Continuities and Change

In 1992, I traveled to Bali for the first time.  I spent about six months living  in the villages of Pliatan and Pengosekan, both just outside Ubud.

My school experience in Bali was remarkable.  I was given great access to learn about the daily ritual arts and practices in the villages.  I’ve been to Bali several times since then, stretching out over 19 years, and given the opportunities I’ve had, it has been remarkable to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed much at all.  Here are just a few observations:

*Ubud:  Often characterized as the cultural and artistic center of Bali.  Nineteen years ago, the main drag in Ubud was still rather provincial, but had some of the first western amenities.  The main road of the city was full of salesmen, hawkers, shops, beggars, and pick-pockets.  Today, all these same things exist, but a hundred times more so.

You can’t walk five paces down the street without being offered some service or sale.  The biggest nuisance are taxi driversHello, transport?, words spoken every few feet.  The shops offer more and more of the same tourist trinkets, both an increase in quantity and a decrease in quality.  Also in abundance are fancy restaurants, really available only for the tourists, as few Balinese can afford the food offered at these prices.  The restaurants are beautifully staged and organized to offer the tourists all that they might want; still built with the wonderful Balinese sense of design and architecture, but rendered more accessible with fans, air-conditioning, and familiar foods.  There are still few American chains – the first, Dunkin Donuts (featuring durian filled donuts) is now gone, but in its place has emerged a Starbucks.

Some of this is fascinating, in a way, as the incredible diversity and collision of cultures in Ubud offer rich layers of interaction and contradiction.  One can find really anything one wants in Ubud – wonderful spas and yoga retreats (interestingly enough, despite popular thinking, these aren’t “Balinese” at all, at least not traditionally – for more on this, read the great book by Geeta Mehta, Karma Cola, about “spiritual” tourism in India), to gamelan performances, cheap batik, great bookstores, good food, or simply familiar food.  There are as many white people in Ubud as there are Balinese, at least as an initial take walking down the street.  I appreciate Jude Fox’s description of Ubud offered here.

*Traffic:  Walking down the streets of Ubud is chore.  More and more Balinese are driving cars and motor bikes, and more and more tourists are as well.  The streets can be extremely congested (rendered worse by how narrow they typically are).  Late afternoon in Ubud yesterday, it was difficult to even walk down the sidewalk.  And I assure you it is more than just Ubud, the island over, more and more people are using their own transportation.

*Bemos:  The public transportation system in Bali.  It’s always been relatively easy, and indeed adventurous to travel around Bali on bemos.  Today, however, because of the increase in personal transportation, it is increasingly difficult to earn a living as a bemo driver, and thus there are fewer on the road.  The drivers now are more entrepreneurial, willing to go off route to take you to your destination.  I also find them more jaded and cynical, and ever more willing to take the tourists for as much money as possible.

In the past, having lived in villages in and around Ubud, I’d often take bemos to major stations in Gianyar and Batubulan, terminals that connect with different regions on the island.  And in the past, these terminals have always been bustling with activity, even intimidatingly so.  Today, many of the terminals are empty, with just one or two drivers waiting for passengers.

Yesterday, it took my about three hours to get from Sanur to Ubud, when it is about 30 minutes by motorbike or car.  While one typically expects to take longer traveling by Bemo, this seemed excessive.  I took a solicited taxi ride (much cheaper than I thought it would be) for my afternoon trip back to Sanur.  My taxi driver explained the bemo situation to me.  Apparently, there is a monthly fee that all drivers must pay, to essentially rent the vehicle and the line.  More and more bemo drivers are having a hard time covering these expenses and still making a reasonable profit, and thus, fewer bemos on the road.

*Banten, or ritual offerings:  Often one of the things people find most charming about Bali.  Many have deemed these an under acknowledged art form in Bali, though today there are contests for temple offerings at the Balinese Art Festival.  These are placed everywhere throughout the day – on the dashboards of cars, in homes, temples, and business – and are a way to offer devotion, and ask for security and prosperity from the spirits and gods that abide in our world.  Nothing about these have changed, and they remain delightful (again, please see Jude’s blog).

*Arts and crafts:  Weed through the tourist crap in the main markets, and Bali still offers some of the greatest arts and crafts in the world.  The furniture, batik, stone carving, and wood carving are all remarkable.

*Architecture:  Whether village temples or compounds, or large tourists resorts, the Balinese have a remarkable sense for space and design.

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