My Private Bali-Ho
For decades I have searched for the origin of the word ‘Bali’ but have always come up short.
Some Balinese old-timers say that ‘Bali’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘wali’, which means offerings, which makes sense.
In India, in the Ramayana, there are two monkey kings called Subali and Sugriwa. And in Kerala, once a year, a holy day is held for Mahabali, a mythical Lord Protector who roams the streets — often drunk and stoned — in wild Maharaja-style theatrical dress, soliciting donations.
Imagine my excitement when I discovered, during a recent trek through Central Sulawesi, that billboards are called ‘Bali-Ho’ in Indonesian. What could be the provenance of such an unusual semantic pairing? Was the phrase coined in the 1950s, perhaps, when Indonesia’s first mini-van sized advertisements, for Bali Janger brand wonder-bras appeared in the skies over Jalan Thamrin in Jakarta?
As a grafix-groupie I have followed the growth of the Bali-Ho in Bali, ever since Djarum Super cigarettes’ first beefcake-on-a-bike-in-a-caldera billboard appeared on the old Kuta-Sanur Road.
Some cranks say that tourist islands should not spoil their skylines with tacky advertising: these people obviously underestimate the Balinese tolerance for tack, and their love of filling in empty space. I mean who appreciates the quiet bits in gamelan music?
Over the past decade’, the local regulatory authorities who rent out air-space have managed to match, in the air, the chaos one sees road-side! Bali’s ring roads — fool hardy attempts to green up the urban environment — have become canyons of glossy, well-lit Bali-Ho that never cease to amaze.
There are improbable movie stars, like Benitto Del Toro and Jackie Chan, selling Paddle-pops, or Paris Hilton recommending a Legian waxing salon. New levels of creative English are reached by Jakarta copy-writers too, in phrases such as “destiny of elegance” and blue chip in tourist world”.
Not to be outdone by all the Russian models — who regularly appear on giant billboards in skimpy batik bikinis, extolling the “unlimited life style” of Bali real estate — Balinese officials have taken to erecting four metre high photos of themselves in form-fitting track suits, or encased in starched Nehru jackets, welcoming newcomers to the island paradise.
Art gallery megalomania spills into the tree line too, with giant billboards of favored sons preaching about the “unique luxury” of Indonesian culture.
There used to be a bit of sky visible as one left the arrival hall at the airport but the airport authority, in its wisdom, has filled it in with a giant photo of the sky and a mountain with the slogan “Bali Loves Nature.”
The trend for realistic images was recently breached, however, at the Kuta under-pass project construction site: here blatant fantasy now rules.
It is not that the Department of Urban transport are trying to dupe the public; it’s more that the inspired folk in their creative departments felt that images of Canadian forest freeways and Tahitian mountain passes are a surreal counter-balance to truth in advertising.
After years of seeing billboards with the Balinese showing off — as lithe dancers or tripped-out trance-mediums — the new trend is for equal opportunity advertising: blondes in chaise lounge up front; Balinese in the rear, in cameo roles, serving drinks and such.
Even the new elevated highway in the mangroves has been given the star treatment: billboards depict the environmental vandalism as an engineering marvel, with all the mangroves neatly air-brushed out.
Last week I watched a Denpasar warrior prince deftly thread a tiny bamboo string through white water lilly halves and affix them to the sides of a golden spirit effigy mast. It was the same warrior prince I’d watched pull wings off butterflies as an infant.
The Balinese have a wholesome no-nonsense attitude towards Nature: Worship it, emulate it, but don’t let it get in the way of progress.