New Internationalist

The Swastika Spins Ever Faster

Issue 142

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TOURISM [image, unknown] Villagers in Bali fight back.

[image, unknown]

The swastika spins ever faster
The idyllic village of Ubud in Bali found itself being overrun by tourists. The cycle of life - represented in Hindu mythology by the swastika - had started to spin out of control. One of the villagers, Silvio Santosa, describes their disturbing experience as well as their remarkable response - to make the visitors even more welcome.

In many parts of the world the old people can hardly conceive their descendants that once they lived in a natural heaven. No wandering strangers disturbed their daily activities, or if so they were guests who brought with them the spirits of equality and friendship. The feeling of being put in a glass house, with buses full of spectators outside ready to take photographs, never haunted them.

Now the sparrows have gone from their natural abodes. In some countries the old houses have long been replaced by seven - or eight- storey hotels, so the mother-land now is sinking.

‘Is Bali sinking?’ I once asked a village priest.

‘No! Never! Never!’ he answered. ‘The Supreme God Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa planted the Great Mountain Gunung Agung to keep Bali as it was. Look!’ he urged me to look towards the mountain.

Gunung Agung, the Great Mountain, is one of two active volcanoes in the tiny tropical island of Bali. And the village of Ubud is located somewhere almost at the centre on its south western slope about 200 metres above sea level.

In the village’s coat of arms a couple of serpents encircle the eight-petalled lotus showing the eight directions of the compass.

‘The serpents Antoboga and Basuki are two antagonistic poles,’ another priest told me. ‘They are yin and yang, or male and female, or positive and negative. Which one is which depends on the position you look at it from.’

These two antagonistic poles produce energy from their contradiction. This is to enable the everlasting cycle of life, the swastika, to turn around. The stronger a contradiction arises, the greater the energy it produces and the faster the swastika turns our life, causing difficulties and disruption.

Life was difficult when the electrification project began in Ubud in 1974 to prepare for the tourists. Suddenly men cut down the big trees alongside the roads to give enough space for the cables. Suddenly the beautiful Ubud disappeared. No more trees and flowers decorated the valleys, no more oil lamps gleamed at night and no more birds sang from the leafy foliage every morning and afternoon.

Suddenly Ubud turned into an ugly desert where half-naked tourists wandered around entering the holy temples in bikinis, taking pictures of almost anything that passed by, and disturbing working villagers as though the locals were the occupants of a huge zoo. They entered the compounds where the private events were held. They looked at us as if we were human bodies bearing animal souls. They climbed our shrines to take the best position to photograph our praying priests ‘ and they touched, and even stole away, our religious offerings as though we made them for a giveaway exhibition.

‘We should do something to stop all of these disturbances,’ a young man yelled in a youth-club meeting. ‘They cut down our shady trees, they chased away our singing birds, and now many tourists are causing anger. We should do something!’ This was at the end of 1981, after the village had been living in despair for a full seven years. When the trees alongside the roads were cut down the people had been merely innocent children. But in 1981 they had grown up older, able to talk and express their opinion. Some of them went to see the highest priest for advice. The youth were so enthusiastic that the priest had to calm them down.

But the almost uncontrollable conflict reached a peak when the dry season came for an unusually long time. Without the trees the wind blew the dust all over the village: on every inch of the mud walls, on every one of the already rare flowers, atop the thatched roofs and on the beautiful offerings the women brought into their temples. Tourists cursed the dust as it landed on their faces.

The locals cursed the tourists, for they disturbed ceremonies and dressed impolitely. Guide books had told their readers about the family events, airlines had promoted Bali with all of its glamorous ceremonies, photographers had made public exhibitions out of private occasions. All of this without asking permission. Foreigners were attracted. They came to Ubud full of expectations. They entered any private house as though the religious ceremonies there were tourist attractions. Conflict after conflict developed, anger mounted.

