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A Bridge Too High?

Suggestions to Ease Bali's Traffic Congestion with Overpass Roads at Odds with Local Religious Beliefs.

(1/12/2002) The flood of domestic visitors in Bali over the just completed Christmas and New Year's Holidays emphasized, once again, the limited carrying capacity of the island's highway infrastructure. Grid lock and bottlenecks became commonplace, particularly in the areas leading into the Kuta and Tuban areas of the island as thousands of cars driven by visitors from Java crowded the streets.

Realizing traffic jams are bad for business with a negative impact on the island's appeal as a tourism destination, local pundits have been quick to parade out proposed remedies for Bali's traffic woes, including tramways and suspended highways and overpasses.

Last week, treading carefully while he surveyed the public's mood, Bali's Governor Drs. Dewa Made Beratha declared that Bali needs overpass highways to reduce traffic jams providing such a solution met with the public's approval.

Why the Hesitation?

The Governor's reluctance to quickly commit to what appears superficially to be such a ready solution to local traffic problems may seem, at first, difficult to comprehend.

On closer examination, however, you'll notice that Bali is virtually free of pedestrian overpasses, highway tunnels or other conveniences that cause people to physically pass below or over each other. In fact, the need to extend the runway length at Bali's international airport has long been at an impasse for to do so would almost definitely require the construction of an underground traffic tunnel below the airport to ensure the island stays connected with the entire Nusa Dua Peninsula.

So, you ask, why not go ahead and build the tunnel? Therein lies the crux of yet another confrontation between deeply held local cultural values and the onslaught of modern society.

On the island of Bali with its Bali-Hindu view of the world, the cosmos, religious temples, family compounds and even the human body are deemed to be composed of three distinct parts with each assigned its place in a sacred hierarchy. In the case of the human body, the head is designated the most sacrosanct.

Fred Esieman, Jr. the respected observer of Balinese life and culture in his book Bali Sekala & Niskala: Volume I, (Periplus, Hong Kong, 1990), explained:

"A waitress at a tourist restaurant apologizes before putting a flower behind your ear, as does the barber before he begins his work. You never see a Balinese ruffle up a child's hair in greeting, as is so common in the West. Holy offerings are invariably carried on the head, as is holy water. Conversely the feet are dirty, being in contact with the earth and antipodal to the head. Pointing with the foot or stepping over an offering or other sacred object is a dreadful breach of etiquette. For an ordinary person to position himself at a higher elevation that a high priest or a holy object such as a temporary residence of a god or deified ancestor, is not only rude, but sacrilegious. When a sacred object, such as the mythic Barong, is present the Balinese audience sits on the ground. Many Balinese will not enter a two-story building, lest something impure be located over their heads."

And therein lies part of the cultural impediment to constructing tunnels and suspended highways and bridges in Bali. While there is a grudging acceptance that airplanes must fly overhead, many feel a primal reluctance to erect anything that is literally connected to the Island of the Gods that might cause repeated daily transgressions of the strict division between the religious and the profane.

Will the pressures of traffic and modernity cause the Balinese to make yet another accommodation to their traditional view of the world?

That's a bridge we'll have to cross, errh ... go under ... when we come to it.

Stay tuned.