Coming out of the bathroom in the Singapore Airport, there was an electronic gizmo for you to press buttons 1 to 5 answering this question: “How did you like our toilets?” (I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo. I think I simply was too stunned.)
That’s what it’s like when business runs culture. Perhaps soon, we’ll have similar instant polls by the bedside rating the quality of love-making, or at the exit door of each class in school, or on some blind date ap that you can quietly rate the conversation as you’re having it.
Meanwhile, there’s Bali. I know, you’re screaming at me to stop idealizing culture, which I agree with. Cultures, like people, are a moving target and will disappoint you when you find out laws or attitudes about homosexuality or women’s rights or learn about government corruption and on and on. And then, just as we idealize people and find out all their hidden stories and blind spots and completely unacceptable behaviors even if they just wrote a novel or played the piano and moved you to tears, we feel betrayed and disillusioned. But that doesn’t mean we stop looking for the people who embody in words, creations or actions our own emerging ideas and ideals.
As with people, so with culture and so let me openly profess precisely what it is I admire about Bali:
• Whereas most of the cultural energy in the world tends to congregate in the cities, in Bali the villages hold the key. A rural life aligned with rice production and natural beauty (without national parks) is also the place of high artistic expression and spiritual power.
• Culture trumps economy and efficiency, a culture in constant conversation with the unseen world. The gods truly have a vote in community affairs and decision-making.
(Balinese would understand the Iceland officials who voted to make an expensive curve in the road to avoid disturbing the elves’ homes.)
• Caretaking the delicate rice production and water distribution according to ancient intuitive science and keeping beauty, natural and person-made, at the forefront, has survived the Western invasion.
• At the same time, the Balinese are very clear they’re enjoying the elevated economy from tourism. They’re clever and entrepreneurial and adaptable, but on their own terms. Despite more money, I didn’t see any tearing down of old compounds and building big McMansions. And they’ve still resisted the high-rise horror.
• Quality of life over quantity of stuff still runs the show, a quality maintained by the festival/ ritual/ ceremonial calendar. And ceremonies are binders of community, the place where folks actively hang-out together to decorate, cook, rehearse music, dance. It’s the kind of collaboration we feel at our school around the Holiday Plays or own school ceremonies, but amplified manifold. And with hundreds of years of tradition behind it rather than a mere 40.
• Just as someone once said to me that the tradition of African music is innovation, Bali is a living, breathing musical culture where the old gamelan pieces are known and performed and new compositions and innovations are constantly in motion. (Check out the Body Tjak Festival there this July for a good example!)
• Bali has a long history of cultural identity that has allowed them to resist being run over by colonialism without wholly rejecting some European ideas and practices. Still 95% Hindu and 5% Buddhist and Christian, the missionaries simply could not get Jesus to trump Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. When the German artist Walter Spies came to Bali to live and paint in the 1930’s, locals began trying their own hand and helped launch a Balinese painting style. Modern day Ubud abounds with stores selling djembes and didjeridoos, but so far as I know, no one has tried to integrate them with the gamelan. Yet.
In another words, they’re open and adaptable and flexible, but always looking to welcome change on their own terms. There have been some losses, being overwhelmed with tourism like on Kuta Beach. But from my limited perspective, the Bali I loved and admired 28 years ago when I was here is more or less still here. That’s nothing short of extraordinary.
I’ll never forget that moment when my then 6-year old daughter was sitting on the couch in our San Francisco home one morning. After seven weeks in Bali, we had been home for a week and I came upon her crying. “What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed.
And through her sniffles, “I miss Bali.”
And you know what? Two hours in my Singapore hotel and I do too.