Bali’s Wild West

Dear Jan:

On the far western tip of Bali sits the last protected area of the island, still relatively unspoiled and serene. This is the home of West Bali National Park, an area that covers 158 square kilometers, or approximately 5% of Bali’s total land area. On its north side, the Park includes a 1,000-meter beach, a reef and Menjangan Island. This area is a popular dive destination and many say it offers the best scuba and snorkeling sites in Bali.

I had been wanting to visit the Park and my chance came with a visit from my dear friend, Annie Weiss. Annie flew over from Boston for a week in Bali, and we decided a trip to the island’s one and only national park was in order. After a day to acclimate, Annie and I left first thing for a 3-hour drive across Bali, arriving in Pemuteran in time for a late breakfast. Pemuteran is about a 15 minute drive from the Park and offers lodgings for Park visitors. Our hotel, we discovered, was a lovely seaside oasis; here are the pool and beach that welcomed us:

After breakfast, we grabbed a bemo, or public minibus, to the entrance of the Park. There we were greeted by Putu, an official guide who offered to take us into the Park on foot. We discussed different routes and decided on a hike that started on the beach and then turned inland along a stream, ending at a local temple.

As we started out from the beach and snaked our way along the edge of a mangrove forest, we were saddened to see piles of trash scattered along the shore and caught in the roots of the mangroves. We asked Putu how this could happen in a National Park. He explained that the rivers of Bali empty their waste into the sea, and that this is carried back to shore on the tide. He also pointed to Java, which we could see quite clearly to the west. The Balinese often blame their trash problems on the Javanese, but in this case, with Java so close, it did seem possible that some of the trash might have migrated across the narrow strait that separates it from Bali.

As we turned inland, the trash gradually disappeared and we found ourselves hiking through groves of sheltering trees and twisting vines:

Our trail took us back and forth across this shallow creek:

Along the banks wandered bands of long-tailed macaques, among them this mother and baby (the baby appears to be sporting a miniature mohawk):

While the Park is a haven for many forms of wildlife, including flying foxes, leopard cats and wild boar, the only other evidence of creatures we saw were deer footprints and this large, harmless millipede:

After a few hours of hiking up and down through a mix of meadow and forest (with some good views of Java and nearby Menjangan Island), we ended up at a temple dedicated to a star-crossed couple, Jayaprana and Layonsari, often called the Romeo and Juliet of Bali. As the story goes, Jayaprana was the foster son of a local king during the 17th century. He fell in love with a humble but beautiful flower seller named Layonsari and they planned to wed. The king, however, had fallen in love with Layonsari as well and arranged to have Jayaprana killed. Layonsari learned the truth of Jayaprana’s death in a dream and killed herself rather than marry the king.

The temple dedicated to this tale is a strange affair, very unlike any Balinese temple I’ve ever visited. The grounds were decrepit and had something of a junk-yard feel. We entered a large, run-down building with a big old t.v. blaring and several older women watching it. Behind the t.v. we noticed the priest napping on a mattress. We approached the actual shrine to Jayaprana and Layonsari, an inner sanctum one can peer into but not enter. Peeking in, we were met with this garish vision, the doomed couple at the center of the tableau:

Leaving this surreal place, we made our way back down to the Park entrance and said our goodbyes to Putu, our guide. As we left, we came across these darling girls out for a joy ride:

After a swim and a good night’s rest, we set off the next morning for a day of diving and snorkeling (Annie dove; I snorkeled). We visited several reefs off the coast of Pemuteran and also explored the “biorock” reef that is part of a large reef restoration project located in the bay right in front of our hotel.

The biorock method involves using low voltage electrical currents run through steel structures that are sunk into areas where the reef has been destroyed or is dying. Corals spontaneously settle on these structures and grow quickly. This restores compromised reefs and also reverses beach erosion. The biorock method produces healthy and resilient corals that can survive the stresses (rising temperatures, pollution) that are killing many reefs today. The biorock project in Pemuteran is the largest in the world, with 56 structures installed in the bay over the past decade. Here is Annie in a biorock structure being prepared for installation:

And here is one of the ways the project raises money:

After seeing a great variety of fish (and one huge, scary jellyfish), we returned to land and took a long walk along the little lanes that make up Pemuteran. Along the way we passed a group of men playing cards and drinking a local brew called arak. The host of the party came out to the road and tipsily invited us to join them, an offer we gently declined.

