Keep the Change

There’s a theme running just below the surface here in Ubud, lurking behind the scenes. It comes out in talks with the taxi drivers, or with the shop keepers, or with expats who’ve been around a while. It hovers around the fresh piles of dirt and bamboo that sit in front of vacant lots. And it runs through the pages of the guidebooks that we brought here with us.

It’s about how much Bali and Ubud have changed over time. How every year brings more visitors. About how the rice fields are slowly -or not so slowly- being carved up and parceled into new bungalows or restaurants to meet the ever-growing demands from the visitors and financial opportunities for the Balinese. It’s about how the culture is slowly being diminished and watered down to appease the tourists. It’s all true to some extent. But it’s also a mixed and complicated issue, and one that I’ve wrestled with since my earliest days of foreign travel, especially the off-the-beaten path variety (even that phrase references the topic).

For starters, San Francisco has changed a lot during this time too -ask anyone. Everywhere has. Who doesn’t come across this issue routinely, no matter where they live? Change is constant. Always has been, and nothing can stop it. However the rate of change varies among different places, and maybe that is more at the heart of the matter for Bali -though this force too, seems beyond control. Young people grow up; Political winds shift; airports are built; economic opportunities open; technologies improve; utilities are installed; public perceptions improve (or sour); new editions of Lonely Planet are published. Next thing you know, Kalispell is drawing them in like never before, and Glacier National Park becomes a bonafide world destination.

Besides being constant, change is also relative, depending on personal perspective. Before I first went to Burning Man in the 1990’s, some friends advised me not to because it had already changed so much. I went anyway, several times, and found it to be a fantastic experience. Jennifer and I had never been to Bali before arriving last month. No prior visits to compare this one to. We can imagine how different Ubud is now from just 10 years ago, or 50, but we cannot experience those changes ourselves, only its current state. And we love it’s current state. We feel like we are in a very exotic land, with a unique and cherished culture. We’ve never felt surrounded by such a mixture of beauty and spirituality, nor witnessed such a combination of inner and outer expressions of gratitude. We feel extremely safe here, and are treated with respect and kindness. We are determined to explore the topography, people, and culture of this island (and other parts of SouthEast Asia), and to seek out the more exotic and rarer glimpses of it as best we can. But by doing so, and by blogging about it, we can’t help but contribute to the changes that Bali keeps experiencing, in our own small way.

Many travelers want to seek out the “next Bali”. I don’t blame them, I’d like to see it too -before everyone else ruins it.  : )  It seems to me that there is no “solution” to halting the changes to the likes of Bali, short of living in a bubble. As a species, we seem wired to need to explore, question, and challenge our environs, with mixed consequences. Certainly there have been many positive aspects to Bali’s growing popularity, especially economic. If suddenly the Indonesian government closed the Bali gates, the hardships would be extreme, as they were following the bombings in Kuta which dried up the tourist trade for some time. (Kuta was targeted because of its perceived “westernization”. It’s one thing to visit a foreign country on its terms, and quite another to use it as the party basement).

Traveling can be a profound experience. To meet face to face with people who are vastly different; to share information and stories and meals with; to break down (or reinforce) stereotypes; to share smiles and warm encounters with; and to offer and receive kindness among strangers, is to strengthen the bonds that unite people everywhere. It can lead to such positive, grounding and optimistic experiences, like no other.

Still, it’s a tricky thing to navigate, these visits to foreign lands, and to balance our influences with our desires. In the end, it might be more an issue about consciousness than anything else. Perhaps the best we can do is follow our natures, and explore this world with respect and awareness for the places that we poke around in; try to recognize and minimize any adverse impact; try to learn the languages and local behaviors; to accept and embrace the different cultures; to be mindful of one’s actions; and to try to be good guests and representatives as San Franciscans, as Americans -and as world citizens.



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Matt & Rita
    May 25, 2013 @ 15:22:05

    That is a very thoughtful post, Matt. I agree that travel and interaction with different people and cultures is generally a very positive experience for both the travelers and the people being visited, so I don’t think you need to feel badly about the changes to Bali that you and Jen are helping along in a small way. I think it is important that you are conscious of your part in that, and are sensitive to the positive and potentially negative impacts of those changes. As you say, change is a constant everywhere, so I think the best we can do is try to steer it in positive directions and take steps to preserve those things that we don’t want changed. I am glad you are not one of those people (there are many) who decry change without acknowledging that they themselves are part of the cause of the changes.


  2. kathysarconi
    May 26, 2013 @ 18:30:49

    Really excellent and nuanced discussion of a very complicated issue.


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