Thursday, June 22, 2006

Desperate times.

The bus to Legian village wasn’t a bus at all. It was simply a driver in an SUV. There was only 1 other person in the car with me from the hotel. In about 10 minutes we were in the heart of Legian village and the car dropped us off in front of a surf shop.

The place was dead. I mean it was quiet, nothing was going on. Legian village runs right into Kuta and both places are the most heavily populated tourist areas on Bali. The streets of Legian village are packed door-to-door with gift shops selling all sorts of wares and handicrafts as well as t-shirts and sunglasses, pirated DVDs and software, clubs, restaurants and bars. It went on for blocks in both directions. Everything was open and shopkeepers roamed the streets trying to entice prospective buyers into their shops. There were a few tourists like myself walking around, but it was mostly empty and devoid of any foot traffic. Restaurants were completely empty except for 1-2 token tables. Bars of all sorts advertised special prices and all sorts of incentives for travelers to stop in for a drink, but to no avail. The gift and souvenir shops were quiet, their proprietors sitting on the sidewalk outside or walking up and down the street trying to get someone, anyone, to buy anything. It was an odd sight for what used to be a crowded tourist trap. The terrorist bombings and travel warnings had worked – no one was coming to Bali anymore.

I hadn’t taken more than 5 steps when a gentleman introduced himself as “Billy” and physically tried to pull me into his shop, which was rather distressing. It is one thing to be accosted by hawkers and shop owners in the street trying to convince you to come into their stores, it is another to have a complete stranger pulling on your arm. Annoyed, I shook him off and glared at him. I felt bad for these people who were desperately trying to make a living now that the tourists were all gone, but grabbing people and pulling on them does not make a person view favorably on your establishment or business practices. It just pisses people off.

As I walked I was surrounded by shop owners who walked with me in step. “Change money, sir? Buy a souvenir? We have t-shirts, watches, DVDs! Looking for handicrafts?” It was impossible to discern who was talking to me about what nor where their shop was located. These were desperate people. I firmly shook my head and went straight to the pharmacy to pick up more medicine. I left the throng of followers outside and got my medicine and proceeded to walk down the street. Again, every store and every person tried desperately to convince me to shop in their store. I did eventually buy some T-shirts from a fellow who was friendlier and politer than most. If I had the money, I would have bought something from every single store I saw as it was obvious these people had gone a long time without any business and they were quite desperate. At the shop I bought the T-shirts from I asked the proprietor what it used to be like.

“Before the terrorist bombings you could barely walk down this street. Cars, motorcycles, and taxicabs filled the streets with traffic and the sidewalks were so packed with tourists you could barely move. Business was good and even though many of us sell similar items all were able to make a decent living. New restaurants, clubs, and shops were opening all the time. Now they are all gone. The newer places have already closed their doors, those planning to open have all changed their minds. Those of us who have managed to hang on are getting more desperate by the month. Nobody comes to Bali anymore. Everyone is afraid.”

It should be noted that Bali is a very unique part of Indonesia. While Indonesia as a whole is a secular Muslim country, Bali is completely different from the rest of Indonesia. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Muslims make up a severe minority of the population in Bali. Over 90% of the population is Balinese-Hindu with less than 5% Muslim. The remaining population is mostly Buddhist or Christian. This makes the Balinese culture quite unique and different from the vast majority of Indonesians. They have little in common with their fellow Indonesian-Muslim citizens and strongly oppose the current Islamification that is rising in mainstream Indonesian politics and society. They fiercely oppose terrorism and make great pains to point out that the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks were not from Bali but had traveled from other parts of Indonesia to carry out the attacks. They hate the terrorists even more than we do, as the terrorists have succeeded in derailing the tourist economy which is the biggest money earner on Bali. Their entire economy is based on tourism and the terrorists destroyed that. Begin a conversation about terrorism and you will quickly be treated to a profanity laden tirade about how the terrorists ruined Bali and the various painful punishments that should be inflicted on them. As a unique side effect, the terrorist attacks have firmly placed the people of Bali against Jemaah Islamiyah, the fundamentalist Islamic organization believed to be linked to Al Qaeda and the Bali bombings. Just another proving point that terrorism’s worst victims are their own people and countries.

Further down the street I reached the spot of the 2002 terrorist bombing that killed more than 200 people. There is a memorial constructed where the building used to be with the inscribed names of all the dead and which country they were from. Across the street was an empty lot of rubble, all that remains of one of the businesses that was destroyed by the bombing. A tiny handful of tourists and locals was standing in front of the memorial reading the names of the dead. It was a sobering reminder of the terror inflicted on this once peaceful and beautiful island.

I took some pictures and then slowly walked back to where the hotel’s car had dropped me off. By this time I was feeling very weak and dizzy again and was looking forward to getting back to the hotel. Again, it was a struggle to walk back without being hassled by every shop or restaurant I passed on the street. I felt bad for them as they were only trying to stay in business and they seemed so desperate for anyone to buy anything. The driver picked me up and I went back to the hotel to rest.

I was supposed to meet our agent in Indonesia along with representatives from our freight company for dinner that night, but being sick I really did not feel up to it. I tried to call them, but no one picked up the phone and they were not replying to my messages. So I just hunkered down in my hotel room and waited for the inevitable call for dinner.

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