Authors: Pico Iyer
YET STILL, NOW
and then, Bali shone with a freshness newly minted. It had become a truism to call the island the “Morning of the World” but true the fact remained. For every morning,
very early, while most of the foreign revelers were sleeping off the excesses of the night before, the island became herself once again. At daybreak, Bali took on the soft glow that bodies acquire in sleep, and the same sense of innocence inviolate.
Down by the long-sighing sea, Kuta Beach was empty, save for a lone fishermen or two casting their nets in the early light. Wind chimes sang outside the cafés. The lanes were drowsy with a gentle quiet. And one day when I walked at dawn to the beach, I saw a procession of villagers, dressed in their finest silks, carrying a flower-wreathed tower, amid a host of gilded parasols, down to the misty sea.
By 5:30, the sleepy lanes were already bright and latticed with light. Wrinkled old women walked through the dust with a queenly erectness, silks piled high atop their heads; soft-faced little girls, in spotless white shirts and burgundy skirts, skipped their way to school; teenage boys, shirtless brown bodies radiant with good health, finished the day’s washing under the sun. In the mornings, Bali felt like a world reborn.
THUS I WENT
back and forth, unable to decide whether paradise had been lost, or was losing, or could ever be regained. And my greatest problem with Bali was, finally, that it seemed too free of problems. In many respects, it struck me as too lazy, and too easy. A real paradise, I felt, could not just be entered; it had to be earned. A real paradise must exact a price, resist admission as much as it invited it. And a real paradise, like a god or a lover, must have an element of mystery about it; only the presence of the unknown and the unseen—the possibility of surprise—could awaken true faith or devotion.
At least, so I thought, the trekkers in Nepal had to hike and to suffer for their uplifting highs; even the tourist in Burma or Tibet had to tilt against the crazily spinning windmills of a socialist bureaucracy before he could collect his epiphanies. But the visitor to Bali was handed a gift-wrapped parcel of paradise the minute he arrived. After that, he had only to lie back and let the idyll present itself to him, demanding nothing in return. It was not just tropical fruits that were brought to tourists on a plate by slim, smiling dryads, it was the whole Bali package: massages, temple dances, the heart-stopping radiance of the local children. Every room came equipped with sunlight and
birdsong. Every lane brought smiles. Extraordinary sunsets were shown every night on Kuta Beach, and free of charge.
I knew, of course, that for the locals, life here could be as troubling as anywhere else in the developing world. I had read all about the two most famous events in the island’s recent history: the massacre of 3,500 locals in 1906, when the entire royal court of Denpasar had dressed up in all its ceremonial finery and walked, as if in a dream, into the gunfire of the invading Dutch, preferring mass suicide to surrender; and the maddened bloodletting that had swept across the island in 1965 during the convulsions that attended the end of Sukarno’s rule by rough magic, when villagers, entranced, cut throats and smashed heads until as many as 100,000 people lay dead. Even in the most peaceful of times, medical care remained in the uncertain hands of witch doctors, and the press of vendors on Kuta Beach attested to the fact that, though the Balinese were not desperately poor, neither were they rich.
The story I heard from Wayan, an engaging, ever-smiling twenty-three-year-old boy who worked in my guesthouse, sounded typical. He had grown up, he told me one sunny morning, in a tiny village in the west. At seventeen he had got married, and soon after, he had been blessed with a son. But soon after that, his wife had forsaken him for another man. Wayan was left in a one-room house, with his mother, his father, his brother, his sister and his baby to support. There was no work in his village, so he had come to Kuta.
Did he think of remarrying?
No, he said, he was afraid of girls now. He lived only for his baby. But even that was not easy. He could make only $22 a month at the
, and he had to spend $5 a month just to take a
home to visit his baby. If he wanted to take home some cake for his child, that would cost more. As it was, his son, now three and a half, still wore the clothes he had been given when two. And Wayan himself owned only two T-shirts, two pairs of trousers and a pair of shorts.
Last year, to make things still harder, he had smashed his leg in a motorbike accident. The doctors, as usual, wanted to amputate; Wayan refused. But the treatment needed to save the leg had cost $250, and there was no way he could ever get that kind of money. He was frightened, he told me, always frightened that
the people from the hospital would come and get him. What could he do?
