When sun goes down in Bali

It is about dusk and Matahari, the eye of the day, is hiding behind the volcano. It is too hot for six thirty in the evening and I feel like this day is abruptly ending too soon. On the hilltop above Jemeluk bay, the same group of people is gathering once again. It is not a homogeneous group but they all know each other by sight already. Some Balinese people and some ‘bule’, that’s how they call us, “the foreigners”. Same like yesterday, an out of tune guitar rattle a Bob Marley medley. Some Indonesian adaptation of it though. In the bay below, the belated jukung boats are slowly turning back to the shore. If one gets back that late evening, chances are that nobody will wait for him and help at the shore, then he will have to push the heavy canoe-catamaran just alone. Most of the Balinese people are already indoors when the dark falls, inside their houses spread out the hillsides surrounding the bay. The Sun has just sunk under the skyline then a red flame ignites and spreads throughout the skies above the active volcano Agung, who for the Balinese people in no less than the axle of the world. Their world at least.

Fire and Faith:

The image of the volcano under the flames reminds me of the story:

It is every 100 years when Bali celebrates Eka Dasa Rudra. The Balinese priests calculate  the date in advance for what is, probably, the most important ceremony on the island. Eka Dasa Rudra is no less than the ceremony of purifying the entire world, and now it is the time for it: it is 17th of March 1963. While the preparations were in the middle, the volcano woke up and shook the world.

A Balinese legend says that Agung is a replica of Mt. Meru, the central axle of the Universe and one of the main Hindu symbols. The first Hindus that stepped in Bali brought a whit of Meru and out of it Agung has raised to the sky. The Balinese people are of superstitious kind, for whom all symbols, myths and daemons are just a subtle part of the reality. When Agung started to smoke out and nervously shake the world, in the mother temple of Besakih located on the volcano slope, the priests gathered and decided that the date calculated for Eka Dasa Rudra was wrong and the Gods are sending their sign through the anger of Agung. A new date has to be calculated immediately and the ceremony postponed to the new date. President Sukarno, however, had some other plans. He already established the date for a visit at the ceremony, together with a group of foreign dignitaries. Against priests’ warnings and premonitions, the day for Eka Dasa Rudra didn’t change.

On 18th of March 1963, in the middle of the ceremony and after more than a century of deep sleep, Agung erupted. More than 2000 persons had lost their life and many of the villages were swallowed by lava. On the volcano slope however, a miracle took place. Lava stopped by itself at couple of meters away from the Besakih temple, which was left unharmed by the disaster. For Indonesia world was shaking after that. 1965 meant the beginning of the civil crisis and two years later Sukarno’s regime fell. Only late on 1979 the ceremony of Eka Dasa Rudra was properly completed.

Fire and Water:

In 1942 the American cargo USAT Liberty was on its way from Australia to Philippines when a Japanese submarine stroke it with a torpedo, very close to Lombok straits. The captain tried to sail the damaged ship to the port of Singaraja, Bali, to save the cargo. But no success. Even so, by miracle, the captain succeed to dock the ship on the shores of Tulamben and, by miracle again, no one on the ship was hurt.

Back in 1963, twenty one years later, on what is known to be the largest volcano eruption in Bali in the last centuries, the lava from Agung pushes the abandoned USAT Liberty completely underwater. Located inside the Coral Triangle, the metal structure of the wreck is rapidly covered  by colonies of corals. Nowadays the USAT Liberty wreck is one of the highly rated diving attractions by its variety of corals and more than 500 reef and pelagic fish species. And it is a great business for the local community, for sure.

Fight and Politics:

As the sunset fan club was of a constant dwellers, no wonder small talks were the main exchange.

– “After Sukarno’s fall on 1967, all presidents of Indonesia had a connection with the dictator Suharto. Now things could change. If the good president is elected.” Gede, the first born in his family, grins with complicity and adds:

– “Bule, shell we meet in Bunutan tomorrow? Sabungan. Cockfight.”

– “Cockfight. Really? At what time? “

– “At the cockfight Bule.” Gede grins again and turns his back.

You get there or you don’t, you find the place or not. The cockfight is still there and, in Bali, it is quite an experience. I don’t mean to discussions about the ethics behind it. Different cultures, different values. What is amazing though is the social valence of it.

It is only apparent that roosters are fighting inside the ring. Inside the fighting circle there are the roosters that kick, beat and rip each other to death. The fight, however, is between men. When I say that I mean more than their egos’ fight. The Balinese concept of a body  built from a set of independent parts, that each by itself has its own existence and then brought together by a sort of symbiosis form the Balinese body – this concept looks that naturally extends to his champion rooster. Inside the ring there is not a simple bird of a simple Balinese. It is a piece of his symbiotic body fighting to death. Victory or defeat is organic. Ecstasy or suffering in a split of a second.

The word “Sabung” mainly means rooster but it is also used for “hero” or even “politician”, “Casanova” or a very, very tough guy. The Man is the fighter. The judge is the king. The clockwork timer is made by a holey coconut shell which slowly sinks in a bucket full of water. The bets are illegal, wagers come in heaps. Cockfighting is a Balinese story about Balinese people.

The art of not leaving

We’ve seen his pictures, but don’t know who he is. Many came here from around the wold searching peace, love, colors, natural or supernatural. The majority may be gone, but many never left Bali for good. When one thinks about painting and Bali, visualizes a vivid and colorful scene: a Balinese with a straw hat working the padi fields under the a burning blue sky. It is exactly an image from the inland Bali where, strange and comforting at the same time, few are venturing still. And right there, where a daily life scene could become a painting while anyone could be an artist.

About what is still left over.

The usual Balinese seams to ignore you at first. He sees you, even salute you. However he is kind of looking through you. Then comes your time to take over, if you’d like. A kretek – that smoke bled of tobacco and cloves, a world spoken in his language, a helpful hand on dragging his too-late-arrived  jukung out of the sea, a little donation at a ceremony or maybe you ‘re wearing sarong or your reaction at cockfight is pure Balinese. Something can change the situation without you to notice. And then you’re going to find out about his life, how was it back then when he met his wife or when the crop last year was lost, how many kids the daughter of his neighbor has. Then you payback the price of listening. In a minute you’ll find yourself talking about the same, without boasting or embarrassment. Somehow you just say what you have to say. How you do it? Most of the time in a sort of English enriched by sawing the air. If your chance is to spend some more time in Indonesia, it’s almost sure you will get a bit of Indonesian words. It helps a lot. With the Balinese language, this is a different story. It has three different language registers: the lower, the middle and the high one. Meaning that the vocabulary one uses will depend on the social relation between himself and the companion. And if this is something that exists in almost any language, in Balinese it is said to be almost a different language one speaks depending to whom he is talking with.

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