink Vespa with a little boy’s arms wrapped tightly to her as she deftly maneuvered around large truck carrying furniture. I asked Wayan if there were any single parent families in Bali. His brows furrowed, “Sorry?” I leaned forward, “You know, single parents. Just one parent and the child or children.” His eyes darted from one corner to the next as he tried to comprehend, my seemingly difficult question. “Never! Never in Bali that will happen,” he exclaimed. Now it was my turn to not understand. I leaned in even further in as the van jolted along the winding road. “You mean to tell me. There are no single parents? None whatsoever?!” Wayan’s lips curved downward as he shook his head, “No. Family is everything in Bali. If a man gets a woman pregnant and refuses to marry her, she can call the police on him. A man has to take care of his family.” As I exhaled slowly and leaned back into my seat, I couldn’t help the feeling of how bloody good it was to hear that. I reflected on my own fatherless childhood and friends back in the U.S. suing their child’s father for child support and here in Bali, that didn’t exist. People couldn’t grasp the context of single parent families. The term was truly an oxymoron. In the event a spouse passes away, the extended family chips in, until the living spouse remarries.
The core to Balinese belief is that the world is full of danger. In order to counteract this they hold a great number of religious rituals that must be performed so goodness will prevail. The Nyepi is the annual ceremony in every village where they chase out evil spirits which are represented by large bamboo statues called, ogoh-ogoh. Villagers parade the ogoh-ogohs through the street and verbally shun the ogoh-ogohs. They shout, “Go away!” “We don’t want you here this year!”
The statues are then ceremoniously burnt. The following day is the Day of Silence. Everyone must stay indoors, the island blocks all satellite, radio, television transmissions, the seaports and airports are closed. This is a day of introspection for Balinese. Tourists are asked to participate by staying in their hotels, staying off the internet, not play video games or DVD players. There are even local enforcers called pecalang who patrol the streets for wayward tourists and mischievous youths.
We finally reached our destination in Ubud. I observed the early morning activities before the hustle and bustle settled in on the Ubud Art and Craft Market. After purchasing a sterling silver bracelet, the store owner touched everything in her stall with the RPI 100,000 bill I handed her. Throughout the market I kept hearing, “Lady! I give you low price for my good luck today.” Incense smoke drifted gracefully into the air only to be pierced by bargain hunting tourists. The spice lady mounted offerings on top her head with flower petals and several incense sticks and walked all around the market. “This is for everyone’s good luck today,” she tells me. Taking care of each other is a tenet that resounded here. It was refreshing and humbling to experience Balinese culture. In their subservience, there was personal liberation. Even the stray dogs on the street were taken care of by people in the market. The connection between nature and human life is paramount.