Out into the Wider World, Part IV


Saraswati, goddess of learning and the arts

So many scattered memories of my three weeks in Bali.

Power Comes to the People

My room at the guest house in Ubud may not have had indoor plumbing, but it did have one low wattage light bulb. Back then it never occurred to me to ask where the juice came from. You just turned a knob or flipped a switch, right? Same as I’d done ever since I was tall enough to reach the light switches in our apartment. I had no idea that billions of humans in developing countries lacked electricity, or had unreliable access.

By 1983, partly in response to Bali’s importance as a tourist destination and source of revenue, the government had built several power plants on the island, all running on diesel except for one micro hydroelectric installation.  Needless to say, the service was rather expensive.

Perhaps the fancier hotels in Denpasar, the provincial capital, had air conditioning. Given the cost and limited availability of electricity, Ubud didn’t, and I hadn’t yet acclimatized. Once, like those proverbial mad dogs and Englishmen, I went for a long walk in the midday sun. It was a miserable experience and I didn’t repeat it. I found it much more pleasant to hop on one of the crowded buses, sitting thigh to thigh with locals who were as eager to practice English as I was to learn Indonesian. I carried my dictionary for moments when neither party could find the right word.

Tourist vs. Traveler

The Lonely Planet guidebook made a distinction between tourists and travelers. Tourists went on group tours, took pictures of themselves in front of famous places, bought souvenirs, and came home without ever learning the language and customs of a country or interacting with the people. They usually had quite a bit of money. Travelers got to know places much better than your typical tourist. They bunked in cheap digs, not five-star or even one-star hotels. Travelers were cool. If you were a Lonely Planet customer, you wanted to be a traveler, not a tourist. Looking back on it, the categories seem dubious. Many of the people I met might have fit in either group, and so might I, depending on how we behaved on a particular day.

One day I did join a group tour. I don’t remember any of the historic or cultural sites the guide showed us, but can still see the crowd of men surrounding the bus when we stopped, each of them holding up his bit of wood carving, silently begging the rich foreigners to buy a souvenir. It was beyond alienating, like being in a zoo—only I’m not sure which of us were in the cages, the Balinese or the tourists.

After a week in Ubud, I took a bus to a beach town and sat there for three or four days in a kind of stupor, doing nothing, perhaps overwhelmed by the flood of new experiences that I had to process. Then I told myself to get up and dive in again. I’d come to Indonesia to learn something about the world. If I wanted to spend my summer vegging out and collecting a sun tan, I could have stayed in California.

I joined a small group of Americans and Australians who hired a couple of villagers to row us out beyond the surf for a swim in calm waters. We also went in on a feast—the locals slaughtered and roasted a hog, we each paid a share, and we stuffed ourselves. An unpleasant young man had made the arrangements, but didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. All he seemed to care about, and take pride in, was his ability to bargain the Indonesians down.

While strolling along the water’s edge one afternoon I encountered a German woman who had stripped naked and was doing yoga, as though she were at the nude beach in Schleswig-Holstein. I’m sure that was deeply offensive to local mores, but the Balinese looked away. They needed the Deutsche marks.

After returning to Ubud, I met an American couple whose dress marked them as upper middle class hippies. They’d traveled in India before coming to Indonesia. “The Indians know how to be happy,” the man proclaimed. “We’d meet people living on a road median and they gave us big smiles.” I didn’t respond but thought, Sure. Why don’t you turn over your trust fund to them and trade places? Let’s see how happy you are then.

Not all of the people I encountered would fit into the “ugly American” stereotype. In Ubud I also met some sweet young Australian students on summer vacation, and Aline, an American my own age. Aline was originally Canadian, from a repressive Catholic family, and had had a rough time of it. Now she was living in Arizona and delighted to be exploring the world. She seemed open to everyone and treated all as equals. We traveled together for a time.

The Arts

A large statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, stood at the entrance to Ubud. I got the impression that every Balinese practiced an art—dance, music, painting or sculpting—in addition to what we would call their day job, most commonly subsistence farming or fishing. Late one morning I rode the bus next to a woman who’d just come back from performing with her traditional dance group, her face still painted with rice powder. “I’m a farmer and a dancer,” she said proudly. “Baik [good]?”

I nodded agreement. “Baik!”

Ubud had what might be called a large outdoor gallery. You could stroll through rows of art on display and purchase directly from the artist. Many of the offerings were modern in style, with subjects such as a woman carrying a large jug of water on her head. I bought two traditional illustrations of Hindu mythology. The first depicts seven beautiful nymphs tempting the hero Arjuna, who continues to meditate and doesn’t even notice them. The second is of the demon Kali Rau, shown as a disembodied head in the act of devouring the moon goddess, who will later emerge from his neck—the legendary origin of lunar eclipses. Of course the medium, acrylic on canvas, was modern. I rolled up the canvases and stuffed them in my suitcase.

The Day of Release

During my last few days in Ubud, Dewa invited me to a public cremation. According to Hindu belief, the body must be cremated to release the soul to its next incarnation or for ascent to a state of oneness with God. In India that ritual takes place within 24 hours after death. On Bali, however, it has to be done on an auspicious day, so bodies are buried temporarily and exhumed at the appropriate time, sometimes months later.

One of Dewa’s relatives had died during the previous year. Other locals whose kin had died were burning those bodies at the same time. The corpses were stuffed in cremation towers made of bamboo, wood, and paper. Dewa’s was the largest because her family was wealthy. It was shaped like an ox, along with demons, wings, and other fanciful designs. Everyone, whether tourist or local, was welcome to celebrate, and to enjoy the subsequent feast. I watched as the priest applied the torch, as one finger of the demon on the face of the tower seemed to turn into a lit birthday candle, and then as the flames spread. Eventually charred human bones fell out of the burning belly of the ox, and the entire tower collapsed.

Acutely aware that I was being very much the tourist at that moment, as opposed to the archetypical Lonely Planet traveler, I took photos with the camera I had bought in Hong Kong.

And then it was time to leave Bali, and move on to other parts of Indonesia.

Months later, after returning to the United States, I framed one of the photos of the burning tower. It hangs on the wall of my office, along with the two paintings.

To be continued…

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Lack of access to electricity is still an issue in developing countries today.   Of the 3.5 billion people worldwide who still have no electricity or have unreliable access, 30 million are Indonesians. In the United States, an estimated 60,000 are without electrical service, most of them Native Americans living on tribal lands.

Even worse, it’s not just households. According to the World Health Organization, almost one billion people are served by health-care facilities with unreliable electricity supply or with no electricity at all.

One Response to Out into the Wider World, Part IV

  1. Connie O Byrne June 20, 2023 at 11:11 am #

    thanks for taking us along on the journey…being someone who has not ever travelled out of the States (and probably won’t), your memories and insight of other ways of life are greatly appreciated.

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