Home > World Tour > So How is it That Bali Got So Magical, Anyway?

So How is it That Bali Got So Magical, Anyway?

We are now rounding out our two months in Bali, and yes, I could go on with further reasons for my fondness of days spent living here.  I could describe the joys of making a fort with pillows and cushions for dollar-bootleg movie nights, or of being sold various articles Balinese fashion by pushy (yet ultimately masterful) women at the market1, or of sitting back and watching the beautiful afternoon rainstorms from the dry comfort of our very well designed house (in defiance of the utterly blurry line which separates the inside from the outside, judicious use of awnings keeps the inside remarkably dry amid heavy, wind-swept rains).

But I’m going to fast-forward, and consider it sufficient to say that Bali is, to my tastes, a remarkably standout place indeed.  I would go so far as to dub it “Planet John”, a place that so thoroughly agrees with me that I would be hard pressed to conceive of a better fit.

The amateur anthropologist in me has wondered from time to time what makes this island so stand-out incredible.  At dinner one night with Martin and Phillipa, Phillipa shared with the table her theory.  To a crude approximation, it goes like this.

Bali has above-average natural abundance.  Just a walk down the path to your hotel can reveal some 10 different sustenance-bearing trees and plants2.  All of these things just grow, naturally and without much special cultivation.  Of course there is the opportunity to carefully cultivate all of these plants for greater yield, but the key idea is that this baseline abundance requires no maintenance.

So for much of the region’s history, one can handle the work to hunt and gather enough for your family in, say, two or three hours per day.  (Contrast this to a harsher climate, like Afghanistan, for example, where it might take more like six hours a day to gather enough water for a family.)  So what do you do with all that surplus time and energy that you have when sustenance requires but a fraction of your waking hours?  Well, if you’re Bali, blessed with it’s relatively peaceful history, you spend that surplus creating carvings, sculptures, dance, music, temples, ceremonies, traditions, stonework, and floral incense offerings laid out everywhere you look, three times a day.

In essence, you create culture, and Bali’s is about as rich and dedicated to beauty as any I’ve seen.

Another facet to the theory behind Bali’s agreeability came from an unlikely source: the final paragraph of a magazine article on display in the Blanco Museum.  Don Antonio Blanco is reputed as the most famous artist to ever live in Bali, and, well, he liked the ladies.  Or at very least liked to paint them.  Nude, female, Balinese hotness is the subject matter of better than half of his paintings on display at the museum3.

Regarding Blanco’s preferred subject matter, the article about the museum points out that the Dutch East India Company (which ruled over Bali and all of Indonesia back in age of sail) explicitly forbade the Christian missionaries from entering Bali.  The result, as argued by the article, is that breasts in Bali never got subjugated to the realm of shame as they have been so commonly elsewhere in the world, thus they have remained awesome/regularly on display through most of Bali’s history4.

The broader implication of all this is that the absence of missionaries has enabled Bali’s religious traditions to remain more natively in tact, rather than become watered down by external influences.  Indeed, the main reason for the missionary ban was the hostile reaction that natives had to the missionary’s preachy edicts, specifically those telling them to destroy idols and temples as being of the devil.  The Christian converts had their rice fields sabotaged as a result, and were expelled from their villages.  Perhaps you could argue that it’s tough to say who was oppressing who, but I’m glad the natives held tough and kept all this beautiful stonework (and culture) in tact, rather than succumbing to a play to homogenize & assimilate.

Couch Surfing Karma

Towards the tail end of our stay we had the good fortune of someone taking up our offer to host after all.  In a delightful chance to back good karma, it was Charles & Amy, the couple from New Zealand who put us up for a weekend back in December.  They were in touch, telling us about the pollution and chaos of Kuala Lumpur.  We invited them to swing on over to Bali and stay a while with us, so that way we might delight in playing the host and repay their earlier favor.

This was a fantastic alignment of people and places, and there was only a small wrinkle thrown in by Charles when he replied to say, in effect: “We’ve booked our flight and will be there for 16 days, let us know if that’s too long.”

What an odd sense of conundrum that arose from this perfectly polite notice!  I mean, 16 days is a really long time to host people you don’t know that well5.  But they’ve been super nice to us already.  Our place was big and we were totally keen to host, so there’s this guilt of saying that anything less was preferred.  But it was preferred!  At least, we think it was, right?  I mean, that would put the kabash on skinny dipping for most of the rest of our time here.  And we’d have to schedule ourselves around them, and feel obligated to play host lest the situation degrade into 2 pairs of indifferent roommates, awkwardly co-habitating.  But we wanted roommates, we were excited to have people other than us to hang out and do stuff with…

And so on.  A rambling, incoherent, and contradictory stream of pro and con thoughts when looking at the prospect of hosting for 2+ weeks.  The opening to say it was too long was right there in the email, but our thought process was all underpinned by this desire to exercise gracious reciprocity and not be selfish, amazing-tropical-house hogging hogs.

