B A L I A N D L O M B O K
BALI: AN UNEXPECTED PLEASURE
Nusatenggara - "the south-eastern islands" - it sounds less romantic in English than it does in Indonesian. It even suggests that there must be something a bit miscellaneous about them, almost that they are geographical leftovers. And indeed, apart from geology and climate, they do not have very much in common. Those that are familiar to the outside world are famous, or notorious, for very different reasons. The biggest of the group and the most south-easterly is Timor. Another large island, south of the main group, is Sumba, a great place for weavers. But most of the islands lie strung out across the ocean like the eroded vertebrae of some long-dead sea monster. Flores and Sumbawa are the biggest, but few people outside Indonesia have heard of them. Between them lies a tiny island that everyone knows about: Komodo, famous for dragons. And at the western end of the sea monster's spine you will find Lombok, just beginning to penetrate the sunseeking tourist's consciousness, and between Lombok and Java perhaps the most famous, least understood island in the world - Bali.
I had better not pretend to understand the soul of Bali; I am not a Balinese. Still, one of my grandparents came from Central Java, which was the birthplace of the Hindu culture we now regard as the essence of Balinese life, so I can regard the Balinese as distant cousins. Much more important, modern Bali is Indonesian. The Indonesian language, way of life, administration, attitudes - these are firmly in place, overlying the traditional life of ritual and craftsmanship (still expressed in the Balinese language), and underpinning the surface gloss of international travel and commerce (expressed with increasing confidence in English).
The Balinese have always had, even more than other Indonesians, a genius for absorbing and then changing ideas and knowledge from other countries. I remember a professor at my university, an orthodox Hindu from Calcutta who admitted that he felt alien in a Moslem society. After he had been in Java a year or two, he took his wife and children to Bali for a holiday. They departed in high spirits, telling everyone they would be away for a fortnight. Three days later they re-appeared, saying nothing about their experience but evidently deeply shocked. Hinduism in Bali is not even superficially like Hinduism in India, and the professor must have feared for the safety of his soul if he remained.
Hinduism came to Bali over a thousand years ago, but until about 1500 AD Balinese kings and their ministers were controlled by the Hindu rulers of Java. When the last Hindu-Javanese kingdom fell to the forces of Islam, its traditions, regalia and many of its people crossed the narrow straits and took refuge in Bali, where they continued pretty well undisturbed for another four hundred years. For various reasons, Islam never penetrated the populous south and east of Bali, and Christian missionaries were not encouraged to go there. The Dutch left the Balinese more or less alone until 1900, though they knew the island well and were fascinated by its culture as well as shocked and titillated by the Hindu custom of widow-burning. So Bali developed for centuries in isolation, rather like a sort of miniature Japan, developing a style of its own which is instantly recognisable, and which nowadays therefore is spread like butter over airports, five-star hotels and other intrusive buildings.
Lombok, next door to the east, has a more prosaic but equally violent history. Its people are mostly Moslem, with a Hindu minority descended from the Balinese who ruled the place in the days when its original Sasak inhabitants were primitive animists. The Sasak had a hard time from their neighbours and then from the Dutch, although the Dutch did do a little to improve water distribution. Lombok is in the transition zone between tropical wet South-East Asia and tropical dry Australasia; it has suffered from recurrent drought and famine. At the moment, it is a fertile, friendly and altogether delightful spot, more relaxed than Bali and definitely one of my favourite islands. About its future, I am not so sure.
Everyone tells you Bali has been spoilt by tourism. Even the Balinese, if pressed, will look gloomy and say, "Yes, of course, Bali is ruined." I don't think they believe this themselves. We first went to Bali on honeymoon in 1962, and I find that in many ways those thirty years have greatly improved it. It depends on what you want, or expect, to see. Bali was never a happy, innocent tropical paradise of artists who did a bit of rice farming on the side. It was a complex, inflexible society of clever and sensitive people who had to work enormously hard to get a living from a hostile landscape. Most of western Bali and much of the north is still infertile and sparsely populated; tourists don't go there much. The Bali the world knows about is the eastern half, especally the south-east corner, where rushing rivers cut long, narrow valleys through the foothills of Gunung Agung. Agung, the volcano, has made this part of Bali fertile but has often destroyed it. The terraced fields that climb the hillsides create some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, but their building and maintenance demand many skills and continual labour.
