For several decades now Australians have flocked to Bali to enjoy a range of
holiday pleasures. Collectively we've treated Bali as our own - our backyard playground,
our affordable little slice of exotic island paradise. We've felt genuinely liked
and welcomed by open-faced, smiling locals. We've felt pretty much at home.
The bombing at Kuta beach in October last year changed much of that. Notwithstanding
a hard-won reputation for fearless and often reckless overseas roaming, many Australians
are heeding our government's warnings against non-essential travel to places like
Bali. The number of international tourist visitors to Bali, including Australians,
is now way below normal.
I'd never been to Bali before that bomb. But recently I did visit, pulled
as much by curiosity about what the murderous attack at Jalan Legian has done
to the relationship between Australians and Balinese as by any marketing campaign
using the pulling power of sun, sea and sarongs.
The last three I found aplenty, of course. There's still nothing like drinking
cold Balinese beer at a warung (eating place) overlooking waves that attract the
best surfers in the world to Bingin beach, and climbing up a rocky path to sleep
in magical clifftop bamboo huts run by Mick from the Gold Coast or Jerome from
There's still nothing like finding your godspace (so I'm told) at a yoga retreat
in inland Ubud, or washing down sweet black sticky rice with ginger tea at midnight,
straight off a plane from Sydney. It's still hard to beat the joy of eating fresh
lobster grilled with super-hot sambal at a beachside restaurant, watching brightly-painted
fishing boats pulling into the markets at Jimbaran, before hopping on the plane
back home. The flight full of just enough bikie blokes with tatts, bead-strewn
anaemic hippy women and cheerful young suburban families to think that nothing
much has changed in any of our worlds.
But, of course, there's also that empty space covered in scaffolding where
the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar used to be. I went there because I'd been told,
by my government among others, that it's my ground zero; the place to start finding
the answers to questions about what is right and wrong, good and evil in this
world "that will never be the same again". There was a lot of dust,
which seemed impossible and unnatural in such heavy, humid weather. There was
also a small and moving memorial pinned with letters to and photos of dead young
people, Australian and Balinese. But I didn't find any galvanising sense of good
or evil there. It just felt sad, surprisingly quiet and very empty.
I did find clear and present evil, though. It was hanging over the courtroom
in Denpasar, during the hearing for the trial of alleged Bali bomber Amrozi Nurhasyim.
The courtroom is a modest building that looks more like a school assembly hall
in Cairns or Darwin than a place to hand down hard justice to terrorists. I turned
up on the day Australian bomb survivors Jason McCartney, Peter Hughes and Stuart
Anstee gave their emotional evidence against Amrozi.
Stuck in an impenetrable snarl of redirected traffic and heavy security on
the way to court, I didn't hear what they'd said until later that night on the
TV news. But when I did arrive, the air was still thick with the smell of the
horror those men had lived through. It was written on the faces of the nakedly
grieving families of Australian dead, and in the more private, contained anger
of the many Balinese - presumably also including families of the dead - streaming
toward me out of the courthouse. It was also there in the unusual, almost sullen
tetchiness of Western journalists, filing their accounts of the day's events back
to the safe living rooms of Australia.
This stage of the trial and my visit coincided with Galungan, the twice-yearly
Balinese Hindu festival that restores balance to a world twisted by disorder,
and celebrates the victory of dharma (virtue or truth) over adharma (evil). That's
a beautiful, seductive notion in this globally anxious time of unpredictable and
fundamentalist violence against civilian targets, and of divisive argument about
how best to respond. Sitting cross-legged in a flower-strewn temple in a village
on the lush green outskirts of Ubud (as the guest of Nyoman Lasya, a 37-year-old
taxi driver with a quirky passion for badminton) watching a hundred golden brown
arms raise frangipani blossoms in arching prayer, and receiving blessings of sprinkled
water and rice, for a moment it was possible to forget some harsh realities.
In Bali today some local realities are very harsh, and hardening. Eight months
after the bomb, at the start of what used to be peak season for overseas visitors,
Bali's tourist centres and their dense infrastructure of hotels, restaurants,
shops and services are clearly undersupplied with paying custom. I was the only
lunchtime customer in a street of restaurants in Jimbaran eating anything at all,
never mind the lobster. One huge five-star hotel in Kuta has already gone under
- two more are hovering on the brink - and taken with it the jobs of hundreds
of maids, cleaners, waiters, bellboys, gardeners, drivers and cooks. Businesses,
large and small, have been forced to cut personnel and hours of employment. Two-income
families now rely on less than one, if they are lucky. Villagers struggle to sell
their homegrown fruit and vegetables. Times are tough, and if more tourist dollars
don't start flowing into Bali soon - the economic wellbeing of 80 per cent of
Balinese is directly linked to the tourist industry - many people will go hungry,
many children will drop out of school, and this island society and economy will
descend into acute crisis.
Asri Made, 41, a successful Kuta businesswoman, third-generation tailor and
international director of the all-woman Rotary Club of Bali Taman, is taking practical
steps to soften the brunt of this kind of poverty. She is on a one-woman mission
to link up the poorest Balinese children directly with Australian sponsors - just
$100 will pay for one year's schooling and another $100 will cover basic nutrition,
toiletries and living essentials. Asri took the initiative having been frustrated
by the failure of promised money from Australia to arrive to fund the delivery
of primary health care following the bombing.
Former Canberra high school principal Judy Pratt, who is involved with the
work of charity Yayasan Kemanusiaan Ibu Pertiwi (YKIP) that provides scholarship
funds for Balinese children orphaned in the bomb, and whose husband Chris runs
Bali's Australian International School in Kuta, thinks the situation is now more
worrying than in the bomb's immediate aftermath. Then, she says, the Balinese
were in a state of terrible shock and insecurity but viewed the situation as a
temporary, if horrific, blip in the balance of their universe. The Hindu cleansing
ceremonies held last year after the bombing, she says, produced palpable and hopeful
relief among local communities, and the consistent counsel of peace from Balinese
leaders has also had a calming effect.