“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” (Marshall McLuhan)
I felt as though a tsunami had washed through me.
Everyone else quickly cleared out after the show finished, but I continued to buzz with excitement like a resonating bell. For twenty minutes, I stood there and bathed in the energy the show had created.
We had gone to see another variation of the Kecak dance here in Bali a few nights before, but this one took it to the next level. Set against the backdrop of an ornately carved stone entranceway, performing a scene from the Ramayana, the 50 man chorus interwove seven different vocal rhythms while bouncing around the stage in precisely coordinated movements. They moved, sang, and danced as a single unit, seamlessly as a snake slithering through a field. I found myself thinking at several points, this couldn’t possibly get any crazier. But sure enough, whenever I thought that, it did.
The height of insanity came during a sequence when, for several minutes, the dancers played with flaming coconuts as though they were soccer balls. They screamed with a mixture of delight, rage, and excitement as they sent these projectiles flying high through the air. Sparks scattered all around when the balls of fire came crashing down, at some points dangerously close to the spectators in the first row.
As impressed as I was with the interplay of flame, voice, and movement, I was even more impressed with the age of some of the performers. Most members of the chorus were adults, but there were about a dozen pre-pubescent boys who played an integral part in the story. I was amazed with their professionalism; how they could flawlessly commit such an elaborate sequence to memory was beyond me.
I couldn’t help but wonder how my life would be different if I would have participated in something like this growing up. How amazing it would have been to swim in that energy! As powerful as it was in the audience, it must have been impossibly greater on stage.
In Bali, along with starting every day with offerings to ensure the harmonious functioning of the universe, this dance (and the mythology that informed it) are simply part of the culture. The ‘water’ of Balinese culture is composed of rituals to appease spirits and legends of gods becoming men, in just the same way that children in other cultures are taught about the stern, punitive taskmaster deity lurking somewhere above them.
Had a Balinese child asked what was happening when the crazed men played their flaming football match, his parents might say, oh, they’re just in a trance. While this would be a perfectly acceptable and legitimate answer here, if an American parent were asked the same thing, he might respond that these men were delusional or intoxicated.
It’s difficult for anyone to notice the composition of their cultural water without stepping out of it. That’s one of the beautiful results of travel: it makes you more aware of the assumptions, prejudices, and values you’re carrying around — of the water that you’ve been swimming in all the while, but didn’t notice. When you travel to other places, you see that there is no necessity for life to be lived the way your culture has decided. There are no physical laws dictating the hours that we must work, nor which behaviors are considered socially acceptable, nor which clothes are ‘fashionable.’
Of course, it’s tempting to idealize the water in other ‘ponds.’ When you shift ponds, it’s easy to latch on to the aspects that you feel your waters lack. Watching the dance and wishing I had been a part of something like it makes me see America as a mythology-less, hyper-individual wasteland. Alcohol, cannabis, and promiscuity served as substitute gratifications for the sense of direction, purpose, and belonging that I felt my culture lacked.
But I should not forget that although the Kecak dance is a beautiful cultural expression, it’s also part of a pond containing an oppressive caste system that is accepted as ‘natural.’ I’m sure that the lower caste workers we see hauling rocks on their heads all day long would love to have the possibility of social mobility that is such an integral part of the American ethos (or maybe the thought wouldn’t even occur to them to wish that things could be different). It’s also easy to forget that many of these “traditional” Balinese performances have been resurrected as a result of tourist demand. Bali’s waters have are also quite literally been polluted by the unchecked growth of tourist development.
I suppose that the best any individual fish can do is simply to go out and observe other waters in order to become more aware of his own. I have found that doing this opens me up to living in a way that some people back home might consider unorthodox or misguided. When you see just how many ways of life there are, it can give you a certain freedom to know that you don’t have to swim the way others do.
Being exposed to other waters has allowed me to look at my own culture as a playful, coordinated dance, where the dancers aren’t always aware of their movements.