A few houses down the lane, we came across what is today a rare sight (but still common when I first came to Bali in the 60’s), a topless woman. Today, it is only old women who practice the disappearing custom of going bare-breasted:

And everywhere, there were children, in this case a gang of boisterous boys chanting “Bule, Bule” (the slang for foreigner, literally “albino”):

The next morning we returned to Sanur, which seemed very tame, touristy and crowded by contrast. I really felt like I had gone back in time during our visit to Pemuteran and the Park — to a slower, gentler pace and to a side of Bali that is all too rarely glimpsed these days. I’ll write again soon and am sending lots of love to you and the family in the meantime — Katherine

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Tangkahan

Dear Jan:

In my last letter, I left off with our departure from Bukit Lawang, a sad affair, as we had such a memorable time there and had grown close to our guides, Will and Achmad. As you probably remember, right before leaving I received a warning from Achmad based on the bad omen of my close brush with a dangerous snake. He told us to take care over the next few days and to avoid doing anything out of the ordinary. Hah! I thought, knowing that we were heading off to trek with elephants and raft down rivers.

The drive to our next destination, Tangkahan, was along one of the most muddy and rutted roads I have ever seen (thank goodness for a good driver and a solid 4-wheel drive vehicle):

Along the way, we saw many signs of the environmental damage that is occurring in North Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia. We saw lots of evidence of deforestation and logging:

We also saw how much of the land has been converted into palm oil plantations. Here is a tract of land we passed that was being prepared for such a plantation by a large Malaysian company:

And here is a fully established palm oil plantation, this one owned by the Indonesian government:

The oil is processed in nearby plants that spew waste into the surrounding landscape:

Right there, during the course of that car ride, we witnessed how the exponential growth of palm oil production and the logging that continues unchecked in Indonesia is threatening the rainforest and its inhabitants, including the orangutans we had just seen and the elephants we were about to see. As we drove along, we also reflected on the fact that clearing the rainforest increases greenhouse gases and that consumption of palm oil raises the risk of heart disease. Alec was actually the one who brought these issues to my attention, as he had just been studying the subject in his Humanities class. Needless to say, we had rather a gloomy car ride as we absorbed the implications of what we were observing.

After two hours of navigating nearly impossible roads, our driver dropped us in Tangkahan, a remote village that sits on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park and at the junction of the Buluh and the Batang rivers. Traditionally, the inhabitants of Tangkahan have made their living through farming and harvesting rubber. More recently, the area became a strategic exit point for illegal logging operations in the National Park as well as a site for new palm oil plantations. While these developments impacted all species living in the forest, one of the hardest hit was the Sumatran elephant. Humans clashed with elephants as more and more tracts of land were cleared; over time, the elephants were forced into isolated pockets and became endangered.

The human-elephant conflict, as it is referred to in Indonesia, continued in the Tangkahan area until the late 1990s, when floods swept through nearby villages, teaching villagers a hard lesson concerning the consequences of rainforest loss. As the local population began to question their activities, Flora and Fauna International got involved with an innovative program called the Community Response Unit (CRU). Under this program, seven elephants already in captivity were brought to the area and former illegal loggers – including some who had served jail time – were reformed to become mahouts, or elephant rangers.

Today, the CRU elephants serve a dual function. First, they are directly involved in patrolling the National Park to prevent illegal logging. At the same time, the elephants have created an eco-tourism attraction which has improved the livelihood of the local community and in this way reduced the incentive for illegal logging. According to Fauna and Flora International, illegal logging operations in the area have dwindled significantly.

Upon arrival in Tangkahan we were met by the local innkeeper, who goes by the nickname Bob, and our guide, Nanta. Both are members of the Batak Karo tribe, a small subgroup of the larger Batak population that inhabits North Sumatra. They led us down to cross the Batang river on a very basic ferry:

Climbing up the far bank of the river, we came across this gentleman as he harvested rubber from some of the surrounding trees:

We traveled down a narrow path, at last reaching the Jungle Inn, where we took in the view from the verandah:

The Inn sits on the smaller of the two local rivers, the Buluh, and shortly after arriving, Nanta led us down to its banks to swim. We felt refreshed by the cool, clean water, and then visited a small hot spring bubbling out of the farther bank. We finished our tour with a visit to a nearby waterfall, which provided a bracing shower. Returning to the Inn, we discovered that only about two items on the menu were ever available (we continued to eat those two same items throughout our stay). One of these was a pancake, which became the name of this kitten, who managed to eat at least half of every pancake that came out of the kitchen:

Alec and Pancake became fast friends, but meanwhile larger companions awaited us. The next morning we rose early and walked about 20 minutes through a palm oil plantation to the CRU elephant compound. On the way, we were passed by numerous motorcycles saddled with large baskets zooming back and forth along the unpaved road. Nanta explained that these were locals poaching palm fruit from the plantation, intending to sell it for palm oil production. Apparently, there is an elaborate system of lookouts in place; via cellphone they provide warnings when the army troops who guard this government-owned plantation are in the vicinity. Nanta said that these poachers are villagers who feel justified in their activities because the government took their land about 7 years ago to establish the plantation.

