The Hollywood Effect On Bali

Balinese architectural elements appear on everyday structures and temples alike.
Balinese architectural elements appear on everyday structures and temples alike.

UBUD, Indonesia — With the success of a certain book that takes place in Ubud and the resulting Hollywood adaptation starring Julia Roberts, the lovely and unique “Island of the Gods” stands to undergo change.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love,” is scheduled for an August release and costars the talented Javier Bardem as Felipe, the protagonist’s Brazilian love interest. Filming wrapped locally a summer ago, but ripples of the Hollywood invasion were still evident months later.

Walk into any bookstore and Gilbert’s book is prominently displayed (often along with her latest, “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage“) in a front window.

Around town, posters of a reading some time ago continue to linger, with photos of the curly, blonde-haired author common enough that a non-Westerner might mistake her for a guru. Local magazines, such as Hello Bali, mention the upcoming film amid features of local businesses and profiles of notable residents.

As with any community that depends upon tourism as its main industry, Bali also bears the cost of having interlopers tax their ecosystem, overrun local amenities, drive consumer prices higher and potentially cause culture clashes.

Curiously, however, locals don’t appear concerned.

Expat hangouts — at Western prices — are springing up, such as Kafe (an eco-friendly coffee shop and restaurant), Bodyworks (an excellent traditional Balinese spa) and Yoga Barn (which offers Vinyasa amid the rice fields).

(After taking a $15 yoga class in a covered, second-story platform overlooking the paddies, I was amused to find that the 20 or so holistic practitioners arrived largely by motorbike instead of the far more green option of a bicycle. But I digress.)

Even Tony Robbins, I learned, was holding one of his popular “Date With Destiny” events in Bali’s southern town of Nusa Dua.

A few days in Ubud makes it clear that Balinese culture isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps that’s why the entire island, as far as I could tell, lacked any of the “Yankee, Go Home” sentiment I’ve seen in Latin America — or even in Santa Fe, N.M., my former home and an area I covered in my newspaper days.

The reason may have something to do with Bali’s history.

In 1906, the Dutch military intervention of Bali resulted in a bloodbath when proud residents of the island resisted their would-be conquerors, even as Indonesia (known then as Batavia the Dutch East Indies) was already under control of the Netherlands.

Rather than be ruled by a foreign king, some of the local rajas led their subjects to suttee (ritual self-sacrifice) while other villages simply walked into the firing lines, causing corpses to pile up at the muzzles of the much better armed Dutch forces.

As news of the massacres spread, world opinion turned. Although the island fell to the Dutch by 1908, the international outcry against their excessive use of force against a native population led to a reversal in policy. Bali was to be protected as a living cultural museum, and to that end it was opened to tourism in 1914.

Having watched the traditional Balinese kecak (monkey) dance, sampling the wonderful local cuisine and experiencing the faint terrors of the monkey forests (yes, plural), I tend to believe that the area might see an increase in foreigners walking its dodgy sidewalks, yet its traditions will remain intact.

Big changes may yet come to Bali, especially the central mountain villages around Ubud, one of the sites of a major motion picture based on the bestseller.

But it will continue to be wholly Balinese.

(Thank you, Nathalie for keeping an eye on my facts.)

Canang sari, thrice-daily handmade offerings to the gods, appar nearly everywhere in Bali.
Canang sari, thrice-daily handmade offerings to the gods, appar nearly everywhere in Bali.

3 thoughts on “The Hollywood Effect On Bali

  1. I was in Bali January 2009, staying near Legian Beach (just north of Kuta). That part of the island has been rundown for awhile, I believe. The area received an influx of tourists in the 70s (maybe 80s?) that never slowed down, and they never seemed to expand the resources (e.g. trash collection) needed to keep up with it.

    I heard Ubud was nice, and I had every intention of checking it out before my flight from Lombok to Denpasar was canceled. (I’m still a little growly about that.) I hope to go back one day and experience Indonesia all over again. I too found the people who lived there to be very kind and welcoming, although the men are quite forward with their advances!

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