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Taking the Road More Traveled By

JANUARY 11, 2000

The narrow roads of Bali are a series of near misses, or more morbidly, a series of close encounters with death. Human, animal, and machine all fight for their place on the roads. Chaos theory in action, the roads teem with motorbikes that slither in and out of traffic- often times carrying a family of three or four. Babies are hidden between mother and father as they speed along, being bullied by the many vans, and SUV's that take up most of the road. My first couple of days here, I would close my eyes every time we came within inches of hitting another ten year old on a scooter, or a husband and wife walking to temple. I realized, however, that most of my trip would be spent behind shut-eyes. You would miss a lot of Bali without watching the road and its dirty shoulders out your window. The roads are much more to the Westerner than a few scrapes with death, as they unveil so many aspects of Bali's history and traditions, its quirks, its race towards modernization, and its future.

Along the roads you see Bali's history and tradition in old men carrying huge bamboo stalks, looking at least half their weight. Sometimes they carry newly cut grass on their heads so that you can barely see their faces. Other men, the rice farmers, walk barefooted along the road. They carry fiercesome looking, sharply curved rice scythes tucked in the back of their shorts. Over the pockmarked roads, other men precariously push food carts filled with noodle soup called bakso, grilled satay, and fruit. We also pass women, clothed in bright traditional lace top and sarong bearing gigantic offerings to the Hindu temple. Carrying offerings on their heads stacked high with fruits, cooked chicken, eggs, and rice cakes, they never falter as we speed past. They simply maintain perfect postures and calm expressions that always impress me.

Then there are the animals that share and line the roads. Hundreds of war-torn dogs mark the Balinesian roads- oftentimes claiming the road as their place to nap. These aren't regular, "Here, Fido, catch the stick" kind of dogs. "Mongrels" is a much better description for them. Negatively called cicing by the Balinese, these dogs are casually accepted as maintaining the balance between the ugly and the beauty of Bali. This balance between good and evil is a central part of Balinese Hinduism, a theme as omnipresent as the dogs in the streets. Only after a good honk and another near misses do the dogs decide to move off their turf from the road. Families of chickens always flank the road as well, picking off refuse on the roadsides. Many the roosters are in cane baskets being saved for cock-fighting contests that draw scores of gambling men. Ducks also take their chances crossing the road, one time bringing our driver to a swift slam of the brakes.

Bali's rush towards modernization and Westernization is also easily viewed. Motorbikes are almost invariably ridden by young men wear Harley Davidson T-shirts. Overpopulation of the roads and the countless roadside vendors are also evidence. Tourism now accounts for one third of Bali's economy, bringing both beneficial and harmful effects to this culturally rich land. In all the rush to its "tourism revolution", Bali seems to have difficulty keeping up with its effects. The many vehicles on the road spew awful blue, black, and white exhaust fumes that make me dare to hold my breath for extended periods. These are the same fumes that will undoubtedly damage the many ancient Hindu temples that are so integral to the 90% of the Balinese that are Hindu. The roads themselves cannot keep up with the rainy season and the overpopulation of the roads. Huge potholes plague most of the roads I have traveled, creating traffic jams. Trash litters almost every patch of the roadsides most noticeably with plastic water bottles relied on so heavily by tourists. No system of cleanup or road repair seems evident.

Tourism has changed Bali forever, as the people need its economic benefits. Tourism maintains, yet harms their culture. Once again there seems to be this delicate balance between good and bad. When you enter a Balinese Hindu temple through a gate, one side represents evil spirits, the other side, good spirits. In much the same way the road allows we Westerners the joy of visiting their land easily, and the people gain from our travels. However, on the opposite side of the temple gate, Bali's environment, tradition, and holy structures are suffering the rush of tourism.

Around 12pm or 5pm we pass loads of uniformed schoolchildren, always looking happy and curious. They practice their English on us, with gleaming white smiles. Lots of "Hallo, where are yu from"? Even in all the chaos and near misses, I can enjoy their faces, and the faces of almost all Balinese I meet. Once I drum up courage enough to take to the streets on foot, I constantly encounter "Hallo's" from little kids, and beautiful smiles from their parents. They are a happy, poor, and lively people. Very calm as well. The drivers I encounter never curse the state of the roads or the fact a bus almost ran into us head on. They just smile and take it in stride. Definitely a lesson I could take home: take the good and the bad in stride, and watch for buses coming head on.

-Erin Edwards
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