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CHAPTER VII DOWN TO AN ISLAND EDEN
I went to Bali, which is an island two-thirds the size of Porto Rico, off the eastern extremity of Java, because I wished to see for myself if the accounts I had heard of the surpassing beauty of its women were really true. The Dutch officials whom I had met in Samarinda and Makassar had depicted the obscure little isle as a flaming, fragrant garden, overrun with flowers, a sort of unspoiled island Eden, where bronze-brown Eves with faces and figures of surpassing loveliness disported themselves on the long white beaches, or loitered the lazy days away beneath the palms. But I went there skeptical at heart, for, ever since I journeyed six thousand miles to see the women for whom Circassia has long been undeservedly famous, I have listened with doubt and distrust to the tales told by returned travelers of the nymphs whom they had found, leading an Arcadian existence, on distant tropic isles.

Yet I must admit that, when the anchor of the Negros splashed into the blue waters off Boeleleng, on the northern coast of the island, and a boat's crew of white-clad Filipinos rowed me ashore, I half expected to find a Balinese edition of the Ziegfeld Follies chorus[144] waiting to greet me with demonstrations of welcome and garlands of flowers. What I did find on the wharf was a surly Dutch harbor-master, who, judging from his breath and disposition, had been on a prolonged carouse. Of the women whose beauty I had heard chanted in so many ports, or, indeed, of a native Balinese of any kind, there was no sign. Barring the harbor-master and a handful of Chinese, Boeleleng, which is a place of some size, appeared to be deserted. Yet, as I strolled along its waterfront, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched by many pairs of unseen eyes.

"Where has everyone gone?" I demanded of the impassive Chinese steward who served me liquid refreshment at the Concordia Club. (Every town in the Insulinde has its Concordia Club, just as every Swiss town has its Grand Hotel.)

"Menjepee," he answered mystically, shrugging his shoulders. "Evlyone stay in house."

"Menjepee, eh?" I repeated. "Never heard of it. Some sort of disease, I suppose, like cholera or plague. If that's why everyone has run away I think that I'd better be leaving."

A ghost of a smile flitted across the Celestial's impassive countenance.

"No clolra. No pleg," he assured me. "Menjepee make by pliest."

Before I could elucidate this curious statement there entered the club a young Hollander immaculate in pipe-clayed topée and freshly starched white linen.

[145]"It's not a disease; it's a religious observance," he explained in perfect English, overhearing my last words. "They call it Menjepee, which, literally translated, means 'silence.' The Balinese are Hindus, you know—about the only ones left in the Islands—and they observe the Hindu festivals very strictly. Their priests raise the very devil with them if they don't. During Menjepee, which lasts twenty-four hours, no native is permitted to set foot outside the wall of his kampong except for the most urgent reasons, and even then he has to get permission from his priest. If he is caught outside his kampong without permission he is heavily fined, to say nothing of being given the cold shoulder by his neighbors."

"I was told in Samarinda," I remarked carelessly, by way of introducing the topic in which I was most interested, "that some of the native girls here in Bali are remarkably good looking."

"I thought you'd be asking about them," the Hollander commented dryly. "That's usually the first question asked by everyone who comes to Bali. But you won't find them on this side of the island. If you want to see them you'll have to cross over to the south side. The prettiest girls are to be found in the vicinity of Den Pasar and Kloeng Kloeng."

"So I had heard," I told him. "I am going to cross the island by motor and have my boat pick me up on the other side. How far is it to Den Pasar?"

"Only about sixty miles and you'll have a tolerably[146] good mountain road all the way. But you can't go today."

"Why not?"

"Menjepee," was the laconic answer. "You won't be able to get anyone to take you. There are only four or five motor cars in Boeleleng and their drivers are all Hindus."

I smothered an expletive of annoyance, for my time was limited and the Negros had already sailed.

"Surely you don't mean to tell me that there is no way in which I can get across the island today?" I demanded. "This Menjepee business is as infernal a nuisance as a taxicab strike in New York."

