A Transgender Yogi in Bali
Updated: Apr 28
Now I understand why the Dutch fell in love with this island and it’s culture. Here in Bali, probably more than anywhere I’ve been to in Indonesia, nature and society are intimately related. Maybe I should rather say that what is special about this relation is the role tradition plays in everyday affairs and how well it’s been preserved. For I couldn’t deny the link between the way the metropolis of Jakarta functions and its environment. It is just a pity that greediness ended up causing so much harm to the many island’s ethnicities.
I feel home here. Maybe it’s the Hindu influence. But I wasn’t born in a Hindu society and have never lived in one. Maybe it’s the ancient animism, which, although submerged by the Hindu Empires, comes out in their particular way of interpreting the religion of the Maharajas. Maybe it’s ‘just’ how much the natural environment influences every single activity and how much care is given in performing even the ‘simplest’ of actions, which most of other cultures usually take for granted. Maybe I just love wearing sarongs and flowers on my ear and not having to feel awkward about it because I’m a man. Maybe it’s the way tourism-based Balinese economy drags most of the population into servitude and making foreigners feel like the new Maharajas. Whatever that is, I would prefer not to relate to the last option.
Despite my physical condition, some frustrated visits to the hospital in busy Denpasar and a few moments of desperation that being sick and injured in a foreign country can lead to, I’ve been having a very inspiring time. I actually don’t think I would have been able to manage all these issues and still work actively on my research somewhere else. I’ve had great help.
The Iyengar Yoga retreat with renowned teacher Ann Barros I had planed in advance and Mr. Didik’s contacts have been the keystone of my stay in Bali. Ann Barros not only helped me maintain my sanity with her classes, but also got me in contact with a Balinese traditional masseuse who literally managed to get me on my feet again. I ended up moving into his little family-run home stay and, after my first day there, I found out that his wife is a retired Balinese traditional dancer (Balinese dancers have a very short career, way shorter than that of Classical ballerinas). I’m emerged in this culture. I’m now part of a family compound and am able to observe the pillar of the Balinese society from within. The elders leave very early in the morning for the rice fields, everyone has got their own function and, as I mentioned earlier, total attention and devotion is given to every deed. From the window of my room I passively participate in their constant offerings at the family temple, which takes a good deal of the compound’s land. My host’s brother even drove me to a special water spring Hindu temple where I was able to bathe for purification among the believers.
With the other participants of the Yoga retreat, I’ve also been able to attend to performances and rituals more or less intended on the tourists. And that has been particular elucidatory. There too, cross-gender traditional can still be perceived. In all four performances of this kind that I saw, there was one or two dances or sections done by a guy representing a woman or a girl representing a boy, prince, etc. Cross-dressing didn’t seem to be viewed differently from, for example, girls dancing the roles of butterflies. They were just a male dancer in a female role or a female dancer in the role of, for example, Rama. The tourists also seemed to take their usual prejudices for granted. Was it because they considered it to be part of a culture so foreign to them? Probably. But most of them, back in the hotel and restaurant compounds seemed rather disturbed by other compatriot guests who didn’t fall into the binary categorization of man and woman.
One performance in particular touched the most. It wasn’t a dance performance, although the way the gamelan orchestra is set can indeed be considered as choreography. This one didn’t move me because of its musical mastery, which doesn’t mean they couldn’t play. They were all excellent musicians but Javanese gamelan concerts, which I attended to back in Yogyakarta or Jakarta, are a lot more elaborate than its Balinese version. The special thing about this orchestra was that all its members were women. It’s also advertised in that way. I know I shouldn’t think about them as women musicians but simply as great musicians. On the other hand, when you grow so accustomed to the usual men-only gamelan formation, t does cause an impact to see those beautiful women behind their instruments of work.
I also perceived a slight different treatment to the warias in Bali than to the ones in Java or Sulawesi. It is probably related to the Balinese culture and religion. Some of them actually come from other parts of Indonesia and feel more integrated in this society than back in their birthplaces. Heavy tourism plays a role in this integration but that is far from being the only reason. But here in Bali too verbal articulation of such issues can be considered a taboo. Maybe taboo isn’t the right word for it. What I notice is that certain shyness emerges whenever that sort of subject comes out in a conversation.
Even in my last day in this paradise, I had a great time meeting some of Mr. Didik friends and saying buy to some of the ones I had made during my stay. Lala and the lovely employees of The Lala Saloon made sure I would come back to Amsterdam with a decent haircut and a clean shaved face. It takes someone with balls to know how to remove those unwanted facial hairs. Or at least someone who used to have them, I mean, the hairs.