One year ago, we thought we’d visit often. One year ago, we said Bali was our backyard and we’d be glad to hang out often. One year ago, we said weekend flights were more than a possibility—they were a responsibility.
One year ago, we had a lot to learn.
Consider, for example, the following: (1) flights—weekend flights—aren’t as cheap as we’d figured. (2) Schedules—and traffic—got more hectic than we thought possible. (3) Destinations worth visiting—all over Indonesia—are just too numerous. Add all that up, and we found ourselves a year into our overseas experience and not returning to Bali at all, opting instead to save some money, or stay home to work, or sample from the many islands’ offerings.
But when Luiza came to town, we finally found ourselves facing the re-visit. Yes, after a year, we were heading back to the places we’d already seen. Yes, we were heading back to Bali.
Luiza, after all, had stalked our facebook pics and made herself a list. I want one like this at the temple there. And this beach at sunset. And with the monkeys there, and—Andy and I, eager to please, were more than happy to comply. And so we embarked on a re-visit to Bali.
The revisit costs a vacation of seeing something fresh and unexplored, something tingling with the energy of the unfamiliar, something tinged with the danger and adrenaline of the first steps. What the re-visit offers in return, though, is the warm hug of familiarity, a shot in the arm of confidence, and a nice smooth pull at memory lane.
One year later, we had a chance to right our first trip’s wrongs, to fix our missteps, and fill in the gaps. One year and one more visit—it’s a benchmark to see how far we’ve come, to see how we’ve changed since our first giddy steps into the waters of tropical sightseeing, since our first trip to Bali.
Among the many tasty flavors of our re-visit, I found myself noticing the people, the faces of the nation. I must have been a narcissist my first time through. I must have been too ego-centric, or just too energetic, to slow and pause and watch and listen to the lives around us. Yes, one year and one re-visit later, I got to appreciate the faces instead of the places, to feel the landscapes fade to the background—where they belong—and watch the portraits snap into focus.
Here are some faces of Bali.
Not just another Brit on a holiday, she’s Andy’s little sister—interior designer by trade, Romanian by birth, and hard-headed immigrant who’s refused to give in or pack up or move out and go back home, no matter how hard times got or how tight money squeezed or how lonely those long, long Anglo nights drizzled on and on.
She made it.
And now, on the eve of starting a new job in the world’s metropolis of London, she was embarking on the hallowed British tradition of a nice long trek through the tropics. She was our guest, and while we were re-visiting these scenes, her eyes were beholding it all for the first time.
Bali’s name alone rings magic for the Western ear; it ensnares a mind in fancies and myths and shrouded meanderings of the place everyone has heard so much of, but which still eludes visualization. Would Luiza be magnetized? Would she write it off as Asian craziness? Would she love it?
Rice fields waving under racing clouds, motorbikes whining under loads of families and livestock and construction material, temple spires stacked like kebabs in sunset glowing furnace—these were her eyes’ first glimpses of Bali. Andy and I, we tried to play it cool, tried to act like all the snarling demons in checkered sarongs were something already passé, but there was no prying any of us away from any window as our transport shifted through the planes and hills, highlands and beaches, sizzling cities and magnetic villages of Bali.
We kept a corner of our eyes peeled for her subtlest reactions—the tea overlooking the drizzly jungle cliff, the glowing blue pool under the moonlight, the snaking roads through rice fields unending, past tiny art galleries and nifty coffee gardens.
Armed with an I-phone and a big sister who new her way around a map and a Canon, Luiza stepped her skinny feet out of the car, waltzed along the simple footpath, and sat down under the shaded roof of the roadside warung, and declared, in typical Latina ferocity and British stubbornness, that she couldn’t understand a word on the menu: she’d just have a fruit salad—again.That’s Luiza—the new Western eye on the fabled land of enchantment: would Bali live up to the hype?
At the temple, she snapped I-phone pictures fine enough to make her workmates—or anyone else for that matter—jealous. Roadside craft stalls she perused with the patience and persistence of a true interior designer, and bargained hard for her souvenirs. She sampled and bought enough tea in enough flavors to choke the hold on a cargo vessel back to Britain.
