“You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye”
-The Last Resort by The Eagles”
It took me three flights to reach Bali, home as I know it, from Tonga. Surely, one of the best parts of a journey is coming home. And, like any other Balinese, I am deeply rooted to this island although my wanderlust got the better of me from time to time.
Comparing notes is what I do when I travel, especially when the destination I visited reminds me a lot of home. In this case, it was with The Kingdom of Tonga, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world and a truly fascinating destination in the South Pacific archipelago. “Welcome to the Kingdom,” said the Tongan driver who picked me up at Fua’amotu International Airport, an archaic greeting in the rest of the world. Along the way to the hotel, she pinpointed numerous churches and schools, while countless palm trees and small-scale papaya farms were whizzing by.
Everything seemed to be done peacefully, unhurriedly, and gently. The same could be said for the check-in procedures, food ordering, and exchanging money. I got so many “where do you come from”, “is this your first time here” and “are you travelling alone” from the hospitable and chatty Tongans. The whole country is populated with just slightly more than 100,000 people, the size of small regency in Bali. Close-knit is an understatement because everybody kind of knows everybody. Church and tradition play an inseparable part in Tonga’s everyday life. Come Sunday, everything is closed including the airport.
As for tourism, the numbers of its visitors are increasing especially after a port for cruise ships was built. They are now receiving around 100,000 visitors per year. It is a far cry from Bali’s 4.4 million tourist arrivals last year but as we have learned, quantities are not necessarily a good thing. During the month of July to October, plenty come to swim with the whales. Apart from Australia and Argentina, Tonga is the only place in the world where one can go swimming with the migrating humpback whales in the sea.
After signing up with a tour, I hopped on the fast boat. Lonny, our captain for that day skilfully navigated the boat. “Put on your fins and don your mask. Get ready. When I say jump in, you jump!” said Lonny when we saw our first whale sprayed water from its spout. And, suddenly there they were, under us and then next to us, swimming majestically in pair. They swam all the way from their feeding ground in Antartica to court, mate, give birth and nurse their babies.
It was spectacular.
“I asked myself this question: when was the last time I snorkel without seeing any plastic in Bali? Perhaps twenty years ago?”
It got even better when Lonny announced that we were going to have our lunch in a tiny uninhibited island named Dau. It was the quintessential Polynesian island with coconut trees, flat white sanded beach and a turquoise sea. As I munched on my sandwich and watched the others excitedly talked about the whales, I pondered on how marvellous the day has been. Only then I started to realize that during the last few hours I have not seen a single plastic waste, either floating in the ocean or lying discarded on the beach. For once, I did not find a single disgusting shampoo sachet, water bottle, plastic bag, or instant noodle packaging – things that I usually find when I snorkel in Bali.
You see, that was my first snorkelling experience abroad. I asked myself this question: when was the last time I snorkel without seeing any plastic in Bali? Perhaps twenty years ago? Well, certainly not in the last decade. I have always found rubbish, even in the farthest part of Menjangan Island as I have experienced two months ago.
It could happen because back in 2005, Tonga has created a waste management act in their legislation and stick by it. The lack of plastic in their sea maybe because they have a plastic levy regulation for plastic packaging items and one solid waste management authority who handle all of the waste systemically. Back here in Bali, there are 10,000 cubic metre of waste being produced every day. Half of them are left unprocessed. They are simply dumped into rivers, burned or thrown on road sides. 10 – 12% of those wastes are made of straws that we use to sip on our daily green juices, water bottles, plastic bags that we get in our grocery shopping, and other form of plastics that will last on earth until the next century.
It pained me to admit that our ocean is dirty. Having experienced the absence of rubbish in Tonga jolted me to write this essay. It is a reminder that we have a lot of homework for Bali. That we should cut the denial (obviously not all of that rubbish is coming from Java) and end the blame pointing games. We have created Bali as an image of paradise. Now, it is time to live up to it or bid the whole thing goodbye. After all, one does not swim with plastic in paradise.