Serving the Master

I coined the phrase “Serving the Master” in Bali Soul Journals when I was reflecting on where Bali is today.  Once, tourism was the servant, bringing a better quality of life for Balinese.  But now, that servant has become the master.  In some instances, Balinese have become slaves to establishments built on their land.  And as I sit here today, the social media pages are spinning out because of this image I posted a few days ago.  I shared it to raise awareness, in the hope that if we all stood up and actually looked at what was happening, someone in power would sit up and take notice.  After almost 300 shares of the image, I don’t know where it has ended up, but I hope that it is on someone’s desk.  Not for the destruction it will cause to tourism, but for the symbolism of our collective destruction of the planet.

rubbish balie

I’ve listened to the comments and they vary. Each has a valid point, but they need to be viewed collectively, because as silos, they are not ‘a small start’…they simply cannot work alone.  Here are a few:

  • Start a Clean Up Bali day
  • Stop using plastic bags
  • Clean up the beaches
  • Educate locals
  • Stop tourism
  • Fine people for rubbishing
  • Establish a waste management system
  • Make the tourist industry pay
  • It’s part of the monsoonal pattern
  • And, from the Governor of Bali…it is a natural phenomenon

When I got to the end of writing Bali Soul Journals, I knew that I had travelled a different path to the one I had thought I was on.  I saw the beauty in the Balinese, heard the anguish in their voices, and knew deep down that something very troubling was happening at the heart of Bali.  Today, I was sent a link by an Australian journalist, who gave a balanced view on much of what is happening in Bali.  He centres it on tourism, and I guess no-one can argue that this is where the problem began. He gives a short video of the demise of the mangroves, which were once regarded as being the best in Indonesia…now, they are at threat not from development directly, but a deluge of trash.

Watch video here.

The Westernisation of Indonesia and indeed, Asia, has also largely contributed.  Asians who have money, consume.  They love packages. Everything seems to come bound up in boxes and bags.  Even if they don’t have a lot of money, the lollies and sweet drinks are consumed by the bucket load, the wrappers carelessly tossed to the ground afterwards.

This is a nation where it seems everyone has at least two cell phones.  Electronics are being gobbled up as quickly as they can be produced, and families aspire to having a motor bike and a car.  Indeed, economic growth in Indonesia is being driven largely by personal consumption, so blaming tourism is far from the solution.  Over six million Indonesians visit Bali annually, and that doesn’t count the thousands who flee Jakarta to find employment on the island.  This is in addition to around three point two million foreign tourists, but of the 240 million or so Indonesians, it can only be expected the wealthier residents want to holiday.

Indonesia’s Economic Growth 2009–2013 (annual percentage change)

 Year    Quarter I
   Quarter II    Quarter III    Quarter IV
 2013        6.05        5.83         5.62            –
 2012        6.29        6.36         6.16         6.11
 2011        6.45        6.52         6.49         6.50
 2010        5.99        6.29         5.81         6.81
 2009        4.60        4.37         4.31         4.58

Source: Statistics Indonesia (BPS)

Education is becoming valued, which in turn takes farmers from the land.  The issues are endless and I for one, cannot begin to imagine how to ‘fix’ them, as they tumble over each other, fighting for urgent attention.  Do we fix the hunger, poverty, corruption, consumption, pollution, natural resources, tourism, education, housing, floods, environment, illness, disease, dengue, land use…where do we start?

Richard Flax observed in Journal 10 of Bali Soul Journals that if we get it right in Bali, we have hope for the planet. Of course, if we get it wrong…this is catastrophic.

Where are the conscious travellers?

Bali Soul Journals has been out less than a month, and as I recap on my own journey, I’m wondering as I read articles, watch videos, listen to social media discussions – where are all the conscious travellers?  And how do we find them in Indonesia, to help this country turn a vital corner and realise that the world is starting to watch as they consume, yet don’t seem to build infrastructure to support the consumption.

After chatting for an hour with Anna Pollock, we were trying to find a language that begins to address the issues here and elsewhere around the planet for tourism.  The heart of Bali Soul Journals is to preserve the spirituality of Bali, but as Michael Bachelard points out in the above article, without land, a complex network disintegrates:

But subak is not just about irrigation. It’s a network of farms, a ritual of meetings and agreements and an important expression of the Balinese religious philosophy of ”Tri Hita Karana”, which holds that there are three sources of happiness: people’s relationship to God, to each other, and to nature.