"Perhaps the Resident might be able to do something for you," my acquaintance suggested after a moment's consideration. "He's a good sort and he's always glad to meet visitors. We don't have many of them here, heaven knows. Look here. I've a sado outside. Suppose you hop in and I'll drive you up to the Residency and you can ask the Resident to help you out."

As we rattled in a sort of governess-cart, called sado, up the broad, palm-lined avenue which leads from Boeleleng to Singaradja, the seat of government, three miles away, I caught fleeting glimpses of natives peering at me furtively over the mud walls which surround their kampongs, but the instant they saw that they were observed they disappeared from view. The Resident I found to be a man of charm and culture who had twice crossed the United States on his[147] way to and from Holland. At first he was dubious whether anything could be done for me, explaining that Menjepee is as devoutly observed by the Hindus of Bali as the fasting month of Ramadan is by the Mohammedans of Turkey, and that the Dutch officials make it a rule never to interfere with the religious observances of the natives. He finally consented, however, to send for the chief priest and see if he could persuade him, in view of my limited time, to grant a special dispensation to a native who could drive a car. I don't know what arguments he used, but they must have been effective, for within the hour we heard the honk of a motor-horn at the Residency gate.

"We have no hotels in Bali," the Resident remarked as I was taking my departure, "but I'll telephone over to the Assistant Resident at Den Pasar to have a room ready for you at the passangrahan—that's the government rest-house, you know. And I'll also send word to the Controleur at Kloeng Kloeng that you are coming and ask him to arrange some native dances for you. He's very keen about that sort of thing and knows where to get the best dancers in the island."

"Tell me," I queried, as I was about to enter the car, "are these girls I've heard so much about really pretty?"

The Resident smiled cynically.

"Well," he replied, and I thought that I could detect a note of homesickness in his voice, "it depends upon the point of view. When you first arrive in Bali you swear that they are the prettiest brown-skinned[148] women in the world. But after you have been here a year or so you get so tired of everything connected with the tropics that you don't give the best of them a second glance. For my part, give me a plain, wholesome-looking Dutch girl with a lusty figure and corn-colored hair and cheeks like apples in preference to all the cafe-au-lait beauties in Bali."

"Au revoir," I called, as I signaled to the driver and the car leaped forward. "If I listen to you any longer I shall have no illusions left."

Save only its western end, which is covered with dense jungle inhabited by tigers and boa-constrictors, Bali is a vast garden, ablaze with the most gorgeous flowers that you can imagine and criss-crossed by a net-work of hard, white roads which alternately wind through huge cocoanut plantations or skirt interminable paddy fields. From the coast the ground rises steadily to a ridge formed by a central range of mountains, which culminate in the imposing, cloud-wreathed Peak of Bali, two miles high. Streams rushing down from the mountains have cut the rich brown loam of the lowlands into deep ravines, down which the brawling torrents make their way to the sea between high banks smothered in tropical vegetation. The most remarkable feature of the landscape, however, are the rice terraces, built by hand at an incredible cost of time and labor, which climb the slopes of the mountains, tier on tier, like the seats in a Roman ampitheatre, sometimes to a height of three thousand feet[149] or more, constituting one of the engineering marvels of the world.

The southern slope of the divide appeared to be much more thickly peopled than the northern, for, as we sped down the steep grades with brakes a-squeal, villages of mud-walled, straw-thatched huts became increasingly frequent, nor did the natives appear to be observing Menjepee as strictly as in the vicinity of Boeleleng, for they stood in the gateways of their kampongs and waved at us as we whirled past, and more than once we saw groups of them squatting in a circle beside the road, engaged in the national pastime of cock-fighting. Now we began to encounter the women whose beauty is famous throughout Malaysia: glorious, up-standing creatures with great masses of blue-black hair, a faint couleur de rose diffusing itself through their skins of brown satin. They were taller than any other women I saw in Malaysia, lithe and supple as Ruth St. Denis, and bearing themselves with a quiet dignity and lissome grace. From waist to ankle they were tightly wrapped in kains of brilliant batik, which defined, without revealing, every line and contour of their hips and lower limbs, but from the waist up they were entirely nude, barring the flame-colored flowers in their dusky hair.

