Jungle Buddies: In Memoriam Hasan Merdjanic

Ageing has its hills and ravines: there’s a slowing down that can be relaxing after the intensity of postmodern life, some of the mysteries of living become just a little clearer with the wisdom of hindsight; the valleys include the persistent and pesky aches and pains from past injuries that were easy to forget when younger and stronger, failing vision, a few extra (and unneeded kilos), and most difficult of all the loss of old friends.

Twenty-nine years ago I left beautiful Petaluma, California, and the Bay Area to head off to the jungles of what was then called Irian Jaya and is now known as Papua and West Papua. I wasn’t expecting to stay more than the year contract that I had in my baggage as I arrived in the little town of Timika where the mining company that I was going to be working for had their airport. I didn’t know much about what to expect other than what was offered in a brief orientation at the mining company’s headquarters in New Orleans. No friends, a new school, a new language to learn, leaving family and friends behind. It was a bit daunting for someone who loves routine to keep some of the demons of life away.

Not long after I arrived, I started heading out on the weekends into the villages of the local ethnic groups that lived just outside of the fenced mining community that I called home. And it was not too much longer before I came across the man who was to become one of my best friends during the nine years that I spent in Irian Jaya; that friendship continued on over the years only ending yesterday when I heard that he had passed on.

Hasan Merdjanic and I were in a sense an odd couple; he was a capitalist from the former Yugoslavia; I was a socialist from Chicago. He was a master mechanic; I was a second grade teacher. He was outgoing and cheerful; I was introverted and brooding. But our love of Indonesia, and especially Irian Jaya was the foundation on which we built our long friendship.

We were both single at the time, living in the BQ buildings just across the river from the Sports Hall. Hasan introduced himself one afternoon in the F-Barracks dining area. He had heard that I was interested in the local people and their cultures. Over dinner, we shared some basic background information and when he heard that I had a Ph.D. In anthropology, he gave me the nickname of drbruce. I’ve kept that nickname since then. And, he told me about his project – the Timika Yacht and Swim Club. This was a place for the three groups of people living and working for the mining company – expats, locals and Indonesians from other islands – to get together in their free time and recreate together and get to know each other and hopefully break down some of the boundaries and stereotypes that social groups tend to hold dear. I was impressed with the beauty, boldness and difficulty of Hasan’s vision. Still, it took a few months before I was ready to cough up the $100 membership fee.

We started our friendship having a few beers in Hasan’s BQ or mine talking about what he was doing. Eventually he dragged me down to Timika and the Kaoga River where the Yacht Club was located. At the time it was just an office building and a few bbq areas. But people would come there on the weekend on cook, swim in the icy river and just hang out. A few small stalls selling food opened up on the road outside the club. Hasan’s dream was becoming a reality.

After my first visit and my introduction to the small Amungme man who was the landlord for the Yacht Club, I was hooked on Hasan’s vision. Anytime that Hasan was going down to work at the Club, I hitched a ride along with him and took part in what turned out to be years of construction work as the Yacht Club went from the office building to include a two-story building with rooms for rent on the second floor and then the so-called Animal House for guys who wanted to come down and party away from the general crowd who came in on the weekends, more bbq’s, a building with toilets and showers, a kids’ playground, a restaurant, and finally a little golf course hacked out of the jungle where the idea was to hit a ball and not lose it.

My favorite times were the early days of construction when we would put up a tarp to cover us and sit around a campfire to keep the mossies away and drink and tell stories through the night. Hasan would bring his music box down and we had some of the classic 90s music to provide a soundtrack for our campfire stories. During the day, we’d help with construction; it was hot, dirty work but Hasan had this unique ability to draw all sorts of expat guys down to help out. He was the ringmaster of our weekend circuses.

Hasan had that ability to sell people on his vision: guys would work for free, the mining company would donate some of the building supplies that we needed, we had a local manager, a genial Javanese guy who ended up in Timika as part of the Indonesian government’s relocation plan. Hasan brought all of us in together. We had a little group of my teacher friends who would come down occasionally on the weekends to swim, eat and play.

At some point Hasan made me a vice-president of the Yacht Club in charge of art and culture. I would come down and scour Timika looking for Asmat carvings that we could sell at the Club. Sometimes I would find one or two tucked away in some small shop; once I came across a darkened little house with some statues outside. Peering inside a small cobwebbed window, I caught a glimpse of dozens of carvings piled up randomly on the floor and leaning against the walls of the room.

It took a while to track down the owner of the carvings as I went from house to house asking who lived in the statue house. Eventually, we hooked up and made our way back to the treasure trove. I tried bargaining for individual statues, but the prices were more than I wanted to pay. As a final tactic, I offered to buy all of his carvings for one price. Deal. But, I didn’t have enough money so I raced back down the dirt road that connected Timika to the Yacht Club leaving a trail of billowing dust behind me. As I screeched to a stop, Hasan popped out of the office and, giving me a dubious look asked, “What have you done Dr.Bruce?” I told him I had 73 carvings but no money. He pulled out a roll of notes, counted them out, took my wallet and emptied it and gave me his favorite saying, “Make yourself useful and do something.”

