We left Auckland at 630am; it was 3 degrees Celsius, crisp and clear. 24 hours later, we landed in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia; it was 29 degrees Celsius and sticky as hell. A sheen of insta-sweat covered my skin – poor Rhys broke out in hives (like he does). Everyone was smiling. Everyone. This was Bali. It’s all holiday, all the time on the tourist drags in Kuta and Legian.
24 hours on planes and in airports is a tiresome number, so we gathered our luggage and zoomed through customs and immigration. My bag was the very last to come out – fifteen full minutes after the previous one. We had given it up for lost and were filling out lost-luggage paperwork with a very nice (and smiling, of course) airport worker. He managed to smile and look very concerned at the same time. A rare gift. Immigration and customs were no problem, but the intake area had high wooden cubicles with officers sitting high. It looked like a circa-1970’s wooden maze of bureaucracy.
We emerged into the loud and crowded Bali night, and I heard “Rhys! Indi!” sing out from the crowd. Amidst the throng of chauffeurs and taxi drivers looking for fares and families looking for arriving members was Barb, our CouchSurf contact in Bali. It was well after midnight and she had to work the following morning, but there she was, smiling and flapping a “Rhys and Indi” sign. That moment was the perfect epitome of relief.
She warned us that traffic may not be what we were used to as we loaded into her Toyota SUV and headed home. Even in the witching hour, scooters whizzed by like hornets, cars and vans navigating impossibly narrow alleyways and disregarding lanes on wider streets. “Whoa,” I breathed, awed at the graceful but lawless dance of vehicles. “What are the driving rules like here?”
She laughed. “There aren’t really any – we drive by feeling.”
Barb expertly navigated her large SUV down an alley whose narrowness defies description, and managed to turn and park 90 degrees into her gated yard. We saw her do it a few times during our stay, and I never understood how that feat corresponded to the laws of physics. Sleep was blissful – up steep marble stairs and into our A/C room, all was dark in minutes.
First Days – Adjustments and Exploration
Still on Auckland time, I awoke at 815am and carefully made my way down the did-I-mention-steep? stairs. Rhys was already down there and sitting on the white sprawling couch. Once out of our A/C room, it became Indonesia-hot-and-sticky again, though there was a nice breeze flowing through the open bay windows. Barb had already left for work, but had left a nice note on the back of a map of Kuta, and a SIM card for Indonesian mobile service. Rhys was especially excited about the latter.
We set out on foot for a five-hour walk around Kuta and Legian and their beaches. It’s hard to describe how different Bali is from NZ or the US. Much like Japan, old and new share the same space – ancient shrines to Hindu gods and goddesses are next to lively shops and minimarts. I learned from Barb that Hindu is, at its heart, monotheistic – the myriad pantheon of gods and goddesses are actually just facets of the same main God, neither male nor female. Christianity has a direct parallel – think the trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – different facets of the same being with different traits. It’s similar to that.
Every inch of space on the streets are occupied by vendors hawking their goods, taxi and bemo drivers barking “Transport! Transport!,” and people trying to catch your eye to offer anything. And anything is, indeed, on sale here. Bali is, in itself, a brand; it’s the ultimate tourist destination and a perenially packed surf and resort spot. Many visitors come here on expensive vacation packages. Some of the 5-star resorts here cost $3,000 USD a night or more – but why? Why, when you can stay at a losmen (guesthouse) for $11 a night that features very basic rooms, but free breakfast, a happening outdoor club with a swim-up bar pool, which is right on Poppies Lane 1 and only a short walk to the beach? Needless to say, that’s what we’re doing.
Still, it is easy to spend over your budget. We have quickly realized that a lot of our clothing is not as light and airy as we had first imagined. USD $50 later, I have three new embroidered shirts (cute and so light), a sarong, and Rhys has two new pairs of board shorts and a (sigh) light-as-air hawaiian shirt. I’m sure I could have negotiated down further, as bargaining is a pasttime for the locals (but always done with a smile), but it already felt a bit like stealing. Sitting on the beach and soaking up the rays (while watching beautiful people) isn’t an activity for the faint-of-heart or light-of-wallet either; in the two hours we were there, we were offered massage, hair braiding, manicures, pedicures, sarongs, rings, beach mats, pineapples, ice cream, sodas, water, and other things by roaming beach vendors. An impressive and opportunistic industry. I don’t get irritated by the constant attention – they need to make a living somehow and they wouldn’t do it if people didn’t buy. Still, I can understand how some people might prefer less hassle.
Food can be had at any price you’re willing to pay. Even at the most luxurious places (like Ku De Ta, a mellow seaside haven of a bar), some cheap fare is offered. 2 beers (Bintang, too bitter for my taste) and a watermelon juice set us back only $10, which was totally worthwhile to relax on large lounge-sofas under umbrellas and the stars, watching the lit-up waves roll in.
East meets West in fascinating ways here. Down the dingiest street in Kuta, the sidewalks feature ornate, handwoven leaf baskets containing offerings to the gods. The ones on the sidewalks are set out to appease demons and keep them at bay, according to Barb; the ones set up high or on little stone statues and shrines are for the gods and goddesses. These offerings, an ancient tradition, catch your eye – but then looking up, you may see Dolce & Gabbana knockoff merchandise or t-shirts and stickers sporting unintentionally hilarious phrases such as “No honey, I’m wanker,” “Don’t fuck with the fucker,” or a picture of Daffy Duck next to “Nobody ever wants this little black duck.” (Yes, I am totally keeping a list!) You’re as likely to see a woman carrying a parcel larger than her whole body on her head as you are to see thousands of scooters gliding an inch away from you down an alley barely large enough for two. And the things you see on scooters! We’ve seen a scooter with three people and two dogs (no cages or leashes), one with two adults and three kids on, and one with dozens of full bags with various and sundry items packed out so the poor two-wheeler was as wide as a van. Scooters as ice-cream trucks, scooters as fresh fruit and drink vendors. The Balinese love their scooters, and why not? They don’t have to go the right way down one-way streets, and they can fit anywhere. What’s not to love? I’d estimate (conservatively) that there are at least fifty scooters to every one car, van, or SUV. Conservatively.
So yes, Bali lives up to the hype. We’ve yet to visit the pounding nightclubs (that’s tomorrow night), but thanks to Barb, we have learned a bit of salsa dancing at a cute little club with free (and patient!) instructors. We’re heading back Tuesday to learn some more steps but who knows what will happen between now and then?
Other than a $5, hourlong, full body relaxation massage. Yeah, that is totally happening tomorrow.