While planning our trip to Indonesia, it seemed obvious to include Bali as one of the main stops. For as long as I can remember, I have had visions about this paradise. The Island of Gods, where volcanos, rice fields and coconut palms meet the deep spiritually of its people. I was in love with the idea of visiting temples, waterfalls and green rice fields every time I thought of the island. Well, I left Bali with mixed feelings.
But don’t get me wrong. For everything I didn’t like, there was something I loved. Perhaps Bali didn’t fully live up to my expectations, but it turned out to be a very special place to me, a place I keep thinking about.
It was dusk when we landed at the airport in Denpasar and the Balinese were lined along the footpaths, enjoying the local cuisine on the back of their mopeds. The roads were choked by traffic, tourists were packing the nightclubs. With a Bintang – local beer – in their hand they were whizzing along tiny roads honking and doing wheelies. We saw a crowd walking down the street. There is a beach party – they said. Regretting leaving the peaceful wilderness of the Borneo jungle we faced the reality. Bali wasn’t nearly as rural and pristine as I imagined it to be. Perhaps Bali had lost its magic.
I was angry at tourists, at ignorance and yet there was something about this island that mesmerised me. Perhaps it was not all about first impressions. We decided to explore the central part of the island, talk to people, take part of a purification ritual at the holy water temple and meet up with an old Balinese friend, Hendra, who I met years ago in Fiji. He explained so much about the local beliefs and traditions. Together we tasted local food and arak – a Balinese liquor. With my friend Hendra’s help we discovered the real soul of Bali.
The form of Hinduism practised in Bali exits nowhere else in the world: a mix between Hinduism, animism, ancestor worship and Buddhism. Spirits are everywhere on the island. Good spirits dwell in the mountains, while bad spirits haunt the woods, caves and desolate beaches. People live between the two opposites and through their rituals they keep the balance between good and evil, gods and demons, heaven and hell. Offerings are made every morning to pay homage to the good spirits and placed on the ground to placate the bad ones.
Every morning young girls dressed in a sarong perform daily rituals placing offerings at the foot of temples, on statues, at the entrance door of a home or shop, on the beach, everywhere. These little tributes, canang sari – ca (beautiful) nang (purpose), sari (essence) – are small palm-leaf baskets filled with flowers of different colours. Each color has a specific significance. A fragrance incense is lit, holy water – tirta – is sprinkled on the canang sari with a jepun flower and a prayer is spoken as the the smoke of the incense carries the sari, the essence of the offering, to the Gods. In their simplicity, these beautiful offerings encapsulate Bali’s unique form of Hinduism.
Besides filling the air with a sweet aroma of frangipani, the ancient ritual of the canang sari carries deep significance and meaning. The offerings are a sacred form of gratitude for peace and abundance in the world, but they also appease the demon spirits hanging around.
There is so much devotion and beauty on this island – it’s inspiring!
Do not step over or step on a canang sari placed on the ground, especially the ones with incense that is still burning. While the incense burns the sari, or ‘essence’, rise to heaven. After the incense goes out, the canang returns to being an earthly object once more.
Not a day passes that we don’t think about the smile of Balinese people. They have love for everyone and everything on this planet. They understand what it means to be kind and they have a sense of humor like nothing I’ve ever seen. Their big smiles and laughs are contagious. They show love for their Gods in everything they do and they always strive to be better human beings. The sense of community is strong here, everyone helps each other and every daily task is focused on beauty, gratitude and a connection to the present moment. I wish that everyone on this planet could be a little bit more like them. What a world it would be…
On the other hand…
Fame comes with a price and a part of Bali payed with overcrowded beaches, a boom in construction without any regulation and unbearable traffic jams. Waste management is also in crisis. Not so long ago, locals used banana leaves to wrap food and carry items – today the island is overwhelmed by the garbage, little of which is recycled.
As a result, each year, approximately eight million tons of plastic fills the ocean. Indonesia ranks second in the world for contributing the most waste. In the rainy season, swimming with manta rays in the Bali Sea means swimming among floating debris, which explains why there are so many beach clean-up communities run by locals and surfers.
How can travellers help reducing waste while travelling through Bali and Indonesia?
You can help by reducing your own environmental impact while you explore Indonesia.
Here are a few key things you can do:
- Say NO to straws
- Use a reusable bag to carry purchased items, rather than plastic
- Take part to one of the many weekly cleanups with the guys of Trash Hero. There is no cost and need to sign-up for volunteers, just show up at the designated time and place
- If you see plastic in the sea or on the beach pick it up
- Carry a reusable water bottle, we love our 24Bottles Clima, made in sustainable stainless steel. Keeps drinks cold for 24 hours and hot for 12
If you are planning to visit Bali in August keep an eye out for the TrashStock Musik – Artistik – Plastik. Founded by my Balinese friend Hendra together with Julien Goalabré, this art and music festival tackles the dramatic plastic trash issue that Bali is facing in the most creative way: music, dance, art, workshops, photography.
Learn More About Bali and Balinese Hinduism
- Bali: Sekala & Niskala. The perfect book if you want to truly understand Balinese culture and thought. The book is a collection of essays on the visible – sekala – and the occult – niskala – elements of Bali’s cultural life.
- Secrets of Bali: Fresh Light on the Morning of the World. The reader is taken into a mystical world of gods and goddesses, exotic Balinese village cuisine, opulent religious ceremonies and extravagant lava stone temple architecture. This is one of the best books ever written about the magical island of Bali.
- A house in Bali. First published in 1947, it tells the story of the writer and composer Colin McPhee’s obsession with a music once unknown to the West, and of his journey to Bali to experience it firsthand.