I was on the plane bound for Bali.
Every portion of my Javanese trip had produced a thrill. At Jogjakarta (usually called “Jogja” and spelled six different ways) there had been the great bazaars, the dancers, artisans, conglomerate native life. On the Prambanan Plain there had been ancient temples over and about which herds of deer nosed and grazed as though they were sightseers. But these temples had been nothing compared to the sublime Borobudur—a thousand years old, and the greatest, most perfect stupa in the world.
There had been volcanoes and craters until I had actually lost count. I was coming back to Java later, to make the climb to the Bromo, greatest crater on the island; but now I was “Bali bound.”
My train was late getting into Surabaya (also spelled six different ways) and it was necessary to make a close connection with the Bali plane. The airport lay far across town but the pilot, informed by telephone, courteously consented to wait for me, even though the plane was a through one, bound for Macassar in the Celebes.
The airport was a mass of tangled barbed wire, with only the runway left open. The buildings were camouflaged. Sentries stopped my taxi so often that progress was difficult. At the airport I was hastily questioned and searched, then bustled on the plane. We were off
Bali. One hears about it in Hollywood and Havana and Harlem. There are Bali restaurants, Bali tearooms, Bali dance halls all over America. At the time I entered the island I even had on a “Bali shirt” purchased in Ontario, California. Of course no Balinese had ever seen or worn such an article.
My coming here was impelled more by curiosity than a sense of duty. Initially, I had built up the idea in my mind that the place would be entirely superficial—that all the glamour one hears about the island is nothing but “ballyhoo.” In the second place, I felt I would not dare make a motion picture for general audiences in America with the scantily-clothed Balinese women as subject matter. These were my preconceived notions.
Three hours after I had landed on the Enchanted Isle my whole conception had changed. I couldn’t make a comprehensive photo study of the island; my plans had been made otherwise and I lacked film. But, freed from the constraints of having to do extensive filming, I found on Bali a respite from my worries over permits and security guards. This would be a brief vacation from strenuous work.
My holiday started at the airport, which was on a narrow neck of land surrounded by the breaking sea and by coconut groves, some ten miles from Denpasar, center of the island’s native life. As I rode along the dusty road toward town, the life of Bali immediately began to unfold before me.
Temples lined the way, each one with its series of intricately carved gateways, for which Bali is famous. There were rice fields, with the men and women busy at work, and in many of these fields were temples. The walled-in compounds of the families hugged close to the road and we had ample views of the groups of thatched houses within each set of walls. All the descendants of one great-grandfather are supposed to live together within one of these large walled compounds. Each has its family temple or shrine.
In the streams along the way the Balinese were swimming and bathing, innocent of clothing. And along the country road they were walking by the hundreds, many of them carrying great laden baskets balanced on their heads, or suspended on bamboo poles over their shoulders.
The men were nearly all good specimens of healthy manhood. As to the women, perhaps only one out of eight was strikingly beautiful, but I was to find that even those who did not have beauty possessed what is far more valuable—happy personalities. Fully half the women, too, wore simple single-button blouses which covered their breasts. Obviously I could get pictures which could be shown to any type of American audience.
The Balinese, I found, were mainly farmers, working in the fields and appearing to get great joy from doing so.
Almost as important as their work was their means of relaxation and inner expression. Art is vital to the life of a Balinese. They dance because they love it. They create and play a music which cannot be equaled, because it is in them to create and play it. They carve fine objects of wood and make scrolls and employ infinite artistic skill in the continual building of their temples simply because these things are a necessary form of expression in their lives.
I couldn’t resist attempting to get some motion pictures of the native dances. Hearing of a “dancing club” at the edge of town, I made my way there in hopes of hiring some of the girls to perform for me. But no one was on hand; all members of the club were out working in the rice fields. A messenger was sent and in a few minutes five girls came in from the fields. They adorned themselves in dancing costumes, and for an hour presented for me dances which, to me at least, were as charming as a Russian ballet. There may have been more professional dancers on this island, but I am glad that the girls I chose to film came right out of the rice fields to perform. This was the true Bali.