I was reliving this story just yesterday as I was photographing and cataloging the remaining statues that I brought back with me to Bali when I left Irian Jaya. And then one of those moments of synchronicity; I took a break to check my email and saw the notice of Hasan’s passing.

It was only a few months ago that we sat along the Esplanade in Cairns trying to stay out of the morning rain while we discussed our various illnesses and the ravages of ageing. I showed him the scars on my leg from the tropical ulcers I picked up on my most recent trip to Papua. He showed me his heart surgery scars. But, as always, he was upbeat, but realistic. We made some plans to meet again, either in Bali when he felt better or back in Cairns if I did another run on the cruise ship that he had talked me into working on as something to “make myself useful.”

I didn’t suspect that that would be the last time that I would get the pleasure of spending time with my old friend. Probably that was for the best, I’m not known for being good at sentimentality. But, I would have liked to have told him how much his friendship over the years meant to me, although knowing Hasan, I pretty much guess that he was clued into that as he was clued into so many things in this life of adventure and mystery. Rest in Peace Buddy. Miss you already.

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The Murik Lake People of Papua New Guinea

This is the continuation of a series of posts on Papua New Guinea. For the most part, these posts will be on the ethnic groups (or tribes as they are often called) that I visited over the approximately three months that I traveled through coastal and island PNG villages during the period of 2017-2018. Some of what I write here is based on observations and discussions that I had with local people; some is based on the many ethnographies written by anthropologists about these same people.

These posts are basically snapshots of a handful of the fascinating cultures of Papua New Guinea. I’m starting with the Murik culture because it was my first stop on my most recent trip. Second post will be a small introduction to the Sepik region.

This post is on the people of the Murik Lakes area at the mouth of the Sepik. I visited one of the five main village three times in February and March of 2018: Mendam is a small village of 400-500 people. In addition to my observations, I’ve relied heavily on the work of the anthropologist, David Lipset, who has done extensive fieldwork in the Murik region.


The Murik Lake People

The Murik people live along the north coast just off the mouth of the Sepik in the Sepik estuary. They live in five main villages in an area of mangrove lakes, swamps and sandy beaches. This area makes up the largest mangrove ecology in PNG.

The Murik, according to legend, migrated to the area from around the town of Angoram around 400 years ago. They have had extensive contact with Austronesian-speaking people along the coast and nearby islands, as well as with non-Austronesian groups living up along the Sepik River.

The population is around 3,500 in five traditional villages, although population statistics are fairly flexible in PNG. An example: in one village that I visited in another area of the Sepik four times over a one-month period, I was told that the population was 3,000, then 4,000 and finally 5,000.  So, unless these folks were reproducing rapidly, the numbers are not set in stone.

In addition to their traditional home land, some Murik live in the town of Wewak where they seek a cash income. The Murik presence in Wewak, the capital of the East Sepik Province, has been ongoing for decades. The Murik tend to live in rather rough squatter camps in Wewak, similar to people from the Chambri Lakes region of the Sepik.


The Murik people have long been in contact with the coastal Austronesian groups that settled in this area some 2,500 years ago. Trade relations led to cultural exchanges as well, as can be seen in some of the Murik dances, carvings, and marriage patterns.

First contact with foreigners was in 1616 with the Dutch captain Jacob Le Maire.

Because of the poor quality of the land, the Murik were basically left alone by colonists. However, a German Catholic mission was established around 1913. Some German troops under a rogue commander burned men’s houses and destroyed sacred objects during this period, not exactly endearing them with the Murik people.

During the Australian period between WWI and WWII, some Murik began to leave the villages for work. This generally consisted of domestic type work for the missions. The Japanese arrived in 1944 and spent a year in the Murik Lakes region.

After the war, some Murik began to seek Western-style education and employment. Papua New Guinea’s first PM was Michael Somare from the Murik village of Karau.

Residences, Village Life, Architecture

Similar to most houses in the Sepik River region, houses here are built on stilts from just a few feet above ground level to as much as about 8 feet above the ground. While at one time the ideal was to have houses arranged by descent groups, that pattern is less likely to be followed these days because of the frequent flooding of the land. Extended families usually live together until it gets too crowded

Like all groups along the Sepik, the Murik have men’s cult houses, although not every village has one. While I was visiting Mendam, I asked where the haus tambaran (the spirit house) was and was told that the village didn’t have one. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to get more details on why there wasn’t a spirit house in the village. While it’s possible that the house just wasn’t open for tourist viewing, that seems unlikely as one of the major points of interest for tourist groups is visiting the spirit houses where they have a chance to learn some local history, hear a little traditional music and sometimes by some artifacts. So, that’s something that I hope to learn on another trip to Mendam village.


