Looking for something authentic in Bali might be a tougher task than expected, with mass tourism turning this once classically beautiful island into what seems nowadays like a tourist themed park. But there is still a way to enjoy the experience, by forgetting any preconception born of movies showing a perfect Bali that no longer exists .
I took off my helmet and confidently walked towards the platform from which I had been told I could take a peek at the most stunning view in all Bali. Instead, what I saw was a crowd of tourists meandering like a colony of ants up and down terraced rice fields that probably used to look genuine, one or two decades earlier. My smile faded and I jumped back on my motorbike.
What had drawn me to Bali was not the romanticized pictures on paper glass ads nor was it the Eat, Love and Pray phenomenon.
But driving across this iconic, and strangely chicken-shaped island somehow came with the realization that those had set unrealistic expectations. On my way back to Ubud, a place I knew had been central to Elizabeth Gilbert’s narrative, I started to wonder if the Bali that was depicted in both book and movie truly existed.
As I was pondering these dispiriting thoughts, a flash of bright green blinded me suddenly and a scope of rice fields appeared behind the curve of a road. Parking my motorbike on the edge, I stood still for a minute, worrying that an army of tour coaches might invade the place, disrupting its remote quietness. After a while, my chest lifted of this burden, I timidly set foot on a stone bridge covered in mud, a gift brought by an impromptu rain in the early morning. Locals were busy harvesting the rice, heads covered in large straw hats and backs bending over the grass, but my feeling like an indiscreet intruder disappeared as soon as they waved at me with heart-warming smiles. Finally, Bali was beginning to unveil before me.
I locked this breath of fresh air in my mind before making my way to Ubud, where a comfortable canopy bed and royal breakfast at the simple but welcoming Praety Home Stay would help uplift my spirit the following day. For the time being, the packed streets I was driving through, surrounded with Western restaurants and 4-star massage parlors, only looked like a cheap version of the Bali I was looking for, as if the tourism industry had decided to replicate a movie set, afraid that reality might not look as appealing as fake fairy tales.
Waking up at the ungodly hour of 6 the next day, I was determined to reiterate my feat and find another authentic-looking Balinese gem. As I was walking straight into the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a few miles away from my hotel, I let out a sigh of self-loathing. That was definitely a wrong move, I could tell by looking at the countless stalls selling overpriced bananas to a horde of sun-burnt tourists hoping to lure monkeys out. It was even more painful to see that the trick actually worked, turning these wild animals into some sort of fat caricature of angry costumers, growling in discontent when they were not handed enough food.
My tour of the sanctuary took half the time I had planned but I had seen enough and hopped on my motorbike. My next stop confirmed that my wishful-thinking had reached its limits. Swallowing up the miles towards the west-southern side of the island, I arrived at the Tanah Lot Temple. A substantial sum left my wallet, never to return, before I crossed an endless corridor of gift shops that could not be a good sign.
When the outline of the temple finally materialized, I could not deny it was a feast for the eyes with its ancient pagodas dominating a rock separated from the shore by waves whose breakers came licking the ankles of joyful tourists, screaming in the face of a feigned danger. I followed them, almost fell over in the sea that was sweeping my legs and reached solid ground where, queuing behind other excited visitors, a Hindu priest performed a ritual and stuck flowers on my forehead. He then insisted that I gave him money.
This taught me the only lesson I needed in Bali: there was no point in showing up at a spot advertised by all tour guides, hoping to enjoy it on my own without being either disappointed or scammed.
It was selfish, it was vain and I knew better. Therefore, I said farewell to the dream-like Bali of magazines and films, making the first wise decision of my entire trip, and traded my much anticipated white sandy beaches and remote, secret temples for real places, far from my illusory fantasies. This whole new mind-set started with intentionally getting lost. A disastrous drive on a dirt road with holes as large as a car’s wheel put my theory to the test but it proved me right when a laid-back beach presented its dark black sand before my eyes.
A dozen locals were flying kites over our heads, the shadow of a vivid paper butterfly as big as three surfboards obscuring the sky every now and then. On a small seaside road, as damaged as the one that had given me nightmares earlier, one Buddha was sitting at the heart of an altar made of stones and seashells, sheltered from the wind by a range of umbrellas whose yellow had passed long ago. The smell of corn opened my appetite and I walked down to a small stall.
After a painstakingly funny conversation in broken English with the family that owned the place, who made me promise to come back, I was handed a corn on the cob covered in a shiny substance made of sugar cane and a secret ingredient impossible to identify. It was a treat, and even more so because I was eating it with my feet buried in a thick layer of black sand in front of a deep blue sea, with no other tourist in sight. No, it wasn’t the cleanest beach I had ever seen and certainly not the prettiest, but the atmosphere felt genuine in an island that mass tourism threatened to deprive of its soul with each passing year.
Looking at a boy launching its fishing rope off a shaky boat at the feet of a mountain the next day, near a road zigzagging in the middle of bright red peppers’ plants, whose relaxing silence was briefly interrupted by the mooing of a brown cow, I could feel for the first time why so many people had fallen for Bali. I had driven past old, almost decrepit temples on the way, whose faint orange pillars, grey holy statues and colorful offerings brought by pious villagers had seemed more real than any of the other temples guidebooks had been urging me to see.
I had crossed out the pristine beaches, the spectacular dancing shows, the massage therapists extraordinaire, and other spiritual enlightenment courses undertaken by forty-year-olds seeking a new start in their life. All these things I had not found here in Bali nor had had the budget for. Sitting on a greasy plastic chair in a roadside warung, I plunged my fork in my bowl of ridiculously cheap bakso, an Indonesian favourite meatball soup, and just enjoyed the Bali I had found, before it would be turned into a bland copy like the rest.