Bali – a perspective

I went to Bali thirty three years ago, a young woman with her three year old son. It was a magic island, a special time, an enchanted place. All these years later I’m reflecting on my recent visit with my husband, a stay of twenty eight days, and can scarcely begin to come to terms with its changes.

It would be hard to describe the effects of decades of burgeoning tourism on Bali without appearing to condemn the place rather than the tourist influx; no mild words could hope to do it justice. But Bali, despite all its gross irritations and inadequacies is still a magic island, and has adapted itself to competition for the tourist dollar whilst maintaining its own way of life, the daily ebb and flow of work and family tradition.

The woman at the airport in her glassed cubicle who changed our dollars into rupiah claiming that we’d be ripped off elsewhere certainly wasn’t ambassador material. Having failed to trick us into accepting half the exchange by miscounting notes she, without shame, tried to pull the next trick which goes like this…. she hands you the money so you can count it, but then she wants it back…… so she can put it into a little packet for you. When she does that she pulls several notes without your being able to see it, just like any magician. It was the first of countless tricks and devices awaiting the intrepid visitor, and one that taxes the budget of the unwary at every turn. From the money changers to the six seater drivers and taksi drivers, to the street sellers, and the stall holders, all are pulling scams and testing the tourist ignorance.

They have a little questionnaire which runs something like this: Where are you from? The answer to this question reveals how much money they think you have, and possibly also how stupid you might be. The next question is: Where are you staying? The answer to this question reveals how much money you’re willing to part with, and provides a clue into the possible inadequacy of your understanding of how things work in Bali. After that comes this question: How long you stay? The answer will determine the degree to which they need to put themselves out working on your resolve not to purchase anything today. But how could one blame them? A rhetorical question obviously.

All of their economy is depending on tourism and every second guy drives a beautiful new tourist transporter which he cleans and shines every night so that next day he can stand by it or near it with a clutch of other drivers and thrust Taksi signs at you and implore you to allow him to drive you all over the island and take you on tours, at which he will drop you, most conveniently and more expensively, at a restaurant at lunchtime managed by someone with whom he has a little business arrangement. On the way there and later returning to your digs he will, gratuitously and thoughtfully, take you to any number of workshops with whom he also has an arrangement so that you can buy all manner of knick knacks and do dads which you had no idea you wanted. Should you decline he may even say “But when?” and most assuredly he will not fail to ask you repeatedly, regardless of how many times you may pass him on the street, or rather jalan.

One can’t walk half a metre without being importuned in some way, but again I say who can blame them? Merely because you’ve declined a massage fifteen times within the space of three minutes is no indication that this time you might not relent. And all Balinese live in hope. If they can’t drive you somewhere or massage you or sell you something and can’t get any custom by the time the rupiahs run out they return to the family farm and continue to work it, selling the produce at market.

The streets are crammed with vehicles, and line markings are largely ignored. Whole families get around on a scooter, the women riding side saddle, holding babies and carrying heavy baskets on their heads, small children squashed aft of the handlebars in front of fathers or uncles, and yet in the midst of chaos of trucks and tourist buses and cars and vans and motorbikes and scooters and bicyclists and pedestrians with their loads on their heads, there is a kind of – seems absurd to say it – tranquility. No one screams when the truck and the bus are passing each other on a narrow strip of road with scooters and bikes squeezing their way between, no one seems alarmed or concerned. People honk their horns at each other to signal they’re there or passing but at no point is there frustration or irritation or anger or road rage. In fact the Balinese are sanguine to the point of melting.

We spent two nights in a Bungalow in Sanur towards the end of our month’s visit, at a bit of a down at heel kind of place letting bungalows only ten steps from the beach. The owner, for whom the expenditure to refit some of the bungalows would have amounted to a fortune, was receiving a few bits of furniture from a delivery utility which was entering the compound. There was a dressing table with a large mirror in a nicely carved frame sitting on the tray on the back and as the driver drove in the mirror, too high to clear the stone portal of the compound, smashed loudly, shattering into several shards which scattered all over the paved courtyard. No one shouted, no one seemed in the least perturbed by its destruction, and very calmly the men came to a mutually satisfactory arrangement to replace the mirror the very same day. This cordiality and refusal to be stressed pretty much typified the conduct of relationships and commerce In Bali.

