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December 20, 20171400Views


Henry Hopewood Phillips sketches the portrait of a country he's chosen to live in, Bali , warts and all.

The first thing you notice about Ubud, Bali, is how outnumbered you are by a fairly unnatural constituent: the white, divorced female. Usually over 35 years old, with fairly strident views concerning men (useless), yoga (a panacea), religion (militantly ecumenical) and science (a conspiracy), more often than not she's been lured to Bali by the 2006 memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat, Pray, Love." Made into a film four years later, starring the paragon of beautiful has-beens, Julia Roberts, it's gained such notoriety in these parts that even the least self-conscious of would-be gurus now hesitates to reference it in her apologia for going AWOL from the homeland.

Despite their numbers these ladies are but one variety of tourist to be encountred in Ubud, often touted as the heart of Bali, "The Island of the Gods", as most travel literature lazily frames it. Long a tributary of Gianyar - one of the most powerful of Bali's eight Hindu regencies - Ubud is now mostly a tourist hot spot for coach-loads of sharp-elbowed, parasol-wielding Chinese, gap-year Australians and estranged Britons who seek paddy fields, organic food, indigenuos art and dance, yoga studios, rascally monkeys and enlightenment - lite platitudes, using notes of Indonesian Rupiah that are rationed out by (the non-hijacked) ATMs in comically small quantities.

Attracting more than its fair share of hippies, world-wanderers and, frankly, damaged people, my favourite of which remains two dreadlocked fellows currently subsisting on a diet of durien (duren in Bali) who inform me they'll soon achieve a non-digestive equanimous state that relies solely on absorbing the sun's energy. Photosynthesis isn't the only scientific concept eschewed by Ubud's fairweather friends, however, in fact most of its corpus is. In short, the majority of those offering healing here are those most in need of it themselves; an ex-heroin addict offering "aura-reading" visions (mostly rendered in windows '95 screensaver - esque graphs) leaps to mind, as does the lady whose crystal ball can transform minds, but tragically failed to protect her own from a man who proclaimed Allah's name repeatedly on a boat to the Gilli Islands, until she fell into the same trance - permanently.

Which can make Ubud sound a little like a cult, which is patently unfair. It's the centre of my universe since moving here a few months ago, and isn't far off being the navel of the world either, what with being just eight degrees south of the Equator. Having moved here after over a decade in London - the best city in the world for capital, one of the worst for people - I moved to Indonesia in an attempt to reverse that formula. But knowing nothing of Bali other than a press trip a year earlier that left me pampered but hardly educated, I've had to assimilate quickly.

The island itself can be quite fairly split into a southern peninsula, Nusa Dua, which is full of some of the best beaches but also the most resorts. The result is a rather sterile beauty that lacks the ebullience and spontaneity of the rest of Bali. To the West, between Seminyak and Rambut Siwi, is where some of the best surf is to be found before the west-ward visitor hits the National Park. A lack of running water has kept vast swathes of the West uninhabited, wild and relatively arid. Perhaps oddly, this deserted land (pulaki) is considered by many Balinese to be their place of origin and today contains many of the great lizards, jungle cocks, wild hogs and so on that once roamed the whole island. The North remains serially overlooked, with tourists often remaining trapped in the Nusa Dua - Ubud corridor of luxury, and with the natives to whom the "north" is synonymous with going "up the mountain" as the island slopes up to Agung, the highest peak, and Batur, an active volcano with hot springs, which is where everything is considered clean, pure and holy but also therefore only really suitable for gods, temples and such ­- divinities which don't need roads like a good car or moped does.

Neither do many of the women, however, who still walk almost topless in the rural areas, balancing various things on their heads between fields and local villages, which are mostly ruled de facto by millennium - old councils, or their proxy, local opinion. The upshot of this is that Bali is remarkably well self-policed. You may read or hear about police in the same way westerners talk of tooth-fairies - people who everybody seems to have second-hand knowledge of but few who can claim to be a direct witness. Perhaps it's because though your average Balian is ridiculously jolly, easy and courteous - and, what's more, loves to share an outrageous joke, much like the English i.e. to puncture the atmosphere and make a friend - if a temper is provoked, they're just a bit mad and remarkably fond of a bit of mob justice.

At heart, your average Balian has the dignity of a free man who has not had to deal with money that often until recently. Today, even in tourist areas like Ubud, a truly incredible number of transactions are conducted in various fruits and vegetables. This means that though many are superficially wedded to the modern economy, not too much of the culture outside the luxury Nusa Dua->Ubud corridor has been affected. Moral sanctions are seen as far stronger than physical punishments, family honor and manners are respected whilst the law is not, agriculture still vies with tourism as the main wellspring of norms, and mobility in residential terms (emphatically not in travel terms thanks to the scooter) is sedentary by global standards.

Discovered by the Portuguese in 1510 and invaded by the Dutch in 1846 after Balians exercised their ancient rights to take cargo from ships wrecked on their shores, the history of that war consists mostly of a farcical number of puputans (mass suicides on Masada scale) and cultural misunderstandings. No doubt the Dutch were surprised to find an island full of villages that resembled temples and vice versa. In fact, each house really is a temple compound, mostly uncovered around a central shrine, surrounded by pecking hens, sleepy dogs and other animals the Balians consider reincarnated souls (only fighting cocks are caged). Here, few clear boundaries between the numinous, the banal and bestial exist. Several times I've observed food offerings for evil spirits being quickly gobbled by passing wildlife and leaving Balians unflustered - they note simply that the animal probably, therefore, contained an evil spirit.

