YES, THERE IS A BALI
Finally Got There
The Babi-Express cargo vessel that carried Theo from Singapore to the port of Singaraja on the north coast of Bali could not have arrived any sooner to suit him. Another ten miles and he feared he might have jumped overboard-it was that awful. He disembarked smelling like a swine.
Theo was hardly ashore, standing on the beach observing his surroundings, when Babi-Express began taking aboard its cargo of live pigs. This got Theo thinking. How was he going to get from Bali to Tahiti? Traffic moved from Bali to the west toward Singapore and not eastward across the Pacific. He would probably have to travel across the East Indies to Timor, make his way to Darwin in Northern Australia, cross the continent to Sydney and pick up a ship there. The French line Messageries Maritimes had regular service to the islands from Sydney. His decision would have to wait. Theo now had a month or perhaps two months to enjoy himself so let it be. Bali was waiting.
But all did not seem to be going well. Chaos reigned in Singaraja. An hour before he arrived aboard Babi-Express, a liner from Amsterdam, carrying both tourists and Dutch military personal to their new posts, had dropped anchor in the harbor. The local agent for the Dutch Koninklijk Lines was still greeting passengers as they disembarked. The port itself was a dismal place with the town of Singaraja located on a bluff high above. Arriving passengers had to scramble up the hill or else hire the services of a palanquin, a sedan type chair carried by four porters.
Theo wondered if Bali was as remote as everyone claimed it to be. Tourism had taken root as far back as 1920 when the Royal Dutch Steamship Company added the island to its itinerary. By 1930 there were about a hundred visitors a year; a decade later when Theo arrived, the figure was around 250. It was all there in a brochure one of the passengers had handed him. The tourist spots were farther to the south of Singaraja. To get there, visitors had to traverse the island by motorcar to reach the capital city of Denpasar where they would spend a night or two at the luxurious Bali Hotel that had opened in 1927.
To avoid being carried by a palanquin, Theo, to the jeers of the handlers, scrambled up the bank on his own, carrying his bags, easel and paints, slipping and sliding with every step. He was sweating and hot when he reached the top, and he was glad that he made the decision to leave his oils with Hans back in Singapore.
Theo was disappointed at the first sight of Singaraja. It was a village, not a town by any standards, and it was a town in a sad state of despair, with the main street lined with [lean-to’s and shacks. It was not that poverty and slum areas offended him, for he had certainly seen his share in his travels, rather it was that he expected something else. He had pictured Bali to be different.
A dozen touring cars had gathered at the edge of the village to take passengers to Denpasar where they would check in. Theo, who the tour guides thought to be a passenger from the cruise ship, was ushered into the lead touring car. He didn’t object and took a seat far in the rear of the car. His bags and easel were hoisted to the top of the car and strapped down. Once he was seated he felt sorry of the others in the car when they began complaining. They sniffed the air wondering where the horrible smell was coming from. Some put the blame on the farmers’ fields outside the widow; others said it must be from the cargo piled on the roofs of the cars. They all made guesses but only Theo knew where the smell came from. He tried to sink lower and lower into his seat but it did little good. The smell of swine persisted.
The cars took off all together, rumbling and bouncing over the deeply rutted road. Theo was grateful that the rough ride distracted from the smell. After twenty minutes when the cars began the climb into the mountains the mood changed. The scenery was breathtaking. They passed through village after village, each one appearing behind a wall enclosure-walls of grey-brown dried mud topped with thatch or else red tiled roofs. Villages had elaborately carved temple gates of bright vermilion brickwork, much of it carved in stone. The construction of the temples with their multi-tiered roofs was striking. And all along the route men carried bamboo poles across their shoulders with heavy sheaves of rice stalks suspended on each end while sturdy women ambled along, hips swaying, their back rigid, balancing towering piles of pottery and food stuff on their heads. All wore sarongs of brown or plaid cloth, except for the small children who ran naked. Above the waist, women like men were uncovered and the young women’s breasts stood out round and firm. Theo began sketching in his mind. Occasionally the car stopped abruptly to avoid hitting a rounded belly pig, not for fear of hurting the pig but doing harm to the vehicle. Huge water buffalos, some pale pink and some grey, wallowed in roadside streams or lumbered about with children fast asleep on their generous backs.
