Bali is one of those places in the world that people are mesmerised with, infatuated with. David Attenborough pretty much summed it up for me in his beautifully retro documentary The Miracle of Bali from 1969. It’s the culture, it’s mysterious, it’s in tact, it’s aesthetic and sensual and it involves so many rituals that you don’t have to understand to appreciate. And if you’re one of those people who have made Bali home, you would have come to love that smell of incense and the familiar offerings that line sidewalks and shop fronts, filled several times a day with flowers and treats for the gods.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life in Bali, and being half Indonesian, I’ve always grappled with defensive feelings about the island being swarmed by tourists and expatriates. I know that the locals depend on both for their economy. I know that the influx of Indonesians from other islands are just as threatening to the Balinese, as Javanese builders for example are seen as more ‘efficient’ employees because they don’t have to take as much time off work to attend customary prayers and ceremonies, of which there are a lot.
In the past 30 years I’ve seen Bali go through many transformations. I’ve watched development spread from Kuta down the beach to Seminyak and beyond. I’ve seen it go from the hair braids and beaded tops of the 80s to becoming a hub a extreme hipness with one-off boutiques and cocktail lounges. I’ve seen it completely dead and quiet after the bombings, to becoming busier than ever not long after. And I’ve always loved it. Lots of people do. This is why they come from all over the world to live there, starting NGOs, opening schools, buying real estate, starting artisan businesses, and living the life-style.
But hot damn it makes me cringe when I read about the bohemian expats of Ubud (inland part of the island that has become popular in recent years), their sustainable yoga fashions and righteous seed planting initiatives. When I meet someone overseas who has their own jewelry or clothing business, and then they tell me that they get everything made in Bali, it raises my hackles. And as much as I know that I really can’t generalise, that there really are people doing amazing things from the island, why is my first reaction always one of suspicion?
Balinese locals are themselves are often the first to complain that it takes some foreign attention to address local issues ranging from agriculture to waste management to infant mortality. And many local artists and designers wouldn’t have had nearly as much exposure nor opportunity if it wasn’t for some overseas investment. And maybe that’s what bothers me. Maybe it’s unsettling to see a culture championed by another culture in a way that seems superficial and self-serving. Maybe it’s also frustrating to feel like Indonesians don’t have the support or infrastructure to do the kinds of things that gain as much international acclaim and attention. It’s also painful to know that a lot of the very problems that are being addressed and ‘solved’ are often times an indirect consequence of a lifetime of tourism cum expatriation. While the solutions were there to begin with. But now they have fancy English words for them – sustainable, permaculture, holistic, organic, fair trade, yogic, free range, biodynamic – and these concepts have become globally trendy, so they’re being given back. The problem bringing the solution, surely there’s a fable to illustrate. Does this make any sense? Probably not, OK I’m done.