After observing this furtive operation, we arrived at the CRU compound, where we were introduced to 7 adult elephants and two babies. Here are Alec and Namu, just two and a half months old:

Namu was very friendly and loved to be scratched all over her small back. Soon, the elephants were readied for a trip down to the river to bathe and drink. On the way, Alec got a chance to feed one of the adult females:

Once at the river, we met Tangkah, who at 5 and a half months old was not much larger than Namu. Tangkah was very curious and liked to touch everything with his trunk:

Each of the adult elephants had its own mahout and most of them seemed to have a good relationships with their charges, however the mahout for the compound’s one male elephant seemed unnecessarily harsh. When questioned about his technique and his chaining of the elephant, he asserted that it was necessary because this male could get very frisky around all the females. Still, we were disturbed that such a sensitive and intelligent animal should be treated in such a callous manner:

As the elephants entered the river to bathe, we were allowed to join them and help scrub their hides (which they seemed to enjoy):

Once the elephants had bathed, it was Alec’s turn:

Next, it was time for our trek across the river and through the forest, accompanying the elephants on one of their daily patrols:

While Sumatran elephants are quite diminutive compared to other elephant species, they are sturdy and skillful trekkers. Here we are with stalwart Augustine:

At the end of the trek, we were loathe to say goodbye to these new-found friends, so we arranged to come back later to see them again. In the meantime, we took a several-hour tubing trip down the wide Batang River. Along the way, we stopped to see a large waterfall and to swim in the pool at its base. The hike to the falls involved a lot of slippery rocks and thigh-high muck, but the refreshing swim at the end made it worth it.

Back in our tubes, we braved a series of rapids and ended our ride at a palm oil plantation where we were met by several motorbikes and their drivers — transportation arranged by Nanta, our intrepid and resourceful guide. Alec and I each sat on the back of a bike, but the ride out through the plantation to the main road was hair-raising. Recent rains had turned the whole area into a mudslick. Our bikes kept skidding out and we had to dismount repeatedly to allow the drivers to negotiate the slippery track. Throughout this afternoon’s adventures, I kept remembering Achmad’s warning and found myself praying that we would get through it all safely.

The motorbikes deposited us and our tubes back at the CRU compound, where we were able to spend another hour or so visiting with the elephants before tubing back down the river to a spot near our lodgings. We left our tubes right at the place where the smaller Buluh river joins the Batang. Here, a group of young men were fishing and swimming, and Alec became very interested in their activities. They invited him to join them, and soon they were all swimming back and forth across the wide and relatively swift Batang. They crossed five times and my heart was in my throat with every crossing.

Next, the young men decided Alec needed to learn to do a flip into the river and they worked on teaching him until he succeeded just as twilight fell. You can imagine my relief when all this activity abated — I didn’t want to hold Alec back from joining in the fun, but I had to battle my own fears as he swam and flipped and roughhoused with the young Batak Karo men. At the same time, I wished we could stay much longer in this beautiful and exhilarating place.

That night, we packed our bags for an early departure the next morning. Our return to civilization the next day felt jarring — the crowds, the concrete, the Dunkin Donuts at the airport. It was a 12-hour journey (with some airplane delays) home to Bali, and while thrilled to see the rest of the family, we were deeply sad to leave the rainforest, the elephants, the orangutans, our guides, the whole experience. It is more than 2 weeks now since we got back and we are still missing Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan. Safely back home, I can only hope the march of development does not destroy these precious places and that the endangered species there hold steady in their numbers.

That’s all for now, Jan. Sending you and the family much love — Katherine

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Bukit Lawang


Dear Jan:

I am just back from a week in Sumatra with Alec — we saw so much that I’ll need to tell the story in two parts. This first installment is about our visit to Bukit Lawang and the Gunung Leuser National Park to see orangutans in the wild.

Bukit Lawang is a small village that sits at the edge of the Park about 90 kilometers northwest of Medan in North Sumatra. The village snakes its way along the banks of the Bahorok River, ending at the entrance to the Park. Upon our arrival, we were met by Obiwan (self-named, inspired by Star Wars), a charismatic young man with long hair and mirrored aviators. He looked more like a rock star than a jungle guide, but we didn’t ask questions:

On our walk through the village to our lodgings, we learned that there had been a devastating flood in Bukit Lawang in 2003 (this event has been pointed to as one of the many environmental impacts of illegal logging in the area). The flash flood was like a tidal wave, with water that was approximately 20 meters high crashing down the hills. The entire village was swept away and hundreds were killed, including most of Obiwan’s family. Obiwan and his little brother, Will, were caught in the flood themselves, but managed to survive, along with an older sister who was fortunate enough to be on higher ground. This news was all delivered matter-of-factly, but we could only imagine how much these events must have traumatized Obiwan and all the flood’s survivors.

