Encounters in the Morning of the World: Travels in Bali

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Six Boys and a Passing Woman
Samuh, Karangasem, 1989.
The international airport near Denpasar opened in 1969 and initiated an era of rapid change that continues to this day. Signs of increasing wealth are everywhere. Once-peaceful towns are becoming noisy, congested, and polluted. Some superficial aspects of life have already changed beyond recognition. Bali hasn't been "ruined," but the changes are not always improvements. In the late 1980s, there was still a lot of the "old Bali" to be found for those willing to take the time and trouble get a little off the beaten track.

I Nyoman Mudra at Sunrise in Tirtagangga
Karangasem, 1987.
Mudra assisted my photography.
Between 1985 and 1989 I traveled five times to Bali. On the last three trips I tried to capture the "old Bali" in a series of photographs. I began work in the most remote areas of Bali, where I was often able to photograph a way of life that has changed very little in centuries. I concentrated on recording the daily lives of the Balinese and did not pay special attention to religious festivals, as these have been quite well documented by others. The resulting photographs are necessarily personal and very much a record of my reaction to Bali and the Balinese, as well as their reaction to me.

Cutting Up
Bali, 1989.
One day, a young Balinese friend, K'tut Suarta, came to my guesthouse and said, "I came because I pitied you for being alone." I was touched by his concern, which underscored an important aspect of Balinese life: no one is ever lonesome. Much of daily life transpires outdoors, where there is a constant ebb and flow of people. Solitary work is rare, both within and outside the home. The Balinese do not really comprehend the isolation in which so many Westerners live. I find I need a little private time every day to recover from the intensity of Balinese social life.

Mudra with His Sister Ni Komang Suarini and Brother I Nengah Surata
Samuh, 1987.
The family unit remains the center of life. The strength of ties between family members is remarkably strong. Older siblings feel great responsibility for the welfare of younger siblings, who in turn defer to their elder siblings. It is quite ordinary for very young children to be entrusted to the care of siblings who are only a few years older, although one of the parents is almost always within earshot. Children also care for their parents in old age; social security schemes are unknown, except for small pensions received by government workers. Whatever misfortune befalls a Balinese, he can always take refuge in his family and earn his keep by simply helping out.

Four Schoolboys
Bugbug, Karangasem, 1987.
Waiting with friends before school.
No one in Bali lacks for physical closeness. More than anywhere I have seen, children are fussed over from birth until school age, by which time touching between same-sex peers is highly developed and remains so through adolescence and even beyond. Almost no Balinese, of whatever age, sleeps alone. Siblings sleep together, and older children away at school share a room and a bed with another student. While no stigma attaches to same-sex touching, a strong taboo exists against opposite-sex touching in public, except among siblings. Husband and wife are not permitted to show affection in public.
Everyone is integrated into society: the deaf and dumb, the insane, the decrepit elderly. The clinically insane simply wander around during the day. They are the butt of many jokes, with which they laugh along. Serious personality disorders seem to be rare, however. No-one is institutionalized except for a small number of prisoners.

Boys Landing a Boat
Near Bugbug, 1988.
Life in Bali is simple. While hard physical labor abounds and "labor saving conveniences" hardly exist, life lacks the complexities of the Western world. The Balinese have a knack for enjoying the moment. Whatever happens, people find something to laugh and joke about. Even cremations are a festive time, although a cremation is almost always held long after death, the deceased having been buried in a simple grave in the interim. At work, the object is not so much to get the job done (which happens anyway), but to enjoy the process.

Tegallinggah, Buleleng, 1987.
Children lean against a low wall in front of my chair shortly after I arrived with my friend I Kadek Nate at his ancestral home.
For several years I have studied A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. The book's principal tenet is that the built environment affects people's behavior, which in turn has profound implications for society. The book identifies 250 patterns of human habitation that meet fundamental human needs. Alexander believes that the environment must facilitate social interaction; many of the patterns he has identified have as their principal effect an increase in casual social interaction. While some of the patterns are quite clearly Western, I have noticed many of them in common use in Bali. The built environment in rural Bali facilitates easy social interaction by providing natural places for people to congregate. In addition, the flow of people in their ordinary routines tends to be channeled through a relatively small number of public spaces.

Two Girls Wash Fish at the Spring
Karangasem, 1989.
These girls are doing their work at a facility constructed by villagers for public use.
"Commonweal" is an important civic and cultural resource for the Balinese. Cooperation in Bali probably springs from a natural imperative. Relatively little of Bali is flatland, and only small parts of the island get enough rain to grow rice. To feed a large population, extensive irrigation works were required. The construction, maintenance, and operation of the irrigation system is the responsibility of the subak, the most important organization in any rice-growing area. An intricate balance between conflicting needs must be maintained in order to provide all paddies with enough water to grow two crops of rice a year. Such a balance can only be maintained in an environment of cooperation.