Because of the geography, subsistence activities center on fishing and trade, with a little hunting. The staple is sago, which is generally traded for because of the scarcity of sago palms. In addition to sago, the other common foods are fish and shellfish that are abundant in the area. The villages also have coconut groves that can be harvested.

There is little arable land in most of the villages so the Murik don’t have much garden produce. During the dry season when the waters retreat, a few small gardens can be rapidly planted, but for the most part, the Murik are dependent on trade for vegetables. Manufactured items such as pots and plates are sought in exchange for baskets.

Because a cash economy has become so pervasive in PNG and lacking land to grow cash-crops and trees to sell to the foreign concessions, the Murik are dependent on the occasional sales of carvings and baskets, as well as remittances from family members who have moved to the cities to engage in paid labor. I was told in Mendam (as I was in all of the villages that I visited) that they welcomed tourism because it provided a cash income and encouraged the younger members of the community to keep up with the traditional culture.

In addition to food and some manufactured items, important trade items include magic, songs and dances, and designs for artwork.

Sociopolitical organization

Leadership in Murik villages generally goes to the senior men of the various descent groups. This usually means the first born, as primogeniture is the rule for the Murik. When there are disputes within the village, they are discussed in the men’s house with the senior men having the most say. If this fails, then there are village courts that can adjudicate the problems at hand.

While in the past warfare was a common solution to solving conflicts between groups, including problems between Murik villages, these days a serious attempt is made to talk things out. Still violence is an option at times. Sexual jealousy is a common cause of conflict within and between villages.

Marriage, Family, Kinship

Marriage tends to be somewhat unstable until children come along. No special rituals or rules for marriage other than obtaining the consent of parents and following the rules of exogamy. Where once they may have practiced brother-sister exchange, which is a preferred form of marriage where one family o

r group will exchange a woman (someone’s sister), now they do not bother with that. The Murik do not practice bride wealth but do have bride service, which is where a man works for a period of time for his father-in-law.

Couples can choose where to live. In the case of divorce, they may return to their parents’ houses. Children are encouraged to be independent; the eldest are expected to care for the younger ones.  And just as in the culture where I live, elder sibs tend to have fun teasing their younger siblings, at least until the parents hear the fuss that this causes.

According to Lipset, “Unlike the highlands peoples with a culture that tends to be highly misogynistic, the Murik, partly due to their geographical location, have a culture where gender is not highly stratified, but rather where men and women are interdependent and work together in a mode more like the Austronesian cultures of the offshore islands, while remaining well within the Sepik tradition.”

Magic and Religion

Christianity came to the village of Big Murik in 1911 with the Catholics. In 1951, the Seventh Day Adventists set up a mission in Darapap Village. So, while Christianity has a long history here, the traditional beliefs are still practiced. This co-existence of Christianity and traditional religion is commonly found throughout Papua New Guinea.

Magic is alive and well (and sometimes not so well) in Papua New Guinea. From villagers to urban dwellers, magic still has a strong place in the peoples’ world views. The Murik believe in many spirits that can, like human beings, be good or bad, cause illness, death and misfortune or help control the weather, make the crops grows, regulate social life, heal the sick and attract a mate. Ancestor spirits play a key role in the Murik belief system, but there are also animistic spirits that need to be addressed in daily living.

Murik stories about their identity are about ancestor-spirits who, unlike the ancestors of other groups, are not superhuman or gods, but rather ancestor-spirit men and women who are superior to regular men and women only in degree. They do not possess divine powers, but resolve conflicts and problems through essentially human means, but their spirit world is inhabited by talking animals, ogres and similar creatures. Origin legends revolve around a pair of spirit-men who are brothers.

Art and Music

Men are carvers; women weave baskets.  The women’s baskets are distinctive and rarely found in other cultures along the Sepik. As with many of the ethnic groups in the Sepik River area, the Murik have a distinctive style of carving. Masks tend to display a stylized oblong form. A carving school for youths to keep the art alive and for people who felt there was nothing in the modern world for them was started by a well-known former politician who owns a large resort in Madang and who is frequently on the Sepik River with his luxury yacht filled with tourists who want to experience the cultures of the Sepik River.

The Murik people have their own style of dance and drama. They are especially proud of their short humorous plays that they perform for visiting tourists. The actors are all male and a common theme is a misunderstanding during a traditional activity, often an initiation ritual.


As with other groups, a need for cash income leads some people away from home- temporarily or permanently.

Climate change poses another challenge. Due to their geographical location, the Murik have experience intense flooding from tidal changes. Several villages have been completely washed out in the recent past. The Murik Lakes Resettlement Project (MLRP) was started in 2003 but failed. Local initiatives followed, and a new village was built after the 2011 tsunami. Temporary solutions have yet to lead to permanent ones. This is the challenge for the Murik and other coastal dwelling people today.

