GUNUNG AGUNG EXPLODED when I was eleven years old. That was the first time I ever heard of Bali. I knew about it because I read an article in the National Geographic Magazine, issue of September 1963, Bali’s Sacred Mountain Blows Its Top.

Geologists explained the eruption as the result of a weak spot on the earth’s crust where the Eurasian Plate rides over the Pacific Plate and forces it down into the magma of the subduction zone. I later discovered that the Balinese felt plate tectonics to be only the proximate cause, while the evils done by men and women were the deeper reason. After twenty years of living in Bali I can understand their point.

But at the time I felt geology explained it well. I was in seventh grade and living with my parents, my sister, two brothers, and our dog in Los Angeles, on the North American Plate, on the eastern edge of the Ring of Fire, floating west over the magma towards Indonesia at five centimeters per year.

I found the article in National Geographic fascinating. Balinese had long considered the volcano dormant, I read, but on the morning of 17 March 1963, at the height of a ritual known as Eka Dasa Rudra, while worshippers thronged the Besakih mother temple high on the mountain slopes, Gunung Agung awoke. Hindu priests called to the Gods for protection, reluctant to abandon such an important ceremony, and although the Besakih temple itself was spared, a lahar in the nearby town of Karangasem killed 1,500 villagers. The account of the eruption was horrifying, and for an eleven-year-old, wonderful, and I reread it several times.

I drew many useful facts from National Geographic. I knew, for instance, that wealth among the Trobiand Islanders was counted in yams; that the lost city of Petra in Jordan could be accessed only through a single narrow canyon less than seven feet wide; that the Mayan kingdom of Copan was conquered at the height of its power when the king Eighteen Jaguar was captured by a vassal lord; that Mongolians lived in felt tents on wheels, known as yurts from the Russian term, although the Mongolians themselves called their homes gir. Perhaps, in light of later events, all this was terrible information to plant in a young mind, but I devoured such facts like my friends memorized box scores of baseball games or the latest models from Detroit, neither of which held any interest for me.

National Geographic was so important to me then that I formed my own ritual around its arrival. Through the last week of every month when it was due, I checked the mail immediately each day as I returned home from school. When I finally found it waiting, I set aside all my other plans. In the kitchen, I prepared a peanut butter sandwich and studied the titles and page numbers, calculating whether my favorite articles might be the longest, and I arranged an order for the afternoon. The choices could be difficult, and I would read them all anyway, often in a single sitting, but somehow having a plan seemed important. Then, with a crisp apple in hand, I went to my room and lay back on my bed and sank into the luxury of my adventures.

What I liked best was that although the articles were written by various authors and there were often footnotes to other stories by the same writer, as in “See Elway T. Muffin’s previous article in the April 1962 issue, Across Patagonia by Bobsled,” they always sounded to me as if written by the same guy. No particular expertise seemed to qualify them; they simply arrived in their Jeeps and wandered in astonishment, meeting people who patiently explained to them the most basic facts of their adventure. It appeared that anyone could get a Jeep and take off into strange lands with no experience needed.

I knew that’s what my life would be someday. Amazing new worlds would open up. I would go to Guatemala, and Jordan, and Mongolia, and Bali. People would be friendly and helpful. Exotic customs and ceremonies would enchant me. Somewhere, beyond the oaks in the ravine below my family’s home, beyond the brilliant orange sunset haze over the Los Angeles basin, was the Pacific, and beyond that was the world, and I would go there when I grew up.

I don’t now specifically remember the afternoon when I read Bali’s Sacred Mountain Blows Its Top, but I have no doubt it was first on my list.


Many years later I learned about Gunung Agung from a different perspective. Madé was six years old in 1963 and had a much closer experience of the eruption because she and her family lived in the beach village of Kuta, Bali, only thirty-five miles from the mountain. Later, when we were lovers opening our secret hearts, she told me of her terror as a child at the roar and the smoke and the ash that fell so thick she could hardly breathe, and which soon covered the lanes and fields and even the sea with a choking grey powder.

I read more about it on my own. Madé would have been too young to know, but many Balinese, certainly her parents among them, were expecting disaster. Eka Dasa Rudra, literally “Eleven Demons,” was intended to restore order and balance to the world, but the spiritual forces to be unleashed were terrifying, and many Balinese, including the priests, already felt uneasy while planning the ritual. Although traditionally it was held only once every 100 years, and it had been well over 100 years since the last Eka Dasa Rudra, and no one could remember quite how to calculate the proper date for the next observation, many Balinese were certain that this date was not it. President Sukarno had decreed it for reasons of his own, perhaps to impress a large delegation of travel agents, some suggested.

