Dispatches from the East Indies
BALI, INDONESIA- I’ve been in Bali for ten days now. After spending a year in a foreign country that could easily pass for a remote outpost of the United States (we have Hawaii and Alaska, right? So it’s not that far-fetched) coming to Southeast Asia has been quite a cultural shocker on a number of levels. Bali is the number one international holiday destination for any Australian who surfs or has a little bit of spending money, which is every Australian due to a mind-numbingly high minimum wage. Especially coming from Western Australia, where one acquaintance of mine told me it’s cheaper for him to take his wife and two children on a weeklong holiday to Bali (activities included) than to fly them all HOME TO ADELAIDE TO VISIT HIS FAMILY. This made for a lot of people giving me a lot of tips, the majority of which consist of remote reef breaks, coastal towns to frequent, and (the only consistent advice) to STAY AWAY FROM KUTA, the epicenter of anti-eco-tourism with a reputation that can be described as 40 drunk Australians milling about a medium-sized steam room in varying states of undress. From this sagely advice, mate, I was given a quaint picture of Bali, with lovely island people flitting about on motor scooters, politely ceding right of way to anyone they might find in their path.
First off, let me make clear that I had no intention of coming here to sit on the beach at a pampered, white sand beach resort and drink mocktails all day as I purged my body of the toxic poisons of the Western World, but I had a certain picture in my mind of what to expect. While it is an obvious fact, what everyone fails to mention when talking about this place is that Indonesia is a third-world country and there is no mistaking that fact when walking down the street. I don’t say this to trash the reputation of the place, I just strongly feel as if it is a facet of Bali which is completely glossed over in Eat, Pray, Love and which everyone should be aware of. The sidewalks are in absolute disrepair and there is no indication of any official government agency responsible for fixing the cavernous gaps in the road (do NOT walk & text in Bali). Trash is routinely burned in the middle of the street since there is no agency to collect rubbish from anyone’s house or place of business, filling the air with an acrid smoke which upon first scent does not appear to be wholly disagreeable since it is not immediately recognizable as garbage, leading to an even stronger adverse reaction when one realizes just what is being breathed in. The exchange rate is quite favorable to say the least, with us Americans getting 12,000 Rupiah for every USD $1. It takes some time for your mind to wrap around the fact that the currency is so inflated that all prices are abbreviated with a “K”- so something that is 50,000 rupiah will be listed as 50k. Or approximately USD $5. Or $4.16, if we want to get technical, but for everyday living it is far easier to run with 50k rupiah being $5, and then assuage your mathematically exhausted brain at night with the fact that you received a small discount on the day’s transactions.
Far different from Australia, where I can count on one hand the times I went out to dinner since I only need three fingers, I have eaten out about 20-25 times since I’ve been in Bali. It is quite literally cheaper to sit down and eat at a restaurant, paying someone else to serve you, than it is to go to the supermarket and cook for yourself. Of course if you’re in the mentality that you can eat out every night, your budget-conscious mind can quickly run away from you, but this mentality is for fools. If you make sure to frequent the reasonable restaurants (which I like more anyhow, since they seem to be more authentic and cater to a more local clientele than some of the more “expensive” places), you can get a meal for USD $4. My favorite restaurant, Dewa Warung (“warung” is Indonesian for restaurant), offers upt a papaya juice, mixed salad starter, and curried vegetables with rice for…yes, USD $4. Note, I’m making the distinction here in USD since my mind has been working in Australian dollars for the past year, and the standard conversion tool here in Bali is also Australian dollars…so I know a dollar is a dollar to everyone reading this, but it’s worth pointing out the difference. But getting back to the food, it is absolutely AMAZING. Really, you would think that paying such a pittance in terms of the daily spending habits we are accustomed to would get you some hodge-podge meal thrown together from a steaming 14-gallon pot of cabbage and bean sprouts, but it’s absolutely delectable. An added plus in the Ubud area is that since it caters to so many people striving for a holistic lifestyle and diet, that virtually everything on the menu is MSG free, vegetarian, vegan, raw- you name it, if there’s a fad diet, it is easily accommodated by eating out in Ubud. One of my favorite spots so far is a little corner store named Bali Buddha, which has been the only place I’ve been able to find corn muffins and bagels over the past year. What I desperately miss, more than anything, are quality carbs- namely, pizza, bagels, and corn muffins. Needless to say since they are gluten free, effing delicious, and $1, I can be constantly found with a corn muffin in my hands (or more likely, crumbs in my beard).
