I’m sitting in the airport heading to Thailand. I will miss my spectacular Bali hotel with the most amazing views of the ocean and sunsets. I do believe I’ll return to Bali, but probably not for awhile. Rather than a long story about my time here I’ve summarized my experience in a eleven Bali-isms.
– observations from a wide-eyed tourist. A tourist who also happens to be a Braden-Biesenbach, a Irish-German clan hard wired for cynicism, judgment and pessimism (so, be warned). I didn’t do enough research and while I started my time in Bali in an idealized open-air villa near Ubud, I ended it swirling about in the strong currents of tourism in Seminyak where it’s really hard to not mourn what clearly was once a beautiful tropical paradise. I didn’t really understand my friend when she said, “It’s easy to have a love-hate relationship with Bali,” but now as I prepare to leave, I do. This place is full of paradoxes and if you have “Eat, Pray, Love” expectations, you’ll be disappointed.
1. Slow the Hell Down. For such a laid back place, people are in an awful big hurry on the roads. The horn honking, reminiscent of New York streets, is constant but is mostly composed by the tiny squeaky horns of rickety little scooters. Bali is overrun by motorbikes whose riders follow only one rule – get out of my way or hit me. They don’t look when they pull out, they dart in and out of traffic, they carry tiny helmet-less kids and they gridlock the intersections, not so gently nudging each other out of the way. Cars constantly gun their engines to both pass others and seemingly tempt a head-on collision. The cars in Bali are too big, fattened up to shuttle a lone tourist or six across the island. A car ride in Bali is far more harrowing than the worst New York City taxi ride!
2. Stop Talking. I’m a strong MBTI Introvert. I woke up the other day and didn’t want to talk to any of the overly friendly Balinese. I was even a bit snappy to Madé, my sweet and kind yoga instructor. His radiant smile grated on my nerves and I couldn’t help but show it and his smile only grew in response. And then the questions, they never stop! Same questions over and over again. “First time here?” “Where’s your husband?” (I’ll get to that later) “Where are you from?” “Do you like it here?” “When will you come back?” “How was your day?” “How are you, Miss Barbara?” I know these seem like innocent and kind enough questions, but each person encountered – whether a waiter, housekeeper, concierge, driver or masseuse – will run through the same string of questions one after the other. At first it was endearing but after a while it was annoying. I thought about just passing out a card with the answers already typed up. Although I honestly believe the interest is genuine; this is not what we often see at home – fake nice!
3. I am a Liar. I resorted to telling the questioners that I have two kids and a husband back at home and that I’d be meeting them in Italy. The fib is partly true – I’ll be meeting my niece and nephew there. Seriously, after the 57th sorrowful expression offered in response to my cheerful answer, “I have no kids, and no husband,” I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I switched my diamond encrusted Cartier ring to my left hand and told extravagant stories about my 26- and 23 year-old kids and the gorgeous man waiting for me at home. Why, in the land of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which did nothing for Bali) do the Balinese find it so odd that a single woman would travel alone?
4. Too Many Damned Zeros. I’m a New York tipper (a.k.a, generous) but it’s darned hard to get it right with so many zeros in the currency. It took me awhile, and a nice waiter to explain that 10,000 Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) is about $1.00. He softly challenged me when I tipped him 10% (on top of the 21% added by the hotel) on a 100,000 IDR dinner. Little did I know that my dinner cost only $10 and that my 10,000 IDR tip was a measly buck! I finally started asking the wait staff to not hover over me while I signed the bill so that I could whip out my iPhone, convert the currency and then calculate a fair tip. I ended up tipping everyone I came into contact with very handsomely, like I normally do.
5. Scary Waters. The waters here make for amazing scuba diving, but at the price of extreme danger. The island of Bali is situated such that the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans converge in the narrow channels on the West and South shores. Strong and unpredictable currents have taken many lives and a nice warm water dive can suddenly be interrupted by a surge of arctic water or a fierce down current. My dives were simply amazing, but only after the final dive was over, did my guide tell me that we just did the site where seven Japanese divers were lost for three days – two died. I felt the currents and the extreme thermoclines – no wonder the dive operator had a 2:1 ratio of diver to dive master. Even the beaches can be tricky. Today, as I awaited my departure from the cool air conditioning of my room, I heard constant lifeguard whistle blasts and watched their frantic waving at unaware swimmers to come closer to shore. I could see the rip tides racing back to sea and there didn’t appear to be any safe spots to swim today. Water sports in Bali are great but Mother Nature must be respected and great care must be taken.