Kuta and Legian, having actual beaches, are bursting with tourists, mainly Australians, and have become unbearable. We stayed at a hotel, prebooked with our travel agent, in Kuta on the first night of our arrival, and rather than eat there we went off in search of a good, cheap warung.  A little boy insisted on our buying from him little leather thong bracelets he’d made and was outraged that we’d rather simply give him the money than have to find a use for them. Extricating ourselves finally from his pitiful entreaties we resumed our search and at some point, having found no warung which might provide sustenance and on the point of giving up and returning to the hotel, we chanced upon one which was filled with glum tourists and took the only available table, ordering from the menu food which turned out to be completely inedible and probably dangerous. On the following day we found a cafe which served espresso coffee and enjoyed a reasonably good lunch there, and watched some men across the road doing some repairs and renovations to the building opposite. Scaling rickety bamboo scaffolding and dangling precariously over the wall to scrape and paint, it was immediately clear occupational health and safety is a concept completely unknown in Bali.

Desperate by this point to get out of Kuta, the cafe staff put us in the hands of a driver who took us to Ubud, ripping us off magnificently. The man was charming and completely full of shit but he took us directly to a hotel with which he must have had an arrangement in Monkey Forest Road, which has bungalows built on cascading terraces and a swimming pool. Situated a short walk up the hill from the Monkey Forest the hotel is evidently prone from time to time to unheralded invasion by monkeys, as we learned, to our great delight and amusement and to the staff’s manifest annoyance, on the first two mornings of our stay. They came in a large mob and liberated a number of coconut palms from their burden, close up and completely impersonal, as the guests on their balconies made whatever attempts might not be considered hostile to protect whatever things they may have left out there the night before.

Having now taken coconuts, the monkeys then take them onto the roofs of bungalows or, as in our case, to the balconies of upstairs rooms where they then, between teeth and fingers (all twenty), tear away the outer bark and stringy flesh. Now a suitable place to smash open the coconut is found, roofs of bungalows proving the most useful, a) because ridge caps and roof tiles provide two kinds of hard surface and b) because being beyond the reach of slingshot no other situation quite qualifies. Hard round surfaces however, when impacted with great strength upon flat hard baked surfaces, seldom succumb, whereas, by contrast, the flat hard baked surface can hardly do anything else. The performance is terribly entertaining.

Ubud, being the cultural centre of the island, is correspondingly the most interesting place to be. There are a great many musicians playing in bars and restaurants, many of them quite brilliant, who learned their repertoire from the Bali songbook and from whatever soundtrack they could find. Art galleries are everywhere, western style paintings beginning to overwhelm the traditional, and top end European clothing outlets open their doors onto the same street as the less salubrious shops, warungs, cafes, restaurants and homestays. And under the footpaths which give way from time to time creating a large gaping chasm, runs the rankest, most foul smelling, canal of a drainage system floating a vile accumulation of garbage and debris that one can have the oft repeated misfortune to have to inhale. Shopkeepers do whatever they can to either put something across the gap or place a large pot plant next to it so that pedestrians receive some warning of the hazard, but regardless the footpaths are broken into hills and valleys too dangerous to tackle without paying strict attention, difficult in the circumstances; surrounded by interesting, colourful shops and activity which pulls focus despite best efforts, which probably accounts for the large numbers of tourists we saw who hobbled around on crutches, their legs tightly bandaged, their faces set in bravely determined expressions. We saw others in wheelchairs and simply marvelled at their courage.

At this juncture one should probably mention the heat. The heat and the humidity. Well, Bali is close to the equator, and tropical, so it’s pretty intense. I expected to wilt, being unwell for many years, recalling the previous visit when well and young and able bodied, and how the heat had hit me in the pit of the belly and doubled me over when, as in those days one disembarked straight onto the tarmac, I stepped from the plane and stood at the top of the wheeled stairs. But this time in that heat and humidity I felt well, and was even able to walk every day. After spending one’s entire adult life raising children (five in all, but who’s counting) there aren’t enough words in the English vocabulary to sufficiently cover the effects of a stress free vacation. The freedom of not having to do anything. The freedom to sweat and drink water and fresh blended juices, to float on the pool and listen to the sound of one’s breathing and the muffled scrape of a broom made of sticks as a gardener sweeps up the fallen leaves and flowers.

