Lessons in living from the “Garden Island” Bali

Recalling two wonderful weeks in a voyage of discovery of the mythical land that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru described as ‘the morning of the world’

Despite the Bali bombings that took place in 2002, the island has not lost its well-known reputation as the number one tourist destination of the world. When an opportunity to travel to the fabled destination in loving company came up I therefore did not hesitate for a moment to seize it, and thus spent two wonderful weeks in a voyage of discovery of the mythical land that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru described as ‘the morning of the world.’ The holiday was alas too short, and we have told ourselves that we must go back again to, the next time, immerse ourselves more fully in a couple of specific aspects of Bali culture.

Some facts and figures will help us to appreciate the touristic dimensions of Mauritius and Bali. Bali is about three times the area of Mauritius, with a population that stands at about 4.3 million compared to ours of about 1.3 million. Whereas we have just touched over one million tourists per year, the latest figures for Bali show that the number of foreign tourists has increased to well above 4 million, with a jump of over 18 per cent in January 2017. To this must be added the approximately 8 million tourists per year that come from other parts of Indonesia, of which Bali forms part.

We deliberately chose to visit places that would allow us to be in more direct contact with the local people rather than the areas preferred by the well-heeled and expats looking for cheap thrills, ‘shopping, spa and sex’ as Australian author Malcolm Scott put it in his book ‘Bali Raw’. It is a book which makes for sickening reading, and as he admits in his preface the author writes from personal experience in this facet of the tourist industry, since he has been living there going on ten years now.

The “Garden Island”

It is inevitable that a surge in numbers and outsiders would bring with it a gamut of problems and unintended consequences. An analysis by Michel Picard (“Bali: the discourse of Cultural Tourism”, EspacesTemps.net, Travaux, 08.04.2010
) should give us food for thought, as some of the points that are raised find resonance locally too.

Thus, ‘the Balinese … are more and more openly anxious about the havoc wrought on the landscape and apprehensive about outsiders usurping their island – perhaps not so much foreign and domestic tourists as Javanese migrant workers and Jakarta-based conglomerates. Mercantilism is rampant; land speculation has reached dizzying proportions; and crime is growing — organized rackets and recurring waves of temple thefts are plaguing the island. The environment is becoming inexorably degraded as the rice fields and beaches are covered with concrete and the anarchic proliferation of hotels and souvenir shops ravages the beauty of the landscape for which Bali was once famous.

‘Ecologists do their best to render the Balinese “conscious of the environment” while they alert the authorities to the erosion of the coasts and warn them that soon there will be a shortage of drinking water. Meanwhile the rivers and beaches and the air itself are becoming more polluted every week, and the trash collection services no longer know what to do with the garbage piling up. And this is not to mention the deterioration of infrastructures, groaning under the weight of a demand that seems to grow heavier by the hour. Even the tourism industry is beginning to admit that if something is not done soon, the degradation of the environment could condemn the future of tourism in Bali. In short, due to the lack of control and planning, it seems that the development of tourism can only end in the destruction of Bali. The “Garden Island” is becoming the “Island of Concrete”.’

As we ambition to grow our tourist industry even more, perhaps we ought to heed the realities and warnings that this observation contains and that are undoubtedly relevant to our own situation here in Mauritius.

Fortunately for us, we were exposed to the more positive facets of the country, starting at the airport itself on our arrival there in the late evening. After we had arranged for a taxi to take us to the hotel, I asked the young lady who had done so at what time she finished her shift. At 2 a.m., she replied. And to my question, is there transport provided to take you back home? – her reply was no, I will go on my motorbike. We were surprised at the answer, if not shocked. And yet this was the first lesson that we learnt in Bali: that women – and men for that matter – are able to move about anywhere at any time of the day or night. And as we came to see for ourselves later, the motorbike is the most common mode of transport for the vast majority of Balinese, most of whom live in its over 700 villages. We even saw very young girls, who looked under ten, going to school on their motorbikes!

belief in karma

We had the opportunity to discuss further with Wayan Bagi, owner of the Van Karning bungalows in a coastal village in the north of the island, Pemuteran, where we spent two nights. He was very engaged socially, being a member of the banjar, the equivalent of a village council which has great autonomy in running the affairs of the village, and so was aware of the grassroots realities of traditional Balinese society. He confidently affirmed that there was no eve teasing or sexual harassment let alone aggression of Balinese women, who were protected within the family fold and the community as well. When we asked him the reason for this, his simple and forthright answer was that we believe in karma: if we ill-treat anybody, we will reap the consequences in our next life, and we want to avoid that. And a different interlocutor told us that there is also another credo that guides the Balinese: do not miss an opportunity to do good to anyone, for you never know whether another opportunity will come by. A further principle that they practised was respect and acceptance of others as deserving their rightful place in society.

