Do first impressions really count? A glimpse at my preconceptions towards Bali

My current paradigm on Bali is not my own, but rather, is based on a web of narratives shared with me through the experiences of friends and family… the media… or simply, the frequency with which Bali is mentioned as a ‘hot spot’ destination for celebrities and millions of tourists around the world. 

Often, between friends, it can be a fun exercise to discuss first impressions, and how these can so dramatically differ from reality. Impressions are quick, often flippant, dependant on superficialities like how one dresses…how one speaks…how one expresses themselves through their facial expressions or their body language…one’s faith or lack of faith… one’s physical characteristics like one’s colour or one’s weight. As many have often figured out, impressions are frequently wrong.

How many times have you looked at someone of dark olive skin, assuming they were Pakistani, but then, found out they were Indian? How many times have you spoken to someone assuming they were American, to find out they were Greek? Or assumed someone was anorexic to find out they had a thyroid problem? 

For years, no one could believe I didn’t like seafood… as I was Greek… and when I started enjoying tiger prawns and crab and lobster… no one could understand why I had no idea how to eat them… because I was Greek.

When living in Athens, I remember my cousin saying to me: It must be glamorous to live your life in contemplation…perched on a rock, philosophising on democracy and Christianity… with a view of the Acropolis. It was half-joke, half-presumption… but both captured an impression of Greece imparted to him through years of history classes, Aristotle and images of the glorious ancient Greece, without him ever really being there. Little did he know, I rarely frequented the Acropolis… I know little on democracy and Christianity… and the closest I have come to perching myself on a rock in contemplation was when trying to tie my shoelaces.

So what impressions of Greece might a layman have now? A friend said to me yesterday, Greece brought the beginning of civilisation… and now, it has the power to bring forward it’s demise.  I sat next to a Cypriot pensioner on the bus today… and he says to me: And what of Greece now? No jobs. No money… My daughter can’t get married now. It’s not like it was before… There’s a picture of poverty…of suffering… of a return to the dark ages. But is this a true reflection of reality? Is it possible that no one can succeed… have money…be merry… in Greece?

Nonetheless, this disposition, to assume knowledge in an area that one truly knows nothing about, is part of the human condition. We are all guilty of it…and we all embrace the process of broadening our awareness… through time, further reading, and sometimes, through first-hand experience.  Perhaps it is no longer about knowledge itself, but rather, the pursuit of knowledge, or how one’s sense of knowing evolves or changes with increased exposure to a particular subject. We then revert back to philosophy…to assert the principle that there is no such thing as absolute knowledge…and, in fact, we know nothing at all.

With my first trip to Bali looming around the corner, I thought it would be a fun exercise to capture my current impressions… assumptions…concerns… of Bali, with a view to comparing them with those impressions that will arise from actually living there. My paradigm, or lens from which I view Bali, will probably be as ridiculous as those lenses from which others view Greece… but, if not only for my own amusement, I perceive this exercise as useful, interesting and imperative to my ‘pursuit of knowledge’.

So. My preconceptions of Bali: Mystical, magical, spiritual. This comes from exposure to hundreds of pictures of temples, flowers, beautiful beaches, religious ceremonies. The recent film with Julia Roberts, Eat Pray Love, has done little to contradict this view. 

Busy, touristy, loud – the Malaga or Faliraki of South East Asia. This comes from stories of friends who spent time drinking cocktails with Aussie holiday-makers in Kuta and articles on a rise of CCTV cameras in Kuta and Legion Beach, installed for the mere purpose of keeping an eye on crazy, often culturally insensitive, tourists. 

A drug haven. This comes from most negative press that emerges from Bali about drug trafficking; foreigners being arrested or put on death row for being found guilty of the possession of drugs; or the recent scandal of a female, Ugandan ‘drug mule’ found dead with 15 kilos of heroine in her intestines. 

A victim of recurring natural disaster. Today’s 6.0 Richter scale earthquake in Bali is testament to this assumption. The enforcement of 3-6km ‘exclusion zones’ around volcanoes such as Mount Lukon in North Sulawesi; Mount Bromo in East Java; Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta; and Mount Sinabung in Sumatra – reiterate that Indonesia is directly situated on the very volatile ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’. 

A terrorist target. The Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, killing 202 and 90 people, respectively, illuminate the risk of terrorism in this area. The Bali Times also reports that they have recently increased security around Bali, following a suicide bomb blast in a church in Java last week.

So. What impact do these impressions of Bali have on my feelings, sentiments and behaviours in these final moments before my departure? Am I excited? Scared? Paranoid? Nonchalant? Am I counting and memorising the number of pockets available in my rucksack so as to be able to check that no one has planted ounces of cocaine in my luggage before departing to Malaysia? Am I being vague and ambiguous about my specific plans and whereabouts for the duration of my travels to avoid being used as an innocent drug trafficker? Am I choosing to drink only bottled beers in Kuta because of the risk of brain damage from anti-freeze added to my cocktail? Or am I choosing to stop eating chicken in Bali due to the recent deaths of two children who contracted Bird Flu?

I don’t know. You tell me.  







6 thoughts on “Do first impressions really count? A glimpse at my preconceptions towards Bali

  1. I like the idea of comparing impressions before and after experiencing a destination. I never had the forethought to try something like that. No doubt your planned travel practices in Bali have been influenced by things you’ve heard and read. Better safe than sorry. You can let your hair down in-country once you’ve acquired some time on the ground and have had the opportunity to interact with the Balanese, assuming the situation allows. The important thing is to keep an open mind, as you are, even when your impressions are negative.

  2. Pingback: The Random Things | Your Travel Buddy

    • Aw, hello there! I’m alright, thank you – I have yet to arrive in Bali, it’s mere coincidence the earthquake took place so near to my departure. Thank you for your concern. 🙂 I got confused when I visited your travel blog, as I was convinced your blog was on weight loss! I then inferred that you have two? That’s very cool! 🙂 Are you an avid traveller like myself?

  3. I think that whatever experiences that you partake in there should always be a notion of safety in the back of your head. Presumptions of cultures and people in regards to safety shouldn’t be seen in a negative light. SAFETY FIRST (and then perhaps fun 😉

    Remember, “mama didn’t raise no fool”

    • I completely agree…but within reason. To lock ourselves indoors out of fear for terrorism… or to avoid public transport due to the London bombings… or to refuse to shake hands in fear of germs… would be extreme… But you’re right, it’s always best to exercise caution. I think another important issue is, not only the impact of our impressions on our own feelings, sentiments and behaviours, but also how our resulting behaviours impact others around us (if that makes sense). For example, don’t they say that dogs can smell fear? Sometimes when our impression is that we are unsafe, we project behaviours that reveal we feel threatened, which, in effect, can result in us being at a greater risk of crime. It then goes back to the importance of self-awareness, and if we’re aware of what we project to others, we may then have better control of our own safety.

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