Bali has changed. In thirty three years a great change has taken place. The people have a cynicism now which was not the case then. The population has increased so that places which once were rural and thinly populated are now urban and very densely populated. The women once were bare breasted or in traditional dress and now wear T shirts and jeans. Tourists who became business owners and full or part time residents have driven up the price of property and established a standard of commercial hospitality more acceptable to westerners. Which leads me to another point entirely……

The effect on the psyche of Balinese girls exposed to generations of white western tourists has been, to a degree, devastating. I told a beautiful girl who served us at a restaurant where a really good band was playing that she reminded me of a young Brigitte Bardot, and after a long explanation to her she finally revealed that her dark skin was “dirty” and made her unattractive and that all she wanted was to be white like me. At length then I described to her the strivings of young western women to darken their skin, even to the point of self harm and death, and at last I think she might have been convinced of her beauty. The girls on the street who offer massages to passing tourists try to whiten their skin and wear garish blusher on their cheeks, but nonetheless their natural beauty can’t be hidden, and I never tired of telling them how beautiful I thought them, to which they smiled broadly with a few smothered giggles and glowed even more.

Old women whose children have been unable to support them work very hard, carrying up to seventy five kilos of rocks in baskets on their heads as they deliver building materials from the street where they’re dumped to the construction site where the men build the structures. Others carry heavy baskets of farm produce, and the hope that in her youth a girl might earn enough giving massages or working in a hotel is swelled and inflamed by the prospect of a life of hardship should she fail. Most parents hope that they’re able to earn enough money to put at least one child through higher education so that there might be a possibility of an easier dotage, for without a health care system or aged pensions life gets considerably harder and more precarious with ageing. So the family is a very important part of Balinese life and culture, without the cohesiveness of which the lives of Balinese would utterly fall apart.

Their poverty is such that tourists appear to them to be extremely wealthy. You can’t say to someone living such a life “Well I may seem wealthy to you but in fact where I come from I’m actually living on the poverty line as a recipient of a pension and am at any time at risk of defaulting on my loan and being thrown out into the street” because he simply can’t understand it. I said to one such incredulous Balinese “In Bali everyone has a home, and nobody lives on the street, but in my country there are people who go to work all day and have no home to live in, whole families living in their car or under a bridge.” He couldn’t comprehend it. “Why?” he said. “Because we don’t have communities like yours, families like yours. And the cost of living is very high in my country, and there’s a shortage of housing which struggling families and young people can afford. Many people can’t earn enough to pay the high rents or to continue to pay the bank for the loans to buy their houses.” I think it may have been the first time he saw his own situation as fortunate.

In Bali geckos run all over the ceilings and walls, frogs abound, insecticides and pesticides aren’t used, and snails and slaters don’t exist. The mosquitos about which we were warned to protect ourselves are far less of a problem than back home and you don’t order chicken drumsticks or thighs because the fowl haven’t been bred to fill the stomachs of fast food eaters as in the west, having a tall thin frame with long thin legs and producing eggs which have vivid orange yolks. Life is abundant and free, the landscape lush and green and filled with fruit trees and rice and pleasant herbs.

Resisting the oppressive rule of the rest of Indonesia, Bali jealously maintains its freedom as a Hindu culture, living without restraints as much as it can. The people acknowledge their streets are dilapidated and hazardous, openly blaming the endemic corruption on the part of government officials and the police, and cheerfully pay the bribes which keep their businesses from being closed down. Balinese are intrinsic risk takers, mostly eschewing the wearing of helmets whilst riding motorcycles and scooters, flouting whatever road rules there may be, and jeopardising personal safety on worksites, all without health care or government assistance of any kind. Which may be why there are so many different kinds of prayers made twice daily with offerings to the gods; on beaches, on footpaths, outside shops and warungs, restaurants and cafes, and at homestays and hotels. Everywhere and everything is covered by prayers and offerings.

Dogs and cats roam freely, ignored and allowed to peacefully co-exist. They don’t seek human attention, don’t beg, and are accustomed to wandering around and being avoided. They all seem, for the most part, to have placid personalities like their human fellow inhabitants, and appear to be satisfied with a life of fending for themselves.

Coming home to a country filled with personally restrictive rules and laws and streets devoid of vitality, to overpriced restaurants and slowly crawling traffic lanes, to food polluted and travelled and old is a serious come down. Within twenty four hours I had contracted the first head cold in twelve years, within a week and a half we smoked all of the delicious kretek cigarettes we were allowed to bring into the country, and within the space of two days we knew we wanted to be back there more than anything in the world.


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