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An eruption in paradise: Bali in the wake of Mount Agung

Flights booked, bags packed – my partner and I were about to embark on the common-held dream of backpacking Bali.

“You’re still going?” a friend asked us a few nights before our departure. Her voice brimmed with bewilderment. “Haven’t you heard? They evacuated half of the island!” An impromptu Google search confirmed her cause for panic. “Travel Warning in Effect!” the headlines shouted. “Experts Warn of Mount Agung’s Massive Eruption!”

We shrugged our shoulders, crossed our fingers and headed to the airport as scheduled. We agreed that if Mother Nature was going to blow, we were prepared to witness her fury firsthand.

Bali sits in the southern part of the Indonesian archipelago as the only predominantly Hindu island in the mostly Muslim country. For the Balinese locals, Mount Agung is a volcano that bears a sacred importance. Along with being the highest point on the island (and, therefore, the closest to the heavens), many locals believe that it is a replica of the cosmological Mount Meru, which, in the Hindu religion, is considered to be the centre of all universes.

I had always heard of Bali to be a magical meeting point of spirituality and nature. When I arrived to the island, this truth was confirmed. Inside and out, the beauty of Bali was overwhelming. It’s an island that people often perceive as the ultimate paradise, but its merit goes so much deeper than the lush tropics and sunny coastal beaches; there’s something present in Bali that I can only describe as an ‘aura,’ created and sustained by various pieces of a cosmic puzzle- the people, the culture,  the environment, the spirituality and, above all, the devotion. Our first days on the island were seasoned with this energy.

Walking down the streets of each city on our journey, it was almost impossible to miss a holy ceremony or celebration taking place. The narrow sidewalks were lined with “Canang Sari,” handwoven coconut leaf baskets filled with flowers, small gifts, and incense as an offering to the gods. Nearly everyone smiled, said hello, and radiated a spirit of gratitude and love. And although many areas were heavily occupied by western expats and tourists, it seemed a place where locals and visitors thrived in creative harmony.

Prior to hearing about the brewing rumbles of Mount Agung, we planned to summit to its peak, but decided otherwise as the entire island (including myself) waited in anticipation for the volcano to explode. Instead, we opted to drive our motorbike to Mount Batur, another sacred volcano just 18 km northwest of Agung. It was far enough away that it sat outside of Agung’s evacuation zone, but many had still chosen to flee the area.

The foggy, uphill winding roads that led us to Batur and its surrounding villages were eerily quiet. There were very few locals, let alone tourists, frequenting what once were busy streets. As we parked our bike near a small market, a herd of nearby shop owners rushed to our side. They yelled about their products, waved fruit in our face and pulled us every which way. They begged us to purchase souvenirs, got angry when we politely declined, and watched in resentment as we eventually got back on the bike to continue our trip.

It was in that moment that I felt a shift in perspective.

My previous notion of a harmoniously tuned relationship between locals and tourists quickly transgressed into something that mirrored dependence. Of course, I understood the desperation for making a sale in an almost abandoned town, and such a scene is common in many tourist spots around the world, but the sense of despair revealed a fragility that I hadn’t yet noticed.

As we continued our journey, I looked around at all of the restaurants, resorts, and yoga studios that were overflowing with western tourists- a flock of simultaneous “Eat. Pray. Love.” journeys meeting at the epicenter of spiritual practice. “How much of this was built for indulgent visitors?” I thought.  

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Mount Agung’s imminent eruption and the tourism industry’s imminent effects on Balinese culture.

See, Agung’s last eruption was in March, 1963, and just one month prior, a purifying ritual called Eka Dasa Rudra was to be performed by Hindu priests at the Besakih Temple on Agung’s slope. According to ancient texts, the ritual must be carried out at the temple every 100 years in order to maintain purity and protect humans from disaster at the hands of the gods. But, as the volcano began to quiver and bellow, the priests took it as a divine sign to postpone the ritual. Indonesia’s president at the time, however, urged them to continue through the warning signs, as he had invited foreign visitors from around the world to attend the event.

To the Balinese people, Eka Dasa Rudra wasn’t performed properly. In fact, it was tailored to accommodate foreign guests. As a result, many locals believe that its 1963 eruption, which destroyed villages and killed over 1,000 people, was the gods’ punishment.

If this moment in history isn’t already symbolic enough, you should know that Besakih Temple, which sat on the volcano, was largely untouched by the vicious lava flows that devastated the villages below. Most of the surrounding area was left in ruins, but Besakih stood tall‒ an emblem of devotion that, at that time, was spared.

I pondered on this story for the rest of my trip. Luckily, we left before Agung revealed its fury again in November 2017. When I read about the eruption in the news, I found little information regarding the spiritual importance of the volcano or how the locals were coping. I did, however, read plenty about its disastrous impact on Bali’s tourism.

“What would happen to Balinese culture at the whims of the tourism industry?” I thought to myself. “Could the island sustain its divine energy?”

But, in the spirit of Bali – in it’s exclusive wonderment to the rest of the world, I knew the answers to these questions were simply worries, curiosities of the future, not to be meditated on, as divinity is a power that, akin to a volcanic eruption, moves on its own terms. A feeling that I will never forget.