Bali is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been: white sandy beaches, emerald forests, waving palm trees, endless sunlight, great food, and charming people. I’m supposed to be taking a serious research workshop—one hour of language class in the morning, then guest speakers on various interesting topics until 12, then lunch, and then another class with Haverford anthropologists Leslie Dwyer and Degung Santikarma. Then it’s time to either do homework or hit the bars on Kuta Beach, however we feel that day. It’s so chilled out and fun here, it’s like an endless summer holiday.
Blah blah blah.
Meet my friend Billy. As a surf instructor, Billy has a life many would envy—spending most of his time on the beach and teaching cute Japanese tourist girls how to surf. Covered in tattoos and built of rippling muscles, Billy looks every inch the surfer. And I’ve seen him in action too--he’s pretty amazing.
Yet he lives in a part of Denpasar with unpaved roads and his house doesn’t have running water—you have to haul it from a well. I guess that’s how he got those muscles. He’s always been poor, he tells me. “When I was a kid, if I wanted a new t-shirt, I had to shimmy up the palm trees to gather the coconuts to sell.” He began surfing when he was fourteen, and eventually dropped out of high school because he spent so much time riding the waves and missing class. He’s had many jobs, he says, but he loves to surf and has finally made a career out of it. “People come to Bali and say ‘oh this is paradise,’ with surfing in the morning and spa in the afternoon. But it isn’t paradise if you have to work,” he once told me, as we drove out to Kuta Beach on a borrowed motorbike.
Billy also runs a “free school” in his neighborhood for local children. At three o’clock, after regular school, the children come to Billy’s house and sit on foam mats on the concrete floor and receive free homework help and do fun activities. Every Sunday they have English class for two hours. I taught there last week (that was the deal—he teaches me to surf and I teach at the school). I am proud to say that I taught fifteen kids, ages seven to fifteen, how to sing, “Mary had a little lamb.” The children seemed to enjoy it, though. Billy says that growing up poor, he didn’t have many opportunities, so he wanted to do something for the local children “to give them more opportunities and confidence.”
We went surfing last weekend. I wasn’t any good (it took me a whole hour to stand up on the board, and then it was only for a second), but it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done! I can’t wait to go again! Unfortunately, I have class during the best times for surfing (it depends on the tide schedule). That and I have the most epic sunburn and I’m covered with bruises.
Now meet another friend of mine, Ancak. Originally from Bali, he went to university in Yogyakarta (near where I took my language class) and graduated a few years ago with a degree in law. Now he works as a public defender in Denpasar (specializing in land disputes) and founded his own environmental advocacy NGO (which happens to be on Indonesia’s terrorist watch list). He’s joined the Research Program to learn how to do investigative research to help the cause of his NGO. We are working on a project together on surf culture (which is how I met Billy).
Ancak is “public enemy number one” (according to our professor, Degung). The Indonesian government is not exactly a fan of environmental protection, especially when it cuts into the highly profitable tourism industry. And the side he often takes in his cases is also not very popular. Once at four in the morning, he got a call from an “unknown number” and it turned out to be a death threat. He gets them all the time, he says. He doesn’t know who exactly is calling him, because the number is always blocked. Probably it’s linked to one of the cases he took, which was a classic land dispute between the rich and poor, but he doesn’t know. He of course handles these threats very well, but every time it happens it creeps me out.
A few days ago, Ancak and I went into a liquor store for vodka (related to research, I assure you). Since the bombings in Jakarta, there have been cops everywhere. One of them approached us, took Ancak’s backpack, searched it, and, upon finding no terrorist paraphernalia within, handed it back to him. Then the cop turned away, completely ignoring me. “They aren’t interested in you,” Ancak explained later. “You are bule.” Bule is Indonesian for “white person.”
Is this paradise?