Bali High:

The Balinese consider the highlands the domain of the gods and it was clear that my guides did not intend to come calling at this unseemly hour without ringing the spiritual doorbell. The ancient temple of Pura Luhur is the gateway to Mount Batukaru and, at four o’clock in the morning, Sudana was intent on making the wake-up call as gentle as possible. “This offering will ask the gods to give us a safe passage,” he said as he raised the carefully folded envelope of rice, flowers and betel-nut towards the cloth-wrapped shrine and bowed his head into a cloud of incense that swirled in the beam of his torch. The sacred mountain loomed somewhere above us in the dark, chill mist.


The spiritual preparations for this trek had begun the evening before, in Sudana’s family temple where he made offerings before each of the divine and ancestral shrines. As he sprinkled us both with holy water and daubed us with rice, his wife Ketut was strangely subdued and his mother, known only as Nenek (grandmother), wept quietly. It was clear that for the 46 year-old farmer this trek was to be something more momentous than just a day-trip to check out the view from one of Bali’s most beautiful spots.


We left the village at 2am and, shortly after picking up mountain-guide Wayan at the village of Wongayo Gede, I narrowly missed an owl that flew down into the jeep’s headlights. “Burung hantu,” said Wayan, “the ghost bird. An unlucky omen at the start of a journey.” The Balinese night is still inhabited by ghosts, leyak (witches) and malicious spirits. The jungles are said to be full of plants that sting or can even blind an unworthy trespasser and trees that, if touched by somebody who has lied or cursed, will cause him to lose his way. Leyak are frequently known to take the form of monkeys such as the unseen troop that grunted alarm calls out of the dark trees as we began our climb. I had imagined that a nocturnal walk on the jungle-covered slopes would be daunting to say the least but the highlands – even the sulphur-choked heights of the great volcanoes – are essentially benign places, even to a ‘god-fearing’ Balinese who might think twice about a moonlit stroll on an empty beach. At each jungle clearing on our trail, my two companions stopped to make other offerings and by the time we reached the fern forest on the upper slopes, we were already carrying miniature bouquets of bougainvillaea blossoms tucked behind our ears.


The first golden beams of the rising sun penetrated the canopy and brought the phrase ‘Morning of the World’ to mind once again. Pandit Nehru had given the island this title during his state visit in 1950 and – even disregarding the fact that the village fighting-cocks made sure that I would see more sunrises here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived – I could still never watch a Balinese sunrise without thinking how perfectly this, now hackneyed, phrase really fits. From the summit of Batukaru the show was more spectacular than ever. To the west the mountain’s own shadow pointed towards the uninhabited jungles of West Bali and the volcanic peaks of Java; in the other direction, great swathes of corduroy paddy terraces stretched away until, thirty miles closer to the rising sun, the fairytale cone of Gunung Agung floated on a solid blanket of downy mist.  To the Balinese this great volcano is the ‘Navel of the World.’ In the old days pilgrims would only ever attempt to climb it without the shoes, watches or jewellery that might appear presumptuous to divine eyes. These days few regard it as strictly necessary to make the trek with a priest but a guide – preferably one without a fractured ankle from a football injury – is definitely advisable.


“A couple of years ago a German backpacker thought he would climb Agung alone,” my guide had told me when he had finally limped up to me on the crater rim. “It was during Galungan, when the gods leave the peaks to come down to feast at the temples. They never found his body.” Back in 1963, just as the island was preparing for the great Eka Dasa Rudra purification ceremony that takes place every 100 years, something much more serious enraged the gods of Agung. The mountain blew its top, killing 1,500 people and leaving 86,000 homeless and hungry. Sudana was six at the time. “The sun didn’t rise for two days and hot ash rained from the sky,” he said, “the people had much fear.” On October 12th 2002 that disaster was relegated (for all but the older generation) by the bombings at the Sari Club and Paddy’s Cafe that killed 190 and injured over 300 people…and earned a place in Balinese history as ‘Black October.’ That disaster struck the peace-loving people of the island with particular horror because it was the not the will of the gods (or a God), but of men who had the audacity to believe that they were acting on His behalf.


