The Paradox of Bali’s Sex Appeal

Why Bali is the sexiest place on earth. Just not why you think.

CHAPTER 2 SINCERE AND LOATHING IN BALI

sexy: [ sek-see ]

adjective, sex·i·er, sex·i·est.

1.) radiating sexuality, sensual, seductive, provocative.

2.) excitingly appealing; intriguing, alluring.

I. DIONYSUS AND APOLLO

In order to understand Bali’s sexual allure, one must be loosely acquainted with Greek Mythology. Namely, the tension between Apollo and Dionysus.

The two deities embodying the conflict between the rational and ordered against the emotional and chaotic. Apollo, as the god of truth, light, purity, structure, and beauty. (Michaelangelo’s David and DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man fall neatly under this category.) And Dionysus as the god of madness and revelry and wine and sex- the appetites of the body. (Woodstock 69' and Carnivale would fall under this category.) There is an entire city dedicated to Dionysus. It’s called Las Vegas.

Not enough Dionysus and society becomes overly constrained and repressed. Not enough, Apollo and the drunken mob takes over.

For tourists, Bali is unique in that it deftly plays hosts to both Gods, somehow managing to keep them both from fighting with each other. This is a rare feat for most tropical vacation locales, where it’s most often the case that you get either one or the other, i.e., Hedonism Jamaica (Dionysus) or tranquil Tahitian Beach huts overlooking the Pacific (Apollo).

Once you get out of the airport, Bali’s Apollonian beauty quickly overwhelms you. Dramatic vistas and saturated colors. Neon flowers set against turquoise waterfalls. Volcanoes that give way to white-sand beaches and all the rest. It is one of the few places on earth where camera filters fail at translating how viscerally dramatic the reality of the place really is. “My saturation setting is on full blast, and it’s still not enough!”

Just as palpable though is that Bali oozes a sort of Dionysian sex appeal. You can smell it. Feel it on your skin. Taste it in the air. It’s like how walking the streets of New York awakens in you a gritty electricity, except in Bali that electricity has an aphrodisiacal flair to it. The only other place I have felt that kind of sexual humidity before was Brazil, on the beaches of Rio. But whereas Rio’s sexual ambient feels homegrown, Bali’s is most definitely an import. A place where all the world’s wanderlusting libertines have gathered to be left unbothered by things like dress codes and tan lines.

II. FIT BODIES, COOL TATTOOS, EPIC CLOTHING

The first paradox of Bali’s sex appeal is that, like most of South-East Asia, traditional Balinese culture is conservative to a fault. Balinese locals are fiercely modest in both character and wardrobe, running in stark contrast to the vibrantly immodest transplant community that has taken root in the past few decades.

A first-time tourist naturally wonders what the Balinese make of this mass influx of Dionysian zeal, smuggled in through customs under the guise of “tourism dollars.” Or put more bluntly, how do Balinese parents really feel about dropping off their kids at school on a Tuesday morning while two buxom, Aussie’s zoom by on their scooters wearing nothing but thong bikinis.

And yet somehow this sort of cultural partitioning between the transplants and the local Balinese only serves to deepen Bali’s sexual mystique. For one, it allows for the locals to be untainted by this sexualized gestalt while allowing it to still feel attainable for us tourists. That it’s all within our reach. As soon as you make your way to any beach or yoga studio, you notice that it’s the extended-stay backpackers and ex-pat transplants who are the ones making you feel a little insecure about your infidelity to your “diet” plan back home.

This transplant army isn’t fitness-magazine-cover-model fit, per se. It’s something a bit more evolved. It’s a surplus of bodies that are tuned for purpose and utility. Bodies that are lithe and agile and fit in a primal way. The kind of bodies that run and jump and swim and surf and do yoga without needing to check their fit-bits. The point is that you can almost recognize yourself in them. They are the upgraded versions of your mates and co-workers back home. And so you start thinking that maybe, you too, could be this “fit” if you stayed in Bali long enough. This is unlike, say, Rio, where the longer you stay there, the more you accept the fact that you will never be as cool and attractive as the locals.

It’s not just the fitness factor either that makes being in the presence of these ex-pats alluring, but the vestiges and ornaments draping off their primal bodies that round out the picture. Take, for example, Bali’s transplant tattoo culture. Tribal tattoos that, upon first glance, would appear to come with a Monster energy drink sponsorship.

Upon closer inspection, though, you realize that these tattoos are entirely original. Not biker bar ink or hipster ink, but island ink. Pirate ink. An ink that feels more Jack Sparrow than Johnny Depp (there’s a difference). And when properly placed on a bronzed, fit, body (male or female), the sex appeal factor gets multiplied by two.

