Island, and Mind, of Contradictions.

Creative Voices

By Angelica Luzzi / Contributor

What am I supposed to do, or to say, in front of the stereotyped beauty of a sunset? I have traveled to quite a few places during my life; some of them I can still see with my eyes closed, some of them I was too young to remember the views, the smells, or the uniqueness of their sunsets. What am I supposed to be in front of this view? I can see from the airplane window the familiar yet alien shape of the clouds beneath us. These colors play a weird game in my mind. I would love to hate the stereotyped beauty of these shades, yet I find myself once again overwhelmed in front of the only thing that virtually everyone loves: a sunset, and more specifically, a sunset viewed from an airplane window. I have been seated in these seats so many times that every airplane feels the same, every flight attendant’s smile shines the same, and the recurring smell of reheated Asian food upsets me the same way. Everything feels familiar on this plane, including the constant internal war between my flourishing motivation to be different and my inexorable craving for common pleasures. What am I supposed to feel like in front of this sunset? The only thing that I can think about is how it is so perfect and unnatural that I would say it looks photoshopped. I am looking at the world at its best, yet my impression is that it looks fake.

Airport of Contradictions.  

Bali’s airport is called “Ngurah Rai.” They named it after their national hero. Ngurah Rai was a Balinese guy that died in a “Puputan,” a fight until death, in the November of 1946 against the Dutch in the Indonesian revolution, which killed way too many. Again, the internal war. Again, the impression of something gives me the impression of something else. This airport, that welcomes thousands of tourists every day from almost every country in the world (especially rich western countries), was named in honor of those who died in a fight against their power. Where once blood was sacrificed in order to stop the walk of the west, now red is the carpet that welcomes its entry.   

There are few things that I believe so firmly, even if they make no sense at all, for anyone. One of them is that Bali is a fried island. I love this place; I really do. I have been coming here since I was a baby, and the island back then was nothing like it is now. People used to plant fruit trees on the edge of the streets so they could, later in the year, have a personal grocery store on the way back home. I have seen the progression, the change in the infrastructures, and the change in the people during the years. Now, walking through these streets, I see less colors on the trees, and I hear more American music on the radios of the cars passing by. It was gradual; I am not surprised. It was kind of inevitable too. However, I cannot help but feel incredulous in front of the view of a giant Russian hotel in the place of what once was my favorite little secret beach. Bali is a fried island; it has been immersed in the boiling oil of westernization, and now the surface is covering what it once was. Just like fried food, I know I shouldn’t love it the way that I do.   

Goreng State of Mind.  

When you first start learning a language, you usually get told to repeat the most common words used by the natives. In Italy, we would start with “Ciao” or “Buongiorno” or even “Mamma Mia!” for the brave ones. When I first started learning Indonesian, I was told to repeat “Goreng” over and over until my pronunciation got closer to the real one. Later that day, I found out that “Goreng” doesn’t mean “Hello” (which is “Halo”) or “Good morning!” (which is “Selamat pagi!”). “Goreng” means “Fried.” Bali revolves around frying. You are going to be told to order “Nasi Goreng” to try the real taste of Bali, or “Mie Goreng” if you are more into noodles than rice. To be honest, you are just weird if you prefer “Mie Goreng” over “Nasi Goreng.” I could go on and on, “Ayam Goreng” (fried chicken), “Ikan Goreng” (fried fish), or even “Goreng-Pedas” which just means fried, but also spicy. I started learning new words by just associating them to “Goreng.” Now I know how to say chicken or fish because everyone sells them fried in the little street food stalls on the streets; the names written on wood boards and attached without any sense of symmetry, as they should – It’s just food, not interior design. The strangest thing is not that Indonesian people love fried food so much it almost monopolized their entire diet; the strangest thing is that Indonesia is a paradise for fruit and the most beautiful vegetables you will ever see; some of them look so unreal that you would think they are part of the props for Avatar, and yet they would rather have fried rice. Again, internal war. Just like Indonesians with healthy food, I have everything I need and everything the majority of the population in this world doesn’t even have access to; yet, I always circle around the things I shouldn’t desire, the ones that are bad for me. It’s what I call “Goreng State of Mind.”  

Gambling Religion.  

In Bali, their religion is called “Hinduism,” but it is different from the Indian “Hindu;” actually, it is closer to the “Animism,” where people believe that all things in nature have souls. Balinese people pay a lot of attention, respect, and time to nature because every natural phenomenon has a specific deity, and the Balinese would do anything except let down a God. The Balinese calendar is filled with ceremonies, holy days, dances, and many more, all in honor of their Gods and Goddesses. Don’t be surprised if you see flowers and little tiny micro portions of food on a motorcycle or on top of a car. Cars, just like motorcycles (or fridges!), have a festivity too. Those little trays made of leaves and filled with flowers and tiny amounts of food are called “Banten,” and they are the most common offering for the Gods. There are many kinds of “Banten” depending on the materials, shapes, and their purposes. Balinese women are the figures in charge of the creation of the offerings. The act of arranging an offering is called “Mejejaitan,” and it is considered fundamental to master if you want to be a respected female. My Nonna once told me that when she was going to get married with my Nonno, her mother-in-law would watch her peeling an apple, since, at the time, the less waste you would make in the peeling of an apple was directly proportional to your future performance as a wife. Who am I to judge the traditions of another culture when a different shade of it still lives in my own house?   

Hinduism is still so rooted in the modern Balinese culture that families gain debts in order to afford the offerings for the numerous celebrations. Indonesia is no longer a third-world country, but its economy is not an oasis of stability or growth. Especially now, with the constant threat of the pandemic, the offerings are fuller and more frequent than ever. Especially now, with the threat of the pandemic, Bali is more vulnerable than ever. Again, internal war. Again, I am watching a sunset, this time not from an airplane. The sunset in front of me is stunning. Orange sky and sand covered in a multitude of colorful offerings to ease the Gods of the sea and bring back boats heavier than they were when they left. Women bring more “Banten,” some of them contain even cash or cigarettes. Then the tide rises and brings them where my eyes can no longer see them. I wonder how many meals would have come out of those offering, how much money was contained in those little trays made of leaves, and how much debt these families have gained in order to pray for a wealthier future. How am I supposed to feel in front of this sunset? Who am I supposed to be?  

This island is full of contradictions, just like me and like anybody else; maybe this is why everyone who comes here falls in love with it. Maybe we love it as we love a family member or a friend because we see the best of them and the undeniable senseless decisions they make, yet we decide to love them because they are just like us. We can all see the right choices, but sometimes fried rice just sounds better.