In the tropics, the trees are prolific litterbugs. As we’d walk down to breakfast, we’d always see the staff tidying up the gardens and grounds, but no sooner had they carried away a bushel of leaves and twigs and husks and blossoms from under one tree, than a little breeze would bring down another basketful.
In an environment like that, where you eat your lunch at the edge of the farm field from a bowl made of banana leaves, it’s no problem to do as the trees do, and drop the remains on the ground when you’re done. The ants will carry it all away in a matter of hours. Prior to the age of plastic, even in the towns and cities this organic trash was not much of an issue. Much of it could be dried and burned as fuel, the animals and insects would eat the leftovers, and the rest would decompose quickly.
Now take those foods, package them in plastic, and ship them hundreds or thousands of miles using fossil fuels. Serve them on Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils. Contaminate the local water supply with sewage and road runoff, so that you have to import treated drinking water in more plastic containers. Decide that trash collection and recycling centers are uneconomical, or locate them only near your biggest population centers.
Imagine the result.
Bali is trying hard to embrace tourism as a way to improve the economy. In many ways, this makes perfect sense. The island is an exquisite gem of beauty, and the Balinese are very good at making beautiful things for religious use, which tourists happen to love to buy.
The problem is, there are already so many more tourists than the island is equipped to handle. A short time ago, the water everywhere on the island was so clean and pure, it is said you could drink right out of the rice paddies—but no more. The movement of food and workers from villages to tourist towns is affecting the air quality and causing congestion on the roads. And the average tourist on vacation is looking for safe, convenient, familiar foods, which usually means something packed in plastic. Bali simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with all the garbage and pollution. The beauty of the island is in jeopardy.
Lovina, where we were staying for two nights, is a “designated tourist area.” Our accommodations were unimpressive, and the area lacked the beauty of the rural hills, but there’s a long beach and several fun activities nearby.
After a longish drive down the coast the next morning, we rented snorkeling gear and went by boat to a small island which is a national park. To disembark, you have to walk across whatever boats are already tied up at the pier, so we waited respectfully until a group of religious pilgrims, there to visit the local temple, had made their way off the dock. We were then introduced to our guide, who showed us where to enter the water and explore the reef, which extended past the small beach along low bluffs, very close to the shore.
The reef was teeming with fish. We saw at least as many varieties as we did at the one location of the Great Barrier Reef that we visited, although this one was miniscule in comparison. Near the beach, the corals had been visibly damaged by all the swimmers, but as far as I could judge, they were in progressively better condition further down the shore, and not too bad considering all the activity. Our guide was preoccupied, helping some of the group who were snorkeling for the first time, or taking underwater photos (mostly of Simon), so Karel and I set off on our own.
Among our encounters, we watched trumpet fish chasing minnows clear out of the water, giant clams, clown fish (like Nemo), a giant, colorful slug, and a large, territorial fish that kept bravely charging at Karel. I laughed so hard my mask started to leak, and when Karel surfaced to ask me what was wrong, the fish bonked him in the back! We were really enjoying ourselves, except that a light, onshore breeze was bringing in trash from the open waters. With nowhere else to go, it collected in the calm waters next to the cliffs, right over the coral reef.
After a couple of hours, the boats took us offshore, and we tried snorkeling some more, although we were basically in the same area. The guys all jumped in or dove off the boat, but I wasn’t brave enough for that; I announced that I’d be plopping in. “You’ll slither in gracefully, like a mermaid,” Lizzie offered, kindly. I plopped in with a squeak, and when I came up for air, I heard Susan exclaim, “Like a mermaid!” By this time, however, the garbage had begun to accumulate to the point that we were getting disgusted with it.
And that’s how it was, everywhere in Bali. I elected to keep the garbage out of my photos as much as possible, but it was everywhere, heaped along roads and pathways, tumbling down hillsides, scattered about the schoolyards, playing fields, and residential compounds. Along the congested coast road there’s a constant haze from the traffic, and over that, a layer of brown or black smog.
From what I understand, it’s pretty much the same throughout Asia. The pollution in Beijing has been making the news while we’ve been traveling; we heard that visibility was down to a few meters due to smog.
When I was a little girl, living in New York City, pollution of all kinds was a terrible problem, but everyone seemed apathetic about it. I remember picking bits of soot off my Wonderbread and bologna sandwiches, riding behind buses that belched black smoke, and stomping through rain puddles glistening with oil. There’s a scene from the TV show, Madmen, which is set in New York in the early 1960s. The family has just finished a picnic in the park. After packing up the serving dishes, the mother flips the picnic cloth into the air—flinging the paper plates and napkins onto the grass—stuffs the cloth into her basket, and walks away. Back then, that’s what you did.
The book, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, came as a wake-up call to many Americans. I think that was the beginning of the environmental movement in North America. The US government sponsored the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, began to pass laws regulating waste disposal and air and water quality, and ultimately created the Environmental Protection Agency. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a major reduction in the visible litter, as well as the less visible contamination of water and air in urban areas, although rural and wilderness areas are worse because of the general increase in use and population. In the meantime, the population of the country has increased by about 50%, and automobile traffic has increased by I-don’t-know-how-much, so I shudder to think what America would look like without the regulations and cultural shift that started in the 1960s and 70s. Every time you feel like complaining about the fees you pay for your auto emissions tests, or the hassles of sorting your recycling, just remember what you’re getting for your time and money: clean air, clean water, beautiful scenery, the freedom to walk on sidewalks and lawns that are free of broken glass and other hazards and eyesores.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013