The Last Paradise

This week’s column is dedicated to my Balinese friends in Kintamani, Lovina, Singaraja, Amed, Kuta and Ubud. And to Jill Gocher, photographer and friend – thank you for making me sensitive to Balinese Living Culture. Hopefully the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Bali in December this year (2007) will draw the world’s attention to this island’s problems of sustainability in terms of its people, culture and natural resources.

Arriving in Bali many Kuta sunsets ago one was confronted with paradoxes interspersed with stunning beauty. The sunset, the full moon, the religious processions and the rural landscape washed by the rains all made up for a never-ending story of beauty beyond my perceived understanding of the known. I knew then in my heart that this was the Last Paradise, the end of the rainbow. Hopefully the arrival of seasonal visitors, foreign residents and lost souls will not destroy a beautiful people and their culture.

So why do I call Bali the Last Paradise? Well it is for me an island that holds a special meaning. Here amid the lush green rice fields, the fertile lands around the volcanoes and the gentle pace, are a beautiful people who live a life that is being increasingly disturbed by advancing modernisation – The centuries old entrenched religious traditions, family support systems and the harmony in which the Balinese live with nature. A long time ago they were sheltered from the vagaries of technology and its sidekicks by the expanse of water surrounding the island. With the occupation by the Dutch and later by migratory visitors from far off lands Balinese civilisation, as I like calling it, is struggling to remain the Last Paradise. Today tourism has become the staple diet of the islanders. The Tamu (honoured guest – also a euphemism for tourist) has often shown scant regard for the hosts and the environment. Bali has a new name now – the best island tourist destination in the world.

Take a drive through the countryside to view the wonders of the island in its purest form; Tempe lovingly wrapped in banana leaf; Offerings placed delicately on the roadsides; Children climbing trees to break mangoes; Colourful rice cakes drying in the sun; Babi Guling roasting on large bamboo skewers over a fire lit by coconut husk.

However, behind the curtain of sylvan surroundings is an ongoing silent invasion: the result of the world becoming a global village – Hordes of invading holidaymakers who are using and abusing the island’s fragile eco system. This is a necessary evil. For without the tourists there will be no income for the island’s inhabitants. But then again how does the island sustain the growing need for water, food, shelter and transport? And the disposal/recycling of garbage?

Just the other day I was invited to speak at the Rotary Club of Ubud by Asri Kerthyasa, the Princess of Ubud. It was at this meeting that I met David Kuper, who along with his Balinese counterparts, has set up a large recycling waste project in Gianyar. He spoke passionately about waste management in Bali and how effective it could be. Is it too little too late considering the extent of plastic that one can see being used for bags, packaging and that ubiquitous bottle of water?

To be a critic is the easiest job, as one does not have to do the work! Lesser folk have to contend with the refuse of mankind. Travel to any part of this isle and you will see how plastic is being used in everyday life. How essential it is. How economical it is. For instance if we are to suggest a ban on plastic bags on this island what affordable alternative do we have, and one that will not damage the eco system or infringe on the daily income of the Balinese? Also, have you noticed the growing number of vehicles on the road? I suppose progress is a natural phenomenon, which we have to deal with. A mass transport system could be the answer, or maybe not. Who knows? And who decides? The Balinese? Or the self-appointed bleeding hearts from foreign lands?

The Last Paradise embraces, nurtures and sustains a living culture. The tight embrace is slowly loosening. Fertile lands are being bulldozed for new housing in all shapes and sizes. The ancient Balinese architectural code- Asta Kosala Kosali – is rarely referred to while building homes. What are we doing as guests on this island to respect the living culture of the Balinese? How many of us can speak Balinese? How many among us have built houses with high walls around them to keep out the locals in total contravention to the island’s social ethos?

It’s apparent that there are more questions than answers. But isn’t it time that the Tamu returned the favours bestowed by the Balinese so that their culture is kept alive and prosperous in a self-destructing world?

In the process of travelling across this isle I have met many rural folk –peanut/corn/rice farmers and owners of small warungs along the way. One is overwhelmed by the simplicity of their lives that revolve around the family, bangar, marriages, births, deaths and religious ceremonies. Interestingly, most of them speak Balinese. For me this is the heart of a civilisation – language.

Language contains within it the soul of a civilisation. The eternal seed that continues to germinate new generations that nourish a living culture. Wayan, my Balinese landlord, told me the other day that Balinese children were being influenced by other cultures and were beginning to speak a kind of Indonesian slang. He was worried that his mother tongue would soon go out of fashion. I assured him that as long as he spoke his lingo and it was taught in schools the Balinese language would never die out.

This conversation revealed an interesting fact and I beg to ask the question, “Are we seeing a clash of cultures?” Bastardised cultures imposing themselves on the fragile and sensitive living culture in Bali, the profane eating away at the membrane encasing the Last Paradise. A few may smugly observe that this is a form of evolution but some would say that it is an invasion of alien thought processes that can easily be repulsed by the sheer depth of Balinese culture embedded in the island’s social fabric.

The barometer of a living culture also reflects in its flora and fauna. One says this with reference to the Bali Starling and how friends and the people of Bali have saved it from extinction. By doing so they have kept intact their own culture. The state of flora and fauna on the island is a reflection of the health of its people. It is heartening to know that the Bali Starling is the mascot for the Bali 2008 Asian Beach Games! Government recognition like this brings with it acceptance, respect and preservation of the species.

Bali has, is and will always be the balm for many a weary soul who has built a nest and procreated on its land. Today it is tethering on a razor’s edge between sustaining a rich cultural heritage supported by a vibrant people and the surge of modernity raising its ugly head ever so often. What the future will bring is anyone’s guess but for many of us in the Here and Now, Bali is the Last Paradise. We can cherish, nurture and sustain it by honouring our hosts, respecting the living culture that embodies all that is in harmony with the island’s eclectic mix of people, flora and fauna.

In the words of my friend Made, “Bali for me is my life, Bali die I die”.

And for all those “foreigners” who grumble about the travails of everyday living and working in Bali here’s a quote from my (late) father Noel Eric, “If you want to see dirt look in the gutter. But if you want to see beauty look at the stars they reflect the beauty of the earth”. It’s that simple. The question one needs to ask is that if we continue to rape and lay bare the earth that sustains us, what sort of planet will our children inherit?

Bali is alive and throbbing today. What the morrow will bring is for the Gods to decide. Till then let us pay homage to the land, its people, seek shelter in their homes, eat the food offered to us, speak the language and honour them. For this, I know, we will be blessed in the Last Paradise.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om