Who invited you to Bali.

This morning, I took a walk through the streets of Canggu. Now that Bali Soul Journals is finished, I am contemplating my role in 2014, as a guest not just in Bali, but in Indonesia.  Join me on my walk and in my thoughts. Let’s hope that in 2014, there is a greater awakening and someone, somehow, sees the way forward.  Not just for Bali, but for travellers’ destinations the world over.

I also pondered a question raised last week, “who invited me to Bali?”  I think I found that answer, but it raised many more questions that for now, I have few answers.

It’s a new beginning, a new year.

The fireworks are still crackling and the wind is pushing the rain into my face as I walk through my local village.  Up a slight hill, there is a make-shift blue plastic marquis, with 15 or so crates of empty Bintang stacked neatly outside.  As I ponder the revellers’ conscientiousness, my eyes fall on the plastic wrappers and bottles scattered across the volley ball court (a piece of grass with a net strung across it).  My admiration is short-lived.

The previous evening, New Year’s Eve, there had been 20 young men setting up huge speakers in the roadside bale.  New Year to the Balinese youth is every bit as important as it is to the tourists who flock to Bali for the festive season. Now, the bottles are tidy but the surrounding area is a tip.  As I walk along this road, I comment to my husband how the rain makes such a mess.  But in truth, it isn’t the rain.  The rain only brings the rubbish out into the open, flushing it from the gutters that overflow and turn the road into a river.  Amongst the litter there are leaves, offerings, mud and twigs, but the man-made materials far outweigh anything that nature stripped from the trees.

The beach this morning was a sea of bamboo and yes, more litter.  Everywhere I looked was a reminder of the mass manufacturing of where we stand in time, 2013-14.  With a full moon and heavy rain, the tide has come right up to the wall, stripping away a metre deep of black sand.  The line where it once was, is clearly visible.  With the next tide, no doubt more will be washed out, replaced by debris brought in on the waves.

I walk home along the river and notice that the pile of rubble and trash on the river’s edge has been joined by hundreds of plastic bags, filled to the brim, and what appears to be a truck load of empty cigarette packets dumped at its edge.  I walk or ride this way frequently.  The river trickles through the density, as the bank slowly pushes its way into the centre.  The more that is pushed in, the more litter collects from further upstream.

As I drove through a cut-through between some rice paddies in a green belt in Kerobokan last week, the farmers were hauling the trash out of the gutters that water flows through to feed the rice. Every few weeks, they pile it high on the side of the road so that it spills almost a metre toward the centre, often over 60 centimetres high. It’s not picked up. When the rains come, it is washed back into the paddy gutters, awaiting rescue once again.

Bali Soul Journals is about conscious travel, for conscious travellers.  But the issue is far greater than this.  People wiser than me have written of Bali’s exploding growth, of the pressures on the environment and of impending doom. Fingers are pointed, which in my mind, is pointless, unless there is substance behind it.  One such article got attention recently on social media.  The author asked, “Who invited you to Bali?” as she described the impact of the arrival of foreign tourists, but as I stride back home through blinding rain, I realise that this is only part of the problem.  Facts are garnered to suit that popular argument.  I wanted to find out who really did invite us to Bali, and what were their plans for the future? Do we blame the tourists?  It amuses me, that the very people who are guests or have been a guest in Bali, are the ones offering up solutions to other guests. Yes, I’m one of them, a guest, but let me give you an example of how pointless some of their rhetoric is.

This morning, I shook my head as foreigners got stuck into each other once again on a Facebook forum, defending the rights of locals, all disagreeing on moot points.  A Balinese vainly tried to put his point across, but no, the ‘bules’ (white people) argued amongst themselves, each trying to score the biggest point, none wanting to be wrong.  And as I watch the clock tick tick tick on the first day of a new year, a new beginning, I fear that nothing will change.  The arguing and debating will continue in the corridors of social media, but will any of us, myself included, make a difference? Meanwhile, the Indonesian people have a fair point that they don’t want foreigners to dictate to them about what they should be doing with their country.  What country would ever appreciate that?  However, the foreigners certainly don’t pull any punches when it comes to telling each other what to do, on behalf of the Balinese.

Agnieszka Sobocinska’s article Who invited you to Bali? (www.theguardian.com – 26 December, 2013) is what was on my mind as I cast my eyes over what looked like the site of a cyclone, except that the houses were still standing.  She explores the rise in tourism in Bali and its impact on the environment, as well as depletion of its most valuable resource, water.  While her points are valid, she misses the point.  She also incorrectly cites statistics, and fails to name several sources.  So, before looking at her article in the light of my walk through the village this morning, let’s set the record straight.

