I first visited Bali in the winter of 1983. Paul was 3 and Allissa was 1. I was 31 years old. 

Our first stop was Kuta, but a very different Kuta to the one that we know today. In 1972 there was only one major hotel in Kuta, The Bali Beach Hotel and about 20 losmans. In the ensuing 10 years tourism took off and more hotels were built so by the time we arrived there were a few big sprawling hotels along the beach with individual rooms set amongst mowed grass and tropical trees. I’m pretty certain we stayed at the Legian Beach Hotel. 

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Paul, Allissa and my Mum circa 1983

I can’t be 100% certain but my recollection is that our next stop was Ubud where we stayed at the beautiful Hotel Tjampuhan next to the Oos River and near the bridge in the village of Tjampuhan. This location is a 10 m minute stroll from Villa Tusk in Penestanan. The hotel had a spring fed pool that apparently was a gift from heiress Barbara Hutton to the German artist Walter Spies who lived on this spot in the 1930s. He hosted many artists and luminaries in the tropical ravine at Tjampuhan. Back in 83 the hotel had no running water and no electricity. We ate in a grand outdoor restaurant and went on day trips around Ubud. I fell in love with this location and have yearned for 40 years to have my own villa close by. Something I have now achieved.

Our next spot was Sanur, a more sedate setting but a good place to end our first family overseas holiday.

I found this article written by Charles P Corn and published in The New York Times on January 30, 1983

CHARLES P. CORN, a New York writer, spent three months in the Far East last year while doing research for a novel.

Bali is an emerald green legend of an island, lost in a vast country made up entirely of islands and their seas – Indonesia and the rest of the Malay Archipelago – that straddle the Equator eastward for thousands of miles from the Indian Ocean to New Guinea. The country is so vast that were its western boundary superimposed on California’s Pacific coast, its eastern edge would reach to Bermuda.

Both everywhere and nowhere, these islands were Joseph Conrad’s ”East” and, transformed by his genius into art, they’ve become a state of mind as much as they are real places.

Bali especially is a state of mind, and like many legendary places that are actual, its location remains elusive. Many thousands of years ago, the legend goes, a powerful Javanese priest sent his libertine son into exile in Bali, then connected to eastern Java by a narrow isthmus. The distraught father drew a line across the sands, causing the waters to meet, thus making banishment absolute. That the father grieved over his loss – as David over Absalom – is given much weight in the story.

This curious reversal of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden – Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, but this dissolute young man was driven to it – is only the first paradox about an island as enriched with paradox as its cascading rice fields are enriched by the volcanic ash that is borne by its rivers, making it one of the most fertile gardens in the world.

I went to Bali by sea and thought it fitting that the unkempt ship, smelling strongly of spices, was of the India Line, having embarked from the land where the great Hindu migrations of ancient times had originated and moved southward along the Malay Peninsula. The ship sailed with a human cargo of hundreds of Hindu merchants and their families bound for the shops and bazaars of Singapore through the Strait of Malacca with long, shark-shaped Sumatra to starboard. This was the route of the Arab traders, precursors of Islam whose drawn sword eventually drove Hinduism out of Java and into Bali, where the faith became a veneer upon the aboriginal animism rooted in prehistoric times.

It was from the begrimed decks of another ship, south of Singapore, as we crossed the Equator and entered the Sea of Java, that I realized the immensity of Indonesia and, from a strictly geographical standpoint, how insignificant Bali is. (It is 90 miles long and 55 miles wide.) A geologist would note that the myth of the wayward son conceals a truth, because Bali was once joined to Java, and that the straits separating them are shallow in contrast to the depths that divide Bali from its eastern neighbour, Lombok, an island as dry and hostile as Bali is lush and alluring.

The Lombok Strait is significant in its depth, for it bisects national ideology and marks the boundary between Asia and Oceania. The Balinese have a saying, ”Here the tigers end.” It is a land of such sayings: every Balinese story or song, especially when played out in ritual, serves to enhance its exotic singularity. Its resplendency of natural beauty, history, myth, all intricately interwoven into a culture, makes it like no other place on earth.