Increased access to education offers the hope of employment outside the village. For villagers who move into the modern economy, there can be a disconnect with “traditional” culture. Bridging the gap is a challenge for the new generation

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The Art of Papua New Guinea

This is one of the presentations that I’ve created for visitors to PNG, especially those folks who plan on visiting the Sepik River area. The original format was PowerPoint, but loading a PP here has proved to be a problem. I’ve converted the PP to a PDF file which can be navigated through. 90% is the best size to view this on. I’m working on developing these talks into something more web friendly than this minimalist PDF. Stay tuned.

The Art of Papua New Guinea

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Modernity and Tradition at Home and Away

As Zoey and I return home from our morning walk around the city, she’s drawn in to a number of rapid fire conversations with her kampung friends (she spends more time out playing everyday with friends now; Grandpa time often takes second place to playtime in the neighborhood). She’s smart and sassy, so much like her mother, grandmother and youngest aunt; my oldest daughter and youngest son take more after me – thoughtful and somewhat reticent in dealing with others. Zoey gets into a verbal taunt with a friend who is twice her age, and she holds her ground. She switches off effortlessly into English with me when she asks if it’s ok to play with her friends rather than come upstairs to her room to play with me. She grabs some snacks that she’s bought at the mini-market, gives one to a friend and off she goes.

A group of these little kampung urchins gather round to watch a neighbor who’s crafting a new outrigger boat. The kids still learn about traditional ways by watching the adults; none of the adults mind the audience unless they get in the way of the work. It’s a scene that’s gone on in this kampung for hundreds of years. But one of them pulls out a tablet and snaps a photo of his uncle at work, modernity is never far away or totally separated from the traditional life. The kids blend them together without a thought. Their toys include store-bought dolls and laser guns, castoff plastic plates from a recent ceremony and some oddly shaped pebbles that have washed up from the sea in a recent storm.  This kind of childhood is far from my own Chicago child life: we rarely interacted with adults, dads were at some sort of work that we only vaguely understood and moms were at home cooking and cleaning. Here it’s like Tom Sawyer and Kim all rolled into one, set against the beautiful Bali Sea in a somewhat seedy fishing kampung.

I’ve been trying to get a grasp on the issue of modernity versus tradition (if it’s really a binary thing, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be) in PNG, but it dawns on me that very similar processes are at work here. Maybe that’s what has thrown me off integrating my most recent trip to PNG into my somewhat idiosyncratic world view. I was having dinner with a few guests on the cruise ship and one of them remarked that my wife sounded very traditional.

That remark just came to mind today while I was cleaning the house and moving some of my wife’s traditional medicines out of the way. The smell of jajan (a wonderful variety of baked goods) rises up to my room from my wife’s kitchen. She’s cooking for the 40-day ceremony for my new grandson. She still makes everything from scratch even though she could more easily buy the things she cooks in a bakery or supermarket. My wife is about as traditional as you can get here, but the tablet that she uses for her regular Facebook postings is never far from reach.

Tradition and modernity are all around me, but I miss a lot of it because in so many ways, I really have (as I’ve been accused of by several former anthropologist colleagues) gone native for  the most part and so what seems strange and exotic to Western outsiders is just another regular, non-remarkable event for me that I gloss over like so many of the ceremonies and colorful cultural artifacts that bring millions of visitors to this tiny island every year.

And then there’s tourism that gets thrown in this mix. I came here as a tourist as all of the foreigners who live here did, but over the years I’ve grown to view tourism mostly through its negative aspects. But tourism is one of the economic and cultural forces that I’ve come to reconsider after my month on the Sepik River. And accordingly, I need to do so here as well. Lots of things to reconsider; that in itself is actually refreshing as the events of the last six months have shaken me out of my tropical lull and started me on taking a look at the local and the foreign in some new ways.

The movement from tradition to modernity doesn’t have a simple linear trajectory; it twists and turns, advances and retreats. Some aspects of modernity are adopted and modified to fit into the regular flow of life; technology seems to be the easiest path to be adapted, ideology the hardest. And there’s the sticky problem of the definition of both modernity and tradition. This is a current issue in many of the places that I’ve visited in PNG. What’s tradition, what’s custom, what’s good tradition, what’s bad, what’s the difference between tradition and custom. One example: are young ladies in the Trobriand following tradition when they dance topless in front of camera-clicking (and cash-paying) tourists? And if it’s tradition, is it good tradition or bad tradition. And then there’s land issues. Here the issue revolves less around land problems (a common point of contention in PNG) and more around how cultural actions are played out whether it’s in death rituals, religious rituals or the political translation and mobilization of the two.

