One Year Later

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Agus Suardana's wife, Komang, told him about the bombs. The telephone had rung in the predawn darkness, as it did in many homes in Bali the morning after Oct. 12, 2002. "Komang answered it," Agus, a slight, sunny-faced hotel executive, recalled. "She woke me up and said there had been a bomb in Kuta. I told her it can't be, it can't happen to us. In Bali we have thousands of gods to protect us."

For one terror-filled night, the gods deserted Bali, and, a year on, many islanders like Agus are still agonizing over why. "In the beginning I was simply shocked," said Agus. "I asked God, why did you do this to our beautiful island?" But, gradually, the Bali bombings compelled Agus to undertake a spiritual self-examination—and to ask more difficult questions. Had the Balinese grown arrogant because of their island's beloved place in the world? Were Balinese going to the temple just to pray for more money? Was the attack heavenly retribution for the sins of Kuta, where drugs and prostitution were allowed to flourish? "Maybe," Agus concluded, "we forgot what is really important."

No tenet of Balinese Hinduism is more important than "suka tanpa wali duka"—no pleasure (suka) comes without pain (duka), no good without some evil, and vice versa. The challenge to humankind is to keep the ledger balanced. After the cataclysmic duka of the bombings, the devout Balinese assumed the heavy responsibility of repairing the grievous damage to the island's karmic reckoning. Agus' personal effort on behalf of Bali is a new commitment to his faith. A year ago, he says, he sometimes neglected to pray at his household shrine or attend the full-moon ceremony at his temple. Now he is scrupulously attentive to the demands of ritual. It's not just a matter of turning up for a quick offering and prayers. Today, Agus spends a third of his waking hours in religious activities, devotions and assisting at the temple. It has essentially become a second job.

The cosmic balance is slowly shifting back toward a state of order. A few months after the bombings, when Bali's economy hit bottom, Agus' wife told him she was pregnant with their second child—a great suka for the family to weigh against the ongoing duka of the island as a whole. For Agus and his fellow Balinese, the task of spiritual recovery has begun. Yet not even the solace of heaven can erase memories of the horror of that October night.


The islanders refer to the attack as "Bom Bali," as though it were a pink cocktail, usually with a dazzling smile to mask their humiliation. The Balinese feel a profound sense of shame about Oct. 12 that far outweighs any sense of self-pitying victimhood, even though sorrow and pity for Bali radiated throughout the world. The day after the attack, my e-mail queue was jammed with condolences from around the globe—from friends who had visited Bali with me, from others who had never been there.

We grieved for the dead, of course; and with deep-biting pain we also mourned the nightmarish end of the dream of Bali. It was the death of a ravishing ideal of a tropical paradise, a carefree, innocent Neverland that was conceived by adventurous Western travelers in the years between the World Wars and embellished by peripatetic artists and writers—a lovely illusion fostered by Balinese themselves, who launched a thousand ad campaigns promoting the island as an exotic destination for vacationers. In the 1990s, tourism in Bali spread across the island like a glamorous blight, consuming ancient paddy fields and spitting out luxury resorts and cheesy bungalows, romantic restaurants and seedy nightclubs, to entice ever more chasers after the dream. And that was why the bombers chose Bali.

I was a Bali dreamer once. In 1999 I left Manhattan, the island where I had lived for 20-odd years, to try life on a tropical island. It was the midlife crisis of a compulsive traveler, yet the choice of Bali was impulsive—my partner and I thought it would be a fun place to live for a year. We found a house with a big garden, near the beach, and hired servants to take care of us. I bought the first car I had owned since high school in Texas. For a transplanted Manhattanite, the island seemed, well, like paradise.

After New York City, Bali offered me something more precious than clean beaches and pure sea air: time. When Pandit Nehru visited the island, he called it "the morning of the world," a metaphor I understood when I lived there. Even though it sometimes seems impossible to get anything practical accomplished in Bali, paradoxically the island offers the beguiling illusion that there one can do anything.

The dream I brought to Bali was to write a novel. I soon found my theme: Bali's dark heart. I wrote a tale about a pair of American men who come to the island and get dazzled by the sunshine, the smiles, the beauties of the flesh as bountiful there as the extravagant foliage. Ignorant of suka/duka, they let their lives fall into a state of riotous imbalance, like an untended tropical garden.

My garden flourished: I finished the novel. Bali was indeed a fun place to live for a year. Yet by the time I left, to live in Jakarta, I was growing sick of the place. The famous Balinese smile now seemed annoying and fake—a sugary mask to conceal real emotions. When I heard first-time visitors talking about how gentle and peaceful the Balinese are, I felt a perverse impulse to take them to see a cockfight, a bloody ritual that's illegal but still widely practiced. In 1999, after Bali's favorite daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri lost the final round of the presidential election, a campaign of vandalism raged across the island. During the anticommunist purges of 1965-66, an estimated 80,000 people were brutally murdered. Some paradise.

