11 September 2008

Letter 3.31

Legian, Bali -- '78

Since you ask 'how far outside Bali' I am, I'd suggest you look at a map: Bali is an island, and if I were outside it I would be doing even more swimming than I do.

I have a room in a losman, or small family holding where rooms are rented, in the little village of Legian. It's a five minute walk from the Indian Ocean where the surf, I have learned, is up, but though I've already tried to ride it I have not yet been up, and see that there's a lot to learn about it. It will probably be my morning occupation for a while.

Legian has no P.O., the nearest one being the beach village of Kuta, a mile away. I rent what they call in these parts a 'pushbike' for a few cents a day and that gets me around the neighborhood. Denpasar, the capital of Bali, is about 5 miles off, and none too close for me: it's a cauldron of noise, traffic, oil fumes, and other pestilential emanations of the modern world.

Morning on the verandah and I'm writing this as I sit in a comfortable bamboo chair, bare feet propped on an ottoman, the remains of a fruit salad and a thermos of tea on the table. No power here. But the sunrise provided plenty of electricity. I watch the family life around me. The patriarch is the uncle -- in his 80's -- spry, with a sly, almost toothless smile. There are several other old relatives, a few children, and a charming young woman who with grace combines the roles of waitress, maid, and servant. In front of me is a well-kept arbor with purple hyacinth flowers. The girl is shaking the dead leaves out. Beyond her is a vegetable garden with papaya trees, then a coconut grove. A cow pasture. Many exotic plants and flowers.

Last night was full moon and I went to a fire dance -- a quite spectacular affair with costumes, music, and fire -- at a local temple. There are nearly as many temples as coconut trees in the village. I've been to another dance -- the Legong, which ends with men in trances holding swords against themselves and pressing the points in, but somehow remaining uncut. The swords are very sharp, as I learned by examining them. Afterward, to come out of the trance, they drink the blood of a freshly decapitated chicken. The dance -- like all traditional Balinese dances -- required a great deal of technical proficiency and was done to the music of a gamelan orchestra -- an otherworldly cacophony of sounds. The gamelans are a sort of xylophone, which are accompanied by gongs, drums and flutes. I was reminded of the music at the Monkey Temple in Katmandu; though this seemed music of 'the spirits' rather than 'the spirit'.

I biked up to Singaraja, on the north side of the island, and stayed a few days on the beach. Singaraja has calm waters, no surf, and there are patches of coral with colorful tropical fish, though not so brilliant as the coral reefs off of Eilat or Belize, nor so clear as the water of the Caribbean. Both oil and shipping have contributed their filth. Still I enjoyed myself in snorkel and mask floating motionless over the reefs -- also I tied a rope behind a native trimirand, and, with snorkel, had it pull me around -- past a small shark, which caused me no trouble, as well as a beautiful iridescent blue starfish. Walking on the black lava sand beach is a quite different feeling than on a white sand beach; perhaps it's the memory of volcanos between one's toes.

Back in Legian, the rains -- of the rainy season -- seemed to have started early; the water is much cooler, so no more moon-lit surfing, but in the evenings I make music with friends at a local restaurant -- me on recorder, somebody else on guitar, sometimes a mouthharp or drums.

At first I wondered if I was hearing rightly, and it struck me as rather comical, but now I understand that all Balinese have one of 4 names, denoting their order of birth: #1 child is named Wyan, #2 is Madé, #3 Nyomin, #4 is Ketut, #5 starts again with Wayan -- there is no difference in names according to sex. I'm not sure if this makes learning names four times easier or four times harder.

Bali is such a fine place not because it has beautiful beaches and a tropical climate -- those are common enough -- but because it has, on top of this, a gentle and enduring culture which values most highly the creative arts -- not only music, dance, and painting, but also architecture (especially temple architecture), sculpting, carving, etc., as well as an appreciation for the natural beauty that is rare in Asia. But Bali is only one small island in Indonesia, and though its culture is Hindu (derived long ago from India, but long since gone its own way) the rest of the country is Moslem with its usual strictures and oppressions.

Sadly, my usual visa hassles will soon expel me from the island. But that's always the way with paradise isn't it?

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