Spirits of the deep:

While Sudana and Wayan paid their respects at a shrine that was draped with sun-bleached and wind-tattered yellow cloth I wandered over to sit on the northern edge of Batukaru’s plateau. The smooth blue of the Bali Sea, with its coral reefs and sheltered coves, was in distinct contrast to the Indonesian Ocean that crashes against the cliffs of the south coast. It has been said that Balinese are one of the few island peoples who do not turn their eyes towards the sea but face instead inland towards the mountains. When I first arrived on the island it had taken me several weeks to realise that my idyll of renting a house in a ‘Balinese beachfront village’ was an impossible paradox. Only tourists live on the beach; even the fishermen in Sudana’s village prefer to commute from their houses on the hill.


It is almost 80 years since the Dutch KPM Packet Line first had the bright idea of replacing the cargo of pigs that they shipped to Singapore with the new wave of culture-seeking tourists who had heard tantalising reports of the sensual wonders of Bali. Some of these tourists headed to the cultural heartland at Ubud but even then the immense stretch of beach that ran past the villages of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak was the main destination. The band of palm trees that had been left as a spiritual buffer-zone between the sea and the villages quickly became the target for the international developers, hotel owners and the rare local entrepreneur who grabbed his chance to get in on the ground-floor.


By 1930 the KPM captains were congratulating themselves on shipping almost a hundred visitors a year to the island; in 2000 there were almost 2 million arrivals and the three main coastal villages had turned into one great sprawl of hostels, hotels, homestays, bungalows, bars, cafes, restaurants, stalls and surf-shops. On Kuta’s beaches entire families of fully-clothed Javanese Muslims would amass simply to watch the semi-naked orang barat who cavorted or sunbathed like some sort of alien sea-life. Middle-aged Balinese ladies offered massage/hairbraiding/instant-tattoos/ear-cleaning/manicure/pedicure/‘wacky-backy,’ and local lads dressed like pirates to rent sun-loungers, surfboards, parasols or sex.


“Perhaps the gods are not happy with the way we ran tourism recently,” one respected local priest said during the great soul-searching that was part of the aftermath of the bombing. “We were turning every single thing into saleable items, including religious attributes. The incident was a warning that we should re-evaluate tourism.” Balinese gods are notoriously high maintenance and many in Kuta see the ‘curses’ of the last year – first bomb, then the Iraq war, then SARS and then, just as things began to pick up, the Jakarta Marriott bombing – as a sort of Biblical plague. Even in ‘soulless’ Kuta, girls in sarongs and ceremonial sashes troop out of MacDonalds, Hard Rock Café and Jungle Surf with trays of offerings and incense that might appease the gods…and bring back the tourists who are so badly needed.


When American surfer-turned-CIA agent Robert Coke built the first of Kuta’s beach bungalows in the early ‘30s and he and his friends started ‘hot-doggin’ the beach-break’ the Balinese were stunned at the daring of people who would play in the sea. In recent years growing numbers of young local men have taken to surfing (some at competitive level) and, in doing so, have literally challenged the same fears that once inspired their ancestors to build the great sea temples. Few tourists take the time for more than a fleeting day-trip out to western Bali but the odd travelling surfer who goes off on a quest for un-surfed waves is sure to find them among the seemingly endless stretches of deserted postcard-perfect tropical beaches. He will find pristine reefs inhabited only by turtles, and coves that are the evening playgrounds for kids with homemade kites or ‘surfboards’ made from sections of bamboo.


The southern temples of Uluwatu (now itself world-famous as a surf ‘Mecca’), Tanah Lot and Rambut Siwi were built as a bulwark to protect the islanders from the forces of the sea and simultaneously as a sort of spiritual ‘force-field’ against the pressures of Islamic Java. During busier years hordes of tourists flock to these temples in the late afternoon, to greet the sunset with a barrage of camera shutters. They are once again unforgettably serene and romantic places to stroll.