The writers of Seinfeld could’ve made 8-minutes of banter out of the scenario.

We ultimately replied with a semi non-committal “let’s call it a week, and we’ll let you know if it’s too long beyond that.”

Sure enough, it was a total treat to host them, and they made fantastic guests.  Amy would cook fab dinner now and then.  We’d sit around for hours having what we dubbed “fruit parties”, slowly eating through big plate of varied fruits we’d gotten at the store, some known, some not.  We played card games by candlelight up on the terrace over beers, and had great companions for a day trip to various sites around the island.  We even hosted Martin and Phillipa at our place on one occasion, making us feel truly popular with a party of six in our home.

The time did come when I again yearned for more autonomy over our home6, this was about day 10.  Consumed with the same (almost certainly irrational) guilt, I rehearsed a few times the right way to break the news over dinner that night.  “So… you guys have been fantastic guests and we’ve really enjoyed your presence, but now you gotta go.  I wanna enjoy skinny dipping for our last week here.”

Of course I needn’t have feared, for Charles and Amy took the news with immaculate grace and appreciated the heck out of our hospitality.  Not a trace of awkwardness, and I was all too happy to say “of course” in response to Charles’ request for a night or two more so that they could plan out their next move.

Exploration vs. Exploitation

At times during our stay I’ve casually insinuated to Tracy that we should stay here for a third month.  She always wisely says no, and I grant that I’ve never really been serious with the suggestion anyhow.  This is not just because of the extra complicated/expensive hoops one must jump through to extend a tourist visa beyond two months, either.

In machine learning, the branch of computer science concerned with how computers can learn to perform certain tasks automagically, there’s this notion of “exploration vs. exploitation”.  “Exploration” is the process of having a learning algorithm explore new things so as to learn.  Algorithms get better from the experience of doing the not-yet-known.  “Exploitation”, by contrast, is having a learning algorithm exploit knowledge it’s gotten from earlier explorations in order to perform the task.  No real learning or improvement to the approach happens during exploitation, but rather you just get results based upon prior learning.

To stay in Bali for another month or more would amount to simply exploiting the knowledge we’ve gained (i.e. the knowledge that this place is awesome).  But world tour isn’t about exploitation in the machine learning sense of the word, it’s about exploration.  To find lots of places that are awesome.  The game, which I decided once whilst talking myself off of the short-sighted “let’s just enjoy the rest of world tour here in Bali” ledge, is to discover TEN such places, ten places in the world good enough to come back to for a month or more.

This collection of ten, I figure, is knowledge ripe for exploiting later.  And we have to earn it first.  So we will leave, and not with me clinging white-knuckled as Tracy drags me on to the next place, but rather rejuvenated and excited to uncover other places that truly give us joy.

And where will we go next?  Singapore.  Turns out there’s a friend there for me to meet.


  1. And my gratitude goes to them–turns out I look pretty good in Balinese garb, and enjoyed putting on a small fashion show for Tracy.
  2. One possible configuration you might find: coconut, papaya, lemongrass, ginger root, rice, snake fruit, mangosteen, banana, cinnamon, coffee.  Makes my mouth water just to type it.
  3. In fact, the last room of the museum is dedicated to super explicit/borderline raunchy works that are pretty over-the-top by most any standard of taste.  I like to think of these the works as coming from his “You know what?  I’m famous and old, so, fuck it” phase.  Earning your stripes has its perks.
  4. The article adds that regular work in the rice fields, which has the effect of broadening the shoulders and toning the upper body, also helped the cause.
  5. Or even people whom you do know that well.
  6. Who am I kidding, skinny dipping.  I mean, other things too, sure.  But yeah.  Jumping into the pool all sweaty from a run in the morning heat after wolfing down a mangosteen and a snake fruit?  That’s just great.
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  1. Mark Robinson
    July 5th, 2013 at 07:18 | #1

    So Bali is a very sensual place and bodies are something we all have and the Balinese are comfortable with them… so why does the presence of house guests rule out skinny dipping? If they are offended they can turn away or move out.

    • John
      July 5th, 2013 at 08:07 | #2

      Ah, but we are but guests in this culture! Just like I’m fairly rubbish at, say, leading Hindu ceremonies, so to am I in leading a house culture of nudity amid a non-wifely presence. Maybe it would have been easier were our guests themselves Balinese.

  2. Mark Robinson
    July 5th, 2013 at 10:58 | #3

    I’m just wondering if they were thinking, “Sure would be great to go skinny-dipping but I don’t want to offend our hosts.” @John

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