Saturday, February 09, 2008

Serendipity and a Journey to West Bali 2008

Serendipity and a Journey to West Bali 2008

Dear Friends and Family,

These past two weeks I returned to Bali for a vacation at a pair of resorts, each of special character, first South Bali and then in West Bali.

I had stayed in Kuta an Legian in South Bali several times before, but this time, I stayed in Tanjung Benoa at the Peninsula Resort for a week prior to moving out to West Bali and staying in the isolated Medewi Cottage Retreat near Pekutatan.

This latter resort in Medewi was so isolated it had neither internet nor telephone access. This Medewi Retreat is located amongst a village hidden off the main west-east roadway and with in walking distance from the black sand beaches of Medewi, where surfing and body surfing are among life’s simple pleasures.

Meanwhile, the hotel at Tanjung Benoa was special because from it, I had access to local bicycle journeys and boating journeys—including a rafting trip northeast of Denpasar one day.


I have been planning to stay at Medewi for several years—since I first bought property at its partner resort on Gili Meno island off the cost of Lombok in Indonesia. A year ago, on a day-trip I had visited the area near Negara to see the Bugi boats of the Muslims at Pengambangan village.

Those Bugi ships, originally from Salawasi three and arriving to Bali three centuries ago, are famous for their bright colors and the miniature mosques above their bows--and for the fact that the Bugi’s owners’ ancestors used to serve as pirates and protectors of the Bali Kingdom’s past.

The nearby and larger western town of Negara is the largest town in the West of Bali but still has wonderfully cute horse-drawn carriages serving as taxis.

Negara is situated between Medewi and the Islam communities of Pengambangan. For far and wide, Negara also has the only public internet service. The city and region has historically ignored by the greater Balinese society along with the leadership of Suharto of Java who dominated the politics of Indonesia till quite recently.

Only in the last five years or so, has Negara and West Bali received state-sponsored colleges and training centers of the level of educational offerings from Bali’s central government.


Although one of the oldest and most important Hindu temples and shrines, Pura Rambut Siwi, is located near Medewi, I believe that there are many more mosques to be observed along the west coast roads and villages of Bali than in many of the eastern and southern coast towns near the capital of Denpasar (or near the cultural centers of central Bali, like Ubud and Mas).

This year of 2008, I had planned to immerse myself in Christian books and relaxation in the West Coast of Bali. Prior to arriving in Bali this winter, I had only one excursion planned.

This was a pair of journeys I intended to make to the famed (or infamous) Christian settlements of West Bali: Palasari (Catholic) and Blimbingsari (Protestant).

Various guide books had explained to me long ago that under the Dutch colonial domination of the Indonesian archipelago, proselytizing was officially prohibited. Therefore, as Chinese and other Christians began to settle in and make conversions on the Hindu island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dutch colonial government sided with Hindus who claimed “foul”.

In the late 1930s the Dutch colonial regime forced many Catholics and protestant Christians to make a very long trek to the rugged and underdeveloped western part of Bali in order to create and build a new home—i.e. out-of-sight and mind of the great majority of Hindu families and Balinese & Dutch officials who functioned in South, Central, and Eastern Bali.

From my perspective, it appears to have been a forced removal, whereby the Christians were forced to dig up the rocky soil and arid west hill country of Western Bali with the most rudimentary of tools, i.e. creating a sort of Bantustan for Protestants in one town—Blinbingsari—as well as another catholic town some kilometers away.

Here is the story of these Balinese Christians as shared in the Rough Guides: Bali & Lombok.

“While Muslims have long been welcomed into western Balinese society, Christians have historically had a frostier reception. When the Dutch gained full control over Balinese affairs in 1908, they extended their policy of undiluted cultural preservation to include barring all Christian missionaries from practicing on the island. But attentions relaxed over the next two decades, and by 1932 Tsang To Hang, a Chinese representative of the American Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), had made several hundred converts on Bali, mostly within Bali’s Chinese community but also some of ‘pure Balinese’ ethnicity. The CMA’s fundamentalist approach created hostility between the converts and their neighbors, however, as converts were encouraged to destroy Hindu temples and to question the iniquities of the entrenched Hindu caste system. Hindu leaders responded by forbidding Hindus from having any contact with Balinese Christians.” (p.359)

How did the European Colonial masters decide to make a peace?

