Motorcycle Meditations / Bali

By Aditya Dev Sood with photographs by Nita Soans Sood

Orange bag on road copy My knees are spread wide, my arms loose and ready, back supple and straight. Walls of green moss on black stone, flurries of fern and plant, the waving arms of trees fly by on the right. Sheets of terraced paddy step carefully down and into the ravine on the left, giving way to distant valleys, lake, and mountain. My mind is alert but high, this is not a normal kind of wakefulness, not a dream, and not slumber. It is a different, fourth kind of consciousness, a flow state, a murmuring of interior thoughts that I seem to be pulling in and out of, pitched to the drone of the bike, the winding of the road.

Nita and I had imagined this road trip through Bali a couple of years ago, the last time we were here. Then we were weighed down with luggage and hotel bookings and yearned to be able to be able to just ride out and find ourselves in a new part of the island whenever we wanted. This time, we’ve got one rucksack, now between my knees, and a smaller backpack, slung from the handlebars, and Nita has her camera bag under one arm, and we’re off and about, on the road in Bali.

Stepped terraces copy

Seminyak to Ubud: 35 km

My friend Gaurang first brought Bali into focus for me. A few years ago, he was working as an architect out of Singapore and was looking to put together a land deal for a new resort, maybe in Bali, maybe on the island of Lombok right next to it. He asked me to come along with him for a round of land-scouting, and so, on a lark, we travelled about the two islands looking at large properties, evaluating things like the quality of the beachfront, the ease of road access, and even the intensity of prevailing winds. One evening, we were sitting in a cafe in Seminyak, on the southern coast of Bali, when he began telling me about how he'd first come to the island in the mid-nineties. Gaurang then worked for the Australian architect Kerry Hill, who has designed some of the large hotels and resorts here, and who along with Made Wijaya and others, are responsible for the contemporary Balinese style of architecture and landscape architecture, now seen in hotels and resorts the world over.

When you first come here, you think it's all about the seaside, the beaches, the surf, the Aussie bars, he said. In those days the stretch spread from Kuta up to Legian, and from there it had yet to grow out into Seminyak. But all that seems like nothing when you go up to Ubud, and you see all this creativity, people on the side of the road, just making something out of something else with their hands — driftwood, glass, cement, anything. People from all parts of the world who are into that kind of art, craft and beauty were coming in, clustering in Ubud. Gaurang and his artist girlfriend had fit right into that lotus-eating international set, and had dreamt of building in and with this culture's resources, of setting up a gallery, a center for alternative Architecture, and of course a resort, none of which, unfortunately, came to pass.

I had looked up from my coffee at the late evening streetscape and seen some of what Gaurang was talking about. There were designer shops with Eurasian names that I'd never heard of, stores selling sculpture and art, lamps and chandeliers in shapes and forms I couldn't quite place. Interspersed between all the global-mode, the traditional architecture of temples and other traditional structures could be seen, complete with curlicues and sculpture in bas relief. Everywhere there seemed a kind of voluptuousness to the visual culture that had a greater capacity for scale, variety, vibrance and drama than I had experienced even in India. The mind seemed to have to expand to let in the higher thresholds and greater possibilities of Bali.

Now, as we ride out of Bali’s urban agglomerations, we are tracing a vector of movement from that cosmopolitan Australian-Dutch-European contact culture towards a more rural and more Balinese interior. Small-scale manufacturing, automotive repair, and mini strip malls finally give way to more rural neighborhoods comprising of traditional Balinese courtyard houses. Short trees and layered shrubs line short, handsomely ornate walls, behind which rise up the family's domestic shrines. The landscape here vaguely reminds me of the outskirts of Patna, in Bihar, where you can see the same forms of agriculture and the same underlying structure to the design of courtyard homes, but not hardly so sophisticated and aestheticized as in Bali. I feel some sadness, as I begin to understand that the cross-cultural dynamism of Bali’s southern townships emerge from the continuous destruction of older settlements, these very same traditional houses, as well as of orchards and paddy fields, and an entire agrarian-traditional way of life.

