Bali In The Time of COVID-19
Its 5.00 am on a Friday morning.
The dawn spreads soft light over the gardens, lush and green after the recent rains. The sky, a hue of purples, oranges and indigo will soon turn a bright, azure blue as the tropical heat begins to rise.
In other words, a typical day in Bali during March but, in the time of COVID- 19 nothing is really typical anymore.
Above me, the fan revolves slowly, hardly disturbing the humid air except to agitate the dust motes who swirl and gyrate like dervish dancers atop a desert dune caught in a brilliant shaft of sunlight that spears from the sun just peeking over the wall at the bottom of the garden.
Its time to get up.
There is no reason to go out except perhaps to stock up on a few essential items from the local supermarket. Here the shelves have not been stripped bare by panic buying and most if not all products are available. The local roadside stalls or ‘warungs’ are still doing a brisk trade in fresh fruit and vegetables, dispensing goods to customers who buy their household necessities each morning or at the end of a working day.
Motorcycles still whizz by, although there seem to be fewer than usual as the thousands of hospitality workers, laid off by the giant hotel chains remain at home hoping and praying that this crisis will soon pass.
For an island that has become almost entirely dependent on tourism, the departing planes now carry away the very lifeblood that keeps this population afloat sowing an uncertain future in their disappearing vapour trails.
Outside the numerous spas that populate our neighbourhood the staff from these establishments sit outside braiding each others hair when just last week they would have been engaged in filing finger and toenails of overweight and sunburned tourists. Today there are no appendages to tidy up and then decorate in bright and colourful holiday colours while the vials of nail polish sit unopened on the shelves.
The souvenir shops which line the main boulevards festooned with gaudy knick-knacks that hang from hooks above the pavements now float forlornly in the breeze for there will be no eager hands reaching for the woven baskets or cheap sunglasses to take home as gifts. By next week or so, these establishments will come to the realization that the usual hordes of visitors will not be returning anytime soon and it is time to pull down the shutters and wait until this crisis has passed.
Bali, and indeed Indonesia is a country built solidly on faith as religion and family ties are the glue that binds the two hundred and ninety million souls that inhabit this archipelago.
Friday prayers for those of the Islamic faith is a time to gather and worship after being called by the Imam’s melodic chant sounding out from the loudspeakers atop the soaring minarets above the mosques. On islands like Java and Sumatra, thousands gather to pray and give thanks but soon, even this practice will have to cease as the government urges the faithful to worship at home before it puts the country into lockdown.
The island of Bali, however, is predominantly Hindu and the 25th March will be the holiest time of the Hindu calendar. ‘Nyepi,’ or the day of silence is when the island’s entire population, whether Hindu or not will stay home for 24 hours. The island will go ‘dark’ after sunset when all lights are extinguished, and families will spend the day in silent contemplation of the year just past and the year ahead.
How ironic it is that at the same time billions of people around the world will be practising the same ritual, confined to their homes and apartments desperate to ward off a tiny virus that is invisible to the naked eye.
Today we dropped off a dear friend at the airport who has had to cut short her month-long holiday to try and get home to France at the urging of her government. There were no taxi touts offering cheap fares, or hordes of hotel drivers holding up handwritten signs bearing the names of arriving guests pouring through the customs and immigration doors.
From here on in there will be no arriving flights. The concourse is populated by masked, worried-looking passengers, eager to secure seats on the last of the aircraft that will, on Tuesday cease altogether.
Check-in desks will close as will the coffee shops, duty-free emporiums, bars and restaurants bereft as they will be of tourists who traditionally come to experience this small slice of paradise.
Pandemics do eventually peter out, and COVID-19 will be no different. When it does, the world will try to rediscover a way of life that is as close to what it was like before this crisis began. This tiny island of Bali will be no different and, once the virus been banished these exotic shores, mountains, waterfalls and its unique culture will hopefully lure the curious like a siren calling from the sea.
Our only hope is that this unwelcome guest does not linger too long. Then, and only then will the Balinese begin to repair the damage it has caused and set out to try and rediscover the concept of normal once again.
However, this time we as a species, not just here but across the globe should pause and contemplate how we exist and how incredibly fragile our way of life actually is.
Bali. March 2020
Photography Copyright Paul v Walters & E.J. Lenahan.
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and anthologies of short stories. When not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he writes for several international travel and vox pop journals.