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Denpasar City Of Culture, once was

By Degung Santikarma

Pictures by Shutterstock


I can still remember clearly the image we had when we were kids of Denpasar. In those days-before the word ‘tourist’ became part of our everyday vocabularies-Denpasar was our ultimate dream destination. It represented our traditions and our modernity, the foreign and the familiar, our history as well as our future. And I can still remember, just like it was yesterday, the morning my uncle woke us up to take us to witness the wonders of the city. Full of excitement, we put on our best shirts-the ones we usually saved for ceremonies at the village temple-and boarded the beat-up old bus that was the city’s first public transportation. Eagerly we hung our heads out the windows, ogling the spectacles that lined the streets. There were electric lamps that shed a magical glow against the asphalted pavement. There was the movie theater where Hollywood cowboys fired their pistols and Bombay lovers sang their sad songs, and the building where the bureaucrats churned out information and counted things we had never realized needed to be counted. There were three-wheeled bemos speeding towards the university, where students gathered to discuss things we understood well but did not yet have the words for: freedom, democracy, oppression and corruption.

In those days, Denpasar was famed as a center of both modern commerce and traditional culture. It was where you could browse the shops lining Jalan Gadjah Mada for goods from all the corners of the world: Japanese motorbikes and radios, American jeans and high-heeled shoes, Javanese tempe and Chinese medicine. It was where, if you were lucky, you could sneak past the security to catch a glimpse of the legong dancers whirling in the courtyard of the Bali Hotel, the island’s first modern accommodations. It was where the Bali Museum guarded the treasures of the past, and the Governor’s Office issued five-year plans for the future. And Denpasar was also a meeting place for others like us, people who had come to the city to be at the center of things. There were the traders from far-flung villages, who set the markets abuzz with the sound of their bargaining and the ringing of the bells from their horse-drawn dokar carts. There was the Arab neighborhood, the Chinese neighborhood and the Javanese neighborhood, where strange spices and languages that sounded odd to our ears filled the air. Denpasar was where, for the first time, we set eyes upon Westerners-the sophisticated travelers who prowled the back alleys searching for authentic Balinese art and the hippies who wandered the nighttime streets seeking authentic Eastern experience. And Denpasar was where we first encountered young Balinese who were trying to leave the old ways behind, by growing their hair long and trading their sarongs to the hippies for Levis jeans, T-shirts and lessons in English slang.

These days, of course, the image of Denpasar is decidedly less glamorous. The tourist guidebook wisdom is that the smart traveler to Bali should head from the airport straight for the cultured hills of Ubud, the cosmopolitan shores of Kuta or the calm of Nusa Dua. In fact, Denpasar, with its traffic, crime and commercialism, is now seen less as the capital of Bali than as just another crowded, unhygienic Third World city, a generic disaster whose same sad story can be seen repeated all over the earth. Denpasar, the guidebooks say, has been corrupted by the West to such an extent that it is no longer even ‘authentically Balinese.’ And it is not just the tourists who dismiss Denpasar, but many Balinese as well. Recently, while visiting a village near Ubud, I met a woman who complained about the burden of her traditional obligations, which included making hundreds of ritual offerings and contributing hundreds of thousands of rupiah each week for family and community ceremonies. ‘Here in Ubud we have to protect our culture to show the foreign visitors the real Bali. But if I lived in Denpasar,’ she said wistfully, ‘I wouldn’t have to spend so much time and money on ritual.’ It was as if, once you crossed the city limits, culture no longer existed. It was almost as if, I thought, where there were no tourists to witness ceremonies, you needn’t bother to hold them at all.

First published in Latitudes Magazine


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