Balinese Canoes

Dustin Leavitt

[O]ur second order of business, having already negotiated a daily fee for services rendered — a detail elevated to unprecedented primacy in that first year of the Asian Economic Crisis — was to decide what we ought to call each other. “Your people (meaning my people, Americans) use the family name, is this not correct? And what is that name?” the headman of Tanjung Benoa village asked, his tone prudent. I told him my family name, but suggested he call me by my given name instead, as was customary in my country.

He hesitated and the corners of his mouth contracted in thoughtful consternation. “This would be difficult for me.” Silence, and then: “Please excuse me, what is your social position?”

Consternation, this time mine.

“What is your… job?” he prompted, in an attempt to clarify his line of inquiry. I considered for a moment and then replied, “I’m a writer.”

“Ah,” he said, grown wary. “Then you write for the government newspaper?” In Southeast Asia, where governments commonly harness the written word to their often unpopular political agendas, people view writers with suspicion.

“No, no, I’m independent… a scholar.”

The headman’s face brightened. “Independent! A scholar! And your father? Is he a scholar, as well?”

I bobbled my head in the affirmative.

Without hesitation he said, “Then you are certainly a Brahmin. I am Sudra, a common man. And… forgive me for asking these questions… you are married?”

“No,” I replied.

“Not married?” he said, incredulous. Our driver, a young man who spoke less English then he understood, appraised me anew with a sidelong glance. “Never mind, then. I will call you Mister Dustin Leavitt… this is correct? And you should call me Ktut Kami…” I nodded, glad to have this apparently minor formality finally settled.

“…Although it is not what the people call me, as I am married and I have children.”


Confronting my interpreter, I turned around in the front seat of the Toyota jeep as it summarily and to my mind perilously negotiated the swarming streets of Denpasar, capital city of the island of Bali. “What do the people call you?”

“Ah,” he replied. “That depends.”

 Constructing a traditional Balinese canoe


Boats had long captivated me — or more correctly, what boats represented loomed large in my imagination. To me, boats were small worlds unto themselves, roving islands of purposefulness in which the discipline of self-reliance passed for the law of the land. They projected order and utility. Yet, they remained compliant, ego-less, if such a thing may be said of an inanimate object, for they had existed among men for a very long time.

I had spent significant periods of my life working them as fisherman and sailor, and felt a nagging moral anxiety over their gradual disappearance from the face of the earth, although I was not certain whether my concern was for the boats themselves, for the lives of the watermen who built and sailed them, or for the abstractions they had engendered in me — a matter of self-interest. I could not even say whether these were three issues or one.

When I speak of the disappearance of boats, I do not mean pleasure yachts, nor do I mean the monoliths of modern merchant ship navigation like super tankers, container ships, or luxury liners. Rather, I am talking about the canoes and planked craft of indigenous watermen the world over, which represent not one element of a complex, capital-intensive corporate mega-structure, but which underpin entire local economies.


[A]nd I am not talking exclusively about boats as implements of material culture, but also as vessels of cultural principles, principles I believed were worth preserving in spite of their apparent incompatibility with the grasping way of life that was sweeping the globe. Such a way of life was, I felt, unsustainable, if not devastating, and might benefit from the lessons in self-reliance and moral integrity that indigenous watermen could provide.

Thus, I had come to Bali seeking that which somehow defined me even as I sensed the decline of its relevance — and perhaps my own, as well — in a changing world. We are loath to yield to the inevitable. And yet, I felt, where lies the virtue of human life if not in the struggle between our rooted moral will and our unrelenting destiny? We may not, I believed, willfully attempt to determine fate, but by understanding it, and more importantly by understanding that it abounds with options, however inconspicuous, we may alter its course in unforeseen ways.

Our driver, whom I had chanced to meet a few days earlier, had recommended Ktut Kami to me as a man who knew about Balinese boat building and who could introduce me to carvers of jukung, the traditional double-outrigger canoe.

“Kami is my given name,” Ktut Kami explained, “and Ktut means “fourth born.” We (meaning Balinese) are all named Wayan, Njoman, Made, or Ktut: first born, second born, third born, fourth born.” He laughed. “It’s confusing, yes?”

