It’s been exactly a month since we left Bali and neither of us have yet to write very specifically about it. Our expectations were greater of Bali than any other place in Asia – we envisioned pristine beaches, epic scenery, and a rich culture and history. Its known as the island of the gods, how could we not have high hopes?
Bali has all of those wonderful things, but the reality is that they were hard for us to find. Indonesia doesn’t appear to have done a thing to accommodate the influx of tourism and it shows – litter is everywhere and trash cans are non-existent, most beaches are run down, and you will be asked if you need a taxi, massage, or dinner about 60 times during a 2 minute walk down the street. All major cultural attractions have high (for bali) entrance prices for westerners and local artisan shops are rapidly being replaced by cheap souvenir stores selling knockoff purses, Bintang t-shirts, and shot glasses. Locals aren’t really that friendly and the focus is on making money off tourism without regard for the long term impact. It’s definitely a place that I wish we could have visited years ago when things were quieter.
Much of the tourist crowd was brought on by the book Eat Pray Love, which is set in Ubud, the religious, artistic, and cultural center of the island. Its actually pretty funny. Hordes of wistful and semi-desperate looking, single western women crowd this place and wander the streets aimlessly in search of themselves. They’re seriously everywhere and we started to call them “eat-pray-lovers” as they might as well be carrying copies of the book for everyone to see. The upside is if you’re a single guy reading this, you know where to take your next holiday.
But for each bad thing brought on by tourism, Bali has such amazing pockets of authenticity and beauty that it’s easy to forget the issues. No place on our travels has given us such intensely disparate feelings.
I think the image that really sums it up is a one we’ve shared of a woman working in the rice fields just north of Ubud. It had just rained and she’s looking away from the camera across acres of rice fields towards her house and the mist rising from the mountains and jungle just beyond. It was one of the most stunning and peaceful landscapes we’ve ever seen and a moment that captures the essence of traditional Balinese life.
What we’ve yet to share until now is the image of her after she turned around and saw us looking ridiculous in bike helmets and blue ponchos as we essentially traipsed through her back yard. Her tired expression tells so much about Bali today and the opposing feelings it left us with. A beautiful place with traditions and experiences that as I write this makes me yearn to be back despite the compromises.
It’s like a fleeting summer romance where the happiness of each new and amazing experience is matched only by the sobering knowledge that it’ll be that much harder when it all ends. Bali offered us extremely rewarding experiences, but not without many reminders that these moments are scarce and slowly vanishing.