Bukit Lawang today bears little physical evidence of the flood; with the help of international aid organizations, there was a huge rebuilding effort in the few years following the tragedy. New building continues today to accommodate the growing number of visitors to Gunung Leuser National Park.

Shortly after our arrival, we met the guides who would take us on our jungle trek the following day. It turns out that Obiwan himself does little trekking these days; he is busy overseeing the guide operation, running his own small inn and raising a son, nick-named Obi-2 — get it, Obi-1, Obi-2 — Indonesians truly love wordplay. Obiwan’s younger brother, Will, would be our main guide, with brother-in-law, Pi’i (pronounced P.E.) as assistant guide, and friend Achmad as cook and major domo.

Alec immediately hit it off with Achmad, a big bear of a man with a playful manner and can-do approach to life. Alec and Achmad happily spent the rest of the day swimming, fishing, and tubing on the river, while I got us organized for the next day’s trek. We rose early the following morning and made our way by rickety ferry boat across the river to the entrance of the Gunung Leuser National Park:

Once in the park, we began our climb into the rainforest, with our first stop at the Park’s orangutan feeding platform. This feeding operation is what remains of a Swiss-funded orangutan rehabilitation project that operated in this part of the Park from the early 1970’s until about 7 years ago. The twice-daily feedings are intended to provide supplemental food for the orangutans who were reintroduced into the wild during the project’s heyday. The feedings also serves as an ongoing draw for tourists and a source of income for the Park, as all visitors must pay an entrance fee.

We spent an hour at the feeding platform, anxiously awaiting the arrival of one or more orangutans. To our chagrin, none appeared and we were forced to move on, having lost our best opportunity to see the apes that day. Our guides warned us that it is not the norm to see orangutans in the course of a jungle trek; they are generally shy and keep away from trekkers. Will said he would try his best, but could not guarantee a sighting.

We began a long uphill climb into the forest, much of it quite steep. Here is Pi’i bringing up the rear of our little group:

And here is the view from the ground, looking up into the rainforest canopy:

Along the way, we saw a variety of insect life: masses of furry caterpillars, termites and their bizarre nests, and Amazon-sized jungle ants:

As we reached a plateau, Will’s ears pricked up and he began to search the treetops. We could hear the sounds of movement and Will motioned us to stand back. He said he needed to check to see if the approaching orangutan was the infamous Minah, a reintroduced orangutan who has become notably aggressive with Park visitors and guides. She is interested in the food she assumes visitors are carrying and has been known to bite if disappointed in her search for a hand-out.

After a few minutes, Will confirmed that the orangutan was Minah with her 3-year-old daughter (whom I later learned is named Catherine). Will handed his backpack to Pi’i and moved in the direction of Minah as she descended from the trees. He spoke to her softly and stayed close to her as she scoped out the situation. Here are Minah and Catherine descending; Catherine is trying to keep nursing as her mom contemplates her next move:

Here, Minah sees us standing a few meters away and thoroughly checks us out:

And here she is down on the ground now and moving towards us:

At this point, Pi’i gently tugged at my shirt and motioned me and Alec to follow him quietly. As we slipped away, Will stayed behind, continuing to talk to Minah and leading her away from us. We moved swiftly in the opposite direction and continued our climb, wondering what would become of Will. After about 10 minutes he rejoined us smiling and saying that Minah had returned to the treetops without incident. Impressed by Will’s courage and skill, we congratulated him and shared our exhilaration at such a close encounter with an orangutan mother and child.

Half an hour later, Will stopped and listened intently again. He led us off the path and motioned upwards. There, above us was another orangutan, this time a lone male, whom Will estimated to be about 10 years old:

Feeling incredibly lucky, we forged ahead up and down numerous steep hills to a lunch spot by a lovely waterfall:

After lunch, we heard gibbons and saw pig-tailed macaques, as well as something that looked like a flying fox. We also reached the highest point of our trek, where we took in beautiful views while Will and Alec enjoyed a much-deserved rest:

Following a total of 7 hours on the trail, we finally reached our campsite by the river, where Achmad was waiting to greet us. While we had been hiking through the forest, Achmad had been carrying all our camping gear plus several large inner tubes (for the next day’s rafting) to the campsite along a shorter route. Laden with all that gear (which weighed 60 kilos), he looked like this:

By the time we reached the campsite, Achmad had everything set up and was busy cooking our dinner. The food was delicious and we were all tired, but we managed to play a few hands of cards before turning in. The sleeping arrangements were spartan: we each had a very thin sleeping pad and a light blanket. As we got ready for sleep, a heavy rain began to fall and we huddled under the plastic tarp that was to provide our night’s shelter. Alec and I woke up freezing in the middle of the night and I laid our rain ponchos over us, which captured enough body heat to get us back to sleep.