Then, as to music. I was on my way up-country to see the sacred monkeys in the nutmeg groves. The scenes along the road were alive with interest. There were more temples with their intricate gateways. Small markets, filled with happy natives. Brown-skinned men and women riding bicycles or padding along on foot in the dust of the narrow roadway. From somewhere, music was filling the air—strange, beautiful music, not in any sense oriental, yet certainly not of the West. I stopped to search its source and soon, under a thatched roof back from the road, I discovered a native orchestra, with perhaps fifteen players, all responding to the directions of a leader. There was a definite arrangement of instruments—mainly gongs, xylophones, one-stringed pieces. Later, at a museum I saw a complete orchestral setup and had it explained to me.
The music was mysterious, with a tune impossible to remember. But it was soft and plaintive, and beautiful.
There is a sequel. After listening fifteen minutes I went on but, many hours later, returned this way. Those same soft strains. Again I stopped and went back to the thatched-roofed enclosure. The orchestra was still playing. No spectators. No one to listen. Probably they were practicing for some future event. But how charming to realize that simple rice-working men and women on a South Sea isle could create a music as beautiful as that, and had within them the artistic urge that would keep them practicing for half a day to achieve perfection. This was the real Bali.
Balinese religion is a study in itself I do not pretend to comprehend it. But one thing I do know; the religion of the people of Bali is a definite everyday part of their lives.
We in America build a costly sanctuary and often keep it under lock and key except for an hour on prayer meeting night and a few hours on Sunday. The Balinese put a simple temple in their rice fields, so it will be handy for a bit of worship during work hours. They build a small temple in every home. On all the earth there could be no more sacred place for it. They construct small temples by the hundreds along the roads and highways. There are elements which a foreigner may find hard to understand in connection with their religion, but it is a vital part of their everyday lives and has an underlying quality of happiness and joy.
The villages have their shops for tourists, where native artwork is for sale. But now there are no tourists. An American army captain, on leave, was the only other outsider I saw during my Balinese stay. The shopkeepers are facing ruin, but they have not lost their ability to laugh.
One family I shall never forget. The husband and wife—both happy natives—ran the shop and their two-year-old brown-skinned son ran naked. Balinese youngsters are as attractive as any I have seen.
Weighed down as I was with camera equipment and film, there was little room in my luggage for souvenirs. But those two shopkeepers—and their tiny son—were so bubbling over with charm and goodwill that I left their shop with two intricately carved wood Balinese heads, and a smiling wooden mask. Their joy and their smiles—even in the face of adversity—were completely disarming.
Before leaving Bali, I sent a cablegram to Helen, so she would know I was faring well. Such messages are priced by the word, including the address. I had told our hometown Western Union office in case they received a message addressed “Line, Ontario, Calif ” to deliver it to my wife. My simple message was “Denpamsar. Love. Francis.” Helen had to go to the Ontario library to seek assistance in finding out in what part of the world Denpasar was located.
On the air journey back to Java we took a different route and flew over the entire island of Bali. It is small and I could see a great deal of it at one time. We crossed the Bali Strait at its narrowest part; a distance which seemed no greater than the length of two city blocks separated Bali from Java. Then we started out over a Javanese mountain range which was pockmarked with craters. One passed directly beneath us and contained an emerald lake.
Heading out over the Madura Strait, I could see to the north the great island from which the strait takes its name. Over the craters, the air had been disturbed and rough. But upon passing out over the water it suddenly became treacherous. This was some sort of a freak tropical air storm. The plane dipped and tipped like a roller coaster. We fastened safety belts and braced our feet. We rocked and ducked and jumped and settled.