I allowed that indeed it was.

“He…” indicating our driver, “… is Made, third born. You should call him Made because he is just a boy.”

I looked at Made, Made Suardika. I would not have thought him boyish at all, but a grown man of twenty-something. His dark face divided in a brilliant smile. “Yes, I am a boy,” he affirmed shyly. “I am not married.”

Personal names, “little” names, Ktut Kami told me, are bestowed on Balinese children one hundred and five days after they are born. However, birth order names (Wayan, Njoman, Made, or Ktut) are more commonly used to address them — or young women or men, like Made Suardika, who are as yet childless — even though the system is further complicated by the fact that the fifth-born child will be called Wayan (first born), the sixth-born Njoman, and so on. To avoid confusion among the dozens of Wayans and Mades who inhabit any given village or hamlet, birth order names may be supplemented by the personal name.

When a Balinese has borne children, however, he or she ceases to be called by his or her birth order name and is referred to instead by a new one based on the personal name of the (now) adult’s most recently born child: Father-of-so-and-so, Mother-of-such-and-such, and when grandchildren are born, the people of the village begin to refer to him or her as Grandfather-of or Grandmother-of…

“Why aren’t you married, Made?” I asked in what I hoped was a spirit of mutual interest, not to be mistaken for impudence.

He licked his lips, searching for words, and gave me a rueful look. “I want,” he said. “I want, but not have money.”

“Yes,” Ktut Kami confirmed from the back seat of the jeep. He settled his small, gaunt frame and drew his glasses and a newspaper from a pocket of his nylon briefcase. Folding the paper in quarters, he held it up in front of his long, thin nose, which separated dark, wide-set eyes and sharply protruding ears, snapped it, and sighed, “Yes. He is not yet a man.”


Traditional canoes in Bali, Indonesia

Double-outrigger canoes had once lined the shores of Bali’s coastal villages. In the south, on the beaches of Kuta and Legian, where Western tourists surfed and drank and sunned their breasts, to the amazement of the native Moslem minority, few examples remained. The sun-grayed hulks of unfinished and abandoned canoes, on which the people had once depended to provide fish, Bali’s cheapest and most obtainable source of protein, lay upturned along the margins of narrow lanes. No one in the southern villages now pursued canoe carving or its traditions. Most canoe carvers now worked menial jobs in construction or the tourist industry, casualties of the capital-driven juggernaut that was invading Southeast Asia and replacing self-sufficient village-based economies. Invariably, when I introduced myself to the inhabitants of the walled compounds nearby, searching for the owners of the discarded canoes, I was told they were not at home, but working as wage earners in the city, and I assuaged my disappointment with the thought that well, at least they had jobs.

Arriving in the village of Banyar Kubur, Ktut Kami introduced me to a canoe maker he had heard of who had turned to shrine building. Having listened intently to Ktut Kami’s explanation for my unexpected appearance in his quiet neighborhood, the shrine maker smiled broadly and ushered us into his compound through a gateway of carved stone. It was midday, and he was dressed for work in a pair of canvas trousers and a thin plaid shirt whose lemony yellows and cerulean blues had faded to a uniform gray.

The shrine maker had chosen his new trade wisely, for every Balinese house possesses a family shrine, a small, open-sided pavilion with a thatched roof that perches atop a short wooden tower. Household shrines are typically hung with vivid decorations of beads and worked cloth — valences and banners and shrouds in Chinese red, saffron, green, and white — and contain offerings, but are otherwise empty: Balinese worship the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, but venerate a supreme god, Sanghyang Widi, as well, who may be approached only by the priestly caste and remains obscure.

“He is a fat man,” Ktut Kami whispered to me, referring to the shrine maker, as we rounded the aling aling, a small wall that shielded the courtyard from the street and prevented evil spirits, who cannot easily turn corners, from entering. His tone, far from deprecating, was infused with awe. “I think he is a religious man, too,” he added, sealing his endorsement with a solemn nod.

