Monday, September 13, 2004

Bali Hai

What an ominous arrival in Bali.

When we touched down Thursday in Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, the weather was sunny and welcoming. Yet over 500 nautical miles away in Jakarta a deadly bomb blast outside the Australian Embassy took 8 lives and injured almost 200 people, all locals. It was the sort of thing that we were warned about by friends and family when they heard about our company trip to Bali.
"What, Bali? Not scared-ah?"
"Remember the Bali bombing?"
"Isn’t it the anniversary of September 11?"
On TV, the reality of the massive car bomb greeted us with painful displays of its aftermath - mangled bodies, burnt vehicles, shattered windows (from 7 buildings around the embassy, they said, some up to 10 stories) and wailing people in hospitals. After a nearly 3-hour flight from KL to Bali, I said to myself, oh-oh there goes our holiday.

Still, thousands - mainly Aussies and Japanese - thronged popular destinations like Kuta and Ubud without a hint of anxiety. Bomb or no bomb, the livin' is easy when it’s summer all year round. The beach was all bodies and limbs pallid and tan, and the pasar (market) was alive with colour and laughter. Rupiahs exchanged hands in a dozen garbled tongues. Like all the other tourists, we haggled over kitschy gifts, t-shirts and collectibles while our camera clicked away endlessly. In an art gallery, a man asked if we knew about the blast in Jakarta and I said I saw the news on TV. He wanted to know if we were afraid and told us that Bali wasn’t Jakarta.
"Jangan takut ya, orang Bali aman. Disini aman, ya." ("Don’t be afraid, Balinese are peaceful people. It’s peaceful here.")
Indeed I found the Balinese gentle and gracious, on the whole. They expressed embarrassment and some resentment however at the latest assault on their way of life. Our tour guide Asta agreed it was going to affect tourist arrivals. He mentioned the 2002 blast in Paddy’s Bar in Bali’s tourist hotspot Kuta and blamed 'outsiders.'
"It’s not Bali can a chef burn down his own kitchen?"
The majority of Balinese are Hindus (90%) while Islam has about 5% of adherents and Christians less than 2%. Hindu shrines and statues were everywhere. Passing by Nusa Dua, our guide pointed out to a Hindu temple, a Mosque, a Church, and a Buddhist temple standing side-by-side. He told us that locating these places of worship in such proximity was the state government’s way of promoting religious understanding and tolerance. The cynic may scoff at it as nothing more than symbolic, but Asta said the locals in Bali enjoyed a deep sense of community and culture. "Agama lain tetapi wajah sama," ("Our religion is different but we are the same") he added in Bahasa Indonesia.

On the last night, our family had dinner in Jimbaran by the beach among hundreds of nonchalant visitors. It was delightfully cosmopolitan...and reckless, if you were to take the advice of friends who told us to avoid congregating with westerners.

There was a troupe of buskers singing Elvis and Beatles in tight harmony. A few tables from us, it was the Carpenters and the Righteous Brothers. Stopping at a group of Japanese, they broke into a Japanese song while their audience whooped and clapped. Then they sauntered over to our table as we were picking at our grilled snapper.
"Hello guests, where are you from?"
The leader nodded to his mates, said something I didn’t catch, and they sang an old Mandarin hit. Eh what, not a malay song? I thought, and we laughed.

It was windy, not at all humid, and the surf roared relentlessly. In the Bali night sky millions of stars were out like so many pin pricks of light that refused to be subsumed by the darkness.


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