“The Dutch soon banned the CMA, and in 1939 concluded that the best way to ease growing tensions between Balinese Christians and Hindus was to isolate the Christians in a remote, inhospitable area of uninhabitable jungle high up in the mountains of west Bali, some 30km northwest of Negara. Against massive odds and with an amazing pioneering spirit, the Protestants hacked the cross-shaped village of Blimbingsari out of the jungle and built a huge modern church at its core, the mother church for Bali’s entire Christian community. Some 5km southeast, the Catholics did the same for their community at Palasari.”(p.360)


For me, the most motivating reason for me to travel to observe happenings and life in Blimbingsari was a concept that the Rough Guide writers had shared about the structures and traditions of these two Christian enclaves in West Bali: This was the phenomena of “contextualization of faith”.

Namely, the founders of both these Christian communities appear to gone out of their ways to disprove the widely held belief that the Hinduism, its tenants, and practices cannot be separated from culture society on the island of Bali.

In both the Protestant and Catholic Christian township, “missions were founded on the principle of contextualization within Balinese Culture, so many elements of Balinese Christian practices have distinctly Balinese-Hindu roots, including church architecture, dress, and thanksgiving offerings . . . . Balinese music and dance, for example, are taught in Blimbingsari and Palasari, but the characters and stories are taken from the Bible rather than from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the churches . . . are quite astonishing , blending Balinese and Western European architecture to dramatic effect.”

Sadly, due to the same developmental problems that rural societies are facing all over the planet these days, both Palasari and Blimbingsari townships are facing the problems of aging and falling populations as generations young people are forced to move away from their hometowns to go to work or to continue at a university—and they are often unable to return to live in their hometowns later in life.

With all this information in mind, I had determined some time ago to visit these two villages on my trip to Bali in 2008 in order to get a taste of the villages and life there in those Protestant and Catholic enclaves before the sad transformation of small town societies leave further scars or gaps in community life there in West Bali.


As noted above, I had arrived in Bali on the 25th of January, 2008 with the intention of spending one week in South Bali and the second week in West Bali. On the second day of my stay in Tanjung Benoa I was picked up and taken to a partner church of my own congregation back in Kuwait.

It is simply known as the Bali Church of Christ and its membership reflects the face of Christianity on the island of Bali today where a more tolerant attitude towards Christianity on the island of Bali has apparently arisen over the years since the Dutch were kicked out--and in the period since both the Chinese and Balinese peoples were persecuted so severely under the early years of the Suharto dictatorship of Indonesia.

After fellowshipping with some members of this great church in Denpasar on that Sunday, I was re-invited back on Thursday night to give the contribution message.

Little did I know that soon I would be blessed with the opportunity of gaining two new friends and taking these same two fascinating visitors with me to see that partner church in Denpasar several nights before transferring my residence to Medewi out in Western Bali.


It all began as I strolled down the coast on Wednesday evening just to get some exercise and to stop occasionally to read a Christian book in preparation for my talk at church the subsequent evening.

After a bit I passed by the Conrad Hotel. By that time I had walked to the edge of neighboring Nusa Dua and was just about ready to turn back up the coast towards the Peninsula Hotel when I was greeted by a security man at the Conrad Hotel dressed in very traditional Balinese clothing—including headscarf and sarong.

The man was extremely friendly and forthcoming. He had seen me reading a book and had asked me about it. In this context, I mentioned the need to go to church the following night.

The young Balinese looked surprised and asked me, “Are you Christian?”

I indicated that I was.

Next, the man explained that his family was also Christian--although his family name, Agung, is associated with one of the palaces near Denpasar.

That is, Mr. Agung was both from a royal Balinese family line and his ancestors were among those who had converted to Christianity decades ago. They were those Balinese who had built Blimbingsari nearly 70 years ago.

In fact, this security official, named Agung, was born and raised with his siblings in Blimbingsari—my dream destination for this journey to Bali!

Talk about serendipitous!

I learned also that Agung had just gotten married through a series of three ceremonies in December 2007—two in Blimbingsari and one at the Agung family’s traditional palace near Denpasar.

Agung often attended a Christian fellowship in Nusa Dua, but he stated he would be happy to attend with me to my church the following night in Denpasar.

And what’s more!

Agung and his young bride both had two days off to visit Blimbingsari with me on the coming Saturday and Sunday--as this particular weekend was the weekend of the Hindu holiday which concludes the Balinese New Years’ celebration: The weekend is called Kunningan and Manis Kunningan.