Yes, she was the face of what the island is known for: tourism. Botanical gardens to beaches, street warungs to foreign-only restaurants, temples to hotels to bamboo shacks selling spices, she stepped through all of Bali’s finest. She was the face of the tourist—of all the complex interaction of economy and race and class and pleasure.
Bali is a dynamic that can never be explained: a haven for art and a unique culture caught between pandering for cash and upholding centuries of communal tradition, between showering hospitality and bargaining hard for prices, between art and supermarket. These were the waters Luiza treaded as we spiraled through her vacation days.
Poor Luiza never suspected she would be my case study of the Bali tourist. But I couldn’t ask for a better subject.
The rail-thin lady with a vague, ageless face insisted that Luiza was our daughter.
“What!” Andy cried in disbelief.
“What?” Luiza gasped with panicked eyes, waiting for translation. “What happened?”
“How old do I look?”
I nearly sputtered coconut juice out my nose in laughter, and the humble waitress, the one with the vague face in the low light, also grew wide-eyed and panicked. “She no daughter?”
Of course we stayed and chatted—it was late night on a narrow street in Sanur—the type of beachside street that gets so choked with sidewalk shops and strolling foreigners that no cars should venture in. But they do anyway, of course. Here, in a tiny café managed by a local proprietor, our waitress, in the glow of a hundred electric cafés signs lining the street, mistook the withdrawn and I-phone frenzying Luiza as the teenage offspring of the couple pouring over the menu and tomorrow’s itinerary.
The waitress comes from Klungkung—a city that’s a step or two outside of most tourists’ routes: It’s an inland metropolis that used to house a kingdom, but who now exports human service to the shops and café and resorts and dive shops and bars and restaurants around the island. Our nameless waitress was one of these: one who says her monthly goodbyes to her husband and her daughter to wait tables on a tourist boulevard, who monthly winds her way back, through the bouncing roads and sun-screened tourist herds, to carry her wages back to a big city we’ve never heard of.
Now she stands table-side and chats with Andy, stays past closing time waiting on the kitchen to get our fish out of the frying pan. Despite all the foreigners this lady sees parade down the Sanur pike each day, she still stays up past closing to chat, to offer advise on boats to Lembongan, and yes, to take a BlackBerry selfie with the buhles at the café.
That selfie is enough to get me considering the “Hello Mister” photo that we’ve grown so accustomed to in Indonesia—I’ve never quite understood the appeal of stopping a Caucasian and clicking a cell-phone photo with him. I used to think it was because we were rare. I used to tell people, “because so few foreigners make it here, I guess.” I used to think it was merely the novelty of different skin.
But this waitress made me reconsider.
She, after all, sees races of all sorts each day. This is Sanur, the original hotbed of Bali beach fame. This is the surf and the beach that launched a thousand flights and invested the fantasies of two million colonizing whites each year. Surely we weren’t the first to stop by the café.
Why stay up past closing to chat with the Misters? Why a photo with these guys when your daily life features a gaping hole where a husband and daughter ought to be, all so you can sling burgers and beers to the red-skinned Buhles?
Perhaps because the waitress has a young teen daughter of her own. Perhaps because she saw in us a mirror of herself, born into a different skin and a different economy. Perhaps because Andy, alone among all the buhles on all the days that have dined in this café, stopped to chat and to know this waitress.
Perhaps we were the first to ask about her family, and find her hometown on the map, and inquire for her husband and how often they can see each other. “Tell him you need flowers,” Andy urged, every time you go back home. “You get a big hug and you celebrate,” Andy told her, “because it’s hard to be apart.”
The waitress smiled, a helpless little curve in the café lights, a humble one that showed she’d love those flowers and that welcome, that showed she’d love to come home to that attention. But the reality, I imagine, is that half her city works the same as she: a man in the rice fields or mechanic shop, a woman sent around the island to gather tourist cash, the children raised by neighbors or grandparents. They reconvene in the off seasons and the rice harvest, and at sporadic intervals along the way.
The waitress only dropped these hints as she stood table-side and chatted—we never managed to convince her to have a seat with us.
