Sunday, June 6, 2010


I've been working on a story set in Ubud, a sort of artists' community in the southern center of the island. Many expatriots have flocked to Bali, and Ubud is the place of choice for most who do. The challenge of my story is to fully realize the little I know and the lot I feel about Bali. We say in writing that often "place" is a character, influencing the goings on of a story in its unique way, such that the blend of place and people and "what happens next" makes a unique potion that would be fundamentally different in all ways if you simply changed the place. In theory this is obvious, of course. Place changes everything. But once in a while, as on this trip, the idea hits with force. My challenge is to make Bali organic to the story.

The religion of the island is key to all things there. It is lived and breathed. The island is not diverse. The Balinese are 92 percent the same as each other. Among their many challenges, one is not having to deal with competing interests from immigrants. They do have to deal with progress and development, as tourists storm the island, but the Balinese have to a large extent changed themselves to grow their incomes and their island economy -- have changed themselves from poor rice farmers to entrepreneurs finding ways to cash in on world interest in their island. Of course big development is there, in the south central part of the island, Denpasar and environs. The environment in the tourist places is being spoiled by litter and high demands for water and land.

Inland however the burgeoning population is focused on work, family, prayer, and community. People have motorbikes for transportation, and they have their cell phones and their ipods and their blackberries and the flat screen TVs. Their villages are very old, many of them, and some are new and fairly modern. As progress arrives, it is religion and family that enables the culture of Bali to hold steady. The women are strong; the men are resourceful.

Cooperation and togetherness, a respect for others, is real and apparent. If someone on the crowded streets (motorbikes by the thousands, not many cars) happens to pass a car and on-coming traffic is close, the driver being passed slows down and the passing vehicle is allowed to duck into the left lane. If that vehicle couldn't get in in time, the oncoming vehicle simply moves over so all three cars can pass each other three abreast, no problem, happens all the time. The slow down and stop for pedestrians as well as dogs and chickens and motorbikes parked with their rear ends on the right of way. No one gets annoyed. They simply watch out for each other and yield to one another appropriate to the situation.

In my very few days in Bali I witnessed the famous Balinese generosity, smartness, and goodness. That's the big news I got from being there. I might have begun to think those qualities were disappearing from the earth, and they aren't. I know exactly how this will work in my Bali story.