That's not to say there aren't some serious cultural boundaries, however. Most Balians will scuttle to a level below princes and priests (there are many of the former, not only due to impressive reproduction rates but the high number of regional kingships) to show respect. And too many visitors confuse an absence of legalistic quibbling, with an absence of law, when in reality law remains deeply enshrined in modes of honour and generosity politics. Few, for instance, would dream of making a visit to friends or family without an armful of gifts, and even fewer will take money for doing an odd range of tremendously difficult, out-of-the-way tasks but, in return, would like to think they've established a rapport in which the recipient would reciprocate.

This politeness has its shortcomings of course. It can result in a hypocritical culture where refusals are dressed up in profuse excuses and corruption lurks in threats so veiled as to be imperceptible. More interestingly, on a more practical scale, it rarely extends to spheres a westerner might consider natural. Farting, belching and spitting, while not as appreciated as they might once have been, are hardly frowned upon as in the West. And yet formality includes odd elements of society within its remit. Labour, for instance, is divided between the sexes. Men plant and attend the rice but women and children often perform much of the harvest. Men will build a house but women must collect the materials. Men will perform craftwork; women will sell animals. And jobs exist that a visitor might never have known existed. My favourite is duck-shepherding, which is usually undertaken by an old man, and involves dangling a white sphere on the end of a long stick. The ducks then form little regiments and march wherever this chap wants, though through what logic I've yet to fathom.

The diet on Bali is mainly rice (nasi). In fact nasi is a synonym for food here in general. It's usually served under a shower of violently pungent herbs, from roots to leaves, from nuts to garlic, from fermented fish paste to chillis that regularly reduce foolhardy men to weeping, sweaty puddles. In a peculiar inversion of western practice, food eaten out and about tends to be very good value. Warungs abound and offer excellent food on slim profit margins, while restaurants often do a succulent 'turned' pig (babi guling) or slow roasted duck (bebek betetu) that'll feed two or three for £10-15. Conversely, trying to cook for yourself will usually involve a visit to a market stall lady who'll pump up the price for a rich, ignorant westerner or alternatively a trip to the supermarket, which locals consider a western decadence frequented by tourists with more money than sense. The only way I've managed to sabotage this loop (which I also encountered in Israel, incidentally) is by befriending locals who'll do my shopping and purchase stuff at Balian prices.

Sadly, the Indonesian government seems to have a chip on its shoulder when it comes to what your average visitor can wash his food down with. Bali is emphatically Hindu and possesses a big tourist trade that attracts Westerners - with all their horrendous habits. And Indonesia, the country to which the island belongs, is unequivocally Islamic. This combination means the governments is eager to pump taxes up on anything resembling alcohol or a luxury item that's associated with tourism. The long and short of it is that either an overpriced Bintang (Indonesia's surprisingly quality pilsner) or cocktail (of dubious contents) is procured, or a local 'arak' which usually varies in quality (it's especially good around old-school Karengasem in the east and particularly bad on Lombok, which is Muslim and has no tradition of alcohol production) and has been known to blind, damage or kill those who sip sorts that have not had the ethanol properly removed, is ordered. This Balian moonshine's very local stuff and popular too so it's startling to have not yet found one single example of a properly pissed Balian - no doubt a fact attributable to the self-policing culture.

Although western clothing has made huge inroads, it's by no means dominant. For daily wear men don the Kamben, a single piece of batik (an intricate Balian textile), that stretches from waist to knee, and is tied at the front. Usually with an udeng (headcloth) that the conservative wear with a corner high like a crest. And women wear long skirts, an undergarment overlaid by lace-top, and a sash. Both sexes still bath in the prolific number of small rivers and streams that stretch from mountain to sea. In fact, the only people I've not seen in them are children. Which is odd because in every other area they are everywhere. Kids here don't really have any growing-up to do in the western teenage sense. They are treated as mini adults right from the off, and are often to be found looking after little ones only slightly younger than themselves. Neither pampered nor oppressed, self-sufficiency is prized here and so people (no matter their age) are respected as soon as they aspire to it.

Rounding off this lengthy dispatch is the observation that the Balians lack a cult of permanence. Perhaps because nature (in this case mostly the jungle and volcanoes - the last serious eruption being Mt Agung's in 1963) reclaims everything at such an alarming rate, and due to the fact everything's historically been built in either bamboo or a soft sandstone. Whatever the cause, the result is a pervasive carpe diem attitude, so that whilst Balians typically live a simple, mostly outdoors lifestyle, their appetite for a good feast, festival or ritual is immeasurable, and inflects their unashamedly decadent taste for outrageously ornate art, display, ceremony and dance. I witnessed it first hand when a ginormous funeral pyre and bull were built up over several months (the product of hundreds of hours labour and a large amount of money, both local and royal) for a recently deceased prince, only to be burnt up in under an hour in an incredibly dramatic spectacle involving stampedes, costumes, bands and hysterics.

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