I was on the road to Gilimanuk that leads to the west coast of Bali, and the words of Maggie Thatcher of all people, were triggered in my head. Cars zoomed past both ears as I cautiously edged my way across to a temple that had caught our eye, nervously pleading with our golden retriever Brodie to not pull me too quickly.
Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.
It’s July 2013, and I am with Trish McNeill and my husband, looking for the heart and soul of Bali.
At this point, I had no idea where I was headed. Anywhere seemed good enough. For a small island, it packed a lot of angles and we were getting excited about every single one of them. Our eyes were wide open with wonder, even though I had lived in Bali around 20 months by then, and visited the island some 50 times since 1988. I always had a sense that I didn’t really know the island. Sure, I knew all about being a tourist, but there was an invisible layer I’d observed that the Balinese kept between visitors and themselves. It keeps them in two places, like a middle of the road line. You are welcome to cross it, so long as you carry with you an intention to only return being a better, more holistic person.
But it’s a line that is becoming blurry and the Balinese are struggling at some levels to maintain it.
In the 1970’s it was simple. Tourists were guests, and for the most part, behaved like guests. They stayed in homestays, ate local food, learned about the culture (even when it was drip-fed – the Balinese are perplexed when we ask some questions about practices their father’s mother’s sister’s brother handed down) and enjoyed the blessings of the island with the full gusto and gratitude of a child with a precious gift.
Balinese were bemused yet enamoured with many of these visitors. They brought financial success on the tail end of decades of sublimation and control. Monetary tips and friendships went hand in hand, and the Balinese quickly learned that they could expand their own horizons without leaving their shores, and bring a better standard of living. Many had been living in poverty due to a number of factors. The island, like most other places on the planet, was open to the invasion of Chinese trade. Artisan skills were under threat as pots, weavings and other daily items were replaced with plastic and metals.
But the tourists were a godsend. They revered the old skills and paid handsomely for them. Ibu Murni of Murni’s Warung in Ubud had no idea how much money she was being given for her wares, but it was a fortune in her eyes. It was well worth the long haul trip on a push bike into Sanur, and back up the relentlessly winding hills on a bike with no gears.
Suddenly in recent times, the Balinese have found themselves not sitting comfortably on one side, able to traipse back and forth over the line at whim, but being pulled for longer and longer into the moment of modern-living. In what seems like a flash, they are suddenly, dangerously, standing in the middle of the road, not knowing which side to retreat to.
It’s not the fault per se of tourism. It’s not the fault of the Balinese. In fact, to apportion blame is about as pointless as trying to get a time machine to turn back the clock and start all over again. It is what it is, and as I have journeyed and continue to journey, on this path I call Bali Soul Journals, it is becoming more and more apparent that there are other ways to tackle the obvious issues that face Bali, and many other regions on the planet.
It all begins with small steps.
The first, is to allow the existence of the line without argument. Lines are there to stop traffic colliding. The heritage of the Balinese stems from an innate connection with the planet. Westerners are slowly making their way back to their nest, but recent centuries of Industrial Revolution, Renaissance and modernism can’t be reversed overnight.
It’s not to say the Balinese are better than the rest of the planet. It’s that Western cultures have been galloping away from a connection with heart, mind and spirit for so long, that turning the horse around is going to require a runway that spans the planet several times.
If the Balinese are dragged, or even willingly go, to the Western mindset, they will most certainly land precisely where most first world countries are today. The bad thing about history is that it repeats itself. The good thing, is that it leaves a legacy and an example to learn from, so that old mistakes don’t need to be repeated.
The second, is to honour ourselves as well. I read quite a few forums, and am amazed at expats who regularly put Westerners down, as though they are to blame for the entire destruction of the planet. If I was 10,000 metres high in the air, travelling around the globe, one glance into China’s pollution or Uganda’s policies would at least give me the grace to not beat myself up so passionately. It is a cycle that we are all participants in. We are all consumers, regardless of our location or culture, and we all have existing somewhere, noble cultural histories that are rich and deserve to be preserved. Bashing up ourselves is self-deprecating and to be honest at times, a little self-serving.
The third, is to engage in conversation. The beauty of an invisible line is that it can create respect. I sit facing you, and I listen. Then, you look in my eyes, and listen to me. We aren’t trying to pull each other across the table. We are learning, in a mature way.
As many readers are aware, I jump on my bike regularly and head about 20 kilometres inland through the villages of Tabanan Regency. At one point, I need to travel three or four kilometres down the treacherous road to Gilimanuk, where the ferry comes in from Java. For a trucking route, it is winding and at times narrow. Jungle towers over the road on both sides for much of the way, with deep gorges and rivers that flow to the Bali Sea.