A cynic might say that Wayan had rehearsed his hard-luck tale for the benefit of credulous tourists. Maybe so. But that made the fact of his telling it no less sad or importunate. And still, every morning, when he saw me, Wayan flashed me an ebullient smile. “Bali, paradise!” he exulted.
THERE WAS ALSO
, as the trance-killings revealed, a more disquieting side to this island famous for its witches, its exorcisms, the nighttime howling of its unfed dogs (believed to be agents of the demons). Before I came to Bali, I had never met a girl with the passional rawness—the wild and windswept intensity—of a Brontëan heroine. But I found her, with a vengeance, in another Wayan, a twenty-year-old girl of Kuta (in Bali, the name is given to the eldest child in nearly every family, whether male or female). Often when she spoke, it seemed that she was clutching on to life with such urgency, such frantic desperation, that life itself would wish to escape from her furious grip.
One lazy evening, as we walked beside the sea under an enormous full moon, Wayan told me her story. At fourteen, she said, she had fallen in love, but when she refused to sleep with her boyfriend, he had gone off and found another girl. In response, said Wayan calmly, she had swallowed every pill she could find. She spent a month in the hospital, longing to die. At twenty, she continued steadily, she had found her first lover, a nice boy from Amsterdam; one month after he left, she had received a letter from his father informing her of the boy’s death in an industrial accident.
These shadows hung about Wayan like dark attendant spirits. And when it came time for me to leave Bali, she asked, with unusual vehemence, if she could come to the airport to see me off. The reason, I discovered, was that she wished to deliver a chilling valediction. “Last night,” she told me with haunted eyes, “I dreamed I died. I dress all in white and go away.” I told her gently not to be worried by such dark thoughts. “I ready to be dead,” she intoned. “I know. I have dream.” But she had much to be happy about, I reminded her. “I am happy”; she nodded, looking down. “But I am also a lot sad. You come to Bali
again, you not see me, because I dead. Last night I dreamed I dead.”
For all that, however, the Balinese firmly believed that such spirits generally did not bother with foreigners, and, mostly, they seemed to be right. For most tourists, no shadows at all obscured the Balinese sky. Sure, the island might have a few hustlers and hellhounds, but for the most part it was as soft and welcoming as Miranda. In that sense, I thought, Bali had not matured into complexity, but remained in a state of sweet vulnerability. A real paradise, I told myself, should be the natural equivalent of an artistic masterpiece: it should have challenge and chiaroscuro, the fascination of what’s difficult; it should yield new meanings on every inspection, awakening in its visitors something new and unexpected; it should bring a different meaning to everyone who saw it.
But Bali, for all the variety of its charms, was relentless in its charm, and it meant the same to everyone who came here. It offered paradise, and provided it. It was pretty as a postcard, and just about as deep. Only a special kind of person can remain for long in Paradise, making his peace with tranquillity. Most people, I suspected, took taking it easy pretty hard. Humankind, to invert Eliot, cannot stand too little reality.
And maybe it was the ease with which Bali yielded to its tourist traffic or maybe it was something else—its dawning freshness, perhaps—but when first I came to know the island, I was sure somehow that the local culture had a self-sufficiency to it, a tough self-possession, that could withstand even the grasping hands and outstretched dollars of foreign intruders. And even as I was unnerved by the rowdy desecration of Kuta, I was constantly surprised to see how the Balinese seemed almost impervious to the corruption around them. Innocence, I thought, could be its own protection; seeing no evil was halfway toward feeling no evil. “There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple,” says Ferdinand. Later he tells Miranda, “’Tis fresh morning with me when you are by at night.”
My hopefulness had been encouraged when I ran across a Javanese man on the banks of a stream in Ubud. Every Balinese
family, he explained to me, was linked together by a
in each village, and every
was connected by a
These units included every married man in the village and oversaw the welfare of the entire community: they financed local dancers and artists, distributed wealth to ensure that nobody in the area would be without food or clothes or shelter, and, most important, enclosed the locals within a magic circle of self-reliance. There was no police force on the island, the man went on; the people simply governed themselves with minatory memories of the gods. Nor, as I had seen, were there any bloated stomachs or tattered rags or broken huts in Bali—only fine silks, and houses laureled in flowers. Bali’s happy system of agrarian socialism, embroidered by its spiritual gaiety, seemed truly to have brought it close to that golden age envisaged by Gonzalo, where there is “no name of magistrate; letters should not be known; riches, poverty, and use of service, none.”
