Travel Stories: A Tale from the Heart of Bali

In early April of 1958, Clifford Geertz —a young American, was at the site of what would make him one of the best-known figures in modern Anthropology – The Balinese cockfight. Travelling with his wife, Hildred (an anthropologist herself), he made an attempt to ingratiate himself with the community of a small Balinese village. But to very little effect.

His presence as an Anthropologist with credentials approved by the Indonesian government and a foreigner earned him only indifference or begrudging co-operation from the Balinese. Not to mention, he was studying an aspect of their culture that had been deemed illegal by the Indonesian government, giving them even more incentive to remain tight-lipped.

The elite of the country, much like those of other post-colonial nations, had decided this aspect of Balinese culture was backward and unproductive. Their sanctimonious concerns were “the poor, ignorant peasant gambling his money away” and “what foreigners will think.”However, the Balinese continued their traditions only to be routinely raided by the police. The police force (largely constituted by the Javanese) would “confiscate the cocks and spurs, fine a few people and even now and then expose some of them to the tropical sun for a day as object lessons which never, somehow, get learned, even though occasionally, quite occasionally, the object dies.” 


As a consequence, fights were usually held in more isolated corners of the village, which effected on the turnout for these bouts. Not so, however, on this particular summer day in 1958. A fight had been organised in the central square to raise money for a school that the government at the time was unable to fund. Organized as it was in the village thoroughfare, the crowd that had gathered was substantial. Geertz and Hildred were two drops amongst hundreds, in a sea of people gathered there to spectate. It was then that a police van rode up to the gathering; bribes were paid, but that hadn’t kept the wolves at bay. The crowd scattered as the police “began to swing their guns around like gangsters in a motion picture” although no shots were fired. People ran in any direction they could; some hid under wicker baskets and screens while others made their way up coconut trees. The police were hunting for the village chief as they had suspected that he was the one responsible for setting up the fight. They were right. The village chief had stripped down and plunged into the river so that he could pretend to be ignorant events that were transpiring in the square. 

In the chaos, Geertz and Hildred bolted. They had no reason to do so, being distinguished visitors with permissions from the Indonesian government. Besides, they were only observing the goings-on and not participating in them. Regardless, they ran as well – an unwitting act of solidarity with the Balinese.  

Geertz and his wife followed another man who ran straight into his home. This man’s wife seemed to be no stranger to these events. She very promptly set up a table, a few chairs and put out some tea. By the time the police arrived, it seemed like the man and his wife were merely entertaining guests. They claimed to know nothing of the cockfights. There was nothing the police could do; they left Geertz, his wife and their new-found friends alone. 

The next morning, everything changed for the American duo. They were not met with the expressionless, steely glances that they normally received. Rather, villagers greeted them with smiles and laughter, jovially asking them to recount the previous day’s events. Geertz was amazed. He didn’t expect the simple act of running away to bear such odd fruit. Some of the villagers even teased them about the way they ran. To be teased by the Balinese was to be accepted. Even the village priest, who stayed away from events such as the cockfight, invited Geertz to his home to ask him about what had transpired, chuckling at details here and there. More people approached him casually. If they had been any more familiar, it would have seemed like Geertz and his wife were part of the community. 

This unexpected turn of events is what finally opened the right doors for Geertz’s study. The study gave birth to a whole new perspective in the social sciences and Geertz was immortalized, all because he had inadvertently followed one of the golden rules of travel – when in Rome…  

Disclaimer: TheVibe does not endorse cruelty to animals. We are, however, obligated to cover aspects of the cultures we encounter.

©️ 2020. Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *