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.



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.