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The Old, The New, and Finding the Middle Ground in Bali

In many works of literature and parts of the world, people would consider modern and traditional to be binary oppositions. You can either be one or the other. If you maintain traditional customs and way of life, people might say you are out of touch with the reality in the height of the 21st century. On the other hand, if you are leaning towards the modern side, the same number of people would roll their eyes and talk about how you forget where you came from.  In my case (and many other people I know living in urban areas), as much as I would like to embrace the traditional side of my culture, I find that the modern aspects take up a bigger portion in my life –up to the point that the traditional aspects felt rather alien to me.

That’s why I was always quite amazed by how the traditional and the modern Bali can coexist really well. You can walk anywhere in the touristy part of the island, and you will still see a banten –a daily offering made of leaves and flowers- in shops and sidewalks or trees wrapped in black and white cloths. But I’ve always thought that might be just the impact of tourism. Bali is such a sought-after travel destination that they had to keep up with the constructions of facilities and amenities by holding onto their traditions. I didn’t think that was the case on a molecular level.

But oh, how wrong I was. During our last trip to Bali, we were just in time for Galungan, a Balinese holiday in which they believe the ancestral spirits visit the Earth. We asked our driver, Pak Putu, where we can see the preparations and he thought, “Why not come to my house instead? My family is also preparing for Galungan!” For some people, it may be uncomfortable or awkward to bring ‘people from work’ home, especially if they’re practically strangers. However, Pak Putu was very happy to do so, for which we are very grateful.

Upon arriving at their family home, we were greeted very warmly by his parents and siblings, who were in the middle of preparing for the feast. The whole family was gathering at the porch, sitting with their legs crossed on the floor, casually conversing as they minced and chopped away. We noticed that his father and younger brother were also hard at work tackling a pile of meat before them, which was a bit unusual for us as most traditional households assigned only the women to cook. On the contrary, Pak Putu explained that it is more of the men’s duty to cook (to feed their family in the literal sense), although women also take responsibility in it. The entirety of Galungan is about family, and the preparation itself is a bonding activity and overall a more collective duty than a gendered thing.

Much like turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving, pork acts as the main meat of the big day. From the famous sate lilit (minced meat satay), sausages, down to its steamed vegetable salad (called urap), everything is served with wonderful, flavorful pork. Yum! It was so cool to see how it’s made, and we were so happy to be allowed into their home and see the behind-the-scenes of the celebrations. We were perfectly content talking about the upcoming celebrations, having family over, and hold a praying ritual at the family temple. But suddenly, Pak Putu’s mother and older sister emerged from their kitchen with a bowl of rice and plates of dishes. “You have come all this way, the least we can do is serve you lunch,” they said. Pak Putu jokingly offered us a beer to go with it, which we brushed off with a laugh… until he returned with a big bottle in hand. How could we refuse such hospitality?

Since we were in the neighborhood, Pak Putu also took us next door, which is where some of his extended family lived. His grandmother was there, and despite the language barrier (she only spoke Balinese), we exchanged warm pleasantries. We were offered more sate lilit, this time the chicken version, and played with their adorable pug, Mary. Nearly each family has a dog or two, but I was completely besotted with this lovely lady. Much like her family, she was so warm and welcoming towards new people, and the whole atmosphere really made me feel at home.

Being in Bali at that point, talks about the volcanic eruption is unavoidable. However, the locals did not seem to shy away from the topic. Of course, the possibility of Mount Agung erupting is scary, but they believed that it is a cycle of nature and something beyond their control. “It’s like going into labor –you know the baby’s coming; you just don’t know exactly when,” Pak Putu said. “We trust in the Maker for what’s best.”

It turns out that their beliefs also play a big part in their day-to-day life. Pak Putu mentioned that the Balinese calendar is one of the most comprehensive out there, complete with the lunar cycles and lists of hari baik, which translates literally as ‘good days,’ or the most suitable days to do certain things, from planting and harvesting to getting a haircut. What’s interesting is that these beliefs are left behind as time goes by, like most of our cultures. It is simply integrated into their modern lifestyle.

Technological advances are inevitable, some adjustments need to be made (for example, Pak Putu could not stay home and cook because he was working, so the rest of his family had to make do), but the values remain as relevant and important for them to uphold. And I admire them very much to have found that balance in their lives. I could only hope that I shall achieve that level of harmony myself at some point in the future.

GoGlobalIndonesia provides volunteering opportunities in Bali that allows you to get immersed in the local culture and truly be a part of their community. For more information, check out the GGI website or contact info@goglobalindonesia.com.