Nusa Dua, Bali, Thursday 31 May 2012

Before I arrived in Bali, quite a few people were at pains to warn me that I was stepping into a resource-poor community of extreme poverty. This isn’t though, my first experience of resource-poor communities. Taking the abra over the creek in Dubai to the Old City was always my favourite way to spend time there. The sounds and the smells and the undiluted vibrancy of life there never made me feel anything less than energised. It beat the soul-sapping anonymous shopping malls every time. I stayed in the Medina in Fez, which was a microcosm of humanity concentrated into under three square kilometres: anything and everything went there. And of course I used to jump over the back fence of the kibbutz that was my home and wander into the nearest Arab town to buy pita bread when I lived in Israel. Why, then, did I feel so utterly overwhelmed when I reached Bali?

However much I try to rationalise it, to contemplate it, to consider it, I don’t have an answer. It felt as if it were everything I knew about Old Dubai, about Fez, about Tira, on speed. Doubled, tripled, quadrupled. Up was down and down was around and my head was spinning and my ears were subjected to a cacophony of sound I couldn’t even begin to understand and my eyes didn’t know where to look first.

Roads function with just about the semblance of directional discipline, but lane discipline is an entirely alien concept on dual carriageways. The favoured driving position appears to be straddling both lanes, with scooters swarming around cars like pilot fish around a shark, trucks dodging and weaving, and taxis haring by. Indicators appear to be optional, the horn is by far the most preferred signal, and whilst there are plenty of traffic lights, and there does appear to be some systematic approach to them, I can’t make it out. On the drive from the airport to Nusa Dua there were numerous occasions when I just closed my eyes and hoped. But the crazy thing is, these drivers are probably more aware of the roads, their conditions, and other vehicles, and better able to judge speed and distance, than the majority of London drivers.

But it’s the scooters that are king. People use them as we would a family car. I would lie and say that I’m just becoming accustomed to the sight of parents winging about with a kid sandwiched between them, but at age ten I was schlepped around Livorno on the back of a Vespa by Tiziana, so I know just how much fun it is. However, seeing a father up front, his wife riding pillion, with a baby under each arm left me gulping. It didn’t make transporting a drainpipe, or an entire shop’s supply of fizzy drink strapped to one seem that outlandish.

I could say something about poverty nestling next to opulence, and five star hotels residing amongst houses that seem to remain erect with a combination of spit and hope, but that is a characteristic of almost every city I know. The most impoverished, deprived, run-down, broken-down areas will be but a stone’s throw from neighbourhoods where money is no object. This juxtaposition, then, felt wrong–it always feels wrong–but it wasn’t shocking or surprising.

What did take away my breath was the security checkpoint at the vehicle entry to every hotel: the scars from the 2002 Bali Bombings run deep. In fairness, the checks are cursory and I doubt that a fence manned by a guy with a metal detector will deter a suicide bomber in a truck packed with explosives. But there they are. It’s a reminder of the precarious balance of the islands: how dependent they are on the tourist rupiah, but just how reviled these foreigners can be. We, as tourists, have done significant damage to Bali in addition to bringing in revenue.

Maybe then, I was the greatest juxtaposition and that was what left me feeling overwhelmed. I was the obvious fish-out-water. In many other circumstances, I can blend in sufficiently: I speak enough of the language, I know enough of the cultural tell-tale signs, I can pass myself off as a local. Here, I was the gawping tourist I can’t bear to be.