The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson

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After a week or so in Singapore, I was ready to move on: I wanted to get past the equator!. So I booked a flight to Denpasar, on the Indonesian island of Bali. Before departing, I converted all the Singapore dollars on hand to Rupiahs: the rates were better than in Indonesia itself. This was the only time on my trip that I fooled with money matters, and as it turned out, it was fortuitous. At exactly the weekend I decided to fly, French President de Gaulle had also been monkeying around with money matters, and for a few days, all trading world-wide came to a halt. I had already purchased my ticket for Bali, so when I reached the Singapore airport, I went to check my bag as usual. The agents wanted to tag the bag for Djarkata, but I insisted I was going to Denpasar. They had no tags marked Denpasar, but I insisted and finally they wrote “Denpasar” on a blank tag, strapped it to my bag and off I went.

Singapore Dollar

Handsome bills

Singapore Fiver

The Singapore estuary on the back of the fiver

Singapore estuary

Highly polluted in those days

My own photo of the estuary

Singapore Tenner

American currency is so dull!

At all events, what I had left of the beauties above got me a huge wad of those below:

Rupiahs 50

Not worth much in 1968

Rupiahs 100

But the bills were colorful

Rupiahs 500

Doncha love the big numbers!

Rupiahs 1000

Still, not quite as worthless as the Italian Lire

I salted my stash of Rups in a travel-bag, kept a few in my pocket, and off I went. It turned out the plane went to Djakarta before going to Bali: everyone entering Indonesia came through Djakarta, and the requirements were that a) all luggage was searched thoroughly before  going onward, and b) an airport transit-tax had to be paid in local currency. This latter requirement meant folks had to cash travelers checks—except no one was accepting TCs because of the money freeze! There was a huge line at the bank window, total confusion, and in the melee, I sidled over to the tax window and quietly paid my transit-tax with my imported rups! No fuss, no muss, no bother. And my bag, having been marked for Denpasar, was carried from one plane to the other, bypassing the search routine completely!

Indonesian Transit

Paid for with illegal rups!

 Boarding Pass for Denpasar

Flew First Class!

Plane to Denpasar

Plane about to depart for Denpasar

There were, as it happened, not a lot of folks going to Bali, so the airport tax situation got ironed out somehow, and before long off we went. By this time, of course, I was south of the equator.

Indonesia - Bali

The arrow points to Denpasar, on the island of Bali

Denpasar, 23 November 1968

Dear Everyone~

By now you should have received my “published” letter from Singapore, with itinerary, which should have enlightened you on my plans.

Singapore is quite a place; I recommend it to world travelers as a very up-to date place, well worth seeing, and worth shopping in as well. As the world’s fourth-largest port, it has most of the advantages, and surprisingly few of the disadvantages, of a port city. Its botanical gardens are very excellent, spacious and well-kept; the orchid gardens are particularly beautiful. The city is clean, streets are fine & traffic quite unexpectedly moderate and well-behaved. Hotel facilities range from my old stamping-grounds—the chinese hotels—to the plushest sort, with about 800 posh rooms under construction now & the same number (at least) is planned. There’s a real get-up-&-go atmosphere that pervades everything, right up to the tourist association’s slogan “Instant Asia”, which is quite apt.

But having planned & paid for the extravagant itinerary mentioned, I had to get on with it—time, alas is short! Hence on Friday I flew to Djakarta (stopover only) & hence to Denpasar, Bali. Now, this part of the trip is costing extra, for some obscure reason, but I see already that it is well worth it! How to choose among the amazing range of (cheap!) souvenirs is the only problem I’m likely to encounter here, except for the problem of seeing it all in so short (till Thursday next) a time. My hotel room is costing $1US per day, meals about 0.25 each! By contrast in this still quite un-mechanized city (the taxis are horse-drawn carts) rental of a Honda [motorcycle] to tour the island is $6 per day! Two days of that will be enough. Currently I’m caught in the international money squeeze—even travelers checks are frozen at the moment. Conceivably I could get stuck here, but I can think of worse places for that to happen! Hippies here, by the way, but they don’t seem so out-of-place as they might wish in this slow, relaxed and easy-going society. The weather is warmer and more tropical (I’m finally south of the equator), and rain does not start till next month at the earliest. There is an active volcano on the island (last erupted 1963) which I’ll see tomorrow. Except for another stopover of about 3 hrs on Thursday, I shall have to skip Djakarta itself this trip—and unless I happen to get a view from the air (not likely), the huge Borobudur Temple near Jogjakarta. There is really a great deal to see in Indonesia, and at a later date a motor-bike tour of it would be very rewarding, though just a bit more political stability would be comforting.

BACKSTORY: It devolved that there were several items which were in great demand in Bali when I got there. If that suitcase that evaded the search in Djakarta had contained just three things, I’d have made out like a bandit. Everyone wanted to know if I had any 1) Beatles records; 2) Levis; or 3) ball-point pens! Sadly, the bag mainly contained dirty clothes, and there was no demand for them. I did, however, manage to trade the ball-point pen the airline had given me for a fine carving, which I still treasure:


The mythical Garuda

The wad of Rups came in very handy as well: in fact, I found myself buying meals for a few down-and-out travelers who had run out of cash. Before I departed Denpasar, the crunch was over and money markets returned to normal.