Bali is a place where the tensions of tropical life are focused and intensified. Every middle-aged Balinese today has lived through two terrible experiences: the eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963, and the anti-Communist massacre two and a half years later. Older people remember the Japanese occupation and the revolution. In the 1960s there were people still living who could recall the final Dutch takeover of the island in 1906 and 1908, marked by ritual mass suicide and the burning or bombardment of temples and palaces.
Against such a background, my complaint in 1962 that you couldn't get a decent meal in Bali unless you knew some very influential people will sound trivial and unworthy. Still, the lack of good food was a facet of Balinese poverty and a result of Balinese suffering. I have no time for tropical paradises that depend on the local population being kept poor and exploitable. Mass tourism has put many areas of the world under stress. The Balinese have accepted this and are responding to it. Their new way of life is very different to the old one, but the old survives within it. And they can take some credit, I think, for turning the invaders' weapons against them. An English friend who lived for years in Bali writes to me from Singapore about a recent visit, "The Balinese were as ever: predatory and charming."
We landed at Denpasar late at night, after a difficult passage from Ujung Pandang. Exceptionally bad weather had paralysed flight schedules and we had waited eight hours in the departure lounge. We were anxious about our baggage, which we knew had been sent to Surabaya by mistake. But, behold, there were our bags, waiting for us in the left luggage office, and the bus to the hotel was waiting for us too.
Bali's problems of too much traffic and too many tourists have been tackled by building a dual-carriageway by-pass round the east side of Denpasar, calling at the airport and terminating in the enormous hotel and leisure complex of Nusa Dua. This occupies what used to be a rather desolate shoreline, backed by mangrove swamp. The idea of shunting planeloads of people straight there from the airport seems to me a sensible one. The hotels are well appointed and comfortable, the food tolerable, sometimes rather good. A sensible regulation limits the height of buildings to that of a palm tree, and although some architects have over-estimated what a palm tree can do, there are no objectionably tall blocks. Local materials and styles have been quite well adapted to the design of 300-bedroom hotels, a building type never dreamt of in Bali until a few years ago. The stone carvings that decorate and emblazon every surface and corner, and pop out at you from every nook and alcove, may not be works of art but the craftsmanship is skillful. And the interesting parts of Bali are left relatively free for those who want to see them.
The first thing you will notice about Balinese food in Bali is that it is very hard to find. On a previous visit I had had babi gulung, a sucking pig roasted whole on a spit in the seafront gardens of my hotel, and I had eaten bebek betutu cooked by monks in a trench full of glowing embers. Probably you can still find both of these, but the hotels and restaurants we visited on our latest trip were serving almost nothing that could be regarded as specifically Balinese. I asked François Waller, the Food and Beverage Manager of the Nusa Indah Resort, about his foreign visitors. "The most difficult are the French and the British," he said. "The easiest are the Italians: as long as you give them Italian food, they're happy. If I propose one single Indonesian dish on the menu, the tour operator takes it off and replaces it with pasta." I had already been looking at the menus of the hotel's various restaurants, one of which, at the Brasserie La Lagune, was full of intriguing combinations of eastern and western food. François told us that the menu had been compiled by his predecessor, an Austrian called Otto King, who had worked with several of the Nusa Dua hotels and now ran his own restaurant a few kilometres away by the side of the main road. He also suggested we should eat at a seafood restaurant nearby which he thought represented contemporary Balinese food; he said it was very successful, government ministers always went there when they were in Bali.
A few days later we talked to another F&B Manager, Bernard Rast of the Putri Bali hotel. He told us he had worked in South-East Asia before going home to take over his father's restaurant in Switzerland. After two years, he couldn't stand Europe any longer ("You feel as if you are in a box") and came back. However, he had no illusions about Bali, which he thought had developed its tourist trade too quickly for its own good. He invited us to tour the hotel kitchens and introduced us to the Executive Chef, Thierry Gasnier, and the Balinese sous-chef, I Made Winaya, who produced an excellent lunch of grilled chicken and grilled fish, with a salad of sweetcorn and squid which he had developed from a local dish.
