Descent into baloney we must fix

Boisterous bullfrogs wake me up earlier than usual. They’ve been going literally since three in the morning, went on for 30 minutes, stopped and started again at six, they haven’t stopped since. I am not in favor of killing them but I’d love to figure out a way to get them outta here. Yesterday, a chicken guy (he called himself that) came and took three of them away but they were immediately replaced by four others. As I said, they’re ‘bull’-proportioned and I tried to physically wrangle one of them away and he mauled me. That wasn’t so smart. I’m a city-kid, I know nothing.

I venture out of my garden villa for a dip in the common pool that jolts me out of sleep. It’s at least an hour until breakfast is served and the only sound I hear in the unoccupied hotel ground on this Sunday morning is more frogs croaking eerily. As my monthlong Indonesian escape draws closer to its conclusion, I chose to give myself into a lavish weekend at style-maven, Christina Ong’s COMO Uma in Ubud. There’s always effortless elegance in her properties – playful expression of style left uncurbed yet not screaming. Exercise in non-restraint, master-class in reductive exuberance. I settle into a poolside sunchair and tap this out as I bask in the glorious low-rising easterly sun.

When I arrived in Bali for reunion with Pascal and his family I haven’t seen in over a decade (and some good ol’ loafing), I thought I escaped the bustle of Jakarta and down-at-heals island hardship of Belitung (see my previous blog on Jakarta arrival experience and island of Belitung).  Yes, Belitung’s granite formations are simply awe-some and its white sand beach lagoons are achingly beautiful but there’s only so much dyed-in-the-tweed-city-boy can endure forgoing urban pleasures like good coffee and… uhm, service.  So seeing throngs of cafes serving up minimum two bean varieties for cappuccino and endless rows of stylish warungs with Indo-pan-pacific menu, I thought this week was going to work out splendidly.

This rarefied work and lifestyle that’s meant to be wonderful and mindful… that man-bun of work must be questioned and examined.

Little did I know that a week in Canggu was going to be akin to Seminyak-style purgatory of crowds, dust and methane choking you up at every corner and noise pollution in 3D Surround Sound.  Canggu, it seems, has been taken over during Covid by a new breed: that in-phrase who colive and cowork (why is it always a verb?). Remote working, freelancing, digital-nomads who packed their bags and took to the road whatever work that is left to be had.  Balis and Tulums of the world had long attracted the creative bohemia but acceleration that is happening now with the hostelry troupe in the so-called new-normal seems to be taking on new urgency. What we have here is not a temporary dislocation but rather a new, constant seepage into the mainstream. Urgency that requires real exigency to consider what good and ugly impact it is having.  It feels like digital nomadism is the new overtourism… shapeshifting local economies for short-term, transient lifestyle and ruining native way of life one village at a time. This rarefied work and lifestyle that’s meant to be wonderful and mindful… that man-bun of work must be questioned and examined.  These people go to yoga in the morning, drink milk that’s as far away from milk as possible, wear recyclable clothes to creative studios where furniture is all styled and mis-shaped and you unfurl your man-bun and work.  Then they spend time with people photographing you photograph them.  And the whole thing looks wonderful when you pick the right filter for it.

A beach club in Canngu

This faux-profundity is not only not real, it’s a real missed opportunity.  What is the point of eating vegan in the most unsustainable environment where every grocery isle is stocked with imported meats and dairy, countless motorbikes carry transient life stock to and fro cafes and hostels, banged up lorries spew out toxic fumes across the island ill-designed for supply chain, no EV charging station are to be found and no recycling unless you’ve outsourced it to paid waste management services?

That the old trick of well heeled travel — hating the deplorable tourist swarm while celebrating one’s own travels — is in danger of coming unstuck.  

I needed an escape from an escape and sought solace and peace in Ubud. Thankfully, the uphills of Ubud is safe distance away from the new residents of Bali.  As I relish the peaceful cobblestone streets of Ubud, reality sets in that it is not just peaceful… it is in fact deserted.  As I survey the shuttered boutique storefronts and hollowed out upmarket dining halls of Ubud, I cannot but wonder if much of this can ever come back.  As vaccine rollouts prod public life back to some semblance of normality in more places and the engines of travel industry are preparing to fire and airlines are ramping up their schedules, those of us embedded in hospitality industry is awaiting with mild trepidation whether we will see international visitors again.  But it seems travel won’t be the same this summer, and that might mean it won’t be the same again.  That the old trick of well heeled travel — hating the deplorable tourist swarm while celebrating one’s own travels — is in danger of coming unstuck.  Tales of pilgrimage to exotic, mysterious, far-flung destination like Ubud has gone from badges of enlightenment to something like guilty pleasures.  While Ubud sits empty, Canggu the grey-zone of immigration and income taxation is packing it in.  There is uncanny familiarity to this dichotomy as in other corners of our social-political-economy.  Hollowed out historical and cultural center of Ubud vs. traffic congested Canggu that was the next inevitable piece of real estate in the ever-gentrification of Balinese coastline.  So we find ourselves at a moment of disquiet, uncertain of its trajectory.  It is a global moment for Ubud vs. Canggu: the context has changed in the past year, questions of good vs. bad travel are more vexed than ever.

Empty and shuttered streets of Ubud

We must accept that there is good tourism and bad and there is cause for pause to carefully examine the difference.  At one end are projects built for responsible tourism and positive impact (for inspiration, check out Village Ways); at the other, there are the new horrors such as ‘flights-to-nowhere’ that have recently found popularity (passengers fly for up to two hours so they can pass foreign airspace for in-flight meal Instagram, then return to the airport they left for a spending spree in the duty-free shop).  Before Covid, Bali was destroyed by unabashed mass market tourism and extra-large scale global conferences. Now a different wave of mass tourism – hostel living with a ‘community’ gloss on is talking shape in Canggu while Ubud, the more deserving of destination, sits empty.

I used to think it a blessing that travel wakes us out of routine and raise consciousness of the moment. I now wonder.

In the afternoon, I wander on the river banks of Ubud, eyes squinting in the unforgiving sun, mind grappling with the novelty of being somewhere foreign.  Ubud is stunning, friendly and empty — the scarcity of visitors right now giving a glimpse of what travel must have been like before mass tourism took hold but uncertain of its path from here. Coworking and coliving brands and operators may easily find customers who want cheap and cheerful lifestyle mixing it up with likeminded restless but may have to go further to promote good tourism – to reach out to those seeking meaning and for whom sustainability is a structured belief, not a social fad.  To reach disillusioned travellers who are questioning their consumption habits and wanting to buy only what’s meaningful and essential, companies will have to fight to be the chosen ones among the plethora of me-too hostelries.  Companies that aspire to market to more well-heeled cohorts like Gen. X and older Millennials will have to work even harder.  They must focus on less but better luxury: how they can be purpose driven themselves and in turn help travellers live more sustainable lives – ultimately become a force for good.

This time is upon us. I used to think it a blessing that travel wakes us out of routine and raise consciousness of the moment.  I now wonder.  Travel industry is turning a new corner as we exit from Covid and I feel it’s primed for another overtourism moment, one that depresses rather than enlightens.  Rarity of remote work and life owes it to untethering from stressful work environments and burdensome assets.  But then so does it to extra margin in our mind and spirit for purpose.

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