Waking up, we were stiff but pleased to find the rain had stopped. In the morning sunlight, a number of creatures visited the campsite, including several large monitor lizards, a huge but harmless centipede and an unwelcome leech (although Alec thought it was cool):

Achmad prepared a huge breakfast, which included a special fruit salad made expressly for Alec (this picture attests to their bond):

After we all cleaned up and broke camp, the guides lashed together several inner tubes and created a makeshift raft for our journey downriver. On the hair-raising return ride to Bukit Lawang, we survived some hefty rapids and a very swift current. I think Alec enjoyed it more than I did — he laughed gleefully the whole way while I nearly punctured my inner tube with my fingernails.

Back in Bukit Lawang, Alec and Achmad immediately took off for an afternoon of fishing, which resulted in a large catch that we ate for dinner that night:

Meanwhile, I returned to the Gunung Leuser feeding platform and felt fortunate to see two pairs of orangutan mothers with their children: Pesek with baby Wati and Ratna with young Ratni. Here is a picture of Ratni checking out the contents of the milk bucket,

and another of Pesek getting a drink of milk:

After a barbecued feast of freshly-caught fish, we spent one last night in Bukit Lawang. The next morning, we made a final visit to the feeding platform, in the hopes that Alec would get another glimpse of an orangutan. I didn’t bring my camera this time, thinking I had already gotten plenty of good photos. Alec questioned this decision, asking “What if we see something different today?” And sure enough, who should show up at this feeding but Jenggot, a fierce, enormous 25 year old male who visits the feeding platform only about once a year. The Park rangers all scattered as Jenggot approached, wary of his size and reputation. They left bananas for him on the platform and he sat quietly and ate them while scrutinizing the humans watching him a short distance away. While I don’t have a photo of my own to share, here is one a fellow visitor kindly sent me:

Feeling very fortunate, we took the trail back into town and packed our things for the next leg of our journey. I had left some wet clothes drying by the river and as I reached to retrieve them I froze: a foot or two away was a dangerous-looking snake poised to strike. I backed away as carefully as I could and found a nearby guide to ask for help. He took one look at the snake, pronounced it very poisonous and whacked off its head with a stick. Shivering, I ran to find Alec and the others. When I told them my story, Achmad shook his head and said this was serious: the snake was a warning and meant we needed to be very careful over the next few days. Great! I thought, as we said our goodbyes and headed off deeper into the wilds of Sumatra to visit the elephants of Tangkahan. But that is another story and will have to wait until my next letter… Love to you and all the family, Katherine

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Pave Paradise

Dear Jan:

Last week, I wrote to you about the resilience of Balinese society in the face of waves of westernization. I wish I could say that the same for the physical environment. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, tourism has transformed the southwest coast of Bali into a “plastic strip of paradise.” That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact of development on the island. Environmental problems here are sadly pervasive and more land is being lost to developers all the time.

As a recent study put it, “The rapid and unplanned tourism development of Bali has had a great impact on its natural environment, affecting water resources, increasing pollution and localized flooding and putting pressure on the island’s infrastructure.” One is struck by these realities upon arrival in Bali. Billboards, concrete, trash and traffic jams are all part of the experience. Arriving at one of the beach towns, this is what is likely to welcome you:

I first came to Bali as a child in the late 1960’s, and it is hard for me not to compare the pristine beaches and undisturbed vistas of that time with what I see today. The Kuta of my childhood was an endless stretch of undisturbed white sand with not a hotel, restaurant or shop in sight. There were some bungalows for rent and a few warung (open air food stands), but that was about it. If one wanted anything more elaborate, one had to travel on backroads to the sleepy capital town of Denpasar.

Denpasar today is a sprawling city of half a million people, where much of the solid waste is not collected or disposed of. Instead, it is deposited in “informal” landfills, dumped into canals or left on the streets:

Back in Kuta, and along the whole coastline, the formerly unspoiled beaches often look like this:

And replacing my childhood memories of moonlight and quiet walks along the beach, this is what nighttime in Kuta looks like today:

Everywhere, it seems new hotels and shopping centers are being erected. Sanur, where I live, has historically been a quieter, gentler alternative to Kuta. But suddenly, it is mushrooming with new development, making the town feel like a big construction site. This is just one of the projects I walk by everyday; soon it will be a vast new hotel complex:

One of Sanur’s natural wonders is an extensive network of mangroves. I visited the mangrove forest yesterday on my way to a friend’s house and this is what I found:

Nearby, some fishermen were casting their rods, and I wondered if most of what they catch these days isn’t tainted by the ubiquitous waste:

The worst of the environmental impact is in the most populous parts of the island, but there are growing problems everywhere. In more rural areas, there has been a steady loss of both forest and agricultural land in the face of development. This has led to soil erosion, increased flooding, habitat loss and the pollution of watercourses. These problems are not unique — indeed they can be found throughout Indonesia and the developing world — but somehow they are more jarring in a place that people dream of as a tropical Eden.