Because of the absurd US stance toward Mainland China (Mr. Nixon is a hard-liner in this respect, apparently, which will prove very unfortunate later on) it is not possible to bring back souvenirs made in China. I don’t want any because I have to limit myself somewhere & so draw the line at countries I have actually been in (as Todd does with stamps). But there are many lovely things coming out of China, and of course the embargo only has the effect of encouraging smuggling. Several shop-owners I talked to in S’pore have regular large-volume customers (USA) who buy jade & take it back to the US via Canada—at a huge profit to themselves. Of course a lot of junk comes out of China as well (as, too, from Japan & HK) but the bone carvings, jade, jewelry & cloisonné work are still first-rate and available nowhere else except Taiwan (and Customs prohibits most of that, too, unless you get the certificates of origin in HK—Singapore certificates aren’t acceptable for reasons best known to the politicians who have nothing better to do than make up silly rules like these). Every country I’ve been in (except Thailand) has a healthy trade volume with China, as well as some sort of diplomatic contact, usually at a fairly low level: China herself has recalled all but one Ambassador (to Egypt), but has lower grade relationships well established everywhere. The argument—often advanced—that we can’t have diplomatic relations with China because we don’t “know” who is in power there is ludicrous in the extreme: without diplomacy we’re never going to find out, until it is much too late. Even the UN can’t bring itself around to the so-called “two china” policy, and before they manage to accept that, there will be “three” chinas (Hong Kong is on land leased from China, which reverts about 30 years from now) to deal with! I fail utterly to understand how it can be argued that there is in existence today anything other than China (Peoples’ Republic of, so-called) and Taiwan—period. With our help (and probably only with our help) Chang Kai- shek rules the latter, and no matter how fervently he may wish to once again dominate the mainland, it is a pipe-dream & he may as well forget it!

And as for the UN, its helplessness is only exceed by its budget, and unless the nations that make it up can agree to give it some sort of police power, I’m for abandoning it (its useful work—UNICEF and such—can be carried on under most any guise). So long as it remains an “exclusive club” as it is now, excluding some nations & admitting others on capricious whims, it is a mockery of its name; so long as it has no power to prevent or even solve disputes—as is amply demonstrated in the Mid-East—it is essentially useless, and hence extravagant in a world where the money spent could do more good in alleviating suffering or feeding mouths. Many argue that the dialogue in the UN is a useful thing in itself, but I question that, when, after all the dialogue is over, absolutely no change in anyone’s position has taken place. There are other ways to encourage dialogue, if that is the objective; but peace is supposedly the objective, and despite untold quantities of dialogue, the world is no closer—if as close—to peace now than when the UN was formed—replete with its patently unworkable formula that gives a few nations unwarranted power over the other members.

25 November 1968

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Well, the Balinese are certainly the original “flower children”, and as such antedate the current american hippies by a few centuries! Doubtless this is the most unspoiled place I’ve been, but still it is badly affected by westernization, and the trend is obviously gathering steam. The basic religious-community structure is more-or-less intact, and to a large extent remains a matriarchy. But as usual, the influx of “Tourodollars” has had a potent effect, particularly since 1966 when the huge and disgusting Bali Beach Hotel was opened up.

While Wm. Lederer’s “ugly american” is hardly an exaggeration, he overlooks the tremendous pressure that is put on travelers to be ugly american types, even if by nature they are not thus inclined. It is stronger here than anywhere I’ve been—the whole tourist organization and peripheral services are geared to de-walleting the travelers. It begins before you even get to Bali: the exchange rate in DJK was $US=420rp (Rupiahs); in Bali it is only 390, though for green on the black market one can get close to the DJK rate. US green is, of course, the preferred medium of exchange. [This morning the bank rate has dropped to 385, but I can’t get any reliable news about the “crisis” & whether the dollar has actually been devalued, as was hinted-at when I left S’pore].

Money problems aside, though, the grossness of americans is both legendary &—unfortunately—real. Yesterday I took in a “Barong Dance”, organized & performed strictly for tourist benefit (“cultural”) and dancers’ benefit (monetary). A couple of bus-loads of tourists (predominately american) came out from the Bali Beach. Most of the poor devils didn’t even realize they were seeing what is in essence a “fake” performance, replete with printed programs! The character sitting next to me didn’t bother to even read his, so when the musicians completed the overture, his remark (loud) was, “Where the hell are the dancers?” Then he got up & wandered around a bit, & wound up standing with his back-side to the stage when the dancers entered! In my coldest sarcastic voice I told him that the dancers he was so eager to see were on stage, but he missed the sarcasm altogether and whirled around, eyes a-bug, doubtless expecting a stage-full of scantily-clad girls. His disappointment (manifest but fortunately unvoiced) came in finding only the barong (mythological beast) and increased through the whole performance during which only 3 girls participated!! I was delighted, both by his disappointment, by the beauty of the dance (really a play), and by the other members of the cast.


