I really didn’t want to like you.
I mean, I know how much you’ve changed in recent years, and it would be so much easier to simply think that you’re a crowded, annoying city that’s overrun with tourists and completely lacking in any “authentic Balinese charm”. I wouldn’t have to question my own values and preferences if I wanted to run from your streets lined with foreigner-owned businesses, and get back to the “real Bali” as quickly as possible. If that were the case, I could sit comfortably in my righteousness, safe in the notion that I am indeed much better than the “stupid tourists” who come here and just interact with other westerners (your words, and mine).
I wanted to think the Yoga Barn was a gross commercialization of something vaguely connected to your religious traditions. I wanted to resent all the vegan health food restaurants that are priced way above almost any local Balinese budget. I wanted to think the villas built by foreigners on land leased from you were monstrous abominations of conspicuous consumption. I could much more easily attempt to deny my inherent white privilege, if I shunned all the other white people walking through your streets in yoga pants and sports bras, and went back to covering up with my sarong, along the village roads where I was the only blondy for miles.
But it didn’t work out that way.
You see, I kind of love you. And I’m sorry, because I know I’m part of the problem for you.
I’m remembering how to enjoy myself, here. And I know that people coming here to enjoy themselves is the reason why places have sprung up over the last 10 years, like the CP lounge: with it’s impressive island facade and vacation-worthy live evening music. I know about the CP lounge because it sits directly next door to my last homestay… peacefully overlooking beautiful ricefields, in a set back neighborhood where there wasn’t even a real road to the house until just a few years ago. Now the CP lounge blares it’s resident band and DJ until 2am, and has forever reduced the quality of life of the family next door. They still remember being surrounded by nothing but rice and animals, and serenity. Having to move out of that homestay to get a good night’s sleep almost led me to dislike you.
But I can’t dislike you. You’re too much of what makes me happy, all gathered in one place, for me maintain my pretentious indignation about everything you’ve become.
The truth is, walking into the Yoga Barn every few days is like walking into Lightning in a Bottle over and over again (a much-beloved yoga/art/music/spirituality festival in LA). Your health food cafes bring my body back from the fatigue that had begun setting in from the sugary snacks I explored a bit too much in your neighboring villages. Yes, my hostel has a restaurant with a menu of well-prepared western foods. Yes, I choose to retreat there most afternoons, to the comfy beanbags that line its swimming pools, and discuss digital nomadhood with the other Americans and Europeans who come and go, and some who stay long, here. And I love it. Yes, the spirituality that calls me to deeply immerse in it at the moment is coming largely from foreign women, and spoken in the tongues of Native American traditions… with little to do with the Balinese Hinduism we’re all so moved and inspired by.
I wanted to hate the inflated prices of your taxi drivers, and the fruit sellers who refuse to sell to me for any less than about double what my local friends in Kintamani told me I should pay. I do hate feeling like a walking money tree, but I am also forced to face the uncomfortable fact that some days, I’m spending more on yoga classes than many of the Balinese around me will make that day. And even more uncomfortably, much of that money is going to white studio owners.
I wanted to run from this place before I came, convinced that all the foreigner-funded hippie-woo woo shouldn’t be here. But the thing is, I thank the Gods for the woo woo. Unfortunately, Ubud, you’re heaven for people like me. I’m keenly aware that this is the inherent clash of colonialism. I understand that I’m part of the problem, and I’m sorry that I can’t find it in myself to hate you I can’t simmer in shame for who I am and the vast economic disparity that collides when our cultures come together. I tried, but the tibetan singing bowls at the sound healing workshop pulled the shame right out of my system.
In many ways, central Ubud, you are not “Bali”, to me. I suppose you could be… I could choose to adopt the full-hippie approach that “what makes Bali so magical is the way she cradles all who come together on her land to love and heal, in her beauty and deliciousness”.
That sounds wonderful. Except for the glaring fact that there’s one thing missing from any conversation in Ubud that talks about Bali’s embrace: Balinese people. They’re the ones taking away empty smoothie glasses and asking if we’d like anything else to drink. They’re the ones mopping the yoga studio while we float out on our little bliss-clouds and rave about how lovely Bali is.
I’m sorry there’s this division. I tried to turn my back from you, to avoid being another soldier in this OMing white army taking over your streets…. But I don’t know of any other place where people like us have come together to create the lifestyle that we cherish and savor like this. I’m sorry it’s on your doorstep, and I’m sorry that we haven’t figured out how to fully bring you in, either (or if you even want to come into our kind of party).
It’s incredibly generous that you don’t seem to hold me with hostility, except for maybe trying to charge a multiple of fair market value at the fruitstand. I appreciate that I wouldn’t know there was any problem, if I hadn’t been educated to look for who’s voice isn’t being heard, and if I didn’t take the time to make local friends, some of whom just laugh, and some of whom speak of tourists with something between apathy and indignation.
I read about your fight to keep out new economy services like Uber, and from abroad, sided with “progress”… but from here, I’m beginning to understand your side. Where previously my Western mind thought “maybe you should drive for Uber and actually get more customers, instead complaining while you sit gabbing with friends”, I’m beginning to see that Uber’s rate is so low for you, that by using it, I’m bringing the “hustle to get more work for less money” culture that I’ve run from, here with me. You perform ceremonies to ask the Gods for business, and create the relaxed culture of Bali that draws us all here, by sitting and chatting, waiting for that business to show up. How can I judge your different way of approaching work, when I’m drawn by exactly what your approach has created?
I can’t even fault you for the violent tactics your mafiosos use to keep Uber out. I get it. Our influx keeps growing, and keeps changing the way you live. In classic welcoming Hindu style, you’ve tolerated it until that line in your tropical sands… you’ll only graciously receive so many threats to your culture, while ours pours in. Your much-colonized history has taught you better. And I certainly can’t make the case that worshipping overtime work is better than worshipping your Gods.
I can’t hate you, Ubud… though the anti-imperialist in me thinks it might be best for you, if I did. I also can’t love you in an all-consuming way that excludes the people who’s generations have farmed your increasingly-paved land. I suppose we’re destined to have a complicated relationship.
I’m not sure what the overall solution is, but I do see some steps I can take, to help us find mutual fulfillment. I think I have a social responsibility here to step out of my “lack” mentality. I am wealthy, by your standards, and I’ll use that wealth carefully, not just for my own fulfillment, but in the ways I see I can support you as well. That’s what lovers do.
Perhaps it’s time to not always choose the cheapest path… when I see there’s a way I can use my resources to help support and sustain your culture and values, as well. I won’t be using Uber here anymore…. And if I have to pay 50 cents more for my mangosteens today, that’s a small price to pay for the privilege to visit your special land. I’ll continue making conversation, and making friends… with your residents, and with your visitors. I’ll take time for myself, so I can be a force of peace, and not add my own internal chaos to the vibrant mix here.
Oh, and I think it’s time to stop apologizing for being here. I didn’t write this colonial history, and I’ll do my best to craft our mutual future with consciousness and collaboration. As long as you’ll have me, I want my presence here to carry love and gratitude, not sorrow. I want my vibes to lift you up, and somehow let you feel even better, for my presence. I can’t dislike you and leave. I can’t fix the complicated issues of imperialism, globalization and first/third world socioeconomics. But I can love you. I hope that’s enough.
(Photo credit: Rob Bertholf)