This guy is slick. He’s polished. He’s got a nice ride and trim sunglasses glistening in the Bali Sun.
He’s a driver, a driver one for tourists—he makes his dime as a specialized cabbie shuttling foreigners around his island. It’s a full-time job, and he knows all the best spots—criss-crosses his island daily, ferrying tourists first here, then there, once to the sea, then to the mountains, then to the temples, on and on, day after day, weak after weak.
“You must have seen these sights a thousand times,” I say.
“Yes, yes, Bali very beautiful,” he says.
But the truth is that most of what he beholds are the roads, the same roads and the same small talk morning after morning, evening after evening. The same narrow lanes through the jungles’ ravines, the same traffic-laden lines stretching between the hotspots. Aside from all those roads and all that windshield time, it’s a job entailing an awful lot of warung coffee shop and litter-strewn parking lots.
While we’re inside enjoying the trip of a lifetime, snapping pics that we’ll parade to our friends and treasure for years, he’s napping under a shade tree, or chatting with the vendors, or comparing clients and tips and catching up with the other drivers.
“That guy my friend,” he told us as we pulled out of the dusty Tanah Lot parking lot. “I see him all the time, one time each week. Sometimes here, sometimes Kintamani, sometimes Nusa Dua, or Ulun Danu, or. . . ” They both shuttle the same people to the same sights, time after time. They often swap stories of their kids.
Wayan I smiles broadly as he speaks of his sons: they’re crazy for the World Cup, staying up nights to watch the matches, then having some coffee and heading off to their lives. The older one holds a yearlong contract cooking for wealthy travelers in a Nusa Dua resort. What he really wants, though, is a cruise. “Cooks of cruise ships,” Wayan I tells us proudly, “earn salary of USD and plus meets plenty customers in fancy restaurants.”
His other son is the football player, still in high school, still running through the narrow streets of Bali’s urbana—the tight confines and narrow roads of the locals, not the hotels-diners-sexshops streets of Kuta, not the sprawling resorts of the parkland Nusa Dua, but the cramped routes winding among the tiny block buildings that can’t fit much more than a kitchen and couple mattresses: streets where children play soccer barefoot and come home to study instead of surf, where the wife runs a tiny copy shop and once every four years father and sons can wake together in the midnight hours, gather around the tiny TV, and cheer like madmen through the open windows and into the streetlamp streets when a country they’ve never seen nets a goal on the other side of the globe.
Wayan I is a great guy, a slick guy, a guy that’ll get you all around the isle in style. He’s the face of Bali’s slick tourism scheme.
But we ditched that guy.
He ditched us first, though—sent us a stranger for a day, a surly man with a chip on his shoulder and a mutter in his speech, a guy who sort of knew his routes and could sort of drive like mad, but who nonetheless was unhappy with being here.
Wayan I shuffled us off, you see, after we drove a hard bargain and he got a call from a fatter mark, a client paying more. So he ditched us and sent a note with his replacement saying he was at a village ritual. As a professional transporter, It’s not hard to find a friend who also drives, a guy whom you see now and then and trade numbers and favors—hey man, if I get an extra job, I’ll pass it your way, OK? You do the same for me.
After that day with Wayan I’s surly substitute, we went looking for a new driver, and we found one: Wayan II. Our guesthouse in Ubud offered us a ride, and we took it. Wayan II picked us up at the bus station, and we knew we were in for something different—gone were Wayan I’s polished shoes and polo tees, in were Wayan II’s khaki shorts and flipflops, Out with the designer sunglasses and well-conditioned hair and polished laugh at everything the client says; in with a crop of wiry stubble and a face that knows no lies, either in joy or annoyance. Toss out that shiny new van with AC and sleek seats; roll in the rusty clunker with the window-only cooling and threadbare upholstery. I liked this guy.
Wayan II is a childhood chum, it turns out, of our guesthouse owner. But while his best friend finds himself managing a mini-hotel, sitting on the council of Ubud’s city-wide tourism credit board, managing a folk dance troupe, and married with kiddos, Wayan II finds himself a lanky man with a rusty van looking to make a living; he looks like a guy who’s spent some years lazing around with cigarettes and naps in the shade, who’s passed late nights in moonlit chats and mornings sleeping in and worrying little, who’s listened to as much imported reggae as home-grown gamelan.
