December 26, 2011

Bali Lost

Bali – the word conjures up a vision of idyllic beaches, perfect surf, and terraced rice fields set to the backdrop of a rich Hindu culture. This fabled island was at the top of my list of desired destinations for many years. And in November I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks on the island with my new wife. She indulged me as I dragged her from one famous surf spot to the next. And in between my search for waves we explored Hindu temples, trekked through a rice field to find an organic restaurant, and ended our trip diving on the reefs off the island of Lombok.

But what we experienced on Bali was not a perfect island of exotic cultures and tropical beaches. It’s an island drowning in its own success. Its infrastructure is struggling to keep pace at the same time as the area is speeding towards becoming just another mass market holiday destination. The results seem almost inevitable with annual visitors to the small island topping two million. This influx of tourist dollars has become a doubled edged sword: the Balinese people enjoy the highest standard of living within Indonesia but are saddled with a grotesque boom of development. Traffic congestion and an epidemic of garbage are the two most visible problems but even more troubling is how the tourist industry dominates much of the southern Bali. For the locals the money that can be made in the tourist industry is far greater than that of almost any traditional avenue of employment. So tourism is king, around every corner and from each doorway a vendor is hawking something: “Boss, you want taxi?” “Yes, massage,” “Drink special.” The problems are beginning to get attention both in the media and by local officials. Hopefully this will lead to change, smarter development, better infrastructure, and a preservation of the unique culture found on Bali.

I don’t want to leave you, the reader, with an impression that we had a bad time in Bali. The island and its people were extremely generous to us, its surf is second to none, the culture is welcoming and the landscape is stunning. Sublime moments are still possible: the town of Canggu had me smiling ear to ear as I biked barefoot wearing only my board shorts and a surfboard under one arm towards a surf studded beach. But the over development seen on much of the island and a hyper-stimulated tourist economy left me struggling to connect to the place. I had wanted to experience that culture which I’d long associated with the word Bali – the spiritual temples, colorful street festivals, and the perfect waves I’d seen in videos, but I found it impossible to penetrate the tourist veneer and came away feeling my experiences lacked an authenticity I’d come looking for. In the end I’d tell you Bali is a nice place to visit. Go there, look around, but use it as a jumping off point to explore the lesser traveled island of Indonesia as you’ll find the idyllic destinations are a bit further than you think.

Photographs from my trip to Bali