I was to be reminded of this a week or two later, when I was talking to Genevieve Harris, Chef at the Bathers Restaurant on Sydney Harbour. Genevieve had quite recently returned to Australia after spending a year as chef at one of the very luxurious and exclusive Aman Resort hotels on the east coast of Bali. (I was highly flattered when she told me she had been inspired to go there after watching me cook bebek betutu at a demonstration in Sydney's Gas Cooking School.) She described how she had worked with her local kitchen staff, developing dishes that they were familiar with at home but had not thought worthy of offering to foreign guests. It was the old problem of convincing people that what seems ordinary to them is - or can be transformed into - just what other people are looking for.
Three restaurants that we ate at in Bali seemed to me to typify the present state of tourist and public eating. The first was the seafood restaurant that government ministers are said to patronise. It had an enjoyably laid-back atmosphere and the food was not bad, but the menu and cooking were unimaginative and rather expensive. Against my better judgment, I was persuaded to order a seafood platter, which looked like a low-tide massacre, served in a dish too small for it. As so often happens, the fish and shellfish had been severely overcooked, and of course they were served the Indonesian way, with all their bones, shells and claws more or less intact. This doesn't worry me because I was brought up to it, but adapting William Morris - "have nothing on your plates that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be edible" - I conclude that at least some of the filleting should be done in the kitchen.
Otto King's Bali Edelweiss restaurant is a small square building with perhaps a dozen tables. The place is run by Otto and his Indonesian wife as a kind of missionary outpost of gastronomy. It is simple, even basic - no air-conditioning in the main restaurant area - but beautifully decorated and equipped, using Balinese and Austrian themes without patronising either. Otto, who is still a freelance consultant to several international hotels, turned out to be much younger than we had expected, a thin, intense man with lank hair and side whiskers, evidently burning up calories to provide limitless energy and fuel a constant stream of ideas and talk. His menu is eclectic but there is no feeling of straining for effect. He likes and admires Indonesian food but sees no reason to compete with local warung-keepers who are specialists and have total control of their product from start to finish - something that hotel chefs, as he pointed out, do not have. He uses spices and chillies sparingly. I ordered the seafood platter because I wanted to compare it with the one I had had the night before; it arrived in a huge and very beautiful earthenware bowl, which Otto said was from Lombok, and everything was lightly cooked and tender, done in the Indonesian way but dressed and served western-style with a tartar sauce.
We were also given good large plates to eat off. Indonesian restaurants tend to use plates that are too small to let the diner manipulate food comfortably, and this of course is because big plates are expensive. Otto is cost-conscious when it comes to materials, and imports little apart from Australian beef. He is concerned equally to provide his customers with food they can enjoy, and to train local chefs. His prices would be too high for most Balinese people (though I hope he will get at least the occasional government minister dropping in for dinner), but there is nothing precious or extravagant about his food. Other dishes we ate included a parfait of tomatoes and dill with crabmeat, with avocado and tiny shrimps, and two sauces; a real Hungarian goulash; and cevapcicci - little sausages of minced pork with sauerkraut and mashed potato.
Otto told us that we should have a look at the Amanda Food Center, and on our last night in Bali we ate there. It is also on the main road to the airport, a brash new white-painted building, about the size and shape of a large chapel. The nave is lined on both sides with food stalls, about thirty of them altogether, like those you might see in a street market, but sparkling clean and very new. Behind them we could see cooking and washing facilities, also spotless. In fact, the place had only been open about six weeks when we went there. You can look around at what the stalls are selling, order what you want and eat it at any vacant table. The stalls are let to individual traders, and the proprietors hope that many regions of Indonesia will be represented. When we were there, slightly over half the stalls had been let, though only about half of those were active. We saw Central and East Java food, Jakarta, Padang (inevitably) and Chinese; significantly, there was no stall selling Balinese food. The place was almost empty, and the electronic organ silent on the chancel steps, but this was because it was already late in the evening and the dinner-time rush was over; it was the first day of the fasting month and the local Moslem population naturally ate as soon as the sun went down.
