Bali

We recently went on a much anticipated trip to Bali. It was a combined 40th birthday celebration and friends reunion. Gathering together some of our oldest (no pun intended) and dearest friends for a good old fashioned tropical holiday. It took 2 years of planning to get everyone in line from New Zealand, Australia and us in Bangkok.

On the lead up, instead of planning what cocktails we’d like we found ourselves anxiously checking magma levels and earthquake frequencies. Mt Agung was threatening to erupt, she still is. The international press got hold of the news and whilst some were factual and to the point the news quickly got merged with pretty much any and every volcanic eruption in the region.

We learnt a lot about the number of volcanoes in Indonesia (the country with the most volcanoes in the world) and the types of volcanoes. Like anything on the internet, if you dig deep enough you are likely to find something or somehow that will kill you. The worst media was the Express in the UK, sensationalizing every piece of news and dragging it out for at least three days.

Whilst we were debating insurance and changing our holiday to another location there were thousands of Balinese being shifted from their homes in preparation of an eruption. Most of these people are still living in make shift villages waiting for the mountain to do what it must. Our concern was ash clouds, delay of travel and at the worst having to evacuate with masks on boats to the nearest airport. These people are set to lose everything.

Mount Agung is hugely important to Balinese Hinduism with their mother temple (Besakih) on the slopes. There are 11 volcanoes along the backbone of Bali with Agung the tallest at 3,033 metres. It is also the most active with the previous eruption in 1963, one of the largest of the 20th century.

Being such a volcanic island is two fold. Whilst the volcanic soil provides beautifully fertile soil and the very landscape that is so beautiful and lush, it can do exactly what it is doing and be volatile. Besides the lava flow burning all in it’s path the ash will destroy crops and pollute waterways for years to come. A wee reminder that we are only visitors to this land, and at the mercy of mother earth.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Once we all arrived we did enjoy our stay, drank many cocktails, enjoyed the food and activities. Particularly down in the beach towns the threat of Mount Agung seems very far away, it is at least 60 kilometres away and the earthquakes are so localised there’s not even the smallest tremor. And of course it’s business as usual for an island relying on tourists for the majority of their income.

As a family after bidding a sad farewell to our friends retreated to the hill town of Ubud. Seeking green, cool and a different landscape. Ubud is lovely, the scenery, the restaurants and the surrounding landscape. However, whilst I wanted so much to love this place there were a couple of aspects that left a less welcoming feel.

Ubud centre is crazy tourist town. We’ve been to a few of these types of places around the world. The one that comes to mind is Cusco, Peru. There was a general feeling of desperation, especially in the art market. Coming from Bangkok and the more laid back approach to sales the ladies here resort to calling out, even grabbing you as you walk past. Visiting the lovely rice terraces or temples is reduced to an opportunity to sell something, sarongs, trinkets, art and handbags. I understand that this is their income but being fed the line that ‘my elderly grandfather handmade this bag’ when it’s quite plainly identical to the one down the road or the same I saw in Sanur gets a little tiresome. I take my hat off to some tactics, let me take a photo of your family, ‘just look’ etc.

What I don’t enjoy is a less than par experience whilst I feel jostled along with the crowd. I’m spoilt in Bangkok for quality nail bars and massages. My experience in Ubud simply left me underwhelmed. Whilst the young lady doing the job was great the materials she used were sub-par. I left with freshly painted nails that by the time I was up the road had all smudged. And rather than barter with the slightly dodgy taxi arrangement (find man with taxi sign, be told it would cost 100,000 rp ($NZ10) to travel 3 minutes up the road, try and get him down to 50,000 rp then still feel ripped off) I started walking home. Actually a very pleasant walk once of the main busy thoroughfare.

Feeling very Eat, pray, Love with my camera, the scent of incense and local ladies walking to the temples with baskets balanced on their heads. Mind with smudged nails… I ducked into a local salon. The owner was dying her hair and I asked if she would mind removing the shoddy nail polish. On asking how much, she replied, as much as you want to give.

I sat down and she very carefully and gently removed the polish apologising for the experience. What followed was an enlightening conversation and led to this post. I asked if she was worried about Mount Agung… She was from Sumatra, another island in Indonesia which has had a volcano erupting for five years. Locals have not been able to return to their homes and farms for all of that time. Her main worry was the tourist numbers. She said already 5,000 tourists had cancelled plans to come to Ubud. This made me aware of the desperation. If numbers are down, if you rely on selling sarongs for $1, your income is down. After this conversation I had no hesitation on spending my taxi money on this lovely lady and her gentle way. I walked home a little lighter and better informed.

I can’t help but feel the impact of the volcano, and rightly, is yet to come. If you didn’t already have a trip to Bali booked (like us) you might re-think. You might look at another location or delay your plans until Mount Agung and mother nature let’s us in on her plans.

Bali is beautiful, the people are fascinating, the unique strand of Hinduism enthralling. The island relies heavily on tourism, especially from Australia.  And for sure if you get away from the tourist hot spots, just by a little, she is a stunning, welcoming, lush, tropical paradise.

Travel is a risk, some known and some unknown. Of course you don’t want to knowningly put your family in the way of a volcano. Auckland is a volcanic city, on the same ring of fire as Indonesia, but the threat isn’t as apparent. Circumstances like this make you realise that we are guests here on this planet at the discretion of Mother Earth.

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