Advice for Bali: Get off the beaten track, if you can!
The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.
Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.
Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience
On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.
Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity
Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.
We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!
Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?
Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.
The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.
In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!
For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea
From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!