A little older now, with a little more responsibility, now he smiles widely and carries bags, he sits to chat if invited, and makes call after call to find the answers to your most pestering of questions about Balinese cooking classes. And, when he quotes a price, there’s not much room for haggling—he shoots you straight the first time.
Like I said, I liked this guy.
His eyes stayed up through the pre-dawn drive to the foot of Mount Batur. His aging motor struggled us up the heights of Bedugul, and his patient feet stepped through the gears to land us in the temples far and wide. He gave us a ride to the folk dance troupe, one where he himself will sometimes chant in the fiery kecak. And when our Ubud days drew to a close, Wayan II dropped us off again at the same bus station where he found us. When he said goodbye, it felt like a friend’s farewell.
He’s a humble guy, and he gave me the feeling he was driving not for blind ambition or a lust for tourist cash. I liked to see that he was quick to chat up fellow drivers—not for tips and hints and ins with other clients—but because he was curious about who they liked for the World Cup.
I wonder where he lived. I wonder why likes to drive. I wondered where he found his sleepy supply of smiles, and how he financed his strangely reliable little van. But I couldn’t get it out of him—he always found a way to wind a story around the fact, to somehow tell you how he once came to this temple on a high-school field trip, but not quite how he came to own that van.
Wayan II chants in the fearsome Kecak chorus, that waving, moaning mass of men, whose vocal rhythms rise around the blazing fire in their midst, until one, entranced (or so it’s told) by the chants and the visions they bring, leaps to his feet, straddles a wooden horse (yes, seriously) and prances about on the sizzling embers, kicking and screaming through the sparks and the flashes.
“And you,” I ask, “have ever been the one to dance on the fire?”
Wayan II only laughs a hearty laugh, and turns our attention to the rich green rice fields rolling past our open windows. He is the face of Bali tradition and island mentality coming to grips with this century.
A slim teen with a smooth face, crisp English, and three-inch heels stood in the shaded roundabout of the resort. Her uniform was fresh and bright, her manners polished, and her heels clicked sharply on the pavement as she came my way.
I fidgeted and looked for an escape.
“May I help you, sir?”
“Ummm,” I glanced nervously back at the gaping doors of the resort, among the cool breezes and hardwood floors, among the white leather and golden rattan, but Andy and Luiza were nowhere to be seen. “No, thank you, I’m just waiting.”
She was smarter than that, though—she hadn’t risen from the cinderblock huts of her village in the highlands to the top-dollar resorts on the azure beaches of Nusa Dua for nothing. She hadn’t traded muddy toenails and calloused hands for manicures and pressed blouses for nothing; she hadn’t gotten here without a smart sweep in her English and a knack for quick calculations in her brain. She saw right through me—another buhle with a ragged beach bag, frayed flip-flops, and board shorts still wet from the waves standing in the drop-off lane of a five-star property holding two purses: of course I wasn’t a guest here. Of course I was just cutting through the resort grounds to usurp their beach. Of course the purses weren’t mine—they belonged to my wife and sister-in-law who were inside using the pristine restrooms of the five-star’s auspicious lobby.
Of course she saw all this.
I shuffled my feet and felt her icy stare; this was it: my time to be the hero, to rescue our rag-tag sight-seeing squad from the clutches of the resort staff’s shaming. No telling how long the girls would be—it’s all about me cranking up the small-talk chat for distraction.
A few eggshell-stepping conversations later, and here’s what I found: she’s a top graduate of one of the many tourism high schools peppered throughout the rice fields and rivulets of the island paradise. She’s got a brother back home, and her parents still farm and keep shop. She likes the life at the resort, though long hours on the heels do get a little weary. She switches spots with a few other girls for desk duties now and then.
Oh, and she’s got a keen eye for fake guests cutting through her resort.
“So how did you enjoy your time here?”
I mumbled something about the nice beach.
“But how about your rooms?”
Of course we spent as much time as possible on the beach.
“How long will you stay?”
