Nyoman stands before me as a representative of the way the world is changing.
Born in a tiny village above Ubud, Bali, Nyoman currently runs an Airbnb business at his home. He has two (soon four) beautiful rooms for rent nestled in the Balinese jungle.
As I write this, I am sitting on a veranda of one of those looking out at jackfruit, banana, and papaya trees. Meanwhile the sounds of crickets and the calls of morning exotic birds fill my ears. Nyoman will soon be coming by to check on how we’re doing.
Nyoman has never left Bali. He has lived his entire life in this small village of around 600 people.
Ceremony & Tradition: Honoring The Dead
The day we arrived, we noticed a clearing between Nyoman’s house and the nearby rice paddies. Here, villagers gathered, cutting poles, weaving baskets, and constructing some thatch-roofed buildings.
The next morning we asked Nyoman about this activity. He then gave us a peek into traditional Balinese culture.
The villagers were preparing for a cremation ceremony that occurs every five years.
Apparently, when a person dies in the village, the family first wraps their body in some kind of cloth. Then they bury them. Every five years, the villagers exhume the bodies to cremate them. The ceremony is elaborate. It includes lots of prayers and offerings to the spirits of nature and the pantheon of Hindu gods.
Nyoman described the process of cremating the bodies. After, the priests take the ashes to a nearby river and throw them in. Later, the entire village goes to a beach far downstream to collect vials of the water. This water symbolizes all the ashes comingled. These vials are taken to a large temple for more prayers and blessings, then returned to the village temple. There they are interred with other deceased villagers.
Every six months villagers gather to pray and make offerings to the dead, so that the deceased people continue to be part of the village.
Some Personal Reflections On Tradition & Change
As I listened to the complexity of the rituals that involved every village member, it struck me that things in Nyoman’s world could soon be changing.
And it might be due to Airbnb.
It started out when he decided to rent a room in his house in order to bring in some more income, so he put a Room for Rent sign outside his house.
One of his early renters was an American woman visiting Ubud who suggested he use Airbnb to get customers. She helped him set things up online, and, since then, he has had a steady stream of Americans, Europeans, and Australians coming through his world.
Another guest, a French woman, offered to fund the renovation of a few more rooms in order to help him. This generous woman is opening up the doors for more prosperity to enter Nyoman’s life. Who knows? He may even have the funds in five or ten years to travel outside of Bali.
Change Over The Last 30 Years
Almost 30 years ago, I visited Bali with my wife. At that time, Kuta Beach was the only major place on the island where large numbers of foreigners congregated. Foreign money and culture had not yet touched the rest of the island, including Ubud.
As the years passed, however, people in the outlying areas began to see how Kuta money was enriching people they knew. They also wanted to become more prosperous through tourism. So more and more people have developed various inroads into the industry. This has brought greater prosperity to individuals and has changed the face of the villages.
Now everywhere in Bali, there are small bed and breakfasts, health spas, and tourist shops. Ubud is a major tourist destination with the once quiet temples and sedate artists’ community crawling with tourists from all over the world.
Considering The Future
So it’s conceivable in the next ten years Nyoman may get the opportunity to visit his French benefactress in her home country. This would be an earthshaking novelty for Nyoman since he’s never even spent much time outside his village, let alone left Bali.
Even if Nyoman doesn’t travel abroad, it’s not hard to imagine that Nyoman’s children could travel more widely than their father, perhaps visiting other parts of Asia regularly for work as well as pleasure.
What will then happen to the village traditions that so depend upon complicated ceremony, communal effort, and regular attention?
It is true as Renaissance English poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island.” In the modern world of airplane travel and the ubiquity of the Internet, no culture is an island either.
As cultures from west and east share and mingle, all cultures will change. My hope is that the ugly aspects of western materialism and individualism don’t predominate over real discussions about the deeper truths of life and faith where we can learn important things from one another.
What are some ways you've observed cultures changing over the years? Do you welcome such changes?