In search of the real Bali

A little-visited village illuminates the fabled island's mundane treasures.

By Jack Goldfarb
Published April 19, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Deplaning at Denpasar Airport in Bali, Indonesia, with a battered suitcase and in torn, bedraggled jeans, I must have appeared badly in need of help. Five solicitous tourist guides converged as one, offering aid -- mainly in the form of inexpensive sightseeing tours to the familiar tourist haunts of Ubud, Mas and Tjeluk, where paintings, woodcarvings and jewelry await spenders big and small.

To one of the more persistent guides, I explained that I was "in search of the real Bali." His knowing smile indicated he had heard that one often enough.

But several days later he must have decided my interest was genuine and my capacity to rough it hardy enough. He sought me out at my hotel and asked if I would like to accompany him on a visit to his family's village on the island's south coast, about 40 miles from Denpasar. He warned me that it was not easily accessible and was inhabited entirely by his relatives.

The following morning at the Denpasar "bus terminal" -- a traffic jam in the middle of an empty lot -- Sudjana and I, surrounded by 40 other passengers, squeezed aboard a little ramshackle coach. We jammed in seven across on rows of wooden benches. This included one person on each row perched on a footstool crammed into the aisle. When the two barefoot conductors finished stowing the last of the bunches of bananas, bundles of batik, cages of fighting cocks and passengers' bicycles onto the roof, someone shouted, "Ajuk djalen!" ("Hit the road!"), and the bus rattled off.

We headed for the town of Tabanan in the central highlands below Bali's volcanic mountain range, passing indelibly green expanses of rice fields and forests of bamboo, banyan and betel palm. Roadside ditches were thronged with naked romping children and bare-breasted women scrubbing piles of laundry. All along the route of our "banana run," passengers and their rooftop cargo flowed in and out in a noisy scrambling at dozens of stops. Only Sudjana and I sat fast, finally reaching Tabanan, an interminable hour later.

From the lady fruit hawkers in the town square, we learned that our connecting bus had already left and the next one was due in four hours. The women provided further cheery news that the road ahead was open only as far as the next town. Sudjana left me to sample the local jackfruit and mangosteens while he went off in search of alternate transport.

He returned with a jeep and driver whose toothy grin spread even wider when he realized I was too impatient for lengthy bargaining over the fare. Price agreed on, we climbed aboard and continued our journey.

Luckily the jeep had a canvas top that saved me a number of times from being launched skyward as we bounced along the craters and cobble-strewn remnants of the washed-out or, should I say, washed-up road. I wondered how much worse the closed road ahead could be if this one was still considered navigable.

At the next town, Kerambitan, a road barrier of bamboo stakes plus the district officer, with whom Sudjana conferred on the steps of the police station, confirmed that the only way of proceeding farther was on foot.

Engulfed for miles around by a sea of waving rice plants, Sudjana and I tramped along the narrow, rock-ridden roadway leading toward Kelating, his still distant village. Time and overflowing rivers had erased all but the outer fringe of the road, now difficult even for pedestrian passage.

In the fields, posted like sentries, were sandstone shrines to which the farmers brought offerings of flowers and fruit for Dewi Sri, the rice goddess of Balinese Hinduism. Off the road a larger shrine was being visited by dome-hatted farmers saying prayers for their six-week-old rice shoots, which were about to be transplanted to the fields.

Our long trek under the fiery sun eventually brought us to the dusty "main street" of the village of Penarukan. Tawny villagers peered from their huts and ran to stare at the stranger. I grinned, waved and winked, reaping a reciprocal harvest of smiles and friendly gestures.

An additional hour's hike through the rice paddies ended at the clay walls and wooden entrance gate to Sudjana's family compound in Kelating, where an escort of wide-eyed, excitedly chattering children encircled us.

More youngsters and adults joined the troop as we approached the veranda of a large house in the center of the compound. Sudjana's parents, brothers, sisters, cousins and other assorted relatives followed us onto the porch of the wooden-frame dwelling, which belonged to his uncle. The assembly watched my every movement and listened raptly to my conversation with Sudjana; he was the only one of them who spoke a word of English.

Everyone seemed delighted at our arrival, but I couldn't get over the fact that no one had really greeted Sudjana, who hadn't visited his native village in four months.

The only formal greeting was probably a faux pas on my part. I prevailed on Sudjana to introduce me to a spirited elderly woman sitting cross-legged on the veranda steps. She shyly came forward, vigorously chewing betel nut. While everyone looked on amusedly, I bowed and shook her hand. Her eyes sparkled in a prolonged smile. She was Sudjana's great-grandmother, the clan's humble senior member, whose healthy appearance belied her 92 years.

The lively nonagenarian, who had been as far as Denpasar only twice in her life, was born in Kelating. In fact, her great-grandmother had also been born in Kelating. The 1,354 inhabitants of Kelating traced their common ancestry back to a restless rice farmer named Maranggan who came west from the town of Klungkung and founded this village more than two centuries ago.

Sudjana's closest relatives, numbering 42 people, lived in their own family compound, which formed part of a bandjar, a subdivision of the village. In their "mutual self-help" way of life, they grew their own rice, tobacco, cotton, vegetables and fruits, each breadwinner cultivating his own field, but all required to help one another in irrigating and harvesting. Should one man acquire more land than he could look after himself, he was asked to share his harvest with others assigned to aid him.