Unlike most Malays, the eyes of the Balinese, instead of being oblique, are set straight in the head. The nose, which frequently mars what would otherwise be well-nigh perfect features, is generally small and flat, with too-wide nostrils, though I saw a [150]number of Balinese women with noses which were distinctly aquiline—the result of a strain of European blood, perhaps. The lips are thick, yet well formed; the teeth are naturally regular and white but are all too often stained scarlet with betel-nut, which is to the Balinese girl what chewing-gum is to her sister of Broadway. The complexion ranges from a deep but rosy brown to a nuance no darker than that of a European brunette, but in the eyes of the Balinese themselves a golden-yellow complexion, the color of weak tea, is the perfection of female beauty. But the chief charm of these island Eves is found, after all, not in their faces but in their figures—slender, rounded, willowy, deep-bosomed, such as Botticelli loved to paint.

Despite the alluring tales brought back by South Sea travelers of the radiant creatures who go about unclad as when they were born, I have myself found no spot, save only Equatorial Africa, where women dispense with clothing habitually and without shame. Indeed, I have seen girls far more scantily clad on the stage of the Ziegfeld Roof or the Winter Garden than I ever have in those distant lands which have not yet received the blessings of civilization. In most of the Polynesian islands the painter or photographer can usually bribe a native girl to disrobe for him, just as in Paris or New York he can find models who for a consideration will pose in the nude, but when the picture is completed she promptly resumes the shapeless and hideous garments of Mother Hubbard cut which[151] the missionaries were guilty of introducing and whose all-enveloping folds, they na?vely believe, form a shield and a buckler against temptations of the flesh. But there are no missionaries in Bali, not one—though the Board of Foreign Missions may interest itself in the islanders after this book appears—and the women continue to dress as they should with such figures and in such a climate.

Because of a flat tire, the driver stopped the car beside a little stream in which two extremely pretty girls were bathing. With the evening sun glinting on their brown bodies and their piquant, oval faces framed by the dusky torrents of their loosened hair, they looked like those bronze maidens which disport themselves in the fountain of the Piazza delle Terme in Rome, come to life. I felt certain that they would take to flight when Hawkinson unlimbered his motion-picture camera and trained it upon them, but they continued their joyous splashing without the slightest trace of self-consciousness or confusion. In fact, when a Balinese girl becomes embarrassed, she does not betray it by covering her body but by drawing over her face a veil which looks like a piece of black fishnet. Their bath completed, the maidens emerged from the water on to the farther bank, paused for a moment to arrange their hair, like wood nymphs of the Golden Age, then wound their gorgeous kains about them and vanished amid the trees. From somewhere on the distant hillside came the sweet, shrill quaver of a reed[152] instrument. The driver said it was a native flute, but I knew better. It was the pipes of Pan....

Rather than that you should be scandalized when you visit Bali, let me make it quite clear that in matters of morality the Balinese women are as easy as an old shoe. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are unmoral rather than immoral. This is one of the conditions of life in the Insulinde which must be accepted by the traveler, just as he accepts as a matter of course the heat and the insects and the dirt. Though polygamy is practised, it is confined, because of the expense involved in maintaining a matrimonial stable, to the wealthier chiefs and other men of means. A Turkish pasha who maintained a large harem once told me that polygamy is as trying to the disposition as it is to the pocketbook, because of the incessant jealousies and bickerings among the wives. And I suppose the same conditions obtain in the seraglios of Bali. The former rajah of Kloeng Kloeng, now known as the Regent, a stout and jovial old gentleman arrayed in a cerise kain, a sky-blue head-cloth, and a white jacket with American twenty-dollar gold pieces for buttons, told me with a touch of pride that he had twenty-five wives in his harem. But his pride subsided like a pricked toy balloon when the Controleur, who had overheard the boast, mentioned that another regent, the ruler of a district at the western end of the island, possessed upward of three hundred wives—of the exact number he was not certain as it was [153]constantly fluctuating. To my great regret I could not spare the time to pay a visit to this Balinese Brigham Young. There were a number of questions relative to domestic economy and household administration which I should have liked to have asked him.

