Fog hangs like an apparition above a stack of rice paddies as a Balinese farmer bows to harvest his grain. His topi, angled toward the sun, paints a cylindrical silhouette against the green canvas behind him, accenting the natural symmetries of the land and the stark geometric contrast between cone and terrace. A breeze whistles, interrupted only by a mosquito’s beating wings, the clap of feet against dirt, and the occasional pop and grind of a passing scooter engine. Walking toward the ocean, the terraced land climbs and falls like a breathing rib cage, and Canggu, though undoubtedly changed, clings closely to its roots.
Plodding down Canggu’s only dirt road—full of potholes and rocks and mangy stray dogs and molasses-mooing cows—I had no idea what to expect. Well, I had an idea, but not one rooted in reality. Like most surfers, I had seen photographs of Uluwatu and Padang Padang’s mechanical lefts pitching over aqua-wrapped coral, and I had heard the endless comparisons between Bali and the North Shore. But I did my best to leave preconceived notions of this modern-day surf Mecca at home. Curious about Bali’s surf-tourism fueled transformation, I wanted to learn more about the developmental phenomenon and why Canggu, which according to Bali’s Wayan “Betet” Merta remained relatively unsurfed just five years ago, now looks more like a San Diego trade show than what it actually is: a hard-to-get-to outpost in the Indonesian archipelago.
“It’s not like Bali anymore,” says Merta while seated at one of the beachside picnic tables overlooking Canggu’s many peaks. A swarm of motor scooters are parked beside our table, as an international assortment of travelers and surf celebrities circulate through the small chain of warungs. In the last 10 minutes six World Tour surfers paddled out. With them were four separate camera crews who scattered along the black sand to stake their angle on the day’s events. They all waved a friendly greeting to one another, but the hint of tension was palpable. Just as professional surfers compete for waves, these crews compete for exclusivity.
Two plates of mei goreng, an Indonesian dish consisting of noodles, egg, and chicken arrive at the table, and Betet looks around. “It’s like Rocky Point or something now. All the white people live here and have houses or villas…there are hardly Balinese people here anymore.”
I’m worriedly thinking worst-case scenario—contemplating what it’s like to spend a night in a rice paddy.
Although development is a tricky proposition, where national identities flare or fade, and amenities for the privileged come at the expense of the poor, local ambassadors like Rizal Tanjung have learned to embrace the general improvements to infrastructure and resultant economic spur that often accompanies it.
“It’s definitely been a good thing,” says Tanjung. “A lot of houses have been built in places like Canggu, and the roads have become better and the government has spent more money making Bali nicer.”
Canggu may not be exactly as Canggu was, but even in its 2009 incarnation, the original charm survives. Life still revolves around movements of the sun. Local fishermen walk pole-in-hand to the shore and cast for a fresh catch, and the rice farmer gets his best work done when the heat is least oppressive—unlike Kuta—where life, like the ocean, gravitates toward the moon.