Rice, Miguel, dogs and development: A Bali Experiment

Some photos of our Bali trip are here.

Bali was always one of those places I dreamed of going to. Derek had been there 20 years ago, and after a work trip to Timor Leste that happened to fall over the holidays, we figured it was time to go to Bali. I received plenty of warnings before traveling, about places like Kuta beach being a complete nightmare filled with partying Australians and tourists. I was told over and over that Bali isn’t what it was and the hordes of tourists have spoiled what was quintessential Bali. People told me to read Miguel Covarrubias’s book, The Island of Bali, written in 1937, to get a feel for the true Bali that once was. I did pick it up, in Ubud, and I must say, things are different now than how he described the island 80 plus years ago.

So, needless to say, we didn’t go to Kuta. The descriptions of the surf beach horrified me (think full moon party in Phuket) so we settled to go to the second most traveled city, Ubud for a few days and then the north coast, which it seems, as I sit and type, no one goes to. It is very chill up here in Lovina. I am not even sure there are many staying at our hotel. Eerily quiet here….

This morning, we went dolphin watching in Lovina. It seriously felt like D Day with US troops landing on the beaches of Normandy. Hundreds of boats (many loaded with life vest wearing Javanese) set out at 6 am at full speed, hoping to catch a glimpse of dolphins doing their thing. When they were spotted, all the boats swarmed around the poor fellas, like vultures on a decaying corpse. What do the dolphins think of all this chaos? Humans are really strange.

Bali is still captivating though, even if I am visiting this infamous island late in the game. The culture, the people and the food are distinctive. As the one Hindu island on an archipelago of Muslim dominated islands of Indonesia, it has astonishing ceremonies and customs that make Bali special and almost mystical.

bali beauty

Ubud is supposedly the notorious place where people go to do yoga, eat a macrobiotic diet and walk/bike around rice fields to “cleanse” themselves. There were plenty of tourists, but no one looking overly Sedona-esqued and no real rice fields, at least not until you drive out of town about an hour or so. I think Derek and I walked about 50 kilometers around and outside Ubud and there were very few dirt roads and quaint rice paddies. We saw some paddies, even integrated paddies with ducks laying about, but not what you think of when you think of Balinese rice paddies that are terraced, lush green and hilly. Mainly nice temple-like homesteads sitting on small rice paddy plains that foreigners rent for a week to “detox.” Think ‘eat, pray love’ or whatever that book/movie is called.

The walks we took were dangerous to say the least. Small country roads were packed full of cars and moped screaming by with no sidewalks or gaping holes in makeshift walkways with sewage water running underneath. Not many people were walking with the exception of some very old, more traditional Balinese farmers. And even they were few and far between. I can understand why.

We went to see some traditional dancing and shows – Legong and Barong and a shadow puppet show. All fantastic, but touristy with not one Balinese in sight as a spectator. The women who did the Legong dance where not the little Balinese girls you see in the old photographs and paintings, with long bent fingers, wide eyed, standing 4 feet tall. Most of the girls were women, and some, a bit chunky. In fact, there were a lot of Balinese who were plump, dancing or no dancing.

legong dancers

This got me thinking. Got me thinking of course, about development, and how Bali is an example of things we wish would stay static, preserved, but at the same time, we want to participate and be a witness to that tradition. But by observing, you become a part of the experiment, and perhaps, bias the experiment. What happened to cats with cutoff tails? What happened to the teeth filing? Do people still chew betelnut? What happened to the traditional dancing by young Balinese nymphs?

Miguel wrote his famous book in 1937 but even back then, things were changing.

