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Postcard from Bali – Satay, Caesars and Shiva

January 24, 2016


While Britain froze and America’s north-eastern seaboard prepared to disappear under metres of snow, I was in tropical Bali. It was one of those reflective holidays. Bit of reading, bit of thinking, plenty of eating, listening and watching. Not so much doing.

Here’s how it went, starting with the reading. Top of the list was Tom Holland’s Dynasty. A superb read. Study the lives of the first five Roman emperors if you’d like to understand how autocrats rise, prosper and expire.

Then Sapiens, Yuval Harari’s “Short History of the World”. If you want Dawkins without attitude, Harari’s your man. That the Hebrew University in Jerusalem can accommodate such a thinker shows that there’s hope for Israel.

I also read Max Hastings’ account of the SS Das Reich division’s march through southern France on its way to destruction after D-Day. I’d forgotten how much of Southern France was ripped apart by the Second World War, including places I go to every year without a thought for traumas of which there is little obvious evidence – unless you visit Ouradour-sur-Glane, of course, the site of one of Das Reich’s worst atrocities.


I started Leslie Carroll’s Royal Pains, about various deviant royals over the past millennium, and never progressed beyond Vlad the Impaler. The fact that Princess Margaret, the Queen’s rather silly sister, was up there with Vlad didn’t bode well. Likewise Severed Heads, by Frances Larson. After the story of Oliver Cromwell’s head I lost interest.

By this time I was ready for some fiction. I raced through I Am Pilgrim, a terrorist thriller written a couple of years ago. A well-constructed tale by Terry Hayes, otherwise known as a Hollywood script-writer. Plausible, but hopefully not too plausible. Otherwise I shall take up residence in a remote South Sea island.

And up there with Dynasty as best read of the holiday was Salman Rushdie’s new novel Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights – a sumptuous parable of our times, in which jinns and the ghosts of long-dead philosophers do battle for the future of mankind.

Rushdie twenty eight months

I could have read any of these books at home, or in a two-week stay at a boarding house in Bognor Regis. But then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of sitting on a balcony overlooking a tropical garden in Bali. Contrast is everything.

As for the thinking, some famous people died over the past few weeks. Before their time? Why are we mourning the loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey, when they achieved so much in their sixty-odd years? Would you rather have a couple of extra decades in an unfulfilled life, or a shorter span in which you leave your mark in as resounding a way as those three? I know what I would prefer, even if my achievements are nothing compared with theirs. What matters is to feel that you have achieved, and not to regret the things you left undone. And while you have the time, if there are undone things that are important to you, get on and do them.

I find it impossible to spend time in Bali without thinking about happiness. Wandering around the island you see a lot of unhappiness, and not in the obvious places. I see it on the faces of visiting Australians, Canadians, Indians and Chinese. They come to paradise and find shopping. Or tattoos. So many people with faces defined by frowns.

And why is it that the Balinese, who possess a fraction of the wealth of the visitors, manage to smile at you when they have no obvious motivation for doing so? How is it that the happiest people we met were a family of fishing boat owners who took us across the bay for a sunset ride? Granddad sitting at the prow with his baby grandson, the son steering the boat. The second son meeting the boat back on the shore. How do they make ends meet? A bit of fishing, rides for people like us and grandma doing massages on the beach. There was a serenity about that little family one rarely sees in the West.


Yuval Harari’s view is that one of the most profound changes of the last century has been the decline of the bonds and obligations of the family. Not in Bali, I think. We all live in thrall to the past and mortgage our lives to the future. But watching the woodcarvers of Mas or Ubud busily turning out beautiful wooden artefacts despite having vast unsold inventories suggests a clearer focus on the present than most of us manage in our tortured lifetimes. Their work will be sold or it won’t be sold. It’s what they do, and so long as they can feed themselves and their families that’s what they will continue to do.

Then there’s all the stuff that’s raging elsewhere, far away from the rice fields, the temples and the towering volcanoes of Bali. It came closer last week, when gunmen went on the rampage in Jakarta. Since then, armed policemen have popped up now and again on the beaches, but so far, there has been nothing to police. Long may that continue.

If you have an internet connection, it’s hard to tear yourself away from the rage of angry people – from US electors to the burghers of Cologne, from paranoid leaders to murderous fighters, from the deprived to the threatened. I’ve been following as always a wide range of reportage and analysis claiming to make sense of the conflict and hatred afflicting us. And I’m getting tired of it.

The ugly truth is that there’s stuff none of us know, that no amount of analysis can make sense of. The only answers lie between the eyes of those involved. Yes, the secret squirrels manage to gather a few nuggets of intelligence now and again, but what is shared with us often serves to distort, misinform and manipulate. Otherwise, we simply have to wait for stuff to happen, and adjust our thoughts accordingly. As we always did.

