Like most of Asia, Indonesia’s spiritual side is on display for everyone to see. The insanely large country made up of multiple islands is home to many religions and in the areas I saw the people live fairly harmoniously, although locals tell me this isn’t the case according to their media. I had conversations that made me dig deep and explain my lack of faith and learnt a few things about the spiritual way of life.
Probably my most interesting conversation in Bali was with a young guy who’d just graduated. We met on a bus and he told me European History was a passion of his. Shiit. Definitely time for me to get shown up! Luckily he didn’t go to deep but it was a little embarrassing that I couldn’t even tell him what the Tower of London is like. He did, however teach me a little about Indonesian culture and the religions that are practised there. He is a Christian, which is relatively rare – Bali being majority Hindu and Indonesia as a whole being mainly Muslim. Hospitals, schools and universities are separated by religion, so a Christian would never go to a Catholic hospital. He did tell me there was a whole island where everyone is Catholic in Indonesia and one day the Pope came to visit.
Anyway, the interesting bit was about the ghosts commonly found throughout Indonesia. There are two key figures that are meant to haunt the mass of islands, young toddler ghosts and a crazed banshee type woman. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure whether he believed in ghosts but he said the majority do. The ghosts that have a child like appearance are in fact demons that will take your money. The reason why they exist is that they’re aborted babies…sure! The mad female lady ghost was in fact a woman who fell pregnant out of wedlock so her fellow villagers killed her. Obviously, using my western cynical but rational brain I asked him how abortion and single parents are felt about in his society and he agreed it’s not approved of, but he didn’t seem to have questioned how convenient it was that these terrors that people are encouraged to fear are exactly what the culture is trying to encourage them not to do. I say culture but does this stem from religion, government, tradition – probably all of the above. I can just imagine the UK version, ‘the benefit scrounging work-shy ghost’ who hobbles around on crutches but is able bodied enough to attack you with mighty strength.
He was also keen to discuss religion as he was at a point in life where he was questioning his faith. When asked why I don’t practice any religion and if it’s true that many people in the Western world are turning their backs on it, I hesitated. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question before and the last thing I wanted to do was guide a pliable teen away from his religious intentions. I explained to him that whereas religion is woven into every day life in Indonesia it’s quite far removed from the fast paced lifestyle in the western world. The sense of community isn’t as strong and people tend to focus a lot on their careers and immediate family rather then practising religion. I talked to him about how we live life less intuitively and tend to think very rationally, so many people felt that instead of God earth’s creation could be explained by science.
Time to get off the bus… A really interesting chat that brought up lots of questions. I argued my point rationally but the conversation left me thinking deeply.
Everywhere you go in Bali, you’ll see little offerings of flowers outside the shops and businesses. The Balinese Hindus put these out three times a day as an offering to the gods and to keep demons away. Sometimes they’re simple baskets of petals and flower heads and every so often they’re mini masterpieces. The pavements are dotted with them and they are a fundamental part of their creators’ daily working lives. Any Brits reading this can you imagine this happening outside our highstreet stores? I don’t like to put a downer on the UK and our retail warriors but I can just imagine the derision this simple but beautiful ritual would be met with and wonder how long the offerings would last on our streets. Or maybe that’s unfair. I’d love to see more flowers and mini pavement offerings.
Traditional Balinese people only name their kids one of four names, and if they have a fifth kid they just start again and call it the first name again. How confusing is that! So most people go by nicknames, kind of making their given name seem a little irrelevant. That is how you tell the difference between people from Java and people from Bali a friendly old man told me.
This post obviously only scratches the surface of such a complex culture and I know there’s so much more to learn.