I told her we’d stay a week in Bali and split between Lombok and—
“No, I mean here at the property.”
I started to stammer something when Andy strolled in to save me. Cue the huge sigh of relief and some girl talk: stuff like cute heels and glowing sunsets and whether or not they ever rang the giant gong over there.
“Yes. For every guest that arrives—it’s a traditional Balinese welcome. Don’t you remember when you arrived?”
She was on to us, alright.
It’s not that we meant to be the world’s most inept trespassers; it’s just that our driver got lost and couldn’t find the parking lot for the public beach. That’s the truth. but still, we hadn’t been able to resist a glimpse at five-star life. And then a bit of a longer glimpse. And then a morning-long photo-shoot and beachside lunch.
But in the end, all was okay—we got what we craved: fancy beach time, and a glimpse at the local life to boot. The young ones, if you can’t see by now, are getting out of the villages. They’re exporting themselves to the resorts and the cities in alarming numbers. There’s just more money to be made—and without the back-breaking and fast-aging labor of the thrice-yearly rice and veggie harvest and plantings. Why would this urbane and wily girl marry herself off to a village guy for a life of rice-watching and stooping in the flooded fields? Why not enjoy the refined side of the island? Why not wear the heels and the starched collars and the make-up of success?
And who would blame her?
Certainly not me, though I suppose she might be less inquisitive were she not on guard duty here at the five-star’s front door.
And who could blame us for taking a short cut through the resort’s finery—the fake-beaches of treated freshwater and sifted sand in the swimming pools, the rainbow draping flowers and green-bursting palms and golf-course grass of the garden, the shade and the breeze of the sweeping pavilions—and stopping for a few stylish snapshots along the way, even though we weren’t paying guests. That’s right: we snuck in and (almost) back out without getting caught.
Were it not for an uppity little greeter who caught me standing around goofily at the entrance, we would have made it.
But enough of that—no one really cared, anyway. Luiza showed up and we strolled off, the hostess smug in catching us cutting, and we smiling and sun-warmed from what has to be the finest beach on that fabled isle.
She was yet another face of another Bali life, a talented, sophisticated one at that, taking a definite turn to the West.
How do you know the face of the faceless masses? What sort of portrait can you draw for the millions spread across the island’s corners that the tourists may never see?
Why not ask Wayan I?
He’ll tell you all about it—probably before you even ask, actually. He’s still got the family land in the village, and he farms out the rice crops on shares.
“Past days,” he says from behind the wheel and behind his shades, “was one part in four for the worker.” He’s waving his hands at the rice fields as we pass. “Past days the young guys comes to you, and they says to please let them work in your fields. ‘Please sir can I work your field, please?’ But now I must goes searching,” and here he models knocking on a door, “and saying to them, ‘Hello. Please come works in my fields.’”
I shake my head in sympathy. He drives on in his sleek black van toward the tourist trap temple on the coast. This year he’ll give out over half of the rice crop in exchange for the work.
Next year—he shakes his head now—he doesn’t know. He might give out all the crops for merely a chance to have his fields kept in order.
“Why are there no more workers?” I ask.
“It’s young men, you know, that can works so many fields. The young men with the family and he needs work more. Or maybe he needs money to get marry. But now they all goes to the city. They want have nice phones and shoes. They think better go to school and maybe leave the village and find something better.”
And the migration settles in, leaving the aged, it seems, to stay and work the fields. The fading generation is left as the protectors of a way of the agrarian life.
“Who will work the fields when they are too old to work?”
We all shake our heads.
Somewhere outside the tinted windows, those villagers were or were not working. And somewhere, in the future, the island will have to come to grips with a soil and climate and a landscape tailor-made for rice, but with a population that prefers to earn its living elsewhere. These are the faces of Bali that I might never see. These I only hear about.
Somewhere at some intersection in Seminyak, along streets crammed with chic cafes and surf shops and massage parlors, sits a trendy, well-lighted restaurant we wandered into one hungry evening. We stepped onto the trim deck, among the retro tables, and past a group of Aussies in deep discussion at an outside booth.
