“The Worst Kind of Tourist”
I sat in an acai bowl cafe, the kind with swing seats and fake flowers, on a balmy Ubud afternoon, right in the middle of two 30-something white Americans.
This was my first trip to Bali and it felt like a rite of passage as an Aussie — you have to have been here to have a valid reason to tell everyone how much you hate it, right?
I’d avoided Kuta and come to Ubud, seemingly the vegan heart of the world, strewn with bamboo straws, yoga studios and non-dairy milk. I was spoilt for choice with delicious food, and was treating myself to an icy cold peanut butter and granola acai bowl, served in a pineapple-shaped bowl. It was positively instagrammable. I bemoaned my bad luck at this being the only available seat as the Americans struck up a conversation over the top of me.
“I’ve been preaching in Goa for the last two years,” said the man, who had introduced himself as John. “I just arrived in Bali. Guess I’m looking for a tribe to mesh with.” He already had a fresh Indonesian-style tattoo wrapped in plastic on his thigh.
The woman’s name was apparently Malaika, but I couldn’t believe it was her birth name. A moniker adopted in rebellion against her rich parents naming her Victoria or Josephine or something else that didn’t reflect her spirituality, perhaps. Malaika surely named herself that in the early hours of the morning in a field to the tune of psytrance. She’d been living in Ubud for years.
John and Malaika talked, punctuated by awkward silences that rang out through the entire – and full – acai bowl shop. They spoke loudly enough that it seemed they had no shame in what they were saying, or maybe they didn’t think anyone could understand them, but in the silences, you could feel something else in their words: a wall between them.
“This acai is so good!” Malaika spat through a mouthful of granola and coconut cream. At her commune, she only ate home-grown veggies and tempeh from the local market. The bowl of pure processed sugar imported from South America that she was eating today was just a “special treat”.
Both discussed how they had lived in Byron Bay, Australia’s free-spirited, boho capital, for a time.
“It’s just not the same as it used to be,” Malaika lamented. “It’s so hard to find an authentic experience there.”
John agreed. “I had to go bush. It’s the only place in Australia I can stand now, because there’s less Australians.”
Almost in unison, they cried, “Too much drinking!” and laughed.
I wondered why they chose the south of Bali to escape drunk Australians. It wasn’t because they truly appreciated Balinese culture; they seemed to be avoiding that too. I wasn’t sure what could convince someone to live in a place where they hated most everything about it.
I sat and listened to them flex their spirituality on each other, comparing the places they had been, the preaching they had done, the amount of yoga and meditation they practise each day, the people they knew and how “awake” they were. Malaika seemed to be winning, and she seemed to know it.
I liked to think of myself as different to them. I was enjoying laughing internally at their conversation, considering them ignorant, shallow and fake. But really, there I was in the acai shop too.
I had butchered the Bahasa Indonesia language in order to lower the already-low prices at the markets. I’d only really spoken to Balinese people to order coffee, which came deconstructed and cost the daily wage of the young woman bringing it to me. Terima Kasih Indonesia: you offered me the best of you and, just like John and Malaika, I picked and chose only the pieces that suited me, and built you in that image.
To me, a visitor of five days, Ubud was a haven of vegan food in westernised restaurants with Indonesian prices. It was a chance to source some nice pants and reusable straws, and get a cheap massage. The way I was treating Ubud was no different than the way these lofty nomads were. How could I possibly consider myself a better tourist than them simply because I held my assumptions inward, rather than shout them across a café? If anything, that just made me more malignant, more scheming.
I realised that I was only upset with them because they had judged my own country as outsiders, but I have never even been to Byron Bay — for all I know, they’re right. We are all outsiders looking in; most of us are just sensible enough to speak our judgments in whispers.
Malaika turned to me for the first time as she got up to leave.
“I’m sorry love, but you look so familiar! Did I see you at contact dance this morning?”
I still don’t know what contact dance is, but I’m not sure I can promise I will never find out.
Cover by Artem Bali