The “real” Bali. What is it? Where can it be hiding? It must be hidden away somewhere on this island because so many foreigners seem to be looking for it. According to some foreign residents, Ubud is the real Bali. According to others, the real Bali can be found over on the east side of the island where tourism hasn’t had such a significant impact as it has in other places around the island. According to other, newer, foreign residents the real Bali is found inside their villa walls alongside their swimming pools or on their teak decks. The real Bali may exist in those rice paddies that are so popular with foreigners as a symbol of Bali’s “naturalness.” But, it’s those rice paddies that their villas are rapidly rendering extinct.
This search for the real Bali appears to be bound to a craving for authenticity; the authenticity that foreigners can’t seem to find in their homelands. And so, waves of foreigners arrive here daily, most only to visit for a relatively brief period of time, but others have plans to stay because, as we all know, Bali is paradise, even if paradise means living behind three meter high walls topped with nails or broken glass and supported by CCTV, security guards, and vicious canines. The authenticity often comes via tales told by maids, drivers, and gardeners (colloquially called staff to make the culturally sensitive foreigners feel less like wealthy neo-colonialists and more like generous culturally aware benefactors). When push comes to shove, foreign residents tend to be more interested in how long it takes to have pizza delivered to their villas or finding the best place to do yoga than they do in learning the language and culture of the island and country that they claim is their new home.
Life, that messy, complicated, multi-layered reality that Balinese and other Indonesian residents of the island live daily is just that – a little too messy and complicated for the foreign residents who would rather spend their time navel-gazing and being served (where can I get fresh, organic veggies delivered to my villa) than getting out on the streets meeting the people that they allegedly adore and supporting local businesses or the ladies that sell produce in the local markets.
I’d be hard-pressed to find an expat who would call Denpasar the real Bali, but the banjars are there, ceremonies take place daily, Balinese carry out their daily tasks of making a living and completing their ritual duties, Indonesians from other islands arrive looking for work and building relationships with the Balinese either as employees or neighbors. The shops of Denpasar (and Singaraja and Klungkung and Gianyar) are filled with all these people: the grubby little hole-in-the-wall building supplies shop; the glittering, ultra-tech handphone store; the old-fashioned warung with two benches in front filled with local folks having a quick meal, a cup of coffee and some conversation; the Padang restaurant packed every lunch time with hungry customers. No terraced-rice fields, no rushing rivers, no breath-taking gorges, but surely one section or Balinese life even if it is the urban part that’s less photogenic and far from the image that the purveyors of “Bali as Paradise” want to put on their glossy brochures and fancy websites.
Out on the road with my favorite brother-in-law: we were traveling down to Denpasar, the capital and largest city on the island, so that I could buy some trailing vines to plant on the balcony in a possibly futile attempt to protect the walls of our house from the ravages of the seaside climate here in Singaraja. I look forward to our little trips because it gives me a chance to hear some decidedly local views on life on the island, plus gossip a little bit about what dramas are currently going on in our large, extended and dispersed family. Up over the mountains that separate the regency of Buleleng from the rest of Bali, we chat about the upcoming elections – yes, I met him when I was working in Papua and I don’t like him; he’s running again?; he might be good, at least he’s not a general – the change in the weather, my Indonesian granddaughter’s latest developmental wonder, the state of the economy, life for the salt of the earth.
We reach the little plant nursery down in the Renon area of Denpasar and buy plants and earth and concrete planters. We discuss the needs of the vines that I’m buying and why the business next door is not the place to buy the planters. We engage in some small chit-chat and smoke a cigarette. We buy 72 plants, 20 sacks of earth and four concrete planters and head off to home.
On our way down to Denpasar, we pass fruit stands selling durian, a fruit common to Southeast Asia and known for its pungent scent. This is durian season so there are plenty of stands to choose from. We stop at one not too far outside of Denpasar; we get out of the car and my brother-in-law starts bargaining. The lady is maybe thirty although she might be as old as forty. She offers us a price just barely below what we would pay back in Singaraja. My brother-in-law starts to bargain. I ask, in my limited Balinese, if the durian are tasty. She looks amazed, laughs, and punches me in the arm. “The tourist speaks Balinese,” she shouts to my brother-in-law. “He’s my brother-in-law,” he says with a laugh. “How much are they?” I ask in Balinese again. More laughing, more the tourist speaks Balinese. We get a good deal on the durian. The lady is smiling and we’re smiling as we get in the car.
Small interactions, but ones that reinforce my belief that Bali isn’t a location or a house or villa or , it’s a collection of people and their ways of life: something we anthropologists call culture. And that, in fact, the farther away you get from the “real” Bali, the more likely you are to find what you’re looking for.