The colourful Barong dance is available all over Bali for any would-be tourist.
By Marco Ferrarese – Photography by Kit Yeng Chan
Accepting a stranger’s invitation helps to unveil a more authentic side of Bali
Rows of spectators scream, clenching crumpled Rupiah notes in their fists. We try to elbow our way through the barrier of shoulders and limbs, ducking our heads when rotating hands swing burning cigars inches from our faces. It’s only when we manage to wedge through the barrage of bodies and get pushed against the railing that I realize what’s happening before us. “Deep play” as anthropologist Clifford Geertz named it. A game of tough men, and angry roosters.
The cock fighting pit is an exclusive macho affair.
At the centre of the pit, two men hold two roosters against each other, building up momentum. They pat their birds as if they were old mates ready for the final departure. In fact, this might as well be it, for the razor blades tied to the roosters’ right legs shine murderously in the low light. Here we are: I have certainly found my authentic Balinese experience, and it feels like I’m in another world.
It all starts when I rent a motorbike from a muscular Balinese beach boy in Kuta. “Bring it back undamaged and with a full tank, and enjoy the ride,” he says pocketing my money. I am free to go, with a backpack tucked in-between my legs, and my tiny Malaysian girlfriend tugging at my back. We drive out of Poppies Lane and negotiate the steamy morning gridlock towards Denpasar and beyond. I want to seek a more authentic side of Bali in one of the smaller towns along the island’s east coast. Contrary to my plans, I have my lucky chance when I stop the motorbike at a countryside road stall to rest and have a bite.
“What are you looking for?” As if he had read my mind, an old man lifts his gaze from his steamy cup of tea and interrogates me with a toothless grin. It doesn’t seem casual that he picked us among all the customers of this roadside warung. I have the feeling that, at last, this could be our introduction to some of the island’s most authentic ghosts.
They have been exorcised long ago in Ubud, now a trendy thoroughfare filled with small cafés populated by artsy types. Its market, a double-storey collection of stalls looming on the main intersection, offered the usual wood carvings, batik, and assorted trinkets available all over the archipelago. We continued chasing the thicket that extends inland from the main road, ending before the entrance of the Monkey Forest. This place gets its name from an obvious population of macaques that have learnt how to satisfy their hunger over time by snatching food from visitors. As if to endorse our failed search for Balinese authenticity, a sneaky monkey came out of the woodwork and climbed over my girlfriend’s camera bag. “Don’t touch it and don’t move,” I told her. I know quite well that their bites can bring rabies. Standing still and breathing slowly, we waited until the monkey decided that the backpack wasn’t edible and jumped back into the forest.
Even at Pura Dalem, one of Ubud’s most central temples, where traditional Balinese dances are staged nightly for the joy of tourists, there was no trace of genuine spirits. The sinuous movements of pretty Balinese ladies shrouded in colourful robes and elaborate headdresses anticipated the arrival of a demon in a wooden mask, ready to perform the ancient Barong dance. But again, this was not what we expected from Bali: the ghosts we chased chuckled at us, for we just fell into yet another beautifully staged tourist trap.
Nonetheless, the memories of the last few days transform into great excitement when this local old man approaches us at the roadside tea stall. His question beckoned our quest, as this warung was not another deluding tourist site. [FRV]