When we had removed our shoes and sandals and seated ourselves on the raised floor of the shrine maker’s open, tile-roofed communal bale, a sort of Balinese living room, he leaned back against a polished wooden pillar and spread his blunt workman’s hands across his belly. A breeze, laced with birdsong, quelled the torrid heat of midday. As we waited for the shrine maker’s wife to prepare tea, I took note of his neat garden, the kitchen, the household shrine, the private sleeping rooms—and in the dark shadows of their doorways, the spellbound faces of the old man’s daughters peering out at me.

Since he was a “religious man,” I asked the shrine maker questions about the rituals associated with the building of Balinese canoes. The old man listened attentively while Ktut Kami translated them, enthusiasm spreading across his face as my line of inquiry became apparent.

“Balinese life,” Ktut Kami began, translating for the shrine maker, “is ruled by desa-kala-patra. This is true. We are a religious people.”

I nodded encouragingly, and the shrine maker, uncomprehending, nodded as well.

Desa is place; kala means time; patra is the law…”

“Like adat?” I interrupted. Adat, a word I was familiar with, refers to traditional law.

“Yes…” Ktut Kami replied, shaking his head in the negative. “… no. No, not adat. Patra… patra is the village law. It is like agreement, you see. All things must be in agreement… time and place and people…”

I nodded again, a little uncertain whether or not I did in fact see.

“Desa means place,” Ktut Kami continued. “To us, place is very important. Where we are and where we come from. Where you come from. Where we are in relationship to each other. This is desa.”

“Kala means time. This is very important, Mister Dustin Leavitt. We Balinese never do anything until we know when it is a good time. For us, the time must be propitious… this is the word?”

“Yes,” I assured him. “Propitious means the right time according to the Hindu calendar, yes?”

Ktut Kami pressed his palms together and bowed his head in a single, deep nod. The shrine maker mirrored his gesture. “Yes,” Ktut Kami sighed. “Mister Dustin Leavitt, you understand our religion.”

“No. No, not at all.” I was quick to disabuse him of this generous but serious miscalculation. “I have heard about the Hindu calendar. You use it to calculate what days are good for doing certain things, and what days are not so good, right? That’s all I know. Please go on.”

“Thank you.” Ktut Kami then explained to me how desa-kala-patra governs traditional canoe building, as it does every other Balinese occupation. It determines the confluence of where, when, and who, without which a canoe would remain not-a-canoe, and prompts the ceremonies without which the making of a canoe would lead inevitably to its own unmaking.

“The first ceremony,” Ktut Kami explained, “is called ngebah.

“Ngebah,” the shrine maker echoed.

“He,” Ktut Kami continued, inclining his head toward the shrine maker, “celebrate ngebah when he cut the tree. The second is a wedding ceremony. He calls it makuh or ngakit…”

“Makuh,” said the shrine maker.

Ktut Kami spelled the words for me. “He performs this ceremony when he begin to carve the canoe so the different parts will stay together, like man and woman who are married. Do you understand, Mister Dustin Leavitt? This is very important.”

I tapped the notebook in which I had been writing. “Yes, I understand.”

“Number three is called nguag sendeng.” Ktut Kami slowly spelled the words, then consulted briefly with the shrine maker, who shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “This ceremony is performed when he put in the…” He moved the flat palm of his hand horizontally from side to side, miming the object he was unable to name. Taking my notebook and pen, he sketched the top view of a canoe, an oblong leaf shape, and then drew perpendicular lines across it from edge to edge. Pointing at them, the canoe’s transverse braces, he said, “This, Mister Dustin Leavitt, what is its name?”

“Those are the thwarts,” I replied, taking the notebook from him.

“Thwarts,” he repeated, and the shrine maker, craning his neck to see the drawing for himself, silently mouthed the foreign word. “Nguag sendeng is performed when he put in the thwarts.”

I nodded as I wrote in the margin beside his drawing.

“Finally, number four. He makes this ceremony when he put the canoe in the sea. It is called melpas. He says not all canoe makers perform these ceremonies. Sometimes only perform one or two, but he always perform four. He is a religious man, you see.”

