Travelling to Bali: Four Hundred Years of Journeys. compiled and introduced by Adrian Vickers. Oxford University Press, 1994. 278 pages.
review by Otto Steinmayer.
Bali. At the climactic end of the catalogue of destinations of the
traveller in this world stands—to paraphrase Pope—“And Bali,
damn’d to everlasting Fame.”
The clichés roll off the tongue easily when we hear the island’s name: The Morning of the World, The Ultimate Island, The Home of the Gods, The Last Paradise. The equally common negative judgements, “spoiled,” “Tourist Trap,” are also clichés. The trouble with clichés is that they contain a bit of truth; but explanation of that truth involves so much qualification that it would have been better to start on the quest for it from total ignorance.
Present day Bali suffers so much representation that it’s hard to think straight about the place, even if you’re there, even, I’m surprised to learn, if you’re a real Balinese.
Travelling to Bali is a collection of 40
pieces, mostly excerpts from books. The compiler and introducer, the
Australian scholar Adrian Vickers, is certainly the most brilliant
young baliologist who is not himself Balinese. He specializes in
relations between Bali and the west.
Vickers came onto the scene in a big way with his
magnificent Bali, a Paradise Created (Periplus Editions) in
which he examined the images of Bali created over the centuries by both
insiders and outsiders.
Bali wasn’t always glamourous. For centuries, Bali was “savage Bali” to the west, an island of hostile and truculent natives under the rule of vicious, arbitrary princes. There is some truth in this, as we shall see. Bali remained “savage” until the very late date of 1908, when the Dutch finally took over completely. Preparations for tourism began even before Dutch troops had landed.
The Balinese themselves looked back on the time before the conquest as a golden age. That image Vickers demonstrates to be a construction also; but at least it was their own.
In the 1920’s and 30’s a new Golden Age reigned in Bali, but this time for the westerners. Artists, musicians, scholars and anthropologists—including Margaret Mead—settled in Bali and tasted the delights of a culture that was at one and the same time sophisticated and still “primitive.” At home in New York, Bali was famous for goona-goona—love-magic—and bare breasts.
The Balinese suffered this time much differently.
From 1908 to 1965 the people were under intense stress, trying as best
they could to cope with one disaster after another: the bloody
conquest, colonialism, WW2 and the Japanese occupation, the frightful
struggles and the hate of political rivals that preceded and followed
When Gunung Agung, Bali’s central volcano, erupted in 1963 during the midst of the holiest religious rite of the century’s taking place on its slopes, everything became only worse. Many lives were lost and the mood of the people was dangerously unhappy.
These troubles ended with a horrifying frenzy of murder after the abortive coup in Jakarta that last year. Perhaps a hundred thousand people were killed. Vickers doesn’t say much about this period. Accounts of it are few and far between. The Balinese alive today who witnessed the killings remain too traumatized to speak.
Stability returned with Suharto, and the age of mass tourism began. We all know this story; many of us have been to Bali and seen it for ourselves. Tourists are something of a natural resource for the Balinese, and the money they bring has much improved their lives (even though a lot of that money goes off to Jakarta). It remains to be seen whether the Balinese, who have hitherto given many proofs of their toughness, will have met their match in this flood of gawking foreigners.
But back to Travelling to Bali.
Much has been written in Bali, much has been written about it. Choosing what to put in to an anthology, and what to leave out is a poser. Vickers has anticipated that some of you Bali-enthusiasts out there may be unhappy not to see your favourite passge; but I assure you that his selection will well compensate you for the lack of it.
Vickers arranges his passages by themes: Getting There, Encounters, Events, Nature, Places, Culture and Society, Religion, and Bali’s Future. It’s easier briefly to review them by the times they were written in.
The Dutch came to visit Bali at the close of the 16th century. They were interested in trade, and their accounts of the island tell mainly what you can buy there, what the natives want to buy, how the land lies politically. Merchants, with some exceptions, are not known for their romantic temper, and these Dutch saw nothing that made the Balinese much different than any other “Indians.” But from their letters to the directors of the Vereenige Oostindische Compagnie and to the public we can gather a good amount of information.