Until very recent years, the young Balinese girl who married an old husband incurred the risk of meeting an untimely and extremely unpleasant end, for the island was the last stronghold of that strange and dreadful Hindu custom, suttee—the burning of widows. The last public suttee in Bali was held as recently as 1907, but, in spite of the stern prohibition of the practise by the Dutch, it is said that some women faithful to the old customs and to their dead husbands continue to join the latter on the funeral pyre. In fact, the Controleur at Kloeng Kloeng told me that, only a few weeks before my arrival, two women had begged him on their knees for permission to be burned with the body of the dear departed, whom they wished to share in death as in life.

The Balinese, being devout Hindus, burn their dead, but the cremations are held only twice yearly, being observed as holidays, like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. If a man dies shortly before the cremation season is due, his remains are kept in the house until they can be incinerated with befitting ceremony—though I imagine that, in view of the torrid climate, the members of his family perforce move elsewhere for the time being—but if he is so inconsiderate as to postpone his dying until after one of these semi-annual[154] burnings, it becomes necessary to bury him. In a land where the thermometer frequently registers 100 and above, you couldn't keep a corpse around the house for several months, could you? When cremation day comes round again, however, he is dug up, taken to a temple and burned. There is no escaping the funeral-pyre in Bali. As we were leaving one of the cremation places I overheard the Doctor irreverently humming a paraphrase of a song which was very popular in the army during the war:
"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, If the grave don't get you the wood-pile must."

Unlike the South Sea islanders, who are rapidly dying out as the result of diseases introduced by Europeans, the population of Bali—which is one of the most densely peopled regions in the world, with 325 inhabitants to the square mile—is rapidly increasing, having more than doubled in the last fifteen years. This is due in some measure, no doubt, to the climate, which, though hot, is healthy save in certain low-lying coastal districts, but much more, I imagine, to the fact that there are scarcely a hundred Europeans on the island, and that, as there are no harbors worthy the name, European vessels rarely touch there. It is well for the Balinese that their enchanted island has no harbors, for harbors mean ships, and ships mean white men, and white men, particularly sailors, all too often[155] leave undesirable mementoes of their visits behind them.

The men of Bali are a fine, strong, dignified, rather haughty race, fit mates in physique for their women. They are considerably taller than any other Malays whom I saw and possess less Mongoloid and Negroid characteristics, these being subdued by some strong primeval alien strain which is undoubtedly Caucasian. Though now peaceable enough, every Balinese man carries in his sash a kris—the long, curly-bladed knife which is the national weapon of Malaysia. Most of the krises that I examined were more ornamental than serviceable, some of them having scabbards of solid gold and hilts set with precious stones. Moreover, they are worn against the middle of the back, where they must be difficult to reach in an emergency. I imagine that the kris, universal though it is, serves as a symbol of former militancy rather than as a fighting weapon, just as the buttons at the back of our tailcoats serve to remind us that their original purpose was to support a sword-belt. But, though the Balinese have made no serious trouble for their Dutch rulers for upward of a decade, they long resisted European domination, as evidenced by the four bloody uprisings in the last three-quarters of a century—the last was in 1908—which were suppressed only with difficulty and considerable loss of life. When the shells from the gunboats began to burst over their towns, the rajahs, recognizing that their cause was lost, nerved themselves with opium and committed the traditional[156] puputan, or, with their wives, threw themselves on the Dutch bayonets. But, though the Balinese have bowed perforce to the authority of the stout young woman who dwells in The Hague, they have none of the cringing servility, that look of pathetic appeal such as you see in the eyes of dogs which have been mistreated, so characteristic of the Javanese.

