Behind the Lush Bali Headlines Lurks Fertile Despair

Behind the Lush Bali Headlines Lurks Fertile Despair

Columnist Novar Caine reveals yet another part of the real Bali that is too often ignored

Bali is in the news again. Slavish, drooling, adjective-packed features are lining the leisure pages of major broadsheets in Australia, the UK and the US, with words like “verdant,” “serene” and “sleepy” deployed to describe the experience. Meanwhile words like “death,” “crisis” and “warnings” make up the language used to report Bali on the news pages.

The former is powered by Eat Pray Love — an unpunctuated title starring Julia Roberts that is by most accounts a horror movie. But it has pretty scenes. Feature editors with a marketing-supplied junket of free flights and stays at top-notch hotels dispatch jaded city journalists who immediately fall for the romantic allure of a very emerald Bali with quaint village folk that time has done a detour around.

It is all – the movie and the torrent of reportage — gratis publicity for an island with a billion-dollar tourist industry that can’t afford its own publicity. Who cares if the newspaper features are barely concealed ads; it’s the picture-postcard the reading punters who put down US$8,000 apiece for two weeks in the tropics command. Please don’t spoil our view.

But it’s a pornographic sight: Reporters and editors and the consuming readers fawn over peasants praying at a ricefield shrine, the sun bearing down on the devotees’ weathered skin. How lovely, how exotic, how quixotic, they coo, not knowing nor caring to discover the gruelling hardships of such basic rural existence, one that is alarmingly leading to rising suicides.

Most Balinese have no idea how well the foreign half lives. Burdened by unceasing temple duties and the endless physical toil of farming, they regard camera-clicking tourists as a mild peculiarity, like flies swarming around a cow’s muzzle, but less annoying. When your waking hours are filled with anxious efforts to survive, tunnel vision doesn’t allow for much perspective.

Such is high-end tourism in a poor place (around 200,000 Balinese, 5 percent of the population, live on US$1.5 a day, according to figures from the Bali government). The reporters report out of dens of opulence, never knowing what it’s like to live in a village of little. Swap that five-star hotel room for a Balinese compound? What? No air-conditioning, no fridge, no waiters or butlers or service-on-demand? No TV, no DVD, no booze, no imported food? No shops, no props; nowhere to live it up?

It is so nice to delve into the culture before diving back under the chilled covers.

Juxtapose this sweet portrait with the cruel realism of life outside hotel compounds. One where well over half a million dogs roam wild, attacking and biting people, some of them, over 11 percent, carrying the rabies virus. In two years over 100 Balinese have died from this most excruciating (and invariably fatal) of diseases.

A recent glowing feature in a British paper began this way: “To love Bali, you have to love silence.” There’s no double-glazing — or any, for that matter — at real homes around the island, where the gangs of snarling strays mean there’s no silence to be had at all.

In Bali, equally out-of-control traffic and lunatic truck drivers who have no place behind a wheel are mowing people down. Enraged residents erupt in revolt, imploring the authorities to clamp down; but they never do. It is an island of inertia.

They say there’s a difference between visiting a place and living there, and they — those travellers among us — are right.

Does Bali need to sell its real picture? Do you use your best china for tea when guests come around, or serve with chipped mugs and faded-print saucers? No matter how desperate, everyone likes to put on a good show.

Bali has many inherent charms; of that there is no doubt. It is a place of intoxicating beauty, of warm people, of dramatically unfurling vistas, from the white-sand beaches of the arid south to the misty mountains of the central highlands to the arresting volcano land to the east.

The equilibrium of egalitarianism, however, is tipped away from the Balinese advantage, and that is the misfortune. “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” said Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill of the saviours of his country, the Battle of Britain fighter pilots. It could be used to mirror the Bali story, at a time when millions of people travel to the island every year to glimpse its beauty and revel in its generous climate.

When people are dying and starving and going without education, a tourist levy — say $3 — collected by the hotels and administered not by an unaccountable government but an audited organisation should be mandatory.

We all need to eat, pray and love.


  1. Gurkha says:

    There are enough taxes, and charges for tourists but the funds do not percolate down to the people who need them. Might the situation have anything to do with rapacious bureaucrats?

    Bali – Where reality becomes a dream!

  2. Tom says:

    If my fees I have to pay, coming to and living in Bali, would reach the people of Bali in need – certainly and without deduction- I would LOVE to pay DOUBLE taxes! What would Bali be… without its well intentioned and charming population ?? THEY make the difference – sandy beaches and tropical countrysides are convertible..the (magnificent) people are not! They deserve a better life like nowadays..for sure !!

    My forever LOVE to Bali !!!

  3. Sanur resident says:

    Very true, the movie made me want to be living in a Bali such as this but I know what the realities are too. Gurkha is completely correct, there are more than enough taxes to make a difference in health and education to this island but they seem to all go to Jakarta and then poof! they’re gone. Nothing is put back into the roads or education – now THAT is the story I’d like to read.