As the Dutch muscled in deeper to Indonesia in
the next two hundred years, the tone of accounts changes. Already by
1638 the missionaries had their eyes on redeeming the benighted Hindus,
and Mynheer Valentijn in 1720 describes how famously the slave-trade
was going on between the Balinese rajas and the VOC in Java.
While earlier travellers had been able to view Strange Native Customs with a certain detachment—you couldn’t say much about the cruelty of slavery if you were heavily into the trade yourself—Europe by 1800 had become liberal, and in consequence westerners looked at spectacles and felt shocked at their cruel barbarism. One of Vickers’ finds is a letter written by the Dutch agent Dubois in 1829, never published until ten years ago, in which Dubois describes with vivid horror and fascination a royal cremation accompanied by the sati of the prince’s wives and attendants. These burned themselves alive in the flames of the pyre.
Equally fascinating and horrifying is H. H. van
Kol’s account of the puputan or mass suicide of the royal house
of Klungkung, that put an end to that kingdom. The king, his family and
his court came out from the palace with kris in hand, charged
the Dutch soldiers, and were cut down by bullets. Women held up their
children to receive the Dutch fire, the merely wounded despatched
themselves with the kris. The conquest of Bali, on the pretext
of a dispute over a wrecked ship worth only a few thousand dollars, is
an episode at which the Dutch ought to feel deepest shame.
Writings from the twentieth century are a mix. Some unabashedly drip the romantic goo of the “last paradise” theme. Travel writing tells us mostly about the traveller, not the place travelled to, and some of these recent authors remind me of a Greek story:
Someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels. “I should think not,” he said; “he took himself along with him.”
But use Travelling to Bali as a guide and it will lead you to some wonderful stuff also. There’s perhaps no more beautiful travel-book anywhere than Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali; Miguel Covarrubias in his Island of Bali wrote a comprehensive and charming handbook at the very time Bali was attracting and responding to the presence of many cultured westerners.
I am especially grateful to Vickers for directing me to Diana Darling’s novel The Painted Alphabet (Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1992). I ordered it from my US bookseller and I admire it so much that I must say something about it here, since it is not likely to get its own review.
Darling’s book is an adaptation of the classic text Babad Dukuh Seladri, a tale of adventures both ordinary and marvellous, and of men and women searching for spiritual peace. Darling’s style is simple and also arresting for its freshness, she always uses the perfect word, nothing hackneyed. No white characters take part in the action. She has tried very hard to write in a way through which a reader of English can feel the emotions as a Balinese would. I think she may have succeeded. The novel is at times very moving, and Darling blends tradition and modernity in an amusing and fitting way.
I am also grateful to Vickers for making available invaluable accounts of going to Bali written by present day Balinese writers. I was tantalized by these excerpts. I Nyoman S. Pendit, and I Putu Setia write with intimate understanding of their homeland (of course) and wonderful intelligence, wit, and—where it’s called for—detachment and judgment. Their comments are by far the most interesting in the collection, and I only wish that I knew how to get their books from Indonesia. Does anyone know a bookseller there who does mail-order?
There may be one omission in Vickers’ otherwise full spectrum of responses to Bali. I strongly suspect that the post-modern theorists have gotten hold of this Island of Signs and have made hay with it. It would be fun to see a sample of this kind of thing, but the passage from Inez Baranay’s novel gives an example of the kind of angst that can be provoked by the mutual mireadings perpetrated by tourist and islander.
In the first version of this review I made a long parable to start it off. Now I have no space for it, so I’ll leave it as a riddle and hope to talk about it later: What does travel-writing have to do with the taste of Durians?
Travelling to Bali is multi-use. You can
leaf through it for bedtime entertainment, or it can guide you to some
wonderful works, popular or scholarly, or you can read it along with
Vickers’ Bali, a Paradise Created. But whichever way you read
it, I think you’ll like it.