At the Bali Hotel the caravans of cars came to a halt and here the tired, dust-covered passengers disembarked, sighing with relief that they had arrived. Theo scrambled to get his bags and easel before porters carried them into the hotel. Once he had his belongings he set out to find lodging. He found accommodation, which he noted in his journal the next day: ”A rather primitive Chinese hotel. Through the windows of my room, as I lay awake, I heard faint strains of music. The sounds fascinated me. I left the hotel and began to follow them in the moonlight. I came to an open courtyard. I looked upon an animated scene, dancing girls, half in a trance, made small, flower-decorated offerings to their gods. A chorus of male voices chanted in the background. Young women began to sway to the soft tunes of the temple orchestra. After hours of gazing and growing weary from the scent of burning incense, I found my way back to the hotel just as dawn was breaking. This is Bali. Beautiful Bali.” The intoxication that Theo felt that night would never leave him. It only seemed to intensify.
Theo rented a bicycle from a Japanese camera shop and set out to explore Sanur. He took a swim in the ocean and liked what he saw, the vast open, empty beaches, the tranquility, the loneliness. This was what he was looking for but first he had to check out Ubud, the art center that he heard so much about. To reach Ubud, being in the low hills, he took a lorry bus rather than travel by bicycle. He wished he hadn’t; there was little he could see cramped in the back of a lorry on hard wood seats.
There were no tourist hotels in Ubud. Travelers stayed in the bungalows that Prince Gede Agung Sukawati had built for the circle of artists he patronized. Others who came camped in the temple grounds. Theo was aware that Walter Spies lived in Ubud but he was not ready to meet him. He wandered about the town, had lunch in a teahouse and took the bus back to Denpasar and rode his bicycle back to Sanur. Theo found his trip to Ubud interesting but he preferred to live by the sea.
He was fortunate. The Chinese owner of the hotel where he was staying had a cottage at Sanur and when Theo showed interest he called for a horse and carriage and took Theo there. The cottage was little more than a hut with plaited bamboo walls and a thatched roof There was a pallet for a bed with a mosquito net above the bed suspended from the ceiling. The house was centered in a cluster of trees and tropical growth. The important thing for Theo was that it had a view of the sea. He saw its potential, a fine place to paint. He might need more than a few weeks on the island, he reasoned so he took it for a month. The owner agreed, one month, longer if he wished. Theo moved in instantly and set up his easel.
Theo was happy with the house. A thought amused him, being Swiss and now living by the sea. He wondered if Helga would love the sea, but he quickly dismissed the thought. Switzerland was far behind him now. Another place; another time.
Theo liked especially the evenings when he felt that the whole romance of Bali presented itself in its full glory. In the late day the sea took on a magnificent golden tinge. Coconut palms that stood in front of his house framed a perfect scene, a scene that came alive, like a moving film. In the hills behind him the landscape with its violent, pure colors dazzled and blinded him.
Something, it seemed, was always happening at Sanur. A young boy brought him a monkey on a chain and presented it as a gift. The next day an old man from the village brought a cockatoo. There were fresh coconuts, and stocks of bananas and ripe papaya on his doorstep when he awoke in the morning. Who brought the gifts he never knew; no one ever mentioned them. Theo took up his easel and began to paint with eager energy he never knew he had. He did not seek to imitate nature that he saw all about him but instead to employ the elements available to him to create a new world, similar to Gauguin but different. His aim now was to give expression to the feeling of mystery which came upon him, a total stranger, as he stood face to face with the wonders of reality of a strange Balinese world. At last, he now had a goal. It was settled. Tahiti could wait, at least for a few months. He had found what he wanted. He had no need to invent compositions. They were all around him, in the temples and in the daily lives of the Balinese.