By Nicholas Rety
For The Bali Times
LAKE BATUR, Kintamani ~ Every time I drive by the lush, green ricefields of Bali, its deep gorges and colorful villages toward the high country of Kintamani, I feel a new bonding, a new affirmation of my love for this island.
The lively mosaic of people at the market, the motorbikes zigzagging their way in the most improbable traffic and the constant reminders of the presence of the gods give Bali a charming, lovable, yet vulnerable character that I have grown to love.
More than in the Bali that is becoming westernized at a rate that sheds contact with its past, I find comfort in the Bali of old where a culture, respect for origins and roots still prevail. It is the remnants of the old traditions that set Bali apart from other dime-a-dozen sunny destinations around the world.
I once visited the Bali Aga village in Karangasem, a powerful trip back into the past, made memorable by the history, the customs and the simple way of life of its inhabitants. I left with a good feeling, carrying with me memories of their pride and mementos of their industry and artistic skills, which explained why I, native of a distant land, came to be in their midst.
Hardly surprising that when I heard of another remote enclave on the shores of Lake Batur, accessible only by water, reportedly living a life of simplicity, untainted by the crazy march of â€œprogress,â€ I at once decided to revisit the good feelings with which I left their counterpart in Karangasem.
The road toll on arrival at Kintamani would have bothered me less if there had been some accountability, in the form of a numbered ticket for its collection. The onslaught of aggressive vendors on alighting from my vehicle was something I had not prepared for but it did alert me for what was soon to follow.
On reaching Lake Batur I was asked for a cool Rp1 million (US$108) for the return 15-minute ride to the Bali Aga village. Being familiar with incomes and prices around the island, I knew this charge was exorbitant. Eventually I settled for Rp700,000, only because I had come so far and did not have time to come back again. The boat man knew this; he had met this situation before. He was neither fazed nor embarrassed.
Lake Batur was at its best, the ridge from Mount Agung to the south standing guard while the volcanic face of Mount Batur followed us across the water. There was no other watercraft to be seen, so we had the lake to ourselves, a special feeling in such a remarkable setting.
Soon the village came into view. Not the old Bali-style buildings but a treeless compound, devoid of greenery or flowers, placed like matchboxes elbow to elbow. There was total absence of color or of any attempt to beautify what looked like low-cost housing for laborers on the edge of some faceless town. A lamppost declared the presence of electricity in the village. A fleet of canopied motor vessels lay at anchor in front of a high wall at the waterâ€™s edge. There was no dock to alight on and we got to shore by negotiating some precarious footing.
A small group of men met us on shore. No hearty greetings here! They had the body language of mosquitoes ready to bite. They ushered us uphill through rubble and garbage along a nonexistent path with tricky steps to a small temple with a handsome roof climbing skyward. The temple door was freshly painted but still unfinished. The self-appointed spokesman did not explain the absence of women from the scene, nor indeed the seemingly total absence of life around the village. At the temple door a bowl with banknotes of large denomination appealed to the visitor to make an at least matching donation. As I reached into my pocket the whole group closed in, eyes fixed on my wallet, some murmuring disapproval of what I considered a substantial gift.
The only female around, a little girl in the arms of her father, held out a pathetic hand for money, with a facial expression that would have qualified her as a model for any painting of The Last Judgement.
We were not allowed to walk around the temple. Instead we were led straight back to the wharf, if it can be called that, away from the village. It was as if the phalanx of local men were protecting the village folk from the scrutiny of outsiders who were welcome only to empty their wallets and leave. Repeated gestures here and there invited donations to fit men who appeared well dressed, well fed and not at all living a life of isolation, certainly not men whom time had passed by.
Re-embarkation was followed by a short trip to the burial ground. A few dugout canoes skillfully plied the waters, now restless with a rising wind. Upon stepping ashore, an elderly woman held out a hand for money. She must have tutored the little girl seen at the previous landing, her choreography and facial pathos matching.
The guide explained that when a villager dies, the corpse is kept in the house until such time, usually a week later, as the holy man decides that it is time to carry it to the burial ground by boat. It is then placed under a tent made of palm leaves and left for nature to take care of. The terrain does not allow for a cemetery. After a while, when decomposition and the mice have done their job, the body is lightly covered with earth.
Under the umbrella of a large banyan tree, we entered a dark space. The climb was strewn with garbage, cigarette packages, plastic bottles and wrappings, a childâ€™s sandals, all left where they fell. A small rise led to a row of skulls, arranged mechanically, face forward, an honor-guard on parade. The silence and the lapping of the water on the shore were the only signs of reverence for the dead. As before, a bowl well-filled with large-denomination banknotes awaited the visitor. Clearly, these bowls had been placed there just before our arrival because they showed no sign of the rain that had preceded us.
The palm-leaf tents came into view. There, within, one could discern a skull with the orbits already denuded of their contents. The teeth, survivors as they are, feigned a smile. The body was small, reportedly that of an old man. The toenails showed careful pedicure. I spoke a few words of respect to the corpse and gave a salute before turning to the bowl to make yet another donation.
Turning away from the palm-leaf tent, I found myself walking on a carpet of sundry garbage, mixed in with a variety of human bones, a femur, a female pelvis and other skeletal parts which appeared to have been discarded after severance of the skulls. I expressed my disapproval of such indignity to human remains and suggested to the 10 or so men that if each of us picked up 10 pieces of garbage right there and then, we could thereby honor the dead and turn the place into a more appropriate burial ground. I bent down to pick up a crumpled plastic shopping bag but was at once thwarted by a man standing next to me. This was sacred ground, he said, and could not be touched except by permission of the holy man.
Descending back to the boat, the inducements for tips took verbal form and hands were held out in supplication. I gave one man some money and told him to share it with the others. The old womanâ€™s hand was still out, as if frozen. I told her to take it back or else I would not give her money. One of the men, contrary to all appearances, complained about how poor they were. I quipped in reply that if I stayed long enough, I myself would become a poor man. By the boat landing there stood a brand new, Balinese-style building with a modern toilet awaiting future visitors.
The outboard motor came to life and we sailed off in choppy waters. Disappointed, I did not look back. These were not timeless people living an old lifestyle. They did not practice any craft taught them by their elders. They did not wear their way of life proudly. If they all died tomorrow, there would be nothing left to show that they had made a difference. They were not guardians of an old culture which they nurtured for those who would come after them. They had lost their pride and become modern-day beggars. They turned death into an industry by the macabre display of corpses.
Not like their Karangasem counterparts at all.
I left the lake and its village of beggars with a bad feeling.
Later I learned that tour operators no longer visit this site, in an attempt to protect tourists from exploitation. As for the piratical boatmen of Lake Batur, two independent sources revealed that they have been known to stop the boat halfway through the crossing and demand additional payment before getting to shore.
This enterprise is an embarrassment to Bali. Visitors should be warned to give it a wide berth.