The Pollution of Paradise This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

April 4, 2014
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On the first night, the chilled, stale the air of the airplane gave way to a gentle island kind of hum and the smell of rain. Outside, the crowded street from the airport was alive with city noise and humidity, almost enough to drown out the constant buzzing of a million cicadas; hidden in the foliage behind the third McDonald’s billboard in a mile. The sign was written in a mixture of Indonesian and English,  and seemed to be suspended in the sky: green moss and thin vines circled up the base of the poles holding it in place and blended them seamlessly into the trees that lined the highway. The words “extra large” were especially bright against the red. I rolled up my window and watched beads of water form on the glass, and then slide away, carving silver canons into the dust. The sky was clear and dark, but there were no stars outside, only neon lights against night. The lights of hundreds of motorbikes turned the pavement red and yellow, it was after midnight; a young boy clutched his fathers back and with one hand, supported the large silver helmet slanted over his eyes. Everything moved at once, dancing to an unmistakable beat of traffic, and further, almost silent: waves against rock, and the hollow drum beat of the forest; a seething mass of trees and tall lean stalks of bamboo.

Bali is one of more than seventeen-thousand islands, about six-thousand of which are permanently inhabited, that make up the fourth most populous nation on Earth: Indonesia. This dense mass of islands is located just north-east of Australia, and reaching to the southern tips of Malaysia and Cambodia. Until the mid 1500’s the native people lived without knowledge of the western world, until the Dutch colonized the islands, for control of the prosperous spice trade there. They retained control of the Nation until after the second world war. During the period of dutch colonization, the Balinese people were mostly left to their own devices, as the Europeans had no interest in the culture of the islands, only the trade taxes and natural resources. Now Indonesia is run by their own corrupt and poorly executed government, of rich selfish officials and their yes-men. Bali was once a beautiful island surrounded in unbroken beaches and coral reefs bursting with colorful sea life. The lush rainforest was interspersed with terraced, carefully irrigated farmlands and small villages full of artists, farmers, and beautiful woven baskets of flowers; offerings to the gods and demons. Women learned to dance, care for their families and walk topless through the trees with baskets balanced on their heads. The culture and nature thrived. And then, much like the downfall of all peaceful beautiful cultures; white people came, and assumed that the world was theirs and theirs alone. Explorers from Europe had populated the Island by the early to mid 1900's, and had begun to market it as paradise on Earth, The supreme tourist destination. Now, the “tourist areas” are primarily man-made, the native species are being killed off because habitats are being eaten up by the constant demand for building land, and entire villages are forced to move their homes, all in the name of progress.

The small house was quiet, as was the alley-way beyond it, wrapped in late night silence. The three of us cast away our helmets at the gate, and turned the key in the small red motorbike. The seat was cool where I sat clinging to the edge with my feet tucked up behind me, the street ahead illuminated the dark pathway, light hung to our still wet hair, along with the intoxicating smell of chlorine and darkness. The ride was short and full of starts, stops and potholes. It was two in the morning but the Sanur street was full of life. It was vaguely humorous; I couldn't find a patch of skin that wasn't pink. Young women ran along the sidewalk in groups and ventured into the bars that lined the street, calling out to their friends in strong Australian accents. I walked into a wall of cool air entering the convenience store, air conditioning being a luxury that is mostly reserved for tourist businesses; the heat evaporated from my t-shirt and the tips of my eyelashes. Two men in swim shorts and thin cotton tank tops loitered by the beer coolers, we walked picked our way past them and stared at the ice-cream gleaming behind a glass door. The man at the counter didn't seem to find any problems with three twelve year old girls buying ice-cream in the early hours of the morning, alone. I drove on the way back, the bottoms of my cheap purple plastic flip flops skimmed the asphalt, with a sound like wind through grass.

The south side of Bali, where the white sand beaches face Australia and New Zealand, consists of resorts and boutiques built as close to the shoreline as is allowed, and sunburned tourists who when asked to point out their location on a map would most likely gesture vaguely and slump off towards the ocean. This area is to Australia as Mexico is to the U.S. Easy to get to, full of other people who speak your language and lined with expensive resorts that can ensure that anyone with enough money, never has to step outside of their comfort zone to “travel”. Balinese men, women and children stand at every corner and walk along the beach, selling everything from sunhats to fruit, men hold up signs and inquire wildly: “Taxi? Taxi?”. These taxis are unregistered and a great way for locals to make money off of the tourist industry. Most of the tourists have no idea about the cultural aspects of Bali, and intend to stay that way; they come only to lounge on the beach in tiny swimsuits, shop, and take part in expensive and more than unhealthy spas and “cleanses”. Bali is one of the only islands in Indonesia that doesn't have a Muslim faith, this makes it the perfect place to walk around half naked without feeling uncomfortable walking past a Mosque or a woman in a burka, not to mention the convenient absence of the five A.M. call to prayer, that on other islands emanates from low quality speakers five times a day. However the local mixture of Hinduism and ancient beliefs that have been on the island for thousands of years, is also seen as an inconvenience to the tourist population. People kick carefully arranged flowers an incense out of their way and into the streets, where the palm frond baskets are crushed under passing cars. Balinese people and their culture are being constantly torn apart by what is said to be the islands biggest export: tourism.

