The Art of Infiltrating Cultures

Unexpected Lessons from Bali

It is sometimes amusing to take notes while traveling. Notes on whatever seems odd, hilarious, anecdotal, characteristic or incomprehensible. It kind of serves as a reminder of a place, a time or an individual.

Some of the things recently noted in Bali are here. This includes raw notes on Balinese oddities, facts and impressions.

How many Balinese live in Bali?

So even though this might seem like an odd question, being the expat that I am I’m always interested in seeing the population mix. So apparently it’s 90% of people in Bali who are Balinese. This remaining 10% is composed of other Indonesians and foreigners (around 30,000 expatriates).

Balinese have cultural particularities that give them, in my eyes, a different national identity to Indonesians.

On Balinese language and Bahasa

One important one is of course language, since Balinese is totally different to Bahasa Indonesian – which in turns is similar to Malay; and Bahasa is claimed to be quite easy to learn because grammar is extremely simple and it’s a matter of learning vocabulary. In Bali though most people speak Balinese. Bahasa is known and spoken by everyone -and the main written language- but one hears Balinese most of the time. It makes me wonder if you could ever be part of Bali if you can communicate with – but not understand – people around you…

In Balinese culture children are named according to the order in which they are born. As simple as that. People are then called “first”, “second”, and so on. In total there are only 4 names, and it starts all over again with the fifth son or daughter. These names are the same for boys and girls and they are: Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut. When in doubt, just call “Wayaaan” and you can’t go (too) wrong.

School and work

Kids wear uniforms, traditional or not. And they go to school every day except for Sundays. School is not public, and parents need to pay to school their children. This can be a big load on struggling households who might not be able to provide education to their children.

People also work generally 6 days a week, everybody, which sounds exhausting. And everybody has several occupations. It is not odd to have your driver telling you “I am also a real estate agent”, but he might also own a restaurant and give cooking lessons and be a tour guide. And when they don’t do all those things themselves it is their brother or their wife or their parents or their neighbour who do. It’s quite worth asking around.

Fun with Kites

One thing you cannot help noticing is kites. Kites flying everywhere, very high up. These kites are made by kids themselves, with thin bamboo sticks and plastic bags or similar material. Then they fly them all around, from the beach or a balcony or a hill.

Some of them are so impressive that at the beginning I thought it was planes, or (letting my imagination run wild) even dragons overflying and protecting Bali from above.


Wood Work and Art

Wood carvings are everywhere, as furniture or art. I started realising, after a bit, that a lot of these beautiful pieces of furniture are shipped abroad and sold at decoration stores. I could think of “Maison du Monde” in France and their many relaxed, hipster-styled pieces of woodwork. Now I know who makes it!


These are very artistic and beautiful people who take care of how places look. They seem proud of keeping gardens cleans and plants well maintained and very tasteful statues and furniture in primo state almost everywhere one looks.



A local explained to me that, for praying, men sit in the lotus position, while women kneel by sitting on their heels with their toes curled, which looks so painful for the knees and ankles. That said, I did see many women sitting like men while praying…



One of the first thing one notices with the first step in Bali is the canang sari. The canang saris are flower offerings, including some rice and some incense sticks, which are generally made by elder Balinese women and sold to other Balinese. This is to pay respect to the gods, and it is part of the many daily rituals, which are diverse. What is more particular of the canang saris is that one finds them piled up on the streets and at temples and at the entrance of shops and… basically everywhere.


Every house has a little temple, and the aforementioned daily rituals are taken care of by whoever is there, men or women, young or old. They are also performed at shops. This includes holy water from the temples, jepun flowers, incense sticks and flower offerings at the “temple houses” that are generally part of the garden of every house.



Talking about ceremonies and religion, parades bringing people to the temples to pray to the rhythm of Gamelan music are quite common, and they are impressive to see. I was completely absorbed by the percussion of the Gamelan. A small taste from a badly filmed video:

But religion aside, Bali is full of music. Locals are big fans of reggae and they have plenty of local bands playing Bob Marley insatiably. There are also many bands playing pop rock covers, and some of them are really good. Every now and then there is a guitar at the beach and some locals playing music. There are also jazz bands that are pretty incredible.

Here is a little video of my friend Norman’s reggae band in Ubud, Griya Faria:

About Cheeky Inoffensive Men

Men talk about sex a lot. I don’t know if they just talk about sex to western women – because they find that hilarious? – but they just generally talk about sex a lot. And every time they see a girl alone they ask if she has a boyfriend. If the answer is negative, they’ll immediately volunteer – “I can be your boyfriend”. Most of them are married and they are not truly asking the girl out – they just like having a laugh. It’s funny and weird at the same time.

On Social Dynamics and Social Networks

After chatting for a little and exchanging Whatsapp numbers with them, they will generally also take a selfie with you. I have never had so many selfies taken, and definitely not with “my friend I met like 20 minutes ago”.

I guess they are quite active in social networks, for what I see on Facebook… Most of them have pretty new smartphones, generally Chinese brands like Oppo but also Samsung and they were quite savvy about them all, including my humble Xiaomi. They are also on Facebook and Whatsapp ALL THE TIME, even when hanging out with each other they will be mainly checking the social networks and showing each other stuff. That would be like any other millennial elsewhere, except that they also do it while driving. But considering they don’t use seat belts either, driving in Bali is no more an extraordinary activity than walking in a major city with your face on your phone – as most of us do anyway.

They are also cheeky on the way they talk to each other and to foreigners. “Maybe tomorrow” and “not yet not yet” are two expressions everybody knows and loves here. They love saying “not yet” to every tourist approaching the pier. Sometimes they say it just for fun, even if the tourist was not actually going towards the pier. When they offer a taxi ride or a massage and get a negative response, they generally say “maybe tomorrow”. And they use these sentences for fun when you hang out with them long enough to catch their sense of humour. They say all this with a smile, and to me all the Balinese smiles make up for all the cheeky expressions and their funny jokes. And if you are lucky enough – or willing enough – to spend time with them you will find them hilarious too. 


What do you think?

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