To visit Bali frequently is to rejuvenate the soul, to escape the glass and steel of metropolitan living to a world governed by exquisite harmony and balance.
Possibly, the most easily accessed ‘instant nirvana’ in this part of the world, Bali is undisputedly the Island of the Gods; almost other-worldly in both geography and spirit. Its spectacular grey-black volcanic sand beaches along the northern coastlines provide a stark contrast to the white beaches of the south; coral reefs encircle the land and six volcanoes span the shores, eastward towards Lombok, westward, towards Java. Picture cascading rice terraces clothing mountain slopes with verdant patchwork quilts – grass of emerald and gold, clear waters reflecting cloud and sky, lushly tropical forests, rivers flowing fast and swift, yawning ravines, waterfalls, lakes within craters, gardens of plenty … this is Bali.
The commingling of theology, mythology, philosophy, ancestor worship, animism and the supernatural underpins the island people’s fundamental belief that gods and goddesses are endowed with energies that can be directed towards either good or evil; that these gods and goddesses are present in all things and that every single act, however small, affects the fragile, elemental symmetry between nature, man and the spirit-gods.
Cosmic harmony is, therefore, nurtured (daily) through offerings, ceremonies, customs and a detailed protocol of deference and decorum, as there is almost always a god (or demigod), the spirit of a forefather, a Buddhist hero, a native agricultural deity or some manner of spirit who needs to be acknowledged and propitiated.
And so, each day is a celebration and life is an ongoing ceremony.
The most commonplace quotidian occurrences are imbued with island magic; the art and ritual of daily life creating a restfulness of the spirit and the senses that is palpable as you set foot on the island. It is not difficult to believe that Bali exists in a state of grace.
The three days spent there linger in the memory, snapshots of a way of life, of benediction (almost) in routine.
The white sand beaches of Sanur, Denpasar are a five-minute walk from the hotel, and the blue waters and the surf can be accessed either through the hotel grounds or via a narrow lane thick with motorcycles ferrying entire families (and diminutive babies in little woolly hats) in sputtering gusts of sound and exhaust.
The canang sari – the thrice-daily acknowledgement of the abundance of life and gratitude for all of its blessings – is everywhere … beside a tree, outside a door, on the pavement, by a shop, in shrines, on steps, in temples, on the dashboard of vehicles. These small offerings – little trays of coconut leaf with rice, fruit and flowers (usually red and white) and pandanus leaves – often reflect the nature of the propitiator, so it is not uncommon (for example) to see outside a restaurant, glasses of (stale) beer neatly arranged beside the frangipani, joss sticks, a piece of fabric shot with gold thread, a bottle of ketchup and a hibiscus.
Hibiscus and frangipani, jasmine and water lilies; the leitmotif of the flower, ubiquitous and fragrant, is the essence of Balinese embellishment; they decorate temples and statues, are offered to the gods, are tucked behind the ear, pinned to the hair, or adorn dancers’ costumes.
Yards away, amidst the green of the hotel lawns, by the lily pool, a monk and his disciple are engaged in discourse under a frangipani tree. His expression is tranquil, patient and wise; hers, respectful and interested.
I am reminded of a passage from Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons (Monsoon Books, Singapore), “… on the island, knowledge is not simply poured by the bucketful, from the full head of the teacher into the empty head of the student. It is not even freely given. It must be first made mysterious and then coaxed, little by little, in return for favors or service, into the light. At any moment, knowledge may be unmasked as only preliminary or downright false and there is always another stage beyond, which the student may never reach, since the final transfer may never be made. Small wonder then that a guru, a teacher, is an honored, almost divine being for whom a student becomes a sort of willing slave.”
A tourist ‘borrows’ a scarlet umbul umbul, one of the traditional Balinese flags that line the path in the grass, leading to the song and celebration of a wedding. He is unaware that he is being observed as he surreptitiously folds the silky fabric, holds it nonchalantly close to his body and walks away.
Nearby, a banyan tree, ancient, the aerial roots thick and tangled, tree to earth ad infinitum. It is fenced off and a forthright notice cautions visitors; all may not enter.On the beach, stray dogs and pet dogs splash and cavort alongside children through the waves, quivering with expectation; unending episodes of catch and tag framed in spume.
Kites soar. It is the annual kite festival and ritual ceremonies that ensure that they can fly freely and high are taking place all along the beach as the wonderful, ephemeral creations rise to the heavens. Traditional and modern, absurd, colourful, comic and wildly fanciful twists of the imagination, the fluttering works of art dip and spiral in the brisk briny breeze. Traditional bebean (fish-shaped), janggan (bird-shaped) and pecukan (leaf-shaped) creations vie for space with cartoon characters, parachutes and even a female inflatable in full traditional costume; filling the air between land and sky, hovering over the celebrations of food, music, performance, art and sport in full flow on the sands below.
The waitress impassively takes our breakfast order, two slices of toast, a dab of butter, two dabs of jam. Two cappuccinos. If she thinks it pedestrian, this mundane request for toast and jam in the midst of this daybreak glory of cool morning breezes shepherding boats across the water, curling surf and streaky sun strokes of brilliant colour on the horizon … she does not react.
Silence descends, along with a silent contemplation of the seaside dawn. A young man sweeps the night’s debris off the sands and uncoils a hosepipe, spraying the area with water, tamping the sand down. The waitress returns with two steaming cups, and sets them on the chequered tablecloth with silent grace. A creamy flower of milky foam lies perfect on the chocolate brown surface.
The waitress acknowledges my observation with a slight nod. The man inside, she explains, you see the man inside ? He can do anything.
It is no longer just a cup of coffee from a small shop on the beach, a routine commercial purchase of a drink. It has been elevated to a gift, crafted with care, a simple appreciation of the richness of life around manifest in a cup of coffee.
Photographs by Anita Thomas.