Part of the reason I find Bali so beautiful, besides the typical appeal of all things tropical (daily fresh mangos anyone?), is that the Balinese practice of Hinduism permeates almost all aspects of life.
Bali is an anomaly in Indonesia since the island remains almost entirely Hindu in a predominantly Muslim country. Their practice of religious ritual has such beautiful manifestations and follows a rich, artistic tradition. I see it everywhere. From the countless temples to the small backyard shrines, every house or building has a sacred structure designed to honor the many spirits of the island. That even includes gas stations and 7-11s! These are just a few random examples:
It's been explained to me that there are many spirits on the island, both good and evil. That's why while walking around, it is not uncommon to find daily offerings underfoot. Small pallets of woven palm leaves are filled with fresh colorful flowers, rice, and incense, among other things. These are placed on sidewalks, in front of doorways, atop shrines, next to sculptures. They are meant to please the various spirits and are replenished daily.
The Balinese still believe in the old way of putting religion and family first. It is opposite of the Western world's obsession with money and self, our host Lou says. This gives the whole island a different set of values, and an accompanying atmosphere unlike any other place I've visited. I can feel it in the gentle kindness of the Balinese, a people who are always laughing and smiling and who posses a peaceful childlike demeanor. The spirit of the people and the island is strong. I hope that the Balinese continue to maintain such a unique culture given the ongoing invasion of Western tourists.
One unlikely place I see the peaceful Balinese spirit is in the chaos of driving. With traffic rivaling that of Los Angeles, the narrow sharply twisting roads are dangerously packed. There are motorbikes everywhere, swarming, passing lines of cars. In case of a wrong move, deep ditches border the road on each side, precariously dropping into wet rice paddies. It stresses me out to ride the motorbike here.
Yet amidst all this chaos, I have not once seen road rage or aggressive behavior. When people honk their horn in Los Angeles, it's as if to say "Hey you jerk, you screwed up, what the heck is wrong with you?! Get out of my way!" When the Balinese honk their honk, it's as if to say: "Hello, I'm here please!"
Then there are the ceremonies! It is not uncommon to run into a "hati-hati" (caution) road closure sign. Entire roads will simply be impassable during ceremonies. It's up to the driver to find a different route.
But so far, I've found the randomness of ceremonies happy improvisations of plans. Last week the street to our dinner restaurant was closed. No matter, right there in front of a small temple a full gamelan orchestra lay sprawled across the two-lane road. Little children were running about, playing with the instruments when we first arrived. A crowd of locals was just beginning to gather.
Before long a full on performance was in progress, complete with beautifully costumed dancers and a full musical set of offbeat unfamiliar tunes. Check out the videos I captured with my trusty iPhone (note the awesomeness of the little kids in the audience).
A traditional Balinese dance like this usually tells the story of some of the Hindu spirits. The dancers move their fingers very precisely, dramatically open their eyes wide, and turn delicately with the music. It was very exciting to happen upon such an authentic performance. We stayed until rain drops began to fall and the performance seemed to near its end.