Wednesday 7 November 2012

Perspectives on Bali

Bali: Gao Gajah
Gao Gajah: water for purifying yourself before entering the temple
 Back in the late 1970s, when my parents lived in Jakarta, we used to fly to Bali for a bit of R&R. Lush vegetation, clear seawater and hunting turtle eggs on the beach form some of my earliest memories. 

Last week I returned to Bali for the first time in over thirty years. What I found was far more complex and baffling than the childish idyll I had carried around for so long. Bali is an island of contrasts: bikinis versus traditional batik, tourist tat versus Hindu shrines, Seminyak's breeze blocks versus paddy fields and temples deep in the jungle. It seems I can only get a handle on the place by seeing it through a series of juxtapositions.

Bali: Ubud market
Ubud market: a warren of a place, built like a multistorey carpark
Coming from Singapore, with all its slick efficiency and cultivated greenery, my arrival in Denpasar was a culture shock. Just a walk outside our villa involved tripping over uneven paving, dodging motorbikes to cross the street and shrugging off cries to buy t-shirts, sarongs, DVDs and petrol stored in vodka bottles.

As with any developing country, you are confronted with the hunger to make money, the naked desire to advance, as well as the nullity of feeling in those who get left behind. 

Every day women trudge along Seminyak beach with plastic bags full of t-shirts balanced on their heads. They ply all sorts of trades - as well as retailing cheap clothing, they offer hair-braiding and foot massages to the westerners lounging on their beach chairs.

A woman carrying stone in Bali
A woman carries stone slabs up the mountainside for cutting
Outside the Elephant Cave (Gao Gajah) near Ubud, we encountered the very poor - hawkers determined to flog carvings that start out at $20 and quickly depreciate to $3. Their eyes express a glazed kind of desperation.

Finally there was the taxi driver with his mobile phone on an open line so that the voices of his three-year old twins in Java filled his cab. He doesn't think they can remember him anymore. "They very nice boys, ya," he assured us.

On the last day we visited the Bali Hyatt in Sanur - the scene of my childhood visits. It was everything I remembered - a sandy beach, colourful fishing boats, exotic pools and tropical gardens filled with frangipani and bougainvillea. If you stayed here and never ventured out, your view of Bali would come straight from the holiday brochure.

Bali: Tegenungan Waterfall
Tegenungan waterfall: for the more adventurous tourist
My challenge now is to use all of this in my next novel, set in Indonesia circa 1978. Bali will feature - as it was then, superimposed with everything I have discovered since. Somehow I will have to build on my childhood memories to construct an island that existed thirty years ago, before it became a major tourist destination. My only hope will be to capture Bali in just one of its many, many guises.

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot

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