Insights into Balinese culture


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Asia » Indonesia » Bali
May 14th 2018
Published: May 15th 2018
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As we leave the calmness of our hotel and venture out into various parts of the island we are always amazed at the chaotic scene on the highways and roads. I asked our guide if there were lots of traffic accidents. He said there were very few. The only time there might be an accident was if a driver was either drunk or he fell asleep. He said otherwise people just know how to weave in and out of the traffic. To put it some perspective, the island of Bali is 1/5th the size of Vancouver Island and yet there are 4.25 million people living here. So I suppose it should appear chaotic to us but to the Balinese people, it is just everyday life and there is a sense of rhythm about it all. This outlook on life has it’s origins in their deep religious beliefs. Over 92% of the population on Bali is Hindu with the remaining 8% divided between Muslims, Buddhist’s and Christians. Our tour guides have given us a tremendous insight into their religious beliefs and it is certainly apparent that these beliefs not only shape their thought process but also the respectful nature toward other people.

Bali is known as “the island of 1000 temples“. Our guide explained that the Hindu religion believes in three main gods, Brahma, the creator of all living things; Vishnu, the protector of all life and Shiva the destroyer. All life goes through this circle from beginning to end. People are expected to look out and care for each other and at all times to consider the well being of others before themselves. If a person lives their life according to these beliefs, they will be reincarnated as a more worthy life form. He explained that offerings and prayer are an integral part of daily life. In most families the women will get up very early (often around 5:00) to prepare the daily offerings for the household alter. Only once this is done does she then prepare the morning meal. Other members of the family then get up and pray at the alter before eating and going to work. He said they are required to set aside time for prayer three times each day but the timing is up to the individual.

The family unit is the most important thing for the Balinese people. The father has the responsibility for the family in all things and he would “represent “ the family on special occasions in the village. When the father is unable to assume these duties, the responsibilities fall to the eldest son. We asked what would happen in a family who only had daughters. He said in these cases the eldest daughter would take on that role. He gave this example: if there was a death in one of the village families, members of other families would show their support by staying overnight in the home where the dead body was lying awaiting cremation in order to “look after body”. This would occur even if they didn’t know the family simply because that family was part of the larger village unit.

We asked about schools. He described a system very much like ours where children go to school at age 5 and attend elementary school for 6 years before moving onto junior secondary school for 3 years followed by 3 years at senior high school. A huge difference was in hours attended. Students attend school 6 days a week, getting Sunday off. On Saturday, they have classes in the morning and then spend the afternoon cleaning the school to prepare for the next week and taking part in prayers before going home. I wonder what CUPE would think of that idea! If a child wanted to go on to university, the costs would have to be born by the family. Our guide told us he had just graduated from 3 1/2 years of university, studying English Literature. He was now 24 and this guide job was his first full time job. He said learning English provided him with opportunities to have a good job like this one.

We asked about the economy of the island. He told that tourism was the main source of income in Bali. The island has no exports of any consequence and in fact Bali can no longer even grow enough rice to feed the population so they import rice from Java and Sumatra. He said they eat rice with every meal and with over 4 million people, “that’s a lot of rice!”.

We were curious about the “caste system” and our guide explained it. He said there were 2 “castes”. The first being the higher order. Priests and families of “importance” belonged to the first caste. I got the sense that you couldn’t “buy your way into the first caste” but that it was based more on tradition. Our Guide belonged to the “second caste” which was the case for the majority of the people. Men in the second caste have 2 names. The first is always “Wayan”, followed by his given name, in our guide's case his second name was Lika. The first name Wayan-signifies a 2nd caste Individual and that would be the way to tell the difference. We happened to pass a doctor's office and the sign out front said “Dr. Wayan Madi Lacur”. This sign would let everyone know he belonged to the second caste and it would be unlikely for a higher caste person to seek out his services. He explained that second caste men can marry a girl from upper caste but this wouldn’t happen very often because of the implications for the girl. By marrying a second caste man, she would follow him into the second caste and could never have any contact with her family again even on the death of a family member. Quite the sacrifice!

Gavin just sent me a BBC news article about Mt. Agung looking like it was ready to erupt for the first time in 54 years. I wouldn’t be alarmed as we were up there Saturday and saw no sign of smoke or gases coming from the volcano. There was also no signs of evacuation and the story isn't on the local news so all seems well. If it did erupt, we are about 2 hours away as well.

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