In both Indonesia and Papua New Guinea there are serious existential concerns about the viability of traditional culture under the onslaught of 21st century modernity and globalization. However, they are opposite sides of the same coin;  Bali is concerned with too much tourism, Papua New Guinea with too little.  Finding a balance seems to be the commonsense solution to Bali’s problem, although the eyes of the powers that control such things here seem to be blinded by the color of money. It’s always the more the better. But this issue in Bali has been discussed since colonial days, and with no solution in sight, it’s easy enough to take the cynical view that nothing will change until the whole fragile system collapses under its own weight. For PNG, well that’s something for another post.

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Thinking of Papua New Guinea: Part I,

I have some time today; Su and Zoey went south to visit her sister in the hospital. There’s some time then to get back to trying to unravel what’s happened to me during my 11 weeks in PNG. I’ve started two posts, but they have both started to unravel under some invisible weight of change – it’s the change thing that has me disoriented. I’m not sure if it’s a change in ideology, in worldview, or in some ambiguous theoretical stance (although to be honest, I lost my Marxist/Freudian theoretical stance during the crazy month thirty some years ago when I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation).

So, I’ve been flopping around the house since I returned from a month on the Sepik River, taking care of my granddaughter, fixing things around the house, and worrying about my children and grandchildren. But, running in the back of all this has been the need to get a grip on what happened in PNG.

Zoey has her bilums (net bags that everyone wears and uses in PNG and in Indonesian Papua as well, although they call them nokens over there) spread out all over her room; I didn’t know if she would like them as gifts, but she stuffs things down inside and says, “I have a surprise inside my bilum, Grandpa, do you know what it is?” And then there are the masks that I brought back and have hanging on the wall and the sacred flutes that Zoey likes me to play. So PNG is in my awareness constantly.

Living on a cruise ship is, in itself, a surrealistic enough experience, but add to that the destinations – small villages (and some not so small villages) and islands known to most of the outside world primarily through guide books and the anthropological writings of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Reo Fortune and a slew of folks who have followed up on their work. I just happened to find an anthropologist who had been through this experience years before me; another American living over in this corner of the world who had worked on the same cruise ship that I have just finished traveling on. She wasn’t an academic anthropologist, she called herself (at least on her blog) as an applied anthropologist, and it turned out she had a blog where she wrote about her life in PNG.

Unfortunately, she passed away in one of those unexplained and tragic auto accidents while she was back visiting in the US. But she has this blog that is still online and through it, I’ve started to get some feel for what it may be that I’m looking for.

A Jump Start from the Homeland

I was looking back on what I wrote above yesterday while watching the always depressing news about what is happening in Trumpland, and the realization suddenly hit me that what I’ve been thinking around – not able to get to it head-on for some reason – and what it was that startled me about being in PNG was resilience.

Kopar Village, PNG

Despite everything, all the difficulties of living in remote areas with no immediate access to education and health care and often running water, as well as the lack of direct assistance from the government, was the sense of the resilience of the people that I met over 11 weeks. They are working on finding the path that leads to a successful blending of modernity and tradition. And with that, I’ll leave more until the next post.

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The History of the Bugis in Kampung Bugis Part II

Note: Back on the old blog before I lost my domain name, I had a history of Kampung Bugis that I translated from the Indonesian. This document was a senior thesis written by an Indonesian student. It was an interesting history, and unfortunately I’ve misplaced most of the translation except for this section, I’m posting this here with the hope that I will come across the rest of  the translation in the future.

Last post on the Bugis, I wrote that I would add some information about the culture of the Bugis who arrived in Bali. This post summarizes the information in from the first section of Chapter 2 of the Migration and the Role of the Bugis in Kampung Bugis Buleleng 1815-1946 by I Nyoman Mardika.

According to Raden Sasrawidjaja who wrote about the Bugis in Kampung Bugis in 1871 when he visited there, the houses of the Bugis who came to Bali had three parts: an upper house under the roof called the Rakkaang where grain, other food supplies and family heirlooms were stored, unmarried girls from the nobility also lived in this section of the house; the second part of the house, the Alebola, consisted of rooms that were used for living, such as bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and a receiving room; the third part, the Awasai, was used for livestock, farming gear or fishing gear.

The original geographic boundaries of Kampung Bugis were unclear because there were no firm agreements on borders at this time, but after Indonesia won independence the boundaries of Kampung Bugis were the Java Sea to the north, Tukad Buleleng to the east, Kampung Anyar to the west and Banjar Bali to the south. The population of Kampung Bugis in 1823 was estimated to be around 2,000 residents. The current population is around 3,300.

Kampung Bugis was ideally located for the Bugis people because it is located along the beach close to the center of the town of Singaraja. It is also adjacent to to the customs port of Buleleng. Because this customs port was busy and visited regularly by ships, it was an ideal location for the Bugis who were skilled in trading activities. Also, due to Kampung Bugis’ relatively small, narrow boundaries and sandy soil, farming was not an option as an economic activity. So, the Bugis traded as their main means of livelihood with fishing as a secondary source of income or food. The writer notes that the Bugis are known for their trading ability because of their tradition of sailing and dominating inter-island trade prior to the Dutch intrusion into the islands.

