It’s hard to get a handle on describing Bali. Travel brochures would have you believe it’s an exotic island paradise where graceful dancers perform in ancient temples to tinkling musical instruments. Those who loved it long ago now warn against it as a crowded, jaded tourist trap punctuated by American fast-food restaurants. Cruiser forums advise that Indonesia waters in general are dirty with garbage and floating hazards like logs, and when we tied up in the packed fishing port of Serangan, Bali, that was, unfortunately, our first impression. But when we dinghied ashore and scrambled onto the ramshackle dock, people greeted us with courtesy and smiles. As we sat down to a couple of deliciously cold Bintang beers, they told us we had arrived just in time for Galungan and Kuningan, a Balinese Hindu holiday that celebrates the victory of dharma (good) over adharma (evil). It seems to me the world could use a lot more of that. Maybe we had come to the right place.
Although Indonesia overall is 87% Muslim, on Bali the Hindu religion predominates. The story is that back in the 14th century on Java, the major island to the west, warfare between the Muslim and Hindu populations ended in defeat for the latter. They retreated to Bali and reestablished their religion and culture there. It’s not the same as the Indian Hindu religion, having evolved in its own way, and it seems to coexist nicely with the tourism trade. Bali is known as “The Island of A Thousand Temples,” and on our first walk through the narrow streets of Serangan our heads kept swiveling at the carved stone gateways and peaked roofs that might indicate either a public or private temple. At the same time, a lively, liberal atmosphere, resorts, nightclubs, alcohol, short-shorts, tank tops and string bikinis are a vital component of the Balinese economy.
We also quickly noticed the proliferation of small square baskets (canang sari) placed on doorsteps or in a niche in the wall. Woven from palm or banana leaves, the basic basket contains colorful flowers, a biscuit and a lighted incense stick as offerings to the gods. Rice, dried fish or a coin may also be included. A fresh canang sari is presented daily, and the more prosperous you are, the more generous your offering should be. In addition, special decorations called penior, long bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end, were being erected along the streets in anticipation of the holiday. Light enough to sway in a breeze, they formed graceful, dancing archways.
Given that Indonesia is truly a foreign country to us, the first good thing to come our way was brothers Ketut and Gede, Ketut was the boatman sent out by our Indonesian agent to help us tie up on our arrival in Serangan. In the days that followed, he and Gede were indispensable in setting us up with phone/Internet, diesel fuel and petrol, potable water, laundry, provisions—you name it. Ketut’s “office” was the small café beside the dinghy dock, and when he wasn’t there, he was quickly available by phone. We did our best to compensate the brothers fairly for their services, but it was tricky. It takes 14,000 rupiahs to equal one US dollar and calculating that in your head doesn’t happen quickly. Moreover, when we tried to get Ketut and Gede to name a price, they declined and said simply, “Up to you.” Whatever amount we offered, they thanked us gracefully. Indonesians, I think, are very polite people.
The second good thing was the Kizmann family, Ivan, Lina and their daughter Sahara. Ivan, originally from Australia, had worked and lived in Southeast Asia for decades and recently acquired a sailboat. He adopted us at the dockside bar, loaded us with local knowledge, and arranged for Sahara to be our driver/tour guide on two memorable excursions. On one, we visited the GWK Cultural Park where we posed before the mammoth 121-meter statue of God Vishnu riding the mythical bird Garuda and saw true Balinese dancing. Later, at Uluwatu Temple, we were menaced by cheeky monkeys and witnessed the dramatic Fire Dance, performed by a chanting chorus of 50 men and a cast that included a prince, a stolen wife, an evil giant, and Hanuman, the White Monkey. Another day, Sahara took us to the art town of Ubud with its mix of shops, studios, spas and spiritual retreats set among terraced rice paddies. We could never have attempted these journeys without her expert driving through the mass of cars and scooters, the latter being the main form of transportation on Bali.
As for the festival, Galungan on 8 June and Kuningan on 18 June bookend a special period when the spirits of the deceased visit their former homes on Earth. The ancestors are welcomed with prayers, offerings and hospitality. Family time is all-important, and the roads are busy as people throughout Bali travel to visit relatives and go on day trips together. The climax of the festival is Kuningan, when the ancestors depart Earth and families flock to the temples for more prayers, performances and offerings.
Here again, Ketut and Gede enabled us to experience Kuningan in a remarkable way by inviting us to visit the Sakenan Temple with Gede as our guide. First, we stopped at their home to don the proper dress to enter the temple. Gede carefully wrapped and tucked two layers of cloth (kamen) around Eric’s waist and tied on a headscarf (udeng). For men, a white shirt is required, and since Indonesians are small, slender people, it was a challenge squeezing Eric into Ketut’s biggest white shirt. Meanwhile, Ketut’s wife garbed me in a single kamen, a lacy white top (kebaya) and sash. Then properly clothed, off we went.
What a scene! The Sakenan Temple dates from the 10th century and is made of coral taken from the sea. On Kuningan it draws thousands of people from all over Bali. The streets leading up to the temple featured cheek-by-jowl vendors selling food, drinks, toys, souvenirs and handicrafts, and a river of scooters flowing toward the entrance. Once inside the complex, we saw a performance by masked dancers and listened to prayers delivered via microphone to a crowd of seated worshippers. The colors of the clothes and decorations were amazing—vivid shades of saffron, turquoise and magenta—the air was scented with incense, and the mood was joyous. People laughed and chatted and streamed everywhere. Our deepest thanks to Ketut, Gede and their family for this rare experience.
Throughout the period of Galungan and Kuningan, Balinese Hindu people honor their lineage, celebrate their ongoing story, and renew their commitment to making themselves a better person and the world a better place every day. Whatever one’s beliefs, thus does Good triumph over Evil.