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Some Enchanted Island

BUT AT LAST the oasis appears in the stifling heat: The taxi turns in to the drive of the Oberoi Hotel. Bali may or may not be a refuge from the rest of the world, but now hotels have to be refuges from the rest of Bali, and there are at least half a dozen world-class ones. None are more comfortable than the Oberoi, though. It hits just the right balance between simplicity and luxury, and the food is great, particularly the traditional Indonesian fare. (I became addicted to starting the day with a delicious rice gruel with shredded chicken in it, somewhere between a thick soup and a wet risotto, known as bubur ayam.) The service is fast and solicitous, and the fruit punches in the bar are generous, though you have to fish the frangipani blossoms out of them. The hotel's villas are distributed across acres of immaculately maintained gardens with tall flowering trees, right on Legian Beach. And the place was almost empty: The recent political unrest in Indonesia following the fall of its kleptocrat dictator Dr. Suharto had caused a wave of tourist cancellations. (There was no cause for alarm; Muslim lynch mobs might have been afoot elsewhere in the country, but in Bali, which is ninety-seven percent Hindu, Allah himself couldn't have organized a protest.) Peace, perfect peace. Lounging in such places, the visitor has an unworthy thought: Perhaps it would be more pleasant just to stay in the hotel rather than face the real Bali. But you must get out and around. And there is golf to be played.

Basic things determine the character of islands. In Bali's case, one was thalassophobia—fear and dislike of the sea. Most island societies look outward, to the ocean. Bali has always looked inward, toward the land. Formed by volcanoes, the land is rich and nurturing, the abode of the gods that created it. The sea, however, has always been viewed as a desert populated by monsters. Thus fishing, as opposed to agriculture, hardly figures in the traditional culture of Bali. Recoiling from the sea, the Balinese have never been an imperial people. Their society has always been inward turning, seeking balance and integration within its insular frame, a harmony sustained by ceaseless religious activity. The basic Balinese origin myth is one of refuge, and Bali remains the only Hindu society among the many islands of the Indonesian archipelago.

The sacredness of Bali's land rises in proportion to its height. This is, perhaps, what fostered the relatively easy relations between tourism and traditional culture. "Deep" Bali is away from the beach, but the shore is where tourism flourishes. The two layers slide without much friction. The hippie haven of Kuta Beach has turned into a raucous strip of bars, souvenir boutiques and surfer shops full of beer-chugging Australian package tourists, but there wasn't much here before. The Balinese are happy to have found, at long last, a use for that useless land—the cultivation of tourists. The same applies to the growth of golf on Bali. Back in the early seventies, the sight of an American or a Japanese whacking a little white ball around would have seemed, at the very least, odd to most Balinese. Not any more. Bali now has three championship courses, with more planned. Two of those operating are on the southern coast: the Nirwana Bali Golf Club and the Bali Golf and Country Club. A third layout, the Bali Handara Kosaido Country Club, lies high up in the northern mountains.

The Nirwana course, a 6,805-yard par-seventy-two layout on land rolling down to the sea, was designed by Greg Norman and completed in 1997. It is dotted with ten Hindu shrines, rather as though a golfer on some course in Scotland had to deal with awkwardly placed nonconformist kirks. Mercifully if you do hit your tee shot into a shrine, you can pick up and drop outside it without a penalty while muttering a prayer to Lord Shiva to fix your slice. The Nirwana is a lush green course, impeccably maintained, with rough like tropical gardens. It keeps a memory, in the subtle terracing of its slopes, of the rice paddies that once covered it. Some of these paddies are still maintained, with women working in them--not harvesting rice but searching for lost balls with that traditional Balinese agricultural implement, the six-iron. And if your second shot lands in a rice paddy?It turns up in tomorrow's bubur ayam.

AT THE NIRWANA'S most spectacular hole—the seventh, a 214-yard par three—your tee shot has to carry from one cliff top to another across a blue bay of the Indian Ocean. From here you can look out at the temple of Pura Tanah Lot, built on a small rocky island just off the coast. Pura Tanah Lot--which means, roughly, "temple of the earth in the sea"--is one of the six holiest temples of Bali (number one being Besakih, the Mother Temple). Every day hundreds of Hindu worshipers come to perform their rites here, though it can only be reached at low tide. Silhouetted against the red glow of the sunset, it is one of the most exquisite sites in Bali. And by rights you should not be able to see it from the course--although Greg Norman is a great golfer, comparative religion has never been his strong point, and he seems to have been unaware that recent Balinese law forbids building anything within two kilometers of a major temple. The ruffled religious authorities were soothed in the end, no doubt, with the palm oil that is the traditional dressing of business deals in Indonesia.

The course that most vividly shows the change in Balinese real estate, though, is the Bali Golf and Country Club, in Nusa Dua. The club is part of a gigantic government-sponsored, multihotel development on what used to be the poorest slice of Bali's southern coast. Twenty-five years ago, it was nothing but sand, coconut palms and fishermen's huts. The land wasn't worth cultivating. In those days, seaside land was the cheapest on the island. As all pious Balinese Hindus knew, the sea was inhabited by a hideousmonster named Jero Gede Mecaling, a sort of fanged dragon that swam around Bali twice a day and had to be kept offshore by a Maginot Line of small shrines. If he, or it, got past this line of defense, the creature would go galumphing inland to wreak havoc on the rice paddies. But in a face-off against Dr. Suharto, the World Bank, Hyatt, Novotel and Hilton, poor old Jero Gede didn't have a prayer, and he has retired, baffled, to the deeps. Nusa Dua struck all of the former as an ideal spot for a spanking-new tropical paradise, simply because it was so barren--construction here wouldn't mean a loss of precious rice paddies.


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