I reminded myself too that all paradises are the subjects of as many elegies as eulogies, and all accounts of travel, as Lévi-Strauss observes, “create the illusion of something which no longer exists, but should exist.” For at least fifty years now, Bali had been the ultimate once-upon-a-time idyll, the traveler’s favorite requiem. As early as 1930, Hickman Powell, author of
The Last Paradise
(the first book in English on Bali), was writing of the “modern Juggernaut that would kill Bali,” and in 1937, Covarrubias had published his landmark study mostly, he wrote, as a monument to “a living culture that is doomed to disappear under the remorseless onslaught of modern commercialism.” By 1941, Philip Hanson Hiss, while repeatedly announcing: “The Balinese are the happiest people in the world!” was already cursing the hotels that packaged Balinese dances as sex-appeal shows “not very different from Broadway or Hollywood.” At the end of his paean, he had concluded, grimly: “The end seems inevitable.” Over the last fifty years, some of those fearful nightmares had come true. But still the dream remained.
Indeed, according to many Bali watchers, the tourist trade had actually quickened and revived Balinese culture, given wood carvers a living instead of a full-time hobby, provided dancers with a larger audience as well as an incentive to excel. The famous
dance had been imported to the island by foreigners, as had the art of oil painting. The locals, moreover, had
displayed an impressive gift for adapting their ways to the times: these days, the
witches who traditionally took the forms of pigs or monkeys or treacherous maidens were said to turn themselves into runaway motorbikes, while the couples who eloped, as Balinese tradition dictates, did so not on foot but in brand-new Hondas. The Balinese, indeed, were wonderfully matter-of-fact about their magic. If you live in L.A., a Balinese dancer once told me in California, you need a car to get you where you want; if you live in Bali, you need an art to get you to the sacred.
And across the street from Casablanca, where Tina Turner was shrieking out “What’s Love Got to Do with It?,” fifty Balinese men, in Kiwi Tour T-shirts, sat in a circle, practicing the chant of the
dance, the hissing, insistent curse that reminded me of nothing so much as the “Brekekoax-koax” chorus of Aristophanes’
Bali’s frequent obliviousness to imported corruption seemed almost proof against it.
SO I HAD
decided in 1984. But when I returned to Bali just eighteen months later, my faith was shaken, and my seesawing convictions about whether paradise could survive took what seemed to be their final turn, downward.
When I arrived in Kuta, the place was almost unrecognizable. Half its buildings were new, so it seemed, and the other half were under construction. In less than two years—no more than a blink in the eye of Siva—roadside stalls had been turned into flashy boutiques, tiny cafés into sleek Mexican watering holes. And as I walked down “Poppies’ Gang,” the dusty, narrow lane where I had stayed the year before in the Lasi Erawati, I could hardly orient myself for all the new additions. On one side of the field full of cows was a snazzy new singles bar, and on the other, a glassy café called Warung Transformer. Farther down the lane was a fresh two-story joint called Kempu’s Café (offering pizzas, tofuburgers, beef tacos and three kinds of guacamole), and down by the sea a newcomer called Chip’s that served hot dogs, hamburgers and piña coladas. More motorbikes than ever were racing down the unpaved road, throwing up water from puddles and forcing old women to back against bushes.
For fun-loving tourists, of course, the boom was a boon. And for the locals, the development may well have been even more of a blessing. As I walked down the
, taking in all the changes, a
woman waved frantically to me from the kitchen of Kempu’s. I looked again and saw that it was the smiling proprietress of my former guesthouse, the Lasi Erawati. How did I like her latest business? she asked me with pride, gesturing with her head around the glittering café. She had also, she said, beaming, opened a whole new set of cottages farther down the lane. Everyone was flourishing. As she spoke, Madé and Madé, the two sweet-tempered young beauties who had served me tea every day the previous year, dazzled me with smiles from the Kempu kitchen. This was where they worked now, they said happily. And did I remember Wayan? I thought of the boy with the sad story, the faraway baby, only five articles of clothing, the $250 debt. He had struck it big, the girls chimed: he was now cooking burritos at brand-new T.J.’s.