Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Island of Beautiful People

Bronzed bikini goddesses gaze through mirrored sunglasses over the ocean waves. 

Surfers seemingly summoned by a casting agency – long, bleached hair, eyes coordinated with blue surfboards, and 6-pack abs you could see from space - look as cool and unperturbed as Roman statues.

You are in Bali. 

Specifically, you are in Canggu, Bali, and currently, you are at “the” beach bar to see and be seen. It’s Saturday evening, and you’re with your friend and fellow Montrealer, Melissa, who is 29, gorgeous and without body fat, but also real, funny and unapologetically honest.  She’s been here since January. The first advice she gives you when you meet up is: "Don’t fall in love.”

Beach time with Mel

The two of you have just watched the sun set, while spread out on a sarong, drinking coconut water out of actual coconuts. Now, Melissa’s having a beer and you’re having a soda water (wine in Bali is essentially expensive cat piss.) The guy one bar stool over strikes up a conversation.

With Melissa.

He asks her name. He asks her if she teaches yoga, where she’s from, how long she’s been here. He not only doesn’t talk to you, he doesn’t even make eye contact. If you’d just arrived here, you might be shocked. But this is Canggu. At 39, you are not only over the hill here, but down the other side, across a stream, and pretty much on another continent altogether. 

Canggu is on the western coast of Bali, just north of the more populated Kuta and Seminyak. It’s a visually stunning surfer’s paradise, where rice paddies meet ocean; where hazy sunsets backdrop serene villas and aquamarine swimming pools. Like most of Bali, it is relatively chilled out, full of kindness and smiles. You notice this most in heavy traffic, where cars, trucks, vans, buses, motorbikes and scooters are pressed up against each other, snaking and weaving through black exhaust in a cunning but unhurried manner. Everyone just emanates this “we’ll get there eventually” vibe. No one honks, unless it’s to let you know they’re coming up behind you to pass. No one waves their fists or yells – at least, not the Balinese drivers. A friend tells you about seeing a near-accident on the highway, where a man on a scooter came within millimeters of a full frontal crash with an old man on a loaded bicycle. They both smiled, made sure each other was okay, and got on with their respective days.

And then there are the foreigners.

So many. So beautiful. Visitors, expats, digital nomads, models, surfers, Instagrammers. So much Instagramming, of cellulite-free bums in barely-there bikini bottoms, of chaise lounges next to infinity pools, of breakfast bowls that cost enough to feed a Balinese family for a week.

 My front yard in Canggu

A blog post you recently read called "Eat, Pray, Colonize" perfectly captures how the Bali for which travelers and expats claim their love often has little to do with the actual Balinese or their culture. It’s not like you’re not guilty of this. You have recently discovered the existence of co-working spaces – places where the aforementioned digital nomads (like yourself) can get a reliable connection and a desk; and, if you’re lucky, meet a few like-minded souls. After the solitude of working alone from various kitchen tables over the last year, this seems like a dream, so you’ve come to Bali to try it out. You tried one space in Sanur, a city a bit further south, and loved it: the people were welcoming, there were daily lunch outings to locally run establishments, and all members were invited to contribute skill-sharing workshops. The owners did as much as they could to involve and benefit the local community. You would have stayed, except that Sanur is too loud and too busy for you.

In Canggu, your commute to work in the morning looks like this:

Your first day at the coworking space, like a good white person, you get a smoothie at the adjacent café. A stunning girl sitting nearby has just received her breakfast bowl, and looks appalled.

“I ordered extra mango,” she says to the (Balinese) waiter.

He smiles so genuinely that your heart melts.

“I am so sorry,” he says, “but we are out of mango.”

The girl points out that she’s pretty sure she paid extra for the mango. The waiter apologizes again and says he doesn’t think she has. The girl insists, and then asks why you would have a breakfast bowl with mango on your menu when you don’t have mango? The waiter apologizes once more. You are riveted - had this happened in Montreal, he would have spat in her food by now, or worse. The girl asks to see the bill. (The total cost of the extra mango, by the way, is about $0.50 Canadian.) You burn with shame at being a white person in Bali.

Incidentally, $0.50 is also how much it costs to print one page at the co-working space. A few streets over, it costs $0.05.

The vast span in the cost of things is telling. Retreats where you can align your chakras are $100+ a day, with shared accommodation. You and three others go out for a street food dinner and the total bill comes to $10. Craving western food one day, you head to a Mexican restaurant, where two very tiny lamb tacos - the kind where you’re already hungry before you’ve finished them - cost $14. You can pay $1.50 for a fresh coconut on the beach, or $400 for a day of eating and drinking for two at a beach resort in the south, accommodations not included.

Street food night in Canggu

There are a thousand opinions on this. It supports the local economy – of course. Bali is still magical – it is. Bali is changing, rapidly – it is. Bule (white people) are ruining Bali – we are. You write this as you use the air conditioning and connect to the WIFI and drink the filtered water.

You notice that this kind of environment can bring out the worst in you. You, Ms. Positive Body Image, Ms. Feminist-as-Fuck, have not in years been more disdainful of your poor stomach and thighs and crow’s feet than you are in Canggu. It doesn’t matter that the average age here is 23, and you are, well, not that. But you never were cool and it’s too late now, and all the surrounding coolness and perfection and toned muscles have you vowing at on at least two separate occasions never to even look at another cheeseburger again for the rest of your life Amen.

But more often, it brings out the best in you. Every day since arriving Canggu you have met more and more of another kind of beautiful people. You’ve learned about the courageous leaps they’ve taken, the businesses they’ve created, how they’ve supported local tradespeople and the environment, the questions they’re asking and the journeys they’re on and the burnouts from the rat race they’ve survived and learned from. They all respect and appreciate the Balinese culture, and sharing stories and encouragement and dreams leaves you feeling like a young backpacker again.

Brainstorm and Beauty sesh with Sarah, Casha and Leannah

One afternoon, you park your scooter by the beach and go for a long walk in the surf. There is trash everywhere – straws, beer bottles, bags. People flick cigarette butts onto the sand, selfie with their surfboards, roam past with butt cheeks that defy laws of gravity. Your chest tightening, you walk on.

You pass three girls on towels, each more model-like than the last. They are discussing the night before. You overhear one obsessing over a boy; another about her (non-existent) thighs. Suddenly, you recall that while you’ve never looked like them, you were once thinner – and younger. Also, you had zero confidence. Maybe minus 4. You wouldn’t go back to being that person for all the tacos in Indonesia. You wouldn’t go back 5 years, or even 2. Especially not 2. But, you realize, you wouldn’t trade any of it, because right now, here in Canggu, you are more at peace than you’ve ever been. 

You return to the parking lot to find that someone has parked their scooter perpendicularly behind yours. You clench your hands and turn to a group of Australian guys having beers in the shade of a tent next to you, and ask, hopefully, if the offending bike might be theirs. It’s not, but they gladly offer to move it out of the way. They are around your age, and definitely not body-fat-free. And it turns out that the bike has not been locked, so it can be rolled effortlessly out of the way.

Blushing, you thank them, hop aboard your trusty steed and drive off – away from the sunset, and full of gratitude. You’re not in love. Not yet. But you might just stay a little bit longer. 

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