For a day tripper, Ubud most likely seems like a hot, loud, motorbike-exhaust-filled hell. How different it must have been when the first tourists came to Bali in the 1930s! A strip of street with a shop and a gas station. Women walking topless to the market, carrying baskets on their heads. No noise, few cars, no motorbikes. No big domestic animals, either, really: people did most of the carrying themselves.
Under the Dutch rule Bali had become a spice island, and one initially entered through Singaraja in the North. Miguel Covarrubias the artist describes ugly, cheap housing, gas stations, dirty shops, dirty people. Not really the picture postcard of lush, green banana trees and beautiful women. One must first endure a sweaty and tiring drive down south, over the cold mountains of Batur, until the air warms and becomes clear, the lush green forests appear, and the picture postcard becomes real.
In the 1930s Denpasar was the place to be. I have been to Bali twice and never seen Denpasar. In the 1930s, Kuta and Legian are described as miserable, malaria-infested lowlands. Today, they are miserable, drunk Aussie-tourist infested lowlands. In the 1930s, Ubud is described as a strip of street with a shop and gasoline station. Today, indeed, it is more shops and gasoline than streets, with strips of green.
In the 1930s, women began to dress in shirts and everybody understood that tourists can be a source of income. It was the end of innocence on Bali and the artists and etnographers residing there were sorry to see it go. Today, just 80 years later, the Balinese I see are Western on the outside and Balinese on the inside. There are still rice paddies and dancing and ceremonies, but no longer the old lifestyle, save for morning offerings.
As I was sipping on my post-yoga practice coconut, I thought of the basic etnographer’s theorem that by mere observational presence we change the object we try to observe. And tourists have never just tried to observe Bali – they’ve loved it so much they have tried to either become Bali or take a piece of Bali with them when they leave. Unfortunately, the reverse goes for the Balinese who meet Westerners. I hope that still 80 years in the future the Balinese would be proud to be Balinese on a unique island called Bali, even if people like me love their island and its soul to bits and crumbs.(Ubud, Bali, Indonesia; August 2016)