Oct/Nov 2008 Travel

Growing Up in Bali

by Richard Lewis

In 1956, my parents were living in Klungkung, a small town in east Bali. When my pregnant mother started having her contractions, my dad rushed her in the Jeep along empty, winding, pot-holed, Dutch-built roads to a German doctor in Denpasar. Later I found out that my mother suspected him of being a Nazi hiding out in a tropical paradise at the far, faint, mostly broken end of the telegraph line.

Today, the road from Klungkung to Denpasar is wide and straight and smooth and crammed with vehicles, everything from families riding upon Indonesia's national car (the Yamaha scooter) to Russian tourists in air-conditioned buses. I am of a generation who has witnessed the transformation of the world from localized, even isolated, geographical regions to an interconnected whole. Many writers mine the fictional riches to be had there, especially fiction that explores the immigrant and the expatriate experience.

There is a quirk, though, to my own particular history, for the process has been bracketed by two bloody events which, if nothing else, show the dark constancy of human nature, the dark side of paradise. I am referring to the 1965 genocide, still relatively unknown today, when madness descended upon the island and Balinese slaughtered other Balinese, an estimated 50,000 of them. The other event was, of course, the 2002 Bali bombing, perpetrated by ideologically driven terrorists, who parked their explosives-laden van right outside a popular tourist nightclub.

In the 60s (and into the early 80's), the Bali was almost entirely country, from beach to mountain, an island of farmers and fishermen. Rice was grown wherever it could be grown, and wealth was most often measured by the harvest. Quiet coconut groves fronted the beaches of Sanur, and Kuta was an impoverished fishing village. Even in the richer rice belts, people struggled to survive. Nothing was casually tossed away. When you packed or carried something, it was in banana leaves or woven bamboo baskets. The tinkerman came around with his flapper and his high-pitched cry, and if you had a hole in your precious tin pot, you rushed out and watched him weld it with irons heated over coals, kept hot by hand-pumped bellows. I fell asleep in those days listening to a gamelan playing in the distance across the ricefields—not the raucous, clanging gamelan you hear today, but the older music—maybe it is the patina of memory that brings the word "haunting" to mind.

In 1963, the holy Mount Agung erupted, causing further misery to an island wracked by failed harvests and diseases. The Communist Party of Indonesia was ascending to the height of its power. I recall driving home one day from Denpasar with my father and seeing thousands of peasants, in neat rows on a dry field decorated with hammer and sickle banners, chanting slogans, led by party cadres with bullhorns. Spotting our distinctive red Wagoneer, the cadre began to chant against American imperialists. My father fell silent and grim.

Around this time a man employed as an unpaid assistant by the local education board, a Communist dominated organization, came to my parents. We needed a gardener and houseboy, he said. He volunteered his services. My parents often gave unnecessary jobs to help out poor people. Not money—we had no money—but a roof over the head, rice to eat, which they provided to this man. He didn't have much to do. Our garden wasn't much of one, and our house was a dilapidated Dutch colonial building with ten-foot ceilings, cement floors, white-washed walls, and a red tile roof. During the hottest days, I would lie down on the cool cement floor under my bed and read books. With no electricity, we used kerosene lanterns at night. We had no refrigeration. The legs of our food cupboard were placed in tins of kerosene to keep out the ants. Our water was hauled up from a well and stored in cisterns. During the rainy season, we collected runoff in 55 gallon drums.

This man dug a pit in our back yard, about eight foot to a side and eight feet deep. For garbage, he said.

We had no garbage. We had no need for a garbage pit. Especially not such a large one.

The man dug it in the corner of the back yard. Our neighbor had a large jambu fruit tree, whose branches overhung the pit, into which the juicy pink fruit would fall. One rainy day I climbed down and plucked a jambu from the muck to eat. My mother spotted me munching on it. I never saw her so angry. She washed my mouth out with soap.

I now know that her anger had much deeper roots in the anxiety of the world starting to crack, and part of that cracking the appearance of a pit in our back yard. Big enough to bury a family. An American missionary family.

Down the street from our house was a temple with an enormous banyan tree in the outer courtyard. I played hide-and-seek in its fluted trunk with neighborhood friends. We ambushed and shot each other with bamboo-pea shooters, our bullets tiny, unripe jambu fruit.

I remember one boy, whose teeth were gapped, like mine. I played with him a lot when I was home from boarding school. I don't remember his name.

I don't know what happened to him. More precisely, I don't know how he was killed. Perhaps shot for real. His parents were high school teachers who belonged to a teacher's organization affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party.

The novelist in me, preparing to write a story about that time, likes the imagery of us two stalking each other around the banyan tree, peashooters at the ready. Fate was in the balance—one of us would end up living, one of us would end up dead.

But what determined his fate were events in Jakarta. In what would be called a failed coup attempt by Communists, five army generals were murdered and thrown down a well. The Nationalists used this as their mandate to purge the Communists, which up to that point had been a perfectly legitimate party, and everyone affiliated with them.

Purge. Cleanse. Even back then these words were used—and what these words meant was a systematic butchery by blade, spear, and gun.

