The Balinese, Still Rising to the Occasion

In the last two decades, the Balinese people have endured extraordinary challenges: a series of bombings that killed foreigners and locals, temporarily shattered the economy and tore apart the mythic serenity of the island; the volcanic eruption of Mount Agung, causing prolonged displacement of Balinese families living within a few kilometers of the mountain, together with extensive travel cancellations; and now, this. A pandemic that shows no signs of waning; in fact, just the opposite is happening in Bali. Red Zones. Partial lockdowns. Restaurant closures. Hotels close down while others nearby reopen with hopes of attracting travelers from the domestic market. It’s a cycle that shows no end.

The island was scheduled to open to international travel on September 11th; completely unrelated to the tragedies of 9/11, the date was chosen, much as is all else on Bali, according to a priest’s designation of said date as auspicious. The entire tourism industry was gearing up for the reopening, even if it not engraved in stone.

In early September, when the President of Indonesia and Bali Governor together recanted the decision, citing an escalation of infections, the uproar and collective angst was almost palpable. Worse off than after the bombings, after the eruptions, worse than any of the elders recall. Even the capital city’s main park-grounds (Bali’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Central Park) was closed off, with “Do Not Cross” tape wrapped around much of it.

At least in my ocean-skirting town, I sensed a general malaise and brooding take hold. As the skies continued to clear out of the thick polluted haze, and return to a brighter and cleaner blue, the grey and somber clouds floated overhead, unseen. Even I felt seized by the stalling, aware of the ever-shrinking salaries, bank accounts and opportunities afforded to the Balinese. I could only begin to imagine the anxiety and panic that was ramping up inside family compounds everywhere. All I could do was to continue my ritual of feeding animals, and supporting in small ways a few locals.

What I’ve learned over the years is that much lies hidden – and unspoken – behind those shiny, straight-toothed smiles. Especially now, unseen behind masks. They are a particularly proud and hardy people. But, like everywhere else the world, there is darkness in their lives too; conflict and despair, family squabbles and domestic violence, women who feel shame at not bearing (the customarily revered) sons and men who gamble away life savings. And in these times, there is devastating financial loss, starvation, suicide, and who-knows-what-else unfolding behind closed doors… There are children whose parents can no longer afford to feed them properly, send them to school, offer them the security of health or even a reliable future.

So here we are in mid-September, back to square one. Ground zero.

Today marks one of the most important holidays on the Balinese (Saka) calendar; a 10-day period, starting with today, Galungan and ending on Kuningan. Customarily, the Balinese Hindu pull out the stops; new clothes, sandals and jewelry; offerings that are as ornate (and imported, in many cases) as salary and wealth allows; temples decorated to the max, construction of penjors on sidewalks… but more than anything, a festive energy takes over like none other, permeating the landscape, the markets, the movement of vehicles and motorbike deliveries. You can literally feel it – and smell it – in the air.

But this year is different from all other years. Again, the mettle of the Balinese is being tested. For many, their paltry savings, bank loans or monies borrowed from relatives are being stretched to their limit. And yet. They are hardy, scrounging and haggling and returning to nature and frugality, still finding ways to gather the necessary items for offerings, still dressing up in brilliant sarongs and kebayas, still jostling with each other, carrying their children as much as their worried thoughts, through the mixed blessings and prayers of this very holy day.

My heart is heavy for the challenges that this pandemic has brought to my Balinese friends and acquaintances, to this lovely island and to their people. Somehow, perhaps because of their strong faith and past experiences, their resilience, the reciprocal responsibilities and traditions continue to keep them afloat and optimistic. Their endurance is beyond measure.

May this year bring them health, peace and prosperity – however it may come about.

Selamat Hari Raya Galungan dan Kuningan.


  1. The financial burden of ceremonial occasions, from tooth filing to weddings and funerals is at the heart of the dark side of Balinese life. These ceremonies have become more elaborate in the last 30 years, placing heavy financial burdens on families. Maybe the ancestors and the Joneses will just have to be satisfied with a little less.

    1. I’m not sure I agree with your comments, but thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, some do try to outdo their neighbours and relatives, but it’s not an island-wide phenomenon. For all I know, see and hear from Balinese friends around the island, many if not most Hindu are surviving with considerably less…some barely scraping by.

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