Practically all the implements used in the compound were made by the villagers themselves, including cooking and eating utensils, wooden plows, bamboo fish traps, straw baskets and oil lamps. Simple furniture, fashioned from the abundant trees in the coastal woods, and simple clothing, some woven in the village and some bartered for in the town, completed the needs of their lives. Their tiny, self-sufficient community drew its own water from deeply sunk wells.

While sitting on the veranda cooling off, I was surprised to see the district officer suddenly appear at the entrance gate on his bicycle.

The husky uniformed official turned out to be Sudjana's uncle, the owner of the big house. He went inside and brought out dishes of fried bananas and bowls of coconut milk for Sudjana and me. This soft-spoken elderly man had been decorated by the Indonesian government for organizing resistance to the Japanese occupation of Bali during World War II. Today he was the most well-to-do of Sudjana's kin, with an excellent job and the largest house.

But in the traditional communal life of Balinese villages, he was just another member of the bandjar. Like everyone else, he sat in the thatched meeting hall to discuss the problems of individuals and the community, to be assigned his share of duties, to assist in arrangements for ceremonial occasions and to help mete out justice to those breaking the code of conduct.

In Kelating, as in all other villages, the harshest punishment for offenses against the common welfare is expulsion. Exile bars the wrongdoer from being accepted into any other community and is decreed for various violations: continual shirking of communal responsibilities, constant failure to attend village meetings, temple vandalism, incest and stealing from the gods.

The gods of Ugama Bali -- Balinese Hinduism -- were worshiped in Kelating at the family temple in a corner of the compound farthest removed from the pig sty and cow pasture. (In Bali the cow is not considered holy as it is in India.) The sacred family shrine, protected by ferocious stone creatures to frighten off evil spirits, faced northeast toward Mount Agung, the highest point in Bali and legendary home of the gods.

Ugama Bali is a unique version of Hinduism, influenced by traditional Indian views of the nature of the world, including belief in reincarnation. Hinduism first crossed over the Bay of Bengal about 1,500 years ago and flourished in the Indonesian islands for 1,000 years until its displacement by militant Muslims in the 16th century. Only in Bali did Hinduism survive, now blended with Buddhism, Malay ancestor worship, animism and magic.

When life in the compound had gone back to its routine, I followed three of Sudjana's comely cousins into the temple. In a ceremony of almost mystical beauty, the sarong-clad girls, red frangipani petals tucked behind their ears, placed small hibiscus-decorated frond baskets filled with bananas, cakes and handfuls of rice at the feet of the stone gods.

Balinese believe a myriad of good and bad spirits are loose in the world, but God is the supreme spirit who shows himself through many lesser deities with particular powers and functions. All have to be revered, requiring constant ritual observance.

The girls' perishable food offering, renewed at every mealtime, expressed an ever-present need for reassurance that the gods would keep at bay the crop-destroying demonic forces that could bring hunger to the village.

Inside the living quarters, a spacious roofed platform also used for traditional dancing, weddings, puberty teeth-filing rites and countless festive celebrations in the Balinese calendar, all was quiet now -- except for the snores of Sudjana's grandfather, deep into his siesta.

Most of the other villagers were busy, however. Men and boys carried sheaves of rice from the granary to the women pounding and sifting the hulls from the grains. Old women squatted under the shady eaves of huts, shredding tobacco, spinning cotton and sorting chili peppers. When they saw me watching, the gentle villagers must have wondered why their homespun tasks should attract so much attention.

In the communal kitchen, young women were boiling up batches of coconut oil from grated copra, while others ladled servings of yams and steaming rice out of clay pots. The villagers scrupulously washed their hands before eating. Sitting on their haunches on a dining platform nearby, they deftly scooped their food out of coconut shell bowls with their well-scrubbed fingers. When I admired a special spoon made of a bamboo handle and a coconut shell, a similar one was snapped together and presented to me faster than I could pronounce its name, sinduk.

Although there were cattle, pigs and chickens at Kelating, little meat or poultry was eaten outside of festival days. Except for eels, caught at night by coconut oil lamplight, fish too was seldom eaten. The villagers did little fishing in the adjacent area, being wary of the briny deep, the legendary dwelling place of sinister spirits.

Sudjana's sister, a striking girl of 17, carrying her infant sister in her arms, had been following Sudjana and me wherever we went. Finally she approached us and began asking Sudjana many questions. The questions were for me and about the world I came from. He told her my home was in a faraway land beyond the seas. She asked if it were true that some people lived in houses high in the sky, one family on top of another.

Did the cows and chicken live up there with them too? Were the rice fields, vegetable gardens and fruit trees nearby?

After traveling such a long way, she worried, wouldn't I want to stay and rest in their bandjar for a while? From her innocent tone, I gathered I was one of the few foreigners she had ever spoken to.

By next year, Sudjana said, his sister would probably elope or be "kidnapped" by a bridegroom from another village in the customary manner by which Balinese girls marry at 18. If she truly loved the young man, she would offer only token resistance to the abduction.

Despite their preoccupation with rituals and ceremonies, the graceful, creative people of Kelating had a simple message on the conduct of life. They practiced social unity, the responsibility of one human being for another. In their peaceful compound they were more in harmony with their environment and with one another than any people I had ever met.

When Sudjana and I left Kelating through the creaky wooden gate, no one said goodbye. But his great-grandmother did beam a smile at us, wishing us "Selamat djalan" -- a safe journey.

Jack Goldfarb

Jack Goldfarb has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other publications

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