When seen from the sea, the blindingly green, mountainous landscape, a profusion of clouds bathing its two volcanic peaks, suggests in its eternal summer distance from the world. But to the islanders Bali is the world. Old manuscripts have it at the center of a fixed universe, encircled by an unbenevolent sea of which the natives still remain fearful, and it is a rare fisherman working the lagoons at low tide in his sailboat who can swim. Such keen respect for Indonesian waters is widespread and not merely superstition, for the remoter reaches of the archipelago harbor certain terrors: the sea snake, whose sting is as lethal as a cobra’s, and the occasional but awesome saltwater crocodile, not to mention the ubiquitous shark.

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Indeed, the Balinese are unique island people in that they look not seaward but inland and upward to gaze at the volcanic peak, Gunung Agung, which they call ”the navel of the world.” And when I looked heavenward for the first time, I thought, ”And so it is.”

On its slopes lies the holiest place in Bali, the Hindu temple of Besakih that in the 11th century grew out of an ancient site where sacred animist rites were held. In the morning the pale blue air has a tangible sweetness, and the lofty setting and stillness in ruin suggest Delphi.

Besakih is actually several temples ascending the upper southeastern slope of Mount Agung, the site resembling a green natural pyramid with volcanic outcroppings of various configurations rising to become lost in cloud. It is at once ascetic and elaborate: an outward expression, chiseled from stone, of an inward ideal unforgotten by history – as the countless daily pilgrims laden with gifts bear witness.

T hough the view is majestic, much of the countryside to the south and west of Mount Agung is blackened by lava flow, for Bali was dealt a cruel blow nearly 20 years ago when, at the time of the greatest of Balinese sacrifices, Eka Dasa Rudra, which takes place only once every 100 years, the volcano erupted for the first time in 600 years. Hundreds were killed and thousands made homeless as the island was left choking in dust, and Besakih’s scarred stones now tell that story, as the high-water marks of Florence and Venice tell theirs.

Confrontation with disaster provides insight into a people. There has been political turbulence as well in Indonesia’s recent past, and this island has known the smell of blood. A reasonable conjecture is that such occurences would forge a darkly countenanced, sober and rigid race, prepared for the worst. The opposite is true. The Balinese are mirthful, gregarious, blithely immodest.

It is introversion that is suspect and regarded as rude here, and one learns to expect expressions of keen curiosity about anything and everything, questions that initially strike the Westerner as unseemly. ”Where are you going?” a stranger will stop you to ask for no apparent reason other than to have an encounter. ”Why are you taking that picture?” ”What are you doing, Charles?” asked my houseboy one evening, addressing me in the familiar as he spied me making notes. More questions come in rapid fire because a query is always on the tip of the tongue, and in a matter of moments the practical facts of your life’s history have been revealed.

The ultimate purpose seems to be that a bargain be struck, for the Balinese are bargainers by nature. You can be certain that someone in an animated group is discoursing about discrepancies between price and value. It would go against the Westerner’s spirit if there weren’t a sort of sweetness about the Balinese’s persistence in peddling and the charm of all this innocence without ignorance suddenly hits you.

 

Such give and take most likely is an earthly reflection of the ancient covenant the Balinese have established with their pantheon, including the dark powers. One gives in order to receive; this is the holy principle governing ritual sacrifice at the temple and it determines conduct in matters of commerce. Every rice field has a shrine, for Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, dwells in the rice stalks and must not be offended. When the rice is harvested only a few stalks are cut at a time, so that the rice soul will not be frightened. Such homage allows the field to be refertilized, and the success of the subsequent crop may be assured. It is metaphysical bargaining with practical consequences.

On a more mundane level, the shopkeeper asks an excessive price for a bolt of cloth, knowing the customer will counter, and finally an agreement is reached with no honor lost on either side. If the gods have provided us with the most beautiful garden imaginable in which to live, should we not adorn it with temples and shrines and perfume the already sweet-smelling air with incense? And perform ceremonies of color and grace?

