Bringing Human Ecology into a Living Balinese Reality

Laura Cohn ’88.
The Peregrine,
Newsletter of the College of the Atlantic Association, Fall, 1990

I am awakened by urban sounds of children playing, booming Indonesian pop music, televisions blaring, fighting cocks crowing, and the heat and brightness of the equatorial sun. It is a typical work day, with a morning routine similar to that of one of my peers in the United States. I bathe, dress for the office, then sip piping hot coffee as I read the daily paper, struggling with the printed Indonesian word and the minimal four inches of English copy about global events. Enroute to work, I sit precariously on the bench seat in a three-wheeled bemo (public transport car/bus/taxi) alongside uniformed smiling schoolchildren, mothers and grandmothers going to and from the market with their huge wicker shopping baskets, and assorted others commuting to work or somewhere.

The open air bemos expose me to the sights, smells, smog and sounds of twisted, crowded city streets. At times it can be overwhelming, especially when I was first acclimating to the heat and confusion of a third world country. Now, I feel somewhat at home, almost oblivious to the staring eyes captivated by my skin and size. I engage in conversation with the old weathered Balinese next to me, inquiring about the origin of his Chicago Bears Super Bowl t-shirt.

When I arrive at the office of the Bali-Human Ecology Study Group (Bali-HESG) on the campus of University of Udyana, I exchange formal greetings. We sip morning tea; my Balinese colleagues have learned not to put two heaping spoons of sugar in my glass. I drink it pait or bitter. We joke, mutually charmed and entertained by each other. To them I am a delightfully curious anomaly, tall, sensitive and more aware of the local customs and culture than most Westerners. I am likewise curious and amazed at finding this obscure group of human ecologists anywhere, but especially in Bali. To find people with whom I share a common background, vision and working knowledge of human ecology, feels like a divine providence.

Bali-HESG consists of individuals who through seminars, surveys, discussions, and research attempt to bring the idea of human ecology into a living reality in Bali. They serve a similar role as does The Society of Human Ecology in the United States, but focus their energies on issues confronting Bali such as integrating modernization into their traditional society and values. By working on problems specific to Bali, Bali-HESG seeks solutions with greater implications on a global scale. This year they organized The International Seminar on Human Ecology, Tourism, and Sustainable Development, which was held in Denpasar, March 20-23, 1990. I began working with them in January as the “native English speaker” on the Organizing Committee, preparing the pre-conference Programs and Abstracts booklet, as well as editing most of the papers and publications affiliated with the Seminar.

Although the Balinese language and conceptual framework may differ from my own, to me, a human ecological philosophy is the foundation to this dynamic land. Since my first visit in 1989, I was impressed with a world so integrated, exposing little or no fragmentation between work, ritual, religion, play, dance, life: everything seems interwoven. To witness and participate in a culture that embodies this holistic perspective captivates my intellect and soul. The opportunity to work with Bali-HESG, a group of individuals which possesses this ideology and professionally cultivates it, enhances my understanding even more. The timeliness of the seminar’s theme is critical for Bali as well as for my other home, Mount Desert Island. The theme’s integration of the crucial issues surrounding tourism and sustainable development from a human ecological perspective have been a tremendous catalyst for clarifying my professional vision and objectives.

Today, a week after the Seminar has convened; we gather around the collective work table and discuss the outcome. The dialogue flows back and forth from English to Indonesia, with unanimous consensus that the Seminar was successful. Now, the difficult tasks of preparing and publishing Bali-HESG’s formal conclusions and recommendations lie ahead. I head to the computer to begin the task at hand, praying silently that the electricity is not out, or as the Balinese say, tidur, or sleeping. Not surprisingly, it is a common occurrence in a land with outdated electrical systems and growing technological demands. It is odd to be dependent on a computer in a land where nothing is certain, especially electricity. Nonetheless, I am dependent and cannot work today. I depart the office, and catch a bemo back home through the crowded streets, hot and sleepy from the midday sun.

Posted in All, From Laura

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