To know a place is to know its people.

Unfortunately, my imagination conjured an image of Bali, Indonesia, as a crowded, westernized beach scene swarming with perfect “Instagrammable” moments. I must admit that lounging on the beach, getting cheap massages and eating delectable, inexpensive food sounded incredibly appealing for a semester abroad. But there was something deeper that drew me to the island: its people.

Over the next few months, I want to make lasting relationships with the people on this island. I only know a few words and phrases of the language, Bahasa Indonesia, so far, but it is not difficult to practice.

I live in the village of Kerambitan, Tabanan, where the smoke from incense curls up your nostrils on every corner and the ground is littered with petite offerings made of palm leaves that brim with gardenia flower petals and sticky sweets, or sometimes cigarettes. Bathrooms are outfitted with a large bin of water and two small buckets: one to rinse your hands or body and one to flush. After the seventh cold bucket shower, I must admit, I asked myself, “What am I doing here?”

Then my host mother called my name, “Oli,” and showed me the snack plate of freshly fried bananas and called me “cantik” which means beautiful. Even though I was already sweating again, I was refreshed by her kindness.

Generosity is not limited to my host family. One afternoon, a man and an elementary school-aged girl on a motorbike pulled off a busy road to speak with my friends and me as we strolled down the street. He asked us where we were from and where we were going, telling us that he was an English teacher at a school in the neighborhood and inviting us to his house to share a meal.

A little girl, his granddaughter, didn’t say a word, but stared at her pink backpack featuring the characters of “Frozen,” patiently waiting for the conversation to end. After about 10 minutes, we said our goodbyes, and he invited us to his house once again, this time offering a bonus: “I will bring my students and they can learn English from you while you learn Bahasa Indonesia from them,” he exclaimed. I have never been invited by a stranger to share a meal, but for the man, it wasn’t odd at all.

Indonesians, like all people, hail from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. However, from my limited experiences here so far, I have been struck by the remarkable generosity that is present even in casual exchanges. In the touristy areas of Canggu and Kuta, people were noticeably excited to interact with me if I spoke more than two words of Bahasa Indonesia.

I came to Bali with little knowledge of the culture here. While I’ve only been here two weeks, my host family and teachers have not hesitated to load me up with knowledge of their customs. I’ve learned that the Balinese enjoy heaping spoons of sugar into their tea until it pushes the edge of cloyingly sweet. I’ve learned that it’s considered terribly disrespectful to grab anything with your left hand or touch someone else’s head.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a break from bucket showers, especially when you’re from a country like America where luxuries are often treated as essentials. Staying in a hostel in Kuta Beach this weekend and standing beneath a showerhead as hot water flowed over my tangled hair, sticky from the salt water, felt like an indulgence compared to my experiences in Kerambitan.

As I travelled around the beaches in Denpasar, I marveled at the contrasts between Kerambitan and the tourist area of Denpasar. I enjoyed pushing a button to flush instead of filling a bucket, tremendously. It felt like we were on another island. I am so grateful that for the next three months, I have the opportunity to experience Bali in its entirety, beginning with its majestic scenery and its people.

Olivia Buckley is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Between Bali and Me appears in print every other Friday.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*