Balinese culture has always had to fight for it’s survival in an increasingly Westernized world. In fact, Balinese culture was born out of the political turmoil that plagued the Indonesian island of Java that lasted from the 1200’s to the late 1400’s. In 1478 there was the last major exodus to Bali when the carvers, painters and artists fled to the small island in hopes of finding a creative sanctuary.
But while the culture in Bali was finally beginning to take on a face of it’s own, the Dutch began to move into Indonesia in the 1500’s. Although it took them years to take complete control over Indonesia, they exerted plenty of influence without ruling the country. They bought up large portions of land to convert into plantations, hunted endemic wildlife to extinction, and eventually, when they came to blows with the local Indonesians, tried to exile anyone who rose against them. More often than not these battles ended in the deaths of the Indonesian ‘rebels’.
While the Dutch influence over Indonesia would linger, they lost control over the country in WWII to the Japanese. It was not until 1945 that Indonesia proclaimed it’s long-lost independence. The island of Bali was left to nurse it’s wounds in the aftermath of the war.
Culture is by no means a static thing. It changes and evolves with technology, changing landscapes, and new ideas introduced by younger generations. But one of the largest impacts on Balinese culture in the last 50 years has been the Western tourist.
Anthropologists have spouted again and again the dangers of increased tourism. It can lead to an array of problems like economies becoming overly dependent on tourism, high prices driving out locals, and probably, most importantly, as it is the most irreversible of all of the side-effects of becoming a booming tourism destination, cultural degradation.
As Europeans, Americans, and Australians began to flock to the tropical oasis of Bali, the Balinese culture yielded willingly. These tourists brought money which helped to create infrastructure on the island, which now has easily accessible wifi, western toilets in most establishments, and paved roads winding their way throughout the entire island.
Over the last 10 years much change has come to the city of Ubud, which is proclaimed as the cultural centre of Bali. A long-time tourist stated that since he began coming to Ubud every year, the city has grown. Shops selling the same clothes line streets that were once surrounded by rice paddies. He said that while it is great for them to now be able to have such a competitive economy, he misses the times when the city was much more quiet.
Today, 20-somethings crowd the streets in tank tops with Ganesha, the Hindu diety resembling an elephant woman, printed on them. They avoid classic Indonesian warangs, choosing the Western style coffee shops and raw food cafés instead. If you sit for even a few minutes in one of these many café’s serving up delicious pancakes, ‘Bali style’ raw chia-pudding, or a more classic personal sized pizza, you will over hear people discussing that day’s yoga class.
The sub-culture that has taken over what was once a proud city of artisans has neglected to even notice the Balinese that are giving way to the perpetual stomping of Birkenstock sandals that cut a path through a city where the temples are seen as nothing more than photo props for yoga blogs.
The young people of this sub-culture, which I have dubbed ‘White Bali’, are always in search of something. They run away to an island in search of ‘inner peace’, a ‘better path’, or a ‘cleaner spirit’ and they seem to be finding exactly what they are looking for. Somewhere in the midst of drinking iced lattes, attending yoga classes taught by Americans, and buying Hindu prayer beads to wear as necklaces, these people are contented with what they discover about themselves. The cultural appropriation of a religion they know nothing about seems, on the surface, to bother no one.
So Ubud bustles on. More vegan cafés appear, more Ganesha tank-tops are sold, and more dreadlock-clad youths sit on yoga mats discussing their unique-ness while the Canang Sari, daily Hindu offerings, are kicked and crushed flat by swarms of Birkenstock clad feet.