When one thinks about it, Bali has not had a lot of time to catch up with the pace of its own development. Serious environmental impacts only became discernible in the 1980’s and 90’s. The island of my childhood is still well within memory for many Balinese. Lately, however, there are hopeful signs that the people of Bali, especially its women and younger generation, are beginning to pay attention to environmental issues. Throughout the island, there are a growing number of organizations and programs focused on improving the environment.

One innovative project is the Women’s Cooperative Waste Recycling Micro Enterprise, which is being piloted in the Ubud area. Members of the cooperative sort plastic and paper in their own homes and about once a week bring their waste to a central bin built with donated funds from the local village authorities. This simple, sustainable program has received recognition by the local government as an outstanding effort by Balinese women to solve a communal problem.

An increasing number of NGO’s are focused on raising environmental awareness among Balinese youth, doing outreach through schools and youth groups. Eco Bali Recycling and Green Sanur are two organizations in our town that are sponsoring youth education and clean up programs:

The Indonesian equivalent of the EPA is also supporting grassroots environmental projects. An Environmental Awareness Program for villages was established in 2001 and a number of villages across Bali have joined the program that addresses on-the-ground environmental issues such as wastewater. There are also locally-based programs aimed at reforestation of upland regions as well as coastline rehabilitation. One example is a coral reef restoration project driven by the local community of fisherman in Serangan, just south of Sanur. Serangan is also the home of the Turtle Conservation project, again run and managed by local fishing families with support from the EPA.

So it seems that environmental awareness is gradually sifting through the layers of Balinese society and resulting in some encouraging action. Not surprisingly, Balinese artists are eager to contribute to this growing consciousness, as they are concerned in general about the cultural and physical impacts of westernization on the island. Here is a painting I saw in Ubud recently entitled “Till the Last One Falls:”

That’s enough commentary for now — I am off to Sumatra with Alec tomorrow to do a jungle trek and see orangutans and elephants — I’ll write to you all about it when I get back! Love, Katherine

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Breakfast with Shri

Dear Jan:

I recently spent the morning with Shri, a fascinating woman who understands Bali more deeply than many expats here, myself included. Shri has been living in Bali for over a decade, studying its culture with admirable energy and curiosity. I originally met her at the Green School where her three children, one of whom has a Balinese father, are enrolled. I asked her to spend some time with me to discuss aspects of Balinese life and beliefs that I hoped she could shed light on.

The first thing we talked about was the Balinese calendar and its central role in regulating daily life. There are actually three calendars running simultaneously in Bali: first, the familiar Western calendar, second, the Hindu Saka calendar still followed in India, and third, the Pawukon (generally referred to as the Wuku) calendar, which was imported from Java in the 14th century. The Western calendar is Bali’s business calendar and denotes national holidays. The Saka calendar is lunar-based and dictates the all-important cycle of ceremonies that surround the waxing and waning moon. Nyepi, the Balinese New Year — arguably Bali’s most important holiday — falls under the Saka calendar as well (I recently wrote to you about Nyepi — a whole story in itself).

The uniquely Balinese Wuku calendar is the most complex of the three and lasts 210 as opposed to 365 days. The 210 days of this calendar represent a “cycle” more than they do a “year.” These cycles, unlike years, are not named or numbered; they simply pass by (this may help to explain the fluid nature of time here). Further complicating matters, days in the Wuku calendar are not subdivided into simple weeks and months, but rather into ten separate week “systems”, within which weeks vary in length. The calendar itself looks like an intricate mathematical graph that only a scholar could translate:

And, indeed, the calendar is the province of scholars, priests and holy men. This is because the Balinese require constant guidance about the significance of days. Within the Wuku calendar, nearly every day has a meaning and a purpose. There are good days —dewasa luwung — and bad days — dewasa gelek — for doing almost everything. From events as momentous as marriage to activities as mundane as chopping wood, the calendar dictates which days to choose and which to avoid. If one wants to build a house, plant a crop, sign a contract, bless a temple, open a business, etc., one must consult the calendar (oftentimes with the help of a priest) to determine when to act. There are also special days to bless and hold ceremonies for specific things: a day to bless all metal objects, a day to bless trees, a day to bless animals, etc.

