Gods And Demons is a fascinating new memoir by journalist Deborah Cassrels, about the stories she’s covered in Bali and Indonesia over the past decade.
After her marriage broke up, she packed up her Sydney apartment and moved to Bali in 2009, where she became The Australian’s Bali correspondent. Over the years, as well as covering many big noteworthy events, she’s delved into intriguing stories that other western journalists had ignored.
I met Deborah in Bali outside the police lock-up in Denpasar in 2011. At the time I wasn’t that familiar with her writing, but since then I’ve read many articles by her and am always impressed at her ability to cut through the rubbish, get to the core of the story and provide comprehensive analysis.
She chats to The Starfish:
You left Bali in March, on one of the last flights out to Australia. What are your thoughts about the COVID-19 situation there right now?
There’s talk by officials that Bali could be open for tourism by July, which seems ambitious. Though authorities say Covid-19 has been contained, it’s far too early to assume. The resort island, now a ghost-town, is desperate to revive its tourist-reliant economy, and feed its laid-off workers.
But the situation is uncertain and confusing, testing is inadequate and unreliable; there is little official data and health experts say cases are under-reported.
People are mystified there hasn’t been a spike which, in turn, has sparked disturbing theories that Bali – whose ancient Hindu culture is a magnet for foreigners – may be protected by the power of prayer or supernatural forces.
In reality, thousands of migrant workers have returned, including cruise ship workers, comprising most of the positive cases.They are told to quarantine for 14 days but the Balinese typically live in cramped family compounds, with generations sharing facilities.
Social interaction is intertwined with religious duties and ceremonies – though there are restrictions on numbers. And traditional wet markets, where meat, poultry and fish sell alongside vegetables and fruit in humid conditions, could be breeding grounds for infection.
Much kudos has gone to Bali’s traditional village leaders who have implemented restrictions to try to curb the spread. Though some restaurants remain open, beaches and tourist sites are closed and foreigners are not permitted on the island without a work visa, though many tourists are stranded.
Regions are adopting their own social restrictions but ultimately instructions are dictated by the central government which has refused a nation-wide lockdown. Under current health quarantine laws, a lockdown means the government must provide social security payments.
Bali’s domestic and international airports are open to selected, non-commercial, flights- and its Gilimanuk port crossing to Java is open to limited traffic –- but all this is subject to change.
Thousands more migrant workers will surge through in coming weeks and it’s likely Bali’s top-ranking tourists, the Chinese, will soon be welcomed back to the island.
So far Bali is reporting there are only four confirmed corona deaths and a little over 300 confirmed cases there. Do these figures sound accurate to you?
At the time of writing, there were 359 confirmed cases, 257 recovered and four deaths. Bali has been touted as a miracle and model of good governance but I understand many people with severe symptoms have been turned away from hospital due to a lack of beds, which may partly account for low official rates. Stigma surrounding disease and superstition among the Hindu Balinese, who have entrenched animist beliefs, are likely to hinder true figures. Many believe in sorcery and karma-related illness and prefer to visit healers when they are sick because they can’t afford GPs.So testing for coronavirus, alone, is a challenge.
How equipped is Bali to deal with a sizeable corona outbreak?
Both the provincial and central governments have minuscule health budgets, making them ill-equipped to handle a huge outbreak. This was apparent in all the health stories I covered over the years, particularly the HIV/Aids epidemic in 2010 and leprosy, which the government told me did not exist in Bali.
You start the book, explaining you escaped to Bali in 2006 after your marriage ended. Glad you took this path?
CertainIy, I would not have had the opportunity to report on some of the world’s most extraordinary and captivating stories, or travel beyond Bali through this vast Indonesian archipelago awash in beauty and tragedy, had my relationship not broken down. It was a journalist’s dream ride, one which gave me the ability to recreate my life and extend myself in my career. So, yes, I feel extremely privileged to have gone on this journey.
Did you ever expect that this island of the gods would hold so many surprises, and interesting news stories?
I started dipping my toes in the water and almost immediately became beguiled by the island, and the work. I found limitless stories. One led to another and the scope and array of fascinating characters often became the linchpins to major pieces. I found anything was possible. I covered anything and everything – from the Bali Nine drugs gang to crime, politics, profiles restaurant reviews, terrorism, refugees, environmental and health disasters and the two Bali Nine executions.
As a journalist, you always knew Bali was more than just cocktails by the pool – but once you moved there and scratched beneath the surface, what in particular came as a surprise to you?
Crime and corruption, constants in my stories, were initially quite opaque. But quite rapidly I found these themes regular features.