When I talked to people who managed the Center, I learned that it was intended to cater for a specific market: staff from the Nusa Dua hotels, who wanted good food but could not afford to eat in the area because wealthy foreigners had driven prices too high. I was surprised the Nusa Dua branch of the state-run hotel school hadn't spotted this market as an ideal training ground for their students. I shall be even more surprised if the Food Center doesn't fill up rapidly with tourists, since most dishes cost less than £1, many only half that. We had soto Madura, ayam goreng Kalasan, gado gado and bahwan tahu - quite a gastronomic tour, and all good. [The Amanda Food Center closed within three years.]
Of course, these experiences left the heart of Bali unvisited. Undoubtedly the most all-round satisfying meal that we had was in a lovely old Balinese family home, at the top of the hill in Ubud, sitting in an open-sided pavilion or bale and enjoying a midday breeze lightly perfumed with the scent of rice ripening in the fields around us. Minced pork cooked in little banana-leaf packets; sate; shredded chicken; several dishes of lightly-cooked, lightly-spiced vegetables; these were personal versions of dishes found all over Indonesia, cooked by someone who had travelled all over the world but remained completely Balinese. This is the great gift that Bali gives to its people, the ability to know the world and do well in it, and to retain the character of their upbringing. Indeed, my friend complained at some length of the problems of being Balinese, the infinite obligations to family, village, and temple; she looked forward to her next trip to Europe and America as a holiday from them, but it obviously never crossed her mind to ignore or forget them. Her husband stayed at home when she went away, minding their various businesses; she complained more that when she came home he never went travelling himself. "Why should I?" he asked. "The food is much better here."
Some people say Lombok is like Bali was thirty years ago. It would be more accurate to say that Lombok is like Lombok was thirty years ago, but even that would be misleading. This island has a distinct personality of its own, but it is less vivid than Bali's, more passive and I think less able to defend itself against the outside world. In the twenty-two months that elapsed between my last two visits, the island was assaulted by hotel mania; large areas on the west and south coasts, including many of the best beaches, have disappeared behind high fences, brightly painted with the names of international hotel chains. The outcome of all this activity may be good, but I wonder if there will be enough visitors to fill all the bedrooms that are planned; and if there are, whether the necessary infrastructure - air services, food supplies, transport - can be provided without ruining the rather fragile charm of this small green place.
The flight from Bali takes fifteen minutes, and the in-flight catering is a peppermint and a glass of water. If the weather is good, you will have an unforgettable view of Gunung Agung away to the north, rising godlike through the clouds. If it is early morning, you will see below you the fishing boats making for home, their brightly-coloured sails like arrow-heads on the blue. Then you swoop down over ricefields, tiny one-family brick factories and a Chinese cemetery of multicoloured tombstones, and bump, there you are.
Most of the modern commercial activity of Lombok is gathered into a single narrow strip along the main east-west road. To the north, hills and mountains lead the eye into the clouds, or in fine weather to the high peak of Gunung Rinjani; to the south, one becomes more gradually aware of a softer countryside of rolling farmland and small hills, and a coastline of little bays and peninsulas to contrast with the more rugged northern coast, dipping sharply into the sea. But even the north coast has some wonderfully beautiful, deserted beaches, and it is on these that the hotels are appearing. The oldest of them, and the one which has perhaps the best location of all, is the Senggigi Beach Hotel, set astride its little sandy peninsula, facing west across the strait to Bali, Agung and amazing sunsets. Comfortably-appointed bungalows stand about under the coconut palms, and when we went outside on our first morning we found the ground covered with huge coconut-palm flowers, each with a dozen or twenty embryonic coconuts inside its hard, split sheath. Tales of coconuts dropping on people's heads are perfectly well-founded, and can have fatal endings, so a local expert comes round at regular intervals to lop off the flowers and protect the hotel's reputation.