Though the three-quarters of a million natives in Bali have behind them the traditions of countless wars, the Dutch, who seem to possess an extraordinary talent for governing brown-skinned peoples, maintain their authority with a few companies of native soldiery officered by a handful of Europeans. The success of the Dutch in ruling Malays, who are notoriously turbulent and warlike, is largely due to the fact that, so long as the customs of the natives are not inimical to good government or to their own well-being, they studiously refrain from interfering with them. Nor is there the same social chasm separating Europeans and natives in the Insulinde which is found in Britain's Eastern possessions. Were a British official in India to marry a native woman he would be promptly recalled in disgrace; if a Dutch official marries a native woman she is accorded the same social recognition as her husband. Though in the old days probably ninety per cent of the Dutch officials and planters in the Insulinde lived with native women, these unions are constantly decreasing, today probably not more than ten per cent of the Europeans thus solving their domestic problems. It struck me, moreover,[157] that the Dutch are more in sympathy with their native subjects, that they understand them better, than the British. It is a remarkable thing, when you stop to think of it, that a little nation like Holland, with a colonial army of less than thirty-five thousand men and no fleet worthy of the name, should be able to maintain its authority over fifty millions of natives, ten thousand miles away, with so little friction.

We passed the night in the small rest-house at Den Pasar which the government maintains for the use of its officials. I have said that we passed the night, mark you; I refuse to toy with the truth to the extent of saying that we slept. Why they call it a rest-house I cannot imagine. Never that I can recall, save only in a zoo, have I found myself on such intimate terms with so many forms of animal life as in that passangrahan. Cockroaches nearly as large as mice (before you raise your eyebrows at this statement talk with anyone who has traveled in Malaysia), spiders, centipedes, ants and beetles made my bedroom an entomologist's paradise. Some large winged animal, presumably a fruit-bat or a flying-fox, entered by the window and circled the room like an airplane; and, judging from the sounds which proceeded from beneath the bed, I gathered that the room also harbored a snake or a large rat, though which I was not certain as I saw no reason for investigating. A family of lizards disported themselves on the ceiling and when I menaced them with a stick they departed so hastily that one of them abandoned his tail, which dropped on the[158] wash-stand. A squadron of mosquitoes—a sort of escadrille de chasse, as it were—kept me awake until daybreak, when they were relieved by a skirmishing party of cimex lectulariae, which are well known in America under a shorter and less polite name. Fishes only were absent, but I am convinced that their neglect of me was due to ignorance of my presence. Had they known of it I feel certain that the climbing fish, which is one of the curiosities of these waters, would have flopped on to my pillow.

Upon our arrival at Kloeng Kloeng I found the Controleur, who had been notified by the Resident at Singaradja of our coming, had made arrangements for an elaborate series of native dances to be given that afternoon on the lawn of the residency. It is a simple matter to arrange a dance in Bali, for every village, no matter how small, supports a ballet, and usually a troupe of actors as well, just as an American community supports a baseball team. The money for the gorgeous costumes worn by the dancers is raised by local subscription and the ballet frequently visits the neighboring towns to give exhibitions or to engage in competitions, contingents of the dancers' townspeople usually going along to root for them.

The Balinese dances require many years of arduous and constant training. A girl is scarcely out of the sling by which Balinese children are carried on the mother's back before, under the tutelage of her mother, who has herself perhaps been a dancing-girl in her time, she begins the severe course of gymnastics[159] and muscle training which are the foundations of all Eastern dances. From infancy until, not yet in her teens, she becomes a member of the village ballet or enters the harem of a local rajah, she is as assiduously trained and groomed as a race-horse entered for the Derby. From morning until night, day after day, year after year, the muscles of her shoulders, her back, her hips, her legs, her abdomen are suppled and developed until they will respond to her wishes as readily as her slender, henna-stained fingers.

The lawn on which the dances were held sloped down, like a great green rug, from the squat white residency to an ancient Hindu temple, whose walls, of red-brown sandstone, were transformed by the setting sun into rosy coral. The Bali temples are but open courtyards enclosed within high walls, their entrances flanked by towering gate-posts, grotesquely carved. Within the courtyards, which have arrangements for the cremation of the dead as well as for the refreshment of the living, are numerous roofed platforms and small, elevated shrines, reached by steep flights of narrow steps, every square inch being covered with intricate and fantastic carvings. These carvings are for the most part beautifully colored, so that, when illuminated by the sun, they look like those porcelain bas-reliefs which one buys in Florence, or, if the colors are undimmed by age, like Persian enamel. In some of the temples which I visited, the colorings had been ruthlessly obliterated by coats of whitewash, but in those communities where Hinduism is still a living[160] force, the inhabitants frequently impoverish themselves in order to provide the gold-leaf with which the interiors of the shrines are covered, just as the congregations of American churches praise God with carven pulpits and windows of stained glass.

