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a letter from abroad (bali)

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Island friends Katheryn and David (“your foreign devil correspondents”) are continuing their annual buying trip through Asia. Below an excerpt; click here for the full article as well as previous travelogues. As before, I was unable to use the photos they sent but have included a few from google sources.

bali-1After our first night in Bali, it seems cruel we’ve only booked 8 days here. Part of the reason for the short amount of time is past history. Katheryn fled Indonesia during the implosion of 1997, when the odious Suharto regime was in its death-throws, and taking the country down with it. People were rioting for food, atrocities were being committed against the Chinese and Christians (often the same thing; and often the scapegoats when things went bad), the Australian army was air-lifting their nationals out of the country, and the currency was close to being worthless. It was a traumatic time.

A similar but bloodier scenario brought Suharto into power in 1965. I was only 4 at the time, but my family, who were living in Java, also had to flee the terrible circumstances. I went back in early 1982. At the time Kuta Beach was a quiet back-packer haunt, Legian was a separate village, and Ubud didn’t have any Italian restaurants.

bali-3With our cold Bintangs we have a clear view all the way along the coast from Legian to Kuta, to the airport and beyond. This little bar is a hold-out from another era, as virtually the entire stretch is high-end (and beautifully-designed hotels), with their orchid gardens and water features.  The good news is that the hotels, while high-end, aren’t high rise. Balinese cultural integrity has been the saving grace, preventing this from looking like Waikiki beach. When development began in the 50s, the Balinese declared that no building was to exceed the height of the palm trees. True, some builders have taken a poetic interpretation of how tall a palm tree grows, but there are only two glaring blights; a shopping mall and a hotel.  Both, of course,  are the projects of corruption at the highest level, and are unintentional statements of how ugly the mind behind that kind of power is.

bali-4[Our old friend] Peter arranges a motorbike rental for us, which is essential since his place is out on the edge where urban sprawl meets rice fields. For the next couple of days we are given the insiders tour of the restaurants and shops of Bali. Whether it’s a warung meal for 70 cents or splashing out on tuna fettuccine for $3, the food is outstanding. Although our budget for commercial goods is used up, we wanted to scout out Bali for future possibilities. The sheer number of handicraft stores is mind boggling. There are literally miles of storefront selling carvings, antiques, furniture, jewellry and W.H.Y. Apart from the tourists, dealers have been coming here for decades, although according to Peter virtually everything is made on Java. This is certainly true with the textiles, although we find many pieces from Sumba and Flores as well.

bali-sarongBatik, of course, is an Indonesian word for the famous resist-dye process of applying wax to cloth. Although not a dead art, hand made batik is now mostly a high-end artisan-produced specialty. Most merchants will try to con you with either the very cheap “batik prints”- easily detectable because only one side has vibrant colour – or “machine batik”. These are actually true batik, except that the wax pattern application is done mechanically, and are impossible to distinguish from the hand made article–for me, anyway–except that each pattern is identical in every detail. In the end, the sourcing experience in Bali has made me appreciate even more the quality and the diversity of the hand-made culture in India.


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