My black gloved hand wraps around a piece of slimy translucent string and carefully untangles the fishing net from a large purplish spiky coral colony. Penny sized fish glint around my arms and blend into the pieces of aluminum that lay scattered around the sea floor, half buried under sugar colored sand. The heavy tank on my back lolls to one side as I bend to cut the last piece of thick pale wire. Another plastic bag narrowly misses a giant leathery turtle, scarred and pockmarked, that drifts lazily along a current. Half an hour later we cling to the metal edge of the boat, massaging the goggle lines out of our faces. My pockets bulge, filled with bits of plastic and string, covered in algae and warm from the tropical waters. The boat makes it's way back to shore, bouncing along choppy waves, the uneven splintery roof creaks with my weight when I lean down to watch a can off Coca-Cola get caught up in the waves, and leave a line of deflated soda.

The rich coral reefs and sea life are also big tourist attractions in Bali, but sometimes this causes problems for the attraction itself. Boats advertising a guaranteed turtle sighting capture the gentle creatures and tie them to the bottom of expensive glass bottomed boats; so a tourist willing to pay enough will never be disappointed. These turtles have terribly misshapen shells in the future and sometimes die of starvation because they are not allowed to hunt. The beautiful sea life is also eaten, and fished. Fishing boats that sail in the shallows scrape against the coral that lives on the sea floor, sometimes damaging hundreds of meters of sea life beyond the point of repair. Sand is made up of tiny little pieces of coral, so without these coral colonies the beaches are eroding without any new sand to take their place. While boats are damaging the coral colonies, the fish that live in them are being over-fished by the means of cyanide and dynamite fishing. Fishermen release a cloud of cyanide into the water, stunning the larger, more colorful profitable fish, and killing all the smaller sea-life; this method destroys entire ecosystems and pollutes the ocean; all so the colorful fish can be sold to pet stores. The explosion caused by dynamite fishing creates such intense vibrations in the water that the gull bladders of fish are ruptured. Unable to swim the fish float to the top of the water, or lie motionless on the bottom, where they are collected by fishermen wearing handmade snorkels. Even after all this work, and all of these dangerous methods the fish are filled with dangerously unhealthy amounts of mercury, from the gold mining methods used on an island neighboring Bali. On the coasts of Bali, dolphins can be sighted at sunset and sunrise, but more often there are sightings of trash, which is being dumped into the ocean, in huge amounts by ferries traveling between islands. Most of the Balinese people who are making money off of the oceans don't understand that it's an expendable resource and that to protect their jobs, they need to protect the source of their jobs.

The traffic reminded me of why we stayed away from the city hustle and bustle. A hundred red scabby necks supported featherless chicken heads that swayed in between bars of the van next to my car. Their eyes were watery and black, they reminded me of tide pools after the sun had set, empty. My eyes wouldn't open wide enough to see everything I would miss. Even the advertisements for resorts made me regret leaving after just ten months. Mostly I realize now, I would miss sand between my toes and rice patties filled with tiny little snakes and white flowers, little paths lined with moss, tiny restaurants with precarious chairs and enclosed in greenery, these are the things that will be gone in ten years. Open space and white sand beaches, night markets full of pigs ears and chicken feet, bright coral reefs full of life, almost empty beaches, unpaved roads to amazing sights. Paradise; going, going, gone.

Although tourism is Bali's main “export”, it is not their most sustainable. The constant rush to make money has blinded people to the possibilities in the future. Clearing forests for development, overfishing the oceans and wrecking coral reefs, is ruining the chances of future generations on Bali. Without these money making beaches, reefs and landscapes that made the island a tourist destination in the first place, there is nothing to keep the tourist industry running. If something doesn't change soon, Bali will no longer be paradise, and will become the decaying ruins of a once booming metropolis.   

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