But Surabaya was not far off Its sea of red-tiled roofs looked good; soon we were circling over the harbor and the airport. Before landing I looked off toward the south. Visible fifty miles in the distance were the piled mountains of the Tenggar, with their mysterious Sand Sea and the greatest crater in Java—the Bromo. This was my next objective.
Trip to the Bromo
Darkness had just crept up the mountainside to shroud Tosari, a little hill station high on the crest of the Tenggars in southeast Java. The weather on the plain below was warm, but Tosari is nearly seven thousand feet high and I shivered as I sat in my room writing a letter home.
There was a knock at the door. It was the head of the local police, a Javanese who spoke no English. But he had brought a man along to interpret. I was expecting this, for I had previously applied for permission to take pictures on my trip to the Bromo crater. This was just a formal call. Yes, I could take the pictures, but a native policeman would go along to check on my activities. I smiled. I would be leaving at two in the morning, on an all-day trip through an area as wild as the Rockies. No military objectives could possibly be lurking in that section, yet I must be watched nonetheless.
And, just as a formality, would I please fill out this paper. I proceeded to give answers to a set of questions more amazing than could be conceived by “Information Please.” All the usual questions, of course. Then, what was my wife’s name and age? The names and ages of my children. Had I ever fought in the German army? How recently had I been to Europe? And (crowning questions of all): Did I own my own home? And how many rooms did it have? I almost felt for a moment as though I were applying for a house loan.
A wild-appearing native knocked on my door at 2:00 A. M. He was a burly fellow (unlike the average Javanese) with hair askew and a scowl on his face. I rolled out in the cold to dress.
Everyone had told me that the Bromo was Java’s greatest crater but I knew little else about the trip I was to take. Little English was spoken in Tosari. In arranging for the journey, I understood I could have a horse to ride, or some natives to carry my things. I chose the latter, thinking it would give me more freedom for photography. The natives would serve as guides.
So I dressed hurriedly and went out into the night. Waiting in the darkness outside, lighted only by a flaming torch held by one of them, were eight natives carrying a sedan chair, with the scowling mounted policeman beside them.
I called on the ghosts of all my past adventures to bear witness against this humiliation. To think that I, who had climbed mountains and glaciers and hiked to every state in the Union, who had done more hill-scaling than these men ever thought of doing; to think that I should let myself be carried on an adventure trip. When I saw those eight Javanese stolidly and seriously supporting the chair in which I was to ride, I broke out laughing.
I rode in the contraption for about five minutes. The men, even under my weight, were shivering with cold. As for myself, dressed for the tropics, I was numb. Thereupon I got out, took the torch from the head bearer, and led the procession. For warmth, I wrapped myself in the blanket on which I had been sitting.
We were following a circuitous path, with steep pitches and drops, through a region of heavy forests. Teak trees were all about us; in the branches overhead I could dimly make out the great fern growths of chamur which clung parasitically in huge clumps to the trees.
Every time I think of the picture which this weird procession must have made, I smile inwardly. There I was, wrapped in a blanket, leading the way with a torch. Then followed eight Javanese bearing a sedan chair which contained nothing but my camera. I could have carried it easily in my hand. Behind, on horseback, rode a scowling, wild-lookng native policeman, dressed for the hills with wide-brimmed hat and heavy poncho. He was to see that I didn’t take pictures of any “military objectives.” We were a ridiculous parade. Ten people to do the work of two or three.
But the night trip was beautiful. Overhead was the Southern Cross, surrounded by other stars as brilliant as coals of fire. The Milky Way, just as in the northern heavens, lay in a wide path across the sky. There were strange sounds from the thick forest all about.
Once my torch, blown by a cold gust of wind, was suddenly extinguished. The path was narrow and just at that moment one of the bearers stepped off from an embankment at the edge and fell. Luckily he clung grimly to the sedan chair and the other men easily held his weight. He was rescued and suffered only a bruised leg.
Daylight found us trudging through the forests, displaying this same weird picture. Then I unlimbered my camera and began getting movies of the strange procession.
