Driving out through the back of Ubud to a Balinese wedding yesterday gave me the chance to give the purpose of Bali Soul Journals more thought. Sometimes a sense of importance, of urgency, comes across as being arrogant. But what we are doing is really important. All of us. Collectively.
We drove from Canggu ‘the back way’ to Ubud. This is the way the driver won’t take you. They will insist on going through Denpasar. I guess that’s possibly a shorter distance, but it’s a longer trip and constant macet…traffic jam.
I punched the village we where the wedding was into the map application on my phone. God bless technology, it took us the road less travelled, and what a stunning journey it was.
Trish and I fortunately both have a sense of humour that kicks in even during moments of frustration. Like when we just dropped off the map all together. Or when the blue blimp stopped moving, even though we had gone a good kilometre. She’s a grounded travel companion and am certain helped save the life of a Samsung Smart phone yesterday.
Driving in Bali isn’t for the inexperienced! Roads are sometimes full of potholes, and travelling in one direction can seem an impossibility. Cars like to hug the centre of the road and bikes pop up out of nowhere on your left and right sides. Road rage is practically non-existent though, as drivers make eye contact and smile, (even if the silly white person is making a ridiculous manoeuvre!) But it’s all part of the experience, and as someone who lives here I love to drive in Bali. Particularly with a satelite map!
We made our way up to Ubud on what was the road most certainly less travelled. The traffic was sparse, and the views spectacular as we crossed flowing rivers and green rice paddies. Villagers went about their business and life was slower, yet just kilometres from the chaos of Denpasar.
Finding the wedding was another matter! In true local style, the wedding invitation had a map, with the main landmarks on it being temples. That should be easy, but not if you’re not Balinese! I knew enough to know that Pura Dalam is a temple in every village, and that was one of the signposts on the map. I knew desa was village…Easy. We needed to find Desa Kenderan in Tegallalang in Gianyar. Head spinning? Sure was!
I have a good sense of direction, particularly if I can see a destination on a map, and sensed we were close. Google Maps had been kind and even with spelling variations (common in Bali, and just another thing to make locating somewhere tricky!) we were headed duly toward Tegalalang. Similar but different spelling, but the right place.
There are hundreds of villages in Bali, and each one has a carved entrance that pronounces Salamat Datang as you enter, or Selamat Jalan as you leave. Some are significant arches over the roadway, others are small ruined statues on either side of the road. But a keen eye can spot them nonetheless.
I stopped to ask directions with my passable Indonesian. I was grateful for learning directions carefully, as you need a little more than kiri, kanan and terus. Left, right, continue. He nodded and smiled, and sent us off on a road to the left after studying the map carefully. Even though it was directly opposite to where we needed to go, how could we be frustrated with where he sent us?
After driving through the prettiest village, we stopped by a flowing river that was deep in a gorge where the jungle almost fell into the clear water. Locals on their way to a ceremony smiled and waved and children called out hello. It’s almost impossible to picture the chaos of Kuta in settings like this.
Realising that although it was a lovely stop-off, it was hopelessly in the wrong direction, we returned and this time asked a policeman who gave excellent directions. Had there not been so many of them, we might have gone directly to the wedding, but another small diversion saw us stop and watch a little boy playing at the edge of a rice fields while ducks lazily floated on the paddy’s water. We asked a farmer, who again gave perfect directions.
We both sat in silence taking in the most magical sights as we drove through the hills to Kenderan. Paddies and jungle seemingly blended before we entered the adjoining village. At first glance, it appeared to be one big temple, but it wasn’t. Each home or compound had a temple at the front and a high red brick wall. Locals nodded at us, smiling, as they went about their daily tasks. Children played by the road and to be honest, we felt as though we had driven into a time capsule. There was no rubbish scattered on the ground, only green grassy strips. This was Desa Kedewatan, surely one of Bali’s most tranquil villages? Perhaps because of the men preparing vegetables, or the women going about their business? A glimpse of such a simple, yet complex life. Simple, in that needs are less cluttered than ours. Complicated, for the rituals of ceremony, the beliefs, the fabric of life that depends on the unseen and is grateful for all that can be seen.
We stopped, this time not to ask directions, but to admire the Kedewatan temple. Because I was dressed in a sarong, sash and kebaya, the men preparing vegetables in the grounds of the temple beckoned me in. They were fascinated with my camera and gestured for me to take photographs of them. I looked up toward the main part of the temple and they pointed, telling me to go and have a look. Wearing traditional clothing is certainly necessary and quite lovely, if you want to see inside temples. Without it, you should not enter unless a Balinese gives you permission and dresses you accordingly, or approves of what you are wearing.
The temple was like a small city. As I wandered its grounds, the gamelan began next door. Several men chorusing prior to the ceremony later that day or week, I couldn’t tell when. Several women giggled as they walked past with offerings and other baskets of food. Everyone had a task, undertaken with gentle smiles and lots of laughing and chatter.
Dragging ourselves away, we continued on to the wedding. Down sweeping hills again, dense jungle and spectacular rice paddies.