Gamelan orchestra for the Barong Dance

Barong Dance 2

Somebody gets it!

Dance 3

As a leg man, I was captivated by the dancers!

Well, after that I motored on, with guide as it turned out, to see various villages & temples and so forth. Because of the guide, it turned out more of a tour of “art shops” than I cared for, and tomorrow I’ve arranged to go alone to the largest temple and the volcano, neither of which we reached yesterday because of too many extraneous stops and because the poor 100cc Yamaha with 2-up was just too slow-going. But I did get a beginning view of the countryside, still one of Bali’s greatest attractions, and certainly breath-taking. Except for the steepest parts of the mountains, the whole island—every square foot—is cultivated, mostly given to rice and some tobacco, where fortuitous weather & plentiful water regularly allow 2 rice crops a year. Traditionally the island exports rice & imports bulgar wheat and that is about all there is to its economy, except of course the ever-increasing dependence on incoming tourodollars, which could quite conceivably destroy the original economic base completely before long. It will get worse: Denpasar aeroport goes international at the beginning of next year, with direct flights by PAA and other international carriers.

It is paradoxical and tragic that the tourist organizations in all the countries I’ve visited—save perhaps Cambodia—in their zeal to promote tourism destroy slowly & surely the very thing that forms their raison d’être. The emphasis on providing travelers with every luxury while touring insulates the tourist from the very thing they have presumably come to see. Few tourists seem to ever realize they’re being had, and fewer still strike out on their own to see anything that is not “on the circuit”. Fewer still are the leastwise interested in the people they see, except as “objects” that are (variously) “quaint”, “comical”, and (God help us!!—) “cute”, but never human! I almost threw up yesterday when one dowager in the crowd at the barong dance, upon catching sight of the dozens of hawkers extending their wares over the fence, exclaimed loudly, “Oh, I must get a picture of that—it’s real local color” {snap!} She thinks that is “local color”, and ignores 3 miles of (relatively) pristine local color as she rides in her air-conditioned bus back to her air-conditioned bar at the air-conditioned hotel, and probably isn’t even aware of the opportunity to wander around in any of the dozens of villages where truly “air-conditioned” local color abounds! I’m beginning to favor Pres Johnson’s tax on foreign travel, not as a revenue measure, but as a possible check on the appalling impact tourism (particularly american) has on the world.

At the opposite end of the scale, as it were, I find here and there various Christian missionaries who seem intent, by design rather than by accident, on destroying all they touch also. Among this group, of course, the adjectival descriptions of the people are of a different sort (un-saved, forgotten, pitiable—bilge like that), but one makes an error if he views the missionaries’ misguided destruction as more concerned with “humanity” than the tourists’ ravishments. My attitudes towards the “export” of christ were formed long ago: my curious friendship with Stan [redacted] was formed from a diatribe on the subject that was my first “literary” effort I submitted to him at MJC—at a time when he had just returned from a stint as a missionary in Haiti. I did find the attitude hardening pretty much on the same grounds as my objection to the export of “democracy”. Neither (christianity or democracy) has proved either eminently workable, practical, or consistently “better” than the existing practices they each intend to replace. The evangelicals are busy here in Indonesia (currently, Oral Roberts) busily overlooking the fact that the natives have a well developed religion—itself an import a long time ago—which serves them well. In fact, it seems to serve them “better” in many respects than christianity does us, for the Balinese (at any rate) “live” their religion much more than we do. Their community and social organization revolves entirely around their rather unique adaptation & combination of Siva-istic Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, and while the whole is shot through with plain and simple superstition, certainly christianity cannot claim to be less so. The argument (debatable) that it is their religion that has kept the Balinese “backward” is only valid if one agrees that they are backward, itself a value-judgement of the most biased or non-objective sort. Even if I were to agree that the Balinese are backward, I would find it hard to prove their religion to be the cause of that; one must consider a lot of other factors, such as economy & politics.

I’m willing enough to agree that some environmental facts could be advantageously changed here & elsewhere I’ve been, mostly related to alleviating needless pain & suffering (not necessarily aimed at altering birth & death rates, though, as this creates new problems to solve later): but why must the price for this be fealty to a new religious concept, “foreign” in the extreme, and especially a concept that has been responsible for at least as much suffering in history as it has alleviated, if not a whole lot more???

All religions—political factions also—proselytize to some extent, and some more-so that others at various times in history. But I should imagine that a concerted, well-financed campaign in the States to convert christians to Hinduism—to bring the “lost souls” into union with the “oneness of nature”—would be very coldly received, and rightly so I think. As with anything else, I think if christianity were exemplary in every actual respect, rather than in ephemeral ideologies, it would “sell itself”—no proselytizing would be required, for people would flock to it. So long as it retains its un-proved and un-fulfilled status, though, I see christianity having little appeal & less value as a replacement for other established religions, equally faulty though the latter may be.

BACKSTORY: I’m not sure how I got off on that diatribe, but I did manage to find a charming fellow in Denpasar who showed me around, rode behind me on the rented bike, and rode in front of me in bed several nights.

There’s more about Bali coming up: stay tuned!



Written by Editor

February 12th, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Indonesia