Sunday, October 17, 2010

Have you been to Bali?

Before last night, I hadn't seen a movie in anything like a movie theater setting since mid-August. Way too long. So I made plans with a young couple, both in Magelang for their student-teaching sequence, to travel south to Yogyakarta and that city's Cinema 21 theaters for a late-night showing of Eat, Pray, Love.

We drove down on motor bikes and first stopped by a Javanese cultural festival on Jalan Malioboro that was literally impassably crowded. A parade, traditional dancing, puppets, whatever. Our experience was mostly of shoving and being shoved as they crowd squeezed impatiently into the busy batik shopping district. It was like the worst of Bourbon Street and Taste of Chicago, almost like the Hawks parade this summer--just elbows and shoulders, sweat and heat, someone's foot on your heel for an hour--and we decided not to force our way into the sea of people without knowing how we'd ever get back out. We'll catch some trad dance patterns another time, thanks.

Back to the theater after dinner, we stood waiting for the previous show to let out. On the lobby sound system: The impossibly bad and I'd thought long, long forgotten late-80s/early90s throwaway "I Hate Everything About You" by Ugly Kid Joe. I remembered the song from high school but had to look up the generic hairband's name when I got back to a computer. The song sure sounded like the original but I see it's recently been covered by an Indonesian band, so maybe it was a very note-for-note tribute. Either way, another disassociative moment of pop cultural resurrection here, where people love shitty 80s metal. It's everywhere. Like if the Brat Stop were a country.

We had a few minutes to talk about the movie while waiting for the doors to open. I told my friends that part of the story was set in Bali. They were excited. Have you been to Bali? they asked. The Indonesians have a word for not yet that you hear a lot: belum. It's pronounced bell-um. Not yet, I said. Belum. Well, you should go to Bali.

I hear this a lot. You should go to Bali. I had the sense coming here that Bali was a kind of Western tourist preserve, full of divers, surfers, castaways, hangers-on, maybe art exporters, maybe a few ethnomusicologists, and women like Liz Gilbert--sun-soaked self-seekers snorkeling around in the surf. But my Indonesian friends all love the place. Many go every year. It's not unusual for talk to turn to Bali and for someone to whip out a cell phone loaded with snapshots from this beachfront bar or that scenic ocean overlook. Bali is a source of national recreational pride. But my young friends last night also said I should visit Bali because, unlike the socially conservative and very Muslim mainland of Java, Bali enjoys a unique Hindu culture that is significantly more permissive and open than elsewhere in the archipelago. I know that; you know that. But I thought it interesting that my very devoutly Muslim friends--who took leave for evening prayers shortly after we bought the movie tickets--were concerned about my social and cultural acclimation to Java. You would feel comfortable there, they said. Bali is more like your country.

I feel pretty comfortable where I'm at but I knew what they meant. Julia Roberts-as-Gilbert hits a beachfront party hard shortly after arriving in Indonesia. She orders several shots of tequila while bouncing around a dance floor with a shirtless piece of beefcake and ends up solidly hammered. I watched the movie theater crowd for reactions. I live in a city of 150,000 people and I know of only one place that serves tequila, and they don't do shots. It's the pricey restaurant of the one resort-like hotel in town that caters to Western tourists and businessmen. And even then, if you want tequila you have to buy a bad $10 margarita. Watching Roberts down shots, the crowd around me giggled. Very foreign. Vaguely provocative.

That said, I was watching the movie while drinking a cold can of Bintang Beer, the widely available and pretty bad national beer of Indonesia. They offered cans at the concession stand for the equivalent of about $2.30 and I figured a beer and a small box of popcorn was worth the $5. Beer is available everywhere, usually warm. Booze? Not so much.

Anyway, back to Bali. The island is presented in the film, of course, as a tropical paradise with mystic powers. A wizened soothsayer tapped deeply into said powers helps steer Roberts/Gilbert toward her next, best man and she finally makes the leap for good into the love-hungry arms of Javier Bardem. (Although I'm pretty sure the government censors cut some of the love-hungrier scenes; we saw very, very little skin.) Cue music.

Afterward, I asked my friends what they thought. How did the Bali of the movie compare to Bali the actual place? Both agreed it was just like in the movie. It's beautiful. It's romantic. The architecture is very unique. No objections, only praise. That was good. It was very beautiful.

No doubt. But as we made our way back onto the streets of Yogyakarta, an old and storied city that serves as a gateway for most to Central Java, we buzzed along on our bikes past gutters full of trash, past open dumping grounds for household garbage, and I wondered why other parts of Indonesia aren't meant to be beautiful and romantic too. Why only Bali?


  1. I've always imagined Bali as Hawai'i with amazing ancient architecture, having only been as close as the Pacific Island exhibits at the Art Institute. I sense a field trip coming on...

  2. Your intuition on to something. Although I'll probably see Vietnam and Laos before Bali. Other big difference between Bali and Hawai'i: Rabies.