The next day, the “boy” Made, Ktut Kami and I drove northeast from metropolitan Denpasar on the narrow highway that rings the oblong island toward Candidasa on its eastern end. There, the road cuts inland before bending gradually back toward the coast at Culik. Our destination was the invitingly remote stretch of precipitous coastline the highway ignored.

Bali, Indonesia

The countryside was planted with startling green fields of rice, the island’s defining crop. Rice fields are tended communally in Bali, Ktut Kami explained, though they are divided into sawah, which are individually owned. Every farmer who owns a sawah belongs to a village association known as a subak, the head of which controls the supply of water upon which rice cultivation depends. The arable land of Bali is engraved with irrigation canals that not only provide water to the paddies, but for the common needs of the people, as well. Primary canals, lined with stone, ran through the villages at the road’s edge, and girls in shapeless tee shirts, squatting beside them, swabbed dishes at their doorsteps beneath the bright sunshine. In the countryside, these canals became deep, wide ditches alongside the fields, where thin, shirtless farmers, standing knee deep in the brown water, which eddied around their muddy legs, unblushingly shed their bright sarongs for a morning wash.

At Kusamba, the highway descended from the open rice fields toward the wooded coast. A decade before, Adrian Horridge, in his book on Balinese watercraft, had reported trolling canoes, as well as jukung gede, big canoes burdensome enough to transport cattle, on Kusamba’s black volcanic sand. Seeing none, we continued to Candidasa, once renowned for its wide, white, palm-lined beaches. Ironically, those very beaches had attracted entrepreneurs who mined the offshore coral reef for lime to make the cement used to construct Candidasa’s tourist hotels. Deprived of the protection of the reef, the beaches soon washed away.

The highway crooked inland again through low, rolling hill country upon which the sun beat unrelentingly. Passing through Culik, a village of stone compounds enclosing trim houses, we descended to the coast on a dusty road, arriving just before mid-day in the shabby fishing village of Amed. Its narrow crescent beach, typical of undeveloped village beaches throughout the south Pacific, was sparsely littered with sun-brittled bits of plastic debris, and fresh human turds rolled in the surf. A hopeful restaurant and bar stood by itself at the water’s edge, and its patrons, a few Western tourists who showed every sign of having fled too far from the busy beaches of Kuta, clustered around it in the banal shade of striped umbrellas, stunned to silence by the heat.

North of the restaurant, however, drawn up on the sand, a long line of canoes, willowy booms lashed together and canted skyward, leaned gently on their outriggers. I hurried toward them, Ktut Kami scuttling at my heels, his face betraying his thinly veiled exasperation as his worn black shoes filled with sand.

They were jukung pelasan, slender fifteen-foot trolling canoes used for fishing. Their narrow, white hulls, rakishly prolonged by horizontal stripes at the gunwales and waterline, drawn in vivid reds, greens, blues, and yellows, blazed in the brilliant sunshine. Their tightly rounded undersides, by contrast, were densely painted in shades of blue, yellow, or red. Stout, rising timbers called bayungan, the central beams of the canoes’ outrigger booms, were lashed across the gunwales at bow and stern, and talons of naturally curving wood, called cedik, hooked sharply downward from them, and to their ends were fixed the long, slender bamboo floats, one on either side, of the canoes’ twin outriggers.

Decorative wooden beaks that resembled the jaws of a monstrous sea creature gaped from the canoes’ bows, and from their sterns fantastic tails scythed skyward, decorated with rays and flames and the images of bad-ass, gun-toting cult heroes, rampant animal icons, or political demigods like Megwati, the spectacled, matronly reform candidate for president that year.

But it was the eyes that held me: bulging, white-orbed, just behind the canoes’ open jaws, their black pupils ringed with red and overarched with undulating brows, the eyes could, I believed, out-stare the challenging sea itself, which the Balinese traditionally fear, but not their destiny, about which their feelings were less than certain.

Encouraged by the presence of canoes on the beach, Ktut Kami inquired at the restaurant whether there was a canoe maker in the village, and we were directed to a small, unwalled compound down the road.

