13 March 2007

The Last Tourist

Here at Lovina, on Bali’s north coast, I can feel what it’s like at the end of the jet age. The tourist industry never recovered here after the second Bali bombing in 2005, though that happened on the other side of the island two years ago. There are beautiful black sand beaches with no one else around except local fishermen and a few women desperately trying to sell me a massage or items of clothing and jewelry. The resorts and restaurants along the beachfront stand empty.

Offshore there are dolphins to be sighted and snorkeling areas to go to by boat, and every young man around wants to take me there, or sell me handicrafts of shell, or give me “transport” by motorbike. When the local bus arrives each day there is a crowd of touts to converge on the hapless newcomer, offering “cheap price” for accommodation--though the bus company provides free lodging for a night precisely to discourage such a rude welcome.

In the more central area of Lovina there once was a thriving tourist industry. Charming lanes with guesthouses, restaurants with local character, brick walkways along the shore now are deserted, except for the locals hanging about, waiting for you to appear with your sunglasses and camera and traveler’s wallet.

Hello, mas-sage? Hello sir where you going? You come look my shop, just look for free. Hi sir, what is your name? Hello transport? Hello, sir, excuse me, sir, hello? Transport? I have nice things for you look. Hello where you stay? I have cheap price for you. Transport? Hello transport?

When I first arrived in Lovina I saw my German friends from Ubud, whom I kept running into a few times after spending the day on a temple tour with them. They did not look happy, having arrived the day before me and already decided to move on right away to Java. Besides the constant soliciting, there were, they said, hordes of mosquitoes here, day and night, that made life impossible. The supposedly beautiful beach was full of garbage. It was all very disappointing.

I took their warnings to heart and resolved right away that I would leave on the next morning’s bus myself and flee down to Kuta. Kuta, ironically, is where the bombs went off, yet ironically, Kuta is where the tourists all still congregate in obscene numbers. Go figure.

Ubud was a lovely attraction, complete with a sacred “Monkey Forest” full of mossy dragon temples and tame macaques, nightly performances of gamelan music and dance, shadow puppet theatre, fire dance, and Kecak “monkey chants” as seen in the film Baraka. All that on top of a wealth of art galleries, music and bookshops, and trendy cafes like Bali Buddha and the Jazz Café (offering nightly live jazz).

Completing the range of contrasts from Lovina, where I feel like “the last tourist”; Kuta, dubbed by Lonely Planet as “Beach Babylon”; and Ubud, a tropical version of Santa Barbara, CA or Nelson, BC; is Padang Bai, a small fishing village and ferry port to the neighboring island of Lombok. The days I was there, trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables were lined up for 3 km and waiting two days to get on the ferry, which had been cancelled due to high waves. Meanwhile there was a plane crash and deadly mudslides elsewhere in Indonesia, an earthquake in Sumatra, and a typhoon in the vicinity...but no shortage of tourists about.

I spent just two days in Padang Bai, one each at the two small charming clear-water white-sand beaches, but fell into my usual funk with the “small town” syndrome. Not enough people around to be anonymous and blend into the background (like Kuta or Ubud); and not few enough people to have real solitude (like Lovina). Sort of a limbo in between, where to fit in, you really need to have or make company with the few familiar faces around you.

The funny thing about Lovina, it turns out, is that the much-advertised mosquitoes proved practically nonexistent. With a bright. comfortable and quiet room, I went to bed happy and woke up to birdsong. Free lunch, free room, free breakfast, doesn’t hurt. As for the touts, after awhile I just learned to keep my space, respond if I felt like it, even accept to pay for a massage on the beach and to buy a nice shirt and pair of pants, and then politely but firmly refuse all other offers. In their eagerness to sell, some would sit and chat awhile, and then the selling became secondary, or faded away, and I could share personal stories that were larger than the central thread of the story here: that tourism is finished.

Stupid, I say, when people are still flocking to Kuta, while poor lovely Lovina suffers. Then the dilemma gets passed on to whoever does venture to come here, on the other side of Bali’s stunning green mountains. At first it seems that the mosquitoes and the relentless touts will be unbearable, along with the feeling of alienation that comes with being, well, a lone alien in a place of humble but serious poverty. Then comes a willingness to see it through, to go deeper, to relax into the place, to claim a place here even for a day or two, to walk freely on the road or lane or beach, and to talk past the sales pitch into an understanding, us and them together here now, smiling humans in the gentle air.

more photos from Bali

Tri Hita Karana Doctrine

In accordance with Balinese Hindu philosophy, peace and tranquility are obtainable in our lives only when we respect and observe the three harmonious relationships known as the Tri Hita Karana Doctrine:

1. The Gods blessed life and created nature and all of its contents.

2. Nature offers sustenance to support the needs and activities of human beings.

3. Human beings have an obligation to establish a traditional village structure, to build temples in which to worship, to hold various ceremonies, to make daily offering, to preserve nature and to solve problems together.

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