Enchanting Bali (from June 2009 Newlsetter)

>The mere mention of the name Bali conjures up visions of a mystical island paradise in the western mind. From Rogers and Hamerstein’s musical “South Pacific” (dreamy Bali Ha’i) to Elizabeth Gilbert‘s “Eat, Pray, Love” the island holds a special place in western pop culture. Bali has been called the “enchanted isle”, “the last paradise”, and “the morning of the world.” It is indeed a beautiful tropical island bursting with bright colors, inspiring vistas, and exotic sounds and smells, inhabited by an artistic, sensual people with a storied history. But that describes many Pacific island nations. What is it about this tiny (5620 square miles) island that engages us so?
One answer is that Bali offers an experiential package that is unrivaled in the East. For generations travelers have visited South Pacific islands for beautiful swaying palms and golden sand beaches, India for its Eastern mystery, and more recently, China for its ancient culture. But only Bali offers all of these attractions in a single destination. It has been said that Asia and the Pacific meet in Bali.
Some of the imagery mentioned above can be traced in the island’s history. The first western visitors were shipwrecked Dutch sailors in the late 16th century. Upon their return to the Netherlands, the captain’s logs were published, creating a sensation in Europe. Images of lovely naked natives in a beautiful tropical setting engaged and titillated the Dutch public and the notion of Bali as a tropical paradise was born. That image was fortified in the last century by numerous European expatriates who have made Bali home. Many wrote memoirs or histories of Bali, extolling its many virtues. In the 1930s the Dutch began to promote Bali as a tourist destination, adding to the mystique. Backpackers created a new kind of tourism in the ‘70s and middle class tourism discovered Bali shortly thereafter.
So it is not hard to trace the origins of the Balinese image. But additionally, we are happy to report that the contemporary experience of the island stacks up beautifully to the hype. A visit to Bali can only be described as enchanting. It is captivating in its small and personal connections. Bali is not a sight-driven destination. Travelers do not find grand buildings and soaring ancient monuments. Instead, it is a destination of experience which involves an intimate connection to Balinese life. Whether visiting a temple or village, enjoying a performance, or attending a temple festival visitors are treated as honored guests. One is consistently welcomed with a smile and slight bow of the head whether entering a restaurant, stopping to observe a craftsman at work, or entering a temple compound. One never feels like an intruder in any way.
It is the living, active culture of Bali that calls to western visitors. One appealing element of Balinese life is the ever-present Gamalan music. Whether live at a performance or recorded in restaurants and hotels the lilting strains transport the westerner to another realm. This primarily percussive music is at once melodic, ethereal, exciting, and often haunting as it adds a layer to the mystical feeling of the visitor experience. Perhaps the most engaging, memorable aspect of Balinese culture is the experience of traditional dance-drama. Performances, available everywhere, have evolved from religious rituals and retain their spiritual significance even when performed for tourists. The elaborate costumes and makeup, stylized movements and symbolic gestures, and pulsing Gamalan accompaniment transport the viewer to the realm of mystic story-telling. Balinese religion is also accessible. Temple architecture is not monumental but it is beautiful and boasts a wide variety of intricate decoration. Visitors are always welcome at temple festivals and even at cremation ceremonies.
A final element of Balinese allure is the friendliness of its people. It is hard to overstate this honest pleasure. One is greeted everywhere by sincere smiles and welcoming gestures. The hospitality feels authentic because it flows from genuine contentment. The Balinese people seem to be very happy with their island paradise. As they go about their lives, conducting business, making offerings, attending ceremonies, creating music or dance, or cultivating rice they do so with open hearts. Even the most menial tasks are done with lots of spirited conversation and laughter. At every encounter visitors are honored, welcomed, and engaged. One can hardly avoid being drawn into the contentment – and why would we want to?