That said, I must be honest here and relay that it takes me only three afternoons of research in the local library to realize that all my original ideas about Balinese paradise were a bit misguided. I'd been telling people since I first visited Bali two years ago that this small island was the world's only true utopia, a place that has known only peace and harmony and balance for all time. A perfect Eden with no history of violence or bloodshed ever. I'm not sure where I got this grand idea, but I endorsed it with full confidence.
"Even the policemen wear flowers in their hair," I would say, as if that proved it.
In reality, though, it turns out Bali has had exactly as bloody and violent and oppressive a history as anywhere else on earth where human beings have ever lived. When the Javanese kings first immigrated here in the sixteenth century, they essentially established a feudal colony, with a strict caste system which--like all self-respecting caste systems-- tended not to trouble itself with consideration for those at the bottom. The economy of early Bali was fueled by a lucrative slave trade (which not only preceded European participation in the international slave traffic by several centuries, but also outlived Europe's trafficking of human lives for a good long while). Internally, the island was constantly at war as rival kings staged attacks (complete with mass rape and murder) on their neighbors. Until the late nineteenth century, the Balinese had a reputation amongst traders and sailors for being vicious fighters. (The word amok, as in "running amok," is a Balinese word, describing a battle technique of suddenly going insanely wild against one's enemies in suicidal and bloody hand-to-hand combat; the Europeans were frankly terrified by this practice.) With a well-disciplined army of 30,000, the Balinese defeated their Dutch invaders in 1848, again in 1849 and once more, for good measure, in 1850. They collapsed under Dutch rule only when the rival kings of Bali broke ranks and betrayed each other in bids for power, aligning with the enemy for the promise of good business deals later. So to gauze this island's history today in a dream of paradise is a bit insulting to reality; it's not like these people have spent the last millennium just sitting around smiling and singing happy songs.
But in the 1920s and 1930s, when an elite class of Western travelers discovered Bali, all this bloodiness was ignored as the newcomers agreed that this was truly "The Island of the Gods," where "everyone is an artist" and where humanity lives in an unspoiled state of bliss. It's been a lingering idea, this dream; most visitors to Bali (myself on my first trip included) still endorse it. "I was furious at God that I was not born Balinese," said the
German photographer George Krauser after visiting Bali in the 1930s. Lured by reports of otherworldly beauty and serenity, some really A-list tourists started visiting the island-- artists like Walter Spies, writers like Noel Coward, dancers like Claire Holt, actors like Charlie Chaplin, scholars like Margaret Mead (who, despite all the naked breasts, wisely called Balinese civilization on what it truly was, a society as prim as Victorian England: "Not an ounce of free libido in the whole culture.")
The party ended in the 1940s when the world went to war. The Japanese invaded Indonesia, and the blissful expatriates in their Balinese gardens with their pretty houseboys were forced to flee. In the struggle for Indonesian independence which followed the war, Bali became just as divided and violent as the rest of the archipelago, and by the 1950s (reports a study called Bali: Paradise Invented) if a Westerner dared visit Bali at all, he might have been wise to sleep with a gun under his pillow. In the 1960s, the struggle for power turned all of Indonesia into a battlefield between Nationalists and Communists. After a coup attempt in Jakarta in 1965, Nationalist soldiers were sent to Bali with the names of every suspected Communist on the island. Over the course of about a week, aided by the local police and village authorities at every step, the Nationalist forces steadily murdered their way through every township. Something like
100,000 corpses choked the beautiful rivers of Bali when the killing spree was over. The revival of the dream of a fabled Eden came in the late 1960s, when the Indonesian government decided to reinvent Bali for the international tourist market as "The Island of the Gods," launching a massively successful marketing campaign. The tourists who were lured back to Bali were a fairly high-minded crowd (this was not Fort Lauderdale, after all), and their attention was guided toward the artistic and religious beauty inherent in the Balinese culture. Darker elements of history were overlooked. And have remained overlooked since.
Reading about all this during my afternoons in the local library leaves me somewhat confused. Wait--why did I come to Bali again? To search for the balance between worldly pleasure and spiritual devotion, right? Is this, indeed, the right setting for such a search? Do the Balinese truly inhabit that peaceful balance, more than anyone else in the world? I mean, they look balanced, what with all the dancing and praying and feasting and beauty and smiling, but I don't know what's actually going on under there. The policemen really do wear flowers tucked behind their ears, but there's corruption all over the place in Bali, just like in the rest of Indonesia (as I found out firsthand the other day when I passed a uniformed man a few hundred bucks of under-the-table cash to illegally extend my visa so I could stay in Bali for four months, after all). The Balinese quite literally live off their image of being the world's most peaceful and devotional and artistically expressive people, but how much of that is intrinsic and how much of that is economically calculated? And how much can an outsider like me ever learn of the hidden stresses that might loiter behind those "shining faces"? It's the same here as anywhere else--you look at the picture too closely and all the firm lines start to melt away into an indistinct mass of blurry brushstrokes and blended pixels.
For now, all I can say for certain is that I love the house I have rented and that the people in Bali have been gracious to me without exception. I find their art and ceremonies to be beautiful and restorative; they seem to think so, as well. That's my empirical experience of a place that is probably far more complex than I will ever understand. But whatever the Balinese need to do in order to hold their own balance (and make a living) is entirely up to them. What I'm here to do is work on my own equilibrium, and this still feels, at least for now, like a nourishing climate in which to do that.