Where have the Gods gone?
Accepting a stranger’s invitation can help unveil a more authentic side of Bali, if you are not of the squeamish type.by Marco Ferrarese
Rows of spectators scream clenching crumpled rupees in their fists. At the centre of the pit, two men hold two roosters against each other, building up momentum. They pat their birds as if they were old mates ready for the final departure. In fact, this might as well be it, for the razorblades tied to the roosters’ right legs shine murderously in the dim light. Here we are: we have certainly found my authentic Balinese experience, and it feels like we are in another world.
It all starts when we rent a motorbike from a muscular Balinese beach boy in Kuta. We want to seek a more authentic side of Bali in one of the smaller towns along the island’s east coast. Contrary to the plan, we have our lucky chance stopping at a countryside road stall for a bite.
“What are you looking for?” as if he had read my mind, an old man lifts his gaze from his steamy cup of tea and interrogates me with a toothless grin. I have the feeling that this could be our introduction to some of the island’s most authentic ghosts.
They have been exorcised long ago in Ubud, now a trendy thoroughfare filled with small cafés populated by artsy types. Its market, a double storey collection of stalls looming on the main intersection, offered the usual trinkets available all over the archipelago. Even at Puram Dalem, one of Ubud’s most central temples, where traditional Balinese dances are staged nightly, there was no trace of genuine spirits. The sinuous movements of pretty Balinese ladies shrouded in colorful robes and elaborate headdresses anticipated the arrival of a demon in a wooden mask, ready to perform the ancient barong dance. But again, this was not what we expected from Bali: the ghosts we chase chuckled at us, for we just fell into yet another beautifully staged tourist trap.
The disappointing memories of the last few days transform into great excitement when this local old man approaches us at the roadside tea stall.
“We are looking for something authentically Balinese,” we hope this could be the serendipitous occasion we have been anxiously expecting. The old man smiles and then commands: “Come back tomorrow morning at 9, and I’ll show you the real Bali.”
I’m filled with hope. I remember how I drove the motorbike along the winding roads that snake through an infinite horizon of terraced rice paddies into the heart of the island. I wished I could find something unique behind every curve, but the closest I got to my imagined “pure Bali” was at Pura Tirta Empul, one of the island’s holiest shrines. It’s here that Balinese come to bathe and purify physically and spiritually. The scene I observed here felt closer to my expectations: rows of devotees waited patiently for their turns as others dipped into the holy pools, praying and showering under stone faucets that jutted out of the walls. Still, my craving for the “unique Balinese experience” was for something more.
Today, as we return to the warung to meet the old Balinese man, I know we are on the right track. To our surprise, he’s already waiting for us at the same place he occupied yesterday, a cup of tea in his hand, and a traditional Balinese batik tied around the top of his head in guise of a hat.
“I knew you would come back,” he says, then he summons another younger fellow, they both get on a motorbike, and ask us to follow. We drive off the main road and into a small path shrouded by trees until we reach a clearing. We all continue on foot to a large wooden building covered by thatched roof. Muffled screams resonate from the inside. “You wanted to see real Bali? Enjoy the show then,” the old man says before he walks inside, signal us to follow, and disappears into a screaming mob.
The air smells of adrenaline and blood. Once my eyes get used to the darkness, I realize that we just stumbled upon a cockfighting arena. When the men let go of their excited roosters, they quickly jump into each other, slashing furiously with their beaks and legs. Blades swing and soon sleek swathes of blood rise to paint black lines in the air.
As quickly as it started, the fight ends when one of the birds collapses lifeless, and the other cripples away, finding recovery into its owner’s hands. With our stomachs turned, we reach for the exit.
“You don’t like this?” the old man catches up with us on our way out. “You said you wanted to see real Bali. That’s what we Balinese do for fun.” I don’t know what to answer. Maybe we were looking for less angry spirits.