Ubud is a vibrant cultural center where traditional houses and institutional architecture meets modern art galleries and cafes with elegance. The first time we came here, we rode around until we found a small cluster of villas on the edge of town being managed by a man named Wayan. You are Aditya? Yep. You are not like Balinese. No, we're from India. Oh! I thought you like Balinese from London… Aditya is Balinese name, you know. You are Hindu? Yep. Good good! The Balinese freely express their elation at meeting Hindus from outside their island. I must admit, as an ethnic Hindu, there is something uncanny about being in Bali, where so many elements of culture seem familar, but either more elemental, or else more refined and sophisticated than one ever encounters in India. The cultures of Tibet, Thailand, or Cambodia, have also long been closely linked to India's Hindu and Buddhist cultural systems, but this is still different. To encounter Balinese culture is to meet a long-lost twin, whose existence one never even knew about. And perhaps that uncanny is reinforced by being recognized and welcomed by people, like Wayan, who affirm that ancient bond.

About a century ago, when Indology was a vibrant young discipline still forging new insights into the world's linguistic and sociocultural history, a group of Indian intellectuals in Calcutta and Benares become enthused about the idea of a Greater India, which had historically extended into and possibly encompassed much of South East Asia. Subsequent findings more clearly showed that while rich and complex relationships did exist between South and South-East Asia, they never amounted to a unitary empire like that of the British. Still, Bali is, in some way, the counter-factual exemplar of that concept of Dvipantara-Bharata, an India beyond the continental land-mass of India, somehow still flourishing in ways that recall for us the world as it must have been a thousand years ago.

The history of Bali remains unique and strange, and some parts of its story appear shrouded in the aporia between diverging collective memories. The island was originally a part of the Mahapajit Empire, which was based in the large nearby island of Java, until it was overrun by surrounding Islamic powers in the 1300s. Unlike India, where Sultanate and Mughal states grew over several centuries to the most southern reaches of the subcontinent, the island character of this archipelago allowed Bali to retain a Hindu kingships despite the establishment of Islamic polities in Java and elsewhere. Perhaps this was by some mutual arrangement, or according to the terms of a truce or surrender. In all events, the Hindu religious, cultural, and intellectual elite of Java migrated to Bali in that period, resulting in a cultural concentration of a kind that such a small island might not normally generate. Cultural contact with Islamic ideas may have resulted in some changes to Balinese ritual and religious practices, particularly the ananthropomorphism, the abstracted character of their temple shrines, which seem to elaborately anticipate a deity whose form never descends to its proper seat. The isolated, island character of the society seems also to have allowed sophisticated courtly and liturgical practices to become more deeply diffused into the society, which appears more egalitarian and with a more distributed exercise of power than one ever encounters in India.

Ubud to Danau Batur: 43 km

Balinese gateway copy The Balinese have two kinds of doorways, the first of which stands for me as a marvel of aesthetic engineering on par with the Doric column, the Roman arch and the Mughal chhattri. It is used to mark the entrance to a compound, a field, or a territory. The gateway stands like a pair of bookends, making the space through which you will pass. No matter how ornate the front, back and sides, no matter how many layers and curlicues rise up on either side, the edge you pass through is clean and unmarked, as if it had been sectioned with the saw blade of your motion. I can't but think this Zen-like doorway resembles a pair of hands, folding into the namaste greeting, but pulled apart, always inviting and marking the social fact of your entry.

Legong gateway copy The other Balinese door type is all stage set, all backdrop to the unfolding of the ceremonies of entry, up three steps to a threshold, a pair of gilt panel doors, a screaming Barong gargoyle immediately above your head as you bow to enter, right leg forward, stepping ritualistically over the doorframe below, finally inside. For the last several nights in Ubud, we've been watching Balinese dance-theater performances set against the elaborate backdrops of these doorways and the ceremonial courtyards that they open into. The Kecak dance we saw last evening involved a hundred men, dressed in identical sarongs, and serving as part-performers, part-chorus, and part-audience and witness to the characters from fragments of the Ramayana story. We, the international tourists, sat as a wider concentric ring, around these two layers of performers. In spectacle and performance, in participation and audienceship, we are all collectively transported to ramrajya, the righteous Kingdom of Rama.

