Culture is not a spectator sport: Lessons from Bali’s black magic island

Bali. Mentioning you are going there to most well travelled Australians elicits the kind of interested response you’d expect from saying you were visiting a termite mound community for the weekend.

It doesn’t have the grungy glamour of Berlin, the exotic sound of Borneo, or the respectable mystique of South America. It’s close (to Australia) and it’s visited by swarms of us.

Although it may indeed be the well-trodden path, this quick dismissal is mostly unwarranted and begets that media coverage and mainstream perceptions rarely capture anywhere truthfully.

In Bali, these perceptions barely touch the tip of the cultural diversity and religious history that underlies this small eastern island.

I had been to Bali three years prior, where my short but invigorating trip mostly involved hanging upside down in head stand seeking enlightenment through yoga, getting massages in plush hotels with my parents or riding motorbikes through the jungle with a wild and chaotic Dutch man.

But there was something unshakable about it that didn’t leave me thinking “trashy, tourist trap.”

In Ubud, a place crawling with us tourists, ceremonies were rife. Offerings were made and distributed daily. Traditional dress was prolific.

At night, the Balinese People retreated behind large stonewalls into background temples and homes where the tourists didn’t exist.

I wanted to return.

I wanted to know more about the mysterious Indo-Hindu Animistic religion. I wanted to experience more authentic local life.

I managed to get my wish upon return, but it was not to be on Bali directly. Instead it was on Nusa Penida, a small island 12 km from the Balinese mainland.

Known as the black magic island I later discovered, Nusa Penida is very sacred in that area, so much so that every Balinese hopes to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime.

On the island, three temples are particularly sacred. The impressive Karangsari Cave, dug into the limestone mountain and stretching through to its far end. The Puncak Mundi temple on the so named highest hill is another. The third is the temple at Pet, on the island’s northern coast, coincidentally where we happened to be staying, whilst volunteering for Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNFP).

At the Pet Temple on our very first night, one of many large ceremonies was unfolding. Here was to be our first lesson of Nusa Penidan life.

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We were encouraged to join the ceremony by the owner of our homestay. He insisted it would be a great event to see and something not to miss. Which turned out to be very much a red herring.

Although I knew that we couldn’t really just go, a burning curiosity welled inside me. Maybe we could just go and see.

So I went with an English girl I’d met that night.

We set off rather timidly with our covered legs and shoulders thinking modest clothing was all one needed to venture into these sacred temple grounds.

Upon arrival, more encouragement from some local men outside the temple, who tied our scarves around our waists and then said ‘Go go, no problem,’ made us tentatively step into the temple grounds.

However, by tying my friend’s scarf around her waist, our well meaning local had left her shoulders bare.

Whether he did it on purpose or not I’ll never know.

As we entered the temple, groups of men looked at us and said nothing. But their disapproval was palpable.

The temple was full of people, most of who seemed to be a varying stages of a long and drawn out process. Some sitting in groups or lying in the ground, others were holding incense or carrying fruit offerings, waiting to enter the interior.

I sensed we weren’t to be there. With new friend’s shoulders uncovered; her bra straps were exposed.

About 10 minutes we lasted until an older man came up to us ‘No welcome in temple, no welcome’.

I have never felt so ashamed.

Nusa Penida is a yes culture. Everyone had encouraged us in for this reason and this reason only. For someone to say “No welcome” we’d not just overstepped our mark, we’d leapfrogged. Despite our good and honest intentions, we had done no good.

In that moment I re-learnt the most important lesson of travel.

Religion is not a spectator sport. Culture is neither. It you don’t understand it or you’re not invited, you shouldn’t be there. No matter what anyone says.

Nusa Penidans live and breathe their religion. Daily life is influenced and run by a continual stream of messages from spirits, good or bad. Told or untold.

The holy grail of capitalism and economic growth has not yet reached Nusa Penida and they haven’t sold their religion to tourists like busier parts of Bali have.


This was a sharp, poignant beginning to our education on Nusa Penida.

One that was to grow and flourish from this ominous beginning.

To be continued.


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