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Covarrubias, Miguel. Island of Bali. Jakarta: Oxford University Press, 1972 (Reprint from 1937 edition). Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2.
McPhee, Colin. A House in Bali. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1979 (Reprinted from 1946 edition). (excerpts): 9-31.
In his introduction, Covarrubias describes his travels to and time in Bali. The first chapter then elaborates on the island – geography, weather, the Balinese creation myth and so on. The second chapter elaborates on the island’s inhabitants – dress, build, culture, societal hierarchies, occupations, racial origins, ancestry, village myths, temples, history, and so on. Overall, Covarrubias attempts to describe the island as factually as possible, given that his narrative is based off of personal experience. Rather than attempting to write a scientific encyclopedia entry, Covarrubias includes his personal reactions, giving his accounts a personal and descriptive feel.
Personally, I noticed that the author seems to paint Bali as a mystically isolated place. For example, Covarrubias writes, “To the Balinese, Bali is the entire world” (Covarrubias, 6). Towards the end of the first chapter, Covarrubias also writes, “Few Balinese know how to swim and they rarely venture into the sea except to bathe near the shallow beaches, and then they go only a few feet from the shore” (Covarrubias, 10). At the same time, Covarrubias notes that the people live “in such close touch with nature,” and laments the exploitation of Balinese culture through tourism. The fact that the Balinese would still seem isolated and untouched is somewhat surprising, given the foreign invasions and violence in Bali’s history. In fact, Covarrubias mentions on page 37 that the Dutch army did not leave Bali until 1914, “when it was considered that Balinese resistance was sufficiently controlled.” Even then, police force and puppet rulers still governed Bali, and it’s hard to believe that their presence and effects would not have still been felt by Covarrubias twenty-three years later.
Similarly, in this excerpt, McPhee describes his time at Bali in autobiographical style. The excerpt begins with McPhee describing his experiences on the ship, and proceeds to describe in vivid detail the remainder of his travels, including music, conversations, reactions, feelings, observations, and more. Unlike Covarrubias, McPhee does not attempt to organize by topic, but rather takes the reader along his journey, allowing the reader to “discover” Bali personally.
One part that struck me in McPhee’s excerpt was the passage on page 28 that described “hot rivalry” between “Nyoman’s légong gamelan and the club of the other banjar.” I thought this passage gave more perspective to the Balinese culture, which is usually painted as completely innocent and wholesome. It’s easy to forget that Balinese people are people, just like us, and have similar experiences, even if in different contexts. The conversations in this book with Sarda also gave a very personal touch to Balinese culture, and showed partially how Sarda viewed his world – somewhat matter of factly – in comparison to the awe and tiptoed respect that Westerners usually view Balinese culture with.
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