6. WHAT? Paradise is Dirty? As the days wore on I started seeing beyond the mess, just like I do when in New York City. But, a mess it is. Forget your fantasy image of a green utopia with open-air villas and a gentle flow of life. Bali is dirty. Construction workers climb impossibly rickety bamboo scaffolding in bare feet or flip-flops. I spotted one barefooted jack hammerer with no head or eye protection. And then, as we slowly surfaced from our shore dive in Talumben, I peered up at the surface and was sad to see so much flotsam – plastic bags, bottles and other crap. I know the area is one of the poorest. Apparently the 1963 volcanic eruption not only pushed the USS Liberty into the ocean, creating one of the most amazing man-made coral reefs, it decimated the once agriculturally rich area. Nowadays the residents of this area depend on straw hat making, dive gear carrying and other odd jobs to survive. I somehow doubt it’s the dive tourists who made the mess. Unfortunately, that part of the island simply lacks the infrastructure to give Mother Nature the love she sorely needs.
7. Snappy Dressers. The school kids are by far, the sharpest dressers on the island. The boys wear ties, vests, white shirts and Bermuda shorts and the girls with skirts, all have their gorgeous hair in pigtails. The grown up women on scooters wear full long sleeves jackets and sweaters and gloves – at first I thought they were cold but then later learned that they didn’t want their arms and hands to get too brown. The traditional dress is gorgeous, for both the men and women. But, aside from that, I can now see where the demand for cheap clothing comes from. But, hey, it’s a tropical Island, what do you expect? There is a real culture clash however, because the Balinese seem to take pride in respectful dress and then there are the young tourists (and sometimes not so young and not so fit) sporting tiny bikinis or bare chests as if in pure defiance. I guess that’s just the price of progress since all this tourism has created a new middle class in Bali.
8. My Face Hurts. I got tired of smiling but I think I can learn to love smiling more than frowning. The Balinese LOVE to smile and love to laugh. It’s so very infectious! I did learn that I simply don’t smile enough. I’m on Thai Airlines now and despite what you hear, I find the business class attendants colder than American Airlines’ oft tired, disgruntled cabin crew. I am missing those smiles just a bit right now.
9. Balinese Don’t Leave. I only encountered one Balian who’d left the island – she was the hairdresser who did my roots touch up. The salon was a world-famous outfit where the owner sends all his employees to Holland once per year for training. One of the dive masters, Sunny, was on her way to Marseilles to follow her fiancé. She was the most beautiful Balinese woman who also spoke fluent French. The driver who ‘friended’ me on Facebook might have seen me as his ticket off the Island. He was too flirtatious and actually made me a little uncomfortable. He talked a lot about some of his friends who now live in the US, after having met and married an American girl! At my age, it was flattering, but it was also a bit creepy!
10. Women Work Hard. Women do the hard work in preparation for Ceremonies, but then they are prohibited from entering their Temple during their periods. Forced to prepare and carry all the food, they are kept away at a time when they are considered unclean. That bugs me. On top of that, the tiniest little Balinese women work as Porters at the Talumben dive site where they carry up to two sets of dive gear on their heads – tank, weights, regulator and BC — at least 300 feet to the water’s edge. I literally, watched big, strong Western men place the gear atop the heads. Apparently, these are the best and sometimes only jobs available to some of Bali’s poorest citizens.
11. Bali is Noisy. Harbor no fantasies about getting a bucolic, quiet and peaceful experience – unless you go way up North or find a spot far away from Denpasar and the Southern beaches. When booking accommodation, choose wisely. Staying in Seminyak was not for me. I’ve never required more Ambien and brown noise at bedtime than I did at the Anantara Seminyak. My hotel turned into a nightclub at night, as did both of its neighbors. There was no escaping the drumbeat of club music. Such a sad paradox because the strong sound of crashing waves were drowned out by the man-made cacophony of nightly parties.
The cynic in me feels upset for Bali. Water is scarce; villas, hotels and restaurants are consuming farmland; the roads are choked and inadequate; the culture has been commercialized; and the island is dirty, polluted and messy. But, the Balinese have made this choice for themselves. I only hope that they will do what the rest of the world needs to do and change behavior – build less, green more and slow the hell down!