You said in your book that at first when you arrived, you were invited to lots of parties, but later some other expats regarded you as “not to be trusted” because you were a journalist, relaying facts. Did this upset you much, or do you just accept this as part of the job?
Initially, I was a little aggrieved but I put the personal consequences aside as an occupational hazard. Lavish dinner invites dried up when people realised I was reporting drugs cases that involved their friends, or sometimes I would have been at the same dinner tables as those who landed in jail. The expat community is very small and the grapevine even smaller, so gossip rips through the place like a raging bushfire.
I also wrote extensively about rampant overdevelopment and environmental degradation. Foreigners and locals feared my articles would damage the island’s lifeblood, which is 80pc reliant on tourists and generates 60 per cent of tourist revenue.
In the book, you noted that by 2011, Bali, the so-called paradise was no longer what it had been. Has it really worsened dramatically in just the ten years you’ve lived there?
Canggu, in the north-west, which was once a sleepy fishing village, became a trendy hipster and backpacker hangout, and development there remains relentless. In my years, I saw rice paddies enveloped by concrete: housing, shops, nightclubs, bars and restaurants line streets cheek by jowl. It’s a drastic transformation that has also swallowed prime beachfront.
What would have to be the worst case of environmental degradation you’ve witnessed in that time?
The south, where towering limestone cliffs in Nusa Dua and Uluwatu have been excavated to make way for massive hotel resorts, akin to small cities. This region is very dry and water supplies are under pressure. Much of this area is prime surfing and the currents and waves have changed, impacting the biodiversity and ecosystems of the island.
Many expats live there without noting the darker side of Bali: but you uncovered plenty in your time there. Corruption, health problems, overdevelopment, pollution issues, mixing in the prison with those on death row, meeting families of terrorists and refugees. What’s one of the most remarkable cases you’ve followed?
The most confronting, challenging story was the executions of the Australian Bali Nine duo, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. I covered the story for four months non-stop without circulating in any normal fashion, only seeing those intimately involved. It was all-consuming, especially since I knew the men, and conducted one of the last interviews with Myuran Sukumaran. At that time, he was in shock, unable to articulate how to conduct himself, and I was in the impossible position of trying to console him. I asked myself, how do I comfort someone about to be shot by firing squad?
Another extraordinary interview was with Ali Imron, the last survivor of the Bali bombers’ inner circle and brother of two executed in 2008. I spent a day with Imron at Jakarta’s police headquarters where his lunatic boastings and photographic memory of the bombings and his distant past were daunting. I learnt the so-called remorseful bomber still harboured ambitions for an Islamic state and was far from deradicalised.
One of your chapters is devoted to how Bali’s mentally ill are kept hidden away, many locked up in chains and abandoned. How many expats would know about that? What prompted you to look into this?
I found most expats were unaware of shackling or, pasung,practices on Bali, and needless to say, they were aghast to learn of them. I had known the pre-eminent Bali psychiatrist for years, first as my conduit to paedophilia stories. She counselled victims and treated pasungpatients, so I first visited caged and shackled people with her. This was a compelling, surreal story which defies comprehension, all the more so because victims often lived quite close to tourists padding about luxury seafront villas oblivious to the real Bali. It was a shocking irony.
Tell us how you found out about the mercury poisoning at Sekotong in Lombok?
A source I worked with on Bali environmental pieces was involved in artisanal small scale gold mining throughout Indonesia. When she mentioned the widespread use of mercury and cyanide on neighbouring Lombok – the supposed Bali paradise-in-waiting – I realised the potential for an in-depth piece. I had already covered Lombok’s Wild West culture, the foreign investment boom and accompanying scams and corruption, so it seemed a natural companion piece. It was also something I had to see to believe.
You’re home in Sydney for now; do you see yourself living in Indonesia again?
If something tempted me workwise I would return but I can’t see myself living long-term in Bali, or Jakarta for now.
How has living in Bali changed you as a person?
I now understand that this is a place where nothing is as it seems. I was surrounded by a wackiness, or quirkiness about the way things are done. For me, it became normalised before it descended into frustration. For instance, Bali time, or rubber time, means people work to their own clock – nobody is punctual which is anathema to a functioning journalist. But I realised patience was the best quality and hopefully I’ve absorbed more of it now.
What do you miss about the place?
My tropical, open villa; the locals and an inherent sense of freedom. There is a bit of a reverse cultural shock being back in Sydney. It will take time to acclimatise, literally and mentally. I still wake up uncertain of my surroundings, a little nostalgic, trying to adjust to a different routine.
Gods And Demons (ABC Books) is out now.