The place was inviting: hardwood floors and simple style, cool tables and nifty menus, eco lines and an atmosphere that exudes cool. Yes, it was clean and hip and tasty, and as the evening crowds thinned, we skimmed through the day’s pics and enjoyed a chat with the manager. Yes, yes, everything was fine, we told him.
Minutes later, one of the outside Aussies stopped by and asked the same. He was square-jawed, middle-aged, and bulging muscles under a high-dollar tee-shirt. Yes, yes, we said again, it was all just fine.
And that’s when he started on his uninvited story. This is his second restaurant, he told us; the first was somewhere someplace somestreet and so popular that they started this one. He bragged on the Japanese chef and he showed off some of his gourmet salads lining a stainless buffet window.
Then, with a deep breath and a glance at his manager, he started his story: a couple gays, he emphasized this, had wandered in and ordered something-something and then created a scene. They sent back the food, and then they again said it was awful, and then they refused to pay. “But it’s not just that,” the Aussie owner said with his arms crossed over the stainless-steel counter. In the glass pane was a spread of salads he was offering for us to sample, “it’s that they were yelling and griping in front of all the other customers.” He and the Japanese chef nodded solemnly.
“It’s one thing to not like the food, but you at least pay for your drinks. And you at least can keep from making a scene.”
By now I was beginning to feel caught, and started edging toward the door.
“But everything was OK, right?”
Again we assured the burly man with two restaurants in the hippest corner of Bali that his food was good.
But then he started in on another story, this one about his other place and how the reviews raved about it, and how this little dandy was following on the heels of that success but what people didn’t see was how much it costs to operate here and that there’s so much overheard and it’s such a huge investment and now, two days after opening these gays come in and start a ruckus and now what’s going to happen to all the money he poured into this start-up and—
I was trying to nudge Andy and Luiza toward the door. The streetlights outside were shutting down, the waiters had long since swept the floors, and even the outside café was cleaned and packed away. We still were standing over the buffet line of salads and spreads that ought to lift a pretty penny out of a tourist’s pocket; the wait staff were playing on their cell phones and chatting, and I wondered whether these young men had indeed left their families and villages for stints like this: waiting tables for an Aussie owner stressed about his new investment and obsessing over a fit thrown by unpleasant customers.
Just when I thought we could make our escape, his family came and introduced themselves: his wife from Jakarta and his twirling first grade daughter who couldn’t sit still. She ran and spun and giggled while her tough-but-shaken daddy ran through his worries once again.
And now we got to hear this story as well—how they met, how they lived in Jakarta, how they took their savings to start in Bali, how they now had two spots, and how, right here at the start of the second, these two—
I know, I know, the gay couple who—
But it was no use, here he was launching into the scandal for a third time.
“But everything was OK for you?” he asked us yet again. “And the salads, too?” As he gestured at the well-sampled spread still laid out across the counter.
We must have given the vibe of being food critics. I wondered if he saw the girls photographing the food. I remembered we had the laptop out looking at the day’s snapshots. Maybe he mistook us for foodies and bloggers and pretentious critics, and this lavish display of salads and stories was all a schmoozing for a good review.
To be honest, those salads were amazing. If free grub comes with the job, then I ought to go a’food-blogging…
We took our leave to walk back through the darkened, narrow streets toward our lodging. Beachward, the bass and the shouts of the nightly fiesta were starting, and somewhere, back among the closing shops and washing dishes of the cafes, the Aussie man was wringing his hands and looking for some other assurance that his investment would be a success.
When it comes to Bali faces; the Aussie too is part of the mosaic—the face of the West investing and the foreign culture taking root in the soil that has proved too stubborn to yield to any invader for many, many centuries. His face too is inscribed in this tapestry of humanity surfing and spilling across this speck of volcanic land in the string of tropic waters. He too represents this island.
In the end, by the time we boarded the ferry for Lombok, I’d gotten my second glimpse, my year-awaited revisit to the island star of Indonesia. This time, I’d watched for the faces, for the lives, for the stories. This time, I’d come away with more than a suntan and a few gigs of pictures, with more than a week’s worth of relaxing and exploring and revisiting. This time, I came away with portrait of Bali behind the tourism, with the face of the lives that make it so complex.