Of particular significance, there is a day that occurs every 15 days called Kajeng Keliwon when prayers must be made to placate the Bhuta Kala — the negative forces and evil spirits that bedevil mankind. Here is a traditional painting of pastoral life that expresses the hovering danger of the Bhuta Kala, always poised to pounce on the unsuspecting (in this case an innocent farmer and his cow):

As you can imagine, a cosmology such as this creates certain stresses: there are serious consequences for failing to pay close enough attention to the dictates of the calendar and custom. A motorcycle accident, an illness, any kind of misfortune will often be blamed on a failure to make the proper prayers and offerings at the proper time. At the heart of all this lies the belief that strict adherence to custom is integral to maintaining the cosmic balance between good and evil. When this balance is maintained, the results are harmonious, when disrupted, all kinds of ills ensue.

The issue of balance is at the center of another story unfolding in Bali. This is the balance between the communal and the individual, the traditional and the modern. Shri described how multi-generational extended families have traditionally lived together in their local villages and neighborhoods. While many families do still co-habitate, Shri points out that youth are increasingly seeking their fortunes in the cities and choosing their own paths in life. They are web-savvy, plugged in, and generally more materialistic than their elders.

When asked if all this change signals the end of Balinese culture as we know it, Shri demurred. She points out that the fabric of Balinese society has proved incredibly resilient in the face of waves of westernization, and she does not see that changing. At its core, Balinese life is communal and the Balinese are linked to each other by strong bonds of belief, duty and kinship. The worst possible thing that can happen to a Balinese is to be cast out of his or her family or community; for many even death is preferable. So, despite modern influences and the increasing independence of youth, Shri argues that very few are willing to risk ostracism by going beyond the bounds of what is communally acceptable.

So while one can find increasing numbers of Balinese surfer boys,

and party girls,

it is early yet to bemoan the demise of Balinese culture. Shri would argue that the center remains strong and the age-old striving for balance and harmony continues. The new and the different can be assimilated, apparent contradictions can be reconciled. And tradition can provide the underlying structure that protects the integrity of Balinese society.

This point was poignantly brought home to me the other day as I waited in line at a copy shop. In sauntered a group of tough-guy surfer dudes. Covered in tattoos and piercings, shorts slung low, they exuded attitude. I found myself tut-tutting and thinking, “what is Balinese youth coming to?”

As the last of the group entered, however, I did a double-take. On his hip sat the sweetest little girl, about 18 months old. He carried her with confidence and tenderness as she looked around the shop. While he transacted his business, one of his friends took the little girl, bouncing her on his hip with casual ease. As they left the shop, the little girl beamed and waved bye-bye. The image stays with me, a metaphor for the essential health of a culture in flux.

Hoping this finds you well; love to you and the family — Katherine

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Lotus Land

Dear Jan:

While some visitors to Bali are looking for exposure to its rich culture and artistic traditions, others seek a fulfillment of their fantasies about paradise. The southwest coast of Bali, by far the most densely populated part of the island, caters to this latter type of visitor. The beach towns along this coast — Kuta, Legian, Seminyak — strive to provide anything a visitor might want, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here one finds a proliferation of 5-star hotels, fine restaurants and trendy boutiques. At the same time, you will see Pizza Hut, Planet Hollywood and something called the Discovery Mall — a true western-style shopping mall in the worst sense, situated right on the beach. It’s a dizzying mix, all mashed up together with no rhyme or reason.

A place that epitomizes the more upscale end of things is a restaurant called Ku de Ta, neighbor to the legendary Oberoi Hotel (I stayed at the Oberoi in the 1980’s, when it was a serene oasis surrounded by rice fields and forest; today it is smack in the middle of the hubub). At Ku de Ta, guests lounge around on oversize couches both indoors and out, watching the waves and each other. The busiest time is sunset, as techno music creates a club atmosphere and tangerine streaks fill the sky. We were there around Valentine’s Day and the place was decked out for the event.

After checking out the high-concept bar,

we moved around the corner for dinner at another stylish restaurant,

where Alec and Maya greatly enjoyed their crepes:

Our restaurant sat next to a strip center pulsing with neon; it felt like we could have been in any major city — anywhere but Bali, home of temples and green terraces!

