The Future of Bali is in Your Hands. It’s a Mask, Not a Chin Bra

Heartfelt thanks go out to all Bali Advertiser readers who are protecting and preserving our marvelous Balinese hosts and their culture by following PPKM, the government’s orders for public health in these pandemic days.

Anyone still hesitant to shelter at home, properly wear a mask, get vaccinated, and apply strict hygiene, is urged to consider the future of Bali. And, in this column, urged to invest in your knowledge of its unique culture.

A great way to keep your germs to yourself is to occupy your shelter-in-place time with a great read.

Here is a list of excellent books, chosen for their informative cultural value and for their readability, which comprise the time-honored must-reads for Bali expats. There was a time, not too long ago, when expats considered it a mark of shame to be ignorant of authors like Colin McPhee and Fred Eiseman.

Pick one and read it. Get to know the reasons why your helper insists on taking an extra day off before Galungan. Learn about the unique status and magic of the Pande caste, whose men become blacksmiths, mechanics, and drivers. Why are dogs so important to keep, yet treated so poorly? And learn valuable lessons from the mistakes of the Dutch colonists.

Don’t be fooled that all to be gained from these reads is a did-you-know oneupmanship at the next cocktail party. Hey, you will definitely acquire that, but possible side effects are a greater sense of affection, empowerment, and belonging, for this extraordinary island and our hosts. Honestly, these books may be all you need to improve your relations with your staff, the guy at the petrol station, and the Brahmin family selling you your temple decorations.

Many are available online instantly for Kindle or other devices. Others can be ordered from Ganesha Bookshop in Ubud, 0361 970320.

  1. McPhee, Colin A House in Bali. Hands down, the best wedding of cultural notes and pure entertainment. This is Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist McPhee’s memoirs of settling into a life on the Sayan ridge, early 1930’s. Every expat will recognize themselves and their neighborhood in some part of McPhee’s trailblazing life here. For fun, enjoy his most famous orchestral piece here:
  2. Eiseman, Fred B. Bali: Sekala & Niskala Meaning, the seen and unseen, this two-volume set is the real deal. Short chapters and frequently inserted illustrations prove what a great instructor was Eiseman, originally a teacher of earth sciences, before his 1970’s move to the quiet fishing village of Jimbaran. Actually, finding any of his books on Balinese horticulture or language would be a book scout’s coup. Still in print, this two-volume, in-depth survey of everything from gods and goddesses to what to wear to what ceremony, is all the schooling you’ll need to gain a full appreciation of Balinese culture and religion.
  3. Ingram, William A Little Bit One O’Clock: Living With a Balinese Family Sadly, most turn-key villa-grabbing expats are unwilling to try a lifestyle like the one Ingram fell into, with his wife Jean Howe (founders of Ubud’s extraordinary gallery and educational foundation Threads of Life). A lot of trial and error, but mostly superbly good humor, informs their wacky tale of learning how to get along in Bali. Cool bonus: learn the hand signal for “this dude’s crazy!”
  4. Koke, Louise G. Our Hotel In Bali: How Two Young Americans Made a Dream Come True Be grateful for Gourmet Garage, Mitra 10, and Lotte Mart, as you read Koke’s memoirs of their experiment creating Bali’s first boutique beach accommodation, audaciously staked out in the cast-off village that was Kuta Beach in the 1930’s. The glamorous Kokes fell hard for Bali’s physical beauty, and husband Robert was the first to surf here. At this time, it is generally supposed that the foundations of their bungalows lie buried somewhere under the Hard Rock Hotel. But this delightful story of innocence lost and found, remains.
  5. Vickers, Adrian Bali: A Paradise Created One of the greatest active scholars of Indonesia, Vickers paints a colorful timeline of (you guessed it) trials and errors created by the many not-always-well-meaning historians and Baliphiles who have wanted to make a case for what they interpreted to be Balinese culture. If you suspect you might be a bit precious and patronizing, fearful of stepping on the ways of the beautiful and gracious Balinese, I urge you to pick up Vickers’ book. And you will surely come to love the island on its own terms.

Honorable mentions go to the following nonfiction books. All of these make for excellent reading and serve as references you will want to keep at hand, for many years to come: Made Wijaya’s Stranger in Paradise, At Home in Bali, Tropical Garden Design and Architecture of Bali. These have the slick look of coffee table books, but Wijaya’s stylish text is highly amusing and reflects years of study, observation, and design practice. Janet deNeefe’s Fragrant Rice and Bali: The Food of My Island Home are gems; the latter likely being the world’s most beautiful cookbook. Go ahead and follow a recipe for one of the dishes to instantly elevate your sense of community with the realms of the farm, the market, and the Balinese kitchen. And check out her YouTube series:

One work of fiction makes this list. Vicki Baum’s A Tale of Bali is based upon the events leading up to the horrific 1906 Puputan, a mass ritual suicide by the Badung court. Attentive readers will draw fascinating connections between colonial domination and today’s Bali. Baum perfected the art of staging an epic with an ensemble cast, and her book draws us into the minds of finely crafted characters. Maybe you already know 1932’s sumptuous film classic Grand Hotel, which is based on Baum’s Menschen im Hotel; you could reward your reading with a screening on Amazon or Apple TV.


By Renee Melchert Thorpe

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