Happily, the very next evening in Denpasar, I, in fact, found Agung and his wife waiting for me in the Bali Church of Christ in Denpasar the next night as I arrived. By the way, his wife had been Hindu before the marriage, so there is much that the new Mrs. Agung doesn’t know about the Christian world yet--but that she is getting to know about these days.

On Friday night, prior to my journey with Agung and his wife to Bimbingsari, Agung drove by my hotel in Tanjung Benoa and showed me the great variety of costumes at the three weddings which had taken place in December 2007 at the nearby palace of the Agung’s family and at the church in Blimbingsari.

At one point, Agung noted as we looked at the photo albums that his wife was sad because she was saying good-bye to her family Gods during one of the ceremonies.

I was touched by this and impressed by how love had combined people of two different faiths.

Interestingly, the marriage has enabled Agung to have greater insight into traditional Balinese holidays, like Kuningan as he now depends on his wife to occasionally transmit or relate cultural information to him. This information he can use in his job to pass on answers to guests’ queries at the Conrad Hotel. (Guests are always asking questions about the various Balinese customs, and Agung is not nearly so intimately familiar to these traditions as his wife is—as she grew up in a traditional Hindu Balinese household with its temples and ceremonies.)


On the 2nd of February 2008, with my driver from Tanjung Benoa (and who was also headed to West Bali to visit his family as part of the Balinese new Years’ celebrations of Kuningan), I picked up Agung and his wife in front of the Ubung Bus Station in Denpasar where they had parked his motorbike.

Agung was again dressed in his traditional Balinese finery. Although not a wealthy man as far as money goes, Agung takes pride in his clothing attire and sees to it that it reflects the best in ceremonial fashion for each occasion.

Agung does certainly have a wealth of siblings. He is one of 13 children and both his parents are still alive. Most of them live still in Bimblingsari.

Upon my arrival in his village some three hours west of Tanjung Benoa, Agung took me immediately to the town’s large and centralized church. (There is more than one church in the township these days.) Outside this church building, the entrance gates reflected similar designs and form to those found at any Hindu temple entrance in Bali--except that in Blimbingsari the red-earth-colored gate entranceway is decorated with crosses.

There were traditional garden ponds further inside the church complex along with a wonderful variety of flowers and plants.

To the left of the large open church was another structure for use by the church’s orchestra of traditional musical instruments found in Bali—and naturally also often found in similar structures next to temples at Balinese dance celebrations throughout the isle.

The subsequent Sunday in church , musicians—including Agung’s uncles and cousins—sat there under that same structure at the edge of the church and played kendang (drums), belagenjur (cymbols), gamelan, reyong and terompong, i.e these are different type of Balinese gongs and bamboo instruments creating sounds similar to marimbas and chimes. (These same Bimblingsari musicians would also play these instruments along with some Balinese and traditional church hymns.)

The roof of the church is reminiscent of the large open structures whereby some Hindu ceremonies take place in other parts of Bali, but there is a large cross and baptistery nearby as well. Also, where one might otherwise find carvings or images of dragons, elephants, and other gods in a Hindu structures, the only figures or creatures observed around this church were that of rooster or chicken, i.e. symbols used on protestant churches in Europe in order to distinguish the Lutheran from the Catholic structures..

All of us next drove to Agung’s humble home nearer to the main road. There I enjoyed coconuts, lychee, cocoa, and jellies—all of which came from the Agung family’s small and diversified garden--before heading back to Medewi for the night.


Unable to rent a driver for the next day at a decent price, I rented a motorcycle for (only)the second time in my entire life and drove it all the way back to Blimbingsari for 9a.m. church service the next morning.

The Gamelan Orchestra was playing as I arrived and everyone was wearing formal Balinese traditional clothing, headdresses, and other finery.

I was the only foreigner visiting that morning and the locals all tried to make me feel at home—even apologizing profusely that the service was carried out in Balinese and not in English.

Agung’s brother came over and sat by me in church, but he wasn’t able to translate much. Luckily, I had my Bible with me and I was able to decipher which 4 or 5 texts were discussed and when.

Finally, even though I don’t understand the Balinese words of their songs and hymns, I was able to sing along because the Indonesians and Balinese use the western writing system of English and Holland.

