I am sitting in the slanting light of an Indonesian dawn, in a quiet stillness that will soon be broken by the bizarre and raucous explosion of life here.
Each morning, effortless and graceful, the sun rises over the Indian Ocean; each afternoon, raging with heat, it beats furiously upon the great archipelago, playing the outrageous, mercurial symphony of the day like a mad conductor. Each night this same sun sets magnificently, like a dying fiery behemoth diving into golden water. The mad symphony slows and the orchestra wipes sweat from its brow. But no matter, the dark is just an overture, and the next movement will begin in the morning.
Bali is a strange place indeed; a place that is actually one hundred different places and one thousand experiences and one million perspectives. One walks across some nameless invisible line and it changes. One moment a resort-ridden tourist cesspool; a verdant jungle kingdom governed by towering volcanoes; a trendy utopian art colony; or a quiet isle punctuated by dirt roads and lazy sunlit afternoons.
Inside one of these kalaidescope divisions I have spent some months. Here, on the South West coast of Bali, in a place called Canggu.
Imagine: Seconds from the shining repose of the beach, surrounded by palm trees and low-hanging fruits, a small paved road winds through rice-paddies and eventually finds the sprawling, fuming, haphazard mass of urban sprawl that grows like mould from an air-strip of dark asphalt. Some time in the recent past this small, lonely road would have been unremarkable, populated only by a few stalls selling fragrant rice, farmers herding cows, and an occasional surfer who had wandered off the road in search of solitude. A few years ago, this was just another piece of coastline.
Not so today. Where the stalls once stood, polished concrete and bamboo adorn brightly lit cafes, and restaurants jostle for attention with self-proclaimed “lifestyle boutiques.” The rice-paddies still stand; the beaches still roll up and down the coast; the waves lap at rock and sand. But now the endless, constant noise of construction cuts across the lapping waves, the rice-fields are hemmed in by villas, bars, and other such developments, and the same roads are crowded with young, hip tourists from every corner of the world who want nothing more than to soak themselves in bitter local beer and sunbathe and consume everything around them.
Now, the sun is at its violent zenith and the symphony is in full swing. The heat brings a lecherous quality to all things and to avoid it one must cower in the protection of air-conditioned rooms, doze fitfully, or take refuge in the coolness of the ocean.
A group of demure students bend together obediently behind a gesticulating yoga teacher. As he speaks he moves methodically and fingers move graceful and light across the surface of smooth prayer beads dangling gently from his neck.
At an organic cafe a young woman with bony shoulders and harsh, blunt features gathered together in outrage demands of a terrified waitress that she receive proper change for her meal. The cafe has run out of change and dark-skinned girl cannot comply — she cowers beneath the haughty scorn of her guest. The woman departs explosively after making a scene, cheated from her 22 American cents.
Backpackers whiz past each other on the narrow streets between beach and farm-land and development, small gas-powered scooters narrowly avoiding collision with the cars and taxis that hesitantly creep down these same roads.
Ahh, Canggu. Dark tropical wood adorn lovely cafes and exotic plants spill from manicured gardens into the gutters and streets. Art is everywhere, conceived by the foreigners who conceived to settle here, inspired by the sunshine and value of their foreign dollar in this little colony. Here is a place of cream-coloured french espresso in the mornings; here is a place of smoked salmon and house-made herbed pork sausage; of chia seeds and of ripe, sweet papaya flesh and cold coconut water, served in chilled glass or “rustically” in its original shell — but always with a twist of lime. Here is a place of bamboo and of brightly painted buildings and of straw roofing, for the mode of the day is straw roofing.
The crowds spill in unbroken mass from the beaches into the brilliant aquamarine blue. Surfers speckle the ocean, floating anxiously, in solitude no longer. Often, hoarse battle cries drift over the water as they drop over the vertical crest of a fast, pitching wave. Shouts of indignation or warning as two race for a solitary launch-pad on a single, gathering mountain of sea. The only reprieve comes under the bright white haze of the moon, when the fading echoes of that hidden sun have left their last marks on the sky and there is just enough daylight remaining to see the outline of fast forming water. Sometimes, I paddle towards the horizon in this night and float alone in pensive silence, as the lonely surfer did so many years ago.
Here is a paradise, to be sure. But under it all flows the bulging and pulsating vein of capitalism, disquieting where centuries of history and heritage and culture once soaked the earth. It seems sometimes that the spirit has been replaced with something more sleek and modern; a machine that buzzes and whirs and calculates the potential profit of opening a new tapas bar right here on the beach, on this prime slice of land that just happens to be “For Sale.” This thing is a thing that can be found often in modern cities; the headlong rush into a more prosperous future; The New and Improved; Finger on the Latest Trends. Maybe in the cities it is to be expected. But in the country; along the picturesque coastline, it seems sinister and imposing.
The Balinese perform Hindu rituals of blessing on buildings and in the streets, but often these are more a going-through-the-motions then acts of true meaning. Hungrily, many watch the wealth of these guests in their land and conspire of ways to feed off of it. Their gods have been reduced to gold-flaked paperweights in souvenir shops and polished decorations in giant villas and hotels; and many sell these paragons of their culture and religion happily — anxious for the opportunity at a quick dollar so that they might buy a new car or open their own cafe and share in the spoils of these hordes of paradise-hungry visitors.
Alas, Canggu. If one crosses another invisible line things might be different, but here in the heat of this small paradise, vision can become blurred and fuzzy, and one wonders if the beauty is fading into just another mirage. Yet the settlers continue to come, Indonesians too — word of a Sure Thing spreads fast.
So, for now I will bide my time and watch, as the rush continues, like gold-hungry prospectors to the shimmering glitter of pyrite.