Novelist Amitav Ghosh speaking at the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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Novelist Amitav Ghosh speaking at the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Novelist Amitav Ghosh speaking at the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

These days Bali offers less mystique but more opportunity to watch cultures colliding gently

BALI – As ground zero for Bali’s beach and booze crowd, Kuta has no literary pretensions beyond the bawdy car stickers and smutty T-shirts hawked along the main drag. “Michael is gay,” “I like pussy,” “Essy has a nice pussy,” and so on — the latter epigrams presumably not reflecting Michael’s opinion.

A half hour’s drive away in Ubud, literary luminaries such as Amitav Ghosh and Tash Aw were enchanting crowds with exquisite exegeses of exile, loss, memory and tacky women on the make, two of the star turns at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

Ubud, a hillside town of Hindu temples and wind-chimes in Bali’s heart, is a magnet for dreadlocked, tie-dyed Westerners: the Eat Pray Love counterparts to Kuta’s sunburnt Drink Rave Shag crowd.

Contrasting vibes – but such antithesis perhaps suits an island that is uniquely a bastion of Hinduism in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

But these days Bali is seeing its distinctiveness degenerate into cliché amid an influx of partygoersc and starry-eyed travellers, some of whom end up staying, lured by the relatively inexpensive cost of living, beaches and scenery.

Others landed in Bali long ago,  before the island’s submersion in mass tourism. Michael White is still there after arriving from Sydney in 1973. He has made a name as a writer and landscaper, although he now goes by the un-Australian soubriquet of Made Wijaya.

Despite the name and his ornate Balinese garb, Made Wijaya hasn’t gone full native. Addressing the crowd at the Ubud festival, he listed, in undiluted Aussie drawl, some of the quirks and tensions of life on Bali from the viewpoint of the bule, or foreigner.

“You see a lot of poison on Facebook from expats, slagging off the Balinese for this and that – litter collection, waste management for example,” he said.

Most of his ire was reserved for do-gooder Westerners, some of whom even see Bali, one of Indonesia’s better-off islands, as some sort of a charity case. “How many orphanages can a paradise island have?” he asked rhetorically, sarcastically.

Rucina Ballinger, another long time expat resident, had an answer. “There are 72 known orphanages on Bali,” she said. And of those, she reckons only two are credible or even necessary.

A slew of charities – many of them animal rescue centres – give the impression that a lot of misguided Westerners are looking for an easy option. Bali’s humanitarian needs are not exactly those of, say, Somalia. The beaches are a bit safer, for example. No worries about pirates launching kidnapping raids on Double 6 beach, a favorite sunbathing spot and party spot on the island.

Bali is rightly better known for its ornate and enchanting Hindu ceremonies – though these too nowadays seem more like tourist money-spinners than expressions of devotion. With 20,000 temples and a calendar stuffed with holidays, there seems to be a festival or ceremony every other day, something that resident bules and even many Balinese see as overkill.

Ballinger, who married a local man and has been chief of her village, spoke of how such festivals are focal points of life. “Once, we spent over a billion rupiah [US$85,000] on one ceremony,” she recalled. “Sometimes the next ceremony was all the women in the village talked about.”

The Balinese themselves are struggling to work out how best to retain their identity while exploiting the tourist boom and influx of starry-eyed expats.

Adat [culture] is for most Balinese still an important thing,” said Wayan Juniarta, who writes a newspaper column titled Bungklang Bungkling, which is aimed at recording “the hilarity and ludicrousness of Balinese men.”

But even the most ludicrous Balinese surely find Westerners’ wide-eyed fascination with Balinese culture somewhat quixotic?

As Made Wijaya talked up Bali life, Juniarta cut in.

“You are being too romantic about Bali, you spent too much time on ceremony,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, and raising uneasy chuckles from some of the converted in the crowd.

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