I feel a perverse need to watch Road to Bali again. You know one of those family approved comedies back in the fifties where warbling Bing Crosby always stole Dorothy Lamour from wisecracking Bob Hope.
What I learnt back then at ten years old was that when Bing began to sing it really was a chance to nip to the toilet and that the exotic world was full of dark skinned people who flashed wide grins and danced strange dances.
What I learn now as we travel from temple to temple is that there must be more wooden and stone statues than there are people. The road between Denpasar and Ubud is lined with workshop after workshop stacked with monument size sculptures of Gods and mythical events. Who buys all these?
Certainly the decreasing number of tourists must be a problem for a population dependant entirely on tourism. Our guide speaks sadly of the effect of the recent terrorist bombing. Bali is a 90% Hindu island. Terrorists – muslim extremists – from outside the island felt that Australian tourists needed to be punished for flaunting their bodies on the beach and liking a drink of Bintang beer.
Half past seven in the morning I am woken by a phone call from a travel company. Great news! You’ve been selected to win a free holiday. You just have to come across to breakfast 40 miles away and attend a presentation. You see we’re really worried by the fall off in Australian tourists. But I’m not Australian – I say. We know that. But we still want you to enjoy your prize. My mum taught me to always look a gift horse in the mouth but I put the phone down.
The hotel is a society in microcosm. At least fifty gardeners work in the cool of the morning across the lawns. Each pool has at least four attendants. Uniformed personnel stand on every corner and intersection of every walk way and nod and wish you the best of the day. Breakfast must be a military operation involving tons of food broought in from off the island each day. Chinese tourists swoop on the fruit and empty whole plates of cut pineapple into plastic bags.
As you walk through the streets of small shops and stalls, there are no obvious signs of poverty. There are no beggars. Teenagers who flock the beaches in the evening on bicycles and scooters are unfailingly polite, always calling excuse me when coming up from behind on the pedestrian walkways.
But there is desperation here. There aren’t enough spending tourists – the women clamour for your custom. Come see my stall: looking! looking! Every five metres you are approached by a driver wanting to take you to palaces volcanoes rice fields or temples on far away points on the island. So many unsold trips, Batik shirts, sarongs, massages, wooden sculptures – and every night the same Dutch pensioners walk on by – pensioners who winter a whole three months at cheap rates.
The offerings to the Gods three times a day have not brought back the numbers of tourists that Bali once enjoyed. The guide explains Karma to me. Sumatra was hit by the Tsunami because the people were destroying the environment. In Bali the environment is often close to a version of Paradise. Gouged by Lava the island is full of sudden lush gorges with steep high cliffs and miraculously stepped paddy fields.
However take a look at their Gods – particularly Shiva and his wife – Gods of destruction and Death. They must be honoured and held in equal repect with Rama and Vishnu and so on the road you will see statues of Gurga eating children.