Temple Ceremony
Bugbug, 1988.
One in a series of five ceremonies dedicating a new family temple.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of religion in Bali. Every morning and evening all across Bali, the women and girls of the family make and place, each with a brief ceremony, dozens of small offerings to the gods. Religion is the basis for most daily life. Even such tasks as growing rice involve religious ceremonies. However, as in most of Southeast Asia, the nominal religion overlays, not supplants, the original animist beliefs. Superstition is rife in Bali, although beliefs vary widely even within families.
The Balinese are practical about their religion. While large and fancy offerings are made to the gods during festivals, once the gods have taken the essence, the Balinese eat the food. Religious celebrations are also feasts.

Going to the Temple
Samuh, 1989.
Religious festivals are an important social activity.
For those who come from polyglot cultures, one of the remarkable things about the Balinese is the great commonality of their experience. The consistent Hindu tradition, together with universally understood myths and legends (originating primarily in India) form a common ground for all Balinese. While the culture lacks the rich diversity of the West, there is a fundamental agreement about many aspects of life. When Balinese gather to deal with some conflict, they can begin the discussion with a presumption of general agreement about many fundamental values. Such assumptions often lead to difficulties in the West.
Magic is a common art in Bali, practiced by a dukun [healer or sorcerer]. A dukun may practice one or more of the three common varieties of magic. Physical ailments are commonly treated by massage in a manner akin to chiropractic technique. Practitioners are often quite skilled, according to a Swiss doctor who has spent a lot of time in Bali. Another type of magic is a family therapy technique, used when one family member is expressing the symptoms of a family's dysfunction. Finally, there is "black" magic. While few Balinese are comfortable discussing this, many seek out a dukun to cast a spell for them, or to protect themselves from a spell cast by others.
Bali is one of the great centers for the performing arts. Most performance pieces trace their roots to the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which are Hindu artifacts). Gamelan orchestras are an acquired taste for Western ears, as they employ a completely different musical scale, but there can be no doubt about the skill of the performers. Bali is also known for its dances, which are much more complex than most casual viewers appreciate. Perhaps the tour-de-force of Balinese performing art is the wayang kulit, the shadow-puppet play. One man, the dalang, weaves a story from the thread of one of the great epics, speaks the parts of all the players, works the puppets, punctuates events by rapping a small hammer held between his toes, and conducts the orchestra. A great dalang is a man of surpassing skill.

Ni Wayan Tengah Bathing Her Daughter
Samuh, 1988.
While public health in Bali has improved greatly in modern times, malaria is still quite common, and infectious diseases pose a significant risk. Infant mortality is reduced but still high. Health clinics and immunizations have helped to reduce deaths among small children. Nutrition is generally improving, and government efforts to control disease vectors have had some success. Those who survive childhood are usually in robust health and often live long lives.
Population growth is only just beginning to come under control in Bali. While statistics are not to be trusted, it appears that the population of Bali has approximately trebled in this century. The government's family planning efforts are highly visible and have recently begun to yield results. Grammar schools are closing or contracting due to a shortage of students. Whereas families of eight or twelve are still common, young couples tend to limit themselves to two or three children. Population growth is placing enormous stress on the carrying capacity of Bali, and quite a few families have been forced to relocate to less densely populated islands; usually, a large number of families from a single village will relocate simultaneously, carrying their culture and traditions with them. Life for the migrants is often terribly hard, however.
Despite the impression the average tourist may carry away, grinding poverty is still fairly common in Bali. There are still a good many malnourished children, and a few who simply do not get enough calories. Many children are forced to terminate their education prematurely due to lack of money for school fees and the need for the child's work at home.

Carving Door Panels
Manukaya, Gianyar, 1987.
The work proceeds at leisurely but steady pace.
In Denpasar, buses, jitneys, cars, and motorcycles have proliferated at an incredible rate since 1985, with resulting traffic jams and some of the worst air pollution I have experienced anywhere. There does not seem to be any effort to control the problem beyond building more roads. I am sometimes amazed that the Balinese, accustomed to living and working in beautiful and tranquil circumstances, tolerate the deteriorating conditions. Westerners are often strongly attracted to the beauty and tranquillity of life in the Balinese countryside, and many have wondered why the Balinese would give up such an apparently idyllic life for the noise and bustle of modern life. Economics has a lot to do with the answer.
While the indiscriminate adoption of Western culture is a limited phenomenon, Western influence is clear. Indonesian pop music has its roots in Western rock-and-roll, although it has its own wistful flavor. In the late 1980s there was a sexual revolution among young Balinese, and many of those who have reached age fifteen or sixteen have become sexually active. These affairs are usually serious, and quite often lead to marriage. The change is a significant one, although little discussed. Youth in general are well informed about birth control, and unwanted pregnancies are probably less common than in the United States.

Ni Ketut Agustini and Her Brothers
I Wayan Sudarta and I Nengah Miartawan

Samuh, 1987.
Although the winds of change blow everywhere in Bali, Balinese culture remains largely intact and still enjoys nearly universal support. How much longer this will continue is difficult to say, but many Balinese feel that the essence of their culture will endure for a long time to come. I am inclined to agree.

Continue to Part 2

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