Reflections on Bali

We grew up in a pretty conservative environment east of Melbourne, where culture and spirit and community weren’t anywhere in our vocabulary. History class was dealt out with the emotional content of a brick, art study was a laborious rote intake of names and dates and cities, and English was Ps and Qs with no curls.

As I started watching movies from other cultures I began to feel pangs of longing at their rich customs and celebrations, and sense of community. The sumptuous dancers of Latin America, the high spirited rhythmic celebrations of African drum and dance, the lusciously sensual undulations of belly dancers in the Middle East and beyond, the romantic images of Native American warriors with their shamanic rituals and glorious headdresses. I wanted all of that, or at least one little bit to call my own heritage.

I plan to delve into my own Nordic background to lay some roots down in this dear world, but what if my father’s homeland was overrun by alien cultural invasion? And indeed has it? In so many cultures that have had access to western technology, the old ways are dying. It is sad, so sad. But can it be any other way?

Image; Tjoni Johansen
Image; Tjoni Johansen

In Bali recently I was at first a little envious that the locals still abide by their familial and spiritual culture. There is so much reverence in attending to their gods with beautiful handmade offerings made of banana leaves with food, flowers and incense. After a short while I realised it is actually a difficult life for many of them, if not all, who struggle with the juggling of daily ceremony, raising children and maintaining house and business.

But one thing is from my point of view they belong, they have their tribes, their families, for the moment at least. With an influx of western tourism and the technology and lifestyle they bring with them, of course the young Balinese children want the perks too. As soon as I was away from the super touristy main streets of Ubud full of raw food cafes and bamboo yoga clothes to serve the expats, most of the smiles disappeared too. The young kids don’t take kindly to the ‘bule’ (big nose) who take over their towns, and why would they?

The real local shops are dotted with kids playing on their iphones or on the floor with x-boxes or playstations or what ever is around these days (when I was a kid we had monopoly and donkey kong)
Some of the adults expressed their concern that with technology invading daily that the young ones just aren’t interested in the old customs anymore. For us westerners their culture seems exotic but I suppose for them it is becoming drudgery. It seems the hours and days of preparation and ceremony are no match for the fast paced low concentration level information invasion becomes their mainstream. Even at family ceremonies I would giggle at the young teenagers in full traditional dress kneeling on the ground playing computer games. Who am I to say this is bad when I do so much work on my phone. I guess it just stands out more in cultures that are still connected to their spiritual practice.

Who will hold the ceremony in Bali in 50 years? Will there be any Balinese people left or will it be full of expats who, like myself, have fallen in love with the place. Will there be any rice fields left or will they all be buried under villas? Will there be any locals working all will they all own villas? Without the Balinese people working for low Bali wages the expats won’t be able to maintain their luscious lifestyle. Then what? Import cheaper Javanese labour? Apparently that is happening already. This may pose another threat for the Balinese way of life.

Ceremony comes before all else, which is their custom, and well and good until an overseas manufacturing client needs an order of clothing or jewellery ASAP. Sometime ceremonies can go for days, which mean no workers. Java is not far away, their labour is cheaper, they don’t have the level of ceremony that the Balinese do. Already there is some discomfort with Javanese people taking up Balinese jobs for this reason. So what do the Balinese do? Give up the customs that have been inherent in their lives for untold generations to compete with their international counterparts? Or have their artisans fall to even more unemployment. It seems like damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If Bali loses the very spiritual nature that draws so many tourists, expats and business owners to her shore, it leaves her in a very vulnerable space. She no longer has enough productive land to feed the locals, so now they are importing rice and other food. If business runs dry and money runs out they have no access to food. It happened in the drought in 1985, it happened after the Bali bombings. Now there are even less rice paddies than before. I felt quite vulnerable there just knowing the balance between food and no food was so fine. (until I stayed on an arts retreat with its own water spring!)

I can’t imagine any right or wrong answer in this instance. Business is business, and people are going to demand goods on time at a good price, or go somewhere else. I guess it’s up to us as consumers to ensure the products we buy from Bali are manufactured locally with respect to the way of Bali life that makes it such a joy to visit. I only hope it can sustain itself as a cultural and creative mecca and perhaps with our help it can.


Written by Tjoni Johansen


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