Here’s the backstory: A massive resort is set to swallow a gargantuan property bordering the beach. One massive swath of it, as yet untouched by progress and exploitation, extends from the road (close to my current home) all the way to the shoreline. An uncultivated patch of green of that size and in near-pristine condition, is almost unheard of in these parts, least of all on land in such a desirable location.
Since last summer, hints of the resort’s imminent development were everywhere; a bulldozer appeared; land was razed; billboards were posted; and shops and warungs (food stalls) owned by barely-making-ends-meet-locals were flattened without warning. After which a lone tree remained standing at the edge of the property, now bordered by a lengthy stretch of corrugated metal. A sorry sight for all, but especially the hordes of Balinese who descend on this beach each weekend.
I waited, watched, and wondered.
Each time I walked through the field on my way to the beach, I’d look over at the significantly sized shrine tucked to the side, surrounded by old growth trees and ceremonial elements. I wondered what sacred rites were required, before the resident spirits would render the land clear and safe enough for commercial development.I offered up my own prayer: for whatever reason, please let the land lay fallow.
One day, I noticed that pint-sized papaya seedlings had been planted close by. As I glanced around, I spotted more sizable patches of papaya leaves dotting the land. Slightly further away, patches of lettuce and other low-lying vegetables seemed to be laying claim to the land. Curious…developments. And a pleasant surprise.
Then, one recent day, I spotted a collection of tall wooden stakes driven into the ground all around the property. By the next day, thin pieces of tape had been strung from slim stake to stake. My guess was that the developers had finally descended; they were measuring out distances and pathways. But each day I walked through or poked my head into the land, workers were nowhere to be seen; amidst the ever-growing papaya trees shooting skywards, it felt as if nocturnal elves were stealthily plotting for an upcoming excavation.
A new banner popped up one day, this one down the street, affixed to metal girders bordering the land. Sirkuit Mertasari, it said. Mertasari Circuit.
It took me a moment to crack the code – even if the images printed on the banner were a dead giveaway. Sure enough, this past Sunday, through the uneven terrain, racing alongside what by now was amounting to a substantial papaya plantation, young boys and men on souped-up bikes tore the land. Racers, mountain bikes, off-road specials. They sped, they did wheelies, they roared, screamed in delight, and laughed uproariously.
Throughout the day, and well into sunset, they came in droves. Some, garbed in sleek, wicking racing shirts and helmets; others in t-shirts and flipflops. Round and round they went, pedalling against the sandy ground, their wheels making deep grooves in this one-of-a-kind, off-road, beachside racing circuit.
I was both surprised, and utterly not so. Not for the first time do I realize that, when the Balinese are forced to confront (and deal with) the unknown, when they are stuck in limbo (and at the mercy of pocket-padding authorities), they will pull out all stops on their craft and ingenuity. Laws, regulations, zoning, permits be damned, the Papaya Peleton is here to stay – at least until the bulldozer rumbles in. Meanwhile, they’re gonna ride like the wind.
*UPDATE: Less than 1 week after I saw the boys ‘n men racing to their heart’s delight, this happened. The sign was taken down; more sheets of corrugated metal erected and painted; all entryways blocked off; and the racing course now off limits. This too, sadly, is Bali.