Has The Tropical Island Of Bali Busted Its Own Romantic Bubble?
May 11, 2015

Has The Tropical Island Of Bali Busted Its Own Romantic Bubble?

I pull our rented scooter off a road choked with slow moving cars and motorbikes.  The odd Kamikaze swerves through on a Vespa as if he doesn’t want to see next week. I park beside an adjacent muddy path near a large pile of garbage--tin cans, plastic bottles, wood and broken glass.

“Is that dog dead?” I ask my wife.  She climbs off the bike and looks to her left.  “Don’t go near it,” she warns. I once threatened to lift the tail end of a wild jungle python.  Now she thinks I’ll touch almost anything, dead or alive. I step a few feet forward.  The dog is dead.

We’re on the tropical island of Bali, in the town of Ubud, where the character in Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular novel, Eat, Pray, Love, finds, well…love.   Bali is supposed to be one of the world’s most romantic destinations. Travel & Leisure magazine awarded it the World’s Best Island in 2009.  Today, it’s more like a one -night stand.

Home to 4.2 million people, Bali measures 95 miles wide and spans approximately 69 miles, north to south. Famous for its beaches, Hindu architecture, volcanic mountains and warm beaches, the Indonesian island attracted 2.4 million foreign tourists in 2010.  Just four years later, the Jakarta Post says that number has swelled 36 percent, topping 3.76 million.   

After looking for a place to rent for the month of May, my wife and I are surprised to bump into friends we once worked with.  Soon we’re having dinner together.  We’re joined by a retired couple in their mid 50s.  They moved to Ubud six months ago. As global retirees and vagabonds do, we swap stories of great foreign places where our dollars stretch the furthest.  I mention Lake Chapala, Mexico. We had spent three great months renting a home there late last year.

“There are far too many Americans in Lake Chapala,” the woman says, pushing her nose up a bit.  I smile, thinking about something travel writer Dave Fox had said.  “Ubud is a big city with ancient stone houses, streets adorned with floral offerings to Hindu deities, and the most white people I’ve seen anywhere since my last trip to America.”
Mexico’s Lake Chapala and Ubud couldn’t be more different. Most of the expats in Lake Chapala are retirees in their 60s or 70s.  They live there full time.

Those wanting to eat, pray and love in Ubud face a different demographic. It’s a magnet for Bohemian tourists.  Many are young, attractive 21st century hippies.  In the town’s ubiquitous gourmet cafes, you’ll hear them talking about their chakras, yoga and biofield healing. Young men take note.  Most of them are women.

Older retirees, however, should be wary.  Holes in the sidewalks swallow five year olds for lunch.  Electic mobility scooters would get flattened like a crepe. Medical treatment doesn’t come close to what you would find in other low cost havens, such as Mexico, Panama, Malaysia or Thailand.

Bali’s government pushes tourism, but not the infrastructure that supports it.  The once prestine beaches, outside of the sheltered resorts, are often clogged with garbage.  Travel & Leisure magazine no longer ranks Bali among its top five islands.

Last year, global travel writers Melissa and Michael Milne wrote, Why You Should Take Bali Off Your Bucket List for the Huffington Post.  “We hadn't anticipated the environmental disaster that Bali has become,” they said.  “What is Bali doing about this problem? Well, they have expanded the airport to handle a greater influx of visitors so they can pile up even more trash that has nowhere to go.”

Global retirement experts Billy and Akaisha Kaderli agree.  They described their disappointment in Paradise Lost. “Traffic is unbelievably congested with cars, trucks, motorbikes going two directions in alleys eight feet wide.  Bali seems to be in an identity crisis, a temperamental teenager in a tantrum, refusing to clean up her room.”

Wanting a local perspective, I asked Annie Harold.  Originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, Annie moved to Bali after a stint in Portland, where she worked as a sustainability consultant for a structural engineering company.  Today, she works for a NGO called Sawah Bali. Its goal is to conserve Bali’s rice paddies and create opportunities for farmers. “Bali used to attact tourists that were interested in engaging in the culture.  Today, most tourists have superficial experiences.  They stay in resorts, the likes of which have reduced farming land and created fresh water scarcity issues. Bali is seeing a decrease in long stay tourists and an increase in environmentally damaging short term package tourism.”

Bali is a bruised peach. But there are tasty spots if you cut around the fruit flies. Wander onto the narrow pathways outside Ubud, weaving your way through rice paddies and secluded private villas. My friend, Ned, hasn’t given up on Bali.  He spends plenty of time on the tropical island.  “The southern beach region of Peranan is quiet.  I also recommend Pemuteran, in the north.  That’s like Bali was, 20 years ago.”

Each time we visit Bali, it seems to get busier, dirtier, crazier.  But we’re hopeful. At the end of the day, we came back to our scooter.  The pile of garbage remained. But the dead dog was gone.  That’s a small sign of hope. 

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