Disrupt the flow of water, and you disrupt water worship in Balinese Hinduism, the rituals of which are part of the island’s allure, as well as its World Heritage listing. Now, though, because of tourism, the entire water supply of Bali is under severe stress.  [Read more]

I spent time last year with Don George, Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler.  Without a doubt, he is a remarkable conscious traveller.  I met travel writers and bloggers, journalists and film makers, authors and inspirators (it’s not a word, but I love it just the same, meaning someone who inspires others).  And last night, as I chatted to Anna, we both wondered…what is the next step for this ‘new’ idea of conscious travel?  What will be our role in it?  Is creating awareness enough, or do we need to do more?

Anna has defined conscious travel, but with my marketing hat on, I want to know more.  Who are you?  Where do you hang out?  Are you all vegans balancing yoga poses, or are you running a corporation?  Do you live and breathe it, or is it something that is a romantic notion that we trot out when we want to feel good about our five-star luxury holiday?  I know a lot of hotel General Managers.  They’re not going to like it if you stop coming.

Is it time that the tourism industry puts aside any ego and simply says, “we are all in it together, how can we help?”  Will our hosts listen? Do they want help? Having lived in Bali over two years, I see countless organisations helping helping helping, but the situation seems to be worsening, not improving.  Why, with so many eager hands?

Do we abandon the monolith and leave islands such as Bali alone?  Do we  walk away, close the airports, travel closer to home, wherever that may be?  If we want to experience somewhere, do we simply move there?  Or not experience it at all?

Time to recap

So, back to my question, which needs another one alongside it – where are all the conscious travellers, and who are you?

The conscious traveller

Rather than give an aspirational definition, I think starting with reality is a very good place to start.  I’ve met and spoken to so many of you on this journey, and don’t want to cram parameters that might be simply too difficult to sustain.  So let’s start with what we have.  You, and me.  Perhaps if we know where we are now, we can figure out a destination as we go.

When I first came to Bali, I was a tourist.  I drank in bars, lay by the pool, shopped with sheer delight and ate until I could eat no more.  I guess I was a glutton.  Holidays were to be avidly consumed.  Delighting the senses, indulging in pleasures that would somehow become unattainable back home, these were the primary goals.

I am also a marketer by trade.  My job has been to get into the heads of people to sell them stuff.  Yep, we monkey around with what we think they are thinking, and come up with a plan that will magically make them buy more of the stuff that our CEO wants us to sell.  I started with chocolate…let’s face it, marketing chocolate was pretty easy!

Now that I’ve lived here, I am certainly more aware, but I’ve thankfully met people who have been more aware for quite some time.  I’ve just been catching up.  Well, I’ve actually been sprinting the past nine months!

So, if I am now a conscious traveller emerging, what exactly is that?  Here’s some top-off-my-head bullet points, relative to Bali.  (Note:  there are no answers here! I only raise more questions, which I am hoping your feedback will help answer.)

  1. I respect the locals.  That sounds pretty simple, but at times it can be harder than you think.  When we impose our own ideology on another culture, at times, it clashes.  One woman I know detests the phrase “in Bali time”.  When someone tries to pacify her because something has not been completed, she literally spits out that there is ‘no such thing’ as Bali time! I have no idea why, as it accurately describes the attitude many Balinese have to getting things done!  But, it’s not always easy and it does indeed have conflicts.  For example, locals have no conscience about throwing rubbish in the river near where I live.  Do I respect that, as it drifts out to sea and contributes to destroying our marine world?  Do I lead by example, in the vain hope someone is watching?  Do I preach, and tell them they can’t do that?  Or, as I’ve seen quite a few do, do I dedicate months and months slowly becoming known and accepted, so that I can help from the ground up?  But if I do that, what about all the other issues that we Westerners believe need addressing – the way animals are treated, education, corruption, systems, processes…
  2. I conserve.  Short showers, eco-friendly pool, minimising watering, rubbish disposal, all the green stuff we have been asked to do in Australia…all good in theory.  However I wonder if my little contribution is enough.  I’ve taught my local supermarket about re-using bags, but she gave them all away and is back to using plastic, even for the people who got the bags!
  3. I respect the culture.  Well, I try.  To respect a culture, you first need to understand it.  Even writing the book, I was gently chided by Balinese to omit this and change that.  It’s the ‘how can I know what I don’t know?’ conundrum, or ‘how can I ask a question that I don’t even know exists?’  Some people do it naturally, the diplomats amongst us. Others are in a hurry to clean up Bali, get rid of tourists…with their eyes firmly on the result, they inadvertently tramp over the culture to get there.  So this is better phrased as, “I attempt to respect the culture.”
  4. I immerse myself.  Do I?  I’ve been to ceremonies, worn appropriate clothing, asked before speaking or moving or accepting anything or sitting down.  I’ve bobbed my way up and down respectfully past elders and children, just to keep all bases covered, and I’ve shared food seated on the ground, eating with my hands.  As a traveller, it’s going to be harder for you, as you only have limited time.  Do you live in the village to fully appreciate Balinese life?  When I think of that, if we converted tourists to travellers, to conscious travellers, we might have eight million ‘guests’ in kosts throughout Bali…now that thought makes me shudder!
  5. I learn.  This one is possibly the easiest to take on board.  If we ask questions, open our eyes, suspend judgement, what will we find?  For me, I found a deep-seated spirituality that I would simply never have had touch my life.  I learned how to cook some of the dishes, speak some of the language, adopt some of the polite body language movements.  In simple terms, I learned to shut my mouth, and watch.