On such occasions the costumes of the dancers seem made of fire and light, and the subtle, precise movements of the eyes and hands practiced with devotion and dexterity to the unearthly music of the gamelan (an ensemble of bamboo xylophones) create a rare effect. Religious ballet it certainly is, but it is no less a strategy: what god could resist such a fine art?

More bound to earthly considerations is the rite of tooth filing by which the upper teeth are made to form a straight line. Anything but a disfigurement of an adolescent boy or girl, the practice diminishes the evil qualities of human nature, and one can face life more confidently. A more exquisite smile than that of a young Balinese woman may exist somewhere, perhaps in the Arabian Nights.

Carnivorous snarls are for the protective demons frozen in stone at holy places or carved on one’s own bedboard. They are also for masks that transform men into beasts in the Ramayana ballet, the reenactment of the eternal struggle between good and evil and its counterpart in the choral drama Kecak, or monkey dance. The cremation of my houseboy’s kinsman was released of whatever fiery Lucifer vision I brought to it by the utter unsomberness of the affair, which included music and drink, and especially by the grandly circuitous procession to the pyre so that the spirit would not search its way back to the familiar but wisp its way to heaven, its destination.

Bali is a country rising before first light, and one dawn in the central highlands not far from the artists’ village of Ubud, I watched a village come to life for the rice harvest, it-sel f an ancient ritual. It became a day flooded with sensation as the sliver of new moon faded and the east filled with soft color. When the sun rose a few degrees above the horizon, the land resembled a great, glimmering, rough-textured cloth of silk whose deeper folds were not yet illuminated. This is country Monet or Cezanne would have painted. Ducks bathed and fed in a flooded rice field. The harvesters seemed choreographed in the distance. The scene was a painting come to life. It was both strange and strangely familiar: the rare gratification of expectation.

A traveler who has come a great distance expects to be bewitched by such arcane custom. The stranger arrives with predispositions and inevitably seeks their confirmation and, alas, sometimes in vain, for the imagination is rarely prophetic and surprise often lurks at the destination. A culture frozen in time is a contradiction in terms; and if you try to purchase it to be borne away as if it were an antique silk screen, disappointment will invariably follow. So it is with Bali. Itsessential nature is as elusive as its location, and while it may be overvalued or undervalued, it is reluctant to reveal itself. A willo’-the-wisp, it, too, is everywhere and nowhere, depending upon how one chooses to see. Bali needs time and patience.

Is it not the irregularity that makes a trip memorable? But sometimes the irregularity can playfully turn back on itself – or rather upon the observer who thinks himself to be the perceiver and hence the creator of it. Late in that morning of the rice harvest I found shade near a footpath and sat down to scribble a letter. I looked up to discover three small boys, perhaps 6 or so years, peering intently at what I was doing.

Balinese children unfailingly greet strangers of whatever origin with ”haalloo,” but these had approached as noiselessly as cats and stood silent and unsmiling. What writing would interest reluctant schoolboys who likely regarded written records as the province of scholar-priests who would drill mercilessly young heads in Hindu catechism? I held out my papers and pen, ”English.” But when they inched closer, it was the adornment on my left wrist that captivated them, an ordinary diver’s watch with a luminous dial, bought in Hong Kong.

When I handed it over for inspection, each in his turn emitted a soft gasp of genuine wonder as the rotating second hand was traced with a tiny brown index finger. I realized then that in our age of Japanese digital timepieces they probably had never beheld such an instrument. The enigma of it was as profound to them as to me were the nearby Gunung Kawi, tombs of megalithic times in a green river gorge hewn from the blackened rock by the fingernails of a legendary giant.

L ater on a north-coast beach, a fisherman pointed to his wrist as if to ask the time, and when I displayed my watch for him to see, a shadow of bewilderment crossed his face. In the sand I wrote the time in four digits and watched his wrinkled face cave into a grin, and we shared a splendid joke on me. That he had already consulted the sun didn’t occur to me until later.

