November 17, 2018

Brexit in Bali

It’s not the JFK assassination or 9/11, but even so, I’ll never forget where I was when I first read about Brexit.

I was on a beach on Lembongan Island, just off the coast of Bali.

Look it up on Google Maps: It’s a dot in the Indian Ocean. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more remote place.

And yet, there I sat at Nyoman’s Warung, a slab of concrete on the beach fitted out with battered teak tables and chairs, a thatched coconut-mat roof overhead. Just a few feet from my table, impossibly blue water lapped against the crushed white coral. Bamboo wind chimes sounded a timeless echo. Just behind me, I could hear Nyoman herself cooking the day’s fish on a sheet-metal grill primed with coconut husk charcoal.  

I popped open a cold Bintang and told myself to just enjoy the moment, the astonishing view, the edge-of-the-world quiet. But I couldn’t help noticing the strong cell signal on my iPhone. OK, just a quick peek at the New York Times app.

In Britain, some 8,000 miles away, a majority of voters had just chosen to leave the European Union. The pundits were calling the results of the historic referendum a rebellion against globalization. Britain’s disgruntled working class failed to sense the benefits of a system of open trade and porous borders. They saw it benefiting urban elites, leaving everyone else vulnerable to an influx of cheap foreign goods and labor and increased regulations. Globalization, they felt, undermined their economic stability and their English identity. 

Well, I thought, at least they had a vote.

My wife and I were winding down a two-week trip to Bali — for our 25th anniversary — and one indelible impression was that globalization had hit little Bali like a tsunami. Even if people there wanted one, there would be no Balexit.

The challenges of globalization that have been rocking the developed world — blamed for everything from Brexit to Trump — are even starker in the developing world. 

The Bali of your dreams, the Bali of “Eat, Pray, Love” has become a globalized tourist mecca. Cars, motorcycles and tour buses choke the small roads lined with global brands. The village of Ubud, where author Elizabeth Gilbert discovered the “Pray” part of her journey, now makes the Venice boardwalk look pastoral. I don’t think she would have been as taken by the Ubud Starbucks or Polo store.  

“People come here because it’s quiet,” our driver, Ketut, told us, “but then it’s not quiet. They come for the culture, but for them we give up our culture.”

Bali has lured foreign tourists ever since the first travel posters of bare-breasted Balinese women hit Europe in the 1930s. But what’s different now is the sheer rapidity of change, fueled by foreign investment, technology and international tourism. 

“That book was like a bomb that went off — boom!” Ketut said. All over Bali, people spoke of the island pre- and post-“Eat, Pray, Love,” a love letter turned wrecking ball. 

But it wasn’t just the book. Globalization has also spawned a gigantic middle class in India and China, and guess where they were all spending their holiday? With us, in Bali.

It is a blessing and a curse. The average Balinese lives on $1,800 per year. Tourism has enabled our guides to make that, or more, in a good month. That means better education and health care for their children. But they also complain that payoffs enable developers to plant hotels and restaurants next to sacred temples, and the fragile Balinese environment is being bled for the last dollar.  

With all these pressures and few controls on development, plus a lot of graft, the spiritual, quiet Bali is now harder and harder to find. 

We found it on the mainland’s back roads and on Lembongan — there is still remarkable beauty, romance and culture in Bali. But as I sat in Nyoman’s café, I wondered how long that would last. International hotels were engulfing the island’s fishermen’s shacks. Oil from the motorboats that show tourists the wonders of Lembongan have already destroyed the island’s once-thriving seaweed farms and are now choking out the coral and killing the plankton. When I looked more carefully at my photos of the island, I noticed just how many cellphone towers were nestled among the coconut palms. 

“We were too late for Ubud,” my wife said, “but just in time for Lembongan.” 

The Balinese we spoke with see these forces at work but feel powerless to control them. And the truth is, it isn’t even clear Britons have a choice. Now that the full implications of Brexit are beginning to become clear, there are calls for a do-over, or at least for making the implementation something less than a clean exit. The angry Brits are realizing what the Balinese already know: There is no going back; you can only learn to surf the tsunami.  

As I left Nyoman’s, I stopped to thank the small, middle-aged owner for one of the simplest and best meals I’d ever had. 

“You’re welcome,” Nyoman said as she took my hand. She looked up into my eyes. “But please say you like on Trip Advisor.”

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.