Firstly, of the estimated 970,000 Australians who visit Bali each year (Badun Pusat Statistik releases tourism data, however the site is temporarily down), an unknown percentage are repeat visitors.  For example, in 2010, I entered seven times on a tourist visa.  Therefore, the number reflects airport entries, not actual persons. Given that a large percentage of expats and part-time residents come in and out of Bali on tourist visas, the total number of foreign tourists is a guess. Of the approximate 3.1 million in 2013, it can only be an estimate how many of these represent a) genuine tourists, and b) people.  Suffice to say, yes, there are a lot of people coming into Bali, but this cannot directly be compared to population figures. To help you quantify this, let’s consider the extreme.  If the 3.1 million Visa on Arrival entries were actually people who visited Bali twice a year, it would mean there were just 1,550,000 ‘tourists’ a year.  You can see that statistics aren’t reliable.  Of course, if the Indonesian government was able to quantify it by collating persons by visits, the data would be more accurate, but I’m unable to shed any light on whether they have this capacity yet.

Secondly, her estimate of three million Indonesian tourists is grossly understated.  In June 2013, The Jakarta Post reported that in 2013, Bali expected to welcome 3.1 million foreign tourists and more than 6 million domestic tourists. This does not include the influx of workers and those who make their way down to Bali by ferry in a car, side-stepping reporting processes.  Their length of stay is shorter and they spend significantly less.  The domestic tourists come from regions that are not yet practicing high environmental care standards.  So this, coupled with the lack of education in Balinese villages, is catastrophic.

The title of her article is ‘So who asked you to Bali?’ but it would appear that she needs to look further than this, and ask its own government.  The Tourism Minister has openly stated several times that there is a wish that tourism grows to (wait for it) 40 million tourists annually, once a new airport is established on the north of the island.

Indeed, there is no sign that the Balinese or Indonesian government is planning on closing the door to travellers.  As said in The Jakarta Globe, if current growth in passenger numbers continues, the airport, which opened in 1969, will hit its 20 million passenger capacity around 2014 or 2015″, said Miduk Situmorang, spokesman for airport operator Angkasa Pura. The proposed new airport would have an annual capacity of 40 million passengers and would be of “world-class standard,” he said.

The new airport in south Bali boasts that it can now cater for 16-20 million international travellers a year (depending on which newspaper and report you read) and 9.4 million domestic travellers. Regardless, even Miduk Situmorang feels that it will be insufficient in size by 2015.

So, now that we have some basic facts set straight, the issues that she raises are far more complex, and finger pointing at tourists is only part of the problem. Indeed, it’s a little like blaming water for flowing over the riverbanks, instead of building a better dam.

One valid observation is that of water usage, although not just on Bali, but also Nusa Penida, which has not had the destruction of tourism yet.

Agnieszka’s reference to Tourism Concern is fleeting and it’s not clear where her source is for the estimate that tourists (not tourism) consume 65% of Bali’s water. R.O.L.E. Foundation estimates a tourist uses five times (not 15) as much water as a local. But, regardless of whether this is correct or not, let’s go back to the keepers of the gate, proudly announcing a further 40 million tourists as a potential number for Bali. Do we tell tourists to stop coming?  And what are the chances of this, given that the growth is expected to come from the domestic market, which the government has a vested interest in encouraging.

Observing that rice paddies are declining is correct, but not due to rising land values alone.  When a villa is built in a village, the land tax is increased.  Rice farmers are unable to compete with this, however it is not always that the villa is deliberately placed on a rice paddy.  Expansion is happening globally, and Bali’s growing natural population is seeing Denpasar spread further and further out.  Near my home in Canggu, there is a grotto, and several large, windowless buildings that local workers reside in.

Rice paddies are also being abandoned simply for lack of labour. Farmers are aging, and children seek employment in more lucrative industries. Education brings with it ambition and opportunity. As NGO’s espouse the value of learning, children stay in school for longer. This makes them more employable.

The generation itself is no different to many the world over.  Attracted by smart phones, games, internet access and other joys of the technological age, Indonesian children are exposed to a world that their parents only caught glimpses of courtesy of visiting tourists.  Now, they just need to turn on the television at the local temple to have that world tantalisingly close.

I hate to pull apart her article, but it is littered with generalisations that unfortunately detract from the bigger issues at hand.  To say that ‘tens of thousands’ of schoolies descend on Bali each year is simply incorrect!  Thousands, yet, but tens of thousands?  Again, there is no source.  Just a wide-sweeping statement.

