Saturday, January 12, 2013

Australia must also share methanol blame

Magic mushrooms made me sick.

It was 1972 and I was sitting on an almost deserted beach called Kuta watching two sunsets at the one time, thanks to the effect of the  ‘magic mushrooms’ that I had consumed.

It was a stupid thing to have done, but I was 20 years of age and living in this paradise called Bali.

As many baby boomers who travelled overseas in the seventies would know, as a traveller in those days, you were very much on your own and being in Bali was no different. There were no flights between Bali and Australia, no iPads, no mobile phones and no emails. My parents didn’t even know where I was.

So not only were my actions stupid but it also made very ill. But more importantly the experience taught me a highly valuable lesson: When travelling overseas, and particularly to third world countries you are very much ‘on your own’, you have to take great care and responsibility for your own welfare.

Fast forward to 2012/13 and two critical things have changed:

Firstly over 850,000 Australians visit Bali each year and access to family back home in the event of something going wrong is now very quick and easy, leading to a significantly elevated sense of confidence and security for many people. Secondly, we have seen the emergence in our culture of what Joe Hockey called ‘Our sense of entitlement’, which often leads  us to believe that we can go to places like Bali and do whatever we like with no consideration for the local culture and our own potential vulnerability.

And whilst many Australians visit Bali and its nearby islands with the intention of having a relaxed and enjoyable holiday, there is a not insignificant number who go to our island paradise with the intention of partying as hard as we can and to carry-on in a belligerent and drunken manner.

Indonesia is still a third world country where people often live on $2-$5 per day so if foreigners come looking for cheap booze, wild parties and drugs, it will be accommodated very quickly. And so it is with places such as Rudy’s Bar in Gili Trawangan where tragically Liam Davies was poisoned.

Bars such as Rudy’s exist in Kuta and also in Thailand, Laos and most other poorer Asian countries frequented by new-age travellers.

Make no mistake; these bars are not places I would take my wife or friends. But if you want to drink yourself into a stupor, smoke dope and drink cheap local cocktails until 5 am the next day, you can find it.

Often the local police are provided with an ‘incentive’ by local bar-owners to stay away and this only heightens the sense of security amongst many patrons. Sure, you can go crazy or ‘gila’ as the Indonesians call it, but you are extremely vulnerable in this condition. Most people get away with it. Tragically some don’t.

It should be noted that in the case of young Liam, all the indicators were that he was doing nothing more than having one cocktail drink. What happened to this boy was horrifying to all Australians and Indonesians. For those of us who have children it was devastating.

Yet sadly, many Aussies will continue to frequent places that are very susceptible to using methanol laced drinks.

So why does methanol find it was into cocktail drinks?

Several years ago Indonesia cracked-down on the black market in wine and spirits that saw liquor coming into Bali at ‘half price’. Today these products are expensive, yet many tourists still want cheap drinks that are strong in alcohol content for the purpose of partying hard and getting drunk. Enter methanol which is a very cheap form of alcohol and which has been used in the creation of the local drink called ‘arak’ for hundreds of years.

Arak is made in local backyards by very poor people who distil the sap from palm trees and then add alcohol-usually in the form of methanol.

Only recently has this product found its way into the tourist market with tragic consequences.

The worrying thing is that there is a high probability that arak and its methanol component will continue to be made available from ‘cheap’ bars where foreigners go to ‘party’.

The Australian government is right to make representation to the Indonesia government about the dangers facing Australians visiting Bali and Lombok from these appalling practices. And the Indonesian government does need to take action to address the supply of arak into the tourist precincts, but it won’t be easy to stamp-out. Just look how we go here in Perth with ‘cracking-down’ on the backyard production of ICE?

But in making such representations, or as The West Australian described, “Putting the ‘heat’ on Jakarta”, perhaps we should not forget that hundreds of Indonesians-including Balinese-have been dying of methanol poisoning for years without us being the slightest bit interested. And also, whilst we express our justifiable outrage at Indonesia’s lack of action on this matter, let us also not forget that until late last year, here in Perth WA, we locked-up over 40 young Indonesian children in maximum security adult prisons for up to two years without trial on people smuggling charges. Many of these ‘smugglers’ were 13 or 14 years of age and from extremely poor Indonesian villages. The silence from much of our media and public about this issue was deafening!

We should also remember that for the almost one million Australians who will go to Bali this year, the vast majority come home safely and having had a wonderful holiday that was not only cheap but great fun. But these people are also happy to sip on a Bintang beer or a glass of Aussie wine and watch the famous Bali sunsets. They also take simple precautions and learn to take responsibility for their own actions.

Just like I had to do in 1972. 

Ross Taylor is the Chairman of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)
January 2013.







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