Does anyone really know what the ISIS high command is planning? Do we really know what motivates Donald Trump? Or Jeremy Corbyn? Or Ayatollah Khamenei, the King of Saudi Arabia, Vladimir Putin or Bashar Al-Assad? In the land of the blind, there are many would-be one-eyed kings. Enough. Bring me facts, bring me evidence or bring me nothing at all, because your opinion is no more likely to be valuable than mine.

Now for a more pleasant subject: eating. If you like rice and noodles, Bali’s the place for you. Where we’re staying there are a couple of dozen places to eat within walking distance. The difference between these places is not so much the cuisine, more the ambience – from elegant places overlooking the beach to small eateries on the roadside, where you watch the scooters and buses full of tourists buzzing past; construction workers on their way home from twelve-hour shifts mingling with backpackers, guys trying to sell you Viagra and girls offering massage.

I actually prefer the food in Malaysia – more flair and imagination, plus the insidious delights of durian. But if you’re an Aussie dying for a steak or ribs after a week of eating nasi goring, you’ll find that most places cater for your needs. No doubt there is more refined and “authentic” cooking to be sampled in remoter areas, but the built-up parts of the island depend on tourists, so there’s something for every visiting nationality.


Then there’s the listening. I will probably come over as a cultural Neanderthal immune to the subtleties of Balinese music, but I find it cacophonous and monotonous. Especially when you’re sitting at a beach at one of a long row of restaurants, each competing to out-gamelan the other. Listen to it once and that’s fine, but its appeal doesn’t last.

The same goes for the new-age fluty stuff that plays in our hotel restaurant every morning on a permanent loop. A couple of mouthfuls of fresh mango and I want to fall asleep.

No, the sounds I enjoy are made by the geckos that pipe up now and again from the bushes. The lizard equivalent of uh-oh, as if they’ve dropped their dinner on the kitchen floor. And the sound of tropical rain splashing against the palms, something we’ve heard all to rarely in this allegedly rainy season. The squeaking bats at dawn, and birdsong you’d never hear in the northern hemisphere.

Oh, and a solitary bell sounding at 7am on Sunday morning, the Christian day of worship. A plaintive contrast to the florid prayer calls that ring out from the mosques every evening at dusk. Indonesia is a Muslim country after all, even if Bali is not.

As for watching, I’d like to say I’ve seen plenty of wildlife, and that would be true. Except most of the wildlife is human. Apart from the people, feral dogs and the odd enthusiastic mosquito. I did pay a visit to the monkey forest in Ubud. But it’s not so much a forest, more a few acres of paths and trees, populated by a few hundred macaques, a few hundred tourists and the ubiquitous stalls where you can buy bananas to throw at our cousins.


The ones most visible are sad-looking creatures, sitting on walls twitching their droopy moustaches, posing for selfies with giggling tourists, while sulky-looking alpha males skulk in the trees, waiting to pounce on any tourists foolish enough to bring their lunchboxes with them into the park.

While in Ubud, the spiritual centre of Bali, I looked hard for Julia Roberts with her beatific smile, but didn’t find her. In fact, not many beatific smiles at all. There’s plenty of eating to be seen, but precious little praying and not a lot of love. Just a lot of visitors “doing” the town.

And yes, we what tourists do, and saw some temples, a waterfall, a rice plantation and some lovely sunsets.


If I sound a little jaundiced, it’s not with Bali or the Balinese. It’s a beautiful island, and most of the people are inhumanly cheerful and kind. There are a few who resent us tourists, and our relentless urge to beat down prices when what is being offered costs a tenth of what we might pay at home. But most accept our less attractive ways with humour and good grace.

What I find sad is that the island has become so dependent on visitors, which means that at so many beautiful places you run the gauntlet through rows of stalls filled with people desperate to get you to buy something. A people whose living depends on strangers.

Perhaps it’s more a paradise for the young. I’m too old for rafting, diving or climbing mountains. I don’t go clubbing or sit at bars whispering sweet nothings until the early hours. Whatever your age, It’s a great place to visit as a couple, but not somewhere I would go on my own. You occasionally catch sight of a middle-aged western guy sitting alone in a restaurant, and wonder what’s in it for him. But you can be lonely anywhere, I guess.

Would I come to Bali again? You bet. A country whose people who greet you with a hug and remember your first name a year after your first visit knows a thing or two about hospitality.

And I never forget how blessed I am to be able to come to a gorgeous island many thousands of miles away from home, and spend a couple of weeks in comfort, while a few miles from my island, teenagers ripped away from their homes and families wait in a cold and windy camp for the chance to cross the English Channel.

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