Boards were put on the gates or walls to warn the tourists that the ceremony inside was a private event. ‘No Tourist, Please.’, ‘For Guest Only "‘This is a Religious Event. Entrance is Forbidden’, ‘Only for the Family Members.’ It was really ugly to see religious offerings and decorations at a compound’s entrance disturbed by these emergency boards written in a foreign language. Tempers rose further when a group of tourists were ordered to leave a temple because they were disturbing the praying parishioners. The tourists blamed their guide for not informing them. The guide accused the locals of being unfriendly and uncooperative. The villagers chased the guide away.

The situation was hot in Ubud, in every way.

‘We should plant trees again to cool the village down,’ a youth said in a meeting. ‘Along the roads, along the paths and in every available space.

Most people agreed. Boys and girls dug the holes alongside the roads, old people planted the trees, women and children watered them every day. Many foreigners helped, some donated money to buy the plants, many more talked to their friends about the ‘green revolution’ in Ubud. In a couple of months Ubud transformed itself into a beautiful flower garden.

The movement had started, but still it had no legal status. Everybody was the leader, every villager joined the movement. A restaurant association was established and elected its own leader. This was to be followed by the artshops, guest houses, bus drivers, motorbike owners, dance troupes, and even street peddlers and hawkers.

But the more beautiful Ubud attracted more tourists. The boomerang had hit its own master. The swastika turned even faster. Greens and flowers were not powerful enough to reduce the heat. In another meeting the village’s thinkers and strategists sought a way out.

‘We should inform them, otherwise they will not know how to behave properly in our village,’ one of them proposed.

‘Let’s open an information board,’ the others added.

That was it.

The small groups were then put together in a bigger organisation. A hotel lent us an office for free. Volunteers came to work; talking, discussing, arguing with visitors. They informed the tourists about the naturally preserved beautiful Ubud and about the rights of the hosts to rule their own village. In September 1983 the organization published a map of the village with a full explanation which was later copied by various guidebooks and many other books about Bali. After eleven months it was registered as a legal foundation, and a month later the foundation published a monthly newspaper in English - probably the first to have been published by a village in Indonesia.

The movement went on. More and more villagers realized the importance of its existence. But the sky-rocketing Ubud was almost uncontrollable when it won the Best Village of the Island Award in 1983. More and more tourists came to share the village’s beauties and the people’s acceptance. Local and international publications sent their journalists to interview the foundation.

‘Why did you do all of these things?’

‘Because we are crazy.’

‘What is it you want?’

‘A naturally preserved beautiful Ubud.’

‘Does everybody agree with this movement?’

‘No. Some of them disagree. But we are democratic. It’s normal for people to disagree as well as agree with an idea.’

They wrote about Ubud everywhere. The snowball grew bigger and bigger, the work grew bigger and bigger, the travel agencies’ pockets grew bigger and bigger, but the foundation’s cash was never more than $50. Dropped-out students needed work, the unemployed young needed work, garbage needed sweepers, farmers wanted more plants to protect the canals. In the meantime, when the sixth edition of the village’s newspaper NAPI ORTI was ready for print, an official letter arrived saying: ‘The printing work for your newspaper has to be delayed!’

Whispers spread amongst the villagers. ‘Our newspaper has been banned by the government. But people calmed themselves down by saying: ‘At least it is written in history that the first village newspaper was published in Ubud.

Today, if you come to Ubud. you will find a combination of flowers, trees, hay-covered mud walls, thatched-roofed compounds, a row of souvenir shops, and nobody knows how many dogs. But even they seem very few compared to the ever-increasing number of tourists. In the tourist information board the volunteers work out of their love for the home village, protecting it from the negative impacts of tourism.

They have magazines and newspapers there in the sitting room, with many other books for tourists to read.

A volunteer called me last week. ‘Brother,’ he said ‘something has happened.’ His mood was very ugly.

‘What is it?’

‘A tourist has stolen some pages out of one of our magazines’.

Silvio Santosa is the editor of the village newspaper NAPI ORTI.


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