Tuesday, March 18, 2014

PICK OF THE WEEK: Paradise Lost?

Market Shoppers in Bali (Ubud Indonesia March 2014)

We are moving on tomorrow. We leave Ubud in the morning to, we hope, a smaller and quieter part of the island of Bali. Today I made a photograph that, in some ways, speaks to me of how I see and feel about Ubud. So, I thought I would use it for this week's Pick and as a way to introduce some reflections on the town.

Some of you will remember that I wrote on first arriving that I had never experienced such intense traffic in any of my travels anywhere in the world. Well, sadly that impression remains strong: A small group of villages sewn together with narrow and extremely built up roads, crowded almost to the point of gridlock makes for noise almost beyond bearing, and dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians alike. But, it is the cause of such chaos that I want to talk about right now. And that cause? Shopping.

Yes, shopping. And of course for there to be shopping there needs to be shoppers. And, shoppers are what Ubud has in droves. Well, what is interesting is that it is now low season, so the droves aren't quite as huge as they might be. That is truly scary. If it is like it is now, what's it like in high season? To be honest, I can't imagine what it would be like and I do not want to be here to find out.

These shoppers come from all over the world to shop, to have massages, to do Yoga, to pose (and this posing is a whole other story I would love to get into but ...), to buy stuff they could buy at home and to generally spend, spend, spend. There is a madness for shopping here. Again, it is on a scale I have never seen before.

Shop after shop selling the same goods. Some stock very exclusive brands, some (most) selling the same tacky tourist kitsch as dozens of other shops. Then there is the Ubud market in which it is impossible to walk one meter without being offered something for sale and where to even cast an eye on an item invites a sales pitch that won't go away.

Don't get me wrong: I do not blame the local people for trying so hard to sell what they can. After all,what was once a rural village, is now a metropolis with its heart ripped out and replaced by very few other ways to earn a living than by selling things or services to tourists. No, it is the tourists who must wear the responsibility

Ubud is "known" as a romantic place, a place where weary people from "the west" with money can come and relax, find "spiritual" upliftment and generally enjoy the beauty of a tropical paradise at bargain basement prices (relative to what they'd pay "at home"). Whether it is a myth they've been sold, or whether people choose to believe all this so they can come and be "cool", and have a story to tell later, I don't know. For some, of course, the myth can become a kind of reality (and I don't mean to say their experiences are necessarily "real"): out there in the countryside there are exclusive "spas" and "retreats" where (for a price) "relaxation" can be bought and "beauty" experienced. But here in these streets full of shopping tourists pushing, shoving and strutting their way to the next place they can spend some money in, the reality is very different. Here there is noise, pollution, crowds, a maddening "vibe" that frazzles the mind and exhausts the body. And that's just for starters.

Strip all this crass and gross materialism away and there is life here of course. Beauty too, in the people and their homes, their temples, their daily rituals. Just as there is in any community really. But, the time cannot be too far away when the constant building, the ever increasing demand on infrastructure and the sheer number of cars, buses, bikes and tourists bent on self indulgence and shopping, brings the place to a point of paralysis, of breakdown.

I am not sad to be leaving Ubud, but I am sad for Ubud and its people. Sad for the loss of another unique place that has now become just like every other place. The destruction of paradise continues.

Peace to all

PS I accept my part in this tragedy. After all I came here as a "tourist", therefore I am adding to the demands being placed on this society and its infrastructure. I guess I have just been shocked by the scale of the destruction here. I like to think my impact is smaller, however: I do not shop beyond the necessities of life, I don't buy souvenirs, I see things. I am an artist and observer. I make street and documentary photographs that, I hope, provide something of a balanced view of what I see. Maybe that's my role too. I can only report what I see, feel and think. The rest is up to you.

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