Bali. For some people the name says it all - warm seas, soft sands, cold beers, vibrant colors, exotic sounds, friendly people, large smiles, laughing children, a multitude of inexpensive small hotels and homestays. This is perhaps more true for Europeans and Australians than for Americans. For Australians, Bali is a relatively short flight over to a world which is different, but not too different, in order to taste something of the exotic and leave inhibitions behind in Perth, Sidney, Melbourne or Cairns. Europeans, particularly the Dutch, may have read of Bali in school books or heard stories of Bali at the knees of their grandparents, or in the case of some of my friends, spent their early years there in the days of the colonial government. Americans, for the most part, know of Bali from their introductory anthropology courses or a special on the Discovery Channel.

Bali. A land of wonder and magic set in the warm waters of the Bali Sea and the Indian Ocean. Bali. The tourist-ruined, money-soaked island sucking in foreign dollars for the Indonesian government. Hand planted rice, homemade religious offerings, vibrant cloths used in ceremonial clothes. Noisy motorcycles, howling dogs, pesky sellers, a glut of guides speaking broken English. Gamelan orchestras practicing in the warm nights under a brilliant moon, fishing in a traditional prahu chasing tuna and tongkol, the mystery of a wayang kulit in a village with the children laughing, the men gambling, and the women making comments on their husbands' performances or lack thereof. A busload of drunken tourists on a bar hop in Kuta puking out the bus windows, fake gold and silver, more cheap watches than you could wear in a lifetime, the inevitable Bali Belly. A quiet walk through luxurious ravines teeming with birds and butterflies, the hypnotic chant of the village priest, the cry of the jamu seller in the tropical sunrise, the aroma of sate sizzling over charcoal-filled grills.

Bali. Which one is it? The answer is that there is no answer - it all depends on what you bring to Bali and where you take it. There are foreigners who have come to Kuta and have never left. The excitement, opportunity and midnight rush have seduced them into finding a way to build a life there. Sanur, a twenty minute ride from Kuta, is a more relaxed village catering to generally more upscale tourists. Then, too, there are the tourists who come and drink, dance, spend and flee looking for one more country or island to "do." Come up to the north and you might find boredom or bliss. Quiet sunsets on Lovina or Anturan Beach, serene walks in scenic villages. Try Ubud, the fabled center of Balinese 'culture," and you may find fantastic artists and musicians, thrilling performances of ancient dances and plays, or you may find rabid dogs, muddy pathways and cold showers.

Have the Balinese sold out? Depends on what you mean. They like motorcycles and tvs and t-shirts and jeans. Western music is quite popular but so is dangdut, Indonesian pop. But the Kuta cowboy singing the latest MTV hit is going to know a few good gamelan tunes as well. Is Bali pristine? Is Chicago or London or Phuket? It's a real place in real time with real people who generally want the little pleasures of modern life. Even in the village where I first settled fourteen years ago, they now have electricity and television and a paved road. Bali is part of Indonesia, and Indonesia is a developing country with all of the developing country problems that you might want to find - incipient pollution, too much traffic, unsafe drinking water and suspect meat and dairy products. I spent three years in Bali before I finally picked up dysentery.

More on Bali in the coming weeks.

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