The sun was casting a golden glow over the world when we left the forest path and broke suddenly onto a ridge which gave view out over the objects of our journey—the expansive mysterious Sand Sea, the perfectly-shaped, blunt-top cone of Batok, and the ominous smoking crater of the Bromo. There it all was, before me.
My companions built a fire and cooked themselves some breakfast. I worked like a madman transposing all the glory of that early morning scene into my camera while the golden sun was still casting its six o’clock light and long shadows.
The Sand Sea has the appearance of a dry lake, extending flat and far along the bases of the two craters. But the sands of this “lake” are volcanic ash, fine soft black particles of ground up lava. One theory has it that this Sand Sea is the bottom of a crater of some former enormous volcano, and that the Batok and Bromo are two new volcanoes pushing out of an old one.
When the men had breakfasted and I had frselmed, we started down the treacherous trail toward the “sea.” It was steep and, even with me walking, the bearers had difficulty carrying their sedan chair. And behind, leading his pony (for the path was even too steep for horseback riding), came the “constabulary. ” The procession made marvelous filming. This would add a bit of comic relief to the serious aspects of my Circle of Fire production.
We reached the bottom and started out across the “sea.” The rippling black sand, seen at close range, is a marvel of nature. Unfortunately, what would otherwise have been an unbroken expanse of such rippling beauty was interrupted by frequent growth of bunch grass. But the Sand Sea was all I could have hoped for. I filmed the chair-bearers wading in it, making tracks across its rippling expanse.
The sand in places was deep, easy walking for the barefooted natives but rather hard for me. So I made use of my luxuries and rode in the sedan chair for a ways. The final object of our journey was not far ahead. Circling the base of the sawed-off Batok, we soon had our first closeup view of the Bromo.
The outer appearance of the crater is not exciting, but its weathered, rain-cut volcanic slopes have taken on weird shapes and forms. The glory is in the great white puffs of steam which are forever shooting out above the rim.
Leaving the chair and my entourage, and taking a couple of the men for guides, I climbed the wicked path through the lava mud flows and finally came to the crater’s edge.
There has always been a mystery as to the location of the gateway to hell. This was it. In a symmetrical cone the crater sloped down and inward with the regularity of an inverted funnel. And there at the bottom was the funnel’s spout, a well or hole which disappeared on downward into eternity. Out of it were coming intermittent puffs of smoke and steam. The rims of that hellhole were vivid yellows and oranges and browns, and the steam was coming from the unseen bottom below and from jets and crevices along its sides. One could imagine the terrible power hidden there and could almost wish to be here to witness an eruption. Satan’s breath seemed hot on my cheek.
While my helpers slept, I circled a portion of the knifelike rim. There was no regular path and I had to use care not to slip down the outer lava-mud slopes toward the Sand Sea, and more especially not to let the soft inner edges give way, which would plunge me down into the Bromo itself
After filming every angle of the hellhole, I turned my lens on the outer slopes, then onto the Sand Sea stretching out from Bromo’s base. Close at hand was the serrated cone of Batok. This was the literal portion of the Circle of Fire for which my film is named.
That night—back in Tosari—I stood on the brink of the mountain rim and surveyed the valley below me. The sun’s last light was touching the waters of the Madura Strait, miles to the north. Then the sun went down. The great mountain peaks of the Penanggoengan, the Ardjoeno, and the Kawi were outlined against a reddish sky. Darkness crept up fast.
I was on top of the world. It was cold and the air was sharp. Down below me I could see the clustered blinking lights of fifteen different towns and villages, spread out on the plain over a distance of fifty miles. The most distant cluster to the north was probably Surabaya. Off beyond, somewhere, was the equator, then ten thousand miles of Pacific, and finally California.
Today’s adventures marked the virtual conclusion of my Java filming The country had been thrilling but the taking of pictures in a land at war had been a nightmare. I was thankful to be finished.
A native baby started crying in a but somewhere back in Tosari village. It brought me back to reality