In order to be able to understand the history of the Bugis people in Kampung Bugis, it is necessary to view the kampung and the people in the context of north Bali, or Buleleng. The city of Singaraja was founded in 1604 by I Gusti Panji Sakti who came to the north from the kingdom of Gelgel in the south. Sakti, according to the Babad Buleleng, traced his descent back to the fabled Majapahit Empire in Java. Sakti’s descendents ruled Buleleng until the late 18th century when the kingdom was taken over by Karangasem. By 1840 Buleleng was ruled by Anak Agung Ngurah Made Karangasem along with the powerful prime minister I Gusti Ketut Jelantik. Under his charismatic leadership, Buleleng became one of the most powerful kingdoms on the island. But, the Dutch, who had paid little substantial attention to Bali up until the 18th century because of its lack of spices, became interested in securing treaties with the Balinese kings in order to establish themselves on the island so that any British ambitions for Bali would be abandoned. By 1845 the Dutch had successfully established treaties with most of the Balinese kingdoms.

Next post: The Dutch Capture of Buleleng

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Once Again Back On the Road: Another Ubud Trip (Where Else?)

I’ve been back from my latest trip to Papua New Guinea for almost two months now. I’ve been working on writing about the changes in me that those trips have brought about, but I haven’t quite completed figuring the whole thing out – but soon, it’s just on the tip of my tongue.

After being out on the sea for three months out of five (before these two months at home), life in the kampung has gotten a bit ho-hum. Everyday is the same: get up, play with Zoey before school, get her off to school, clean the house, play with Zoey after school, do a little reading and writing, play with Zoey again while my wife makes dinner, eat dinner, watch tv and sleep, Reset and do it all again tomorrow.

Now, that’s actually not a bad life. I don’t have to work; I wouldn’t mind having some extra money, but we have enough to get by on, and for me that’s cool. I have a great bunch of kids and grandkids. Somehow all the neurological problems that I had a few years back after a stroke have disappeared. I live on a tropical island, which I’ve wanted to do since I was in high school. I speak two languages and bits of three or four other ones. I have a beautiful and extremely challenging wife. I have a completely strange and blind monkey that I would love more if he didn’t insist on peeing on me.

So, what I have always needed when I get these stay-at-home blues is a road trip, and where else to make a trip other than to Ubud to visit some old friends and see what the Yoga capital of the world is up to these days. Really the trip is not just about visiting friend or getting out of the house. It’s as much about seeing Bali. Getting out to the villages and the small roadside warungs and life outside of tourism central.

Life on this small island now regularly called a resort island (how ugly can we get) has always been about what happens with the masyarakat (the people). All the rest is window dressing for anthropologists, royalty-struck tourist hangers-on, and, of course, the wealthy and connected. And for me, the best way to get to see what is going on around the island is to head out on my motorcycle and make a few stops along the way to chat with folks. The destination of Ubud is really of secondary importance to the physical act of the ride over these twisty roads that run through some of the best of traditional Balinese villages.

The weather on the trip down and back was beautiful: clear skies, a slight breeze and that Balinese sun to keep me warm when I got up into the mountains just before Kintamani.

These trips give me a chance to let the thoughts flow freely, unencumbered by the daily trivia of life back home. My children call these trips “refreshing,” and while I used to think that was kind of a strange way to put it, it’s actually the perfect word to describe what happens when I get out on the road. On this trip, I was playing with the concept of consciousness (not in the sense of how some of the new arrivals to Bali use it, such as in “Oh ya, I’m a conscious person,” but in the scientific sense of the word.) Consciousness is a favorite concept to think about just because of the act of perceiving and thinking about the beauty found around Bali on the way up to Ubud from Singaraja. The sense of being in the world can be really startling when immersed in the lushness of a tropical island.

By the end of the drive, I was, as is said, refreshed. Down in Ubud, things are as busy as usual; the tourist season really doesn’t exist anymore for Ubud, it’s always the tourist season. The narrow sidewalks that were once a pleasure to stroll along in early May before the onslaught of the traditional tourist season that began in June, now are packed in early May with the wandering hordes of tourist walking two or three abreast making it difficult to do an absent-minded stroll. Seems like there is always someone pushing you off towards the street, which is extremely hazardous with all the traffic in Ubud these days.

I had a chance to catch-up with the Balinese family that I have been staying with for the past 29 years, as well as spending a pleasant afternoon catching up with an old American friend and his Balinese wife. And, as usual, I did my shopping tour through town to get a few things for Zoey, Zander and Su. I made my obligatory stop at Ganesha Books to get Zoey a few books, and I succumbed to the desire to spend a quiet evening in my room by ordering a pizza from a local restaurant.

