Today is Tuesday, May 6, 2014, and I have been in Indonesia, Bali specifically, since April 22, 2014. I will return home on May 23, 2014. Right now, I don’t want to go home. Since my week spent in Ubud recently, I have wanted to move to Bali. I have found another home in this world. I love Bali’s smell. I love how lush and layered the Island is with its flora and fauna overlapping and intertwining with each other in the jungles. I love the colours of the Indian Ocean ranging from pale green to aquamarine to deep turquoise. I love the heat of the sun, the bathtub warmth of the ocean, and the less oppressive warmth of the evenings once the sun has melted below the horizon. It is only once the sun has gone to visit my home side of the world that I stop sweating, and that is only guaranteed if I sit motionless in thought or conversation.
I love the ceremony, culture and history of Bali. Everywhere you go you observe the offerings made by the local Hindu’s. The bundles of brightly coloured and heavenly perfumed flowers. The incense burnt with the offerings seems to permeate the entire Island, twice a day, for a half hour or so. Sometimes some rice or a cigarette will be offered in the bundle, and I once saw an opened bottle of beer left at a restaurants guard. The bundles are offered as a thanks to the spirits that occupy each piece of land, a building, the ocean, or even a scooter, in the hopes that they are taken care of.
Who could come to Bali and talk to the gracious and smiling ambassadors of Indonesia and not be happy? The very act of clasping your hands together at heart centre and slightly bowing your head when saying thank you is a constant physical reminder of the gifts you have received. The act also forces you to slow down and look the person whom you are grateful to, in the eyes.
I am Bule (pronounced boolay), a westerner, and with my coloured purple hair, tattoos, pale freckled skin, and a height of 5’6 for a woman, I stand out as a foreigner. And that is before I have opened my mouth. In the bigger cities or at the temples this draws little to no attention at all. Bali is the most culturally diverse location I have been to in my limited travels. During my first two weeks on the Island, I have spoken to people from Germany, France, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Peru, America, and strangely enough, the small farming community that I currently live in! That was an odd conversation and made for a good laugh as we zeroed in on our exact hometown (first Canada, then BC, generalized to Vancouver, moving out to the Fraser Valley, and then finally, Abbotsford). During my visit to a night market in a non-tourist town, I received plenty of stares, maybe in part because I was with a local? Being the Canadian that I am, I smiled and waved, and my greetings were always returned in kind. The children are taught English in school, so I got very used to all of the children saying hi and waving to me, even if I was driving by on a scooter. I learned to end the conversation with them there, because very few of them understood me if I went on to ask them how they were. On one of my last days in Bali, at a temple in a non-tourist town, a local woman bumped into me, and apologized, in English. When I turned to her and said, “No worries,” her male companion used that opportunity to take photos of us standing side by side talking. Never have I had paparazzi!
My Balinese friend who lives in said small non-tourist town, who has travelled the world working on the cruise ships, tells me that Canadians, without a doubt, are the nicest and friendliest people in the world. And this coming from a Balinese local where everyone says hello, and at least half of the people ask your name and where you are from, as a starting point to a conversation if you don’t keep walking. If I had stopped and talked to everyone who wanted to have a conversation with me in Bali, I would not have seen half of what I did. My friend has literally seen the world over the last ten years, minus about three continents. He is charming, sweet, friendly, incredibly proud of his culture and heritage, but quite westernized, and thus aware of Bali’s flaws from a first world perspective.
Sadly, I believe Indonesia is considered to be a third world country, and Bali faces significant issues to correct itself and move into a first world standing, but it is close to doing so. The treatment, or complete mis-treatment of animals, is surely my biggest problem given I am a vegetarian, PETA supporting, SPCA donating, animal-loving kind of girl. The horrific state that some animals were in made me wish I had vials and vials of the meds used to euthanize the animals in my country who are loved and suffering. Conversely, I wish I had millions of dollars to swoop in and gather up all the homeless animals that are quite literally starving to death or diseased. Neither of those options are anything other than a quick fix though. My feeding that beautiful black dog at dinner in Sanur isn’t going to save his life after I have moved on to a different town. My dinner companion reporting a sick animal to a local rescue society will not give that creature a safe place to live once he is healed; he will likely get attacked or injured again. In fact, my interference has probably only lengthened the life span that animal will suffer for. It was such a consistent visual issue that most of the time I turned my head, unable to emotionally cope with a problem so insidiously overwhelming, I felt incapable of doing anything about it. The cultural indifference to animals stunned me given the local Hindu’s believe that their homes and boats have spirits that need to be cared for.
The water, used by locals up-stream to bathe in, wash their vehicles and laundry in, and clean out the pig they are going to roast for the ceremonial feast over the next couple of days, will make you sick. It made everyone I met sick. I took preventative E-coli measures and still got so sick I had to go to the pharmacy for antibiotics, and I was only using the water to shower in generally. Some restaurant clearly snuck dirty ice cubes into my drink. Stomach rot is such a common condition it has a nickname amongst travellers: Bali Belly. On the Island, if you remember to, you use the bottled water provided by the hotel to brush your teeth.
Which leads to significant problem number three; there is no recycling, and little to no proper garbage disposal. Yet, I can only assume hundreds of thousands of bottles of water are consumed regularly by the many tourists that support the Islands economy. Apparently, the locals have forgotten the spirit of Mother Earth in their offerings. I saw empty lots heaping four feet deep in garbage. There are very few to zero garbage cans, there is no recycling unless you are at one of the few Starbucks locations on the Island, but most critically, there is no culture of keeping the environment clean. I have been raised, in Canada, to carry my garbage with me until I can dispose of it properly; I have been raised to recycle whatever I can. When I was a little girl my Mom taught me to cut the plastic that contains a six pack of pop so that birds and sea life don’t get strangled with it. In Bali, there is a culture of littering. Kuta Beach, the primary tourist beach, was one of the most beautiful beaches, yet the filthiest, I have ever seen. Walking along the beach, trying to avoid the surf line of garbage, I could only wonder if there were condoms and needles buried within, a testament to the Vancouver culture I grew up exposed to. It is heartbreaking to me that the locals apparently have no idea of the incredible resources and beauty they have been gifted. I would like to salute Starbucks, who at their Sanur location, had a beach clean up day organized and advertised.
These three problems I saw scar the beautiful surface of Bali and will take significant government intervention, funding, and decades of cultural conditioning to eradicate. Sadly, I have been told by my Balinese friend that the government, which is quite corrupt, has no interest in dealing with the garbage or water problems. If those changes could be implemented, Bali will change, and I am not sure that I want Bali changed significantly? I want Bali to adopt the western values I consider sacred, and leave the rest as is. Is that even possible though? There is a cost, and a consequence, to meddling in the affairs of another nation, and I would bemoan the day Bali becomes so westernized it loses the charms and the quirks that made my experience on that Island what it was. How to have the best of both worlds? For now, until I move to Bali and can work on the ground contributing to solutions, I have chosen to accept the culture as is, with both the good and bad, the charming and the hideous, the warmth and the cruelty, the yin and the yang.