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Hard Lessons on Sustainability | Bali Blog

Blogging about Bali seems like it should be easy. But each time I’ve thought about it, part of me hesitates.

It was such a wonderful trip in so many ways. For one, we had just come from spending two weeks in China. That was a unique adventure in and of itself. You can read my China blog post here. We had a great time in China, from trendy and multi-cultural Hong Kong, to the bustling business hub of Shenzhen, to the backcountry of Guilin. Each place we visited was unique, but they all had a few things in common - LOTS of people and questionable air quality.

So arriving in Bali, where the day’s main events included laying on a beach, surfing, and drinking young coconut water straight from the shell, was quite literally a breath of fresh air.

Photos taken at numerous locations around Canggu and island of Nusa Penida.

What no one told me

In fact, it was an abrupt and jolting transition in many ways. Language, cuisine, culture, landscape. And a different type of struggle with pollution. In China, you rarely see trash in the city streets. It’s in the air around you.

In Bali, every breath brings a clean, salty ocean breeze to your lungs. But the fields, waterways, and roadsides are lined with debris and discarded plastics. You can’t NOT see it. Trash piles are quite literally everywhere.

How come I'd never seen pictures of this when doing trip research? How come I'd never heard a single “influencer” mention this in their posts from Bali? No one was including this detail in travel reviews…

I’m not saying that people are out there intentionally hiding the fact. Of course you want to post pictures of the beaches and monkeys and rice terraces when you’re in Bali. (I didn't take any photos of the trash either.) Maybe the information is available and I just missed it based on the sources I was choosing? But when I got there I just remember thinking, “How come no one’s talking about this?”

Why no one’s talking about it

As you spend a little more time there, it becomes easier to see why tourists aren’t talking about it. You spend your days on sandy beaches. Maybe you surf. Maybe you swim. Maybe you just read in the sunshine for 8 hours. For every meal there are endless options of healthy, fresh, plant-based foods made from locally grown ingredients and the presentation is always on point.

Between the trendy food scene and the boutique surf hotels, there’s an impression of a thriving, thoughtful system. Why mention the piles of rubbish when you just ate at a cafe that serves 25 different items made completely out of avocado? They were local avocados. And it was served with bamboo utensils and edible flowers, so I mean…

The food scene in Canggu.

Okay, I’m being a little facetious (except not really because we actually ate at a place like that) but my point is the juxtaposition of the two conditions is cast in high relief.

There seems to be a beautiful emphasis on sustainability and stewarding local resources when it comes to the food scene for example, but at the same time, drainage pipes are completely blocked up by discarded plastic bottles. It can feel tempting to overlook the discomfort of that fact when there’s a plastic-free reusable straw in every dragon fruit smoothie.

(left to right) Beach on Nusa Penida island / Dragon fruit smoothie / Basket of young coconuts

Pausing to think twice

Being confronted with this dilemma kicked my brain into overdrive and caused me to think twice before every decision and every purchase I was making on the trip.

We had already tried to be intentional about opting for sustainable choices when booking things prior to arriving. (In general, this is important to Johnathan and I when traveling, regardless of the destination.) We stayed in a small eco hotel that had a plastic-free policy and a mindful consumption of water resources. We brought our own snacks and reusable water bottles, utensils, and reef-safe sunscreen with us. We researched restaurants that had an emphasis on local ingredients and meat-free options. For tourism activities we sought out small, local businesses rather than going with a chain or bigger name brand.

But I knew there had to be things I wasn’t considering, and what’s more, every decision felt like it could have a negative consequence.

The physical evidence of the pollution around me felt like immediate feedback. Anytime I purchased something, resources were required. And after those resources were used, did they too just end up in a trash pile on the beach?

Broken Beach on Nusa Penida.

The problem and the solution

The truth is I, like many others, came into this uneducated. I didn’t understand what effect my being there could have on the place. And sadly, it’s a double-edged sword. 80% of Bali’s economy depends on tourism. In 2017, TripAdvisor named Bali as the world’s top destination. source

But physical beauty aside, it seems as if the land is literally groaning under that pressure. As tourists in Bali, we are a continuous cycle of help and hurt.

“Over-exploitation by the tourist industry has led to 200 out of 400 rivers on the island drying up…Erosion at Lebih Beach has seen seven metres (23 feet) of land lost every year. Decades ago, this beach was used for holy pilgrimages with more than 10,000 people, but they have now moved to Masceti Beach.

