Next day, our new friend, Alit, called for us early. We caught a bemo into town, and wandered, retracing our steps, changing our minds.
Near the centre of the town is the old palace, Puri Pemecutan, which is preserved as a museum, and is a fine example of pure Balinese architecture. We heard music as we wandered through its gateway. We came upon a class of tiny girls dancing in a courtyard. The dance continued without pause; but all the dark eyes swept towards us, one movement, one solemn regard. In a neighbouring courtyard, two teen-age girls were pounding rice with long pestles: `thud, thud, thud, thud’, in a simple unbroken rhythm. At every beat the pestle changed from one hand to the other, its bounce began its upward movement. The girls were young, straight and handsome.
Alit guided us down a side street, where hideous pigs ran among small warungs; at its end was a large, thatched pavilion and from it came the sounds of men shouting and cocks crowing. This was Denpasar,s cock-fighting arena.
We sat with other spectators on plank benches. Betty was the only woman in sight, for Balinese women seldom watch the cock-fights, and ouirs were the only pale faces. Two men in sarongs squatted in the arena, fondling and teasing their handsome fighting cocks.
They blew down their beaks and ruffled the feathers of their necks to excite them and carefully and, with a sense of ceremony, bound sharp blades to the cocks’ right legs. The birds were held high to be presented to the crowd. Then the betting began. Male voices calling the odds, rose to a babble then a deep roar. Somehow amongst it all, bets were made directly, one man to another. Nothing was written down all was remembered.
`What if the other man does not pay?’ we asked a man nearby. He was shocked. `That would never happen in Bali’, he said.
Boys came round selling food to munch while we watched the slaughter. There were small mandarins and salacs, like tiny scaled animals. Flat baskets were piled high with little, whole, smoked chickens and the baskets emptied quickly.
Quiet fell. The men with their birds faced across the square arena. Quiet, quiet, then the cocks were released. They faced, they circled, there was a flurry as one bird leapt across the other, there was a stab with the spur. The crowd yelled.
A fight was over when one of the cocks was wounded and unable to stand. Gambling debts were collected, food was sold and another fight began. Some of the fights were mercifully short. Sometimes, when a bird would not stand up to his opponent, the pair was locked in a small basket, where there was no escape, and to the feeling of violence was added a feeling of terror.
We were in the male domain. Men about men’s business walked slowly, sat calmly, talked solemnly on serious themes. They drew deeply on sweet-smelling clove cigarettes and looked about with the self-assurance of men being manly for men. The cocks ruffled their feathers and crowed. The men love their birds. Later, in the villages, we would see men by the roadside, siting with their champions in their arms, content in companionship. The cocks, they said, like to watch the people passing; it keeps them amused
Denpasar has its corners and alleys and buildings which are quiet and charming; but, in the daytime at least, it is the traffic that holds your attention. Many of the streets are one way only and traffic circles the city in a solid flow.. Pedestrians give way to bicycles, bicycles to motorbikes, motor bikes to cars and trucks own the road. A driver’s job is to sound his horn, loud and often.
The main street, Jalan Gadjah Mada is low in line, grey in colour. One shop is like another, wide doorway without windows – caves of commerce. First floor verandahs supported by square pillars cover the pavements which are high, rough and rutted. At the town centre, a bridge crosses a muddy river where bamboo grows, litter floats and citizens bathe and launder, the city’s water supply, and beside the river is a great, crowded, market where the air is loaded with aromas of many kinds of spices. Brown women walk, poised, with great baskets on their heads. There is wonderful movement and we brush close against others. There was always noise in Jalan Gaja Mada: record shops play rock and roll at unbearable levels, horns blare, engines scream.
Souvenir shops stand in lines and in them souvenirs stand in rows: Balinese art reduced by repetition to souvenir status. Ebony statues are smooth and elegant, but the silhouette is lost in sanding. Herons, frogs and figures from the Hindu stories are repeated again and again, exactly alike, with never the mark of a chisel.
`They think that if it’s smooth it’s good’, the painter Affandi said to me some months later, `That is why I prefer exotic art.’
Mostly the paintings in shops are similar, a repeated formula. A lot of work goes into it, as people say, and they buy the time and effort cheaply enough. On the pavements eager salesmen pursue defensive foreigners. Salesmen display carvings or paintings, or bolts of cloth, and stand grinning and dangling at the doors of restaurants where tourists drink iced fruit juice and try to ignore them..
With Alit, we took a bemo to Kuta Beach – well known Kuta Beach, where young tourists surf and are said to smoke pot. `I think’, said Alit, `a European village would look like this’.
Perhaps there were fewer thatched roofs than in other villages, no mud walls. Alit saw something which I could not. It was Balinese to me, not so different from parts of Denpasar.
On the beach, girls wearing sarongs balanced baskets on their heads. Their limbs were handsome, their eyes were dark, and there was some defiance in the way they stood. They were selling shirts, skirts, and sarongs in batik patterns. When we sat on the sand, one of them came and sat beside us. She unloaded her basket of shirts. She was good looking and flashed charming smiles. Her friends stood a little way off and watched. When we did not buy, she reloaded her basket on her head, flashed us a scowl and left, leaving us feeling a little guilty.`She is cross’, said Alit in a small voice.
`Alit’, I said later, `would you like some money to spend on something?’ I began to pull a note from my pocket. Alit was horrified and stopped me quickly with downturned hands. He glanced about.
`Please do not give me money, Mr. David’, he said, `People will think I am a guide’.
Money creates a barrier which is hard to penetrate. There is an uneasiness, a wondering about motives, about correctness, a fear of offending and a fear of misunderstanding. In Bali it can inhibit both the local people and the tourists. When we were to leave Denpasar, we quietly gave Alit a small gift. He smiled and smiled and we said sentimental good-byes.
We thought we would see him again; he had given us his name and address. On a later day, we lost the small piece of paper. Four months later, back in Australia, a letter arrived from Alit. He hoped he had not offended us. `Please answer this letter’, he said. And we have been friends ever since, while he has married, become the father of a daughter and an important bank official.