The Problem With Aussies Abroad
A couple of years ago, I found myself in Bali interviewing Australian kids about their experiences at schoolies. At around midnight, I found a boy I’d spoken to earlier who’d collapsed into a lifeless heap in front of Skygarden, Kuta’s biggest club. Struggling to stand up, he kept slipping around in his own vomit and puking all over himself. I lifted him over my shoulder and carried him to the Red Frogs, an Australian chaplaincy group who provide help to schoolies who need it. Later I found out he’d been hospitalised for alcohol poisoning.
Despite all the chunder, he was a nice kid. Overindulging in booze is a rite of passage for young Australians, and this is no doubt a common sight at schoolies. It was unfortunate, however, that our Balinese neighbours had to deal with that incident and countless others.
On the same night, the coordinator of Red Frogs, Paul Mergard, told me, “You find that Australians can lose a bit of their manners and they expect they can just run amok up in Bali.”
Obviously this trend – drunk and ignorant Australians heading to Bali for cheap drinks, relative luxury and total freedom – is nothing new. In fact, as far as most middle-class Aussies are concerned, Bali has become a lowlife holiday destination, corrupted by bogans. So why do so many young Aussies feel the need to act up on the paradisiacal island?
Maybe it’s because at home, young Australians are hemmed in by so many rules that they find it difficult to come to terms with the freedoms on offer in Bali.
While Americans are simultaneously disgusted and enthralled by Cancun, Brits feel similarly about Magalluf and Canadians commit their debauchery in Cuba, Aussies seem particularly bad at travelling respectfully.
A Daily Telegraph article published in 2013—pragmatically titled “The 10 Stupidest Things Australians Do While Travelling”—agued that young Australians have an excuse for being disrespectful overseas: “They are young and dumb, and their brains are yet to fully develop.” True to form, the DT provides a gross oversimplification, not only pandering to an old and conservative readership, but asserting their outright disdain for young people.
Yet maybe there’s some truth in their rhetoric: maybe our nanny-state attitude to policy-making leaves young people a bit dumber.
In the streets of Kuta, it’s common to see Aussies riding motorbikes drunk, unlicensed, helmetless, barefoot or all of the above. You can buy pseudoephedrine, Vaalium or magic mushrooms on many a street corner. Responsible service of alcohol is a totally foreign concept and drinking yourself into oblivion is tolerated, if not encouraged. Beer is sold at every convenience store, and the staff will likely offer to open bottles on the spot, after which you can casually drink on the street.
But with greater freedom comes greater risk. The bar staff in Kuta aren’t going to kick you out for being drunk, but it’s conceivable that you’d be pick-pocketed or mugged walking home late at night, especially if you’re inebriated. Similarly, nobody will stop you from driving drunk, but your chances of having an accident are far greater. Medical care is somewhat precarious, as seeing a doctor is generally pretty costly, and it’s standard to pay for an ambulance with cash, up-front. Even then, I’ve seen Bali ambulances stuck in the slow crawl of traffic on Sunset Road at peak hour, despite urgently flashing lights.
“An Australian dies in Bali every 9 days,” we’re told in the trailer for Channel Seven’s dramatic reality tv series, What Really Happens In Bali.
For young people who have become accustomed to the draconian rules and safeguards of NSW, it’s difficult to adjust to a world where you have to weigh up risks based on real life consequences, rather than fear of punishment. To enter a Sydney bar, you’re forced to show ID, act perfectly sober, then as the night goes on, stronger drinks are incrementally prohibited and movement between bars is restricted. RSA officers patrol the establishments and security guards swoop on anyone deemed intoxicated. The lockout laws sterilised the city’s nightlife, which, let’s face it, had been pretty lacklustre for a long time. In NSW, as laws become more tyrannical, they effectively become more absurd and come to be viewed as meaningless bureaucratic formalities rather than reasonable safety measures.
Australia has too many fucking rules. But a cheap flight can provide freedoms you may never have experienced. “You can do pretty much whatever you want here!” an Australian man told me, beer in hand, while letting off fireworks in the middle of Poppies Lane in Kuta. It was still early afternoon and he was having a great time, though some of the local vendors seemed a bit perturbed by the pyrotechnics.
“It’s not that Bali’s a particularly dangerous place, it’s just that people are the most dangerous version of themselves while they’re here,” says a hostel owner to some new guests. It’s a warning, but he’s not talking about the locals, he’s referring to the dangers of other tourists.
Actions that wouldn’t be tolerated back home are shrugged at, even when they veer into the territory of dangerous, dumb or disrespectful. While this kind of freedom is somewhat liberating, it comes with responsibility – you have to weigh up the risks of driving without a helmet, of drinking too much, of obnoxious behaviour.
The situation resembles the story of Icarus, the Greek mythological character whose father built him wings, but he flew so close to the sun that the wax melted and he fell to his death in the ocean. Aussie kids in Bali tend to act like Icarus: they love the increased sense of freedom but can’t help but fly too close to the sun. Hedonism often strays into the realms of fatalistic risk taking.
But Bali offers so much more than a venue for foreigners to luxuriate in rule breaking. The lack of arbitrary rules is perhaps reflective of a culture very different to our own; of a people who are remarkably relaxed, humble and gracious. And maybe if Australian kids weren’t repressed by such a staunch nanny-state government, they’d be better at using their discretion to weigh up life’s inevitable risks. They’d think more seriously about the real life consequences rather than fearing the immediate punishments.
Cover by the author