The canoe carver, in marked contrast with Ktut Kami’s neatly ironed shirt and belted gray trousers, was bare-chested and wore a faded sarong, the skirt of which was pulled up between his legs and tucked into the waistband beneath his navel, transforming it into a pair of baggy pantaloons. He was painting an eye on the bow of a small canoe in the thin shade of a thorny tree when we drove up, and another man, similarly dressed, with a sparse, gray-streaked beard, assisted him. Diffident at first, if only shy, the canoe maker nevertheless invited us to rest in the shade of his small, thatched bale, which was constructed of rough-hewn wood, weathered by exposure to the sun and sea. Another tiny room of low-fired brick stood beside it, the sleeping quarters of the house, whose only other appointment, the kitchen, consisted of an open hearth.

When we had seated ourselves on the woven mat that covered the bale’s elevated floorboards, the bearded man introduced himself as the village priest and added that he was also a canoe maker. Though he was obviously poor and uneducated by urban standards, Ktut Kami showed him marked deference, for he was of a highborn caste.

Ktut Kami spoke at length with the priest who, unlike his primly formal companion, was affable and relaxed. Eventually, having come to an understanding, punctuated with an exaggerated nodding of their heads, the men turned their attention to me.

“Please excuse me, Mister Dustin Leavitt, what questions would you like to ask this man?” Ktut Kami said, indicating the boat builder, who stiffened, erect and unsmiling, but attentive.

I told Ktut Kami I was interested to know the process involved in the construction of a canoe, how the work was contracted, where the timber came from. When Ktut Kami translated my questions, the men discussed the matter among themselves at length.

“When a fisherman ask him for a new canoe,” Ktut Kami began, inclining his head toward the canoe maker, who stared solemnly at a point on the matting midway between us, “he set a price…” He consulted the canoe maker briefly, who replied in a low voice. “About fifteen dollars American. The fisherman pay him half, he says, and also agrees to help make the canoe. Members of his family help, and sometimes other men from the village.”

“Members of the fisherman’s family?” I asked.

“Yes, just so. We call this suka-duka, Mister Dustin Leavitt, communal work.”

I wrote the words in my notebook, the others patiently looking on.

“He then searches the mountains for a good tree,” Ktut Kami continued when I had finished. “The tree must be big enough and wide enough for the canoe, you see. The canoe is carved from one tree only. Sometimes he must add some wood to the top, but jukung is always made from just one tree.”

“When he adds wood to the top, does he use wooden pegs like this to hold it on?” I asked, drawing a picture in my notebook of two plank edges butted against each other with a row of round dowels inserted into matching holes between them.

Ktut Kami held the picture up for the canoe maker and the priest to see, and explained its meaning. They pointed at the picture and nodded enthusiastically at me, the canoe maker showing a double row of square, white teeth as his lips parted for the first time in a smile.

“Just so,” Ktut Kami assured me, returning the notebook.

“What happens when he finds a suitable tree?”

“When he finds a tree, he must ask the priest when it is a good day to cut it.”

“Propitious,” I said.

“Yes, Mister Dustin Leavitt! He must ask the priest when it is propitious day!” We laughed, and he went on, “Then he performs the cutting ceremony…” I looked in my notebook and provided the Balinese word, ngebah, which the shrine maker had taught me the previous day. “…ngebah, to ask the supreme god to protect the canoe. Also protect himself and his work. He makes an offering, called sagi.

“What is sagi?”

“Sagi…” Ktut Kami consulted once again with the priest and the boat builder. “Sagi is different here than in my village, but basically the same. The recipe is rice, coconut, sugar, water, and palm wine… palm wine can be red or white.”

“Then what?”

“Then he cut the tree. Sometimes he makes a cut in the part that is left in the ground…”

“The stump.”

“Just so… and he puts a small branch from the tree in the stump. This celebrates the continue of life.

…celebrates the continuation of life, I wrote in my notebook, and marked it for special attention. “What happens then?”

