by Diana Darling

This is the second half of a piece originally commissioned by the group Afi Pasar Malam in Paris. It was translated into French and published in the issue no. 19 of their periodical Le Banian (in June 2015), whose theme is “Foreigners in Indonesia”.


Is there intercultural exchange? [continued]

In Ubud, the business of tourism naturally brings Balinese in contact with the character and expectations of other cultures. Local owners and managers of hotels and restaurants go to great lengths to anticipate the services, style, and standards desired by their foreign customers. Their employees seem to derive real pleasure in proffering them. But tourism does not offer much opportunity for hosts and guests to meet as equals in a way that would foster intercultural exchange.

Recently tourism itself has changed. Twenty or even fifteen years ago, visitors to Ubud who stayed for more than a day were likely to be stirred by the omnipresent display of Bali’s religious life. These days they are likely to be keen on yoga and colonic irrigation. Ubud also draws people who want to live cheaply with servants. Although Ubud has a few high-end hotels (and more being planned), the big trend in the past decade or so has been for “villas”—luxurious houses, often with a swimming pool and always fully staffed. Thus the economic and social divide imposed by tourism remains.

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Meanwhile, Balinese culture itself is changing: there’s the official culture (advertised to tourists), and there’s the evolving culture which has ever more in common with modern middle-class societies everywhere—a culture where people get around with cars and motorcycles, communicate with smartphones, spoil their children with junk food and toy guns, watch a lot of TV, and construe their world by what they see on it. There’s also Indonesia’s ever more permeating national culture—patriotic, somewhat Muslim, aspiring to a better life, and discovering its many different voices. Many young Balinese seem to find all this disorienting. They may find answers by looking deeper into their own culture or farther beyond it. Perhaps the presence of foreigners in their midst gives young people aspirational cues.

Scenes from the double royal wedding of two princes, scions of Ubud palace who are cousins, to their respective fiances in April 2014

Or perhaps it doesn’t. In Ubud these days there are fewer opportunities for Balinese to mix socially with foreigners than there were twenty years ago. It used to be that visitors lived close to or with Balinese families. Now there are more hotels and villas, and the relationship is more professional. Also, warung—simple food stalls where people can sit for hours and chat over a glass of coffee—have become rare, thanks to the soaring value of land, which prohibits the use of land for something that earns so little money. Cultural performances are more neatly divided between those for tourists and those that take place in a religious context for local people—although some observers are alarmed to see a trend for collaborative cultural events in which bits of Balinese ritual and dance are combined with such foreign things as new choreography, ticket-selling, and a great deal of spiritual pomposity. But generally, there is little social or physical space for foreigners and locals to simply hang out together.


Are there shared social values?

Ubudians, both Balinese and foreign, appear to share an appreciation for comfort, order, and a gentle pace in all undertakings. Both seem to feel that if something is too strenuous or complicated, it’s better to pay someone else to take care of it. Nearly everyone seems to agree that “tradition” is good and should be conserved; but often “retail” appears to trump tradition. For example, although modern entertainment such as cinemas, night clubs, and fast food outlets are discouraged, the main street is filled almost exclusively with shops for tourists, and a few temples in Ubud have given up space for commercial parking lots.

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Does their stay in leave any marks?

In Ubud, the marks have nearly obliterated the place. But it has been a complicated process, with much complicity on the part of local Balinese, not least members of the leading noble family, who have welcomed visitors since the 1920s and done well in their numerous tourism businesses ever since. They also take pride in their sponsorship of ritual culture in surrounding villages, calling it “social investment”, through which they can call on a wide network of manpower to animate extravagant cremations, temple festivals, and other ritual productions, all of which reinforce Ubud’s image as the heartland of Balinese culture.

Meanwhile, there remains, even in these post-colonial times, a certain sense of mission on the part of many foreigners, not only in Ubud but in Bali and perhaps Indonesia generally. This arises partly from a sense of impatience with the pace of Indonesia’s development. Many foreigners are keen to jump in and do the work that would more naturally fall to the government or a more politically active population. But the underside of the sense of mission is opportunism. In Ubud, foreigners have left their mark largely by creating businesses with local partners—hotels, villas, restaurants, boutiques, and the manufacture and export of handicrafts. All these businesses trade on Ubud’s image as a place of rural tranquility and rich artistic and spiritual traditions. The most recent evolution of this has been the “wellness” industry, where (for example) spas and spa products are designed and marketed by foreigners and invoke themes of “spirituality” and local knowledge of the natural world.

One can see a certain mutually opportunistic dance evolving, as foreigners exploit the skills, needs, and good nature of local people; and local people exploit the capital and business acumen of foreigners. The culture has become one of commerce. Only elderly romantics could object to that, as they have always done.



all photos ©Rio Helmi