As Peace Corps Volunteers we are forbidden to travel away from our sites overnight during our first three months at our permanent site. September 15th marked our group’s three-month mark, so we are finally released from our gilded village cages. To celebrate this, 13 volunteers and I headed to Southern Bali for the first time to enjoy three days of fun, sun, but mostly, freedom.
These are my impressions of Kuta, Bali.
Bali was like finding a portal to the Western world. Kuta, the city where we stayed, was like landing in Miami. I marveled at the huge Starbucks, Planet Hollywood sign, Hard Rock, uncountable amounts of non-Indonesian food restaurants, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dominos, upscale malls and stores, clubs, bars, pubs and tourists. Since being in Indonesia I have spent a lot of energy trying to explain what an American city is like. Unbeknown to me, I could have said: Go to Kuta and you will see. White people included.
Eight other volunteers and I stayed in an amazing villa that Amy deserves all the credit for finding and booking. (Thanks again, Amy!) The place was so incredibly nice, that it was tempting to never leave the villa, indulging in a relaxing three-day vacation by our private villa pool.
Kuta was a nice change of pace from our village life, and we were able to resume our “normal” lifestyle and behaviors (i.e.: toilet paper, Western toilets, hot showers) and mostly, our old eating habits (i.e: no rice for breakfast, cheese, pork, coffee without sugar, wine.)
The Bad, or mostly, Weird:
Like I said, Kuta is like being in Miami. The problem is: I am not a fan of Miami. Perhaps, Kuta is also like Orlando or better, Las Vegas, with its “Disneyworld for adults” vibe. I expected to at least see the coastline as I waited in insufferable Bali traffic. Instead, we worked our way through crowded streets bursting with advertisements for Western food and stores directed towards the hundreds of English-speaking tourists roaming on motorcycles, passing by exaggerated Hindu statues and artificial Asian architecture. In a sea of overdevelopment, Ralph Lauren stores, Pizza Huts and Starbucks attempted to blend in under pagoda roofs and disguised behind thin, stone Buddha statues. It reminded me of the Around the World setup in Disney World’s Epcot Park.
Aside from that, it was weird to have access to all Western commodities again. Yet, it was weirder for me how natural it was to fall back into using toilet paper, hot showers, normal western toilets, air conditioning and eating in restaurants. It was mechanical and expected—a thoughtless routine. Probably because I have been doing it for the past 24 years. I thought 6 months of living like an Indonesian would change that, but I have returned to my default settings and I’m actually readjusting to my village life—and particularly mourning my independence—after three marvelous days of my old ways. As a PCV, it’s nice to know I can get my fix of this without having to travel to the other side of the world.
That being said, it’s strange how this area of Bali is so tailored to foreigners. Since I am living in Indonesia for the next two years, I didn’t particularly intend to go on vacation to experience Indonesian culture, but isn’t that what travel is supposed to be about? I had to actively seek opportunities to engage in the unique Balinese culture. I definitely didn’t expect that.
It was also strange that the Balinese people I interacted with—mostly drivers, warong and shop keepers—seemed shocked at my ability to speak to them in Bahasa Indonesia, but mostly, by my desire to engage with them at all. Most seemed accustomed to being ignored, being treated like servants and/or dealing with people’s anger over miscommunications—but this is their home. I find it infuriating that the people who call Bali home, are often treated like second-class citizens by their visitors. I supposed this is often the case in all touristy areas—and possibly even true for all people working in the service industry.
Bali is also very inexpensive from a Western perspective, but it’s still expensive for even well off Indonesians. This explains why the area is filled only with foreigners, and hardly any Indonesians at all, unless they are part of the establishment’s staff. After partaking the life of the average Indonesian for the past 6 months, this sort of touristic gentrification and blatant economic divide made me feel a little, well, strange. (This could probably make it to the “Ugly” section below.)
During my time in Bali, it occurred to me that I have never been anywhere where I didn’t speak the language. English and Spanish cover large percentages of the world, my Portuguese is now dormant, but I could probably use it if needed to, and my bahasa Indonesia skills got plenty of practice this past weekend, so I wonder: how do people travel places without knowing the language? (No, seriously, how? Comment below if you have good thoughts on this.)
Finally, it was strange and kind of a let down to walk into huge jewelry warehouses in Legian—the next town over from Kuta—and seeing roll after roll of bracelets and other jewelry being bought up by foreign shopkeepers, clearly seeking to replenish their stock of one-of-a-kind-Balinese-made crafts. I felt like I had been told (again) that there is no Santa Claus. You mean there is no old Balinese woman stringing my bracelet together in a small, rural village in Bali? And worse, You mean I paid like $20 or more for one bracelet in a small, trendy shop in the U.S. when I can get a roll of 20 here for 150,000 rupiah? (About $15.)
I was so overwhelmed by all the cute things that could be bought in Bali—not only in the jewelry department—that naturally, I bought nothing at all.
My romantic idea of Bali was that it would empty, remote and pristine—which I’m sure is the case in some areas in Bali—but definitely not in Kuta. One day I ventured out of Kuta, looking for these fabled locations pictured in guidebooks and all over the internet. What I found was something definitely better than Kuta. Two beaches, Padang Padang and Dreamland, in a popular surf area in the Bukit Peninsula, and one of the major Hindu temples Pura Luhur Ulu Watu— all filled with tourists.I know I am not the only one using guidebooks or the internet to travel, but I never expected to see so many tourists in the supposed “low season.” I was literally competing with hundreds of them armed with high-tech cameras just to see any given site. I waited and waited, while they arranged their large groups into cheesy poses next to monkeys, lying on the sand, playing in the waves, in front of the temple steps. I was even asked to be in some of their pictures.
In a word, it was obnoxious. I was trying to photograph a few things too—so I’m not exempt from that tedious aspect of tourism—but there were some serious photo hogs around and careless people that ruined not only my shots, but the shots of other people, causing them to take another ten photos “just in case”.
It was all so crowded that I had to take a creative approach to photography at Ulu Watu since there’s nothing worse than a bunch of tourists with their cameras ruining my illusion of an isolated cliff top temple—but by all that is holy, I will not let them ruin my experience. (Those pictures to come soon.)