November 6th 2016

Balinese

How plugging into the flow of the island, from the traffic jams to the waves, teaches to let go and just roll with the changing tides.

In the late hours of this Sunday afternoon, rather groggy from all the organizational matters one inevitably has to go through when preparing for an MBA program, I flipped open the laptop and went through the folder containing the photos from a two-week stay on Bali with the entire family in September. My folks have been on my case about these visual memories for almost two months now, urging me to process/edit the raw files and print them asap (“’cause if it’s not printed, it’s useless”). Telling them that spending time on Lightroom was not part of my iterative approach to the planning of my urgent to-dos did very little to silence them, and so I figured: “What the heck, let’s just do a batch and see what we have here.”

Travelling to Bali and zipping through the corridors of the airports in Zurich and Singapore before being greeted by the hot and humid air outside of Ngurah Rai airport, with a father whose last stay on the island dates back to 1981, long before electric power transmission lines (1994) and telephone lines (1998!) were put in place in and around Denpasar and Ubud, and a mother who had – until then – never set foot on Asian soil, along with all three of my siblings, kind of felt like being part of a business delegation; or a class on a school trip, depending on the situation (it’s astonishingly easy to go back to childlike behaviors once your “gang” is reunited).

Earlier this year, back in March/April, when discussions about the infamous “annual family trip ” were still ongoing and Bali was thrown in, I wondered:

From all the places we could go to, from all those destinations competing against each other for the top spot on that long list of travel desires, Bali somehow seemed to stand out.

But why?

Bali is an island that lingers as a slice of pure heaven in the minds of countless people who dream of coming here. The mere pronunciation of the name has something wildly seducing to it; a touch of tropical romance, fueled by phantasies of a “last paradise”. And contrary to the mythical Shambhala, Bali does exist.

But even those immune to chaotic traffic jams and piles of rubbish scattered on beaches here and there will note the discrepancy between the way Bali is perceived from afar and what the reality is like in certain parts of the island. Bali has an issue with waste management, especially during the rainy season. Although this was only my second stay on the island, based on what I saw, environmental protection measures seem to be lacking on various levels. The current infrastructure needs to be ramped up. Education programs in schools and communities exist, but will require continuous efforts over the next years and decades in order to bring about a lasting change of mentalities. It also didn’t go unnoticed by me that tourism (especially in and around Seminyak and Kuta) produces a far higher amount of average waste per person than is the case for most locals. Tourism on the island therefore needs to move up to a higher standard and – through advances in transportation and technology – transition more and more to ecotourism. I am aware that the issue of waste management is clearly not just limited to Bali but also affects many other areas in South East Asia. That shouldn’t be an excuse though, even less so in a place that still calls itself the “Island of the Gods”. The Balinese I had the pleasure of talking to were all fully aware of this, but often felt powerless in the face of rampant greed.

So why Bali? Well, there are at least three aspects that I particularly treasure about this island and that may very well have me coming back for more over the next few years.

The first one is the island’s culture, which is quite simply fascinating. From the music (Balinese Gamelan music) and dancing (for example, this Kecak dance from the movie “Baraka” is mind-blowing) to the display of Hindu-Javanese origins in paintings and intricate wood-carvings, the Balinese cuisine, the tropical architectural style of houses providing dwellings that are in tune with the environment, the religious traditions; Balinese culture is as multi-layered as the roofs of the island’s countless temples. It is only after contemplating some of the paintings at the Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud and seeing depictions of the demon queen Rangda (Freddy Krueger pales in comparison, that Rangda demon is beyond scary) that I made a connection with stories told and souvenirs shown by now long passed away family relatives. “They must have also visited this place” is what went through my mind and the thought of an aunt and uncle walking through the streets of Ubud in the 1980s put a smile on my face.

Then there is that particular „je ne sais quoi“ of the Balinese. I believe that their ability to endure daily hardships and nurture strength of spirit, displaying a kind of stoicism that leaves little to no room for destructive emotions, is rooted in the way Balinese society is structured. Communities play a strong role here and not participating in local events such as your village’s ceremonies is considered extremely rude and will likely result in a warning. Collect one too many of those warnings and actions may be taken against you.

What may come across as social pressure for Westerners is in fact aimed at protecting and taking care of every member of a community, from the youngest to the oldest. Strangers are treated with utmost respect and the Balinese will go to great lengths to make sure that their guests enjoy their stay.

I had extensive discussions with Wayan, the driver whom I spent an entire day with in order to get from Sayan to Candidasa, and Ketut, the constantly smiling house-aid that took care of us during the couple of days we spent near Ubud. What I found out through those conversations is that life for the local population is a financially very challenging one. I paid Wayan 700’000 IDR for an entire day of driving me around, which amounts to approximately 50 USD. But Madé is not self-employed, doesn’t own the car he’s driving me in, and therefore only gets to keep 10 percent commission on that amount, so 70’000 IDR (around 5 USD for an entire day). His fixed monthly salary of 2’000’000 IDR (approx. 150 USD) is insufficient to meet the needs of his family of four and he therefore has to diversify his income stream through additional activities on the side such as his art selling business.

Ketut is in a similar situation and also has to rely on more than one income stream in order to make it through the month.

Yet, despite the struggle, it is easy to detect the humanity and gratitude in these people. They seem content and well-balanced; in harmony with themselves. And that alone is remarkable.

Last but certainly not least, Bali’s nature is a feast for the eyes. Although I did mention the issue of waste management in certain areas because I believe that the island has to step up to the challenge if it wants to remain attractive in the long term, I also need to emphasize on how truly exceptional it feels to wake up in Sayan, in thick jungle high above the rice fields, with monkeys swinging by to see if there is a piece of mango or papaya on the table that they can snatch.

Sunsets at Uluwatu temple, bathing in the waters of Virgin Beach on the Eastern coast, rice terraces of Jatiluwih, waterfalls hidden here and there, surrounded by the dense jungles of the island, Campuhan ridge in Ubud, the sacred canyon of Sukawati, and countless other options await those looking for something else than clubbing in Seminyak or Kuta.

Long story short, for all the above mentioned and because plugging into the flow of the island is a lesson in humanity and happiness: Bali it had to be.

All pictures shot on Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 50mm 1.2 & Canon 16-35mm 4.0

This post will soon be available in French and German.