Island of The Gods

Further Ramblings from the up-coming Bali Issue (out in December)

Before he will "talk story" with us, Bali surfing pioneer Ketut Menda makes a series of solemn offerings to his gods at a cache of various alters and shrines located around his sprawling-yet-tucked-away home in downtown Kuta. This, he tells us, will make for better stories.

To our surprise, it does.

Despite the booming surf industry SURFING has come to investigate here in Bali, despite claims that Bali is the new North Shore, despite the throngs of tourists, the bustling sale of $1 DVDs, novelty tee-shirts and knock-off sunglasses, this island remains a deeply spiritual place. Every day, in every place you go, you'll see sacred temples, statues of various Hindu gods, and people of all ages going about the solemn business of making their daily offerings. It's a culture bound by ritual, embedded in ceremony and surrounded by gods and spirits.

"They say that Bali is the place where humans can commune most closely with the spirit world," one longtime ex-pat explained to me. "There's energy vortexes that can be seen from space, and Bali is the most visible of them all. And whether you believe that or not, just look at the presence of all the healers, shamans and meditation centers on this island. Just look at the way they approach their lives. I think that's why people keep coming back here, whether they know it or not, they feel it."

Perhaps it has little to do with surfing -- heavy shredding is hardly a priority of the spirit world -- but it does affect much of the way the surf culture has grown up here. In conducting various interviews for the features in SURFING's up-coming, On Location "Bali Issue," we have consistently encountered ways in which religion and ceremony affect the local surfing community. For one thing, young surfers are obliged to spend a great deal of their time attending ceremonies with their families. Family is extremely important here, with large family groups living on a single plot of land together in a near communal state. But when I ask some of these young surfers the meaning of these ceremonies and the point of their offerings, they seem not to understand my question. Upon further inquiry, they seem not to understand the point of their offerings at all. They don't know what any of it means, only that they must do it.

"I don't know," one top Balinese pro says. "I only do to make my family happy. If family happy, then I am happy. So I go make offering, make ceremony, so I can be done with and go surf."

This riddle of understanding haunted us, until we finally sat down with the elder surfer Ketut Menda -- who was among the first young Bali children to get pushed into waves by Aussie pioneer Peter McCabe when he made his first visits to the island. Menda was also the first Indonesian surfer to visit Hawaii, along with his friend Made Kasim. Both friends started the first surf shops in Bali, and are largely responsible for bringing up the next generation of Indonesian surfers -- undeniably some of the best in the world, though their difficulty traveling has made their mark on the international level relatively minor so far.

"When you are young," explained Menda, "you do not know about religion. You only do as you are told. You will not understand why until you are maybe 40 years or older. Then you understand your religion, your family power in Bali."

When a child is born in Bali, Menda further explained, the afterbirth is placed under the family home. This ties him forever to that ground, and to that home. It is believed that in the womb, a growing child is accompanied by four brothers -- each symbolizing the attributes that are needed to survive in this world: strength, intelligence, friendship, and poetry -- and when the afterbirth is placed in the ground, the brothers are rooted there as well.

"When you cannot make a decision," says Menda, "like, should I stay, should I go, this is your brothers arguing with you. But when you are in touch with them, when you think as one, then they give you power.

"Other people, Chinese, Muslim, they put the afterbirth in the ocean, and they can go anywhere in the world. That why you see Chinese all over the world. But Balinese people place under the house. That why they stay here with the family.

"When you go travel, there is no temple, no family. The temple is your power. The family is your life. Bali is so good, it hard to leave."

Maybe you think this is all a bunch of spiritual mumbo jumbo. Maybe when you were born, the doctor chucked your afterbirth in a sanitary waste bin with a pile of bloody tissues. But here in Bali -- a place where the 13th room in any ocean-front hotel is left permanently vacant for the queen of the sea -- this is what they believe. And belief is powerful stuff.

If you look to the Bali surfing community, the ones traveling the world, making a push at the WQS or international photo trips, most of the ones way out there are mix-blooded, non-Hindu, or non-Balinese born. And the true-blooded Bali surfers all seem to have a hard time leaving their island, or staying away very long.

It's just a theory, of course. But when you get here -- and you really should get here -- you can't help but feel that there must be something to it. As Menda put it to us during our interview: "Before you die, you have to come to Bali. This is the island of the gods."