The stage setting for the dances consisted of a small, portable pagoda, heavily gilded and set with mirrors—nothing more, unless you include the backdrop provided by the Indian Ocean. On either side of the pagoda, which was set in the centre of the lawn, squatted a motionless native holding a long-handled parasol of gold, known as a payong. So far as I could discover, the purpose of these parasol holders was purely ornamental, like the palms that flank a concert stage, for they never stirred throughout the four hours that the dancing lasted. The dancers themselves were extremely young—barely in their teens, I should say—but I could only guess their ages as their faces were so heavily enameled that they might as well have been wearing masks. Their costumes, faithful reproductions of those depicted in the carvings on the walls of the temples, were of a gorgeousness which made the creations of Bakst seem colorless and tame: tightly-wound kains of cloth-of-gold over which were draped silks in all the colors of the chromatic scale. Their necks and arms, which were stained a saffron yellow, were hung with jewels or near-jewels. On their heads were towering, indescribable affairs of feathers, flowers and tinsel, faintly reminiscent of those[161] fantastic headdresses affected by the lamented Gaby. The music was furnished by a gamelan, or orchestra, of half-a-hundred musicians playing on drums, gongs and reeds, with a few xylophones thrown in for good measure. I am no judge of music, but it seemed to me that when the gamelan was working at full speed it compared very favorably with an American jazz orchestra.

All the dances illustrated episodes from the Ramayana or other Hindu mythologies localized, the story being recited in a monotonous, sing-song chant, in the old Kawi or sacred language, by a professional accompanist who sat, cross-legged, in the orchestra. As a result of constant drilling since babyhood, the Balinese dancers attain a perfection of technique unknown on the western stage, but the visitor who expects to see the verve and abandon of the Indian dances as portrayed by Ruth St. Denis is certain to be disappointed. To tell the truth, the dances of Bali, like those I saw in Java and Cambodia, are rather tedious performances, beautiful, it is true, but almost totally lacking in that fire and spirit which we associate with the East. It is probable, however, that I am not sufficiently educated in the art of Terpsichore to appreciate them. It was as though I had been given a selection from Die Niebelungen Lied when I had looked for rag-time. But the natives are passionately fond of them, it being by no means uncommon, I was told, for a dance to begin in the late afternoon and continue without interruption until daybreak. The Controleur told me that he planned[162] to utilize his next long leave in taking a native ballet to Europe, and, perhaps, to the United States. So, should you see the Bali dancers advertised to appear on Broadway, I strongly advise you not to miss them.

Instead of going to Palm Beach next winter, or to Havana, or to the Riviera, why don't you go out to Bali and see its lovely women, its curious customs, and its superb scenery for yourself? You can get there in about eight weeks, provided you make good connections at Singapore and Surabaya. With no railways, no street-cars, no hotels, no newspapers, no theatres, no movies, it is a very restful place. You can lounge the lazy days away in the cool depths of flower-smothered verandahs, with a brown house-boy pulling at the punkah-rope and another bringing you cool drinks in tall, thin glasses—for the Volstead Act does not run west of the 160th meridian—or you can stroll in the moonlight on the long white beaches with lithe brown beauties who wear passion-flowers in their raven hair. Or, should you weary of so dolce far niente an existence, you can sail across to Java with the opium-runners in their fragile prahaus, or climb a two-mile-high volcano, or in the jungles at the western extremity of the island stalk the clouded tiger. And you can wear pajamas all day long without apologizing. Everything considered, Bali offers more inducements than any place I know to the tired business man or the absconding bank cashier.


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