You can see a long way in Bali

Written by

Andrew Millar


June 22, 2009

‘Shorry’ yelled the drive over his shoulder moments after we hit a large pothole.

‘Shin ken-ken’ was the reply, remembering the Balinese for ‘no worries’ that Wayan had taught us a few days earlier. He burst into the biggest laugh we heard all week. We were used to Wayan’s big laugh, but this was the biggest yet. Smiling is a form of meditation in Bali. Wayan narrowly missed two motorbikes. But then again he always narrowly missed everything. That was just the way everyone drives on Bali.

And we barrelled on through the Bali I wanted to see. Rice paddies, palm trees, fields of sweet corn and thick dark groves of bamboo forest. All of this was in sharp contract to the Rip Curl, Polo, D&G and tacky t-shirt shops of Kuta Beach.

But that’s just the way it is in Bali. Every city, town, state or province has to put up with one area of stinking factories that sacrifice themselves to provide an income for others. It’s the first rule of economic survival – you have something everyone wants,… you process it… and you sell it so you can eat. The by-product is usually fall out, slag heaps of waste and loss of an area that probably used to be idyllic. Kuta is Bali’s sticking factory. And I am embarrassed to say my kind go there to drink beer, surf, drink beer, ride motor scooters, drink beer and talk loudly about how much they ripped off a local guy to drive their ‘hung over’ bodies around for a day.

Kuta is not Bali. For heaven’s sake, someone even offered to sell me a boomerang from a stall that sold carved statues of Buddha, brightly painted Hindu gods, gracefully Balinese dancers and ugly wooden penis bottle openers. Kuta beach made me want to apologise to the Balinese. And I’m sure the Balinese would have smiled and replied ‘Shin Ken-ken’

Wayan thundered on deeper into the mountain. We were heading to a small village three quarters of the way up the main volcano that forms the ‘eye’ of Bali. (Maps of Bali remind me of a parrotfish. Kuta is the mouth and the volcano forms the eye.) We were going to meet a team from the John Fawcett Foundation who run a program to care for the eyesight of Bali’s people. And we were heading for an experience I will never forget.

John had told us it was the most beautiful village in Bali – perched on a hillside, surrounded by ancient rice paddys and palm groves. It was a shangi-la. Lush. Tropical. Peaceful. And desperately poor. The villagers here were sharecroppers kept poor by high rents.

But we were here to see John’s people deliver a gift to certain villagers… the gift of sight. There are 55,000 Balinese who are blind. John estimated that around 65% have operable cataracts. “’We’ve got it down to a fine art”’ John quipped, “We can have a cataract out and a new lens in 12 minutes. It’s easy… just financially impossible for people like this. They can’t even afford simple eye glasses.”

We saw John’s crew diagnose, fit and give away over 200 pairs of glasses that day. And line up 12 people for operations he will perform later that week when he returns with a bus, converted to perform sophisticated eye surgery.

John actually gave me a gift that day. He let me watch as people who had not seen their home, their partner, their family or this paradise they lived in clearly for years, suddenly have that sense restored. I saw how a couple of bits of glass and wire could transform a face from fearful, disorientated and vulnerable to an expression of sheer delight.

The experience made me see the world more clearly.