Getting out of town is for me a chance to get out of a few of the daily routines, and this trip was successful and pleasant. And now back home to start on some new projects.

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Time and Time Again: Life in Bali

Bali. For some people the name says it all – warm seas, soft sands, cold beers, vibrant colors, exotic sounds, friendly people, wide smiles, laughing children, a multitude of inexpensive small hotels and homestays. Bali. A land of wonder and magic set in the warm waters of the Bali Sea and the Indian Ocean.


Bali. The tourist-ruined, money-soaked island sucking in foreign dollars for the Indonesian government in Jakarta. Hand-planted rice, delicately crafted religious offerings, vibrant cloths used in ceremonial clothes. Gamelan orchestras practicing in the warm nights under a brilliant moon, fishing in a traditional prahu chasing tuna and flying fish, the mystery of a wayang kulit in a village with the children laughing, the men gambling, and the women making comments on their husbands’ performances or lack thereof. Bali. Which one is it?

The answer is that there is no answer – it all depends on what you bring to Bali and where you take it. There are foreigners who have come to Kuta and have never left. The excitement, opportunity and midnight rush have seduced them into finding a way to build a life there. Sanur, a twenty minute ride from Kuta, is a more relaxed village catering to generally more upscale tourists. Then, too, there are the tourists who come and drink, dance, spend and flee looking for one more country or island to “do.” Come up to the north and you might find boredom or bliss. Quiet sunsets on Lovina or Anturan Beach, serene walks in scenic villages. Try Ubud, the fabled center of Balinese ‘culture,” and you may find fantastic artists and musicians, thrilling performances of ancient dances and plays, or you may find digital nomads wandering the street half-naked, rabid dogs, muddy pathways and cold showers.

Bali. I first heard of the legendary Indonesian island during my freshman year at the University of Illinois in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. Years later, I was a teaching associate in the anthropology department at UC Berkeley teaching an introductory anthropology course with Bali as one of the culture areas. And, while I had never been to Bali, my readings and lectures lit the desire to visit this island about which so much had been written just to see what the fuss was really about. As these things sometimes go, not long after I was offered a teaching position in a mining company on the island of New Guinea – not all that far from Bali. The fulfillment of my desire was just on the horizon. When I left San Francisco in 1989, I never imagined that I would still be living overseas 28 years later. As the Grateful Dead say, it’s been a long, strange trip.


Being one of the old-timers now on the island, I tend to get lulled into thinking about how much better the island was before tourism boomed – there were plenty of tourists when I first came here, but every year the numbers go up and in some parts of the island – Ubud and the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak area in particular – high season just means even more tourists than usual. We like to talk about the adventure that life here was back then when many places still had no electricity, it was more common to drink warm beer than cold, streets in the villages would turn into streams of mud during the rainy season, and you never knew what strange thing you might find around the next bend in the road.

Thinking about the lost, the real and the imagined Bali. I find that living in a developing-world slum keeps me somewhat less in need of a reality check than some of my friends who actually buy the market-driven fantasy of a paradise island. And, yet, driving through these solitary mountains and antique villages bereft of Mercedes Benzs, delivered pizzas and organic carrots grown in soil saturated with the green revolution’s chemical remnants reminds me that something brought me here so many years ago long before it was discovered by yoga-drenched sybaritic youngsters looking for one more fix for their god-obsessed wandering. We project our needs, desires and dreams on this little, overcrowded island of drama, ceremony, magic and tedium. People of all ages, classes and nationalities arrive here daily: many are physically ill, emotionally-drained, financially or intellectually challenged. They are looking for something special to recharge, revitalize or renew their lives. They’re looking for that special magic that Bali is so famous for. Some find it and go on to develop their lives, others just can’t connect to the realities of life in a developing country.

So why have I stayed in Bali and not gone back to the States or off to another country around the world? Serendipity is one short answer. A close American friend and long-time Bali resident has the saying: many are called, few are chosen. Without getting overly mystical, I felt a pull here within the first month that I was here. Not as soon as I arrived; I stayed my first week in Kuta and while it was a welcome break from life in the mining camp where I lived, it was not what I had hoped to find here. But slowly over the month of my vacation my perception of Bali developed. It was a combination of the natural beauty of Bali and the friendships that I developed with Balinese. It happened when the giddy edge of exotic strangeness started to wear off and a feeling of normality set in. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live here permanently. It wasn’t cheap living, it wasn’t being able to build a “villa,” (never been there, never done that), it wasn’t having a “staff” to cater to my every need, it wasn’t even because of a woman (I had already set my mind to living here permanently before I met the lovely Suhana). It was that mystical something that drew me here and keeps me here.

