Being Bali

Bali houses the extinct and emerging; it’s a mixed salad of new and old. Fauna and flora. Food and people. Culture and values. It is difficult to know what is native to the island: banyan trees, coconuts, mangosteen, hibiscus, oleander, bamboo, coffee, lotus, people. Beaches are being eroded meters per year, dying with every calendar. The tourist population is drying up the rivers, while at the same time flooding the island’s space. Rice paddies vanish every day under the foundation of new villas. What was once an agricultural island survives now mostly from tourism business and others from nearby in the Indonesian chain arrive daily to find a way to subsist off the traveler’s dollar. It’s a Twenty-First Century island: paradise with a wound.

I arrived in Indonesian by accident. I always thought I’d be in other places before Bali; Chamonix maybe, or the mountains of India. In one of the most impulsive breaths of my life I’d bought a one-way ticket to Denpasar at an airport ticket counter in Australia. On my way to ski in New Zealand, at 5:30 a.m. in Melbourne, an airline employee tells me I can’t board my flight without a return ticket. I don’t know where I should return to, so I look at the line next to our counter. I see sandals. Surfboards. Shorts. Within minutes, I have a flight out of New Zealand to Bali, and six weeks solo on an unlikely island for a girl who spends most of the year on skis.

My first vivid memory in Bali is a young girl riding side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle, dodging around the streets of Seminyak, a former fishing village turned hotel-clad, shopping-splattered tourist destination in the south of the island. Her thick, long black hair looking like an oil spill; the intricate headdress full of royal inspired jewels and the rainbow infused Balinese clothing blooming. She looks as if she’s merely floating along in the streets. I am thoroughly convinced that if you can’t see the world from a mountaintop, amongst waves, running along a trail, or climbing rock, one of the best ways to experience life is on the back of a motorbike. The rituals of every day life are sped up just enough for it to feel like you’re watching a movie, but with your hair blowing behind you in the wind.

In the pure chaos of the situation there was perfection: scooters passing traffic on sidewalks, nearly dead dogs running around rummaging for scraps of food, a honking melody of cars and scooters, and Westerners dressed for island life, prancing around from shop to shop spending money in a place where their dollar buys in heaps—and the girl. She was calm and beautiful. She was Bali: peace amongst utter madness and reality intertwined with dreams.

Time departed as I watched. People buzzed about as I stood watching the scene. From that moment, I realized, that to travel alone is to be unseen, erased from the confines of your own reality and catapulted into the invisible. Travel is about seeing and not being seen. To have time slowed down in a way that life’s details speak to your eyes. Routine becomes translated into something mysterious, something unknown.

I made a promise to be the observer, not the center of the experience. That is how Bali stayed alive. Travel to become invisible. Travel to do the seeing.

I had to remind myself.

Bali smells of burning trash and sounds like dogs and cats fighting amongst the constant hum of motorbikes. It’s a cacophony of beautiful sounds, like the ocean, mixed with the melody of life fighting to survive. Cats screeching. Waves pounding.

On the street to Batu Balong Beach in Canggu just north of Seminyak, there is a French Bakery, surf shops, and Australian-owned organic cafes that drive first-worlders into manic feeding frenzies. Fresh juices. Fish. Everything we’ve been told we can buy to make us healthy. And it’s cheap. Coconut water costs less than in the Western world and comes out of the coconut, not the can. Papayas and mangoes are as common as the apple and orange. An atelier sells real silk tunics and kimonos that cost a Balinese monthly salary. Tourists, surfers, ex-pats, and barely clothed women from all over the world, stroll the streets. Walking towards the beach, I see Balinese women cleaning the gutters near the rice fields amongst rats and snakes, men sweating, building Westerners villas brick by brick, children running barefoot happily in the streets on their way to the beach to play soccer, and ten-year olds driving scooters with their brother and dog at their feet and baby sister hanging from their back. It’s a world of sharp contrast. Happiness found in poverty and the constant search for something more Instagram-able in first world wealth.

One night I find myself with a local friend from Java, who goes by Izzy, in a village sitting outside a convenience store on scooters eating pig’s belly and sipping arak, a liquor made from palm sap. The locals are covered in tattoos, wearing ceremonial clothing, listening to the thump, thump of Western DJ music, religiously smoking their cigarettes, and telling jokes in Indonesian. They laugh in harmony with one another, some in deep guttural ways and others complimenting with a laughter that feels like air. I indulge in the pig’s belly. I salute another shot of arak. And Izzy, as always, speaks to me in English, but talks in riddles continuing to make understanding this world and his life forever illusive.

“Fill it until it’s empty, empty it until it’s full,” he says.

My interpretation of this has varied since that night, but in the moment I understood he was commenting on the disposition of us, the first-worlders; so full, of things and goals and money and food, but sometimes so obviously vacant. I am still not completely sure what he meant, but I always come back to these words.

Sometimes you can see and hear things you don’t completely understand.

In Bali, the local people know hunger, injustice, and beautiful, happy babies that grow up without abundance. They know smiles and laughter that come from fueling yourself from a tank full of real. And in that world that is seemingly so empty, they are full; filled with family, laughter, nasi goreng, rituals, tradition, and a belief that the place they inhabit is beautiful.

In our world we have collective aspirations to be seen, but in traveling, give a place your eyes. Watch for the young girl floating on the back of a motorcycle, dodging around the crowded streets. Smell the trash burning and the listen for everything beyond the waves crashing. Bali taught me to see the peace in the world beyond my own madness and reality beyond my own dreams.