Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bali in the Rain (Carolann's Story)

(Carolann's thoughts about Bali. This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

We're in Bali during the rainy season and, according to a bright young university student we met while taking shelter from a flash storm, climate change is responsible for harder and longer rainy seasons here.

So climate change is pounding the island we love and remember well. But so too is over-crowding, environmental mismanagement, and an explosion of tourism-related development. Dan and I are admittedly part of the problem.

Time magazine reported this year that as the moss thickens on the island's prolific mountain temples, "rivers swell and flush down their trash and frothing human waste into the sea off Kuta Beach". Balinese authorities now warn tourists of the potential for skin infections. Swim at your own risk. The infrastructure (essential things like drain pipes, reservoirs, sewer treatment facilities) is not keeping up with development.

Maybe it's just as well that we couldn't find availability at any reasonably priced beach resort in the Kuta area. But it looks, however, like the problems will continue westward, past Kuta.

After a frantic search for accommodation last week, Dan found a delightful villa a few minutes walk from Echo Beach in the former rice-fields of Cungga. I say "former" because this area tells a familiar story. Farmers are selling their fields that roll down to the sea. Developers are ploughing under the crops, raising up in their place square-box glass and cement apartments and chi-chi villas overlooking the water. We are now comfortably ensconced in one such 4-bedroom villa, well staffed with a cook, housekeeper and pool man (included in the $250/night price). Michael Frank's California beach music is playing on an I-pod, rooms are air conditioned, we have high speed internet, a refreshing lap pool, and four ensuite washrooms each the size of a typical hotel room in Singapore. As I said, Dan and I are part of the problem.

Everyone has their paradise remembered story and of course we have a few. One of them is Bali. Dan and I know this unique Hindu island of Indonesia from just after the 2002 terrorist bombing which tanked tourism for a few years afterwards. The threat of continued terrorism, which sadly materialized in 2005, resulted in more bankruptcies. Back then, seeing few cars, we travelled into Bali's cultural heart, worlds apart from the westernized beach resorts.

We drove between hamlets on roads cut into the mountains overlooking terraced rice fields. The mountains gave way to fields of staked-orchids and then we continued under a canopy of trees with pink-hued vines hanging long and straight like a young girl's hair. Even now, though there's more traffic on the mountain roads - motorcycles fuelled by recycled Absolut Vodka bottles filled with gasoline - it's still a pleasant drive. Clusters of houses and private temples are tucked behind intricately carved, stone walls. No one believes Bali to be free of poverty, but, unlike in other developing countries, you generally won't see squalor from the road. Poor Balinese live in simple houses within a walled compound. The thick and blackened stone walls are beautiful in themselves, with the quality of an ancient ruin. The walls deter evil spirits who, it's believed, are unable to climb or turn sharp corners.

Last week in Ubud, Bali's soulful art centre, I am as impressed by the arts and crafts as before, especially by how they can make new things look antique or weathered. But since we're now at that stage of life where downsizing and disposing of possessions has replaced acquisition, I'm not buying, though I can admire. Besides, Dan reminds me that there's a dozen stores in Toronto that import Indonesian home furnishing. Not to mention that the carved wooden picture frames I bought last time warped and cracked in our centrally heated dry Canadian home. Still, Dan has to drag me away from a two-tonne piece of garden statuary which I'm mentally placing in our back yard in front of the dwarf Japanese maple. "But they can ship it!"

Let's get back to the beach.

Canggu is a small town, isolated for now from the traffic chaos and commercial buzz of Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak, home to Bali's well developed resorts. But it's just a matter of time before Canggu is transformed. The advertising boards are already running down the main road promising a luxury lifestyle at the "best beach in Bali."

I'm rolling my eyes.

While you can walk for long distances in either direction along the beach, the stretch nearest to the villa is not good for swimming. The current is strong and there's a powerful undertow. It's best suited to walking if you don't mind sand the colour of mud particularly in this rainy reason. Once you negotiate the puddles and stare-down the doe-eyed cows on a 200-metre path between the villa and the beach, it's an easy five-minute walk to Echo Beach central. There, we've found several restaurants with tables spilling out into the open air where you can eat fresh seafood barbecued to order. And ten minutes past Echo Beach, and the current end of the sea wall, there's a very good swimming beach with rented lounge chairs and bar service.

I'm looking forward to trying out that beach in the four-hour gap between rain storms.

Still, life is good, cheap and easy for foreigners in south Bali. The tough part is how to deal with one's conscience. If we come back, are we not contributing further to the problems? Or should we come back so that our tourist dollars can support a better infrastructure? Will Bali go the way of other countries in paving over its paradise?

I remember the young student of International Relations we met at the rice fields. I had asked him if he planned to work abroad after he graduates, since his fine English and marketable skills might secure him a good future in the west. It's a fair question since we're recently left India and so many bright young people we encountered there expressed a desire to emigrate.

He responded: "I plan to stay here. I have a responsibility to this land."

Maybe I don't need to worry about Bali so much.

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