Yeah, I bailed out of Bali early. I am both happy and extremely saddened by the fact that I saw everything I needed to see within the first 24 hours of my visit. The sections that I did see, mainly Kuta, and Seminyak are filled with both heart warming and heart breaking sights. The time I spent there was enough. This first trip out of the country was both short and long enough to give me what I need for later. It was enough to work out that there is very likely no hidden layer. There is no “real Bali” in that part of the island.
If that is the real Bali, then Bali both terrifies and saddens me. It’s chaos. Pure and simple, it is just insanity. Scooters, by the hundred, whizz by you with the utmost care and seemingly no care in the world. The “shopping” districts are littered with warungs filled to the brim with the same counterfeit goods as those a few shops down. The same NBA and Premier league Jerseys litter the walls of hundreds of stores. They’re all fake as the day is long, but nobody seems to notice or care.
Watching this endless, running battle scene is a struggle. Coming at it from the standpoint of an economically able westerner who doesn’t even go into shops where the same merchandise costs twice as much because he doesn’t need anything, I feel like a fraud. It felt like I was admitted to an event that I didn’t plan to participate in. I felt like, by not playing into the practiced and predatory sales tactics employed by the locals, I was somehow breaching a contract between a whole island and me. An offer of a scooter taxi ride quickly turned into an offer of a massage with happy ending. The t-shirt guy quickly morphed into the psilocybin mushroom guy, then into the Viagra guy. The tattoo studio guy magically also owned a counterfeit surf wear shop just across the road. Then some other guy has his hands on me, pushing me back into the store when I suddenly decide against purchasing their wares.
This morning, I succumbed, and went for a walk along the beachfront. Don’t get me wrong, the beaches of Kuta are amazing and any people should feel blessed with an incredibly bountiful resource such as those pristine sands and steady, vibrant waves. It was the people I couldn’t get over. It was the endless parade of ice-buckets filled with locals brews, the parade of young men hustling for business along that strip of sand that separates clear blue water from the dirt of the streets beyond.
I should not have done it, the walk along the beach. Not because I did not enjoy it, because it was wonderful exercise and a great opportunity to experience one of the world’s most treasured strips of sand. It was us, both the national and the collective us, that put me off Bali. I may never have worked this out, were it not for the walk along the beach.
What I saw was not a group of conscious, deliberate customers availing themselves of a service that they understood the finer detail of. Rather, I saw a horde of wealthy western tourists being grifted by talented young men whose job it is to make tourists feel at home on the beach. The problem is that where I should have interpreted the scene as innocent and relaxing, my overly active imagination instead saw the tiniest hint of menace. The few times that I elected to dig deeper into the nature of the wares being hocked by the seaside and roadside vendors, almost always did it lead to something seedier than advertised.
On my second morning in the country, I quickly worked out that I was the only person staying at my hotel. In fact, I think I may have been the only person staying on a street with four hotels. All around the hotel, rather than surf shops and bars were houses. It turned out that I had ended up staying in a deeply residential section of the city, just metres from the airport. I was so close to the airport that I never even found the main entrance. I was entering and leaving by a service walkway hundreds of metres away. As I was walking across the roadway that services the terminal the people who weren’t narrowly avoiding squashing me were looking at me like I was crazy for even being there on foot.
Personally, I think they might have been right. I think that I made a few missteps of misunderstood architecture as I tried to find my hotel. I ended up prowling about the back yard of a scooter mechanic’s shop for a few minutes, trying to work out if all of the little doors that ran off of the courtyard led to hotel rooms. In the light of the following morning, I discovered that I’d just been rambling around people’s front yards, stepping on their ceremonial offerings and just generally making a panicky spectacle of myself.
I’ll go back, but I won’t go back alone and I’ll head straight north to the less commercially oriented parts of the island. The resort scene holds no interest or mystery. The shopping makes me sad just to think about. The whole scene makes me feel like there has to be something more. There has to be more for the people of Bali to aspire to than being well-meaning roadside hustlers.
Words and Photography by Shaun Hobby