It was my first up-close and personal encounter with a slum. I’d passed by them plenty of times in trains or buses, but I’d never before walked down the ever-damp alleyways, shaking hands with frail grandmothers and half-starved children. I wanted to see a different Bali than what you see in the tourist brochures, and I certainly got my wish…
Coming from a comfortable life on Australia’s beautiful Sunshine Coast, my impression of Bali was somewhat frightening. It was only my second time in Asia, and it was my first time anywhere on my own. I had loose arrangements to meet up with a friend who was passing through Bali at the same time. As I passed through customs at Denpasar Airport and looked at the frenzied crowd of unfamiliar faces outside, however, I had a sinking feeling she wasn’t there after all.
People were coming from every direction with signs, brochures and eager promises, but I still hoped my friend would be there. I remember telling myself to put my head down, not make eye contact, and just walk, pretending I was a seasoned traveller to Bali in the hope I wouldn’t be preyed upon by scam artists!
It was as I neared the edge of the throng that I finally heard my friend’s voice- “Kaz! Over here!” Relieved and finally daring to look up, I walked towards my friend and smiled with delight for the first time…I was in Bali!
I’d wanted to visit Bali for a long time and I was keen to experience the beaches, the food and the countryside, but I also had a private ambition to get a glimpse of the Bali most tourists don’t get to see. I wanted to get to know people, not just wave, smile and maybe buy something from their shop before passing forever from their lives.
My friend (who was what they call “Indo”- half Indonesian) and I decided to try and find some kind of group who were working with street kids. That’s how we tracked down a remarkable woman named Sue1. She was the leader of a small but vibrant gathering of Christian believers who met together regularly in a back street of Kuta to worship God. What struck a cord with my friend and I was that these people didn’t merely worship God one day a week inside four walls by just singing songs. Their worship extended beyond their walls through acts of kindness in their community. They were a true example of what Christ himself described as a Christian when he said, “People will know that you follow me if you love one another.”2
Among other programs, Sue’s group of believers worked alongside another group of Christians from the other side of Denpasar, Bali’s capital. They met together twice a week, visiting the slums in Kuta’s back lanes, gathering any children who wanted to learn English. The group then met back at the church and studied together, giving the kids the hope of gaining better employment prospects within Bali’s tourism industry with their English skills.
My friend and I gladly accepted the invitation to join them one day, and what followed was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
At first sight the slums took me by complete surprise. They weren’t entirely filthy as I expected and inside the tiny one-room shacks were always tidy. What I couldn’t get over, however, was the discovery that entire families lived inside these rooms- no more than two metres squared! There were no beds and scarce bedding, only sometimes mats on the floor. Always there was the tiny frame of a grandma or small child sitting propped up against the open doorway. But even amidst this poverty the people were always smiling and generous! From what little they had, they always sought to give us something as a token of appreciation for us visiting their home. Even though we felt ashamed to do so, our guides urged us to accept their gifts, because if we didn’t we might offend their generosity.
Generosity is not a quality the Balinese are well known for. Brochures and travel guidebooks always paint the Balinese with scepticism, labelling them con artists, nasty, greedy. We found, as we sought relationships with the people, that in fact quite the opposite was true.
Not more than a block or two from the slums is the famous backpacker zone known as Poppies Lanes 1 & 2. There you can find budget accommodation, restaurants and numerous stalls selling jewellery, clothing and handicrafts at ridiculously low prices. Sarongs that fetch anywhere up to $25 in Australia sell at Poppies for as little as AUD$2! Yet even with these low prices somehow Balinese shopkeepers have earned a reputation for being shrewd at best, cheats at worst. Perhaps some of them are nasty con artists making more than their goods are worth, taking advantage of naďve shoppers. But since most naďve shoppers can afford an extra few dollars and it’s obvious that the stallholders could always use a few dollars more, my friend and I decided to push beyond the usual divide between shopper and merchant and try to become their friends.
It was easy to establish understanding and trust with our new friends once we made it clear we were genuinely interested in them, and we enjoyed each other’s company on many subsequent visits. Just as we’d been surprised by generosity in the slums, so we were in the stalls. They shared their lunch with us, bought us Cokes, and when we left they insisted on giving us gifts from their stores!
I wanted to see Bali for all it was worth. I did enjoy the beaches, the scenery, the tourist life. But I was privileged with a far greater experience because I determined not to settle only for what the average holiday package offers. I could write volumes on the insights I received.
On the eve of the anniversary of Bali’s bombing by militant extremists, I reflect on “my Bali” with mixed emotions. Fond memories are now intermingled with fear for the fate of my friends. How are they surviving? Did they survive? Perhaps I may never know. But I will always cherish their memory, and their stories will live on.
1 Not her real name.
2 From John 13:35, paraphrased