*This blog is written by Rolf von Bueren
Myself, Helen, Nicki, Sri, Jakrin and Rai von Bueren
I grew up during and after the big war, in a time of shortages and despair in a world full of woman - most men had been killed in battle or were prisoners of war.
In Europe, when it comes to food, butter stands for wealth. In many French recipes, the more butter is added to food, the better the dish will be. We in Germany had no butter and had to be content with margarine, a poorer substitute, and we got a printed postcard with every half kilogram of margarine, showing tropical landscapes and science. We children would collect these postcards, and possibly it was there cards that sparked an interest in the tropics.
Among these fantasy landscapes was Bali. Bali was a world apart, a romantic dream that ended up being our second home after Thailand. After 55 years of regular visits and 40 years of owning a house there, the fascination still remains.
Our first home in Bali
My years in Bali from 1970s to the 2020s
A member of the Guth family - heirs to the Pepsi-Cola empire - discovered Bali and fell in love with a place along the beach, close to Seminyak, and invested nearly USD 10 million into a dream hotel which they called Kayu Aya (Oberoi Hotel). Sadly, a conflict erupted among the shareholders and they left the investment, not to return.
The above is what the bamboo drums said. We were also discovering the mysteries of Bali, and we found the Kayu Aya to be a cheap hotel where we could stay for USD5/night and could drive up to the villa over the manicured gardens.
Our visits, by now, had become a yearly event to meet friends and enjoy the Balinese cultural happenings and great parties. We were incredibly lucky to have met Theo Meier who introduced us to Bali, its culture, to the friends he had there. Theo was one of the two neutral Swiss who were not deported by the Japanese during their occupation and he received a packet full of medicine every month, which he then distributed all over the northeast of the island, the cultural hot spot of Bali, walking from village to village. Without Theo’s knowledge, we would probably have been normal tourists. Theo showed us the soul of Bali, as well as an understanding and respect for the culture. We always wore sarongs when going out, with a saput cloth that is worn on top of the sarong to signal a formal occasion, like going to a temple or a cremation.
Myself with Prince Tjokorda Gede Dangin and the other Agungs ( Princes and their wives )
Two of our English friends, Harry Fane and Mark Shand, had acquired land a few kilometers to the south along the beach and were building their villas, which inspired us to follow suit. I found a marvelous piece of land about 700m beyond their place on the beach, protected by a large lagoon in front and rice terraces behind.
Crossing the Lagoon – Harry Fane, Nicki and Sri von Bueren
In my mind, the combination of beach and terraced rice fields formed the essence of Bali, and I got a group of friends to invest together, buy the land and build. The compound was designed by an Australian architect named Michael White, better known by his Balinese name, Made Wijaya, writer of the popular newspaper column Stranger in Paradise: Diary of an Expatriate.
Michael White, better known by his Balinese name, Made Wijaya ( the red haired architect )
The land was non productive, meaning it could not grow rice - only coconuts -and was therefore cheap. There was also no road and could only be accessed via the lagoon during low tide. We had to buy a piece of road to connect to the village. There was also no electricity and water. We had been so used to flicking on a switch, but there were no switches! The cost of generators, therefore, had to be included into the investment.
The beach from our home
We recruited personnel, agreed that the generator would run until 9pm, asked a bamboo xylophone duo to play every night until no more movement was heard and everybody was asleep.
The village next door was not yet in the cash economy and would not name a price for trees or plants that we requested for our gardens.
We would all gather in July/August to spend the summer together which falls into the cool season in this part of the southern hemisphere. Cool, meaning that a light sweater is needed at night.
A wonderful camaraderie developed, from contributing food to our communal meals, helping each other with garden chores, pointing out good restaurants, yoga together on the beach, and joint parties with Balinese performances.
Helen, Sylvia Wiegand, Andreas Wiegand, Nicki
Max Weber, the famous German-Dutch zoologist and biogeographer, and his Balinese wife, Oka, were most helpful to in arranging and facilitating whatever our commune desired. In the morning, freshly caught fish and lobsters were delivered from the village, good wine was sourced from Jakarta, and special lamps or sculptures could be commissioned from an artisan in Ubud.
Helen and Max Weber
Bintang Boozers football team
Our family was crazy about wind surfing which was quite a challenge due to the high waves on our beach. A German from Hawaii, Klaus Simmer, became our coach.
Wind surfing in Bali
When the German Walter Spies was thrown into prison by Japanese, the Balinese would come every night with an orchestra and play music for him outside the prison. The Balinese loved him, as he was a gifted artist and musician.
Bali is for these who are romantic, and apart from that, I always wondered what other westerners saw in Bali, what attracted them. One day it dawned on me after 25 years. The west has to a great extent lost its religion, and plain materialism governs the day. When being in Bali one is constantly reminded of metaphysics, of religious motivations, of symbols, and I believe that this is part of the Balinese attraction, the tickling of our western sub-conscience and the reminder that there is more to life than material values.
