“So, you’ve chosen to brave it out in Bali?”
Actually, there was no defining moment when we made that decision, I don’t think we ever did make a decision. Even if we had paused for a few minutes to consider the alternatives, even if things hadn’t happened so quickly, if borders hadn’t closed down so suddenly, if the planes hadn’t stopped flying, we would have still chosen to stay here. Granted, Indonesia is not a good place to be in a world health crisis but Bali is our home so we were never going to go anywhere else. To impose ourselves upon ageing relatives in England or New Zealand, and risk infecting them, was never an option.
I’ve lived here for nearly 22 years and my partner has been here for 14 years, he’s in fulltime employment in Bali, working in the tourism industry. Eight years ago, we contracted a piece of land in the centre of touristy Seminyak with a couple of run-down old buildings on it and a beautiful 15-metre-high mango tree. We leased the land for 20 years, renovated the ramshackle buildings, defined the boundaries with a high garden wall, and filled our new semi-open-air house with furnishings, colour and artwork. It’s not a fancy show-off villa with a swimming pool but it isa labour of love, which has evolved into our own offbeat, comfortable, gorgeous home, a mere kilometre from the beach. Our lease is fully paid up, so our outgoing expenses are low. As residents, we are obliged to employ at least two local people, so while it may sound decadent to have a pembantu (lit: ‘helper’) to do our cleaning and washing, and a gardener/handyman to sweep up the garden leaves and fix the roof when it leaks, we’re very happy to be providing work and security for these kind, lovely people and their families.
We’ve been in voluntary self-isolation since 14thMarch, which was when my partner returned from a three-week work trip to Europe. He was there essentially for the ITB Berlin Travel Trade Show, an event that was expected to attract 150,000 visitors and exhibitors but was cancelled with just four days’ notice due to the rapid spread of Covid-19. Until that moment I don’t think either of us had taken this viral threat too seriously. I could have gone to Europe with him but, ironically, after six full-on months of houseguests in Bali and personal travel to England, Australia and New Zealand, I needed a break, and instead chose to stay home and “get things done”. When he got back he thought it was best to self-isolate and work from home in case he’d been exposed to the virus during his train travels and meetings with clients. We immediately gave our staff indefinite paid leave. A friend from Australia had been planning to come and stay for a week in March, and we had family coming in April. Realisation hit home when they all cancelled their plans, while the houseguests we were expecting in May, June and July, acknowledged that they were not going to get here either. Yes, we get inundated with visitors but that’s our lifestyle, and it’s always a joy to introduce our friends to Bali’s extraordinary beauty and charm. However, 2020 is now shaping up to be our first visitor-free year, ever.
After my fella had been back for a few days, with both of us on full lockdown apart from our sunrise walks on the beach, he developed a mild cold, which I caught three days later, followed – for me – by a fever with hot sweats and cold shivers and shakes that lasted for four days and left me deplete of energy. Not pleasant but no other symptoms apart from a slight tummy upset. Covid19? I think it’s possible but I’ll probably never know. Fortunately, I feel absolutely fine again now.
Bali’s borders, including all the seaports, have been closed to non-residents, and everybody been asked to stay at home, work from home and follow the guidelines of social distancing. Major events have been cancelled and the governor has instructed the Balinese to stay away from mass events. Nearly everything has closed down in Bali’s tourist areas – hotels, shops, bars and spas, as well as the beaches and all tourist attractions. Most restaurants are closed but some are open for takeaways, mainly via online ‘Gojek’ drivers who would normally provide transportation as well as their pick-up and delivery services. In Seminyak, many of the glass-fronted fashion boutiques have removed all of their stock, leavingnaked faceless manikins staring out of the windows at pavements devoid of tourists. The beach is now inaccessible with every gateway barricaded with a makeshift bamboo fence; even the promenade that runs alongside the beach has been closed. Yet in the city of Denpasar, although the streets are quieter than usual, a lot of the shops and businesses – cellphone shops, building suppliers, paint stores, traditional markets, fruit stalls, food carts, warungs (local eateries) and random shops selling bags, toys, teddy bears or sunglasses are still open and operating and social distancing is not being practiced. We sorely miss our early morning walks on the beach but we still go out at 6am and walk through the maze-like network of lanes close to our house. Once a week, one of us will mask up and dash out at the quietest time of day to purchase groceries at our neighbourhood supermarket, where there are no queues, and where food and toilet paper is in plentiful supply. We order our fruit and vegetables from a local farmer.
At the time of writing, Bali has recorded 81 confirmed cases of Covid19, and two deaths, but there haven’t been enough detected cases or tests to produce anywhere-near-accurate results. A 40 percent increase in burials in Jakarta has sparked concerns but there have been no parallel stories here. The Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, has resisted full lockdown measures due to fears of social unrest.
Here in Bali, we have heard very little talk of sickness and death. The far greater fear, and already a glaring reality, is an economic one. Nearly all of the local people are either directly or indirectly dependent on tourism, and thousands have lost their jobs or are on leave without pay. Self-employed drivers, tour guides and beach sellers have no customers, homestays have no guests. Countless Balinese families are dependent on casual tourism work to simply put food on the table each day. There is no government welfare system or rescue package to help them through this crisis. With a minimum wage of just a few hundred dollars a month, nearly everybody lives from hand to mouth.
In these surreal times, I accept the personal inconvenience, the disruption and the uncertainty, I follow all the guidelines and I don’t feel afraid for myself but I feel desperately afraid for the future of this sunny little island, which I love dearly and have chosen to call “home”. You can’t live in Bali and not give back, so we’re supporting some of the incredible initiatives and community-loving concepts developed by individuals and Bali businesses, as well as the emergency response programme of our local NGO, Kopernik.
If you love Bali too, maybe you can help by donating a few dollars to either or both of the causes below.
Rachel Lovelock, originally from the UK, is a Bali-based travel writer.