Wading through rubbish

In visiting any city, you expect a certain amount of grime; a critical mass of humanity in one place nearly guarantees some amount of litter. In a city like mine — San Francisco — this fact is evident in certain places more than others. The primary thoroughfare of Market Street, and the hotel district in the Tenderloin, generate more street debris than, say, the Outer Sunset, a primarily residential neighborhood. As you move further from the teeming crowds, you tend to expect less impact on the environment in the form of human detritus.

In visiting Bali — and especially in visiting parts of Bali nearly untouched by tourism — I expected (if somewhat naively) this type of low environmental impact. I expected this not out of a righteous sense of being worthy of such cleanliness, but out of an expectation that a more primitive culture — one far more in touch with nature and the impact of humans on their surroundings than our own — would have surmounted a preventable practice such as littering.

And so it was with great surprise that I slipped into the waters at Virgin Beach, a so-called “hidden” beach in the Karangasem Regency of Bali. My host, Sales, recommended we stop by on our drive from the northern reaches of the Gianyar Regency to the southeastern shore of the island, a village named Seraya. It is true that the beach is devoid of the overwrought tourism I saw later during my time in Sanur, and during the rainy season when I visited, this location was all but barren. But just as soon as I began to relish the warm water, wading out into the surf, I began to step on bottles and plastic bags buried in the sand underfoot. The water reached my chest, and as I breaststroked further out, I found myself cupping handfuls of debris, clearing a path before me to avoid swimming into rubbish.

During my swim I struck up a conversation with another traveler, a German who’d been hitching around Bali for several weeks. He donned a swim mask, and prior to our conversation had been snorkeling about the shallow areas of the beach. He explained to me how many villages in Bali — those outside the major cities and tourist hubs — are not provided with trash collection services. Instead, as I served witness to during my trip, many families resort to burning heaps of trash as a means of disposal. As a result, during the wet season (November through mid-March), significant amounts of debris is blown into rivers and streams, which carry the trash, ultimately, to the ocean. And while some of this trash may escape into the greater sea beyond, a large amount is carried back to the beaches by currents. It’s an upsetting reality, one that has been written about widely, including articles by Huffington Post and The Weather Channel. Predictably — though somewhat ironically — these currents do not have the same effect in the dry season, when the bulk of tourists visit the small island.

It is hard for me to say which is more sad: that such a beautiful piece of the Earth must endure such environmental hardship, or that a place so capable of sustaining themselves given only what nature provides has been inundated with a profusion of packaged goods manufactured, largely, by the western world. Drive anywhere in Bali — to the smallest villages, to their smallest warungs — and you will find shelves laden with Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay.

On a trip that inspired a remarkable volume of appreciation for Balinese culture, this was one point that incited disappointment, though ultimately for my own heritage, which finds — and continues to find — it acceptable to push such garbage onto a culture that does not need our manufactured trash masquerading as food.