I’m no longer judging women who move to Bali to ‘find themselves’

Steph Wescott

I’ve been in Canggu, Bali, for the past week and a half. Let that conjure what it will. Added to my uneasiness around that confession is the fact that Canggu has undergone a dramatic transformation in past years. When I came here six or so years ago Echo Beach (a famous surf spot) was the prime attraction. There were a few small beachside bars and restaurants that offered Asianified Western food.

Canggu is now a vegan mecca. It’s all surfies, hipsters, new-age health nuts and the like. Menus spruik kombucha, vegan cheeses, pulled jackfruit burgers and tacos, vegan protein smoothies, acai, quinoa sushi and the realised fantasies of culinary-wank vegans. Avocados abound. Nourish bowls outnumber signs offering cheap nasi goreng. Yoga is a religion – a zealous one. And an expensive one. I picked up a yoga crop top at a local market the price was $60AU. A crop top. Not even a whole top. And you can also do those other torturous trendy types of exercise like Crossfit. I found that realisation particularly traumatic.

It feels like a second round of colonisation. In fact, I think it is.

Land value has increased here since it became trendy. Farmers are being pushed off their land by expats[1] who acquire plots, smack villas on them and make a killing. Shirtless tourists on bikes almost outnumber locals on the roads. Tourists are responsible for 65% of Bali’s water consumption.[2] Sometimes, I see elders walking alongside the road bloated with surfers and yogis on scooters and wonder what they think.

And of course, there is a certain type of Westerner who holidays here and decides to stay. The come to Bali and do some yoga and ‘find yourself’ trope romanticised by Elizabeth Gilbert. The path is well-worn and much criticised but it endures. The problems with a wealthy Westerner moving to Bali and gulping its history, absorbing and regurgitating its culture and patronising its locals are immense. The Westerner looking to the East for guidance and wisdom and ‘inspiration’ is a vintage symbol of our continued exploitation of it. The idea that we have so much to learn from them is disgraceful objectification.

But the reality is, there are problems in the West that explain the desire to escape here. I’m not suggesting this justifies the re-colonisation of Bali, I’m just stating what it is. Many of us live empty lives. Capitalism has subdued us into submission and we are fatally loyal to our capitalist belief system—we work work work, watch tv, eat too much, look at our phones too much, drink too much, and we are so damn tired. We’re depressed and anxious. We’re sick. We build too many shopping centres. Our houses are too big and for some reason people put TVs outside. Everything is a monetised cult—exercise, food, parenting, schooling.

People see an out and they take it. Good for them.

My yoga teacher in Canggu (yes I acknowledge my hypocrisy) is German/Serbian. She moved here two and a half years ago. She has the most glorious mop of dreadlocks I have ever seen. She calls it her octopus. She’s maybe in her early forties, lives in a local commune, and she’s covered in tattoos. She is tanned and strong and radiant and funny. She worked in an office job in Germany. Gave it up, sold everything and moved here (‘I can never go back, look at my hair!’) She’s the embodiment of what you can do here. You can be childless, have an octopus of dreadlocks, live on a wage unlivable by Western standards in a tiny shared house, do yoga every day, be the living Elizabeth Gilbert stereotype but so what because you’re that healthy and fit and strong and happy. There’s an unbridled, absolute freedom to do that here without the judgement we so fear elsewhere.

In Bali, like my yoga teacher, you can make a living off teaching yoga, and no-one is going to ask you when you’re having children, or are you going for a promotion? Or tell you you should really buy a house, or should you be doing that? Should you get tattoos? They’re probably not going to patronisingly tell you that your man is out there somewhere waiting for you. No-one is going to think anything about your octopus hair. Except maybe that it is really glorious.

I’m just saying I get it. I’m not saying I think it’s okay to live your paradise in the developing world. Because it is our Western wealth that enables us to that. It would be impossible to be contentedly poor and liberated and free and a yogi if you are Balinese. For the white woman it’s so [relatively] easy. But, it comes at incalculable costs to culture and to people. And that, for me, makes it an untenable option. Nevertheless, we do really have to look at the darkness and emptiness of our own culture (What is our culture anyway? Capitalism and reality tv and hating women?) and ask questions about why it makes people want to leave. I resist asking, what lessons can we take from the Balinese? Because they do not exist for us to take lessons from. But rather, what life can you live there that you can’t live in your own country? What are the systems and mechanisms and expectations in place that prevent you from doing that?

I’m no longer judging women who move to Bali to ‘find themselves’. I mean, I am, because I think it is an extraordinary act of selective ethics to be aware of the glaring issues of colonisation here and choose to do it anyway. But I understand why they do. I understand how our lives can becomes so mundane that you can’t stand it and becoming a yoga teacher in Bali seems like an opportunity to be free and happy so you take it. But I think it’s more ethical to reject the oppressive systems at play in the society you already belong to and find ways to live a simpler and more fulfilling life there. Then teach others how to do it. Write about it. Talk about it. We need women to help us imagine emancipatory ways of living here, too.

[1] https://theconversation.com/who-invited-you-to-bali-20487

[2] https://theconversation.com/who-invited-you-to-bali-20487