Ditto for the transplant community’s dress code as well. Sure, there are plenty of flip-flops, and board shorts and zinc’d up noses. But a first-time Bali tourist quickly realizes that this isn’t Hawaii, and steadies themselves to keep their floral printed attire in the suitcase for the whole of the trip. Instead, the Balinese transplant aesthetic (in the beach areas specifically) is black-on-black with a twist. It’s Elvis’ Blue Hawaii meets Mad Max. Black jeans, cut-off T’s, bandanas, cool jewelry, and blacked out custom motorcycles. It’s “island-punk rock” if there is even such a thing. And somehow, almost in spite of itself, it reads as legitimately cool.

All of this comes together to paint a slightly surrealist image for the virgin Bali tourista. On one side of the street are Balinese locals, dressed modestly and conservatively, seemingly unfazed by the ex-pat transplants on the other side of the road who look like they just walked off the set of WaterWorld. Like they all got lost on their way to Burning Man and decided to post up in Bali instead.

What is noteworthy about all the fitness and tattoos and clothing etc. is that they seem to be situated right inside of the Apollo/Dionysus Venn Diagram overlap. They are aesthetically pleasing to the eye, harmoniously blending symmetry of lines and art and color. But they also have a vibe the flat 2-d images have trouble capturing. It’s a communal charisma and energy that the casual tourist feels sexually energized and enlivened by, simply through osmosis, by merely being in these transplants gravitational orbit.

III. NIGHTLIFE

One might reasonably be wondering then where all that sexually charged energy gets channeled? When a surplus of tanned, agile bodies, donning tribal tattoo’s and minimal clothing, all bounce off of a bevy of office-workers and college grads, let loose on vacation, surely the teapot must boil over somewhere. The obvious instinct is that the sexual steam blows off in some night-life depository, which is only half true. And therein lies the second paradox of Bali. For as much as the locals and transplants are vibrantly in-the-mix during the day, they disappear at night.

Before traveling to Bali, I had heard stories about its’ fabled party scene. Up close and in person though, it all felt like a bit of an afterthought. A pop-up shop turned long term staple, stemming from an overflow of tourist demand. Vacationers whose only way of knowing how to burn off all that bottled up sexual energy absorbed during the day is by way of alcohol-induced beach raves by night.

It’s one of the few things in Bali that feels contrived from the outset, and that’s because it’s one of the few things in Bali that is purely Dionysian for profit. One imagines that had the locals failed to erect these cordoned off grind-zones, the tourists might all be dry-humping their scooters in the street while blacking out on shots of basement-brewed scooter petroleum. So maybe its all for the best.

Of course, it’s not like getting loaded and grinding on the dance floor is frowned upon or criticized in Bali. It’s more that there is an element to it that feels forced and overdone. Sad even. Like one is missing the entire point of it all. Analogous to flying to Tokyo to dine at Sukiyabashi Jiro, only to pour out a whole bottle of soy sauce on your sushi once it arrived at the table. Spoiling the entire experience either because you don’t know any better or because your taste-buds only get excited when you drown them in 8000 mg of sodium.

PROCREATE vs. PRO-CREATE

There is an overhanging question one is confronted with when surrounded by such raw geographic beauty, continually on offer in Bali. That is, “Why wouldn’t you go to bed early and get up early and exercise and eat healthily and treat your body right and do yoga and meditate and all the rest?”

How one answers this question for themselves ultimately comes to shade everything about their Bali experience.

For most tourists, Bali slides comfortably into another iteration of island-resort fare. Daiquiris poolside, tan, massage, party, wash, rinse, repeat. All of it occupying another station in the buffet line of indulgence and consumption. A stationary cruise ship with waterfalls and monkeys. Not to be poo-pooed either. If this is what you are looking for, Bali makes a very compelling case for itself.

But for those who have come to Bali seeking something more, whether that be enlightenment or adventure, a profound discovery awaits them. The revelation that transcendence can be achieved through the body, and not in spite of it. The way of Bali is enlightenment through adventure.

If one tends to the body and the landscapes and the aesthetics deeply enough, engages in them seriously enough, a vibrant sexual energy naturally emerges as a result. To the casual outside observer like myself, it seems as if most of the long-term transplants in Bali have steadied aligned themselves to this trajectory,

These two approaches represent the difference between a procreative energy (the belligerent, hormonal chaos of the party scene) and a pro-creative energy (energy born out of attenuation to body and mind and setting). The former being Dionysus for its own sake. Dionysus; untamed. The ladder being Dionysus in service of Apollo. Dionysus on a leash.