In Bali, consciously or not, westerners are reminded everywhere by a living religion. In the morning every Balinese offers little palm leaf woven baskets filled with rice and adorned with a frangipani in front of their houses as an homage to the spirit of the Earth. Villagers celebrate special festivals by placing beautiful Penjor bamboo poles decorated with edible items along the village roads.
Penjor bamboo poles with decorations for festivals
Temples change their looks once or twice a month depending on the lunar calendar, and one sees lines of ladies carrying offerings on their heads approaching the temple. They say that up to 15% of the total Bali harvest goes to the temple, and in the past, temple celebrations were a kind of redistribution of wealth.
A Beautiful Procession in Tabanan, Bali
A Balinese Tari Tenun (weaving dance), performed in 1984
Many Balinese would grow up speaking 3 languages – low and high Balinese and Indonesian - which they learnt in school. Brahmins would often also speak the religious language, making it 4 languages to master. The correct application of high and low Balinese would reflect their social skills. When a Balinese talks to a Prince, he needs to address the higher person in high Balinese and the Prince answers back in low Balinese. A hilarious conversation of this cultural speak has been narrated in a travel literature book “Views from Abroad – The Spectator Book of Travel Writing” published in 1988, which I encourage everyone to read.
Symbolism and taboos were everywhere. Only woman would carry goods on their head; no man would walk under items of women’s clothing – not even thieves. Cremations took months to prepare and were extremely expensive, and the whole village would rally around such an event.
We even attended a cremation for rats! In the Hindu religion, the rat is associated with Lord Ganesha and cannot be killed, but at times , rats eat whole crops and culling becomes necessary, in which case some are cremated at a huge cost to appease Lord Ganesha and show him that respect was paid to his animal.
One night, we heard ferocious gamelan music as we were on our way home. A trance dance was going on with 2 young girls with their eyes closed dancing in a confined space, but not touching each other. Theo Meier, who was with us explained that the village had lost its crops to insects 3 years in a row and decided to hold a trance dance to request the gods to bless the village with good crops in the future. Every village has its resident spirit medium who can talk to the gods and plead for whatever is required. Often, they have problems coming back to this world and need to be offered a raw egg from a black chicken or, in more serious cases, even need to bite off the black chicken’s head!
I remember taking film director Roman Polanski to a Pengerebongan ceremony. There were no other foreigners there, and the temple was packed with up to a thousand Balinese that one could hardly breathe. Roman was a realist and had his camera ready, but we hung around for 40 minutes without much action. Suddenly, the cloth covering the heads of 3 rangdas demons - the worst witches one can think of, the ultimate manifestations of evil - were removed. Upon seeing the rangdas, about 50 or more Balinese fell into a trance, jerking violently and tried to reach the rangdas to kill them. They were each immediately held down by 2-4 people. It was such a pandemonium – this image of flailing, possessed individuals and others sitting on them to hold them down – that Polanski, the famous film director, forgot to film!
Roman Polanski, Emmanuelle and Myself
The Legend of 'RANGDA', Bali's Queen of Demons
We in the west are getting slowly becoming aware of our mysterious conscience after having lost the awareness for a long time. The medieval times were more accepting of metaphysical matters but in more modern times, the west believed they had conquered nature, and more or less denied the existence of metaphysics. However, the emergence of meditation and acupuncture in the west have upset this scientific outlook of a controllable conscience and have opened up question marks.
I myself, have practiced meditation for over 20 years at the insistence of my wife, Helen, who was fed up with my aggressiveness, and I admit that it has worked. A daily morning session of 15-20 minutes stays with me all day and has calmed me down considerably.
Bali remained a tropical fantasy until electricity came to the village, followed by more and more tourists. Sleepy Ubud became a hot spot of tourism and acquired Michelin Star restaurants. Many westerners invested in garment factories and handicraft manufacturers; they lived their own life, separate from the Balinese. There was mutual respect for each other, but little interaction. In our early days, we were seeking to understand the cultural differences between the customs of East and South Bali for example. Most of that does not occur any more. The curiosity of the western camp has stopped, and now it’s only a small group of old-time westerners who meet at Made’s Warung to reminisce about old times.
Dinner at the original and first Made’s Warung, near the famous bemo corner - H.E. Gabrielle Menegatti, Helen, Myself, Sylvia Wiegand
Today Bali is a “brand” in tourism. It welcomes more visitors than it has inhabitants, and many of the old religious and social taboos and customs have been lost or diluted. Traffic has become a nightmare, and plastic from tour groups gets washed on to the beaches, thought there are serious efforts to collect and reduce the use of plastic. Modernity has come into every village and big money is trying to build shopping centers in protected places. Traditionalists are opposing these plans, and the battle is on to find an equilibrium between nature, the past, tradition, and modernity. But it is become a case of “Paradise Lost” in the name of mass tourism.