Bali receives nearly three million foreign visitors each year, some of whom tend to stay longer than others. If you’re a foreigner who has lived in Bali for some duration, you’ve undoubtedly picked-up some of the unique local customs and traditions. Here is a ten-point litmus test of how much your habits and lifestyle have evolved to incorporate the Balinese lifestyle.
1. You become an early riser
Bali is known as the island of Gods. In this traditionally agricultural community, one of the three tenets of happiness is maintaining good relations with the divinity. The local way of achieving these good relations is to mount loudspeakers on the tops of religious buildings and spread the word every day. Muslim prayers are broadcasted at about 05:00 and go on for a couple of minutes, with loudspeakers pointing in all directions. Hindu prayers accompanied by the sound of bells start about an hour later and last longer. People are often lucky enough to be within earshot of two separate transmissions being aired at the same time. In order to ensure melodious harmony, many of the religious halls play recorded versions of the prayers. Regardless of how religious you are, the wake-up call is free.
2. All your meals are accompanied by rice and sambal
Rice is the staple food and ‘sambal’ is a spicy paste made from chili peppers. It also has other ingredients such as fish sauce, ginger, garlic, lime juice and vinegar. Sambal originated in Java and is now an indispensable accompaniment to Indonesian cuisine. Sambal could be raw or cooked, home-made or bottled and has many varieties. Some households prepare it fresh before each meal while restaurants usually make it in bulk and preserve it in the refrigerator. It takes foreigners some time to adjust to the spiciness of Balinese food and once they do, they can really start to enjoy sambal.
3. You become a millionaire and still carry small change
Indonesian currency has suffered from hyperinflation to the extent that the smallest denomination is now 1,000 (these are too small and about to be phased out). 50,000 and 100,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah) notes are commonplace. One million IDR now equates to about 72 US Dollars. Most foreigners get used to calculating the currency conversion mentally. It is common to pay upwards of a hundred thousand for a meal or a taxi ride. At the same time taxi drivers and other businesses that don’t accept cards seem never to have change. If you don’t like to pay more than you have to, you will learn to carry around smaller denomination notes.
4. You answer the door in just a sarong
A sarong is a long cloth, most commonly with checkered or plaid patterns and sometimes with batik prints. It is worn by men and women in various ways and is not limited to Southeast Asia or even Asia. It may also be worn in public or at casual occasions. The warm and humid weather of Bali demands wearing loose and comfortable garments that allow for air circulation and nothing beats the sarong. Once you get the hang of tying one, you’ll wear it all the time regardless of air conditioning.
5. Learn to use your right hand
Balinese culture requires using the right hand for transactions such as the exchange of money and goods. The left hand is traditionally used for personal hygiene purposes and considered unclean. Even when waving or pointing at something it is advisable to use the right hand. This is of-course regardless of whether you’re left handed. It is ok to do everything else with the left hand except transacting with other people. For example, you could hold money in your left hand as long as use your right hand when giving it to the other person.
6. You get used to rubber time
Bali is a part of one of the most relaxed (least punctual) countries in the world. Unlike many westerners, time is not money to the Balinese. They follow another tenet known as ‘jam karet’ which literally translates to ‘rubber time’. It means life is meant to be taken at an unhurried pace. It is rude to rush someone or press a deadline. The Balinese are a social people who prefer to chat and socialize. It is common to be late for an appointment or event by an hour or more. ‘Tomorrow’ could mean some undefined time in the future. The concept does not necessarily mean that locals are lazy; it merely highlights their relaxed and laidback philosophy on life. Live in Bali long enough and you’ll learn to work comfortably with rubber time.
7. You get a Balinese name
The Balinese naming tradition is based on birth order and somewhat influenced by the Sanskrit language. It also has overtones of the caste system, although nowhere nearly as serious as in India. Generally, there are fixed names for the first, second, third and fourth born children. If there are five or more, the cycle simply restarts. Genders are differentiated by the prefixes ‘I’ and ‘Ni’ which are roughly the equivalent of Mr. and Ms. There are no family names or surnames. To take an example, Ni Wayan Sulastri would mean first born (Wayan) female (Ni) with the given name Sulastri. The naming convention is so systematic that it can be applied universally, including to foreigners! Once you’ve made some friends and been to visit a Balinese family a few times, they are likely to give you a Balinese name as a sign of acceptance and familiarity.
8. You’ve rediscovered fruit salad
‘Rujak’ is the name for a typically Indonesian salad which is enjoyed as a snack or as an accompaniment. It has fruits, vegetables and a sauce made from palm sugar, tamarind, peanuts, and bird’s eye chili. Depending on the region and individual preferences, rujak could have dried shrimp paste, fish in brine or fish stock, and boiled eggs. It could be mashed, shredded or simply mixed. Some versions are made primarily from unripe fruits and others are comparatively dry. All are overpoweringly spicy. Some of the ingredients also have a strong aroma and it takes some getting used to. If you’re in Bali long enough, you’ll develop a taste for rujak.
9. You know more about Bali than the locals
The average Balinese local remains confined to his locale. It is the place with familiar surroundings where his business or work goes on. Many Balinese don’t try to venture beyond the nearest village throughout their lives. A foreign tourist on the other hand likes to explore. Most tourists start with the beaten track which includes the tourist traps and resort complexes. Those who stay longer tend to explore further, starting from the hills and forest reserves in the north. If you stay longer still, you’ll likely explore the good surfing and diving spots. These are far from the popular beaches and the ‘all-inclusive’ resorts. You’ll use local transport and probably travel by bus or ‘bemo’. Stay long enough and you’ll visit the temples and monasteries, small fishing villages and lesser known quaint beaches. Over time with the acquired knowledge, you’ll be much better informed about the highlights of the island than the average local.
10. You know proper Balinese attire
If you’ve been invited to a formal Balinese event, especially if it was a ceremony at a temple, chances are you made an effort to dress-up in Balinese formalwear. Traditional attire includes unique tidbits that complete the look. The original guiding principle is that formals should consist of woven flat lengths of cloth. These cannot be stitched or sewn and may be tied or draped around. A good example is a headdress for men made from a single square cloth. There are prescribed styles for tying the waistcloth which differ for men and women. Traditional Balinese formals are worn more as a gesture of respect and less as a fashion statement. If you’ve been in Bali long enough, you’ll also know that a sarong is NOT part of the formal attire.