From the southern isle of Tasmania I’m flying to the Indonesian archipelago. It’s my first visit to Bali, island paradise, spiritual haven.
My mind swirls with images: ornate temples, emerald rice fields, dancers with flowers in their hair. My suitcase is packed with sarongs and summer clothes and every conceivable tummy medicine, mozzie repellant and sunblock. I’m nothing if not prepared.
And I’m filled with trepidation. The anticipated beauty thrills me, but I dread the faces of poverty. I ruminate on questions of ethics: my purchases will benefit a struggling economy, but my relative wealth inevitably places me in an exploitative position. This dilemma will shadow the small pleasures of foot massages and cheap delicious meals to come.
Islands take on magical qualities in the imagination and Bali is no exception. Despite a population of almost four million people, a somewhat bloody history and a host of current environmental problems, it retains its image of spiritual paradise. Witness the Eat, Pray, Love phenemenon launched by Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her search for personal transformation ending in Ubud. Her book caused a flood of visitors to the area, whose infrastructure is visibly disintegrating under the strain.
In the 1930s Bali captured the interest of anthropologists like Margaret Mead who are credited with creating the western image of Bali as ‘an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature’ (Theodore Friend, Indonesian Destinies, 2003). Tourism to the island began.
But visitors unwittingly adulterate the very paradise they seek. The lure of the exotic, the pull of the enchanted isle, has led to its demise.
My month-long sojourn took on conflicting qualities: the delights, novelty and beauty countered with fear, depression and even horror.
My brother had been living on the island for some time and offered me a more authentic yet less comforting and comfortable experience than I perhaps wished for. It would have been far easier to ensconce myself in resorts with functional plumbing, turquoise pools, enclosed gardens, frangipanis about my bed and a masseur on tap. The paradisical fantasy might have remained intact.
Instead I shared my brother’s simple one-roomed accommodation in busy, dirty Legian. We slept on the floor and washed from a bucket. The toilet flushed only with assistance but I was grateful for it.
Outdoors I stepped into the full flow of scooters, pedestrians, taxis and relentless vendors. I found the accumulating litter deeply depressing. I passed a beautiful sapi (Balinese cow) daily, existing on a small plot strewn with plastic. Tidelines of plastic edged the beach. My brother suffered recurring sinus infections from surfing in the polluted waters. Even in rural areas the river valleys and gorges were sullied with rubbish. My appreciation of an exquisite clifftop temple was marred by the poisonous yellow hue of the sea beneath it, which I couldn’t help staring at in shock, wondering what diseases the fishermen below harvested along with their catch.
I struggled to see beyond the dross and damage and decay. Burgeoning tourism is mutating the once serene landscape rapidly and irreversibly, the creep of ugly development ruining previously unspoilt areas and destroying their cultural character. The resorts seemed disturbingly opulent, with their populations of torpid tourists indolent under umbrellas like corpulent elephant seals. I was distressed by these images of tourism gone bad, and distressed by the attitudes of hawkers which eventually left me feeling fearful, dehumanised and reduced to a wallet on legs. This vision of mutual exploitation left little space for reflection, connection and respect.
Yet, like green weeds pushing through concrete, fragments of paradise percolate into consciousness. The ubiquitous flowers and offerings on doorsteps, pathways, shrines and tabletops. Patterned window shutters and carved statues. The fragrant cuisine, the sudden kindness of strangers.
Sunset on the beach brought the softening of dusk, and peace. Children played in the waves, dogs slept on the warm sand.
I loved our tiled balcony overlooking palm trees, frangipani, purple orchids and an out-of-reach banana cluster. This was my sanctuary. Squirrels frolicked in fronds and scurried across rooftops. Thunderheads billowed in the blue sky. A giant spotted gecko barked and stayed hidden.
I tasted the sweet taste of pandan, the tang of lime, the heat of chilli tempe. And brought home bright images alongside the dark: sunlit emerald rice fields, fireflies sparking the tropical night, gamelan music drifting through the twilight toward my canopied bed.
Will I return? I don’t know. But these fragments remind me of the beautiful and the good: a curving shell in the palm of my hand, a woodcarved pendant against my skin.