Pushing the issue further, we asked Wayan Bagi about divorce among the Balinese. It’s very rare he said, a fact which was confirmed from other sources we could access. Should there be a problem in a couple, there is a local structure which tries to reconcile the two parties in a face to face involving their families. Initially they are given three months to work things out, and this may extend to one year or sometimes a little more. However, should no reconciliation be achieved, then the woman returns to her parents’ place, and is assured of being looked after for life. If there are any children, they go with the mother, and at the age of twelve they decide whether they want to continue or to go with their father. Meanwhile, the father will pay for their upkeep, but there is no equivalent of alimony for the wife because her family takes charge of her. This is an accepted norm in their society, and there are therefore no costly or acrimonious legal proceedings.

This is possible because of the pattern of communal living in the village, which usually consists of walled family compounds in which several generations of an extended family, sometimes up to five or six generations live in separate small houses. For example, the grandparents, parents, each adult with his family will have separate one or two-roomed houses, but there is a common area for cooking and washing and a bale which is an open pavillion where the families can gather and interact as also receive guests. As a result, this interlocked mode of living ensures that the elderly are cared for, hence no need for homes for the elderly and such contraptions of our so-called civilized world!

the village living room

The street outside each courtyard dwelling is actually the village living room/lounge area. The land in the back of and/or in between the compounds is planted with banana, papaya, coconut, and breadfruit trees. Nearby woods provide bamboo, rattan, pandanus, and wood. Under the coconut groves sloe-eyed midget cattle graze; in a nearby stream is the village bathing place. Since all land belongs ultimately to the gods, who lease it to the Balinese so they may live, the concept of absolute land ownership is unknown here.

We were able to visit such a village. The headman there, 46-year old Alit, took us on a trek of the adjoining forest along with his cousin who was an expert climber. During a walk that lasted about two and a half hours with a ‘coconut’ break to refresh ourselves, we saw a mix of endemic forest and agroforestry: there were trees of manioc, breadfruit, coffee, coconut, and passion fruit that had been planted. There were also jamban trees which were fast growing and were used for construction, besides large varieties of bamboo that could reach 9 inches in diameter which were put to a multiplicity of uses.

When we returned to the family compound, the headman’s wife had already prepared several dishes: free range chicken, tofu, pressed soya bean, banana flower. From the forest our guide had brought tender leaves of the coffee and manioc plants, fern shoots, and a bouquet of leaves that had a faint smell of mint. These were promptly sautéed separately by the lady and we sat down to this copious meal eaten with ‘pink’ rice grown from fields nearby. For one of the hallmarks of Bali, we must not forget, is its rice fields, the most famous of which are the extensive ones at Jatuluwih in the central part of the island. They have been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site, in particular because of the subak system of management unique to Bali.

All villages followed a similar mode of ecological living in harmony with the adjoining forest which provided for all their needs. Worthy of mention are also palm sugar from the palm sap that is collected in the forest – and we were shown a tree where this was in progress, as well as a cylindrical beehive that supplied them honey. Another interesting feature was the use of dried coconut husk as fuel as there was no coal available, and we also saw whole bags of these being brought to a restaurant where we were having lunch. This, of course, is in addition to the multiple uses of the emptied coconut shell for decorative and other purposes such as making of utensils. Theft was unknown because everybody had practically similar things, of natural origin that was available to all of them. Everybody was free to walk in and out of any family compound, but of course they respected each other’s privacy as well.

This mode of life, where you could leave doors open without any fear, and family compounds which housed at least three generations, and we ate mostly garden produce – is but a dim nostalgia of village life in the Mauritius of perhaps up to the 1950s. It will never return again, alas.

Would that Bali remain a beacon and an inspiration for harmonious living with fellow humans and the natural environment, with the current overdevelopment contained so as not to inflict any further damage to what may perhaps be the last outpost of a biosphere and genuine peace in the world. As the Balinese greeting goes, OmSwastiAstu!

RN Gopee

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