Yet after I settled down in Indonesia's hectic, sprawling capital, I found I couldn't stay away from Bali. It wasn't just a Jakarta resident's usual craving to breathe fresh air, to see an expanse of green. Bali had got its hooks into my heart. It was like suffering from a rare tropical disease that takes years to reveal itself: I didn't have ridiculous expectations about the island when I went there to live, but I got starry-eyed in retrospect.

I never loved Bali more than when I got my own predawn phone call the morning after the blasts. I had been booked on a flight for Bali that afternoon; the launch party for the novel I had written there was scheduled to take place in three days. The event was scratched, and I missed the flight. Almost immediately I regretted not getting on that plane. A month later I was back in Bali to start a new novel, in a garden in Sayan, a hamlet near Ubud. It was the first in a series of visits to Bali during the year after Bom Bali, which evolved into an informal study of the island and the islanders, to track their response to the tragedy.

It was a secret, selfish delight to see the island without mobs of sunburned foreigners everywhere. In the countryside, one could easily imagine the romantic scenes in old films such as Andre Roosevelt's Goona, Goona, which were shot around Ubud when the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward were vacationing there in the '30s. In the south, Kuta was once again a beach for Indonesians, a place where young people with no hope of employment—or no desire for it—could swim, play football and flirt.

Yet the unwonted peace and quiet came at a terrible cost: I saw hundreds of restaurants and shops that were completely empty except for their proprietors—people who had gambled everything on the tourism boom and lost. It was a miserable sight. "The small businesses that borrowed money during the boom, with only their land as an asset, are losing everything," commented Anak Agung Gede Ariawan, a leading businessman and restaurateur in Ubud. Made Wijaya, Bali's renowned landscape designer, asked, "How did an almost entirely self-sufficient culture loan 80% of its work force to something as fickle as mass tourism?" Once again, it seems, suka and duka had fallen into dangerous imbalance.

It was obvious that the Oct. 12 attack would have a devastating effect on the economy, but in the beginning there was a lot of brave talk that things might soon return to normal. Yet as the year wore on, "normal" was redefined. The highest estimate of how many people would come to Indonesia to spend $300 or more a night for luxury accommodations had already been surpassed before the bombings. Now the bubble was pricked.

To describe the impact of the bombings as having a ripple effect is inadequate; it's been more like a series of seismic shock waves. Surveys by several nongovernmental agencies report that businesses in Bali that have fewer than 20 employees have lost more than half their trade and laid off more than half their staff. No government authority or institution in Bali has proposed any relief for them; the banks are taking over hundreds of small enterprises.

When I asked friends in Bali to help me find people whose day-to-day lives had been altered by the bombings, they laughed. They said that whenever I saw a knot of young guys on a street corner, smoking and trying to act cool, chances were most of them had jobs a year ago. When I accosted these idlers, who now seemed to be everywhere, I was reminded of how proud the Balinese are. Even if they were so skinny that you had to wonder if they were getting enough to eat, they would say it was their day off or they were starting a new project soon. The deceitful, dazzling smile that used to annoy me was now breaking my heart.

Agus Suardana took me to meet Made Suintana, a friend of his who had been out of work since May, when the Bali Grand Mirage, the resort in Nusa Dua that employed him as chief of security, closed down. He lives in Bualu, a village near Nusa Dua, where many of the resorts' employees also reside. We found him sitting in a pavilion by his house, a round man with an image of the Hindu god Ganesha tattooed on his right pectoral. Suintana was playing with his crickets, darting a puffy reed switch into their cages to make them sing.

Suintana was delighted to see us, apparently a man without a care in the world, and we soon learned why—a granddaughter had been born to him just the day before. His main complaint about the island's sick economy was that it meant less food for his pig farm—his friends working at the resorts in Nusa Dua gave him garbage to feed his pigs, and fewer guests meant less garbage. No one in his family has a job; his mother occasionally sells cakes in the market. When I asked Suintana how he supported his family, he said he was selling his pigs, one by one. A year ago he had more than 100 pigs. Now he has 30. The brutal arithmetic spoke for itself; I said nothing. To cheer me up, he quickly added, "A new hotel is opening soon. Perhaps I will try to get a job there." He smiled brilliantly. "Many people will try to get a job there, I think."


