Bali: Contrasts, contradictions and rubbish

October 30, 2009

One of the many things I love about Bali is the way that apparently contradictory things coexist so happily.  On the roads, you will find ‘pedestrian crossings’ whose only purpose is to ensure that the injuries sustained by people skittled by traffic are clustered in handy first-aid access zones, instead of being spread over the length of Jl. Legian. Then there are the traffic lights, where red can mean turn left, or turn right, or if you really, really want to, go straight ahead. Less confusingly, a green light only seems to have one purpose – to signal the start of timing for a special Bali reaction test to discover how quickly everyone can blow their horn. The record is apparently held by a local ojek rider who consistently achieves the feat in less than a  millisecond.  

Of course, there is the white line at intersections too – a fat stripe set so far back from the traffic lights, it  couldn’t possibly be where you have to stop, could it? Unfortunately, it is. Its true purpose is to serve as a cunning revenue-collection device that makes Polisi materialise from thin air if even a molecule of tyre rubber touches it. And don’t even mention the ‘footpaths’, so named because they are in fact designed for motorcyclists who run out of room on the road. When selfishly stymied by thoughtless pedestrians who actually choose to walk on the footpath instead of teleporting, these riders need to stop and put their foot down for stability … hence footpath.

Then there are the written inconsistencies. In Bali you can read advertising tabloids containing ads for English classes – complete with spelling mistakes. Reassuring. Ads for pool maintenance people who rarely answer their phones or return emails, and if they should happen to do so, don’t turn up for appointments. Ads with incorrect phone numbers, unchanged over five subsequent editions. Why bother advertising?

Drive down any street and you will find signs assuring you that it has six completely different names in a stretch less than a kilometre long. Lucky I navigate by landmarks, because even street numbers are designed to confuse rather than illuminate. Sure, dwellings are numbered consecutively, but house numbers appear to be allocated in chronological order of construction, not their geographical location. My own villa is the first house in the street, so officially it’s Number 1. But there is another Number 1 in the same street, because it is the first house at the other end of the street. The owner ‘solved’ the problem by telling me to use Number 4, because he didn’t think 4 was taken yet. It’s all academic, because none of the houses have any numbers up on the gates anyway. Directions to get to my place involve statements like “keep going until you see a sleeping three-legged dog, then turn left.” I don’t think there is even a word for precision in Balinese …

But to me, the most striking aspect of Bali is the stark visual contrast everywhere around you. Impeccably dressed locals in traditional attire conduct ceremonies that are both moving and spectacular – next to huge piles of rubbish spilling from ruptured plastic bags.  At a recent ceremony, I saw a muscular local, resplendent in udeng, kamben, saput and selempot – all the traditional, respectfully appropriate garb that one would expect for the occasion. Except that he was wearing a perfectly ironed, collared shirt – with a mammoth Harley Davidson logo emblazoned on it. To me, the contrast was jarring, but his compatriots kept stealing frankly admiring glances at him. I wouldn’t have the courage to do that, but it would seem that no courage was needed.

It’s a multi-faceted society here. Bali locals can be seen taking their beautifully groomed, healthy dogs for walks on expensive leather leads, while other locals nearby take well-aimed swipes with brooms and buckets at street dogs. Small wonder that there were 124 dog bites treated last week at one hospital alone. Karma? I was asked by someone recently “You like dog?” Without thinking, I replied “Of course”, and was promptly informed that if I went to a particular warung, they have it on the menu today. Yikes! I have witnessed gentle people sacrifice chickens at ceremonies, and watched excited crowds of what appear to be perfectly normal people cheering wildly at cockfights. There are social and cultural undercurrents here that I can not begin to understand, and that means that I am not qualified to judge them. But it does give me pause for thought …

However, some ‘visual contrasts’ I do judge. We love our Bali beaches, but all along the south-west coast, stunning ocean vistas are interrupted by the shocking contrast of open drains which pour garbage and raw sewage across the beaches. Their once-pristine sands now frequently conceal festering rubbish such as cigarette butts, plastic bags, needles and other nasties. It’s ugly, but it is fixable.  They should do something about it right? Wrong. There is no they in Bali; it’s up to all of us to fix stuff we don’t like. We all know what to do to make it better. Let’s start by binning our butts, reducing plastic bag use, refusing to throw rubbish in the gutter – it will only end up on the beach. Something has to be done. But it needs to start with each and every one of us. Then we can afford the luxury of enjoying the cultural contrasts of this island.



  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your life experiences in Bali. For the past 2 hours my mind has been led into another world of excitement, humour and suspense. I look forward to reading more of your adventures (or misadventures.
    Michelle in QLD

  2. yep, it’s bizarre and discomforting to think that so much of the beachfront in Seminyak / Legian / Kuta conceals the raw sewage pumped into the water by so many of the businesses that do so well from the tourist dollar. I for one, having seen some of the data, will not swim off any of those golden beaches.

    • Agree – the E. coli count must be astronomical now. Hate to think what the level will go up to after the rains start …

  3. I do so enjoy your blogs.
    I will be joining the crowd living in Bali very soon and have so very much I still need to learn.
    Scary but ultimately blissful (I hope).
    Best wishes

  4. Every time I manage to come up with a view point that I have any passion about I have to read your blog to make sure that you haven’t just posted something similar and usually better written! It is reasuring to find someone else here who runs into the same day to day oddity’s that i find.

    luv the directions to your house, a friend in Umulas does pretty much the same thing

    Mr P.

  5. The contrast I’m most struck by is the one between the Bali of 20 years ago and the Bali of today.

    Unrecognisable. For me, mostly ruined. What will it be in another 20 years?

    I understand where you are coming from with the ‘it’s up to us’ sentiment in regard to rubbish. However, such a large problem must be tackled from both ends. From the bottom up with everyone making an effort, and from the top down with education and facilities to support rubbish collection and disposal, control over sewerage, and so on.

    • Absolutely right – top down is essential too. The question is, as always, how can the authorities fund infrastructure initiatives such as this?
      Maybe one solution is for some of the foreign aid that comes into the country to be earmarked for projects like this – and to be supported by specialist infrastructure advisors to the people here.
      Of course, one would hope that even if this happened, that all jobs arising from such an initiative would go to local, not foreign, workers and companies. And that the main role of the advisors would be to make themselves redundant by training local personnel. And of course the BIG one – that all funds earmarked actually go to the project, and not into the pockets of those who would weaken Bali and its people by creaming off bribes, ‘administration fees’ and other forms of theft …

      • Education is the key. You will never have the money to pick up after people. You must get the people to not drop the rubbish in the first place, and provide somewhere for the rubbish to go. Think of the ‘Keep Australia Beautiful’ campaign. Imagine Australia now without that campaign.

  6. Been 4 years you post this…and now the traffic are much more worst.. With more vechicle park left and right along strip lane road, nobody cares. Motorist without helmet plus holding phone on his hand while driving.. No manners on the road, no respect for the other road user..

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