Lost for Authenticity

I disliked Ubud the second I stepped out of the taxi into the pouring rain. But three nights, one cockroach, one earthquake and an unspecified number of roof rodents later, the Balinese resort town is starting to grow on me.

Today, I decided to give the place a second chance. I’m going native. I sit in local restaurants, drink as the locals do, and eat typical Ubud food.

Surrounded by Australians and Japanese in vaguely Southeast Asian clothes, I take another sip of my iced café latté, whose ice, the menu informs me, is made from “reverse osmosis H20”. I ponder the relative merits of yoga and Balinese massotherapy as relaxation methods.

Yep, I’m turning into an Ubud local already.

Denpasar to Ubud

Our stay in the region started well enough.

We arrived four hours late in the provincial capital of Denpasar: due to a power outage in the Manila air traffic control center, our Japan Airlines captain initially turned around for Tokyo, but decided to land in Okinawa instead before circling the Philippines airspace. Once we checked into our guesthouse, we passed out from exhaustion, and only hours of relentless jackhammers next door woke us up.

Helene and I found a lot to like in Denpasar, despite the unending thunder of construction and motorcycle engines. Sure, the sidewalks of Denpasar were shoddy at best, their tiles often broken or missing, revealing deep storm drains underneath. Yet as we walked the streets of the city, we were charmed by the smiles of children, the numerous offerings to Hindu gods, and the smell of flowers. In Bali, even the cigarettes smell nice: the men all seem to smoke a brand of clove you could mistake for incense.

Denpasar is not picturesque, but in retrospect it offers what I look for in my travels: a glimpse into normalcy, and the chance to interact with residents as equals, outside the trappings of tourism. The local expatriates we met all seemed mellowed by their time in Bali. On our last morning, grabbing a bowl of rice and vegetables from a hijab-clad lady running a street stall, we were greeted by a German man wearing Hindu religious attire. “I eat here every morning; it’s great,” he told us, before joking in Indonesian with the shop owner.

It seemed our stay in Indonesia could only get better. We commandeered a taxi and headed north to the mountains and to Ubud.

The Tourist Hordes

Touted as the cultural alternative to the party-soaked, overdevelopped beaches of Kuta, Ubud is used as an example of a local culture thriving under the influence of tourism. Away from the multinational resorts that blight many countries of the Majority World, Ubud encourages its visitors to embrace local culture and appreciate the numerous rituals of Balinese daily life.

Sadly, however, the Ubud residents embraced tourism not willingly, but as a survival mechanism.

Travelers have been lured to Ubud as early as the 1980s, and initially showed little respect for the daily lives of residents. Tourists would enter the homes of locals during religious ceremonies, thinking they were witnessing a staged attraction. They were ejected from temples as they disrupted important rituals, and “No Tourists Allowed” signs soon marred the intricate house facades and temples.

Showing remarkable lucidity, or perhaps fatalism, Ubud decided to embrace the inevitable: residents founded their own tourism office, with the intent of educating visitors about their way of life, and inspiring their respect. This survival technique proved admirable, and perhaps saved Ubud from being completely ravaged by the tourist hordes.

Today’s visitors to Ubud are drawn by the promise of spirituality and artistic inspiration. It’s easy to imagine author Elizabeth Gilbert, walking down Monkey Forest Road, politely turning down touts and shopkeepers, on her own road to spiritual enlightenment and recovery from divorce. Long before Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love became a bestseller, Ubud had already established itself as a prime New Age vacation resort.

Inspired by the Balinese displays of spirituality, people of all ages brought external concepts such as yoga and organic-certified farming to the town. Whatever the Balinese think of seeing these concepts blended with their own religious customs, they’re not saying.

The Curse of Authenticity

Sitting on the terrace of the fancy Kafe on Hanoman street, I have come to accept my status as one of the tourist swarm. I try to avoid eye contact with a newspaper vendor on the sidewalk, and ignore the taxi drivers vying for my custom on a slow Saturday afternoon. As a tourist walking down the streets, you face a barrage of “hellos”, as shopkeepers try to entice your patronage every ten meters. Gone are the shy smiles: here children ignore foreigners, jaded by their presence.

I may sound like I’m condemning the tourists who came here before me; but the truth is, I am as guilty as they are. As a world traveler, my drug is authenticity; yet every time I visit a place deemed ‘authentic’, I put demands on it. I will eat in a local restaurant but raise my nose at the KFC stand, even though students probably eat a lot more of the latter than the former. My choice is based on Western values, and on a mental construct of local life.

When we describe a culture as authentic, we are ensnaring it under a glass dome. We demand of other cultures that they present a quaintness unchanged by the passage of time and the lure of modernity. When we eat in a Japanese restaurant, we are worldly; when the Chinese eat Italian pasta, they are being ‘corrupted’ by Western influences.

And in the event that I find a secret jewel, untouched by my own culture, where the children gape at the color of my skin, and I feel transported back to the Middle Ages, what then? If I write about it, am I not acting as a scout for the tourist hordes, opening a trail that will soon turn into the highway for a tourist bus?

Am I doomed to corrupt that which I love the most?

From Authenticity to Truth

I was chased out of my room this morning by an earthquake originating off the coast of Bali. Helene and I took refuge on Kafe’s terrace, looking for a wifi connection that we might use to reassure family back home, as well as check on the news. In retrospect, the disquieting rumble of the earthquake shook a worry loose in my mind. I chuckle, thinking it might well be my most authentic Indonesian experience to date.

That Ubud managed to become a tourist resort without Marriotts and Hiltons locking up its vistas into compounds might very well be reason for hope. As for myself, I hope that my desire to treat as equals the people I meet in my travels will suffice to prevent me from enshrining them in the mothballs called authenticity and tradition.

Ubud is teaching me to seek truth above authenticity. Whatever Ubud used to be, it is what it is now, and it’s not my place to judge it, only to experience it in a spirit of mutual respect.

I chase away my worries; it’s time for an organic salad.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

2 comments

  1. “When we describe a culture as authentic, we are ensnaring it under a glass dome. We demand of other cultures that they present a quaintness unchanged by the passage of time and the lure of modernity. When we eat in a Japanese restaurant, we are worldly; when the Chinese eat Italian pasta, they are being ‘corrupted’ by Western influences.”

    I love this observation.

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