The Blimbingsari pastor dressed like a priest of Hindu tradition but gave a tough sermon on living out the words of the gospel and not simply trying to consider oneself as good because one comes from Blimbingsari or one feels he is lives what he is living out a better life than his neighbors, i.e. non-Christians.

The atmosphere at the service and the music there were even more enjoyable than I had expected—with a flowing fountain and stream situated behind the minister and other leaders of the church.

Later, on the back of the motorbike, I returned—with Agung’s brother at the helm of the motor bike—to Agung’s house.

I cannot emphasize enough that Agung’s home doesn’t look like the home of royalty. (The family did lose all right to inheriting property in Denpasar near the palace when Agung’s grandfather converted to Christianity decades ago. They have also had a hard time financially in recent years.)

Nonetheless, the Agung home is a joyful place. I enjoyed more fruits from their local garden as well coffee & conversation as Agung, himself, prepared a simple vegetarian lunch of Tapioca leaves and rice for our lunch.

I observed, too, as I was shown again around the small yard that the Agung family had several types of traditional medicinal plants growing here and there throughout the gardens.

The only livestock the family had were a few chickens running in and out the bare earth doorways.

Holes in the walls and in the roof need to be prepared.

Despite their lack of wealth, the Agung family is blessed and was a blessing to me.

Several children are already stars—one girl recently won a scholarship to study for free in Denpasar. Another younger boy has gone with other performing Balinese dancers to Singapore in recent years—not bad for a 14 year old, who dances to Christian tales normally—i.e. not the traditional myths of Hinduism.

The members of the Agung family apologized many times for their humble lifestyle but were just as gracious as hosts as one would expect of royalty or Bedouin tribes.

The Agungs indicated that they were pleased that I had arrived in time for church after coming 50 km on very winding roadways—and not getting lost along the way.

I explained, “I got here so fast because I really don’t know how to brake the motor bike well. This was only the second time I have driven a motorcycle and that first one was an automatic. This motor bike had gears that I had to shift with feet and hands—so learning to brake was just one of a number of things on my mind.”


I soon thanked my humble hosts and asked for them to pray that I wouldn’t kill myself motor biking back to Medewi. (It was particularly stressful as in Kuwait I drive on the right side of the road but in Indonesia one drives on the left. So, I not only had to worry about shifting gears and braking that Sunday on a motorbike, but I needed to make certain at all times that I didn’t suddenly head into oncoming traffic.)

On my way back to Negara, I saw the turnoff to Palasari, the Catholic village, so I headed back up towards the mountains.

Palasari is more on the tourist route than is Blimbingsari—probably because the community has successfully built an extensive irrigation system enabling more residents to reside there than in distant Blimbingsari.

Moreover, the fact is that the Catholic church building in Palasari stands out more on Bali as it is much more European in style. This large stone structure is more imposing and a greater contrast to the typical temple of worship on Bali. This means that the structure’s beauty and its different qualities from other places of worship can be observed from further away and from outside the building—i.e. when the building is closed & without having to actually attend a worship service as I did in Blimbingsari.

From a tourist perspective, thought, both churches and communities are remarkable. So, I encourage all long-time residents of Bali to get to know them. Their communities’ inceptions as villages dates to days when Bali was less tolerant and reminds one that peace is transient if a community, such as Bali which has been under Islamic terrorist threats for years, fails to continue to respond with tolerance to the visitors from around the world who comes to enjoy its beauty and diverse society.

On the other hand, the churches in these rural Bali towns, like Palisari and Blimblingsari also model the kind of positive development that is possible in any community, i.e. when a community sets out to create the best integration of multiple worlds and cultures for their children and future generations to enjoy.

After spending this past week in West Bali, I would have to agree to locals perceptions that the hostilities between Christian converts and Bali Hindus has long since subsided for those who live on the West coast of Bali.

This is a great example because elsewhere, such as in India today, where Hindu groups have led attacks on Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims in recent years, such interfaith tolerance is not witnessed nearly so readily as it should be these days.

Likewise, from China to Saudi Arabia to other corners of the globe, peoples of whatever faith are not always welcome. This makes the whole planet unsafe for us all.


Kevin A. Stoda
Back in Kuwait.



Anonymous hendri huwito said...

Glad you have a blessed trip. Yea, wondering where should good people like you live? Somehting big is seen in Bali..hope you have planned to be there again. GB

6:11 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home