There’s something I can’t quite place my finger on when I arrive in Bali.
I feel torn.
There’s the beauty of the ocean from the cliffs of Uluwatu, the soft fluffy waves some days at Canggu and the colour, the bustle, the art… and, as newly vegan, the plethora of gluten-free and vegan options in almost every café.
But then there’s also this weird sense of something a little bit wrong – like the curt aftertaste of a sweet lemon sorbet – confirmed by rattling windows of an earthquake off the coast in the middle of the night or the small gathering of locals on the side of a busy road paying tribute to a man who died the night before in a scooter crash.
Then I see it, scribbled in black spray paint across a low concrete wall, somewhere between Canggu and Seminyak.
YOUR UTOPIA MY DYSTOPIA
Bali is everything I love and more – beaches, surf, sand, shopping, beach clubs with beautiful bodies glistening with beads of pool water and sweat….
But on the beachfront in Kuta, where I now try and avoid, Zara spreads herself across brick walls, the flawless face of Cara Delevingne overlooking the black sand where Balinese ladies – dressed head-to-toe rags to avoid the darkening associated with poorness – desperately try to sell their wares to Westerners who are sick of their pestering.
And the streets of Seminyak are lined with Ponsonby-like cafes and boutiques with cute playsuits in rusts and mustards. One designer is said to have sought refuge from Australian liquidators here. I wore one of her dresses in a trip to Thailand a few years ago. I can’t find her on Instagram anymore – maybe they caught up with her. Or the high life did, who knows.
It’s like us ANZ millennials descended here with our trendy typefaces and obscure brand names and Instagrammable walls and plastered them across the crumbling infrastructure like a porcelain veneer over a rotten tooth. Poverty is still rife and many Balinese tell me their monthly salary is around $3 million rupiah – or NZD$300. A Westerner can pay NZD$200 for a polisi escort to beat the traffic when leaving Denpasar Airport.
To my driver Dewi (sans police escort) I say that in my hometown, when the population swells in the summer months, the locals can become frustrated as the shelves become bare in the Four Square and the beach carpark jams. He tells me that tourism is Bali’s economy. Some of the tourists are rude but most are okay. Most of Indonesia, he says, is Muslim but Bali is mostly Hindu, so alcohol can flow freely here. I think briefly of the Bali bombings, said to have been possibly spurned by Muslim/Hindu differences, a time when Bali was crippled as tourists chose to go elsewhere.
There are different forms of Westerner tourists here – families with structured days of shopping, beach trips and theme parks, surfers, drinkers, wanderers, and people who seem as on heat as the stray dogs running across the beaches and roads. You can spot those types from a mile off with their wandering, lowered eyes and overly confident, snide scowls of people who don’t quite understand yet what love means. Maybe they never will. I’m rereading F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender as the Night by the pool and think there’s some correlation between the 1920s and now – the excess and display, just without the tenderness and the romance. We’ve become a generation of convenience – convenient food, convenient information, convenient sex.
We try and assimilate, us Westerners. I, for one, unknowingly mimic cheerful Indonesians with their clipped Indo-English.
Shop owner: “You want buy”
Me: “Yes I want buy. How maht?
Shop owner: “Fipty thousand”
Me: “Yes yes I buy ok fipty”
That is one of the highlights for me – talking with the people. They are kind and happy and love to try their English on tourists. “Chur-my-cuzzie” sounds very similar to terima kasih (thank you in Indonesian) and every time we say it, we get an enthusiastic sama-sama (you’re welcome). I think the Balinese people are both surprised and energised by Westerners speaking their language. I get the impression not many people try.
Many Balinese people surf – in contrast to the likes of Samoa and Sri Lanka, where you see more foreigners than locals out in the waves – and they rip. My Balinese surf coach Danny, who I first surfed with a couple of years ago, pushes me onto lefts (when I normally go right) yelling, “go Haa-naaah, paddle, PADDLE!” In my first lesson with him he told me to “close your legs!” when paddling, and I had a little chuckle to myself before getting wiped out by a set I didn’t know was coming.
The sunsets in Bali are incredible – not to dissimilar to the ones in northern Oahu. Reds and bronzes and yellows dazzle from an orange ball in the sky, arcing over the swelling lines of the Uluwatu ocean.
And last, but certainly not least, is the food. The influx of tourists means there are all types of cuisines for about half the price that you’d spend in New Zealand restaurants and a huge number of menus offering gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options.
I leave you with my favourite five –
– Barbacoa, Seminyak – great for the meateaters of the family but also has a huge array of tasty sides, so you can pretty much build your meal from sides (which I did).
– The Loft – great brekkies with heaps of gluten-free and vegan options.
– Ji Restaurant – amazing Japanese and incredible view of Canggu beach. Head here at sunset.
– Café Organic – Garden Gangsters – meat-free and bloody delicious. Try the matcha pancakes. Mmmmm.
– Motel Mexicola – a bit of an institution in Bali with cool premises and delicious food. Also plenty of GF options and it’s Mexican, so you can’t really go wrong.