We spent a couple of days driving decorously round the island in the hotel manager's car, with its excellent and articulate driver, Pak Nafat. The roads are narrow and twisty, and in town much of the traffic is still horse-drawn, so you drive slowly and the island seems bigger and more enticing as a result. There are very few sights and almost nothing that I can imagine becoming a tourist trap, although you never know. We revisited the Hindu temple and gardens at Narmada, and looked nervously down into the unfenced sluices of the irrigation works at Desa Gebong. Narmada was built to the orders of a Balinese king about 200 years ago, the sluices and canals to the orders of the Dutch a century or so later. The hard work on both projects was done by local Sasak peasants, mostly unpaid. How they felt about it all was not recorded. The irrigation works did at least bring water to the ricefields, but mainly so that farmers could pay higher taxes. The gardens reproduced in miniature the sacred mountain, Gunung Rinjani, which the king had become too old and fat to climb, but on which his ceremonial presence was required from time to time to ensure the prosperity of his people.
Another journey was along the north-west coast road from Senggigi, which rises and falls as you cross the rocky ridges between one bay and the next. Most of the beaches here are narrow, with coarse, black sand and a litter of coconut debris, but their isolation and palm trees make them beautiful. There are no ricefields here, but on the hillsides you can see vegetable plots. The few people that we passed on the road looked well fed but very poor, perhaps the poorest we had seen anywhere in Indonesia. There are some nice old mosques in this area, looking timeworn and comfortable, apparently because the villages can't afford to build new ones.
A little further on, the hills draw back from the sea and the coastal plan is well-watered and carpeted with rice. This is a mixed Moslem and Hindu area, and Pak Nafat told us there are still many Hindu-Buddhists here, whose religion is a direct link to the ancient Javanese past and the builders of Borobudur and Prambanan. The Balinese-style houses and shrines were loaded with offerings for Kuningan, the tenth and last day of Galungan, which is one of the major festivals of the Balinese year of 210 days. Everyone was more prosperous here than in the mountains; most of the houses in Tanjung have a TV aerial on a bamboo mast, though very few have graduated to the satellite-tracking parabolas that disfigure wealthy neighbourhoods in the cities.
Further still, another change in the landscape, which becomes once more poor and dry, producing little except stones and gravel from empty river-beds. And so we went onwards, through dry patches and wet patches of a landscape whose geology seems to become more and more confused, through a village with the lovely name of Amor-amor, past the smallholdings of army veterans, past a shed in which two men were pounding rice with heavy wooden pestles in a stone mortar, past fences made of cut stakes that had taken root and become hedges, and then, turning inland up a steep-sided valley, we climbed to Senaru. The clouds were still clamped right down on the central massif, but the view near at hand was splendid, with a hillside from which several separate waterfalls burst through the curtain of jungle ferns and creepers. This is called Singang Gila.
We had lunch in the coffee-shop looking across at the fall, and one of the locals, called Yoet, gave me his business card and offered to conduct us up Rinjani. He said we could do it, to the top and back, in 28 hours. I promised to keep the card for next time. Then the sky opened and a torrent of rain fell, making clouds of mist rise at once from the valleys and turning the whole landscape into a Chinese painting.
Lombok food, it has to be said, is unremarkable. The most unusual dish we found, in a restaurant in town, was sate sumsum, a satay made of bone marrow. The best food we had was in the restaurant of the Senggigi Beach Hotel, under its thatched roof hung with carved and painted guardians - angels, monsters, horses, dragons and mermaids flying through the air. The chef, Yularso Winduharjono, took me shopping with him one morning to the pasar in Mataram town. These market places are not for anyone with claustrophobia. Their narrow, uneven alleys are jammed with people, stalls are packed close together, ceilings or tented coverings are often very low. But there is no public place where you can be closer to the heart of Indonesian life than in a market. There are few places where you can be further from that heart than in a big tourist hotel. It was encouraging to see that on Lombok at least there is still a direct link between the pasar and the hotel kitchen. When all those new hotels are built, can the link hold?