“Then he makes the canoe. The fisherman helps him, and sometimes his family. It doesn’t take a long time that way. Then he…” indicating the canoe maker, “… returns half of the money the fisherman already paid him, or if the fisherman is poor, maybe he gives all the money back to him. It’s strange, yes?”

My face must have revealed my surprise at this unexpected custom, because when Ktut Kami explained it to them, the boat builder smiled and the priest’s eyes grew merry. “How does that work?” I asked Ktut Kami.

He had turned his gaze toward Gunung Seraya, a mountain rising in the distance behind us, where rain clouds had begun to build.

“Suka-duka,” he replied. “It is the true Balinese way.”

As we prepared to leave the boat builder to his work, the priest took Ktut Kami aside and spoke to him briefly. Palms pressed together, I thanked them, and as we drove away down the road, I asked Ktut Kami what the priest has said to him.

“He says the best canoe maker on this coast lives ahead. It is a long way, but we will try to find him. He told me alone because he does not want to give offense to the canoe maker of his village. He is a priest and a wise man.”

The road, which had once been sealed but had now fallen into grave disrepair, climbed away from the shoreline and immediately narrowed to a stony, rutted track. This coast was relatively dry, and instead of rice, narrow terraces of beans and peanuts, which did not require irrigation, mounted the slopes above us, and isolated grape vineyards spread their dense shade over the hills below. The Java Sea lay blue and flat, and at its edge I saw a stretch of what I at first took to be pristine sand until, drawing nearer, I made out instead the white hulls of more than a hundred beached canoes. A village of tiny houses with red tiled roofs, nestled in the shade of big, leafy trees, climbed up the hill from the small bay, and behind it, garden terraces cut into the precipitous red earth ascended and disappeared from view in the heights.

As we stopped the jeep on the verge of the road above the village, a strong, warm wind bore up to us the howls of a pig being slaughtered and the distant “chak-a-chak-a-chak” of men practicing the chant of Sugriwa’s monkey army, with which Prince Rama battled Rawana, the King of Lanka, who had kidnapped Rama’s beloved wife Sita.

Ktut Kami stood rapt. When eventually he spoke, his voice gone soft with unrequited longing, he said, “If I could, I should live here by myself, among the simple people, in a house like that one or that one. Here where it is quiet. This is the real Bali, Mister Dustin Leavitt.”

Topping the rise of the headland that marked the southern end of the village’s sheltering bay, we immediately found ourselves looking down the other side at yet another bay, another village, and another hundred or more canoes. I walked out along the sharp crest of the headland, looking down on the twin villages, one to my right and the other to my left. Sunlight and shadow slowly shifted across the blue surface of the sea, and out, far out, held as if in suspension, the bright orange sail of an outrigger canoe.

Ktut Kami stood beside me, listening in silence and breathing in the fresh scent of the sea and of the cultivated earth. Finally, he looked at me. “Excuse me, Mister Dustin Leavitt…”

“Yes?” I replied gently, caught up, like him, in the magic of the moment.

“Excuse me, Mister Dustin Leavitt, but do you think this would be a good place for a hotel?”

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the remote compound of Wayan Patra, whom the priest had called the best canoe maker on the coast. I was surprised to find him a young man. He was prosperous, tall and strong. Shirtless and dressed in a fresh sarong that clung to his narrow hips, he projected an iconic — even heroic — air. Joined by his younger brother, we sat in the low, green shade of his vineyards, conversing politely, while the canoe maker dandled his naked infant son on his knee. At a distance, among the grapes, his elderly, gray-haired mother, bare-chested in the way of very traditional Balinese women, scolded and flapped a handful of palm fronds in our direction. Unable to understand her, I asked Ktut Kami if she was upset by our presence.

“No,” he said uncomfortably, “she is chasing birds from the fruit.”

But his tone — and the notable absence of any birds — suggested that I had guessed correctly.

