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Some Enchanted Island

All tourist paradises are made up. They tend to be theatrical fictions as big—or almost—as the place itself. Bali, the "isle of culture," the Eden of the Indo-Pacific, is the only one of the more than thirteen thousand islands of modern Indonesia that most Americans can name. And that name is heavily evocative. Temple dances, mysterious Hindu ceremonies, swaying palms, thatched villages and a cast of smiling maidens in bright sarongs with floral headgear and, most important, bare breasts. (The bare Balinese breasts were outlawed in the 1960s, by government decree, as being inconsistent with the new, postcolonial image of Indonesia.)

This exotic and alluring image of a green cultural mecca at the far end of a conflicted world didn't arise by accident. It was created in the 1920s and 1930s by European and American visitors. But then, after World War II, the myths were institutionalized by the Indonesians themselves, whose president, Achmed Sukarno, realized that Bali was the key to any and all profits that the newly unified nation (and, therefore, he and his family and successors) might make from tourism.

Until a recent visit, I hadn't been in Bali since 1972--nearly thirty years ago. There wasn't a single golf course on the island then, and the very idea would have struck most people as loopy. You went to Bali for the culture: the temples, the rituals, the dances, the gamelan music, the dark undercurrent of demonism that, in the hip tourist imagination, underlaid the bright surface of paradise. You went, if you were an Australian surfer, for the long waves on Kuta and other beaches. If you were a hippie, you went for the powerful magic mushrooms; if gay, for the Balinese boys. If all three, you were in clover. When I went there in 1972, with my first wife and our five-year-old son, our host was neither a hippie nor a surfer, but gay he indubitably was.

His name was Donald Friend (1915-1989), a brilliant Australian artist and diarist, one of the toughest and sweetest wits I have ever known. During his years here, Donald had acquired several acres on Sanur Beach, where he lived in a rajalike state. He was chauffeured around in an old Hudson coupe, nearly as emphysemic as himself. It was canary yellow and bore a bronze effigy of Ganesha, the potbellied Hindu elephant god, welded to its radiator cap. When Donald appeared at the Denpasar market in this crate, he did not go unnoticed.

Nor, as a host, did he do things by halves. "Have you ever seen a Balinese opera, dear boy?" he asked one evening. I had not. "We will have one the day after tomorrow," he announced with an air of mystery. The next morning, I was awakened by a hubbub in the compound. Dozens of Balinese, from two neighboring villages, were building a temporary opera house out of bamboo and palm thatch. Thirty-six hours later, there we were in the tropical dark, sitting on Donald's veranda in large rattan thrones, sipping our gin and tonics while, on the stage below, a troupe of actors and musicians performed a long piece whose convoluted plot seemed to revolve around a beautiful young prince who, deceived by corrupt courtiers and a wicked witch, turned into a frog. Stoned as a galoot, I felt like Lord Curzon at some bygone imperial durbar.

The morning after, the opera house was dismantled and taken away. I had never seen anything like this before, and—I reflected twenty-seven years later as the Indonesian Airlines plane began its shuddering approach into Ngurah Rai International—I was unlikely to do so again. /p>

Well, nothing stays the same. Consider the figures. Back in the early seventies, Bali, an island of about 2,000 square miles, had maybe 2.5 million people and received at most 200,000 tourists a year. It had only one building more than four stories high--a modern hotel, on Sanur Beach. Today there are four million Balinese residents. Two million tourists arrived in 1997. There can hardly be a major hotel chain that hasn't moved into Bali.

Expect some changes then, I thought. But once on the ground and in a taxi, I realized I hadn't come close to imagining the scale of these changes. I didn't recognize a thing. Where there were once dirt roads and open lots and palms, now the road from the airport through Kuta and Legian is one jam-packed mass of traffic, lurching erratically along between walls of shops and one-story service buildings. All the small motorbikes in the world apparently swarmed to Bali to breed. Sometimes the road opens up into a traffic circle, at whose center is a statue of the popular hero Achmed Sukarno or a baroque jumble of pop-eyed gods and demons riding in a sea chariot, illustrating some episode from the Ramayama, twenty-five feet high and done in white-painted concrete. They're beyond kitsch.


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