In 2017, a year when Bali received nearly 5.7 million tourists, government officials declared a 'garbage emergency' in response to the covering of a 3.6 mile stretch of coastline in plastic waste brought in by the tide...” source

On the surface, it’s hard to know if the tourism boom is fully guilty for the current pollution issues, or if it just revealed already neglected waste-management systems in Indonesia, causing local communities to be severely underprepared for growth. Either way, the solution isn’t to point fingers. We have to look at it from multiple angles and be intentional about advocating for balance and sustainable development moving forward. It is locked into Bali's fate (and many other countries in a similar position).

“When you talk to the young Balinese it becomes quickly very clear that the new generation simply DOES NOT WANT to work in rice fields anymore. This is regardless of the fact that tourists find the sight of a hardworking farmer during sunset hours very romantic, while they are sipping their cold drinks.

Bali is swiftly changing from an agricultural society into a service-oriented society. And the island and its people have to adapt.

40 years of solid tourism growth have created structures and systems that heavily depend on the tourists. This dependency will not change. Therefore, mass tourism will stay a part of Bali's future…” source

So how do we move forward knowing this? It can seem paralyzing. I’ve found that when I start to feel overwhelmed, the important thing is to not freeze up and do nothing, but to instead focus on just taking one next right step.

Tegallalong rice terraces in Ubud.

“Vote” with your money, your time, and your attention

“We all - Balinese, foreign residents, and particularly every visitor coming here - can contribute to a sustainable Bali. And we believe that the tourists have the greatest power of all. They impact every little aspect of the tourism business because of their choices as a consumer. And they need to know about their power, and that this power comes with a responsibility.”

The concept of “voting” with money, time, and attention was introduced to me a while back. As a consumer myself, and now also a business owner, I understand it from both sides. (To be clear, I'm not saying to do this in place of political voting on a ballot. That is also an extremely important means of change and should be exercised whenever possible.)

As a consumer, you have buying power. This has major influence over business and market trends. If we as consumers intentionally send a message about what we want through our purchases, decisions, and clear preferences, there will be systemic change. There has to be if businesses and industries want to survive. Healthy industry means a healthy economy which means a happy government. It creates a cycle of support.

This is how we can make a movement and advocate for positive change.

(top) Drinking young coconut at Echo Beach in Canggu / (bottom) Tegallalong rice terraces in Ubud

Surfing, sunrises, and scooters

I realize this is probably not the Bali content you wanted to read about. The pollution epidemic still haunts me and it brought to life some serious questions about travel for me. But no, it didn’t ruin the trip. It weighed heavily on me, but dang Bali was still magical.

Johnathan and I still talk about it all the time and we long to go back.

I nailed my first headstand in a yoga class there. After not paddling out for several years, I now have new memories of surfing for hours on end, one perfect wave after another. It honestly is the purest form of joy. It fills me up to spilling point. I think about snorkeling with giant manta rays in crystal blue waters.

Custom motorcycles for sale / beaches & sunset on Nusa Penida / hiking Campuhan Ridge in Ubud / monkey sanctuary / archeological site ft. centuries-old temple ruins

I think about drinking the very freshest coconut water. Nothing compares to it after spending all day in the sun and salt. I think about scooting through traffic and all the sketchy maneuvers and all the close calls - it’s not for everyone - but we laughed and laughed. With the sunset on our faces and the wind at our backs, nothing could scare us.

I think about how every square inch of the island seems covered in green growth. I think about the Balinese people - their rich brown skin, dark handsome eyes, and toothy grins. In my experience, they are friendly, devoted people and there are temples literally on every corner. Spiritual reminders physically cemented into their daily lives. It’s refreshing.

Floating water temple Tanah Lot / temple workers waiting to give blessings upon entrance / plantation on Nusa Penida / swimming hole beside Buddhist prayer statue / daily offerings at fountain

Bali changed us. We learned more about the world and about ourselves on that trip. Really on every trip we take.

Sunset at Kelingking Beach.

Once we came home, we doubled down even further on our efforts to avoid anything single-use or plastic that goes straight to a landfill. We came back set on eating a diet of less meat and more plant-based in order to reduce our carbon footprint. Balinese cuisine had shown us how delicious and easy that could be.

We came back with a hunger to experience more of Indonesia too. That part of the world is so precious. A turquoise gem of positive saltwater ions and ripe fruit and earthy-smelling breezes.


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