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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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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Why I Choose to Live in Bali: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bali (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern)

Traveling around the island is one of those activities that I should do more often. I get to take the bike out for a few bursts of speed on safe stretches of highway, I remember once again just how physically beautiful this island is, and I get a chance to talk with people outside my small social circle. I just returned from a two day trip down to Denpasar and Ubud, and my mind feels clearer, and my heart a little lighter than it was a few days ago.

melastiI’ve been thinking about the question that is posed to me now and again (probably more frequently than now and again when I come to think about it) about why I live in Bali. I was just reading some comments on an expat forum where several members were discussing how much they disliked Bali now after living here for some time, with one writer being literate enough to sum it all up as “Bali sucks.” OK, the emotion there was pretty clear, and the frustrations that expats sometimes feel here aren’t just made up: there are lots of frustrations to life in Bali that can wear on people like traffic, corruption, visa problems, the education system, lack of an infrastructure sufficient for the population size, poor health care, scam artists and on and on. The issue is how to deal with these frustrations of everyday life, if indeed someone wants to deal with it at all.

First, the idea that Bali is paradise is absolutely poison. People that move here with that mindset (and I know many who have and few of those who are left) are setting themselves up for disappointment. Paradise is an emotionally loaded word. Now I sometimes use the word in relation to Bali, but usually somewhat ironically, and that may be why I’m still here and why I’ll stay. Let’s look at a few of the problems and see how they pan out when we look outside Bali.

The Negatives

  1. Traffic: True, traffic has become a nightmare in parts of the island. Try driving down Jalan Legian during the day and watch the folks on foot pass your car. But, I distinctly remember rush hour drives into Chicago and San Francisco when I thought that I’d never get to work. I get around the traffic problems by staying out of the main population areas unless absolutely necessary. If someone wants to live in Kuta, then it’s necessary to accept the traffic situation. Someday the Balinese authorities might develop a plan to deal with too many vehicles on too small roads, but probably not while I’m still on this planet.
  1. Corruption: Dealing with some officials means being ready to either stick to your anti-corruption guns and being prepared to wait for a while for your documents, or you can hand over a little “uang rokok” to speed up the process. I grew up in Chicago and bribes and handouts to cops and judges and building inspectors were a way of life, just like it is here. You can go along with the system or buck it in either place. It’s all up to you. To say that Bali has the market cornered on corruption is to say that you haven’t seen how things work anyplace else. I think that things are getting better rather than getting worse, but that’s just my perception.
  1. Visa problems: Yes, these are definitely a pain. Expats have more options than before though; the problem is figuring out exactly what the details of these options are. Another case of things getting better rather than things getting worse.
  1. Education: Even the government admits that there are problems with the education system here. Some teachers, administrators and government officials are working to reform the system. I keep looking forward to the day when teachers are paid a decent salary and given the professional development and support necessary to improve the system. Take a look at the United States education system and you see a lot of the same problems and a lot of the same mistakes being made in regard to standardized testing, government interference and such. The efforts of the Texas Board of Education to rewrite history is just one example of how badly things are going in the U.S.
  1. Infrastructure problems: Too many people, too many hotels, too many swimming pools, too many vehicles, too many villas. Not enough water, not enough electricity, not enough space on the roads. This may change eventually when enough people with vision are elected to run the government. Again, it will probably not happen on my watch, but I keep hoping it will for my kids and grandkids.
  1. Healthcare: Bali is missing the boat by not getting in on medical tourism. I just talked to a Chinese/Indonesian friend who is on her way out to Singapore for an operation. 200 million plus. If you’ve ever been in Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, you know how lucrative this business is. There are beginnings here to developing an international class of health care, but there’s still a long way to go. I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do if I get seriously ill again, but it sure won’t be spending 200 million in Singapore.
  1. Scam artists: It seems that I read more and more stories about expats, especially newbies, being tricked out of money usually over property transactions, but also over marriages where the local spouse is more interested in love than money. It’s always sad to read these stories, and I’m not one for blaming the victim, but sometimes folks just lack common sense (after all, how many of us didn’t behave like starry-eyed teenagers when we first came here). Potential expats need to do their homework and get information before they commit to moving here. And check, check, check. There is a lot of incorrect information on some of the forums. Newbies still use the “nominee” system for “buying” land, but the government has already come out in the press and said that they consider it illegal. Why would you give someone a huge chunk of money to do something that is, if not illegal, certainly on the margins of legality? We’ve all been through the “he’s just like my brother” phase of life here, especially before we actually settle down. I wouldn’t give my brother $150,000 to buy a house for me and hope that he would let me live there forever. And as far as legal documents go, well, that’s another story.

And love? It’s not only here where a spouse takes advantage of his/her wealthier partner. How many gold diggers are there in America, for instance? Marriage is a tough job no matter where you are. You’re always taking a chance. If this is the first time that you’ve been thought of as being wealthy, remember to protect yourself. You don’t want to be one of the unfortunate ones who have lost everything because of a bad marriage or a dishonest partner.

There are the negatives. They’re irritating, but manageable. What’s the balance?

  1. Family. Most of my family is here. I’d like to see the ones in the States, but health and travel costs are constraining factors so I have to content myself with emails, Facebook or Skype. My family here loves Indonesia and Bali, and that’s one thing that keeps me living here. My children will probably want to move on to explore new areas eventually, but this will always be home, and my wife and I will be here to welcome them back.
  1. Smiles. Sounds syrupy-sweet enough for me to choke on, but on my way back from Ubud earlier this week, I drove up through Kintamani and down to Singaraja from there. As I drove through the villages along the road, lots of smiles and waves. They had nothing to do with insincerity or wanting something for nothing. These were folks who were never going to see me again. They were just being friendly and that’s worth a lot in this world.
  1. Family and community life: People take care of each other, show concern for each other, and can usually be counted on to help when help is needed. I know that my children will take care of me some day if I become too ill to get around or too senile to be useful. No nursing homes, no visiting one day a month. Elderly people are still respected here, just as little ones are too. Walking down the street in my poor kampung is always a pleasure just because of the little exchanges and pleasantries that make life comfortable. A lot of my neighbors are poor as can be, but it doesn’t effect their innate human dignity or their delightful sense of humor.
  1. The physical beauty of the island: Just driving up through the Ubud area to Kintamani and down to Singaraja offers enough breathtaking vistas to satisfy me for weeks. Over developed or not down south, this island is still gorgeous and the scenery is all free.
  1. Pace of life: Sometimes the “tomorrow” or “soon” answer to getting something done can be irritating, but the flexibility of time is something that, as I’ve written about some many times before, I’m learning to accept and appreciate.
  1. The sound of the sea: I live seaside and for a lover of seas and oceans that alone is enough to keep me here forever. I love being able to snorkel in front of my house. I love watching the neighborhood kids line up along the sea wall trying to catch small fish.
  1. The weather: The heat and dryness up in Singaraja keep my old battered bones from aching more than they would if I lived in a cold climate.
  1. Religion/spirituality: Actually this is a complaint that a number of expats have about living here. Religion is an integral part of life for most everyone that lives here. Foreigners need to learn to accept that.
  1. Cost of living: OK, let’s be practical. Life is cheaper here than in the States. Cost of living continues to rise in Indonesia, but it’s still a long way from what it would cost us to live in the States. I’m retired now. That would never have happened in America. I want a chance to take some time, reflect on life, enjoy my kids, fool around with my pets, and read and write to my heart’s content.

So, another of my annual posts on living in Bali. Who knows what next year will bring.

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