However, bigger issues remain.  What is the future of conscious travel?  What is the idealistic view?  That would mean no air travel or use of anything that can corrupt the environment.  We would need to close hotels and give land back to the locals.  We would support self-sustainability and actively help the preservation of artisan skills…from afar.

Yes…hang on, we won’t be able to travel there!  So in its purest form, it would be getting our butts back to our own countries and leaving well enough alone.  Well, that won’t work.  Cultures have become dependent on tourism.  And like it or not, the modern age has touched almost every place on the planet.  So what is the model conscious traveller?  What about those who have no desire to do anything differently? – both the host, and the guest.  Do we risk treating cultures like animals whom we simply observe, for our own pleasure?  We preserve lions because they are majestic.  Are we preserving cultures because we want to watch them, or because their preservation may have a lasting and positive impact on the planet?

Back to reality.  Back to where we are now.  The hotels all have a conscious-ability, if they choose.  They can manage waste, water, consumption.  True, it costs money, in an industry that already has paper-thin margins, but it can be done. Consumers can help by choosing and supporting those who authentically contribute to conscious travel.  This will help the declining margins, margins that if Mother Earth sneezes, can be wiped out in seconds.

And then, there is “us”.  We can manage how we plan our holidays, what we do, how much we consume.  A favourite line of many tourists is “Well, I give them a job.”  They do indeed, which takes them from the temple, requires an education and costs money to ultimately maintain.

I keep hearing Ibu Murni’s voice in my head, as she says, “We try, we try, we try.”  The Balinese elders try to maintain spiritual balance, to preserve the farmer’s lives which are linked to their spirituality.  They also want educated children, cars and successful businesses.  A clairvoyant cautioned me recently, “Be careful, you can’t have it all.”

So is what we wish for Bali too much?  We create engineers through sponsorships, to build more buildings.  They take knowledge and money back to the village, and give a better, more Western quality of life.

Bye Bye Plastic Bags

Bye bye plastic bags

Two young girls in Bali are collecting signatures to convince the Governor to rid the island of plastic bags.  That children can see a solution is nothing new…they often cut through the haze and verbalise the logical.  But that they are doing it so avidly, with absolute conviction that they will succeed and be part of the solution is heart warming.  (Click here to sign their petition…please!)  They have set up a Facebook page, created a video.  They are doing but without government support, they won’t be able to do it alone.

While Bali is divided into so many autonomous pockets, without cohesion and cooperation, we are literally, as the chairman of Bali’s tourism board, Ngurah Wijaya says, ”…loving Bali to death.”

And as Michael points out, of the three routes to happiness, at least two are now under threat.

I don’t know what the answers are.  But here is a call for conscious travellers to stand up now, not just when you travel, not as activists, but as part of the global community.  Sign that petition, ask questions, be curious, think of solutions, share.  The more we talk, the more awareness is created.  That’s not ‘just whining about it and hoping someone else will fix it” as someone pointed out today.  Speaking about an issue makes it real, gives it a sense of purpose.  Blog, write, share, post.  Together, if we raise our voice, that is the first step.

The doing will happen, when those who have the power and the answers, begin to listen.  And sometimes, listening needs a lot of people to stand together and shout, very very loudly.

Tourism is now the Master.  It is time to take back that balance of power and once again relegate it to where it belongs, as a servant to humanity.  That may well indeed be idealistic, but, it’s a starting point.  And that, as they say, is a very good place to begin.


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