I’m coiled up in a tight seat on yet another international flight—our fourth so far in this journey—and I’m thinking about Clifford Geertz.
In “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight,” the eminent anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes a scene that transpired during a Balinese cock fight that he attended with his wife in the late 1950s. At that time, cock fighting was illegal in Bali and, despite its brutality to the western eye, it’s a long-standing tradition in this culture so, of course, people did it anyway. The cock fight that Geertz was attending was broken up by the police so Geertz and his wife followed the locals and ran like hell. They realized that they couldn’t outrun the cops. A villager just ahead of them jumped a low-slung wall, so they decided to follow him and hope for the best. Geertz delightfully describes tumbling into the patio with his wife and the villager and how the villager’s wife, who, according to Geertz, was obviously used to this sort of thing and hurriedly made a table of tea and snacks and unhesitatingly invited the two strangers to join them. A few moments later, a policeman walked into the patio, sniffed around and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, rushed off in hot pursuit of the cock fight participants.
I read “Deep Play” for the first time many years ago when I was in graduate school. Then, I was learning about symbolic anthropology and, at that time, the cockfighting and Balinese culture were secondary to my reading. Now, after spending some time in Bali, Geertz’ essay has come back to me, this time, though, to help me consider two things: first, the kindness and graciousness of the Balinese people and second, the question of the relationship between the people of Bali and Indonesia, the country to which Bali is attached.
First, though, a bit of context.
Bali is one of the 13,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.
The Dutch colonized many of these islands in the early seventeenth century. They came, and stayed, because they found spices that flavored their meals–ginger, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon and turmeric (to name a few), and coffee and tea to drink. The Dutch held on to most of modern Indonesia until it was invaded by the Japanese during World War II and, just like that, cast off centuries of Dutch rule. You can still see, though, traces and flavor of Dutch influence. I noticed it, for instance in the architecture, especially the political and official buildings. The Japanese were not here long though—with their defeat there was some question of who would rule this band of islands that looks like a cummerbund across the equator. There was some talk of giving it back to the Dutch, but even the Allies were not too keen on that, so a strong independence movement won out and on 17 July 1945, the founding fathers of modern Indonesia wrote their declaration of independence. It reads, in its entirety:
“We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”
A far cry from the lofty, neoclassical language of our own Declaration!
I read this to Sujata and she said you could very easily turn the entire Declaration into a series of emojis, like this: 👭 😠 💩 💪 👐🏾 🖕🏿
About 7,00 of the 13,000 islands that make up post-independence, modern Indonesia are inhabited, and the people that inhabit those islands represent close to 400 different ethnic groups. So, if you think it’s a challenge for the United States for develop a unified, integrated culture, think about what they have to through here.
In Indonesia, Etc., Pisani quotes a western entrepreneur who calls Indonesia ‘the most invisible country in the world.’ This made sense to me after I spent just a few days in Bali. It’s an energetic, ‘can-do’ kind of place. People hustle, but they still have time for family and free time. It’s home to 240 million people, making it the fourth largest nation in the world. Jakarta is the Washington, DC of the nation, but, as I noted above, given the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country as well as the the country is made up primarily of island, rather than contiguous states, it’s got to be a challenge to govern.
This brings me back to cockfighting, the Indonesian state and Balinese identity.
Since the time that Clifford Geertz and his wife tumbled over the wall and onto that villagers back patio, the government in Jakarta and the villagers of Bali have made a series of uneasy truces and cock fighting is just one of them: cock fighting is not illegal anymore, but it’s frowned upon by the Feds and the Balinese have made a tacit agreement to only practice cockfighting in association with religious ceremonies. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect there’s a lot of cockfighting going on outside the purview of the religious ceremonies.
My evidence for this assertion? The first night we stayed in Ubud, I was woken up at four am by what sounded like hordes of angry roosters. I went outside and tried to count the number of roosters I heard and to place them in space, but it was difficult because they surrounded the house, so I had to walk around the entire perimeter of the house just to get a sense of where it was all coming from. It was still almost impossible to count because they are in the near, middle and far distance. So you can clearly hear the 10-12 roosters that are in your immediate vicinity but then going into the middle and far aural distance, that number is multiplied and the sounds of those roosters in the far distance come at you in waves as opposed to the solitary cackles of those in the near vicinity. What you hear from that longer range is a kind of upsurge of rooster calls that seem to rise up and then fall together in a frenetic rooster yawp. I don’t know how far the human ear can hear a rooster’s crow—maybe 800 meters? If that’s so, then I’m guessing I was hearing 200 or so roosters. Here’s what they look like up close:
If you are wondering why Jakarta once banned and now frowns upon cockfighting, it’s simply one of the long-standing, ancient cultural practice that Jakarta has been trying to mitigate from from official Indonesian culture. This is a long, complicated story that goes back to the founding of the nation in 1945 and the series of strong-arm dictators who both brought a good deal of prosperity to the archipelago as well as a fair amount of the kind of brutality that is typical of south east Asian dictators. But, in short, Jakarta sees practices like cock fighting as backward, parochial and anti-modern and since the Indonesian state came into being in 1945 it’s been engaged in an uneasy dance between the forces of modernization and the ancient cultural traditions that make up this diverse archipelago.
It doesn’t help, either, that Bali has maintained its Hindu traditions while nearly all of the rest of Indonesia has turned to Islam. Before the Dutch arrive in 1602, it was mostly Indian and Chinese traders wandering around looking for precious things to ship back home. Hindu scholars started roaming around beside the merchants and traders and sometime after the seventh century, Hinduism took hold and was practiced on many of the islands. So, when Marco Polo was wandering around here in the thirteenth century and Vasco de Gama and Sir Francis Drake in the fifteenth, they were mostly walking through a Hindu land.
In modern Indonesia, Bali is the only of the 7,000 inhabited islands on which a majority of the people follow Hinduism. Given our family background and our interest in Hinduism, then, it was really wonderful to be in a country filled with Hindu temples. We visited a few temples and we even got to witness a cremation but, alas, we did not get to see one of the ritualized cock fights.
Here are some photos from the temples:
One final story to before I close this post: have you ever heard of civet coffee? It’s coffee beans that have been ingested by civet cats, pooped out, purified, roasted and flavored and then sold as coffee beans for human consumption. I had heard of civet coffee before we came to Bali, but I did not know that it was actually the native Balinese who discovered how to make it. It seems that the Dutch were not very generous with the coffee that the extracted and then exported from Indonesia—they didn’t allow the natives to drink it and just shipped it all back to Europe and, eventually America and other places. The natives, though, caught a taste for coffee, noticed the civets would eat and then poop out the undigested beans. They, then, were the ones who figured out the process of turning civet poop into coffee beans. The Dutch, though, soon caught on, recognized the delicious taste and then stole that, too.
We stopped at a civet coffee shop on our tour with Puto. The coffee was fine, although, I can’t really understand why people in the States would pay so much for it. I prefer a New Zealand flat white, that doesn’t have anything to do with caged animals and feces, as far as I know. Here are some photos from a stop we made at a place that made civet coffee: