Flying into Denpasar, Bali, at sunset, is an experience in itself. Cloud encircled the island’s mountain tops, and the orange light bathed the western beaches – I could just make out the tiny boats near the shoreline.
If only I hadn’t been sitting in the middle of the plane, surrounded by screaming Chinese kids and women… one of the husbands sat next to me and, oddly, I believe he had the same exasperated feeling as I at that exact moment.
The Singapore Airlines pilot landed so smoothly and, of course, even before we had taxi’d into the terminal and the seat belt sign was off, practically everyone had jumped up from their seats. It really reminded me of a flight from Cyprus to Lebanon that I had taken a few years back – you know, one of those loud ones where everyone can’t seem to stop pressing the button to call a flight attendant (is that the correct term now??) for whatever drink, or food.
Having entered the airport, we had to go through customs. Now, when I read online that I needed a temporary visa to enter Bali, I thought, “Ok, I’ll probably be there for a while but at least I have the address of my hotel, cash, and I’m only here for about 30 days – so, it shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes.” But to my surprise, the guy just asked me how long I would be there for and if I intended to work or not (I didn’t), stamped my passport, and told me to go through. What?! That’s it?! I had to do more when I visited Australia a couple years back (unbelievable amount of kerfuffle just to step foot in their airports), as well as Thailand for just 3 days in transit back to Europe… But what the hell, I wasn’t going to complain – just quite surprised at the ease of getting in.
Picking up my rucksack was quite amusing – the conveyor belt malfunctioned, and the next thing I saw was a maintenance guy crawling into the area where the bags shoot out, fiddle around with something, then jump back out again pretty fast, before he got bashed on the head by a rather heavy looking, hard-cased suitcase.
Already I was getting a feel for this place.
My friend’s sister had come with her son to the airport to pick me up – it was really lovely to step into a strange country and instantly see a face you almost recognise. It was 25 degrees centigrade and a bit humid, and although I was still wearing long trousers and shirt from my journey (planes ARE cold, and people who argue otherwise, obviously have ice in their blood…), I didn’t give a damn about being slightly overheated at eight in the evening! Hell yeah, this is MY kind of heat, and I was loving the beads of sweat running down my neck and gathering in the hollows of my arms – this is the sort of sweat that keeps you cool and doesn’t smell; I could already feel my back muscles relaxing.
Now, I really believed that in Luxembourg I had come across a country full of people who don’t know how to use a roundabout, and quite often they don’t use their indicators (please bear in mind that there are 148 different nationalities in this tiny country, so no wonder we get confused with road rules). By comparison, during my visit to Canada I also noted that I felt Canadians didn’t really know how to drive either, using both inside and outside lanes to overtake, with the middle lane seemingly being used as the slow lane. Moreover, not many used their indicators much either, and were rather heavy footed on the brakes, causing me a certain amount of whiplash, consistently.
However, sitting in a car in Bali for the first time, I don’t recall the number of times I held my breath, or just how hard I was gripping the seat or door handle. Mopeds were everywhere, criss-crossing in front of cars, squeezing between them so tight as well. We were driving down the middle of the road – in neither lane – with both cars and mopeds beeping at anyone and everyone for attention, to let the other drivers know where they were. A two lane road will sometimes have two cars and three mopeds driving along next to each other. At one junction there were no traffic lights and a huge wave of traffic was trying to cross our road, horns blaring all over; for want of a better phrase, “I was quite shitting it!” But we cleared it safely, no one getting caught in the onslaught – and I was instantly reminded of driving and walking around Beirut, Lebanon.
The difference between Bali (and Lebanon), however, and Luxembourg and Canada is this: the Balinese all know they have somewhere to go, and even with the incessant honking of horns, I’ve seen almost no road rage while I’ve been here. The same can’t be said for those living in Luxembourg, or Canada – when they honk their horns, they have angry faces; I have had that angry face a couple of times myself – usually because some idiot on Sandweiler roundabout has cut me up and almost smashed into my car as they drive from the outside to the inside lane to get to the third exit, where’s the common sense in that?! However, the Balinese and Lebanese just tended to be quite smilely, or indifferent, actually.
The roads were packed from Denpasar down to Kuta Padma, but my friend knew where she was going and we found the alley I needed to walk down to get to the hotel. I say alley, the Balinese call them streets (jalen = street), and I guess if one can drive a moped and car down it, then it is a street, but at just larger than the width of a car, I’d personally call it an alley.
And thank goodness for The Island Bali Hotel being right at the bottom of that alley – had I stayed on the main road, closer to the beach, I would have had the pleasure (ahem) of listening to rock music and live Balinese bands all night from the bars open late, not to mention the hundreds of drunk Australians that seemed to be everywhere I looked (and listened).
Wow, what a cool little hotel – the entrance is it’s restaurant area, with split levels, low tables and cushions for seating, and further back is the small pool and another chill out area. My room was lovely – the bed was big, and the bathroom was instead a wet room. I had a quick shower and then headed out to find the beach.
Whenever I go on holiday near the sea, it’s my first ritual to stick my feet and hands in the sand, relishing the feel between my toes and fingers while reminding myself of my own childhood, and some of the happiest moments of my life. I love to simply sit still and listen to the sounds of the waves crashing. There was only one couple on the beach that I could see, otherwise, for an hour or so, it was just me and the sea and the sky.
On the way back to the hotel, I found a little warung serving mainly Indonesian food, with fewer Australians in it than other bars and cafe’s on the same street. Looking at the menu, I picked a clear chicken noodle soup – soto ayam – and calamari rings with sambal (a traditional Balinese mix of chilli and soy sauce), which was absolutely divine! I completely didn’t read that the soup had boiled eggs in it – I’m not too keen on them – but my goodness it was delicious; so healthy and light too! And of course, I couldn’t go to Bali and not try Bintang beer – it’s alright, but made me real sleepy, so I found my way back to the hotel with ease, and lay my head down to sleep.
Next morning, breakfast consisted of sourdough toasted bread and strawberry jam, fresh tropical fruit salad as well as fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee. I think I’m in heaven! I spoke with a traveller next to me, who suggested I definitely visit Ubud, as well as the Gilli Islands and Lombok, especially if I was planning on doing any diving. Wait, diving?! Damn, I’d forgotten I could get PADI certified out here! I could feel my excitement building, but first things first, I wanted to swim in the sea.
Popping my bikini on, I headed back down to the beach – most of the small shops along Jalen Padma Utara already open for business, Balinese asking if I’d like a massage or to buy saris or jewellery. It’s rather overwhelming as a first time “boulay” (= foreigner) to be approached in this manner – it reminds me of what Arabs are like at markets; absolutely great at getting clients interested in their wares, and then haggling for all one’s worth.
The beach in the meantime had come alive since the quiet of the night before, with large kites flying in the sky to inform you Mia’s or Johnie’s bar is open. I saw some sun loungers and decided to take a seat – a Balinese man introduced himself as Adrien, stating the price of the seat is IDR 75,000 for the day (approx. EUR 5). I only had IDR 70k, so asked if that was okay, and if he could chuck a bottle of water in too as I had no money left after that – to which he smiled and nodded. Yes, yes, I know that was a lot of cash for Bali, but it was my first day, and I really couldn’t be bothered bartering the price down further.
The Balinese are incredibly friendly – I’m unsure if they believe that if they use your name, you are more likely to spend money with them in some way, or that maybe one will feel bad if one doesn’t buy from them because you’re on first name basis, and they know this. I had been warned not to buy anything straight away as “they can smell a newbie”, so I couldn’t help smiling at seeing these warnings come to life in front of my eyes. During the next few hours I was approached by Sue, Eddie, Martina and Ricky. Again, I couldn’t help laughing inside at the westernised names they had chosen – personally, I really like to know people’s real names, because it’s respectful, and moreover, it’s more interesting to hear Balinese names than the usual western ones. I know they are trying to make it easier for us “boulay”, but really, it’s a pleasure to learn new ways of twisting ones tongue!
Needless to say, I purchased a couple of wooden bangles and leather bracelets, as well as a sari – all of which will find their way to friends at home.
Aside from that, I was thrilled to wade into the sea, then swim out as far as the furthest surfers were sitting on their boards, waiting to ride their next big wave – because the waves were massive in comparison to little me. But I’d learned from my trip to Australia a couple years back that you dive into – and therefore under – the waves as they come rolling towards you, so you don’t get caught up in the surf and thrown about. I was relishing every bob up and down, lying on my back, face up to the sky, and then every wave crashingly coming towards me.
After several dips in the sea, I was obviously drying off in the sun, and randomly being approached by either Sue, Martina, Ricky or Eddie. At about lunchtime I decided to head back to the hotel. On seeing my reflection in the mirror, I recall thinking, “Hoorah, look at those tan lines – I’m so brown!” And with that happy thought I decided a little sleep before dinner was in order.
I woke up at around 6pm and went to get changed before heading out for some dinner. “Hmmm… the cotton is a bit rough on my skin this eve” – typically for me, I had actually forgotten about sunscreen lotion – oops! – and was only just realising that I had actually burned myself. I felt like such a sun dried tomato! Regardless, the beach and the sunset were calling me, and so I took my burned self down to the same spot as earlier, saying hi to Adrien who grabbed me a beer and seated my in one of those big soft comfy chairs on the sand. Of course, Eddie, Ricky, Sue and Martina were still asking if I’d like to buy anything – I almost missed the sunset!
It was just beautiful. People were flying kites in the last of the suns rays, and when it got dark, they were lighting firecrackers in the sand.
Next thing, a young guy approaches, selling those firecrackers. He, like everyone I meet here, wants to sell them to me. We get to chatting, asking him what he does apart from sell firecrackers in order to survive. Straight out with it, he tells me he sells drugs. I’m thinking to myself, “woah, does every foreigner always want drugs, and is it really so open here that someone would just come out with it like that?! Okay…” So of course I politely inquire what sort… “Uppers mainly,” he says, “speed, ephedrine…” What the hell is ephedrine?! Naturally I ask if he also sells marijuana… “Yes! You want some?!”
For my part I am completely aware of the laws in Indonesia dictating the possession and ownership of drugs, specifically marijuana. If it’s just a few grams, you could face up to 10 years imprisonment, and anymore, or should they suspect you’re a dealer, it means a death sentence. However I was curious – what does Bali weed taste like? Is it as potent as that found in Europe, specifically Amsterdam?
The answer, in short, is no.
If you’ve ever had a taste of Thai stick, or Thai weed, you will recognise the weed in Bali – it’s quite plant like. At EUR 50 for five grams, it would have cost the same as in Luxembourg, or Amsterdam (depending on the sort), though I knew he was only giving me that price because I was fresh off the boat and could have bartered him down further.
But seriously, I can’t believe the fact that wherever I go in the world, I just sit down, and weed finds me… I truly believed that I would be spending a month without weed while out here… I’m not complaining though!!! I asked for a joint instead.
So, after the guy with the smoke had tried to kiss me goodnight – “tried” being the operative word there – I headed back to the hotel, with the intention of an early night so I could get up to watch the sun rise.
At 5:30am, I took myself and my camera down to the beach. The streets were almost empty – thankfully lacking in tourists also! It was so quiet, just the birds tweeting happily, chasing one another through the air and between the rooftops and palms.
Although you don’t see the sun itself rise on this part of the island, the lightening skies were pink and orange in colour, and the waves were majestic in their roaring, rhythmic beauty. There were already Balinese swimming in the sea, jogging and walking across the beach, and the bars and little “warungs” were preparing to open up for the day. As I sat there, clouds billowed off the mainland out to see, grayish white against the amber of the sky. Children with kites were getting ready to fly them, and dogs were curled up in the sand watching the world go by while their heads were pillowed on their front legs.
It was truly a wonderfully calm moment, and so I was meditating for a while, inhaling the salty air and exhaling all my worries (not that I have many, mind).
I wanted to head up to Ubud, which is pretty much central Bali, and so after heading back to the hotel and having another couple hours short kip, I packed my rucksack and headed out to one of those little travel stalls they have dotted all over the place. Apparently I was too late to take a bus up, so had to opt for a taxi. I hailed a Blue Bird cab and jumped in.
Again, the drive was pretty amusing, but after a while I didn’t think about where we were going anymore and instead focused on the small artisan shops lining all the streets, and the people with smiling faces, and the roads that are completely broken in most places. Glass blowers, wood carvers, painters, stonemasons… the colours, the plants, the temples on the side of the roads and those in prayer dressed in white, as well as the priests – so beautiful and, well, interesting.
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