Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Other Side of Paradise

I was doing a bit of exploring one recent day, following a few of the lesser known ways--thereby knowing less and less where I was---when I happened upon a small bridge spanning a small river. I noted that smoke or mist or steam was rising from beneath the bridge and curling over the railing at the top.

Hmm, what is this, I pondered as I passed on by? Steam from a hot spring such as those we have back home in the Pacific Northwest? Or perhaps the brush on the riverbank has caught fire. That could be bad. Or maybe it’s just a campfire. Maybe people are fishing down there and then cooking their catch.

Well, I turned my bike around after about a city block’s worth of indecision and went back to see what sort of marvel this might be. Bali is a marvellous island, right? Full of beauty, both natural and of man’s own making. You never know what exotic new sight you’re going to stumble upon.

Parking on a gravel siding near the entry to the bridge, I soon found a narrow path which led through brambles to the verge of a bluff above the river. Looking down from there into the shallow river gorge I found not a hot spring, nor a local fisherman’s fire, but a roughly pyramidal mountain of garbage rising from the middle of the stream, and afire. The mound coughed moiling clouds of smoke, from milk cartons, wooden crates, cardboard boxes, palm fronds, beer bottles, diapers, window frames, wheelbarrows, plastic bags, newspapers, bike fenders, grass, dirt, tree branches, stone--you name it. Garbage is limitless. It goes by all names. It has a beginning, and yet no end.

Though interesting in itself, this was distinctly less than I had hoped to see. Or more, rather. And the sight struck me instantly as perfectly emblematic, a poster board picture of the real Bali, the place we live, as opposed to the pristine paradise of the travel brochure and slick magazine; for that latter has long since retreated, to the guarded compound, to the exclusive beach front, to the high hill, cliff, and jungle canopy where it is tended by resident monkeys and birds.

This is the problem, you see--this mountain of garbage in the middle of a stream, burning, smoking, stinking, polluting, and sending little boats of non-biodegradable material on a steady journey to the unhappy sea.

This is the other side of paradise.

How did we get here? That’s the first question. What has inspired people not only to the indiscriminate discharge of trash, but to discarding the same in mountains, and the mountains to the middle of rivers and streams? Is the island without governance, without services, without laws? Is there some strange insensitivity at work in its people that has caused them to despise the very paradise they were born to? Or is it laziness merely, a lackadaisical conviction, or a dream anyway, that the trash will at any moment take care of itself? Or that maybe dogs will carry it away?

 Back where I come from we used to have a slogan. It was posted on highways, in parks and in State buildings. Keep Oregon Green. The phrase was encouraging in itself, for the clear implication was that Oregon was clean already, and that we needed only to keep it that way.

But what are we to do about Bali? Sink the island and start again?

I came here to the tropics to see something new. I had certain visions of what that would be. Oceans, jungles, mango trees, mountains; monkeys and monitors; pageants and parades. But the garbage on the beaches, on the roads, in the rivers, and the drooling of refuse to the shores of the sea . . . Well that turned out to be the surprise of my life. I don’t know what more I can say.

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