In the movie South Pacific, Bloody Mary sings about Bali Ha’i:
Bali Ha’i may call you…
Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.
She was crooning of an imaginary place, a lonely island somewhere in a foggy ocean. It seems that there’s something lurking in the psyche of human beings that longs for a tropical island paradise. We want that primal experience of a waterfall flowing over us, the fragrant breath of a jungle to delight us while we wander in a sarong beneath the fruit trees plucking something sweet and ripe to gobble. That visage of paradise might have been possible in 1949 when South Pacific premiered at the Majestic Theater in New York…when the world population was just over 2 billion. Now at nearly 4 times the population, there’s trouble in paradise.
The masses heard the call of Bloody Mary and they came by the millions — by cruise ship and Pan Am Clipper — to find that fantasy island somewhere in guess where? The South Pacific. Today the island of Bali, Indonesia, tucked 8 degrees south of the equator in the Indian Ocean, is a vastly overcrowded mutation of someone’s island paradise suffering the scourge of Eat, Pray, Love, the book and movie that put it on the map. It has a population of about 5 million (+ the teeming masses of tourists and expats) on a volcanic rock smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware. Once a serene place, there’s no way around the fact that Bali is now choked with traffic, buzzing with motorcycles, and up to its ankles in plastic waste. Surely there’s serene beauty to be found here, but it has been pushed further and further afield and has made the task of finding it something of a search for the holy grail.
Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying attention, or I’m terribly dense, or I live in my own dream world of 1940s fantasy island musicals. (Very likely all of the above.) Bali turned out to be a bit of a rude surprise when we arrived on New Year’s Eve from Malaysia, another exotic, crowded, and polluted place. We immediately found ourselves stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic — something we thought we’d left behind in Kuala Lumpur. Hah! KL’s got nothing on Bali’s traffic.
This is all too familiar to me having lived now in Southeast Asia for a year and a half. Traffic, crowds, and garbage are sadly the norm wherever we wander. It’s damn near impossible to find that ideal place that no one has discovered, where you can listen to the birds without a leaf blower overpowering them, or paddle about in clear waters without bumping into a plastic bag and freaking yourself out that you just grabbed a jellyfish. Whew, it’s only a plastic bag! But crap, it’s a plastic bag.
With the lightning speed of communication and in a time where everyone’s a travel writer, any desirable little corner of the world has already hit the coconut wireless long before you’ve even had a chance to check to see if there are any AirBnB listings for it. And wherever that little nook is, yes there are listings and a TripAdvisor rating for it. There’s even a listing in Karakalpakiya, Republic of Karakalpakstan. One. And maybe I should go and stay in their windowless room and be the first guest to review it. I would like to see the Savitsky art collection and somehow I think I wouldn’t get stuck in traffic there or be run off the sidewalk by a motorcycle.
But back to Bali. We arrived with a bang. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve and what should we expect but crowds and explosions? And that’s what we got.
Our friend Sten invited us to a party at a gay bed and breakfast. It was a sweet party of multi-generational and multi-ethnic men. And then we walked to the beach to see the pyrotechnic spectacle, me with my earplugs already jammed into my ears and a facemask at the ready. I was well aware that the terror alert was at its highest as Australia and the U.S. had intercepted terrorist chatter of a planned attack in Bali on New Year’s Eve. We were advised to stay out of crowded areas in Bali. Where, dear State Department, might that be?
I might have been the only person on the beach who thought, wow, this is really kind of gross. Fireworks are a cheap thrill that pollute the hell out of an already polluted place. Do you think people cleaned up their burnt Roman candles and firework messes at the end of the night? Dream on, gurl. It was all there sitting at the tideline the next day waiting for turtles to choke on.
I texted a friend that Bali really wasn’t the island paradise that it was purported to be. He wrote back that to enjoy Bali is to not go out — to stay in your villa. And that we did…
The villa was a very lovely sprawling home built by a Dutch man and staffed by locals who were very kindly — a bit like a more sincere version of Thailand. So to do Bali right is to choose the right walled-off chunk of it and venture out at your own risk of being offended. By everything.
We did venture out a bit into Legian and Seminyak and always came back to the villa panting from the heat and overwhelmed by the traffic and noise. The idea of leaving on a round-island road trip seemed horrifying if it took us an hour just to go a few blocks.
After a couple days of West Bali madness, we set off for the upland town of Ubud with my friend Yulia who fled the war in Ukraine to Bali with her 2 daughters in tow. I had rented a room out to her through AirBnB 2 years ago in Tucson.
We became instant friends back then, sharing a common free-spirited, whacky-yet-elegant philosophy of living. We picked up our 24-hour friendship right where we left off and added Chuan to the mix. It was a threesome lovefest at first sight.
Ubud is way more charming than Legian, Seminyak, and Kuta, but equally choked with traffic which just sits at a standstill belching fumes into the 2 blocks of road that comprise downtown Ubud. To get out of town, you have to either brave the rickety sidewalks until you’re past the jam and then take a taxi, or hop on a motorcycle and wiggle through stuck cars. Either option seemed to me crushing of what could be a sweet town full of alternative people and great restaurants. Perhaps they could take up auto meditation where you sit in a car for 45 minutes and give up your attachment to actually getting anywhere. Twice we bailed out of cars and just walked the remaining distance leaving the car stuck behind.
Ubud is the town where Eat, Pray, Love took place and as such there’s a lot of eating, praying, and you know whating, going on. If you objected to the self absorption of the book and movie, let me tell you the town will work your nerves. Chuan found it endlessly amusing. For him it’s exotic and funny. I find nothing exotic about the new age but I do find it entertaining. It’s all too familiar being from California and Hawaii where many of my best friends are EPL’ers. New age people really know how to cook a good raw meal.
There were definitely some pretty charming spots to discover but we had to take it slow, not just because of the traffic getting in and out of Ubud, but the stifling heat and humidity. Take 3 steps and you’re drenched in sweat. This is the rainy season and it didn’t rain at all — it was sunny and hot every day. So we spent a lot of time in shady cafés taking no steps other than to order cool, refreshing drinks like kambucha and the famous “purple haze.”
I’d like to go back to Bali sometime and see more of what exists beyond the confines of the cities we stayed in. But after a year and a half in Southeast Asia, I now put a premium on quiet, unpopulated, unpolluted places. And so that quest will take me far from Asia, ironically full circle to where I started in a place that is lightly populated and not terribly polluted: Arizona.
(Thank you Sten, Chris, Mark, Joel, Yulia for the adventures and conversations!)
Here’s the video compilation of 5 days in Bali…
Here’s a little photo gallery of the Bali trip…
Next stop: Tucson.