My family and I recently traveled to Singapore to visit family. I decided to write about the trip, both to tell our friends and relatives how the trip was going and to give us another way to remember the trip after it’s done. We’ve since returned home, but I had a couple more blog posts in mind, so they’re still going to be coming out here. Enjoy!
That was the word that kept coming to mind during our vacation-within-a-vacation, our trip to the Indonesian island of Bali. The dichotomies were everywhere, from the broader scales of the types of government to the individual differences between the people living in different parts of the island.
The city-state of Singapore is known as “Asia Lite” because of the wide range of people who live there. We visited Little India, Chinatown and the Arab Quarter all in one day, essentially getting tastes from Mumbai, Beijing and Istanbul within the span of a few miles. Singapore prides itself on being a diverse country1 and some have said that one of their favorite things about living there is that they can get the feeling of being in a place like the markets of New Delhi, for example, without having to deal with the smells of human waste or the potentially toxic water systems. As I mentioned in my earlier post, one individual street includes houses of worship for no fewer than four different religions. It’s an urban environment, to be sure, with an industrial sector filled with factories, a downtown area filled with financial offices and a busy night-life scene. In fact, if you were to add in some litter and a few more police and ambulance sirens, we might as well have still been at home.
Bali was a completely different experience. For every store advertising Polo Ralph Lauren or Oakley sunglasses there was a building whose roof had caved in or a structure whose front wall had somehow gone missing. Outside of a handful of nicer restaurants, the night life in Bali consists of wandering from shop to shop as the store-owners sit outside on milk crates or the curb and beg you to come in to inspect their wares. I mean “beg” in the literal sense of, “Yes, lady, you’re looking for dresses? Shirts? Please, come have-a-look,2 I find something for you. You buy from me, give me good luck.” Their water is also tainted; it’s been almost a week since we left Bali and I still think about how nice it is to be able to brush my teeth with water from the faucet, rather than a bottle. The Indonesian rupiah is in such bad shape that the smallest bill is worth 1000 rupiah; the rule-of-thumb conversion I kept in my head was that 100,000 rupiah equals about eight bucks.
The most striking difference was the transition between the town and the resort area. We spent the first night in Nusa Dua, a small village on the southern end of the island. Our hotel was in the same general area as a few others. In order to get into the resort “community,” cars have to drive along a small, four-lane road that splits in the middle. The two lanes coming out of the community stand alone, while the two entering the area go through a tunnel that houses a security checkpoint. On the outside, we saw the structures of a poverty-stricken village, marked by Hindu architecture in disrepair and crumbling buildings. After the security guards opened all the doors to make sure no one was hiding inside and checked both the hood and the trunk with a bomb-sniffing dog, we were allowed to pass through the tunnel.
The resort community was a different world. The road passed by lush green lawns, marked by newly painted statues of smiling animals by each fire hydrant and the shade of full, leafy trees. The hill in front of our hotel proudly displayed an elaborate fountain in the shape of a terrace farm with elderly women gathering water. There were no beggars here. There were no faded advertisements or piles of rubble or people walking around barefoot (unless you count the people wading in the pool). Our other hotel – in Legian, a more urban area across the street from a public beach – was less separated from the surrounding community but still maintained a distinct boundary between the paradise inside and the poverty that lay outside. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the idea that I was able to enjoy such luxuries as a heated pool, a bed with clean sheets or a pulsing showerhead while the people who were living just down the street were competing just for the attention of the tourists, let alone the possibility that someone might actually buy something. I know that I work hard to support my family and that we earned the opportunity to take a significant vacation like this. But something still felt… off.
I don’t mean to sound depressed about this part of the vacation. Please don’t misunderstand me: we really enjoyed Bali, especially once we got to Legian. We sat by the pool, played in the water and ate delicious food.3 I don’t even mean to sound like this trip was some sort of revelation for me about white privilege or the fact that other countries of the world are worse off than we are as Americans. All the same, however, I felt it would be disingenuous to just write about the great time we had, while not acknowledging the other important social aspects of the trip. If nothing else, it has been a reminder to me over the last week to really appreciate the things that I have and the lot that I’ve been dealt in life. It might not always be the most pleasant way of thinking about the world, but it’s true that things could always be worse.
2. “Have-a-look” was one word.↩
3. We also took the absolute creepiest cab ride ever and Trudy and I genuinely feared for our lives for a few minutes. But everything was fine and that’s a different story.↩