“We must be in the artistic section of Bali,” I innocently blurted out to our tour guide. He turned around with a puzzled look on his face and corrected me, saying, “This is how Bali is!”
In 2004, my former wife and I took our two teenagers to the small Indonesian island of Bali. We were looking for two things—a place to relax and enjoy a vacation and a way to expose our children to a world completely different from the western values of Europe and America. On this day we were taking our first trip away from the usual tourist towns of Sanur and Kuta. As we entered the first village I was struck by the sheer volume and diversity of artwork lining the streets. I had images of stateside towns such as Santa Fe, New Mexico or Ashland, Oregon, known for their art and theater. I was unprepared to digest the driver’s comment that this is how all of Bali was.
In America, we have become accustomed to our own version of this. It does not surprise us, in fact, we almost expect, to find a McDonald’s, a Subway, and a Starbucks in every town of any substance at all. Disembarking from an airplane in any major city, we are assaulted with the same old cookie-cutter strip malls leased by Best Buy, Ikea, and Petco with a Panda Express squeezed in for the hungry shopper. “This is how America is,” we could tell the curious traveler. The only difference is that I doubt we share this information with pride. It is not the best of who we are, but we are resigned to the fact that big money and big box stores will win out every time over the less efficient, higher priced local retailer. “This is how America is,” we admit with just a touch of embarrassment.
I was stunned by our driver’s correction of my naïve comment. As I delved further I discovered the reality of our driver’s comment about Bali and the arts going together. Every afternoon the people of Bali stop their commerce and activities. Like a Mexican siesta they retreat to their homes on schedule and honor the work of their soul. Some practice dance and music. Others dye batik clothes, make jewelry or paint pictures. Some sculpt religious figurines or throw pots. What everyone does, however, is carve out a portion of their afternoon to express themselves in an artistic way. It is part of what it means to be Balinese.
My understanding is that the Balinese government has educational trade agreements with the governments of the West. The West teaches Bali about science and technology. Bali teaches Westerners about art and culture. I believe it. We spent two weeks there enjoying the a sampling of the hundreds of art galleries and small shops. We participated in religious festivals and parades. We attended Hindu dramas and tribal dances that seemed, literally, otherworldly. It was a disorienting experience—rich and wonderful and overwhelming all at the same time.
I came home slightly shaken by the experience. It seems that so many of us in the West secretly yearn to have more time to play guitar, write that novel, paint with oils, or compose that first song. We complain that there just isn’t enough time. Between work, family, household chores, and errands there are just enough hours left for a good night’s sleep, if even that. We convince ourselves, “Next year I am going to make time to learn to play the guitar or paint with oils.” Next year rolls around and our schedules are just as packed and our lives are just as frantic as the year before. This is just how America is we convince ourselves.
In Bali, every day they seem to have time to paint, dance, sing, and sculpt. Sure, they share family compounds with three and sometimes four generations. They don’t have the convenience of a dishwasher. Plumbing is very primitive. Very few own cars and they can’t afford to have someone else come and fix their roof or clean their bathrooms. But, they paint and dance and sing and sculpt.
We all make choices. America has stuff. Bali has soul.