Hanging out with the Dali of Bali

Jeremy Atiyah discovers the surreal, serene island where locals and foreigners alike turn living into an art

I USED to find Bali hard to believe in. Geographically, the island was practically an extension of Java, one of the most crowded places on earth. This was Indonesia, a jungly, chaotic and slightly menacing country - but at the same time it was home to the notorious Kuta Beach, crowded with surfers and Sheilas. If anything, it sounded like the worst of all possible worlds.

Nor was I much tempted by the history of European colonisation in Bali. At the start of our own century, the Dutch were still butchering the locals. And Gauguin-wannabes who should probably have been fighting Hitler were dropping out here, waxing lyrical about little brown men and canoodling with topless Balinese girls under the pretence of being artistically creative, all the while lamenting the "commercialisation" of the island. Well, come to think of it, I might have done the same. But it was incredibly irritating to think that others had got there so long ago. What could the much-vaunted joys of Bali amount to in 1999, if not a gigantically stale cliche?

To smooth things along, I put myself in an almost unimaginably upmarket hotel, the Bali Hyatt in the beach resort of Sanur. Vast gardens of mature coconut palms spread away in all directions. At breakfast-time I sat in the open air under a thatched roof surrounded by carved wood and weather- blackened statues of wild-eyed Hindu gods. Steaming clouds swirled about the trees, cool raindrops tinkled in the goldfish ponds. More moss seemed to grow on those statues even as I ate my shining slabs of mango and papaya. Gentle people in Balinese head-wraps greeted me at every turn.

But what about the real Bali? I took a day trip to the centre of the island, past volcanoes surrounded by black cloud and terraced paddy fields where the water curved round hills like mirrors. The first stop was to see a Barong play, part local pantomime, part mishmash of temple rites cobbled together for tourists.

In the audience we were perhaps a hundred people; the German sitting next to me had a camera lens half a metre long. Cymbals and strings rippled and billowed across the scene; off-stage was the usual perfect arrangement of trees and lava-stone gods. The action came and went, a tiger with a beard full of flowers, dancing girls with swivelling eyes and bare feet, a roaring, quivering monster, a sad boy who died in a bundle of feathers, a boar, a giant cock. There was explosive stomping, a little bestiality, traces of pathos, much spectacle and tons of technical aplomb. Despite my fears about feeding from the trough of tourism, I soon found myself sipping from the lightness and beauty of the Island of the Gods.

There are a thousand temples on this little island: territorial temples, market temples, public temples, family temples. Driving the narrow lanes of the island, in fact, you seem to see only one industry: temple-building. Bali does have mess - road-works, construction - but beauty invariably lurks around the next corner. Men in yellow silk sarongs, little walls, shrines, gateways and towers of red brick graced by stone carvings: sections of grey volcanic tuff, chiselled into demons and deities.

Like their temple carvings, the daily life of the Balinese is governed by protocols of staggering complexity. Taxi drivers told me of the need to make offerings in the family temple every day after dinner. A tour guide spoke of ritually slaughtering pigs in the front courtyard of his temple every 15 days. I was told of ceremonies for every day, week, fortnight, month, century etc. I saw little leaf-trays containing rice and fragrant flowers - offerings to the gods - in villages, in temples, even in the airport terminal. And the ancestors? Another complex affair in Bali, though not necessarily one of grief. "We bury our dead maybe for a year or two," a guide told me. "Then the priest will tell us the propitious day for a cremation. We dig up the body and cremate it and have a party. Everybody is happy."

I drove through the village of Batubulan, the centre of stone-carving in Bali. Anyone with a large garden in need of ornamentation would be mad not to come here: the village is jammed with enough statuary to keep Buckingham Palace and Versailles stocked with Hindu gods and goddesses for the next 2,000 years. If that wasn't enough, I then came to the wood- carving village of Mas. It was a similar story: house after house stocked with fantastically beautiful objects. Weeping Buddhas, lithe Ramayana figures, animals, masks, pieces of furniture.

Balinese art, never forget, is real art. It is not simply a matter of churning out the same old artefacts for the consumption of tourists. There are dynamic artistic traditions here. In the middle of Bali, above the rice terraces, lies the miraculous town of Ubud where nobody lifts a finger except for the sake of art or religion.

The day I walked into Ubud I began to sense that it might take more than a world war to drag me away. This is a town where even the bank is built in the form of a temple. The first thing I saw was the Ubud Palace, where dozens of men in head-wraps were hard at work preparing for the cremation of the wife of the local chieftain. Cutting, carving, planing, flattening gold paper on to frames, erecting a temporary four-storey roofed tower of bamboo. A sign in the local tourist office announced that tourists would be most welcome to attend the cremation spectacle themselves. Other signs invited tourists to attend the Fire and Trance Dance, scenes from the Mahabharata and the Shadow Puppet play. In short, to join in the local joy.

Quiet lanes lined by frangipani trees and courtyard homes ran off in all directions. Down these lanes I found what may be the best-value hotels on earth. Stylish little rooms under trees in grassy miniature palace- style gardens were available for about pounds 3. If you could stretch to pounds 15 you would have a swimming-pool in the garden. Over thoughts of dropping out, I took a lunch of fish in coconut leaf with green chilli and coriander, washed down by a mint and mango cocktail - for next to nothing - then strolled away to become an art-buyer. I snapped up two large, heavily framed pieces - a Barong monster and a Balinese dancer - before skipping down to the house of Antonio Blanco.

Of all the pretentious good-for-nothing European layabouts who have ever dropped out in Bali, this immodest Catalan has done it with by far the greatest panache. High above the Wos Timor river, and three grown-up children later, he still lives with the Balinese woman he met nearly 50 years ago, having first spotted her working on a temple construction site. I would have dismissed this as a tawdry Spanish fantasy had I not just met a group of straight-backed young women carrying massive baskets of bricks on their heads myself.

Antonio Blanco leaves his fabulous house open for visitors to wander round. A sign announces the determination of this artist to "serve the mythical goddess of beauty diligently". Through avant-garde little poems made of cut-out pieces of text, erotic paintings of pre-pubescent girls and photographs of himself with the King of Spain, this particular Dali of Bali makes it perfectly clear that at 86 years old he is still defiantly proud of the madness that once tempted him leave his home for a place on the Island of the Gods.

FACT FILE

bali

Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines and the Bali Hyatt Hotel. Contact Hyatt's worldwide reservations (tel: 0845 758 1666). Until 28 February, double rooms in the Bali Hyatt cost from US$80 (around pounds 49) plus 21 per cent tax.

The most direct route to Denpasar, Bali, is via Singapore with Singapore Airlines (tel: 0181-747 0007). It flies daily, with returns from pounds 555 plus pounds 20 tax. An interesting alternative is to fly to Singapore for pounds 490 return, plus pounds 26 tax, with Singapore Airlines and make your way to Bali by land or sea, or by cheap domestic flight from Singapore to Jakarta and then overland to Bali. Garuda (tel: 0171-486 3011) offers some of the cheapest fares to Bali. It flies three times a week, via Frankfurt and Bangkok, with return flights from pounds 425 return plus pounds 20.

Further information

The Indonesian Tourist Promotion Office 3-4 Hanover St, London W1R 9HH (tel: 0171-493 0030). It offers a variety of useful free publications, such as the Travel Planner, Tourist Map of Indonesia and Calendar of Events for Bali and the whole archipelago.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game