Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Ubud used to be one of the most serene places in Asia: a small town of eight thousand inhabitants built on lush-green tropical hills in the middle of “The Island of Gods” – Bali. Its rivers flowed through deep and mysterious valleys and ravines; its stories and fairy tales could fill dozens of books; its painters – some of the most talented in Asia – had a tremendous influence on modern art in Indonesia and far beyond.
Fifteen years ago, when I first arrived in Bali, Ubud used to have no more than two dozens of cars, a limited number of home-stays and restaurants, but dozens of art galleries and one important art museum near the old royal palace. Music was everywhere – performed just for fun by local artists seated on wide bamboo platforms. The Royal Palace itself hosted nightly performances of Ramayana, as well as a great variety of refined and elaborate local dances. Several renowned foreign painters called this place home, including the now deceased Spanish artist Don Antonio Blanco, revered by many as the second Salvador Dali.
Since that very first visit I knew my life would always be connected to this place. No matter where I lived, I always returned back, at least twice a year. Almost all my fiction was written here. I rented a big room on the second floor at a home-stay on an unpaved street, Jalan Bisma, paying four dollars a day for the bedroom, a small outdoor terrace with a sofa, a breathtaking view of the rice fields, and a delicious homemade breakfast which consisted of fresh fruits, banana pancakes and strong Balinese coffee. I worked at night, listening to the silence and the distinctive and friendly sounds of geckos and frogs. I spent some evenings drinking beer in local “warungs” (a combination of convenience store and local cafÃ©) with inhabitants of the street, discussing politics, arts and life.
But nothing lasts forever and Ubud, as with so many other pockets of tranquility and sanity, had been “discovered” and “conquered” by hordes of foreign tourists, developers, money-launderers and foreign consultants. The serenity and breathtaking beauty were suddenly not only something to admire and blend into, these natural features had become an asset, a commodity, an opportunity for “business to expand,” to make substantial profits.
In the late 90′s, Ubud became suddenly “chic.” Art critics from New York and London were often spotted at the newly built marble tables of international cafes, discussing the local style of epic painting, music and dance, drinking imported Australian wine while munching on vegetarian snacks. Prices began to climb, slowly but steadily. The places previously occupied by respectful and modest dreamers and artists from all corners of the globe were increasingly “upgraded” to pubs and reggae bars. For a time, Ubud put up some resistance. The royal family banned construction of American fast food restaurants and any large buildings in the area. But then came the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Riots in Jakarta brought down the American-backed military dictator Suharto; the local currency collapsed; and foreign tourists, afraid of violence and instability, disappeared. Most of the locals lost their jobs and became dirt poor overnight.
In dollar terms, the real estate and housing became unreasonably cheap, and “smart investors” from Java and abroad took immediate advantage of the situation. Many Balinese families, bordering on starvation, were forced to sell their land in order to survive. Although foreigners can’t buy land in Indonesia, they managed to team up with the locals and pull through countless shady deals which allowed them to take control of a substantial part of Ubud’s land.
The new wave of “migrants” to Ubud hardly had any emotional ties to the place. They saw an opportunity and they grabbed it, mostly disregarding local culture, architecture and lifestyle. New boutiques – with brand name and counterfeit goods – began polluting the main streets of town. Outrageously expensive looking restaurants – decorated with marble and Balinese stone – with almost no guests, leave no doubt that they are not much more than a money laundering venture for corrupt Javanese officials and business elites. Up-market spas began offering “treatments” for over one hundred dollars.
Most of the home-stays disappeared, local “warungs” were replaced by cafes, and music performances became overly commercialized, charging five to seven times the entrance fees of ten years ago. In just two years, the price of land in Ubud and its vicinity tripled or even quadrupled.
Two days ago, sitting in CafÃ© Luna – an Australian-Balinese health-food joint – I overheard a conversation between two businessmen from the UK. “Something has to be done about those backpackers who think they can live here on 30 to 40 dollars a day,” raved one of them, gobbling down organic salad. “This place is already up-market, but not up-market enough. Correctly, they are introducing some expensive extravaganza in the area: like an elephant safari. I calculated that if they get it right, the travel industry here can generate between 115 and 120 dollars per person per day.”
Needless to say, ten years ago one could live extremely a comfortable life on 10 to 15 dollars per day, including lodging and food. Almost nobody here then had heard about the “travel industry” or any “extravaganza.”
Those who suffer the most from the current trend are the inhabitants of Ubud themselves. In the old days, even ten dollars a day spent by the travelers went directly to the local people. They were renting rooms in their compounds, doing the cooking and laundry, pocketing the profits. After being forced to sell the land to Javanese and foreign developers, the locals became nothing more than employees, receiving meager salaries, losing all hopes to buy back their land. 100 square meters in Ubud now costs at least 15 thousand dollars. To build a small house, one needs at least 200 square meters, therefore 30 thousand dollars, plus the cost of the building itself. The average Indonesian income is 750 dollars per person/year.
Ubud is now full of motor vehicles. It is choked with traffic; cars, like in Jakarta, dominate the streets. The whole village now looks like one enormous parking lot with souvenir stalls. This phenomenon is easy to explain: locals who sold their land bought new motor vehicles – a status symbol everywhere in Indonesia. A few years from now, the cars will become nothing more than rusting pieces of metal. The people of Ubud will have nothing more to sell: there will be no land, no cars, no money; just subsistence salaries. They will not be able to afford to live in their own town. In Ubud, business development and globalization destroyed with lightning speed one of the greatest and most original places on earth.
The culture was irreversibly damaged. Kitsch replaced noble art forms; paintings are now mass produced, basically copied. Silence and the sounds of geckos and frogs were replaced by consistent and typical-for-Indonesia noise: car engines, toots and pop music. The entire town looks like one overgrown bazaar. There is no free music anywhere – the locals have no time to play for fun – they play for a fee. The only places where local – Hindu – culture seems to survive are the local temples during countless religious ceremonies.
Most of the artists – local and foreign – disappeared. They moved further east – to Lombok Island or left Indonesia altogether. Those who gained from the recent trend are investors, developers as well as up-market tourists. They gained one more spot where they can sip their standardized lattes and shop until they drop. The locals and those outsiders who admired this small town in the middle of the lush green jungle lost their first or second home forever.
Breathing exhaust fumes, surrounded by the aggressive hassling of toots, I close my eyes, trying to imagine this very place, this very intersection ten years ago. I stood here, one early morning, with my bag, waiting for a car to take me on the 30 miles long journey to the airport. But there were no cars, just a profound silence and mysterious shadows thrown on the ground by ancient trees. One motorbike passed, then stopped, returned. The driver asked me whether I need help. An hour later a car appeared. I flagged it down, negotiated the price, and was taken away.
Somebody honks at me. I open my eyes just in time to see the side of a car which misses me by only a few inches. A brave new world – that which is interested only in revenues and profits – has transformed this ancient culture into a charmless theme park. My eyes are itching from pollution and I want to puke.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, author of the recently published political novel “Point of No Return” and non-fiction book “Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad” is a co-founder of “Mainstay Press” – a progressive publishing house for political fiction ( www.mainstaypress.org ). He is covering Asia Pacific and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]