An Australian ex-pat charts the steady creep of covid-19 into Bali.
The wet season in Bali is full of contradictions. The heat, the humidity, and the mosquitoes can be relentless, but then the monsoonal rains arrive. The heavy downpours feel fresh and cleansing, until you walk to the beach and see torrents of rubbish gushing out of rivers. The wind gusts and swirls, blowing the surf to tatters, while the sun wheels overhead, blazing above majestic cloud formations. Afternoon storms march in, bringing thunder and lightning, and sometimes the breeze swings briefly offshore. If you happen to notice, you might manage a short uncrowded session at your favourite break before anyone else realises how good it is.
The party-goers arrive en masse for New Year’s celebrations. Large numbers of them clog up the streets for a few days, pink with sunburn and full of Bintang and festive cheer. They risk injury letting off fireworks, and occasionally drive a scooter into the rice paddies, only to disappear as quickly as they arrived. Late Jan and Feb are usually more relaxed. The restaurants are half empty and the footpaths are clear. With all the visitors, the island of the gods is shouldering a heavy load these days. The wet season always seems like a chance for Bali to take a well-earned break. It’s a time to rest and recuperate before the relentless tourism onslaught during the dry season.
I was in Canggu earlier than usual this year. I checked the surf at Echo beach one afternoon, hoping for a quiet session, and I couldn’t believe how packed it was. Local rippers whipped sheets of spray at clueless shoulder hoppers, while pretty girls with collagen stuffed lips tanned their curves on the beach.
I headed to Batu Bolong hoping the vibe in the water would be less competitive, only to find the lineup clogged with a roiling mass of unwieldy surf craft. I realised if I took every longboard out in the water, I could probably build a bridge to Lombok to check the surf there. There was a collective flailing of arms as a set rolled through. The ocean soon resembled a scene from Mad Max – Fury road; there were soft tops and bodies flying everywhere. When I got stuck in a traffic jam on the way home, I realised the place was as busy as I had ever seen it.
As the weeks passed, I watched news clips from overseas with growing concern. The virus was taking hold, but the footage of overflowing hospital wards and the violence in empty supermarket aisles still seemed a world away. The nearby beach clubs and restaurants were all still full of holidaymakers. Bali appeared to be existing in its own little bubble.
I caught up with a friend in a bar one night. The dancefloor resembled a drunken mass gathering that would have brought out the riot police elsewhere in the world. Small groups of women danced together wearing spray-on denim shorts. While shirtless sweating males staggered around trying to get their attention, and sometimes falling into nearby pot plants. Social distancing didn’t seem to be a priority, as I watched a young fellow wander over. He was covered in the type of tattoos that probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but he still managed to catch the attention of a young lass. The pair came together in the kind of unsteady dancefloor romance that can only be inspired by half-price cocktails. They disappeared into the night a short time later. Someone would possibly be catching an infection of some sort, but it wouldn’t be of the coronavirus kind.
Then word started to filter through about the border closures. An international lockdown was taking place. Kale and coconut juices sat untouched as people stared at their phones looking worried. The cruisy holiday vibe was replaced with something more urgent. People made hurried calls to travel agents and family back home, then rushed to pack their things. The empty taxis that usually roam the streets for hours on end suddenly had crowds of travellers who needed to get to the airport.
I watched the mass exodus with mixed feelings. Numbers in the surf were sure to drop, and there would be more waves for those who were able to hang around. But businesses would be affected, and many of the locals were going to lose their livelihood. When friends and acquaintances decided that they would also head home, I was sad to see them go. A group of German guys staying at my hotel chose to leave early as well. They had come back late one night and decided to crank up some music and continue the party out in the courtyard. I wasn’t sad to see them go. They could fuck off as far as I was concerned.
Within a week the streets were almost deserted and restaurants were shuttering. Numbers in the water had indeed dropped. There were plenty of ex-pats and long-term residents still around but lineups were relatively quiet. You could paddle for a wave and not have 15 frothers scrambling next to you as you took off. The Balinese were handling the whole thing with their usual calm. No one had any idea when the tourists were coming back. But this just meant there was more time to sit in the shade and chat with friends; more time to drink coffee and smoke.
I couldn’t help feeling nervous. Should I have returned to Australia with everyone else? What would the visa situation be going forward? Surely it was worth making the most of the circumstances and heading to G-Land, Lakeys or Nias? I’d heard the government was considering cash handouts back home. Would the new job seeker allowance extend to destitute surf writers pretending to be stuck in Bali?