Agus Suardana's wife, Komang, told him about the bombs. The telephone had rung in the predawn darkness, as it did in many homes in Bali the morning after Oct. 12, 2002. "Komang answered it," Agus, a slight, sunny-faced hotel executive, recalled. "She woke me up and said there had been a bomb in Kuta. I told her it can't be, it can't happen to us. In Bali we have thousands of gods to protect us."
For one terror-filled night, the gods deserted Bali, and, a year on, many islanders like Agus are still agonizing over why. "In the beginning I was simply shocked," said Agus. "I asked God, why did you do this to our beautiful island?" But, gradually, the Bali bombings compelled Agus to undertake a spiritual self-examinationand to ask more difficult questions. Had the Balinese grown arrogant because of their island's beloved place in the world? Were Balinese going to the temple just to pray for more money? Was the attack heavenly retribution for the sins of Kuta, where drugs and prostitution were allowed to flourish? "Maybe," Agus concluded, "we forgot what is really important."
No tenet of Balinese Hinduism is more important than "suka tanpa wali duka"no pleasure (suka) comes without pain (duka), no good without some evil, and vice versa. The challenge to humankind is to keep the ledger balanced. After the cataclysmic duka of the bombings, the devout Balinese assumed the heavy responsibility of repairing the grievous damage to the island's karmic reckoning. Agus' personal effort on behalf of Bali is a new commitment to his faith. A year ago, he says, he sometimes neglected to pray at his household shrine or attend the full-moon ceremony at his temple. Now he is scrupulously attentive to the demands of ritual. It's not just a matter of turning up for a quick offering and prayers. Today, Agus spends a third of his waking hours in religious activities, devotions and assisting at the temple. It has essentially become a second job.
The cosmic balance is slowly shifting back toward a state of order. A few months after the bombings, when Bali's economy hit bottom, Agus' wife told him she was pregnant with their second childa great suka for the family to weigh against the ongoing duka of the island as a whole. For Agus and his fellow Balinese, the task of spiritual recovery has begun. Yet not even the solace of heaven can erase memories of the horror of that October night.
The islanders refer to the attack as "Bom Bali," as though it were a pink cocktail, usually with a dazzling smile to mask their humiliation. The Balinese feel a profound sense of shame about Oct. 12 that far outweighs any sense of self-pitying victimhood, even though sorrow and pity for Bali radiated throughout the world. The day after the attack, my e-mail queue was jammed with condolences from around the globefrom friends who had visited Bali with me, from others who had never been there.
We grieved for the dead, of course; and with deep-biting pain we also mourned the nightmarish end of the dream of Bali. It was the death of a ravishing ideal of a tropical paradise, a carefree, innocent Neverland that was conceived by adventurous Western travelers in the years between the World Wars and embellished by peripatetic artists and writersa lovely illusion fostered by Balinese themselves, who launched a thousand ad campaigns promoting the island as an exotic destination for vacationers. In the 1990s, tourism in Bali spread across the island like a glamorous blight, consuming ancient paddy fields and spitting out luxury resorts and cheesy bungalows, romantic restaurants and seedy nightclubs, to entice ever more chasers after the dream. And that was why the bombers chose Bali.
I was a Bali dreamer once. In 1999 I left Manhattan, the island where I had lived for 20-odd years, to try life on a tropical island. It was the midlife crisis of a compulsive traveler, yet the choice of Bali was impulsivemy partner and I thought it would be a fun place to live for a year. We found a house with a big garden, near the beach, and hired servants to take care of us. I bought the first car I had owned since high school in Texas. For a transplanted Manhattanite, the island seemed, well, like paradise.
After New York City, Bali offered me something more precious than clean beaches and pure sea air: time. When Pandit Nehru visited the island, he called it "the morning of the world," a metaphor I understood when I lived there. Even though it sometimes seems impossible to get anything practical accomplished in Bali, paradoxically the island offers the beguiling illusion that there one can do anything.