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Is Bali still Paradise?

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2015

      It all depends on how you look at it. The trouble is, Bali still has this ethereal reputation to live up to. The name "Bali" evokes perfect beaches, waterfalls, emerald green rice paddies, an exotic and mysterious ancient culture, and beautiful, welcoming men and women.

      The truth is that Bali is getting built up. There is a new and larger airport, able to accommodate many more flights, The roads are crammed with traffic, which becomes hopelessly congested on roads that are far too narrow for modern vehicles. The roads are also crammed with development. Old villages have grown together, joined by modern construction projects that have take every square inch of land along most major highways. They are jammed with hotels, resorts, shopping complexes, modern banks, supermarket chains, restaurants and convenience stores, along with thousands of tourist handicraft shops. In the southern half of the island, you can drive halfway across the island on the main roads and never see a rice paddy unless you look very carefully.

      Western culture has moved in. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried and Starbucks. Polo, Prada and Pandora on Monkey Forest Road in Ubud. The cell phone and the selfie. The busloads of Chinese tourists. Many people book into self-contained resort complexes and never catch a glimpse of the real Bali at all.

      But do not despair! The Bali experience still exists, and, if you look closely, you will find it a million details, and in the thousands of temples and traditional homes, as soon as you walk away from the main roads. I did not have to look far at all, because I found it at the place where we were staying, in Ubud,

      Our guesthouse had a narrow entrance on the main road. The walkway passed by the private family shrine for the Gods and spirits. The pagodas and the mini-temples were beautifully carved out of stone. My favorite was the empty stone throne. This is for the ancestral, primeval god-energy who was here long before the arrival of the Hindu gods in the fourteenth century. The name of this spirit is Sangyang Widhi Wasa; unseeable, unknowable and incomprehensible; an force beyond all human understanding. This is an astonishingly sophisticated notion for such an ancient culture, I think! It is surprising that these people, who have developed such a fantastic and imaginative pantheon of gods, demons, and high and low spirits, have always given the highest honor to a sacred presence that cannot even be described.

      The little pathway wound past several rice paddies on the way to our villa. The rice was in various stages of growth, green and gorgeous. Cows grazed in the neighbor's yard and white egrets waded among the rice stalks. Swallows and doves swooped overhead. Our guesthouse was very small and quiet, with only nine villas in all.

      Our villa was two stories tall. We slept on the upper floor. The kitchen, bath and living area were downstairs, but we spent most of our time either in our spacious bedroom upstairs or out on our huge porch, which had wonderful views of the treetops, the palms, and the decorative, tiled pagoda rooftops of nearby bungalows. The porch not only had a dining set, but there was even an extra double bed outside, so you could lounge on it and enjoy nature in style! Our villa even had a small private yard and garden, with fragrant frangipani trees and colorful tropical plants. The centerpiece of the garden was a carved stone lily pond, with delicate white waterlilies that would bloom every morning.

      Each day, the Ibu (mother) would visit all of the villas and the shrines of the guesthouse, putting out tiny bamboo offerings. I watched her, dressed in her temple clothes (no one can enter sacred ground, even on one's own premises, without wearing the traditional sarong skirt, and, for women, the formal belted blouse.) The little offerings were quite elaborate, representing several hours of work, and they were placed around the entire guest house. They were tiny, woven bamboo baskets, each of which held a colorful collection of flowers and plants, artfully arranged, At our bungalow, we usually discovered three offerings: One outside the garden gate, one inside, on the path to our door, and one on the empty throne shrine that was attached to the building. I felt as though we were under the protection of the vast, unknowable, mystical force that created the universe.

      I also noticed a curious bundle of stuff that was carefully tied to one of the decorative upturned pagoda finials on our bungalow. I spotted several such bundles on other bungalows, as well. These were magical packets of protection for each house. Somebody had prepared each packet, which consisted of tiny bamboo umbrellas, curious weavings on sticks, which reminded me of American Indian "gods' eyes," and little pouches full of herbs and magic potions, which were hanging on strings. I'm confident that somebody had had these blessed by the local Balian (traditional healer/wise man/shaman/magician) Maybe the Balian had prepared some of the mysterious little bundles personally. In any case, I felt well protected and blessed by the Balian's magic.

      Animal life added to the charm. We were regularly visited by birds; graceful egrets, cute fantails. doves, and an adorable pair of sparrow-like birds who came down for regular birdbaths at the edge of the pool. We watched mongoose(s) doing acrobatic leaps from palm tree to palm tree. Less charming were the fruit bats, who clung to our porch rafters at night. They hung upside down, munching on fruit, and they dropped seeds and uneaten bits all over the porch floor. We never saw them, but we sure saw the mess they left behind!

      One morning, a large male monkey climbed up onto our garden gate and looked over at us while we were eating breakfast on our porch. Monkeys are well known for aggressive food stealing. He could have easily jumped up onto the porch, but he turned away and left. Perhaps the magic charms kept him at bay? Who knows...

      In the evening, we were serenaded by live traditional dance music, wafting over from the Arma's cultural museum and performance center. The gamelan gongs and drums were most enjoyable to listen to. especially when accompanied by birds and the chorus of rice paddy frogs and geckos.

      We soon became friends with the staff. Their genuine, smiling welcome was such a nice way to return "home " at the end of the day. The older lady often stopped to chat with us, and we always called her Bu (short for "mother" - the respectful term used to address any lady old enough to be a mother)

      So is Bali still paradise? If, by "paradise" you mean a five star tourist luxury resort, you can find these easily in Bali. But if you want a cultural or traditional experience, you can discover that too. Just get off the main road, and you can easily escape to quiet villages where traditions are strong. Every tourist should visit some temples and attend some local cultural events. If you stay in an traditional guest house, with a real Balinese family running it, instead of a corporation, you may still find the quintessential Bali.

      Bali has been inundated by Westernization, but it has not been overwhelmed. Bali is still Bali. If you don't believe me, take a walk in Ubud, and try to enter any of the Western stores that have choked the towns' streets like fast growing weeds. But if you want to enter the Ralph Lauren "Polo" outlet, or Citibank, or Starbucks, you will still have to carefully step around the offerings left outside their doors by the sincere Balinese who work inside. Bali still wins. It hasn't lost its heart.

      There is no paradise on Earth. Paradise is what you make it. Bali just gives you gentle reminders. all the time, that you can find it there, if you look for it.

      Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod

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