Much thanks to Wiss Alit for permission to post his amazing painting.
Despite the fact that it’s 5:04AM as I write this, having just walked in the door from the shithole known as Kuta Beach, it would be absolutely irresponsible as 1) a budding ethnographer, 2) a trained journalist, and 3) decent human being with a somewhat well-read blog to not quickly put down some of what happened tonight before my sharp memories are dulled by sleep and a deep seated desire to willfully forget much of what I saw this evening.
After a packed day of grant writing, class, and ‘fieldwork’ with a fellow student studying the phenomena/culture of whiteness here (which involved a trip to a spa frequented by locals looking to have a skin bleaching treatment-very, very challenging fieldwork of getting a massage), I headed to Kuta with my friend M. to watch our friend D. play live at one of the Kuta restaurants this evening. D. just released his first album of folksy singer-songwriter music, and I was dying to see him play in a setting a bit more formal than Leslie and Degung’s living room. The show was amazing, augmented even more so by the fact that when D.’s band took a break M. was cajoled into taking a turn at the mic. I had heard both of them play during impromptu jam sessions at Leslie and Degung’s, but watching them under the stars in the rooftop bar, hearing the talent and passion behind both of their music, was really a treat. And it was kinda amazing to see the sheer variety of talent encapsulated in their group of friends that turned up to support D. In addition to M., another guy that I had not previously met got up and did a quick set with hands down the best cover of “Blowing in the Wind” I have ever heard.
Performances were followed by generous rounds of beer and pizza courtesy of the owner since D. was playing. Our revelry was shut down only by the fact that the restaurant was closing and they literally had to kick us out by flicking the lights on and off. Waiters snoozed on the booths downstairs as we slinked out the front onto the sidewalk for more pizza (for the guys) and fizzy water for moi. Once back on M’s bike, it became clear that the traffic was going to be a problem for D. and the others, who were in a car because of the band equipment. We decided to hit the Kuta Apache Reggae club to forgo the traffic until things cleared up a bit, only to find that the club closed about 12 seconds after we arrived. Prowling for live music and a little fun, D. rushed us from one side of the street to the other looking for open bars (most of which cater to drunk tourists and were just getting started at 2am). Coming up short in the clubs that at least tacitly tolerate locals, we headed to one of the gleaming mega clubs blaring pop music at top volume.
This is where things took a turn for the racist and shitty.
We pressed up close to the stairs leading to the sky garden club entrance, only to be patted down by the security guards toting- I shit you not- semi-automatic machine guns. Seriously. I, who was carrying a rather large purse stuffed with ex-pat essentials (antibacterial wipes, bug spray, etc. I left Leslie’s snake bite venom extractor home figuring Kuta was safe enough, at least in that regard), was waved through quickly once the guard saw the bug spray and took away my water bottle. Didn’t want to offend the tourist. My friends, however, did not fare so well. While only my bag was assaulted, D., M., P. and L. were rather intimately patted down from top to bottom- M. actually twice by two different guys. We got the go ahead to press up the stairs towards the entrance, only to be unceremoniously detained by another armed guard. Bahasa Indonesia (the official language) flew back and forth above my head, D. growing visibly upset and M. shooting me a ‘this isn’t going to be good’ raised eyebrow.
The guards pushed my friends back, as I pressed forward. “What’s going on??” I asked D., who, voice rising with every word, shouted back that they couldn’t get in without paying a rather exorbitant- and effectively cost prohibitive, given the average monthly income of most locals- entrance fee that was only imposed on Balinese. “Shit, SHIT!” D. said, as we clamored back down the stairs. “This is SUCH shit!”
What had started as a little light hearted fun to burn off the rest of our post-gig energy had gone terribly sour in the matter of seconds. As we walked, my friends in various states of anger, hurt, and embarrassment, I grew ever more mortified and upset. I had actively been enjoying the fruits of the tourism industry, staying in nice hotels when I first arrived, enjoying inexpensive spa treatments, and reveling in the sun, thinking myself sensitive to the disparities in wealth and privilege between me and my subjects simply because I had familiarized myself with feminist warnings on ethical research. The sense that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing here- research wise and more generally in my partaking of tourism offerings- overwhelmed me.
D. grabbed my hand, eyes wide and reflecting a deep angst and pain that I can only best relate to the look I have seen on the faces of parents searching for a child who has strained off. “This [excluding Balinese] is the culture here Beth! Research this! Write about this! This is our culture!”
The first day of class Degung said, “What is ‘culture’? What is ‘tourism’? Same answer.” The profoundness of this reverberated in my head as D. pleaded with me to write about what I had just seen (which I would have done regardless of his desire for me to do so). Starting back in the early 1900s, Bali became the hotspot for tourism drawing off the romanticized version of “Balinese culture” presented during Dutch colonialism. This ‘culture’ presented was really an idealized, hacked version of the actual traditions and ceremonies meaningful to Bali, pornographic (in that it’s exaggerated representations of what the actual traditions are, presented in a manner for public consumption) and crudely commodified for the enjoyment of tourists. The commodified ‘culture’ was further institutionalized by the likes of Walter Spies and Margaret Mead, who canonized their version of Balinese ‘culture’ through their respective ex-pat and anthropological adventures in Bali, a process that has become known today as the ‘Balinization’ of Bali.
