It's an odd feeling when a major news event takes place in a location that's so familiar I can read between the lines of the newspaper article. That was true when Mount St. Helens blew its top. I'd pore over the maps and articles figuring out exactly where the blast killed people where I'd slept myself. Recent headlines about a bombing in Bali triggered similar memories.
Saying Bali is a resort island is a little like saying the Vatican is a Catholic community - it misses the point. When we visited Bali in 1985, it was just as the monsoons were ending and Kuta was relatively quiet. Kuta then would be recognizable to most Americans as a Southeast Asian version of a Mexican border town - full of cheap lodgings, ticky-tacky shops, and open air cafes and bars frequented by Anglo (in this case, mostly Australian) tourists. The real culture of Bali was further away, in villages that focused on art and temples, not beer and beaches.
The island of Bali is a Hindu remnant in the otherwise mostly Moslem country of Indonesia. There are islands that are Christian as well, but the dominant population on Java, for example, is definitely Moslem. Bali's form of Hinduism, however, includes a liberal dose of animism. As a result you see small, beautiful hand-made offerings - bits of rice, flowers, and incense collected in palm leaf bowls - brought to specific locations each morning to entreat the spirits to be nice that day. Offerings at intersections attempted to ward off traffic accidents.
The village of Ubud, Bali's cultural center, is packed with high quality arts and crafts, lodgings and Hindu temples. There we stayed in a family compound; the oldest son was a famous painter, another brother was an architect in Denpasar, and the youngest a classical dancer. Here we stayed among spectacular artworks in a little cottage overlooking rice paddies. In Ubud, we met Louise and Brian, Australians who are still our friends. They'd traveled to Indonesia many times and passed on to us what they'd learned about how to be a sensitive, as opposed to obnoxious, tourist.
The social culture in Bali has rules very different from ours. It is considered laughable to walk down the street holding your husband's hand; that's for friendships, not heterosexual relationships. Men (or women) walk together arm in arm. When you enter a temple, it is a sign of respect to wear a sash, just as in Catholic churches women were expected to cover their heads. During a temple religious observance, men and women both wear sarongs, the traditional wrapped skirt, as a sign of respect. During off times, however, the large grassy temple courtyards were used for soccer games. It was deportment that distinguished different events. The Balinese are modest people and feel there are portions of the body that should not be visible in public, specifically armpits and backs of knees, so shorts and sleeveless shirts are off limits if you want to be polite.
One night we went to a classical music and dance performance held in a temple. The tickets requested not using flash cameras. In the row ahead of us, a group of French men and women wearing tank tops and shorts took flash photos throughout the performance. A French Canadian woman nearby leaned forward, and in French, asked them to please stop, it was disrupting for both performers and audience. The photographer told her to "f--- off." Obviously the French tourists were slumming.
The Balinese are a gentle, tolerant people and our hosts were always extremely sensitive, to the point of literally anticipating every need. One morning we decided to ask Jati, our painter host, a question before we set out for the day. As we walked up the flagstone path toward the gate to the street, Jati stepped out from one of the family's small buildings and said, "You have need of me?" That's only one instance of the sort of e.s.p. that underlay Balinese hospitality.
Per capita income when we visited Bali was about $400/year, yet there was more beauty in their little villages than we routinely see in much wealthier areas here. Even the smallest household tended ornamental plants - hibiscus, plumeria, jasmine, and lotus - and carvings enhanced doorways and gates. Every person pursued some art form as a hobby. Observing their lifestyle, I realized that creating beauty in your surroundings has to do with attitude and values, not money. It's a lesson that hasn't left me, and it's sad that terrorism might discourage more people from learning it.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from Ilwaco.