What Bombs?


As you wait in the final airport lounge in Denpasar for the final boarding pass check, you ask other passengers about their holidays and why they ignored the travel warnings. Three couples in a row blame the beautiful Balinese. Two bolshy English backpackers (no doubt wearing Fuck Terrorists They’re Bollocks T-shirts beneath their fashionably tattered denims) say they came because staying away is just what those bastard bombers want, innit.

Everyone else says, ‘What travel warnings?’


Their ignorance is mind-blowing. In fact, they strike you as exactly the sort of folk who made the most noise during the Schapelle Corby trial those tunnel-visioned objectors who actually thought Indonesia would listen to their myopic rantings and think: ‘Hmm. Australians are threatening to kill our diplomats, retract their tsunami donations and call us more chimp names on the radio. The best way to save face is to acquiesce and set Schapelle free at once.’

As corporate globalisation shrinks the planet, wealthy Westerners seem increasingly complacent about foreign travel in the Third World. Everyone’s happy to book a cheap holiday in sunny downtown Sri Lanka, oh-so-authentic Vietnam or you-beauty Bali, but no one wants to accept they might also have to negotiate alien (and comparatively inadequate) hospitals, bureaucracies and judiciaries; to accept that there’s a reason the shopping and the service is so cheap.

Learning about and respecting the Third-World status quo should be Travel Survival 101 for holidaymakers in South-East Asia. But governments are a different matter. Governments should rage against the machine, should do whatever is within their power to insist on transparent and independent judicial process, humane prison conditions and the abolition of the death penalty.

‘Not that human rights are ever likely to trump diplomacy when it comes to Canberra’s dealings with Jakarta,’ you tell the greasy accountant sitting next to you on the plane after he insists on making conversation. ‘We have too much to gain from keeping things cosy to kick up a stink. Two-way trade in 2004 was almost $A8.5 billion and Indonesia is the largest source of Australia’s lucrative foreign student supply. Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was also Australia’s most dedicated backer when we were lobbying for an invitation to the inaugural East Asia Summit last year. It must drive those Canberra pollies nuts knowing all those pesky Indonesian Muslims are Australia’s pass card to the sweet markets of East Asia.’

The greasy accountant who hauls off his sweater to reveal a Jiggy Jig T-shirt is unimpressed, even when you tell him former Prime Minister Paul Keating once estimated that a strategically benign Indonesia saved Australia $35 billion a year on security costs alone. ‘Did you make it to the Cabana Club at the Hard Rock Café in Kuta?’ the greasy accountant asks. ‘Now that was something.’

Your travelling companion puts on his headphones to watch Walk the Line on a fly-swot of a screen miles up the aisle and for the rest of the trip the two of you fight for elbow room on the bony armrest. Most of the time the war is discreet. You inadvertently remove your elbow to open your hermetically sealed sachet of nuts and he takes the opportunity to wedge his arm in. He dozes off during the movie and you take the opportunity to accrue as much new real estate as possible. After a while, however, the two of you stop Mr Nice Guying and just start pushing.

Bali : Paradise Lost? (Pluto Press Australia) RRP $17.95

All this makes you think of Australia and Indonesia and their relatively tiny slice of shared sea. They’re just like us, you want to tell the greasy accountant. A couple of punters with nothing in common who have no choice but to try and get along because they’ve been forced to sit next to each other on a long, long trip. And Bali? Why, Bali’s just like the armrest

The metaphor is so laboured you decide one plastic beaker of putrid plane wine is definitely your limit.

As the jet jolts through the night you wonder how long it will be before the age of terror turns into the age of something else and Australians return to their backyard Balinese playground in their old numbers. Despite the gloomy predictions, you know eventually they will. Bali’s just too close, too easy, too Bing-Crosby-Bob-Hope exotic to ignore. And like any other long-term relationship, breaking up is hard to do.

You’ve certainly never been able to call it quits. Time and again you travel to Bali and time and again you’re turned off by the tourist canker and swear the fling is finished. Then, within weeks of returning home, you forget the crowds and all-night diarrhoea and start missing the place: yearning for the spicy duck and pork, the for-God’s-sake-get-a-camera beauty of the terraced rice paddies, and the fragrant aroma of clove cigarettes that permeates everything.

Memory experts say this is a common phenomenon. Humans have idealised expectations that reality can never match, but our rose-coloured anticipation is matched by equally rose-coloured retrospection. It doesn’t matter how much we hate the tacky carvings, the relentless hucksters and the food poisoning while we’re there. If what we expect from Bali is suckling piglet, scrumptious jungle and smoky cloves, that’s what we’ll remember. What actually happens is almost irrelevant.

Given all this (and given the extraordinary insularity of the ‘What travel warnings?’ comments), it doesn’t seem so inconceivable that one day the sunburned couples queuing at Ngurah Rai will be asking ‘What drug cases?’, ‘What executions?’, ‘What bombs?’ And maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Short memory syndrome and selective recollection don’t get a great wrap from historians and psychologists, but holidays, foreign policies and new love affairs wouldn’t have a hope in hell without them.

When you get home, the city looks unbearably neat and anal, the same way it always does after the chaos of Bali. When you get home, you unbolt your mega case and a cloud of Seminyak mosquitoes flies out a side pocket. When you get home, your phone rings and it’s Luke, calling from a friend’s blackmarket mobile. He’s worried you accidentally left a stack of money in his shopping bag and wants to know if he can return it somehow. It takes an age to collect yourself and tell him to forget it, it’s his.

As you unpack your new Suicide Glam T-shirt, you remember that Luke was arrested while travelling on a forged passport with a fake name and nationality which means his family and real government don’t even know he’s in prison which means that if his execution goes ahead, he won’t even die as himself. For the umpteenth time, you’re struck by all this death, all this despair, all this diabolism so close to home.

Short memory syndrome and selective recollection definitely have their advantages but it doesn’t take much to realise that, beneath the booze and bikinis, Bali is very different from all those platitudes pumped out about paradise.

Holiday island also has its horrors.

This is an edited extract from Emma Tom’s Bali : Paradise Lost? (Pluto Press Australia) RRP $17.95

New Matilda has five copies of Emma Tom’s Bali: Paradise Lost from the Now series, published by Pluto Press.  

We will be giving away a copy (RRP $17.95) to the first five to contact us.
Send us an email to: enquiries(at)newmatilda.com and include your name, postal address and a contact number.

Thanks to Pluto Press for making these copies available to New Matilda.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.