We imagine what we’d like to see when we travel. In the days before social networking, smart phones and instant images that can be transmitted across the globe in seconds, tourists would develop mental images of what they might meet upon entering a foreign country, then those imagined images would be adjusted to the reality. Now we can see our hotel room online, read updated reviews of the restaurant, check out the toilet facilities, see who our neighbor is going to be on the airplane, view anything and everything in a 360 degree total surround sound view. Traveling around to exotic locales isn’t what it used to be in terms of adventure, but for those of us who have been around this tropical “paradise” for a long time, we need to remind ourselves that others arrived here before us and said pretty much the same things that we say now. We just need to remember that the beauty of the island is not just in a startling sunset or a lush paddy but in the dignity and strength of the people that live here.

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On the Road Again: Another Visit to Ubud

farviilageGetting out on the road in Bali just before dawn is one of my special loves. The air is fresh; a gauzy haze blankets the countryside; small, wood cooking fires send up snake-like streams of smoke from dozens of kitchens along the rural roads that add the hint of an exotic smell to the morning crispness. Markets are busy with a mess of motorbikes, trucks, cars, bicycles and pedestrians all maneuvering for space. The earliest and most eager students begin to appear alongside the rode ready to begin another school day.

dscf4048The road from Ubud to Kintamani via Tegallalang is mix of stretches of new, smooth asphalt and crumbly, potholed rubble. It’s better now though than in the past and it lends itself to a reflective drive – on cruise control most of the time as the early morning traffic thins out once past Tegallalang.

A three-day rest back in my usual homestay – my home away from home- for the past 27 years. It had been almost a year since I stayed these last: too many responsibilities at home with my job of raising my inquisitive little granddaughter, a month long cruise to Papua and the Moluccas, and the usual tedium of house repairs. So, back at the homestay a morning of friendly and surprised greetings – bapak, you’ve been away for so long, we were just talking about you, how’s Zoey, how’s Singaraja, have something to eat you must be tired from that long drive. Wonderful to know that I have my secret little sanctuary away from the bustle of city life in Singaraja and from the craziness of Ubud even though the homestay is only a hundred meters off the main street of downtown Ubud – if I can call it that.

Time to meet with old friends – foreign and local. Talk about the state of the world and the country in these post US-election days because everyone wanted to talk about that. And a lot of talk about the state of Ubud. My first surprise as I turned onto the main road on my way to the homestay was to just miss getting slammed into by two foreigners on a motorbike – obviously not used to driving in Indonesian traffic. And just as surprised by their state of dress – or perhaps state of undress – is a better word. The young man shirtless, wearing only shorts and flipflops, no helmet. The young lady on the back barefoot wearing only a bikini and no helmet either. It was the first sight of foreigners sporting beachwear in Ubud – far from any beach. Later I was to run into more of this as I walked around town: men shirtless, women in bikinis. I had to ask my friends because this was something new for me.

The responses from my foreigner friends were expected – something along the lines of “disrespectful,” “rude,” “clueless.” Maybe because we’re from another generation, or maybe just getting older and more conservative. But, what I really wanted was to hear what the Balinese think about this because regardless of what we foreigners think, if the Balinese aren’t offended by this type of dress in public places, well then, we should just get on with things and forget about it.

So, I asked a cross-generational group from great-grandpa down to the teenagers in the compound. Responses were pretty much uniform except varying in degrees of irritation: “rude,” “disrespectful to the local culture,” “eww, who want’s to eat in a restaurant when people are at the next table undressed,” “idiots” (a teen, of course), “kind of funny to see people walk down the street like that,” “OK for the girls but not for the boys,” “don’t they read the guidebooks on how to act in Bali?”

And it was that last comment that set me off on another line of thought. Whose responsibility is it to tell foreigners what is acceptable locally and what isn’t? Should they just figure it out on their own, should there be some kind of handout at immigration on how to behave in Bali, should the locals tell them directly (a bit confrontational for most Balinese that I know), should we old-timers act as the fashion and behavior police?

Well, there was no real consensus from my friends, but generally the idea of having some sort of informational pamphlet at the airport received the most positive responses. However there was also a pretty adamant group that thought that tourists should find out for themselves – “that’s what you did,” said an old-timer, “you were always asking can I do this, is it alright to do that. What’s so hard about that?”

So, I guess life with tourists will just muddle on as it has always done except for those extreme situations when tourists decide to have sex in a temple (yes, it’s happen a number of times here), or relieve themselves on a temple wall (yes, been done as well). So, in the meantime,  I’ll just continue to look somewhat bemused when I see strange tourist behavior and just get on with things.

And when we got to politics, no surprises there. No Trump fans and some worries that things will get worse in the world with a loose cannon in charge of the US. Despite what Trump likes to say, Obama is respected here, and no one is looking forward to the change.

A lot more from this trip – it was eventful – but that’s for another time. Zoey will be home from school soon.

And another local take on Ubud and its foreign residents:

And another with a relevant comment even though the location is Kuta:

And since I’m on with Natasha today, one more cute take on foreigners in Bali:

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