“It is to be feared that if the present conditions continue, the simple and well organized life of the Balinese will be seriously disrupted and their institutions will collapse as a result of the unavoidable social unrest.”
“Today the beauty of the Balinese has been exploited to exhaustion in travelogues and by tourist agencies […]”

Geesh. I wonder what Miguel would think of Kuta beach these days…

Rice rules here and we did eventually, end up seeing some beautiful integrated rice paddies – rice, ducks, frogs and fish. Rice is so important in Bali not only for the cuisine and its major staple food, but for offerings as well. The rice production systems seem subsistence but according to most Balinese, they have enough rice to feed the country. We saw mechanized equiment and less ox being used in the fields. My friend, who spent many years working with rice, and spent some serious time here in the 70s said: “Two wheel tractors and mechanical threshers are a response to higher wage rates which I am sure are hitting Bali. Mechanical transplanters will probably be next to come if not there already.The times (and the landscapes) they are a changin’.”

integrated rice system

Miguel wrote:

“The Balinese originally had only the juice of sugar cane as food. Out of pity for the human race, the male god of fertility and water, Wisnu, Plutonic Lord of the Underworld, came to earth to disguise to provide them with better food. He raped an unwilling Mother Earth to fertilize her and give birth to rice, and she became known as Sanghyang Ibu Pretiwi, the Smitten Grandmother. Then Wisnu made war on Indra, Lord of the Heavens, to induce him to teach men how to grown rice. Thus, as the principal source of life and wealth and as a gift from the gods, rice was born from the cosmic union of the divine male and female creative forces represented in earth and water.”
“Most Balinese seldom eat fish and remain essentially a rice eating race. Their repugnance for the sea may be due to the same religious fear of the supernatural that prevents them from climbing to the summit of the great mountains. The Balinese feel the heights are for the gods, the middle world for humans and the depth and low points for the spirits of the underworld. They are one of the rate island peoples in the world who turn their eyes not outward to the waters, but upward to the mountain tops.”

The ceremony of offerings, which are laid out in front of every door step and store, is something special to Bali. The women do the offerings with grace and elegance and each offering in itself, is a little art piece. Soon after, eaten up by dogs…The are vast number of flea-infested aggressive dogs (both in Bali and Timor, well and everywhere in the developing world) really bothers me. I have recently become more scared of dogs sadly. The treatment of dogs seems particularly cruel everywhere. Where have we lost our humanity with animals? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of kinship with the animals that feed us and keep our crops growing.


Miguel wrote:

“Such dogs were undoubtedly provided by the gods to keep Bali from perfection.”

Bali is very populated. The growth here is unbelievable. Bali’s population increased by 2.15 percent in the last decade, the fastest period of growth in half a century. The Bali Statistics Agency said that between 2000 and 2010 the island’s population rose from 3.15 million to 3.89 million, with growth fuelled by a combination of natural increase and immigration. The population is disproportionately weighted to the south of Bali, around the major urban areas and tourist resorts. Tourism here seems to be the bread and butter but on an island with huge growth in population, as well as tourism, with only 5,632 square kilometers, I am not sure how environmentally they will sustain the influx. The rivers, although plentiful, seem quite polluted, and there is rubbish everywhere. They are building a new airport and a new road leading to the airport, but with the massive amount of cars and mopeds on the roads, that use old north-south road systems, I don’t understand how they will keep growing without a degeneration of the quality of life.

Bali is special and you can still feel that when you come here. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when Miguel was here in the 1930s. Must have been quite magical and coming from Mexico, quite unique. I hope that Bali is able to preserve some of its traditions, food culture, integrated rice systems and special art in this time of high development.

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2 Responses to Rice, Miguel, dogs and development: A Bali Experiment

  1. Georgiou Coulaptsis says:

    I enjoyed your article, even though not totally agreeing with your conclusions. I have been living in Indonesia since late 1972, and do miss the “innocence” of the then Bali compared to now. But I have not noticed any erosion of the cultural aspect of the people there. Yes, environmentally they have a huge problem, which may in the end “kill the goose …..” but culturally the Balinese people have managed (apparently quite well to the surprise of many) the maintain their cultural roots, and in some ways even to strengthen them. Try reading http://www.kuveni.de/cultural%20tourism%20bali.pdf which may give you a different perspective on the “the real Bali”.

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