It is fitting that Bali has become the de-facto mecca of the archetypal “Dionysus on a leash” pursuit; Yoga.

It all starts to add up then why the Western ex-pat community in Bali is so deep and thriving. This bubbling cauldron of pro-creative energy is refreshing and seductive for westerners (like me) that have been made cynical of both the Apollonian and Dionysian. All of us jaded after having been continually sold on them for so long, living in an environment where A&D are commodities instead of culture. Affects as opposed to Effects.

Victor Frankl understood this kind of “turn off” as the art of paradoxical intention. That we can’t help but repel that which we seek and adopt that which we wish to reject. Try not to think of a pink elephant, and you can’t help but think of one sort of thing. This therapeutic framing device is famous for, among many things, helping men and women get over performance anxiety in the bedroom. Obsess too much over the act itself, and the anxiety takes over. Direct your focus and attention elsewhere, and it will come naturally.

So it happens that this is true for most things in life. The first rule of being cool/sexy/funny/original/authentic/mysterious/interesting is to stop trying to be. The butterfly will land on you only once you have stopped chasing it sort of phenomenon.

It’s especially relevant to the U.S. at the moment where it’s hard to “get up” (excuse the phrasing) for anything, precisely because all of it is being forced upon you. The entire organism has become too “self-aware,” too “affected.” All market-tested and Instagrammed and filtered and curated and packaged and ready for shipping.

Do you want enlightenment on demand? Great, we have an app for that!

Want to look good in a bathing suit? No problem, we have an app for that too!

Nothing feels innately sexy in Western culture anymore because it’s all been stripped off and sold for parts. “Sexy” is just an advertising game now. Whether its influencers pimping out a lifestyle or “butts in bikinis” boosting their signal or its brands selling you on an unfulfilled need to move product. It all screams of over-eager neediness. Look at me. Need me. Want me. Like me. Trying just a bit too hard for your clicks and likes and eyeballs and dollars. All now synonyms in the new attention economy.

Even mindfulness and meditation have recently fallen prey. “Here’s a picture of me meditating on a cliff that I had to ask a stranger to take. Be sure to use my promo-code in the link for my new meditation book self published on amazon. ”

Desperation has gone so far recently as to comb your search history and user data to “casually” advertise to you what it knows you already like. Some equivalent of paying your secret crush’s best friend for information, finding out that they are an Emily Bronte fan, and then “nonchalantly” pulling out Wuthering Heights from your backpack as they “happen” to walk by. What a coincidence! How romantic and serendipitous, if only it weren’t so obvious and contrived.

This is the third paradox of Bali’s sex appeal. Framed inside of a Western setting, all of the things listed above would likely come off as another example of projections and social signals for sale: the tanned fit bodies, the cool tattoos, the Mad Maxian fashion sense, etc.

But those things are sexually attractive in Bali precisely because they feel so “authentic” when framed in the context of Bali itself. That it all feels like a natural extension of just being there. It’s the mystical moss that casually grows on you just by way of hanging out in the Balinese stream long enough.

Most of us have been overstimulated and oversold by that first definition of “sexy”: provocative, seductive, sensuous, meant to arouse. And what you find when you get to Bali is whole community oriented around that second definition. The one that understands “sexy” as that which is alluring and intriguing, excitingly appealing.

Bali is “sexy” precisely because of the fact that it doesn’t seem all that interested in trying to be. Or at the very least, it’s not trying that hard to sell you that it is.

And perhaps more pointedly, Bali isn’t really all that interested in you trying so hard to be sexy either. “Want to take 5,000 pictures of yourself posing in front of temples and beaches and sunsets? Go ahead, be our guest. No one here cares or is all that impressed.”

Instead, the more time you spend in Bali, the more the island gently nudges you to stop trying so hard. Stop projecting, stop advertising, stop worrying about what you look like in a bathing suit.

It’s a nudge that says, “Go take in the view, run on the beach, hike a volcano, motorbike through traffic, get a tattoo, surf beautiful waves, wear whatever clothes you want, eat healthy food, practice yoga at sunset, meditate on a cliff without your iPhone close by.”… the list of Apollonian pursuits in Bali is truly endless. And if you “do” all of that enough, you might be surprised by how genuinely appealing and intriguing you eventually become. Surprised by how many butterflies have landed on your shoulder while you weren’t looking.

Bali softly whispers to any tourist who stays long enough to hear it; just focus on Apollo for a bit, and Dionysus will take care of itself.

A lesson you don’t need to travel to Bali to learn.

Culture, Media, Tech, Science. Also Dogs. Instagram&Twitter @Robhealy__

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