Island of the Gods:

Our victorious return to the village from the otherworldly heights of Batukaru was greeted with ostentatious respect from Sudana’s wife…and an air of long-suffering patience from mine.  The drive home had offered the typical wide-screen, Technicolor show that accompanies any long journey through the Balinese countryside. The late-afternoon performance involved just the right measures of drama (a team of white buffalo staggering in knee deep mud), sadness (pretty country-girls struggling under the weight of great buckets of building sand), comedy (hundreds of ducks queuing along paddy dykes), joy (children running with soaring kites) and echoes of tragedy (home-coming fighting cocks in their dome-shaped baskets).


A traditional formula says that ‘the land that belongs to the gods is merely loaned to the people,’ and the people of this densely populated island are careful not to let too much of ‘The Island of the Gods’ go to waste. Sudana was clearly keen to make the most of his own ‘divine leasehold’ of a small patch of disused terraces at the edge of the village. His day would start at 4:30 when he would go out to cut grass for his six buffalo and tend his crops of beans, bananas, mangos, sugar-cane, coconuts, cacao, papaya, melon and cassava. He would bathe in the river with his buffalo and on his way home for the first of his three daily meals of rice and vegetables, he might sometimes help carry a fisherman’s outrigger up the beach for a fish or two. Ketut and grandmother Nenek were busy preparing offerings for the interminable round of upacaras (ceremonies) that take place in the village. Every baby born to a Balinese Hindu family must be honoured with a celebration when he is born; another at 1 week (when the last of the umbilical cord is cut); at 1 month; at 2 months; at 3 months (when he first touches the ground); then at 4, 6, 12 and a big one at 18 months. In addition there are at least 60 holy days a year and odalan commemoration ceremonies every 6 months in each of the estimated half-million temples on the island!


Even the purchase of a TV cannot be completed without the collaboration of the gods and when we arrived back from our highland pilgrimage Ketut and Nenek were making offerings for the neighbour’s new moped. The two-hour blessing ceremony would involve a sacrificed chicken (the blood of which would ‘purify’ the tyres and engine), a table groaning with lurid sponge-cakes, boiled bananas, jaja rice-cakes, baskets of fruit and the services of a hired priest who coordinated the sprinkling of holy-water and ministered to the visiting gods. “Balinese are very happy with ceremonies,” Ketut smiled as she deftly stacked flowers, leaves and rice and spiked them with betel-nut, “but busy…always busy.” It has often been said that every Balinese person is an artist – though some of the second-rate art-shops and galleries of the ‘cultural centre’ of Ubud perhaps take the statement a little too literally. Even Ketut’s 11-year old son Ikomang was an accomplished legong dancer (not to mention kite designer). As an indispensable player in the local gamelan orchestra, Sudana often spent sleepless nights accompanying various obscure temple rituals with the soundtrack that the Balinese apparently find hypnotic, yet to the outsider, can quickly become excruciatingly monotonous.


Even as early as 1910 travelling ‘doom-watchers’ were saying that the Balinese way of life and traditions were dying out. By the ‘20s and ‘30s Bohemian expats in Ubud were already crying that the Balinese arts would soon be ‘suffocated by materialism.’ In 1937 Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias wrote that the island was ‘doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardization.’ The same laments were repeated throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s and, with increased vigour, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Even today – in a Bali that is perhaps more tranquil and un-crowded than it has been for decades – you will find people singing the same old song. But anybody who takes time to explore will soon realise that Bali – and more specifically Balinese lives – has remained far more truthful to its ideals and traditions than many much more isolated destinations.


The arts are still practised in isolated villages where a foreign face is never seen and the people still meet for their social mandi (bathe) in rivers and irrigation channels at the edge of the villages. Semi-wild galak dogs still bark at cars and paddy workers in conical coolie hats still wave. And, most importantly, the famous smile of ‘Old Bali’ still lights up the face of absolutely everybody who catches your eye. The Balinese believe that when they die they will find heaven to be very similar to the earthly paradise that the gods have loaned them. To anyone who has watched sunset from the cliffs at Tanah Lot or ‘The Morning of the World’ from one of the sacred peaks this does not seem unreasonable.


By Mark Eveleigh