The “Eleven Demons” were destructive manifestations of Siva, and Siva of Rudra, the Primitive God, the “Howler” and the “Red One,” and indeed in 1963 all Indonesia was racked with crises in the aftermath of a bloody war for independence, civil unrest, Communist agitation, famine, and plague. President Sukarno’s preemptory order to hold the ceremony seemed to many Balinese a dangerous provocation.

The mountain took retribution. A week of eruptions not only killed 1,500 farmers, but destroyed entire villages, left 86,000 people homeless, and covered 100,000 hectares of rice fields with lava flows. Refugees crowded the cities of Denpasar and Singaraja.

Madé’s family had always been poor, and though they were well away from the direct eruption, they faced starvation. Her father was a fisherman with only his net to support his wife and their four children, but the fishing was ruined and there was no rice to trade even for what little he could catch.

But worse was to come as in the now desperately crowded countryside Communist agitators urged the landless to seize fields from the wealthy. Landlords hired thugs, calling Hindu and Muslim faithful into combat against the godless Communists, beating peasants, and burning the new slums. Throughout Indonesia, tensions threatened to break loose.

The country exploded in September 1965 in a paroxysm of violence still not clear to this day. Six generals were dragged from their homes in Jakarta by persons unknown, but described, at least at the time, as cadres of the Communist PKI party. Their bodies were later found mutilated with razor blades and thrown down a well at an air force base. President Sukarno was somehow implicated, and he mysteriously relinquished government control to General Suharto, and an orgy of killing enveloped Indonesia. Over the next year, up to 1,000,000 persons were slain in a purge of the PKI.

Bali was particularly hard-hit. Of a population of only two million, less than two percent of all Indonesia, an estimated 100,000 died in the blood-letting of 1965.

Madé was now eight, and acute fear of mass murder replaced her family’s abiding fear of starvation. Her father disappeared, in hiding they didn’t know where, or so they hoped, because maybe he was dead. Stories spread of shanty towns cleared, entire villages wiped out, Chinese rice merchants butchered, debts cancelled and feuds settled in blood. There was an air of ritual to it, as if the sins exposed at the Eka Dasa Rudra were now being repaid. The victims dressed themselves in white and were said to go to their deaths willingly.

Madé and her sisters hid under their bed and heard screams and gunshots and the howling of the dogs through the nights. There were rumors of a large pit in the next village of Legian. No one knew where the men were, who was alive, who was dead.

It was a year before the army regained control. Madé’s father returned and never spoke of where he had been. General Suharto became President Suharto, and the terror of those years was closed.


I knew nothing about any of that. National Geographic talked about temple ceremonies and volcanoes, but never about civil wars and butchery. That was the way National Geographic presented the world, the way I learned about it, with stories of Angkor Wat, Incan tombs, grizzlies in Yellowstone, newly discovered tribes in the Amazon. There was little about war, little that was unpleasant, nothing else I needed to know.

In Indonesia, too, an unpleasant past was left behind. There was never a serious inquiry, there were no monuments or national days of remembrance. By the late sixties in Bali, just three years after the blood-letting, tourism was beginning to pick up. The first major resort, the Hyatt in Sanur, opened in the early seventies, and soon everyone was busy, Balinese and non-Balinese alike, getting ahead, building hotels and restaurants, inventing brand new handicrafts and brand new cultural traditions. The facts of Balinese history and culture became endlessly mutable, the past was created and recreated at need, according to government officials, tour guides, artists, investors, anthropologists, filmmakers, ecologists, hoteliers, villa developers, spa owners. Bali became a canvas where anyone could paint a new vision of their Last Paradise, their Island of the Gods, their Morning of the World. What National Geographic once referred to as “the Hindu island of Bali” soon became “the resort island of Bali” and then “the tourist island of Bali.” It was better that way.

So Madé and I left our childhoods. I got my first job at fifteen washing dishes in a diner, and went through my teen years buffeted by the turmoil of Vietnam, and entered university at eighteen and then started graduate school. Madé was already working at thirteen, selling fruits and sarongs to tourists on the beach. She was pretty and precocious and charming and quickly learned English, and at sixteen a friendly visitor gave her money to help her family build a losmen—a little four room homestay hotel—to support themselves. Four years later I traveled to Bali, and I stayed at their losmen, and that is when I first met Madé.