Jukung, traditional Balinese canoe

To the progressively-minded governments of developing countries, who view them with disdain and embarrassment, canoes symbolize the lingering vestiges of an unwanted backwardness. They are, it is true, the most basic of boats, and they comprise the foundation of the most basic of economies, economies that have persisted at a subsistence level for generations. Which is not to say that they, or the economies they underwrite, are unsophisticated. In the profoundest sense, traditional canoes and the “canoe people” who make and use them are refined as only that which has gradually evolved in subtle compliance with the dictates of specific physical and cultural environments can be.

Nevertheless, as the world fills with people, and as their basic needs, not to mention their burgeoning desires, escalate exponentially, the physical and cultural environments that once supported them inexorably change. Stands of trees appropriate for canoe carving fall to the machinery of timber concerns, or are simply depleted by the canoe people themselves. Near shore fisheries dry up, over-exploited by the industrialized fishing industries of neighboring countries that have decimated their own territorial waters. Visions of prosperity unprecedented in village life arrive from abroad and foster discontent and self-loathing among the younger generations.

Rapid adaptation, for which canoe people throughout the world are neither culturally prepared nor materially equipped, becomes for them a priority of the first magnitude, and in the absence of any means by which to achieve it, their sole recourse is to abandon what they have in favor of that which necessity thrusts upon them. It may be argued — and the argument is a valid one — that such changes are inevitable, that change and loss are indivisible, and that human beings possess, in any case, a boundless capacity for adaptation. It may also be argued that it is obviously unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The capacity for self-reliance, the ability to inhabit marginal environments and to sustain rich lives in the absence of luxury and excess, are skills we may all come to require whether or not they are to our collective taste. More to the point, they are skills that are deceptively difficult to reinvent, and that may be lost through the neglect of a single generation.

The plight of canoe people, admittedly simplified here for the sake of intelligibility, nevertheless implicates us in a complex dilemma, which is further confused by the aspirations of the canoe people themselves. Many if not most of them have no desire to deny themselves the temptations thrust before them by the example of the industrialized world. Prosperity, in whatever form, is almost universally considered a cultural virtue. The luxury of hindsight, afforded to those of us who have overindulged in a prosperous existence, may entice us to compound our foolishness by attempting to dictate how best the canoe people may be served. However, the lessons of the canoe people are not for them, who are the masters, but for us.

That evening, I walked with Ktut Kami along the shoreline of Tanjung Benoa. In a low, orange light, dozens of boats sprawled on the sand, most derelicts. Across the harbor, big freighters lay to the commercial docks, and in the roads modern fishing boats from Taiwan, which were relentlessly replacing the fishing canoes that had once launched from this very beach, rode at anchor.

Ktut Kami had invited me to share a “real Balinese meal” with him in his house, and later, as we consumed the meager fried fish, purchased in the marketplace with the money I had paid him, the rice and bananas and bottles of warm Coca-Cola, he spoke of the hopes he held for his younger son, who had recently married a girl of fourteen, and of his disappointment in his elder son, who was yet unmarried.

“He is making good money,” he said of the older boy, who worked as an automobile mechanic in Nusa Dua. “But he does not live at home, and he does not support his father, as he should. We do not agree about this.”

He looked at me strangely. “I have no money, Mister Dustin Leavitt. I am old. What will I do?”

A sober melancholy, which had taken possession of him when Wayan Patra’s old mother, “chasing birds from the fruit,” shooed us from their house, had put my translator in a confessional mood. He spoke in a wandering way of his life and its trials. I was surprised to learn that his father had been a canoe maker, but that he, himself, had not learned the trade. He had been ambitious, he said, and had held out for the greater rewards the modern world had seemed to guarantee. Now, he worked — when he could find work, he added bitterly — as a tourist guide, showing people from other lands the shrinking vestiges of “the real Bali.”

It dawned on me that he was a poor and disappointed man, and my heart broke for him, I who with the change in my pockets might have fed his growing family for a week. “What will I do?” he pleaded. I thought of the canoe builder Wayan Patra’s naked baby gurgling on his knee. I had no answers for him, either. In the end, like Ktut Kami, I was no more and no less than a man with my own destiny and problems of my own devising to deal with.

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Dustin Leavitt

Author's Bio


Photos by Stewart Wachs