When I was in Bali in early September, preparations were under way for the anniversary of the attack. I attended a ngeruwak ceremony, which sought the gods' permission to build a memorial on a wedge of land between the tidy rectangles of rubble where the Sari Club and Paddy's Irish Pub once peddled good times. The event was presided over by a white-robed priest who walked with a silver-dragon-headed cane. The leaders of the Kuta community were all there, Hindus wearing ceremonial silk sarongs and Muslims in their Friday best. The vice mayor climbed down a ladder into a deep hole in the ground to make an intimate offering intended to placate demons attracted to the site by the carnage of the bombings. After the ceremony concluded, an Australian lad sat apart and sobbed; an older compatriot, a reporter, spoke kindly to him and patted him on the back.

It was a depressing event, on an exceptionally hot morning, yet it gave me hope. Bali can be an industrious place when it puts its mind to it. Although the anniversary was scarcely a month away, the builders promised to have the memorial ready in time. A little row had been kicked up over the design, which calls for a Javanese-style Hindu temple at the entrance. Some neighborhood do-gooders objected to having a religious symbol there. It made everyone happy to have a controversy, and I was happy to see their old passion back, in a fine fracas. That offered a distraction from their troubles.

There are complex webs of old feuds in Bali, mostly squabbles among the banjars (the local unit of government, equivalent to precincts). But suspicion of off-islanders, especially the Javanese, has always pullulated under the serene Balinese mask. When I was living there, the banjar and the military in Kuta got into a power struggle over the right to control the immigrant Javanese beach vendors, which culminated in the burning of thousands of the vendors' pushcarts. Even among the island's élite, a nasty anti-Javanese bias persists.

However, as I talked to people all over the island, Muslims and Christians as well as the majority Hindus, I finally accepted their nearly universal insistence that religious divisions have not played a significant role this past year. In the days after the bombings, there were scary rumors flying around about rumbles between Hindus and Muslims, but they never amounted to anything. One of the principal entries in the year's suka column is that at the grassroots level, where it counts, Bali's social glue has stuck.

One of the most devastating effects of the massacre has been its psychological impact. The Balinese, loath to discuss their problems openly, have always turned to the performing arts, their culture's greatest glory, for solace and instruction. Many special performances of wayang kulit, Indonesian shadow-puppet drama, have been staged to help young people comprehend a world turned upside down. A dalang (puppeteer) named I Made Sidia has created, with the support of UNICEF and USAID, a spectacular drama that he performs on a wider screen than normal, for children throughout the island. It is a parable about animals in the forest after it has been burned by demons. At first the animals bicker among themselves, but in the end, as you might expect, they learn to get along and vanquish the demons. A psychiatrist also speaks to the audience and offers counsel to anyone seeking it. The title of the drama is The Ten Names of Peace, but everybody calls it "the skateboard wayang": in order to keep the wide-screen action going, the dalang whizzes back and forth on a skateboard.

Yet most Balinese have responded to the bombings as Agus Suardana did, with an intensified religious fervor. On the last day of my visit, Agus invited me to West Bali to meet his family and attend an odalan, a major festival at a famous old temple on the coast. Rambut Siwi is a mossy, crenellated pile on a rugged cape straight out of a Turner painting: a red-granite cliff, a glittering black beach and a pounding sea, with misty Java reclining on the horizon. Hundreds of people were promenading on the cliff above the temple, files of lace-bodiced women with offerings stacked upon their heads, men standing in groups wearing elegant sarongs and cream jackets, smoking and chatting. Muslim vendors hawked ritual goods, drinks and cheap, shiny toys. I bought a bottle of water from a boy, perhaps age 18, who said he has been unemployed since June, when the little shop where he worked went out of business.

Agus was waiting for me at the edge of the parking lot, barefoot. As we descended the steps carved into the granite, he explained that today he had ngayah duty—which meant that he must sprinkle holy water on the worshippers all night long as they entered the temple to pray. We joined the privileged ranks of the ngayah guys in a small pavilion by the sea, where Agus introduced me to his brother, his uncle, his great-uncle and his grandfather. I asked them how old the temple was, but none of them knew. Agus' grandfather, the oldest man there, said Rambut Siwi was always old.

I asked Agus what people pray for at a ceremony like this.

"People come here to pray for a good harvest, for good health. They pray for Bali."

"And you?" I asked.

"I pray for myself, for my family, but not only for us. I pray for everybody. Now there is war everywhere in the world. It is the duty of Balinese people to pray for balance in the whole universe, not just on our island."

The Balinese interpretation of the bombings, that it was divine retribution for impiety, sounds superstitious to Western ears, but it has its own truth. At Rambut Siwi I realized that Bali has survived the past year not because of the extraordinary way it has coped with the tragedy but because of the profound continuity that people like Agus Suardana feel with the civilization that existed centuries before the dream drew in drifters like me, the Bali that was always old, the morning of the world.

Agus' notion that the Balinese can save the world with their prayers may be naive, but it's as good a plan as any I've heard. If anybody has a shot at charming the gods to come back and save us from ourselves, it's the Balinese.