And then there’s Bali, a name of guaranteed glamour, known to all. Before the Second World War, I had heard of incomparable Bali from aristocrats of travel—those who could pay for the expensive journey— and plenty of picture books proved the beauty of tiny deadpan temple dancers with fingernails like quills, handsome native houses of woven mats and carved wood, a landscape of exotic elegance. Oddly enough I had no interest in seeing Bali, very odd considering my interest in seeing almost anywhere. I’m not sure why; perhaps I imagined it as a museum island, boringly exquisite, filled with poor beautiful people being stared at by rich beautiful people. But Bali was a transcendent experience for me too, in rare circumstances: the Japanese surrender.
This momentous occasion took place in March 1946. The reason for the delay, so long after the Japanese defeat, was that no one had time to get around to Bali. A single warship was assigned to handle the peculiar D-Day. For two nights we waited on deck, crammed with troops, in heat, dirt, thirst, everyone asking aloud and bitterly what we were waiting for.
Then the great day dawned and we swarmed down nets into landing craft. The welcoming committee of Japanese officers could be seen on the black sand beach and in order not to lose face we were supposed to make a ceremonial approach, all landing craft in a line abreast. There followed a scene of glorious confusion; landing craft scurried like maddened water beetles, if two got in line, the others strayed. The troops became increasingly browned-off as well as seasick. We were pitched about inside these uncomfortable steel jobs while the impassive Japanese watched, no doubt wondering how our side won the war.
Finally someone in command, outdone by this display of anti-seamanship, bellowed to get ashore and the hell with it. So we straggled in to land. Whereupon Japanese officers surrendered swords as if giving away fountain pens. A Japanese photographer from Domei sprang around clicking his camera as though this were a fashionable first night. I laughed myself into uncontrollable hiccoughs, further stimulated by seeing the neat composed Japanese officers drive ahead in fine cars which we followed in ratty old trucks. When the troops caught sight of bare Balinese breasts, they cheered. Breasts were covered at once throughout the island.
My notes on that week are as meaningless as if written in Sanskrit. Place names, people names, problems, politics, Balinese festivities, descriptions of scenery, kampongs, conditions under Japanese rule. All I remember is laughter, joy in life.
I think I had the best of Bali, better than the stylish pre-War travellers and much better than the hordes who now invade the island which has become a hippy haven as well as providing high-class international beach resorts. Rumor says that the gentle Balinese are as skilful at gouging tourists as everyone else in the mysterious East. It sounds like an Oriental Capri, and worth avoiding.
The threshold of boredom must be like the threshold of pain, different in all of us.