Bali | The Old and The New

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Oct 10/2015, Lodtunduh, Bali

A cool breeze sweeps through the rice paddies. It encircles me as I walk barefoot along the narrow, grassy ridges that wind through the fields. I stop for a moment and close my eyes, feeling the coolness on my cheeks and shoulders. I pass by two men on my walk to the resort where I swim. They’re stripped down to their shorts, cupping water from the stream with their hands, letting it run down their faces and backs. I say hello and they smile broadly then shyly move on, returning to their work in the fields.

I walk across the coconut logs that create a bridge above the stream, meeting the steps that lead to the pool. Guests of the resort don’t use this access; I’m the lone traveler who comes from around the bend in the rice fields—the backstage entrance. I go through my rituals, laying my towels down on the chaise (it takes two as the bare cushions burn in the heat), pulling my water bottle from my backpack, slipping off flip-flops and sarong and sliding into the water … I swim a length on my back, then another front crawl. Back and forth a few times, then over to the stone edge. I rest my chin on my hands … legs floating behind … deep in meditation as the breeze fans the coconut and palm leaves that line the edge of the fields.

A man who works maintenance sits on the grassy slope beside the pool. Branches separate us but I can still make out the flash of blue from his shirt. He sits unmoving, contemplative, looking over the rice fields. There may be a screen of trees between us, but the greater divide is privilege. I wonder if he, or any of the others working here, have ever been in this pool. Families who work the rice fields take to the stream for relief from the heat. I watch as two old women lay down their straw hats then move apart, giving the other separate space. They stand knee-deep in the water bathing their arms and legs, then slowly step up onto the grassy ridge. One holds her hip, and together they walk together towards the thatched bale for a rest. I float in the pool consumed and sobered by feelings of privilege. It doesn’t matter that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me or that I don’t have a lavish lifestyle—I’m here, and the luxury of travel is far more than most Balinese will ever experience.

The sadness I felt during a recent conversation with Dewa returns. He told me the rice paddies are disappearing because building resorts is more profitable than the sale of rice. That already Bali is buying rice from Japan. But if you can provide better for your family by selling land (which has been in your family for generations) to prosper from tourism, which difficult decision are you going to make? It seems to me that the Balinese had no need of swimming pools before Westerner’s decided they were a must-have and not a luxury. Although it’s my intention each day to speak and act from a place of respect not entitlement, I don’t kid myself that I’m anything but a tourist. And right now I’m in a resort pool—I may as well have a scarlet “T” emblazoned on my forehead. It feels strange and uncomfortable to watch people work in the fields as I swim. The other truth is that nothing soothes my worry and anxiety quite like being in water, so I indulge this dip nearly every day. There are very few guests staying here, and all seem to be short-term, so mostly I have the pool to myself. And I feel relieved that it means I don’t have to make small talk when I occasionally encounter one, because I’m attached to my time spent floating in this warm, delicious water, deep in mediation.

I watch the coconut leaves as they move elegantly on the wind and think about what it is that I have to give back, other than tourist dollars. I’m learning about Dewa and Wayan’s families, about their children and their histories. Dewa has told me stories about the village where he was born, far from Ubud, where life is still lived traditionally. He’s even offered to take me there. One day soon I’ll meet his wife and children, and I’m overwhelmed by these acts of kindness, this generosity of spirit.

He talks about the tension that exists when the necessity of upholding tradition and participating in ceremonies means a loss of earnings in this modern world. Balinese life is marked by ritual and ceremony, not just monthly and yearly, but daily. This is the cement that binds individuals to family and to their village, that defines them as a person. Dewa explains some of the coming-of-age ceremonies and sacred rites of passage. Preparation often take days—sometimes weeks or months. If you’re fortunate enough to be a government employee, you’re given time away with pay. But the majority of Balinese aren’t. They work agriculturally, have their own small businesses or work for others: in warungs (family stalls), taxi driving or tour guiding, shop-keeping, tourism, housekeeping or gardening and as artisans. Participating in ceremony is a responsibility to family and village. The heads of each village determine the consequences for failure to uphold this social contract, this allegiance to the sacred.

Bali’s social structure as an agricultural society rested upon the joint responsibility of village members to care for each other, and the village at large. This village socialism meant that no one went without. Allegiance, co-operation and responsibility to the community still trump self-advancement. With modernization, the explosion of tourism, and the changing expectations of a younger generation, the ties between tradition and workplace demands are challenged. Dewa works hard to keep his taxi-driving business afloat, but when family and ceremonial obligations arise, he must retreat. He accepts this with as little conflict in his heart as possible. And in those moments when I’m in his car, the scenes of villages and rice fields flashing past, I listen eagerly as he shares his stories.

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