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.

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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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Civilization Collapses in Ubud: How I Satisfied My Hunger and Lost My Bearing

You can never tell what is going to happen when you wander into the rarefied air of Ubud. Perhaps I’ve been here (in Bali that is) for too long. I tend to be a person of habit: during my years working as a teacher, I woke up everyday at five and left for work at six; my youngest granddaughter and I go out for a walk around the city every morning at seven; I’ve been staying in the same homestay in Ubud for the past 25 years; the morning after I arrive in Ubud, I visit Ganesha Bookstore and buy one or two books then I go out for a walk and buy a dress for my wife and some clothes for Zoey. I think you get the point.

And, I tend to be something of a traditionalist these days. I see the same folks on my trips, and I like eating in the same little Balinese warungs when I’m on my own and in the same tourist-oriented restaurants when I’m with friends and visitors. I cringe when people talk about their villas. I find much of the change on the island annoying at best, catastrophic at the worst. I do much of my shopping at the little Indonesian-owned businesses that look the same and are staffed by the same set of characters as they were 25 years ago. My Uncle Ed told me once long ago during my SDS days that one day I would become more conservative. Hard to imagine, but perhaps time has snuck up on me.

So, what has set off this paroxysm of navel-gazing? I ordered a pizza for delivery from one of the local restaurants in Ubud. Not the end of the world? For several years now, I’ve taken delight in making fun of foreign residents of Ubud who seem to enjoy whining about slow restaurant delivery, or wrong orders, or cold food, or the lack of a sufficient amount of restaurants serving the right food for delivery.

DSCF0917As I mentioned to a friend recently, restaurant delivery is one of the things that I’ve always considered to be part of the new Western-fueled decadence of Ubud. This may not seem like the end of the world, but for me ordering a pizza, or anything else, seems like an unalterable concession to the tidal wave of the Westernization of Ubud. That being said, if the Balinese are OK with it, then I’m just going to have to go along with it. After all, I’m in favor of McDonald’s and KFC and Burger King coming here if that’s what the local population wants. So if the Balinese or other Indonesian residents of Ubud think that delivery service is the bee’s knees, then I guess that I can order a late night pizza for delivery to my favorite homestay without guilt. On the other hand, guilt may just be one of those little pleasures of life that I enjoy so much. And maybe it’s time for me to accept some of the changes happening on this little island.

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