The present day fiesta of all out pimping of Balinese 'culture' was ushered in during the rise of Soeharto’s New Order regime, when international investors were allowed into Indonesia en masse for the first time. As actual- ie, not manufactured- tradition holds one does not live near the beach for various spiritual reasons; coastline property in Bali was cheap for the getting when Soeharto opened the floodgates for international investment. Today, many Balinese cannot even access the beach for the important rituals that must, according to actual tradition, take place there throughout the year because the property has been privatized to the point that locals are unable to access the space. That ‘traditional’ rituals have played such a vital role in propagating the 'Balinized' version of culture meant to attract tourists has actually prevented expression of genuine traditions is ironic. That many Balinese welcome ever increasing amounts of tourism thinking it is vital for the economy- despite the fact that most investors are foreign, pay limited taxes, and pay locals an average salary well below US$100 monthly- is the saddest example of symbolic violence I have seen yet. As M. said to me the first time we went to Kuta, “people don’t realize we’re becoming slaves on our own island.”
Leaving Bourdieu behind and returning to our angry stumble away from the club….D. spent the next several minutes grabbing the arm of any white tourist who would listen to what just happen. A white couple about our age handed him two VIP passes to the very club we had just gotten kicked out of. “That’s not going to do shit for us,” I said, throwing in a quick (not so heartfelt) “thanks anyway” while the guy of the couple tried to explain to D. that the reason I could get in for free was because I was a woman, not because I was white. “If I owned a club, I would do the same thing, man…let the girls in for free, the guys will pay to get in! I only got in free because someone was passing these [VIP passes] out on the sidewalk.”
Yeah. And the only people they were passing them out to were the ones that looked like you and I, my blond headed Caucasian pal.
The five of us continued our hurt, ranting meander towards the beach, each of my friends cursing and muttering while I stewed inside my head. Knowing a bit about gender roles, I can’t help but think that in addition to feeling deeply embarrassed, angry and hurt, my four male friends also felt a bit emasculated. Here they were amongst a bunch of drunk men wildly trying to rub up against drunk women, and they- all of whom were perfect gentleman respectful of the fact that I was engaged and NOT interested in ‘grinding’- had been tossed out of a club in front of (excuse my narcissism) a cute female friend for not being the ‘right’ kind of man. Yes, a Balinese woman would have probably also gotten the boot had she walked in with a bunch of Balinese friends, but I do wonder if a solitary cute Balinese woman on the arm of a buff, drunk Australian would have been shown the door. Last night I saw first-hand the sex tourism that happens in the back alleys of Kuta, and I am dubious that the strict ‘no locals’ door policy extends to the Bali woman offering company to a well-paying tourist eager to keep her happy by buying rounds of shooters from the horrific mega clubs lining the streets of Kuta.
Our walk of shame took us to the main road lining the beach, and D., still angry and a bit buzzed, pointed at M. (who has a U.S. ID card and speaks perfect English) and demanded, “take her to the beach, show her where she’s allowed to go- we probably aren’t even allowed to go out there!” I passed on the 2:30am tour of the beach, knowing that the suggestion had been made simply to further illustrate the chasm of privilege separating me from my friends. Looking to appropriate a tourist space as a quasi-form of asserting ourselves, we plopped into the cushy outdoor furniture of a restaurant that had closed for the evening. In a weapon of the weak-esque move, we joked that we should stay there until a security guard came to kick us out, since none of us (my grad-school stipend self included) could ever afford to sit there when the joint was actually open.
“No future! Bali has no future with this kind of shit!” P. said. “Bali has a future,” M. replied ruefully, “It’s the Balinese that have no future.”
There were flowers, these beautiful little white and yellow ones that are ubiquitous every tourist place I have been near, strewn across the sofa where M. had plunked himself. Tucking one behind his ear, he turned to me and said, “You should wear one like this…then you’ll be traditional Balinese too!” He grabbed the flower and flung it away like something rotten. “This thing is bad luck. Shit. Bad luck flower.”
I was confused. Nothing I had heard about to this point involved bad luck flowers, especially as these ones were everywhere you looked, including on my fingernails from the manicure I had at the tourist beach my first day in Bali.
“Bad luck flower?” I asked.
“Yeah. Because everything they get put on brings us bad luck.”
The feelings that this experience brought up for me, as both a graduate student in sociology with a commitment to ethnography and as a (mostly) decent human being are really, really complicated and very uncomfortable. I ventured out on a limb, sitting in the relative quiet at 4am while draped on the café chairs we had appropriated, to ask what the experience had felt like for my friends.
M. turned to me, looked me full in the eyes and said, “It’s like being raped.”
Now, M. knows full well my personal experience with rape, as well as my scholarship on the subject, and did not make the comment lightly. I actually think it’s a rather apt metaphor: at its most basic level, rape is an appropriation of one’s ability to determine what, when, and with whom one does with one’s body. It’s a subjugation of the self, the very core of who you are and your right to determine your actions. It’s the rapist asserting power over the raped for the purpose of increasing the rapist’s power. For these reasons, rape fits as a framework for understanding the evening’s events and the larger structures of tourism operating here in ‘paradise’.
First off, the industry is feeding off the labor and resources of the island, squelching the ability of Balinese to determine what is right for their future(s), and limiting their ability to make decisions as natural resources and land become ever scarcer and ever more expensive. Moreover, the tourism industry has evolved here in such a way that it only increases the power of those at the top- generally international investors- while undermining the power of those being asked to give their labor and natural resources to support the industry.
I’m not relating this story to you to get you to decide to never visit Bali, or to always double check that your hotel pays the busboys and room maids a living wage (although heck, why not?!), but rather to raise the issues laid bare in that moment of denied access- identity, economy, gender, and that ever nebulous concept of ‘culture’- up for larger discussion. Things are not always as they seem, even in paradise.
The contrast between there at the club and now, lying in my bed typing at 6:00am while hearing the sounds of early morning chanting at the temple, is jarring. I’m here in a place billed as tourism heaven, but the emotions stirred up by the night’s events have made me angry as hell.