A timepiece clearly is a thing of luxury, a needless link to another world. The Balinese clock, as it is with people who work the soil the world over, is the sun. Whatever the time of year in Bali, just eight degrees south of the Equator, one can tell the time of day from its position, and it appears the Balinese couldn’t be on better terms with it. What can surpass the vigorous but not yet burning light of midmorning for displaying at roadside the elegant plumage of fighting cocks? And after the sun plummets into the ocean, darkness comes quickly along with an insatiable hunger for the hot and spicy Nasi Padang or rijsttafel and the inelegant but strong and tasty rice wine.

Timepieces, except for the digital variety worn by the bankers and bureaucrats of Denpasar, seem to have been rejected through process of natural selection, and that repudiation is quaint for the Westerner temporarily freed from the enslavement of schedules and office hours.

There are other agreeably old-fashioned reminders that Bali is proceeding into the late 20th century at its own pace. Ubud, famous for its painters, acquired electricity as recently as 1975, and it is still a novelty there. I stayed on the outskirts of that village in the former residence of a great man and teacher, Walter Spies, who, influenced by Rousseau but following Gauguin’s example, had emigrated from Europe. Spies, among others, helped Balinese painters in the 1930’s to see the concept of the third dimension in art. He died in 1942 during the Japanese occupation, perhaps of a broken heart.

His home must surely be one of the loveliest on the island. It is now the center of a hotel of bungalows, similarly constructed, that grow around it out of a hillside overlooking the confluence of two rivers where the sounds of bathers may be heard through the trees below. Unsurprisingly, the house is primitive in its elegance, and you wash by pouring well water into a rigged canvas shower bag and read by kerosene lantern.

But there is more in the air of Bali than mountain freshness and the sweetness of burning incense. If a clock may be regarded with amused contempt, the motorcycle is a different matter entirely, and its numbers proliferate daily. One has only to hear the chorus of whines gearing up at the changing light of a Denpasar intersection to realize that Yamaha or Honda is Bali’s new indispensable beast of burden. It rarely carries a single rider and sometimes transports a small family, giving access to the entire island to native and traveler alike. The other essential beast, of course, is the buffalo, and as has been the tradition for centuries, he is given a soothing bath in a nearby stream after his day’s labor. He is irreplaceable, for the narrow terrace that he plows could never accommodate a tractor.

Perhaps the most surprising paradox about my stay in Bali was my own failure to measure up to the island’s standard of progress. Confounded that I hadn’t mastered so essential a machine as a motorcycle, my determined houseboy, Nyoman, drilled me in the coordination of foot shift, left-hand clutch, and right-hand accelerator, but when I tried it, the beast bucked and died. It was getting dark. After an embarrassed silence, Nyoman mumbled, ”I think too complicated for you.” It was not a light judgment to bear. Later in the evening he lit the incense on the shrine near my grand bed guarded by carved demons. Clearly the motorbike incident was on his mind for he paused at the door to philosophize, ”To master it is not to honor it.”

I won’t say that I was appalled by what ”progress” in the guise of tourism has done to some parts of the island, but I won’t deny it either. Kuta on the southwest coast near the airport boasts a mighty surf, revered among surfboarders, a celebrated sunset, and a lively night life; and young tourists, especially surfers from Australia, go to it in droves. But after dark Kuta’s streets smell of sordidness. It is Tijuana in 1959 after the bullfights, with that place’s hawkers and hustlers. It is most certainly not Bali, and those most eager to inform you of that are the Balinese.

Sanur, several miles to the east, is a lovely crescent of a beach and its hotels are tasteful and comfortable, even luxurious, but after a time you find yourself gazing across Sanur’s azure lagoon to Mount Agung, across the sea, inland and upward to ”the navel of the world.” The mountain is a visible reminder that there is an essential Bali, self-protective and intent that injustice not be done to its noble mysteries.

The sweetest mysteries seem to be those least understood but most keenly felt. My bungalow looked across a garden ablaze in late afternoon with flowers and birds. On the horizon was the high smoky silhouette of Java. A priest knelt on the beach burning incense to the water deities and chanted a prayer, after which a motorcycle bore him away, his pale robes trailing in the wind – a final gratifying anomaly.

 
A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 30, 1983, Section 10, Page 15 of the National edition with the headline: BALI: JOURNEY TO A LEGEND.
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Tusk Villa bali
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