Desperately Seeking Survival

  • Like many who live through a tragedy, 24-year-old Putu Suameria has his own story of survival. A Balinese bartender at one of the numerous bars that line the alleyways near Kuta's nightclub strip, Suameria usually has Saturday nights off and spends them hanging out in front of the Sari Club, drinking beers and watching the foreign clubbers come and go. But on the night of October 12, he took a second shift to cover for a friend. The overtime saved his life. The car bomb that destroyed the Sari Club and killed 191 people was parked at the corner where Suameria would have been standing if he'd been partying. "I believe in fate," he says, "and it wasn't my fate to die that night."

    Suameria and his fellow Balinese are casualties of the aftermath of the blasts nonetheless. Some 80% of Bali's economy depends on tourism, and foreign visitors have all but vanished. Japan lifted its travel warning for Bali earlier this month, and Australia has downgraded its alert to a region-wide advisory. But the U.S., Germany and France, among other tourist-generating nations, are still telling their citizens to avoid Bali. This angers I Gde Pitana, director of the Bali Tourism Authority, who points out that there were no travel warnings issued for New York after Sept. 11. "Like New York, Bali is a victim," says Pitana. "Why should it be punished further?" To make Bali safer, the police presence has been upgraded, all entry points are now closely scrutinized, and visitors landing at Denpasar airport have their bags x-rayed as they leave the terminal. Still, tourists are not convinced that Bali is secure. Hotel occupancy, which usually averages around 50%, has plummeted to single digits. More than 300,000 hotel and restaurant staff have been laid off, and those who have kept their jobs are working for significantly reduced salaries. Fear reverberates around the island — not fear of another terrorist attack but of the future. "Tell your friends Bali is safe," is the common plea from waiters at near-empty restau-rants, "Tell them to come back."

    Certainly, the Balinese seem committed to rebuilding. Walls in Kuta are em-blazoned with banners declaring "Bali means peace", "We love Bali" and "We will start again." Construction at the bomb site is already underway; hammering and the whine of electric saws disturb contemplative mourners and the curious who venture there. What was once the Sari Club is now a vacant lot, the crater filled with offerings, notes, candles and bouquets. Burning incense barely conceals the acrid smell of burnt metal, but at least the odor of charred flesh has dissipated. A few doors down, souvenir stalls offer 50% off all merchandise, but no one is buying. Says shopkeeper Sita: "Nobody comes, and if they do, they aren't in the mood after seeing all this tragedy."

    Once packed with pale Australians on winter holidays and German package tour groups, the sands of Kuta Beach are deserted. The hawkers offering massages, manicures and marijuana outnumber visitors five to one. Even the Kuta cowboys, the infamous Javanese gigolos who prowled the beach for lonely hearts and fat purses, seem to have disappeared. As one vendor puts it, "There is no one for them to gigolo with." Pitana grimaces at the mention of the cowboys. "We don't need that kind of business anyway," he says, referring to both the gigolos and some of the seedier bars. "Because we are Hindu, we Balinese blame ourselves for what happened. We think that we have done something wrong, perhaps because we allowed these dens of vice to operate openly." The Tourism Authority is now working toward promoting the island as more than a sun, surf and nightlife destination, and Pitana would like to see some of the bars replaced by traditional Balinese restaurants and classical dance venues. "I am empowered by this incident to go back to cultural tourism," he says.

    Businessmen like I Made Wiranatha, owner of several small hotels and the other destroyed nightspot, Paddy's Bar, agree with that approach. "Sari and Paddy's were just buildings," he says. "The spirit, the culture and the beauty of the island remain the same."

    Wiranatha knows that fate dealt him a survivor card this time around — one of his bars, the sophisticated Ku DE Ta in Seminyak, is managing to stay afloat due to a loyal expat clientele — but he worries about others. "We have a ceremony to send the victims to heaven, but what about those left behind? Those who lost a father, a business, how do they eat, how do they send their children to school?" If the tourists don't come back, or another bomb hits the region, Wiranatha knows that as a last resort, he can always return to his family farm to grow rice. Suameria, the bartender, has no such escape plan. After spending three years in Kuta, he shudders at the thought of returning to his home village on Bali's north coast. "The tourists will just have to come back," he shrugs. "There is no other way.