We’ve heard alot of reggae over the last few months. I remember in particular one tiki bar in Sri Lanka (I think its was called Smiley’s) that ran “Legend” on repeat each day, very loud. The Sri Lankan beach aesthetic, which rallies around the island’s red, gold, and green Lion Flag, lends itself easily to those irie vibes. Such vibes travel well along the global backpacker circuit, and we have been happy to cross paths with this scene many times this past year. Sun, sand, and reggae, in an exotic spot: a classic combination sure to attract hordes of travelers with time on their hands. As our big trip winds down, maybe it is appropriate that we have found the spot where hippie surf traveler culture seems, for better or worse, most fully developed: The Island of the Gods, Bali.
Those gods chose well when they picked their island. The beaches are long and wide, and at least during our stay, offered big, soft waves well-suited to the 40-something Chevy Chase surfer. Above the beaches, the land slopes steadily upward, through hot, sunny villages separated by terraces of rice paddies, rows of banana trees, and thousands of Hindu temples. Among the temples, each business and house seems to include its own private temple or shrine.
Above these villages, steeper slopes hold more rice paddies, each greener than the last. From here, the jungle becomes a forest, cool and misty, and the green eventually turns to volcanic black around the 10,000 foot level. At least thats how it looks from below.
The dominance of Hinduism here, for us, is a callback to our days in India. Ganesh is everywhere, but his counterparts Shiva, Vishnu, and Krishna aren’t nearly as prevalent as back in India. In their place, the Balinese variety of Hindu decoration adds stone demon and guardian carvings which stand sentry outside of temples and houses everywhere you look. Stone carvers selling their wares line many of the roads outside of the town where we spent six days, Canggu.
In town, the Balinese honor the daily tradition of laying bamboo trays filled with marigolds, small food items, and burning incense at every door. I was told that these offerings signal to the spirits that they should treat the residents with mercy, and the Balinese apear to take their obligation very seriously. The trays are replaced daily, if not more often, and we are as likely to see them marking a private home, guesthouse, or shop, as a parking lot at the beach, a waterpark, or a Starbucks.
Those last two spots point to the other side of Bali, which is alive and well on the southern end of the island. Western tourism is huge here, driven largely by surfing, and has been for 30 years. Traffic can be brutal. Densapar, Bali’s only major city, features resorts, shopping malls, and amusement parks like you would see at any US beach town.
Canggu is on the western fringe of the Densapar’s sprawl. The pace of development here is impossible to miss. Among constructions cranes and traffic jams are countless tattoo parlors, organic food stands, yoga studios. At least one shipping container night club is in the works. Motorbike culture is strong among locals and tourists, but Canggu offers a thriving custom motorcycle scene catering to an itinerant macho hipster demographic which we haven’t seen elsewhere. The term “Bali Bro” seems a good fit, if it hasn’t already been coined.
What Canggu doesn’t have are the low-budget staples of tourist culture that we’ve so often run into throughout Asia: t-shirt and elephant pants shops, Buddha hawkers, and knock-off North Face stands. Maybe those are back in Densapar and Kuta. Something else that we noticed missing among the western visitors: any interest, however superficial, in local culture. The primary pursuits among our fellow travelers appear to be surfing and partying (One neighbor at our guesthouse held court one evening on the veranda with a scholarly lecture on how best to stay hydrated while leading a life of heavy partying in the tropics. He has a huge motorcycle).
So we are left with what appears to be a peaceful cohabitation: the western tourists and expats alongside the Balinese. The intersection between the two lies somewhere on the beach, between the surf lineup and that evening’s reggae band. In Canggu, at least, this arrangement seems to work. Maybe this has to do with the local economics: one local guy told us that few Canggu natives have to work at all, thanks to the influx of Chinese money supporting real estate development in town. Whatever the case, we would be crazy to think we’ve figured this spot out after just a week. It certainly was not what we expected.
This post was supposed to be about the reason we came to Bali – surfing! – and I have failed to mention one bit of the fun and success we found among the waves of the gods’ island (Yay Balicamp!). We loved it. Will share more soon, and if the internet cooperates, there will be video. But we’ve just landed on Pulau Tomia for the grand finale of this big trip. Time to put the phone down.