I hug the left curb and furtively glance over my right shoulder from time to time, cursing myself that I forgot to get a rear vision mirror fitted to the bike. (Sorry if you are reading this Mum, I never said I felt completely safe!) The flow of traffic represents nothing to do with tourism. The modern age had already brought its show-bag full of temptations, notwithstanding any airline landing on the island. Nokia, the internet, 3G, Facebook – it is almost impossible for an Indonesian with a form of income to escape the barrage of messages from around the globe. When an island has laid sleeping happily for centuries in the knowledge that its spiritual guidance will ensure a safe journey to the next life, and suddenly its youth are confronted with sexy images of bright new gadgets, lifestyles of the rich and famous and handed a middle class income and education, life changes.
Blame is pointless. Respectful dialogue is essential.
On that first trip on the road to Gilimanuk, as the traffic whizzed past, Brodie somehow seemed to know we were in the middle of the road and that sticking next to me was important. We reach the temple with relief and Trish began snapping away at the century old structure. Beyond its walls, stretch rice paddies that in some optical illusion seem to march right up to the foothills of the mountains beyond.
The middle of the road on the way to Gilimanuk is dangerous. We barely went 30 kilometres over four hours, slowing for on-coming bikes and trucks, and constantly stalling behind tipsters loaded with sandstone and rock. We stopped regularly at temples, breathing in the ocean air and allowing the spray to gently cleanse our faces. The little stops along the way, safely on the left side of the road, brought our jagged nerves back to a slight chatter and grounded us, even though the culture before us was way beyond our understanding.
As I venture toward another volume of Soul Journals, Balinese are quietly approaching me, suggesting I speak to their friend on the northern tip, another in the west. Indonesians have shyly but proudly asked if I would consider a book on their own region. They are looking for the stories, the richness of the tapestry that makes up who they are. They aren’t rejecting modernism and all its perks, but somehow, there seems to be comfort in reaching for a familiar tale that carries with it a lesson.
When I was growing up, teachers would regularly ask us this question: “If you were stranded on a desert island with three things/people, what/who would they be?”
As a planet, one day, perhaps that is all we will have left. A sea of desert islands. It’s a numbing thought. But what if that happened? What if the Industrial Revolution, the Technological explosion, and all that followed, has gone too far already? What if, as Richard Flax suggested in the tenth journal of Bali Soul Journals, it all does go horribly wrong instead of right, and that Bali is just the fastest to do it?
But let’s say this was just an illustration, a fictitious outcome that helps us find our side of the road so that we can listen, learn and work together? What three things would we cherish? What three things would feed our soul and ensure our survival? And from where would these things come?
The Balinese nurture their mind, body and spirit. They have stories, bundles of them, that help explain the importance of their connection with the planet, each other, and the unseen realms. This is their side of the road.
The middle of the road, while it is so busy and frantic, is dangerous. Getting knocked down from both sides isn’t helpful at all – to the Balinese, the visitors or me. I don’t like being tugged back and forth. I am quite comfortable with my writer’s soul, my creative spirit. I spent a long time in the middle of the road, and it was painful and frustrating.
I glance at the book that Trish and I created. It’s a start. It helped me find my own side of the road, while gently exploring the other. It keeps me on the road to where I need to go, safely for the most part, and comfortably.
Each time I edge my bike off the road to Gilimanuk, and enter the peace of the villages, my mind instantly quiets from the intrusive noise of the traffic, and I know I draw an audible sigh of relief. The roads are often bumpy and wide. I can clearly see where I am going, and at times I can even ride on the other side of the road without fear of colliding with an on-coming motor bike. The cows have no qualms crossing the invisible line, expecting me to slow for them, which naturally, I do.
It’s a world of cooperation and harmony.
We are not so distant from this, certainly not as far as we sometimes say we are. As cultures, we do have something in common. The very fact that I can feel peace as I cycle the paddies of Tabanan Regency assures me that at some point, this simplicity is what made our hearts stronger, lives healthier and communities more peaceful. It’s just that the Western commonalities are so old and almost forgotten, apart from some altruistic souls helping nurture us back to a state of feeling, of being grounded, of listing to our hearts, minds and spirit. The middle of the road only got so crazy when we thew missiles down it in the shape of commercialisation and greed.
Mankind seems to have been fighting for so long now, we are numb to images of fire and reports of death. We’ve accepted that the frantic middle of the road is the place to be, while mourning the loss of our own state of being.
As I turn my back on the busy by-pass that takes busloads of tourists to Tanah Lot temple every day, I carefully keep my wheels on the left side of the road. Maggie Thatcher was right. The middle of the road is dangerous. But once, it was a place of peace and harmony in the centre of a village where goods were traded and life was sustainable.
That’s the beauty of Bali. Lessons and stories around every corner, beckoning to be written, heard and shared.
If we are lucky, the middle of the road will once again be a place we are not only nurtured, but a place in our community we feel safe enough to share our dreams and lessons of who we are, and why we must continue to be.