Just down the street one finds a whole host of similarly disorienting establishments. One of the most decadent is the Red Carpet Champagne Bar where you can order Moet and Chandon to wash down your oysters and caviar as you puff away on a Cuban cigar:

Here are some of the ridiculously-outfitted staff who will wait on you:

Look closely at the missing piping on the bellman’s uniform and you will get a feeling for the tawdry edge that lines all this luxury. The sidewalks themselves express the incongruities; as one passes an expensive boutique,

one has to step around this gaping hole:

Amidst the trash and traffic, gaudy shops sparkle like sequins:

These stores specialize in bling of all kinds:

The ultimate bling in this part of the island comes in the form of fancy villas, some tasteful and understated, others expressing a misguided fantasy of western opulence:

It is all part of the tourist heart of Bali, an area we largely avoid (and recommend you do the same), but occasionally visit, lured by good restaurants and western amenities. It is never worth the tainted feeling one leaves with, however, as if one has imbibed one too many of the tropical cocktails that abound along this plastic strip of packaged paradise. Not that I have any strong opinions on the matter…Much love to you all! Katherine

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Nyepi

Dear Jan:

Yesterday was Nyepi, the Balinese New Year. Also called the Day of Silence, Nyepi is arguably the most important holiday of the year. On this day, every person on the island, Balinese and visitor alike, must stay put where they are — no going anywhere allowed. There is no work, no everyday activity, no traffic, no broadcasts (radio or television), even the airport is closed. Additional restrictions during this 24-hour period include staying quiet, lighting no fires and using no lights (although many do use candles sparingly after dark). For those Balinese who follow the holiday in its purest form, there is also no entertainment, no talking and no eating. The effect of these prohibitions is that Bali comes to a complete standstill and everyone, like it or not, is forced into a state of quietude. The only people to be seen outdoors are the Pecalang, traditional security men who patrol the streets (often with bats — these guys are serious) to ensure the prohibitions are being followed.

From a religious and philosophical perspective, Nyepi is meant to be a time to reflect on the values one wants to embrace in the coming year: humanity, love, patience, kindness. It is a day to contemplate and to cleanse the mind and body in order to begin afresh. From a purely popular point of view, however, the silence of Nyepi is intended to trick the evil spirits that bedevil Bali into thinking that everyone has left the island. Without any humans to bother, it is assumed they will go seeking mischief elsewhere. If you ask most Balinese the point of Nyepi, they will point to this trick as the central purpose.

Our own experience of Nyepi was a good one; we all enjoyed the novelty of a complete break from everyday life. We shared a low-key family day at home, reading, relaxing, swimming (quietly) and watching a movie (very quietly). Nightfall brought an inky darkness we had rarely experienced, but looking up, we found the stars dazzlingly bright. The silence and darkness truly made one believe that everyone had left the island — the “trick” certainly worked on us, and hopefully the evil spirits as well.

While Nyepi is the centerpiece of the New Year’s holiday, the days leading up to it are very important, too. During the week before Nyepi, the Balinese purify their sacred statues by taking them to the nearest water source (ocean, river, lake) and bathing them there. They also bathe themselves in a ritual that symbolizes a cleansing and renewal of all nature in preparation for the new year. The Balinese Lord Baruna (the God associated with the ocean and water) is believed to bless and oversee these purification rites.

The day before Nyepi, all villages in Bali hold a large exorcism ceremony at the main village crossroads, the meeting place of demons. They make Ogoh-ogoh, statues constructed out of bamboo and papier mache depicting fantastic monsters and wicked spirits. The statues are meant to represent all the evil that needs to be cast out before the beginning of the new year. Great delight is taken in creating these grotesque images and preparations begin weeks beforehand, usually organized by village youth:

After sunset on the night before Nyepi, the Ogoh-ogohs are paraded around every village in lengthy and energetic processions accompanied by gamelan music (the more choreographed “fights” that occur between the statues, the better). Over a thousand spectators watched our local Ogoh-ogoh parade in Sanur.

Some of the Ogoh-ogoh are taken from classical Balinese lore. They have fangs, bulging eyes and scary hair (not to mention drooping boobs):

Other Ogoh-ogoh depict more modern evils, in this case a thief chased by an incompetent policeman (barefoot and running in the wrong direction):

And in this instance, a merry and unrepentant drunkard:

And there is always the evil giant assaulting the maiden (in this case the maiden looks furious and quite prepared to defend herself):

In a few cases, the despicable nature of an Ogoh-ogoh is a bit difficult to discern, as in the case of this very large and madly careening frog on a bicycle (is he guilty of reckless driving, a common evil in Bali?):

Once they have been sufficiently paraded, the Ogoh-ogoh are supposed to be burnt in a final ritual of cleansing and purification before the advent of Nyepi. We hear, however, that in recent years many of the statues never make it to the ceremonial fire. Instead they are preserved and sold on the open market, begging the question, who buys these things and why? Ogoh-ogoh anyone?

Happy Balinese New Year, Jan; may it bring many blessings to you. Love, Katherine

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