So, is her article helpful? And where does it place me, on my walk this morning through villages that have little regard for the environment they simultaneously revere through their Hindu beliefs?

I’m told that the Balinese cannot be told, that they reject Western notions or perceived interference in their villages. I understand this. Can we lead by example, as they mock our seemingly senseless behaviour? We have lost credibility, there is no doubt about this, as they observe drunken party-goers in the small but well-known Kuta/Legian area. Why would they listen to a culture that destroys their health in the pursuit of happiness?

As guests, what is our responsibility in all of this?  The end of her article states that we must, as guests, have respect for culture.  Hoorah! Yes! That is the point of Bali Soul Journals – it highlights what is beneath the tourism, what needs to be preserved at all cost.  We note in the fourteenth journal, an interview with Ibu Murni of Ubud, that if the spirituality of Bali dies, then Bali itself perishes.  From this base, working up, we can then perhaps understand what needs to be preserved – the rice paddies, the rivers, the oceans, the mountains.

I also observe in Bali Soul Journals, that tourism is both the servant and the master. While it affords a better quality of life for those in the developed areas of Bali, and more opportunities for employment, it is also the boss. In order to work in this industry, you need an education. This means less time for ceremonies, fewer workers in the villages and farms and paddies.  Murni’s voice as she spoke of Bali’s pressures in this do-or-die situation was desperate.  “We try, we try, we try.”  Her voice trailed off. When I caught up with her again last week in Thailand, I reminded her of the anguish in her voice. Her gentle brown eyes looked deeply into mine, as she shook her head and said that she did not know what the answer was.

I arrive home and the gutter in my gang (lane) is overflowing. Lolly packets, bits of plastic and bags litter the road.  An old sink lies to the side of the neighbour’s garage, it’s been there for 18 months. Meanwhile, they have begun constructing another house in their complicated mesh of buildings in their compound. The rubbish dump is next to the temple at the entrance to the gang, and despite daily sweeping, nothing manages to contain the mess.

For all of Agnieszka’s comments, and my own, what is the answer? I agree with her that cultural sensitivity is a start, but that won’t save Bali. In May 2013, I set out to bring to light the beauty of Bali, and found it beneath dust and old leaves. There is was, sparkling, its spirituality a treasure that I wanted to fill myself up with.  I found an energy in the gamelan and the belief systems that gave me hope.

But as I walked home this morning, contemplating the impact of tourism, I still had no answers.  Blaming tourists is a little like having a party and disparaging the guests you invited. The government signed off on the new airport. They paid for the new welcoming roads, and approved the restaurant and hotel licences. But will the tourists keep coming, when the venue capacity is bursting at the seams, and the kitchen can no longer serve any food?

In February, Anna Pollock, renowned conscious travel founder and consultant, will join Trish and I as we explore Bali again, this time looking at it through her expert eyes.

Until then, we are all guests, that much is true.

So, in answer to Agnieszka’s question, who invited me to Bali?, it was without a doubt, the Governor, his ministers, and one very profitable industry that opened its doors. Our challenge, is to learn how to be good and respectful guests, so that their doors aren’t left wide open for more of what I saw this morning.  How can we gently guide or lead (or something, I am at a loss for a word) the Balinese and Indonesians that something is happening here, that is critical. Educating can take one two or even three generations. And we are then faced with a nation that is intelligent at the helm. To say that it is a diplomatic issue is understating the truth of it.

Who invited me to Bali? Well, Bali did.  They did not invite the Dutch, the Japanese or even the Javanese at points in history. But they did invite the tourist. By blaming the tourist for accepting the invitation, rather than looking at other ways to help seems like holding a very big wooden spoon above an empty bowl. It’s pointless. Send the tourists home? The servant would suffer. Even yesterday, newspapers reported that the Balinese were worried that tourism targets would fall short this high season. Tourism is indeed the master.

I believe I found a starting point, a base.  It’s not a solution, but if the least we can do is to observe the importance of the depth of culture that resides deeply within Bali, then that will need to be enough for now.

Want to learn more?

To purchase Bali Soul Journals, click here.  Postage is free to any destination in Indonesia, and in addition, 100,000 rupiah will be donated to the Rotary Club of Bali Nipper’s program, teaching local children water safety, at no cost to the village.

Bali Soul Journals takes you on a tour of Bali through a traveller’s eyes and lens. It explores what lies beneath the obvious cultural landmarks and symbols, giving a new sense of urgency to why it is critical to begin by preserving the spirituality of the island. From this starting point, the rest, hopefully, will follow.

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