Why I am Still Going to Bali

Speaker's Corner: Bombers have killed hundreds and decimated the island's tourist-based economy. But Liz Sinclair refuses to cower.

11.15.05 | 8:37 PM ET

Bali sunsetMy friend Dian, an Indonesian journalist who works for ABC Radio, calls me on my mobile. I’m standing on the corner of Hoddle and Victoria Streets in Melbourne waiting for the lights to change. Dian tells me her phone has been ringing all night with calls from Indonesia about the Bali bombings. I don’t understand. I assume she’s talking about the anniversary.

She knows I am leaving for Bali in three days. “Aren’t you worried,” she asks. I haven’t read the paper yet or heard the news and reply, stupidly, that the bombings were a long time ago.

I hear her suck in her breath and then she tells me; there has been a second round of attacks in and around Kuta. I have friends in Bali and I go there often for yoga retreats, to rest and to write. All I can think about now are the lives lost and how the Balinese will suffer economically as tourism plummets.

The pedestrian sign turns green and I step into the street. A khaki-green Mercedes hurtles around the corner. The driver, a young kid, sees me at the last second. He attempts to stop but is moving too fast. Brakes screech. I jump back out of harm’s way. The boy throws his left arm up and I hear him yell “Sorreeeee” as he accelerates away. 

Having been knocked down twice at intersections by drivers who seem to confuse pedestrians with the zebra lines on the road, Melbourne drivers scare me more than Jemaah Islamiah. As I walk to work every day, I decide to research my survival odds: In 2004, 49 pedestrians were killed in the state of Victoria. That means the same number of Australians die every month here on the streets as died in Bali II. Even more frightening is the fact that 30 percent of drivers surveyed by the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) admitted they had almost hit a pedestrian or cyclist at least once. I am 12 times more likely to become a traffic statistic this year than die in a bomb attack. I won’t lose sleep worrying about terrorists; it’s Melbourne drivers that give me nightmares.

In the cruellest of ironies, the Ubud Writer’s Festival takes place the week after Bali II. The Festival is an annual event started by Janet de Neefe, an Australian living in Ubud, as a way to encourage tourists back to Bali after the first bombing in October 2002. When I interviewed Janet last year, she told me the Festival was organized to “draw the people and the community back together.” Janet e-mails on Monday to say, “We hope you will support us at a time when we need your help more than ever before.”

Besides attending the Writer’s Festival, I am going to Bali to finish a story about the unemployed young men who idle along the sidewalks of Hanoman Street, where I stay, and how they struggle to find work in an uncertain economy that is overly reliant on tourism. Before, many of them worked in shops or as artisans, but now, they tell me, tourists aren’t buying handicrafts, the result of an oversupply of crafts and tourist numbers that never recovered after the first bombings. The men have gone onto the streets. They work as drivers, couriers, guides, anything. Sony, one of my contacts, tells me that he is happy to have one job a day. “As long as we can eat and drink, we are happy,” he says, “It has been a good day.” I have a sinking feeling that when I go back to visit Jalan Hanoman, there won’t be many good days now.

For me, going to Bali has been a calculated risk since 2002. Several Indonesians warned me Bali would be a target again. I have been taking precautions since the last bombing—staying in small hotels, avoiding tourist restaurants, steering clear of markets and crowds—but the odds are still greater that I’ll be struck down right here at home. I am nervous about going but I also feel a sense of responsibility to the Balinese and to the tourism culture that Australians have helped to build. Eighty percent of Balinese rely on tourism for their livelihoods and there is a lot of hidden poverty on this island. I am more worried about the latest bombs blowing a hole in the Balinese economy. Ketut, another of my Jalan Hanoman contacts, e-mails me that he “has much fear Australians not come” to Bali now. The fatalistic Balinese urge tourists to return to their island; bombings, they tell me, are just one of those unfortunate things that now happen everywhere in the world that we must all learn to live with. The only way I know to help the Balinese is to go there and spend my money in their country. I’m not a medical professional; I’m not trained in disaster relief or forensics. All I can give is my presence, my money and my stories. I can assure them that I will still come back.

As a travel writer, I’ve learned that fear is largely a matter of perception and of not understanding the community in which you find yourself. Ubud, where I am headed, is a tightly-knit community; outsiders stand out. Dian, who has a house in Jakarta, where she never ventures out of doors without a bodyguard, tells me she is afraid to walk alone in the early morning hours in Melbourne, a city I consider the safest I’ve lived in. Peter Semone of the Asia Pacific Travel Association, quoted in the news, says that Australians may inevitably face terrorism anywhere we go; he calls it the “new normal.” We may no longer be safe from terrorism even inside Australia.

On Monday afternoon, I call Australian Airlines to confirm my flight to Denpasar.

“Do you still want to go after what’s happened?” asks the agent.

“Of course I’m still going,” I reply.

I’m told that I will get a full refund if I choose to cancel my ticket.

“I won’t let the bastards win,” I say.

“Good onya, love,” says the agent.

Photo by Jim Benning