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The Islands of Bali - a reflection

by Catherine Evans

There are events in life that create such an impact that you change your whole way of being and thinking. Such was the case when I first set foot on the island of Bali some 30 years ago.

I had just finished my studies in Zoology at the University of Toronto and had become interested with the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali after reading the natural history writings of Alfred Russel Wallace. I wanted to see orang-utans, one-horned rhinoceros and the endemic primates that find refuge in Indonesia’s vast rainforests. I read through additional works of fiction and researched guidebooks and came across Island of Bali by Miguel Covarrubias. It detailed the traditions of the Hindu-Balinese culture. (see below for my “Top 10” suggested readings).

The slow boat to Bali required island hopping by ferry and cargo ship for two months launching from the Malay port of Penang to Sumatra, then Java and then Bali. It seemed that each 50 kilometers of distance brought encounters with a new culture, distinct in language, dress, house style and custom. Despite travelling solo, I was never lonely and in constant contact with other travellers, mostly from Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

I began my Bali explorations in the Northern part of the Island. Most of the Balinese live in villages and the surrounding land is particularly rural. The scenery was stunning with volcanoes, terraced rice fields, picturesque lakes and volcanic sand beaches. Within a day, I encounter my first temple procession, a parade of women carrying food & flower offerings to the nearby shrine. The small island has some 5000 temples and each house its own shrine to protect the home against haunted spirits who must be placated with offerings each morning. Appeasing ancestral spirits helps keep a village strong and safe. One of my first major temple sites was the pagoda style temple located on the shores of Lake Bratan in the town of Bedugul.

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As well as food and flowers, the Balinese Gods are entertained by music, art, dance and drama – the great loves of the Balinese people. Ubud in the Central highlands show-cased these arts with a proliferation of studios, galleries, workshops and museums. Two full weeks were required to appreciate the diversity. The paintings in Ubud were of particular beauty so much so that I purchased one that sits above my workplace to this day. In the vicinity of my bungalow were several craft villages, each with its own specialty. Mas was over-flowing with wood carvers, Gianyar weavers, Batubulan stonemasons, and Celuk gold and silversmiths.

From here I was able to visit Mengwi, the islands second largest temple complex built in the 16th century. An ornate stone gate guards the sanctuary with intricately carved wooden doors on the interior shrines. Here, like many other sites, bare legs are forbidden – short-clad men and women were required to don a sarung (available for rent to those who were not carrying one in their pack). Nearby, the monkey forest and a temple dedicated to the monkey gods was located. Only monkeys are allowed entry to the inner temple.

At night there was often a temple dance to attend. Some were mainly for the benefit of the tourists and others primarily for the village. My favourites included the Kecak, or monkey dance based on the Ramayana Epic that dramatizes the story of Rama and his brother Sita in the forests of Ceylon who are rescued by an army of 100 monkeys and the Legong, a classical dance where two young Balinese girls swayed gracefully to the sounds of the gamelan, cloth covered gongs.

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My last explorations brought me to the Eastern end of the island where emerald tiers of rice terracing spiralled down from the mountains. On the slopes of active volcano Gunung Agung stands Besakih – the largest and most sacred of the island temples. I hired a guide to help me understand the significance and complexity of the deities and mythological creatures carved on the various levels of the 14th century temple walls. It was a superb example of artistic expression at its zenith.

I had been in Indonesia for 2 months. I was on my own time schedule with a philosophy “stay as long as your heart tells you to and leave when your feet begin to itch.” I felt the itch and began to island hop by ferry and cargo ship to Java and on to Singapore. Over the years I remained connected to the island with return visits, and additional literature finds.


“Top 10” recommended reading:

Islands of Fire, Islands of Spice: Exploring the Wild Places of Indonesia, Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco 1988. Well written account of some of the off the beaten track places in Indonesia. Segments include Sumatra, Java, Bali, Kalimantan, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, Maluku, and Irian Jaya.

Island of Bali, by Miguel Covarrubias, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1937. Complete novel about life on Bali at the onset of European arrival.

Indonesians: Portraits from an Archipelago, Ian Charles Stewart, Concept Media, Singapore 1983. Complete with beautiful photographs.

Indonesia Between Myth & Reality, Lee Koobn Choy, Federal Publications, Singapore, 1977

The Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russel Wallace,1869, reprinted Graham Brash, Singapore 1983. The first biological account of Malaysia and Indonesia on the islands of Borneo, Java and Bali.

Zooquest for a Dragon, David Attenborough, 1957, or the mini-series from the 1960's Miracle of Bali

A Tale from Bali, Vicki Baum, published by Geoffrey Bles, 1942

A House in Bali, Colin McPhee. Canadian writer who reccounts the island during his preWWll visit. 

Indonesia Handbook, Bill Dalton. Moon Publications. A guidebook with extensive coverage of all destinations in Indonesia.

Bali & Lombok: A travel survival kit, Lonely Planet Publications

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