Island Of Bali by Miguel Covarrubias

There are many books written about Bali ranging from guide books, to home decoration to ones discussing traditional dress and customs. One of the books that has been around for a long while and that makes compelling reading is Island Of Bali by Miguel Covarrubias.

First published in 1937 and now published by Periplus the book is a fascinating insight into how a visitor to Bali found the island and what his impressions and thoughts were.

I often hear westerners who have been coming to Bali since the 1970s going on about how it has totally changed, how back then Kuta was just a village and locals lived a carefree lifestyle. Island Of Bali details how Covarrubias, who is a Mexican, and his wife Rose first came to Bali in 1930 and tells about their arrival by ship in Buleleng on the north coast. They had been filled with images of waving palms, women carrying baskets of fruit in their heads and picturesque rice terraces. Their ship had sailed from New York, through the Panama canal, across the Pacific Ocean and down through the South China Sea. In 1930 Bali was still under Dutch control and Singaraja, the capital of Buleleng was already a trading port complete with Javanese, Arabs, Chinese and Europeans. The first person they met off of the ship was a lady called Patimah who claimed to be a former princess and was renting automobiles.

Back then the southern area of Bali was not very populated and Covarrubias refers to the area as the malarial coasts of Kuta, Sanur, Benoa and Ketewel.

The main tourist center back then (everything being relative, of course) was Denpasar and getting there meant driving through the highlands from Singaraja. He describes Singaraja as having neat Dutch bungalows, gasoline stations, dingy shops where people are unkempt. He complains that the beautiful Balinese people of the steamship pamphlets are nowhere to be seen.

I can imagine a visitor arriving at the airport these days and taking a ride through Tuban or the Poppies Lane area thinking something similar.

I like the paragraph where he describes leaving Singaraja and writing in the third person says, Leaving the town, the car passes miserable villages and occasional gingerbread temples with tin roofs; it climbs the mountainside, the villages become more and more scarce, it grows colder (sound familiar?) and colder, and soon the tourist is shivering in a cloud of fog. He begins to suspect that he has been deceived. A few wild-looking people wrapped in blankets appear on the road riding on small ponies, and soon a double row of wooden shacks with more tin roofs announces Kintamani, the village on the rim of the crater of Batur, where a beautiful view of the volcanoes has been promised. Ten chances to one it will be foggy and the tourist will see nothing, so he goes into the elaborate rest-house of the K.P.M. to have a hot drink and warm up.




They continue and he says, The car winds and turns sharp curves down the mountain, the fog vanishes, and the air becomes warmer and clearer. Tropical vegetation reappears, and riding among tall palms and enormous banana trees, he enters Bangli, which is at last like the Bali of the photographs. With lessened suspicion, he rides through many beautiful villages and fantastic terraced rice fields covered with every shade of tender green. At a sharp curve a large sign indicates arrival at his destination – Den Pasar.

How many times have I ridden through areas that have crappy cement blocks walls and corrugated iron roofs looking for a truer vision of Bali, only to take a turn off the main road and find those images readily before me.

Covarrubias harks back to the 1920’s, that for him was when Bali was untouched by tourism. So funny and I am sure tourists to Bali in 2050 will look back on 2005 and say things like Back then you could still find rice paddies in Kerobokan.

I have just started the book and am excited to get into it. I know that the author spent most of his time living with a Balinese family in Belaluan and also with artist friend Walter Spies in Campuhan.

The book is 417 pages long and its contents are arranged under the chapters: The Island, The People, The Community, Rice, Work and Wealth, Everyday Life in Bali, The Family, Art and the Artist, The Drama, Rites and Festivals, Witchcraft, Death and Cremation, Modern Bali and the Future.

In the first chapter, The Island, I love how he describes the fertility of the island; It is only natural that in a land of steep mountains, with such abundant rains, crossed in all directions by streams and great rivers, on a soil impregnated with volcanic ash, the earth should attain great richness and fertility. The burning tropical sun shining on the saturated earth produces a steaming, electric, hot-house atmosphere that gives birth to the dripping jungles that cover the slopes of the volcanoes with prehistoric tree-ferns, pandanus, and palms, strangled in a mesh of creepers of all sorts, their trunks smothered with orchids and alive with leeches, fantastic butterflies, birds, and screeching wild monkeys.

Island of Bali can be bought at the airport book shop on departure and other book shops in the Kuta area. The US price listed is $16.95 though local prices could be 250,000rp

I will get through this book and report on the things I learn.