Banjar These performances are sponsored by different local troupes, often associated with a temple or with a local banjar, a kind of local self-governance organization, something like a panchayat, but apparently governing and deliberating more directly democratically, through the assembly and participation of the entire community. There are large banjar assembly halls throughout the countryside, often constructed as ornately as the temples and dance performance spaces that lay just adjacent to them. This rich integration of dance, theater and performance into the social logic of Balinese society can be glimpsed in a single evening's performance, it can be read out of the urban fabric and architecture of Balinese towns and settlements.

Last night we watched a Legong Dance, in which a pair of female performers receive elaborate preparations in order to be possessed by the spirit of art. In that elevated state they perform with intense energy, staring into the middle distance while performing in perfect unison and symmetry. Finally, they come to crescendo and fall backwards, out of their trance, exhausted of the energies that temporarily possessed them. A little write up on the performance, distributed to us on an A4 sheet explained that 'art spirit' was a gift of the gods, for it preserves pease and harmony in the world. To observe the culture of a society that perceives aesthetic experience as a high virtue, and which then performs and practices those ideals at every turn and every opportunity, can intoxicate the observer with aesthetic meaning, causing him to fall backwards, like a Legong dancer, into the very society that he was seeking to critically examine.

Hidden inside the folds of my memory are the writings of Clifford Geertz, who first described Bali as the ‘Theater State.’ At another time in life, when I lived more in the library than in the world, the names of places served only to identify staging areas for the demonstration of transcendental social and linguistic truths. The two Balis, the one known to me through social theory, and the one known to me by living this life, are now congealing together. I also feel a pang at the thought of my own still unpublished doctoral dissertation thesis on Hindu monastic organizations in Karnataka. That fieldwork and the dissertation writing is a lifetime away, now somehow just a halfstep away. Bali is hallowed ground for the discipline of Anthropology, for it served as a fieldsite for the founding fathers and mothers of the discipline like Gregory Bateson and Margaret Meade, like Hildred and Clifford Geertz. To be here, somehow, seems to unleash and unlock my inner Anthropologist, and makes me want to see my book come to life sometime soon.

We are en route to the live volcano Agung Batur, to the northeast of the island, a short winding ride up mountain, beyond the crafts villages of Tegallalang into green forests. We've been ascending now, up winding roads for more than an hour, when we suddenly hit Kintamani, an exquistely precarious hilltop. We can look down now, into the volcanic lake of Batur, and the volcano on its far side. Around the lake is dark rolling clumped earth sprouting tufts of fine grass. The landscape is a Chinese painting, a Japanese poem, a Balinese dance. We drive down into it, and through it, and we keep trying to capture it somehow, on photo, on video, through its visual impress on our minds.

Agung danau batur copy

Danau Batur to Banjar: 106 km

I'm getting more and more used to the bike, and to our rhythms on the road. Nita is able to open out her full-scale map of Bali out of her purse and navigate without us having to pull over and stop. We're feeling bolder, and so we choose a backroute to the town of Banjar, avoiding the coastal highway running across the north of the Island. The road loops up and around across a series of ravines which seem to cut North-South while we're moving from East to West. Close to Banjar the road starts deteriorating — first a series of potholes, then all pothole and no road at all. Climbing up these treacherous stretches Nita has to hop off, while I half-ride half-claw the bike up. Riding down again I'm careful never to break or accelerate too fast, or we'll be sprawled out all over the gravel, like that time in Ladakh a few years ago.

