In 1977 I bought a one-way ticket to Bali. I landed around midnight in a thunderstorm and woke the next morning as if I'd stepped into a fairytale. The jewelled toad in the bathroom, the little bananas and the thermos of tea by my door for breakfast, the quiet women sweeping the sandy courtyard under bright red and purple bougainvillea and, when I ventured out, the market – all seemed magical. I got to know a local family, went to the temple with them, learned the names of exotic fruits and gave away most of what I had in my backpack. When I set off for Java and the rest of my big OE I felt wiser and ready to meet the world. (I had yet to learn that 'the World' is not like Bali!)
Last month, thanks to my friend Brigid making the arrangements, I returned to Bali for the first time in over 30 years. I knew things would be different - Bali and I have both, well, matured in the past few decades – but I thought I was ready for that.
Some things are the same – the heat, the flowers, the god images dressed in checked cloth or brocade, the little floral offerings on footpaths and dashboards in the mornings. Some are better – the hotels for mid-range (middle-aged!) tourists are lovely with tiled floors, clean bathrooms and pretty gardens, even a swimming pool sometimes. Gado gado, nasi goreng and the famous black rice pudding are still staples and breakfast regularly includes fruit cut in pretty patterns. The Balinese are gentle, adaptable hosts and warungs everywhere are keen to meet the tourists' needs.
Perhaps a bit too keen. Bali has become hooked on the tourism drug. Street after street in the airport/Kuta area caters for tourists' eating and shopping needs. Some of the souvenirs (rudely worded bumper stickers, carved wooden penises) are crass and others are made in China. Where there were once sandy lanes lined with trees and flowers, surrounded by ricefields, there are sealed roads full of traffic which link up to create a modern Asian town with little to distinguish it from any other Asian town. A horse and cart, as seen often in 1977, would never survive in Denpasar now!
Of course, the Balinese want scooters to take their children to school, convenience stores and a cash income to make life simpler, besides which the population growth, of Balinese and other Indonesians as well as tourists, is very evident and bound to have an impact on ricefields and cute thatched houses.
Every day of my week's holiday involved enjoyable experiences – snorkelling among rainbow-coloured fish off the beach at Amed, visiting Ubud market, watching the wife and tiny daughter of the hotel owner take incense and offerings round each shrine in the garden, being greeted 'Selamat pagi' by little old ladies on an early morning walk, eating, eating, eating. But I had a sense of unease that the only way I could be in touch with local people was via a few words when they brought me my meal or my drink or handed me the towel for the hotel pool and the only way I could see aspects of Balinese life or spirituality was to pay my money and stare from the sidelines. Which is fair enough, why should I intrude? Far better that tourists stick to tourist places and let life go on unmolested elsewhere. But the focus on my pleasure at the expense of genuine connection saddened me.
As I shelled out money for comfortable hotels and drivers with air-conditioned cars I thought of that young woman in her hippie clothes, heaving her backpack into a bemo among the baskets of fruits and chickens and sitting down with the local women in their sarongs. How she despised the rich middleclass tourists who insulated themselves from the reality of the place. I wondered, have I become that kind of person?