It was 6:31 PM Central Indonesian Time. I was hurriedly walking towards the elevator to reach the rooftop of the hotel IZE, a building that show-cased modern architecture and style. It had been two hours since I landed in Bali; two hours that involved a 40 minute car ride from the airport with a good-natured driver — who ended up spending the entire week with us — and a peek into the roadsides. As the elevator raced up, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I was about to meet my travel-mates for the week. No matter how many introductions you make in life, the butterflies never disappear.

I had consciously set no expectations for the week. In hindsight, I know that it wouldn’t have mattered if I had; it is a week I’ll always remember in my life.

Rice Fields in Ubud, Bali

Volunteering Activities

The hard part was over. After sitting for two hours in a cozy local bus, it was time to stretch our limbs and begin distributing goods to the elderly of Selat village. We took pride in carrying sugar, ramen noodles, sacks of rice weighing 10kg (extra pride here given the weight), soap, and eggs to the various houses nearby. Every distribution began with a wide smile and awkwardly butchering the Balinese greeting om swastiastu (meaning hello).

Distributing essentials to families in Selat, Bali

The people we met were all from the Silent Generation, aged 90+. They were older than the Indonesian language of Bahasa Indonesia — which became the national dialect in 1945 — and hence resort to Balinese. What pleasantly took me aback by their lifestyle was its self-sufficiency and minimalism. They lived off of the rice harvested in their land, fabricated baskets from bamboo leaves, and irrigated water from wells in the backyard. There were no WiFi routers or TV antennas; a radio was deemed a luxury in most houses. However, smiles and gratitude was ubiquitous.

Enjoying a clean cup of water after setting up a water filter for the families in Pempatan, Bali

Being in Bali reminded me of India in many ways, one being the weather. Thankfully, the humidity mixed with the scorching sun was placated by the various beaches nearby. We spent one of the evenings in one releasing tiny turtles into the Jerman Beach (in the Indian Ocean). Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles inhabit Indonesia’s waters — as we learnt that day at the TSEC — and all of them are classified as critically endangered. We spent the afternoon cleaning the turtle tanks, preparing food for the baby turtles, and giving medication to the sick ones. In addition to volunteering, we each got to adopt a baby turtle to release into the water.

Before releasing, a starting line was drawn on sand to keep spectators at a safe distance from the fragile, and sometimes hard to spot on sand, creatures. We then placed them a few feet from the water and began cheering them on. Although a single turtle lay about 500 eggs in a season on average, only one in a 1000 survive. These odds only turned up the heat for us as we championed for our turtle baby to reach the water. While a few began flapping away instantly, most of them resorted to resting on the evening sand. In the end, we picked up the remaining turtles and placed them in the water, but the moment was still momentous.

My turtle baby, India

Despite a packed schedule, the activities felt like a vacation in itself. The last but one day brought with it a visit to an orphans’ home in Karangasem, an eastward patch in Bali. We were tasked with spending the day with them once they returned from school. I circled between coloring books, making origami, solving puzzles, and playing football (okay, more like watching others play). There was a point when we were so engrossed in the activities that we forgot they were meant for the kids.

After a day spent playing with the kids

After tiring ourselves out, we sat around in the verandah and played duck-duck-goose and freeze dance. I sat down when I realized the kids danced better than me and got me interested in being a spectator. We left there by 5:30 PM, but not before a kid gifted me this beautiful sketch that he drew, which has now found a place on my bedroom wall. The van rolled away to a dozen kids waving and grinning at us. It was a fitting end to a week that began with visiting the elderly. We came full circle.

Bali and Lifestyle

Tourism in Bali was in a sense discovered by the Dutch when a Dutch Member of Parliament visited the country in 1902 and wrote a memoir of his experiences (this seems to be one among many theories that all point to the Dutch). Tourism is so ingrained into the natives’ lives that it makes up 80% of the economy. And this is glaringly obvious when you traverse the landscape. The calming beaches, luscious rice fields, and thriving night-life have all been created with the tourists in mind, which works well for us as demand meets supply seamlessly.

One of the first documentaries of tourism in Bali written in 1925

The moment that rooted my affection for the city happened very early on my second night there. I walked into the Beatrix Massage Spa in Seminyak as I had the previous night. The lady at the front desk greeted me by name like a friend, whilst I didn’t even remember her face (later I learned her name was Mega). She caters to over 500 customers everyday, yet remembered my name. That experience left me feeling special, valued, and a little ashamed. And that was the Bali I witnessed during the rest of the week: a tourism infused culture where the bonhomie Balinese made us foreigners feel at home even though we were thousands of miles away from ours.

This trip was organized by Tern Travel, a tourism company that focuses on creating experiences where people can explore as well as give back to a new community and culture. Currently they are working on adding more locations along with Bali.