Finding the wedding after this was pretty simple. Now in the correct village of Kenderan, the temple landmarks were obvious.
The bride and groom were spectacular in their crowns and sarongs, dazzling with gold. We were warmly welcomed into their home. Family members were bustling about preparing for the next ceremony and again, I was invited in to the temple, this time to meet the priest, the Pemangku. I took a photo of the smoky trails of incense burning, which Trish then transformed into the picture at the top of the page. Everyone wanted to either chat and quiz me on my Bahasa Indonesia, or have their photograph taken, particularly the young beautiful ladies. The children chattered and giggled, reminding me that the sacred ritual of marriage involves everyone, not just the couple.
We headed toward home, much easier now we knew where we were going. At the foot of a crystal stream, young boys bathed and played in the water, their clothes on the banks. Seeing us, they burst out laughing and began running for their clothes, hands held tightly clasped below their bellies!
Making our way down the mountain, the temples were splendid and we chanced upon another ceremony. Fruit, chickens and other gifts were piled high upon dulangs the wooden pedestal that women balance on their heads. Children piled into the open backs of waiting vans and men assisted the women with their heavy treasures.
This is just a glimpse of the Bali that so many fell in love with, and that many fear will be lost. It has been lost in central Kuta, as tourism shows its ugly face in the worst way possible. Debate rages about a 60 Minutes special that covers this small but frantic zone of Bali. On the face of it, the story seems so unfair. The Balinese in the north are not part of this. They haven’t bought into tourism on this level. But tourism has side effects, and we need to be aware of them. When not contained, it brings crime, drugs, alcohol and euphoria. In a country like Indonesia, some tourists believe there are no rules, that it is the “Ibiza” of SE Asia. And this image, the collective image of tourism in this sense, is dirty, ugly and soul-destroying. Not just for what it is, but what it takes away.
But it is not Bali. This is not the Bali that is cherished by the Balinese or by many long-term expats. It is not the Bali they envisaged. As each palm tree was felled along the beaches of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak, can they be surprised that what followed was indulgence rather than paradise? Stripping away paradise and building hotels and nightclubs and restaurants and offering it to an eager tourist who has a bulging wallet and a desire to escape should not come as a shock.
To expect all tourists to behave as guests, and as travellers, when the prize on offer is so tempting, was perhaps naive. But it is what it is. The question is – how can we stem this tide as conscious travellers, reverse the damage, cut the bleeding that risks spreading up through Seminyak to Kerobokan and Canggu, edging its way to Tabanan and beyond? When the airport is built on the north of the island, we can expect more trees to groan as they are felled. It will certainly help the poverty, but at what cost? Is there another way?
As the debate continues, let’s think about our own contribution to the side effects of mass tourism, concentrated in one small space…a natural playground on the beach, bull dozed for a five-star restaurant, the newest nightclub attracting lines of taxis and of course, the glitzy life of the rich and not-so-famous. The list goes on. The cranes now speckle Bali’s once blue horizon and the building continues.
This is not to say that tourism is bad. It’s not to say that beautiful architecture such as W in Seminyak is wrong and should be avoided. We are at a critical point of urbanisation and tranquility. Do we continue to raze the land? At what point do we say ‘let’s enjoy what we have?’
Our collective responsibility is to look, learn, and see how we can stop the tide of indulgent tourism, and take it back to an awareness of what attracted us in the first place.
The argument is complex. Behind it all is money, selling out to the tourist dollar. It’s not the fault of the Balinese. Many businesses are owned by Javanese. There is much foreign investment. Is it the fault of the tourist?
Well, Aussies have a statistical problem that points toward perhaps there is a sub-culture of low respect for the hosts of this country. Let’s consider some facts.
80 Australians died in Thailand of accident/misadventure, versus 21 Americans in the same year. 600,000 Australians travelled to Thailand on holiday, versus 700,000 Americans. The statistics are similar for Bali. If the number of Americans was extrapolated to match that of Australians, 8-16 would die in Bali in one year, versus nearly double that for Australians (taking into account natural causes).
Do we want Bali to become like Spain is for the Brits? Or like Vietnam which statistically is more dangerous.
Will we get the wake up call? Collectively? Will we see that the focus on Bali is not for any sinister reason. It is a symptom of what a small part of Bali has become, and what risks the larger part of Bali. If less tourists come, is that a bad thing? Yes, if the ones who still come are the small core who treat it like a seedy backyard of downtown Sydney. But worse, because they carry the belief that there are no rules.
This is where we stand today, at a junction where we can slam a television show, or we can consider the message that underlies its sensationalism. Sometimes, it takes someone to hurl the pendulum to the floor, before balance is restored.
So we will continue with Bali Soul Journals. Opening your eyes to the beauty of Bali, to her heart and soul. And hope that as you drive the road less travelled that we take you on, you leave only footprints and smiles in a land that needs help from its guests as tourism hurtles into the future.
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Text and photography by Clare McAlaney
Feature image finishing and collage art by Trish McNeill
All images and text copyright 2013, property of Bali Soul Journals. Should you wish to use the image or have a story commissioned, please use the contact form below.
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