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     Volume 7 Issue 51 | January 2, 2009 |

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Road to Bali

Abdul Mannan

Women entering temple with offerings.

My friends and family did not encourage a trip to Bali within the same week of the execution of the three Bali bombers. However I always found it to be more exciting to do something under unusual circumstances. Just a part of my childhood romanticism I suppose. East West Center scheduled its regular bi-annual International Conference six years ago and kept to its venue in Bali, while in the meantime militants struck in Bali on October 12, 2002 and 202 innocent people lost their lives. In Java, the three militants were found guilty, sentenced to death and executed on November 9 2008. Our conference was scheduled for November 13-15 and more than five hundred and thirty participants from at least twenty countries registered for the conference and there was no turning back.

The United States Congress established the East-West Center (EWC) in 1960 to "promote better relations and understanding between the United States and the nations of Asia and Pacific region through cooperative study, education and research." Since its founding, more than 50,000 people have participated in Center programs. Many of these participants occupy key positions in government, business, journalism and education in the region. The Center, located in Honolulu, Hawaii, has state of the art research and logistic facilities and is adjacent to the University of Hawaii and three miles from the world famous Waikiki beach. Once a grantee completes his or her tenure of stay at the EWC (ranging from a week to four years for a PhD degree at the University of Hawaii), he or she automatically becomes a member of the Alumni Association the East-West Center Association (EWCA). By becoming a part of a global network the members can participate in EWCA sponsored international events, the most prestigious being the bi-annual International Conferences.

The 2008's Bali Conference's theme was 'Building an Asia Pacific Community: Unity in Diversity.' Indonesia, with three hundred ethnic communities living in eighteen thousand islands practicing all major religions of the world in peace and harmony for hundreds of years, was perhaps the most ideal location for such a conference. Conferences are normally organized to blend the business with relaxation and no other location could have been more attractive in Indonesia than Bali, popularly known as the Island of the Gods or the Jewel of Indonesia. In 2008 Indonesia had more to boast to the conference participants as the US President-elect Barack Obama spent his childhood in Indonesia, his step-father was an Indonesian and both his father and step-father were East West Center grantees. Getting a visa to travel to Indonesia to attend a conference requires a waiting period of at least one month so the simpler course of action is to declare yourself as a tourist. There is no harm if a conference attendee also becomes a tourist. I always look for an excuse to visit a new place and nothing could be more interesting than attending a conference and go sight seeing. This year there were six participants from Bangladesh.

Beaches of Bali. And Traditional Balinese Dancer.

Indonesia has twenty-seven provinces and Bali attracts a lot of visitors. It has mountains, rain forests with colourful vegetation, fabulous sandy beaches and extraordinarily friendly people. There are no direct flights from Dhaka to Denpasar, the capital of Bali's province where the international airport is located. For travelling to Denpasar from Dhaka one has to travel either via Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, depending on the airlines. The Singapore Airlines flight leaves around midnight from Dhaka for Singapore and reaches Singapore's Changi Airport at about six in the morning. Singapore is perhaps one of the most efficient airports in the world, and as my wife and myself were in transit, there were no immigration formalities to be completed. Our flight to Denpasar was scheduled to leave Changi at 9.35a.m. so we had some time to freshen up and do some window-shopping. Shortly before landing a sudden chill went through my spines as I remembered that just three days before the Bali bombers were executed by the firing squad. No extra security was visible at the airport, no gun-toting policemen. The local hosts informed us there would be a reception desk at the airport and they would help us arrange our taxi to our hotel. We were booked to stay at the Mentari Sanur Hotel in Sanur, Bali's most enchanting city. Across the street was the Sanur Paradise

Hotel, the venue of our conference. There were a dozen of student volunteers helping the conference participants with exchanging money and arranging transport. The prepaid taxi from the airport to Sanur cost Rupiah 120,000/- ($1=Rp. 11,300) and takes about thirty minutes. Our hotel is tucked away in a small side street. It is a very homely place and a sweet looking young receptionist greeted us very warmly with a broad smile on her face and melon juice.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world with an estimated population of 234,693,997 according to the 2007 census. It has one of most secular constitution amongst all Muslim countries stating 'every person shall be free to choose and to practice the religion of his/her choice.' However, officially it recognizes six religions, namely Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Outside the Indian sub-continent Bali has the largest Hindu population comprising about 90% of its population (3,527,758). Islam was introduced to Indonesia in the fourteenth century. Coming from India, Islam spread through the west coast of Sumatra and then developed to the east in Java, while the Portuguese and the Dutch traders introduced different versions of Christianity. However, before the arrival of Christianity and Islam the popular belief systems in the region were thoroughly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism brought to Indonesia by the Indian traders in the fifth and sixth century. Indonesian culture and language are highly influenced by Sanskrit. Indonesia has its roads and squares adorned with sculptures depicting events and personalities of historical importance. Bali is noted for its beautiful sculptures depicting characters of the epic Ramayana. As you come out of the Denpasar airport you are greeted by a majestic Arjun sculpture on his chariot.

The conference was inaugurated in the spacious Briya Agung Ballroom of the Sanur Paradise Hotel on November 13, at 9.00 a.m. by the Governor of Bali while the key note address was given by Dr. Charles E Morrison. He emphasised the importance of forging greater understanding amongst people of the region to mitigate common socio-economic problems. The three-day conference was to be divided into different plenary sessions and themes in these sessions ranged from 'Yoga to Peace' to 'the Road to Multicultural Understanding in the Asia-Pacific Community.' This year, the Bangladesh Chapter of the EWCA was one of the recipients of the 'Best Chapter' Award, which was received by Dr. Ekramul Ahsan, the Chapter's Leader. The inaugural day was concluded with an exotic cultural presentation by the Balinese Cultural troupe performing traditional Balinese dance.

All conferences tend to finish with a day of sight seeing and the Bali conference was no exception. Bali is a place where you could plan your sight seeing and recreation by hours or days. One could go shopping, venture out for scuba diving or even go surfing or bird watching. You could hire a taxi on a daily basis and take the day out, however, the art of bargaining is handy whether it is while shopping or hiring a taxi, and there aren't many who could beat the Bangladeshis in this skill. The official sight seeing tour included a visit to the Neka Art Museum located at Ubud some twenty kilometers from the city centre. The Museum is designed with traditional Balinese architecture and has a collection that shows the history and development of painting in Bali by artists from Bali and other parts of Indonesia, along with those from abroad who have found inspiration in the life and land of Bali. The museum was set up by the private initiative of Suteja Neka, a Balinese art lover. On our way to the museum we stopped at a traditional handicraft market where one could buy the popular Balinese boutique print dress materials and handicrafts. The salesgirls would quote an exorbitant price for an item and then would remind you that you could bargain. Your bargaining skills are certainly put to test! It was so interesting to see young Balinese girls, in traditional colorful dresses, carrying trays full of fresh fruits, perfectly balanced on their head and heading towards the temples for offering. But no visit to Bali is complete without spending some time on its many beaches. Unfortunately for us, torrential monsoon rains marred our visit to the beaches; giving me sufficient reason to visit Bali again.

The farewell dinner was marked by a Talent Show by participants. The Bangladeshi group got together to sing 'Allah meg de pani de.' Even though our audience could not understand a word of the song, they danced to the beat of the drums played by the Balinese musicians and seemed to enjoy themselves greatly. Around midnight on November 15 the participants bade a tearful goodbye, many pledging to go to Honolulu to celebrate the golden jubilee of the East West Center in 2010.

Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University. Currently he teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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