There are many ways to be a tourist. For example, one can remain in one’s own vacation bubble, as is necessary sometimes for recovery and rest from daily toils, or one can break through and be immersed in the world and culture on site.
I tend to like cultural experiences and usually try to discover the lives and customs of the local people. What is their reality like? How do they think? Et cetera, et cetera… I can’t pretend that I immerse myself completely, like those who would walk on foot and visit neighborhoods, shops, and houses, but at least I can ask questions to the people I interact with and to the local tour guides.
But in Bali, it is very hard to ignore its cultural and religious artifacts, since they are simply in sight everywhere you turn. Temples are ubiquitous, and the locals’ belief system is visibly displayed not just in their Hindu ceremonial precessions, but also in their architecture and daily customs. I would say it even dictates Bali’s economy and weighs in on Bali’s social progress vis-à-vis modernity and secularism.
For example, every morning the Balinese put out sesajens, or small offerings composed of flowers, rice, and salt in bamboo leaf trays all over the place. You would find them by the streets, statues, in front of houses, restaurants, counters… basically everywhere. These offerings, in oversimplified terms, are to please the gods and prevent their wrath upon them.
Every house and building in Bali has its own altar, whether small or big, which is put at the front of the house near the entrance gate. Bridges would have statues of some manifestations of Hindu gods on both sides of each end, to protect the space and prevent evil spirits.
Many statues, poles in buildings, pillars, and even trees would have sashes of a particular kind around them. The motif is called poleng. It is a piece of cloth with black and white squares, a symbol of balance, akin to the Chinese yin and yang. But it’s not just any generic notion of balance; it particularly symbolizes the balance between good and evil. The alternating black and white signifies good and evil that coexist everywhere; one cannot be present without the other.
This concept, it seems to me, is very Hindu, for a lack of a better description. The three main deities that compose the Trimurti in Hinduism (kind of like the Trinity), Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu), and Siwa (Shiva), are the creator god, sustainer god, and the destroyer/transformer god, respectively. The destroyer god is feared the most, but he is not seen as evil, since his work is necessary to get rid of old things and transform them to a newer state.
Though I do not subscribe to the Hindu belief system, I admire its cohesiveness and pervasiveness in the Balinese society. Believing in something means that their whole lives revolve around it and it’s publicly displayed, even if their motives may be combined with fear of the gods. Their religion is not a private matter. It dictates how they spend their money, their daily activities, how they deal with birth, marriage, and death, and every aspect of life. There is not one thing that is purely secular. Take the economy, the emblem of development and modernity. If every building needs to have an altar, it means that every building project in Bali must needs to budget to build the altar, no questions asked. It is not a small matter, optional, or of a low priority, because in their minds, they simply would not tolerate an unprotected house or building.
It is refreshing to see something that is systematic and consistent in a world that is increasingly subscribing to a buffet style belief system. In a way, this is the kind of integration that I yearn for with my own belief system. I mean, the fact that every house has an altar is so mind-blowing to me. What would it look like if every Christian had the same regard for sacred things in their houses… to see their belief as central and pivotal to daily activities…