Last week my sister and I went halfway across the world to Bali, Indonesia. A little island that seems big and crowded up close. With lots of motorbikes, some cars, and scarce traffic lights; the cars weave in and out of lanes and each other, but somehow no one crashes. The near misses seem synchronized—no one winces or panics. They slow down, letting the other person go in some unspoken exchange, and then move along their routes.
The atmosphere, the ambient sound, is that of peace. Not silent, not loud. Wind, bugs, animals, cars, bamboo contraptions that scare off birds from landing in the rice paddy fields. Burning offerings in the night, invisible smoke seeping through the cracks in our bungalow. The ocean waves crashing, ebbing, flowing. All of it comes and goes—depending on the area, depending on the time—but none of it changes that peace.
One of our drivers said Bali has an incredibly low crime rate because ninety percent of the population is Hindu and believes in Karma. I don’t know if that’s why I felt so safe. But I know it was definitely the people. Their hospitality. Their happiness. Their simplicity. They live and work and provide for their families and the gods. They give food offerings each day on woven young coconut leaves—the yellow ones—with flowers to decorate. They burn them each night and the cycle begins again in the morning.
They travel near, if at all. Other islands in Indonesia, maybe Singapore. They thought we were crazy for traveling nearly twenty four hours for an eight-day trip (though, maybe we were). The men work—as drivers, engineers, craftsmen, in the service industry—to provide. The women cook, take the kids to school, work on crafts and goods at home to sell in the markets. Many of them are content to make just enough for that life. No need for surplus. No need to eat out—their wives make the best food around anyway.
The woman moves in with the man’s family, in his village, once they get married. Grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren all under one roof. Or, if you’re rich, under several roofs clustered together in the same area.
The government has limited all families to two children when their religion constitutes four. There are traditional names for four. We were told some people do have four, but not many. Everyone we met had two. A boy thirteen years old, girl sixteen. Girl nine, boy thirteen. Two teenage girls. Two children is more practical, anyway. Two can fit on the motorbike with their mother to be driven to school. They bring lunch from home. They have uniforms. They love uniforms. They pay for them happily if they can. For all the necessities.
There are little girls in markets holding baskets of colorful fans, who fan you and say, “You hot, Lady.” There are men on the street corner trying to sell you a handcrafted wooden box full of chopsticks with Geruda, the bird of Vishnu carved on top. Only a hundred thousand IDR. I do the math in my head. About eight dollars for something that probably took weeks to craft.
Several of our drivers point out the village cemeteries as we drive. They burn the bodies first, they explain, It’s tradition. We nod and track the unassuming trees, the large unmarked fields that, for them, mark their past loved ones. Born and returned to the earth. No longer a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, not even a name. Just a part of the whole once again. Strange that as outsiders we would never know, yet somehow beautiful once we do.
The people live in a contentedness hard to come by in America. One that is usually fleeting. For them it’s a way of life. Be good and good things come. Be happy and happiness surrounds you. Make the tourists happy so they will come back. And that’s something I know I will do.