Scents are said to be the strongest and most evocative of memories. I was attending boarding school in Java, and twice a year, summer and Christmas, I would fly back to Bali an old DC-3, one of three flights a week. The plane would wheel in over the ocean, waiting for the control tower to blow its horn so that farmers could round up their stray cows from the airstrip. The plane would bump to a stop in front of the tin hut that served as the passenger terminal. And when that door opened, the tang of sea and salt and sun would wash over me, anointing me, and I knew I was back home.

But I have an even stronger scent memory than that, from my Christmas break of 1965. A man I'd never seen before hunched on the parlor sofa of my parent's house in Klungkung, Bali. He reeked of fright, acrid, bitter, biting. He was silent, hands clasped between his knees. A former member of a Communist party's community organization, he was helpless, hopeless, marked for death, a marking that painted not by gray-skinned pallor but by stink.

Outside on the street in front of our house, marched squads of Balinese men in black with machetes and spears, some with guns. Killing teams. Efficient. The squads had lists.

I don't know what happened to the man who smelled like his own death. My parents hid at least one person in of those 55 gallon drums, but I don't know if he was that man.

My parents wouldn't let us kids out of the house, but my father would sometimes leave in the mornings. He came back one night and told a story to a colleague. I overheard. The military – the elite RPKAD with their red berets -- was now in Bali, supposedly to secure the peace, but also wiping out the last pockets of communist villages. A Christian soldier told my dad that after "securing" one such village, a boy about my age came up to him and said, "You killed all my family and I don't have anyone left. Would you please kill me, too?" The soldier told my Dad, "So I pulled out my pistol and shot him."

The novelist in me wants to turn this boy into my gap-toothed friend.

The events of 1965 coup in Jakarta remain obscure, with claims and counterclaims. Some say it was truly a Communist attempt to grab power. Others say it was staged by Nationalists and General Soeharto to eliminate the Communist Party. Some claim the "coup" and subsequent massacre were masterminded by the CIA. The CIA did in fact provide logistical help to the nationalists but nonetheless this latter claim is a stretch of conspiracy theory too far for me. The Javanese and Balinese, after all, have for centuries been master puppeteers, quite capable of putting the CIA on their invisible puppet strings. The Smiling General, who soon became President Soeharto, was especially talented.

When the killing teams were moping up, I once snuck out and road my bicycle to the center of Klungkung. It was, almost literally, a ghost town. The streets were empty. Shops shuttered. Burned houses. Those that weren't burned had closed front doors painted with Christian crosses and Hindu symbols. A truck rumbled down the road, carrying a load of bodies to be either dumped in the river, buried in a mass grave, or taken down to the rocky beach to be thrown to the sharks. I remember watching the bodies jiggle a little. I wasn't scared or horrified. A mass of bodies, at a relative distance, isn't very personal. It's just cargo. There was only one person on the street. A blond haired man, watching the truck. He was startled to see me and waved me over. For some reason, I whipped around and rode home as fast as if the devil was on my tail.

He could have been a journalist, an anthropologist, anybody, but the novelist in me wants to turn this man into a CIA agent.

The army secured caches of PKI documents. My family's name was found on a PKI master list of those to be eliminated, along with orders for our grave to be prepared. I've always wondered if this list had been forged. On the other hand, I remember that pit in our backyard.

This salvation from the perfidy of the Communists became a sanitized national holiday. The murder of the generals was remembered in solemn ceremony televised throughout the country, but as for the massacres that occurred, there was not a word, not a murmur. The Smiling General proclaimed himself to be the Father of National Development, and part of that development was a boom in tourism and related businesses, such as handicraft and textile exports, which accelerated in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. No longer did a village gather after sunset to sit on the road's warm asphalt road and chat. Not only did it became too dangerous with buses and trucks careening around corners, but many of those Balinese villagers were themselves rushing hither and yon, long into the night. The slow pace of things in which the hours stretched, allowing you to fully inhabit them, gave way to the tyranny of the efficient, in which the minutes yank you along by your collar. You're always running to keep up.

On the night of October 12, 2002, I was falling asleep in my house in Sanur, when a tremendous boom shook the glass in the windows. Five miles away in Kuta, swarming with tourists, the terrorists' bomb-laden van had exploded in front of the Sari Club, murdering 202 victims, locals and tourists alike. In the immediate aftermath, the stunned island pulled together—Balinese, expatriates, Hindus, Muslims—to help in any way they could. My oldest son, 15 at the time, volunteered his services and was put to work in the government hospital's morgue, icing down bodies and body parts. Within a month, Kuta was as much a ghost town as Klungkung had been nearly forty years previously, the streets empty and abandoned.

On January 28, 2008, the Smiling General died.

A few weeks later, I read newspaper reports about mass graves being uncovered in Java.

In Bali, there is a memorial to the victims of the Sari Club bombing, erected on the site, and each time I drive past it, there is always a fresh wreath placed in front of the granite etched with names, or somebody quietly perusing the list.

But still, to this day, not one Balinese I know of has stepped forward to point out that there, there, and there, you will find evidence of a massacre. Not one Balinese I know of will talk about the dark, dark days of 1965.

I am not Balinese, but I am witness, and I often feel that the fiction I have written to date is merely practice, to prepare me to write what I can of it.


Previous Piece Next Piece