My shoulders are beginning to ache from the repetitive stress, I'm struggling to hold my back straight on this ride slouching now into the handlebars. Every so often we stop and ask someone, how far to Banjar? Five kilo, we hear back each time. Nita is rubbing my shoulders from time to time and we stop every so often for a breather. When we’re finally in Banjar proper, it turns out to be a really small little town, not much more than a village really, but with friendly people who all want to help us out. Pondok-Wisata-Griya-Sari, we pronounce carefully, time and again, but the town folks hands keep pointing in different directions. We eventually figure out that we're basically saying Traveler-Lodge-Home-Stay, which isn't the name of our hotel, or any hotel, just a generic type. The lodge we’re looking for is right next to a set of hot springs, which have been developed into a set of baths. We’re still hoping we’ll be able to make it today, if we can get to the lodge in good time, which is now looking like about four in the afternoon.

Air panas copy The Air Panas or Hot Springs of Banjar have a strange, striking architecture. Sulphurous water streams out of a row of dragon heads into two tanks, one feeding the other. There is something fun about feeling the warm water on your head and shoulders, as if it were the hot breath of a dragon. It is almost Disney, almost Spielberg, but saved by the simplicity and low-key character of it all. Groups of local tourists from Java and from across Bali troupe in and out of the Springs, while we stand soaking in the pool, the running water from above lashing our head and neck.

After an early dinner we fell flat into bed. I dreamt that I was in charge of a small company that kept lurching from crisis to crisis. That there were people to manage, deals to close, and projects to deliver. That I lived in a large city doomed to grow ever larger in my own lifetime, making all our resources more scarce and life more difficult in the future. When I woke up, I realised that it was all a dream, but one which recurred every morning when got up to live my everyday, non-Balinese life.

I felt a kind of hum in my head, like I was still on the bike, riding the journey of my life. And there was the realization that business and life are not like buildings to be designed or theses to be conceptualized — they’re joyrides, and all one needs to do is to use one’s natural reflexes, and respond to the road as it unwinds.

Banjar to Ubud: 72 km

Danau bratan_1 edit copy

We're climbing up towards Danau Bratan en route back to Ubud. This is the part of Bali, where two years ago, we had first thought of making this motorcycle journey.

I can't help smiling when I think of the walk I took last evening, while Nita stayed home reading. I went up to a Buddhist monastery and temple, which was on the hilltop right next to Air Panas, but which required a long detour through the town of Banjar, on account of the steep ravine in between. As I walked through the town I saw families sitting on their stoops and doorsteps, who would look up and say Hello! Hey hey, I said back, smiling. Hello! Hey hey, I'd say again, as I walked on, this time waving again.

A mother walking a child smiled and called out. A bunch of old men sitting outside a small teashop said hello, and seemed to encourage me along on my little trek. Another mom with her several kids in her verandah smiled and said hello. Every few steps I would encounter someone who would smile and say Hello! And I'd end up saying Hello! It was getting difficult to catch every single hello, especially when I encountered groups of people, in which case I tried to make sure and catch the eye of the child or the youngest person among them.

As I round a corner, a couple of older girls were playing and looking after a younger brother. Hellowhatisyourname, one of them asked me. Aditya, I yelled back. Iloveyou Aditya, she giggled back, delirious at her own mischief. I don't think so, I laughed back. Then she yelled back in Bahasa, gesticulating towards her head, making the universal sign for where has all your hair gone? I don't know, I smiled back, and crossed the street where a bunch of teenage boys were waiting to say Hello!

After a while there's a feedback-loop setting in, where the memory of my last greeting is already bringing a smile to my face which someone else in the village finds reason enough to call out and greet me. To use one's mind, face, linguistic and expressive powers to recognize and welcome another person can create a gentle and lingering euphoria, which I begin to feel now once again, just for having thought of it. This too is a kind of yoga, a joining together of the self and the body in a beneficial way.

It is raining slightly, as clouds waft gently over the lakes to hit us on the hillside roadway. This journey will soon be over, and there will be a silent sense of completeness.