The reason I’ve spent so much time stressing the more negative aspects of Bali are that I feel it’s a disservice to the island, it’s people, and the world at large to propagate the notion that this is just a little slice of paradise where Westerners can come and ignore the systemic problems in how the country is governed and piss away a thousand bucks in cash on a luxurious holiday. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but to pretend there aren’t real, systemic differences in the quality of life of the Balinese people that make this little slice of paradise possible is just a foolish notion. All that being said, the Balinese that I’ve met are mostly content with their lives and happy to work in the opportunities they’ve been given. They are, on the whole, a people that is much more content with the cards they are dealt than any of us in the West. In a sense, this is because we were all raised to believe that we can become anything in the world (which you all can!), but it is a part of our national consciousness that we can achieve ANYTHING that we want. Oftentimes, what is glossed over is an examination of what we really do want, so when we grow up and aren’t EVERYTHING in this world, we think to ourselves that we’ve in a sadistic sense we’ve been slighted since we could have had it all, and we don’t. In a twisted sense, when you are raised to believe that you can only be so much, that your ceiling in life is only so high, you find yourself more content with what you do have. What I’m getting at here in a circuitous, back-door explanation, is that oftentimes when you don’t have that much, you tend to appreciate the things that you do have and the opportunities that you are given rather than focus on what you don’t have and the things that you cannot do. Thus when you live in a society that lacks some of the basic amenities that we take so for granted back home, it really doesn’t bother you that you’ve never left the island of Bali. What concerns you much more closely (to quote the experience of my driver from the airport) is whether or not you have any clients to pick up on the morrow, and whether you’ll be bringing home any money to feed your family.
Everything here is different. The societal norms, the very paradigm that the Balinese live in is just so different from everything that we know in America that it takes some time to get used to. Concepts deemed essential to societal order, such as things starting on time, do not necessarily apply here. While sitting on the curb observing an elaborate Hindu procession of relics from a newly constructed temple being carried, one by one, through town to be blessed at a large podium set up in the center of town by the holy man, a Balinese man of about thirty told us about the dance performance which was to be on that night at the newly consecrated temple, and invited us to come (assuming of course, that we wore sarongs). When asked what time it began, he said 9pm…however shrugging his shoulders and appearing to give the matter a second thought, he then revised his answer. “When we’re ready.” Giving it a third hard think, he pursed his lips outward slightly, tilted his head to the left, and, squinting his eyes gave me a cheeky little mug as he nodded his head, “Bali time”. While this left your correspondent in absolute hysterics, it was a direct insight into how the islanders view these sorts of things here. When will it start? When we’re ready. We’re on Bali time, baby.
Following that long yet necessary diatribe on the experience of the privileged American in the third-world, it’s time to talk a bit about the things in Bali that make it so famous across the world. First off, despite standards of personal and public hygiene that would shut down any city of comparable size in the American Midwest, the natural landscape here is stunning. One thing I was excited to note before my arrival is that Bali falls to the West of the Wallace Line, an imaginary path squiggling from North to South in this portion of the world roughly marking the ancient continental boundaries between Australia and Asia. Flora falling east of the Wallace line are Australian in origin, while west of the line is Asian in origin, meaning that I am sitting in a river valley filled with plants that evolved on a completely different continental plain from the ones I’ve been used to seeing for the past year. It means that for someone who is not intimately familiar with these things that the landscape appears drastically different upon first glance. Behind the apartment at which I’m staying in Sayan runs the Agung River, tucked within an absolutely gorgeous little valley filled with towering palm trees, ferns, and all types of other tropical bits and bobs that make for one of the most inspiring writing venues I’ve ever encountered. I’ve come down here almost every day upon waking up, and I can honestly say there is really no better way to start your day than to immerse yourself in a natural setting devoid of any man-made stimuli. It’s a way I want to live my life, and I desperately want to explore more of the island, particularly the more remote spots that have less light pollution and more nature that has been untouched by the hand of man.
I’ve heard from a number of people that Ubud is the world capital for yoga practice, meditation, and all that jazz, which I can now independently corroborate after having been incountry for ten days. I’ve always had a cursory interest in exercises that teach you to take time to explore and appreciate the power of the mind at large when not impeded by a zillion different things ranging from what book you just read to Sealy’s SALE ON MATTRESSES COMNE ON DOWN AND BUY ONE and to take time to appreciate and care for the vessel of the mind, our body. Over the past week or two I’ve had the pleasure of taking a number of introductory yoga classes which have really helped to spell out the purpose of the practice and how it can be applied in everyday life. I once read that the original point of a yoga practice was to obtain a meditative state outside of the traditional posture of sitting with your legs crossed and hands on your knees with thumb and forefinger touching. I’ve found this to be a very helpful paradigm through which to approach the practice of yoga, and it’s allowed me to come out of the experience with a mind that feels cleansed and a body that feels ready to take on the world. I intend to continue to explore these practices, and hopefully come out of them with a deeper understanding of how they have helped so many people for so long, and how they can be applied to my life.
Well, I think I’ll cut it off here. Hopefully that gave a decent snapshot of my first few weeks in this crazy, zany, magical little island place with so much to offer someone who approaches it with an open mind. I came here with a vague plan to keep traveling Southeast Asia after my time was done, but it’s becoming readily apparent that I would rather spend more time in Bali and really see what the people and expatriates have to offer, so I’m going to keep playing it by ear. What I’ve really enjoyed most about traveling is not the flitting about and seeing a million different sights in a day, tiring myself out in the process and not really being able to take any of it in, but living somewhere for a month or two (or more) at a clip and familiarizing myself with the local way of life, concentrating on a certain skill or interest I have and making that my focus for the time being. My hope is that when I settle down with all the baggage that that entails that I can bring these experiences to the life I choose to build, and speak and do things with the confidence of someone who has lived many different lifestyles and can bring a varied and knowledgeable point of view to the table. Over & out.