Romantic Bali

“David Attenborough has said that Bali is the most beautiful place in the world, but he must have been there longer than we were, and seen different bits, because most of what we saw in the couple of days we were there sorting out our travel arrangements was awful. It was just the tourist area, i.e. that part of Bali which has been made almost exactly the same as everywhere else in the world for the sake of people who have come all this way to see Bali.

The narrow, muddy streets of Kuta were lined with gift shops and hamburger bars and populated with crowds of drunken, shouting tourists, kamikaze motorcyclists, counterfeit watch sellers and small dogs. The kamikaze motorcyclists tried to pick off the tourists and the small dogs, while the tiny minibus which we spent most of the evening in, shuttling our bags from one full hotel to another, hurtled through the motorcyclists and counterfeit watch sellers at video game speeds. Somewhere not too far from here, towards the middle of the island, there may have been heaven on earth, but hell had certainly set up business on its porch.”

Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

In 1988/1989, Douglas Adams went to Komodo Island via Bali to report on the endangered Komodo dragon lizard. Almost twenty years later, and a safe two hours flight from Komodo Island (no Komodo dragons have been known to be able to fly), representatives from 190 countries gather in Bali to avert a climate crisis that can potentially drive humankind to extinction.

That Bali is famous as a tourist destination is beyond doubt. “Under a palm tree?” asked a professor when I told him I was going to do his take-home exam in Bali. I have since extended the exam deadline. (I challenge anyone to prepare and take an exam in 24 hours during a U.N. climate change conference). Another asked, “Did you bring your swimming attire?” Swimming attire is a must with all the swimming pools and beaches at the “tourist area”.

Douglas Adams was right: Bali “has been made almost exactly the same as everywhere else in the world for the sake of people who have come all this way to see Bali.” At least everyone’s expectations about Bali would be met, and the carbon emissions would not have been in vain. Like an anodyne, the idyllic beaches and pretty landscapes at the hotels provide relief from the care and worries of life and dangerous climate change. Bali will be one of the more memorable COP ever. “With climate change there will be a beach in Poland,” joked one audience during a side-event.

Last night we walked along the beach from the convention centre to a nearby hotel for drinks. The two ladies I was walking with gushed at the romantic settings. Warmly lit trees and lounge beds on sheltered pavilions, meticulously landscaped pools and ponds, and small-built hotel staff asking “how are you?” A perfect place for a honey-moon, the ladies concluded. Pretty and manicured, the Bali resorts makes one wonder whether places like Bali model or define “tropical paradise”.

My reaction was the equivalent of a Peanuts character rolling his eyes and sighing “good grief!” In our world, ideas and fashion get reinforced through information cascades: people choose their actions based on the observations of other people. Before you know it, everyone wants to go to places like Bali for their honey-moon. This explains why I keeping wanting to go to ruins in South America like Machu Picchu (though Yale is probably the next best place to learn about the place), and why I want to travel to the poles. People have done it, and there has been so many tales about those places that I want to do it as well.

Of course, I am saying this partly because I come from Singapore, about two hours away from Bali. I have never been to Bali before, but the weather and culture feels very familiar. Understandably, the pretty resorts of Bali do not excite me as much as the ladies who were walking with me last night.

Is there a way out of our incessant desire to fill our lives with experience that is contributing like every other act of consumption to climate change? Looking at my American classmates jump into the pool or sea ever so often, I realize I forgot that they come from temperate climes. And as I put up with gas-powered leaf blowers and cold weather in New Haven, I forget that most of my friends and relatives in Singapore have never seen snow before. As we put up with the inconveniences of our particular weather, it is useful to bear in mind that there are people who long for a taste of such weather.

Bali is more than a romantic getaway. I hope tourists get a chance to explore its cultural side as well.

Qi Feng