From the moment I got into the airport I sensed that these Balinese people were a different breed. The first person I talked to in Bali was a customs officer. I asked him how his day was and he said quite honestly “I really don’t want to be at work right now”. Then we both had a laugh. Then he asked me for a bribe. What kind of strange land was this?
When I got into the cab, I knew I was not in Thailand anymore because the cab driver was friendly and interested in the details of my life, asked me if I liked music, and then proceeded to put Usher on the radio. He was just a teen and he put on classic Usher so I was impressed. I looked out into the streets from the rainy cab window. Everyone was darker, taller, bigger than they were in Thailand. Disgruntled, nosey, into R&B . . . was I even still in Asia? Or could I have accidentally landed off the coast of Africa? Where the Balinese a long lost tribe from the Motherland?
Many more things lead me to suspect that the Bali people were actually a long lost tribe of black people. First of all, the island was uber religious. It was impossible to tell the temples from the hotels from the houses. That traditional split tower entrance seemed to be in front of it all. And every place had an alter of some sort. In fact once we wandered into a temple while on the hunt for a library and this pugnacious little boy with perfect English stopped us with a snotty “What are you doing?” As if we were crazy. This is a temple, he said. But I swear it looked just like bungalows for rent. In fact, we had a structure like that outside of our hotel room down the block, Ganesha and all. Multi-colored offerings to the gods were scattered on the street everywhere, and 1 out of 2 people had rice on their foreheads from a recent blessing. We even got a spontaneous roadside blessing from some concerned citizens at the juncture of a particularly twisty piece of road we were about to drive past. A “Praise Jesus” would not have be out of order here. The Balinese folk were believers.
Second, these people loved food, and especially pork. Babi is the name for pig products here and Babi and I quickly became close friends. Babi Bakso, Babi Goreng and my personal favorite, Babi Guleng – a slow roasted suckling pig that is cooked seven hours and then you literally get to eat every part of it – skin, ribs, butt cheek, thigh, you name it, they served it. Food was a celebration here, and much of the food had rhythmic, fun to say names: Nasi Goreng, Bakso Ayam, Raw Cacao, Bali Coffee, Gado Gado, Coca Cola, emphasis always on the last syllable of the word and said in a high rising tone, thank you very much. Names of foods tripped off the tongue here like joyous battle cries, that’s how profound the love of food was.
Third and perhaps most important, the Balinese people loved music and were excellent musicians.
There was great music everywhere I went. The cover band in the whore pick-up bar playing Oasis. The Reggae band with the lead singer with dreads that would make a Jamaican proud. The straight ahead Jazz band in Ubud. The Latin Jazz band fronted by a beautiful Balinese piano playing and singing woman who mixed in classical melodies with precision and danced so well I thought she was a Brazilian. The classical dance performance with lots of head isolation that would make any 12 year old black girl in a schoolyard envious. The bass was pumping through the speakers everwhere on this island.
I tried to get into the scene by taking a couple of Gamelan lessons. The Gamelan is a big percussion orchestra made of gongs and xylophones and hand drums that is the national orchestral classical music of much of Indonesia. The Gamelan here is different from what I remember in college. They play the brass Javanese one, but they also play their own Balinese one which is softer, prettier, made of bamboo. I took two lessons in Ubud on the Rindink, kind of a low-lech vibraphone made of bamboo reeds and low to the ground. Separation of left hand and right hand. Notes goes in a circular pattern. Never ending patterns. When you want to stop playing you just signal the other band members and play a little flourish. Meditative and confusing and awesome.
But the final thing that convinced me that the Balinese were actually black was that they were wildly imitated and be-deviled everywhere with white people trying to copy their style, hang out at their beaches, eat their food and hit on their women. Nowhere was this more evident than in Ubud where the people wore Batik inspired local fashions and sipped coconut water in their organic cafes, dripping with local artisan silverwork jewelry. These people seemed to love Balinese life for sure. But if they woke up one day and had to really live it toiling in some hot ass rice paddy, I’m not so sure they would love it. So screw you, Julia Roberts & Elizabeth Gilbert.
One thing that was decidedly not black about the Balinese, though, was that they seem to be able to swim and many of them could actually surf. Seeing brown people on the water went to my head a little bit and I also attempted a surf lesson. The vibe at the school was very cool and relaxing, in perfect contrast to the sheer terror of my first surf experience. I got tumbled like a large load of laundry, and am still picking the sand out of various places. But it was still inspiring to know there was no actual genetic limitation on anyone brown when it comes to water sports. If my Balinese brothers could do it, eventually I will as well!
So, I’m sure you’ll agree that aside from that water sports anomaly, Bali is clearly a split off island from Africa that happened to float all the way over to Asia Pacific. I’m not sure what other surprises await me out here. Are there secret pockets of black people all over the world? Black Irish? Black Russians? Negra Modelas? And how come nobody told me about this? I’m off to search for the others. In the meantime though, I will enjoy my rediscovered love of pork and Usher and try to stay afloat in sea water. Thanks Bali Babi!