In 1956, my parents were living in Klungkung, a small town in east Bali. On a rainy February day, my my dad rushed my pregnant mother to along empty, pot-holed, Dutch built roads to a German doctor in Denpasar, where I was born. My mother suspects that he was masquerading as a doctor, and was in fact a Nazi hiding out in a tropical paradise at the far, faint, mostly broken end of the telegraph line.
In the 60s and 70s, the whole of Bali was still pretty much country, from beach to mountain, an island of farmers and fishermen. Rice was grown wherever it could be grown, and wealth was most often measured by the harvest. Quiet coconut groves fronted the beaches of Sanur, and Kuta was an impoverished fishing village. Even in the richer rice belts, people struggled to survive. Nothing was casually tossed away. When you packed or carried something, it was in banana leaves or woven bamboo baskets. The tinkerman came around with his flapper and his high-pitched cry, and if you had a hole in your precious tin pot, you rushed out and watched him weld it with irons heated over coals, kept hot by hand-pumped billows.
The beaches were deserted, apart from men casting nets or setting out to sea in outriggers. Nobody went to the beach for a casual swim—in part because the sea was angker, spiritually charged, but mostly because nobody had the time for such frivolous relaxation. Villagers would spend their free time watching shadow puppet shows or their own dance troupes.
I remember falling asleep in those days listening to a gamelan playing in the distance across the ricefields, either a ceremony or a practice—not the raucous, clanging gamelan you hear today, but the older music—maybe it is the patina of memory that brings the word “haunting” to mind.
No electricity. Instead, pressure lanterns and oil lamps.
No running water. We sometimes used sandstone tanks set in a pool of muddy irrigation water. The sandstone would filter the water, which still had to be boiled for drinking.
Little traffic during the day as few owned private vehicles–the main means of transportation, and which still beyond the buying power of many–were bicycles, those stately ones with the upright handles and headlamps powered by a tire dynamo. No traffic after sunset. All Balinese wanted to be in their villages or homes when night fell. The roads would be deserted, but if perchance you were driving along at night, you would have to be careful, for half a village could be seated on the warm asphalt.
Very little thievery. One reason, among others: everyone knew pretty much what everyone else owned, and a lad sporting a new watch, say, would result in all kinds of speculation and gossip.
Volcanoes exploded, taking lives, creating misery. Poverty and sickness have always ground this island, and still do.
In 1965, a dark shadow fell Bali, and Balinese began to butcher other Balinese, tens of thousands killed in the post-communist coup attempt (whether the communist party actually attempted a coup is still debated—although my father did discover for a fact that our own grave had been dug for us just prior to the coup attempt). I remember killing gangs marching in front of our house. My parents protecting several of those who were hunted. A bad, bad time.
Everywhere across the islands, flocks of doves taking flight in the late afternoon, flying in ascending circles, the whistles attached to their feet creating an eerie ebb and flow of aerial music.
Now? Many expats, and even many younger Balinese, don’t like to hear anyone talking about “the real Bali that I knew” – I suppose to a twenty-year-old Balinese, her Bali is real enough. But I honestly have to say there was a spirit to the old Bali whose last breath was taken sometime in the early 80s, when tourism and development began to take root in a less than benign manner, something that’s gone forever.