Chapter 22: "Yes taksi?"

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Friday, January 23, 2004

The views I got of Darwin on the cab ride to the airport Friday morning made me feel better about not spending time there. The city in daylight was significantly less enchanting than it was at night, consisting mostly of non-descript squat cyclone-proof buildings. In the 70's Cyclone Tracy destroyed almost the entire city and left most people homeless, so they learned their lesson and rebuilt the town with an eye towards stability rather than interesting architecture. Not that I blame them.

The flight on Garuda Indonesia airlines to Bali was pleasant enough and fairly short. Customs & passport control went smoothly and efficiently, so before I knew it I was standing in the sun at 10am outside the airport south of Kuta. I'd booked a room for 3 nights at the Bali Matahari Hotel on the border of the cities of Kuta & Legian, and a staff member met me at the airport and drove me along Kuta Beach up to the hotel. I'll admit that I splurged a little on those first three nights. I figured I deserved some relative pampering after several months of hostelling it, so I plunked down US$25 per night, which bought me a modern, air-conditioned, poolside room with a fridge, satellite TV, marble bathroom, and a king-sized bed. VERY nice, and it probably would go for $150 back home.

Kuta is a wacky place. It's sunny, hot, crowded, and packed with people trying to sell you things from their street stalls, which are just steps from internationally-known designer shops like Prada, Versace, and Armani. "Yes, taksi? Transport!" and "T-shirt only 10,000!" are constant cries from smiling touts, and after a few minutes it all blurs into an agreeable chaos. It's actually pretty heartbreaking to see the people trying so hard to sell to an invisible flood of tourists; after the Sari nightclub bombing in October 2002 the tourism industry here basically died, and it still hasn't recovered. That combined with the economic crisis that started in 1998 means the local people are desperate for money, but the majority of restaurants, shops, nightclubs, and hotels are deserted. (Comparatively speaking; there are 3,000,000 Balinese on the tiny island, and there are still some visitors, so the streets are active, at least).

Despite the depressing situation here, the Balinese remain optimistic and are incredibly sweet & smiley - even when you turn down their massage offers! It's also hard for me not to be excited about the cheap cost of travelling compared to Australia. The current exchange rate is about 8,300 Rupiah to the US dollar, which means that 2- or 3-course meals including 2 drinks are often only US$5-6, and that's at the nice restaurants! Speaking of food, it's amazing! That's no doubt partly because here I can afford to eat in upscale places, but the local dishes I've tried, like Nasi Campur (creatie rice & veggie sampler), Balinese chicken Curry, and the local rice wine called Brem, have all been excellent!

I spent my first afternoon wandering around Kuta and Legian. The surf culture on Kuta Beach is pretty intense, and it is heartening to see that the surfers still come here in droves. There are even more surf shops lining the streets here than there were in Australia, and the prices are much more agreeable. Quiksilver T-shirts that I lusted after in Oz but which cost US$40 there are only $16 in Bali, so I bought two. I've never been so excited by the feel of new shirts!

Saturday I had a relaxing day hanging out reading in the posh garden pool, checking e-mail, and eating well. At night I took a long stroll up to the Seminyak area, which is supposedly the new center for nightlife and designer shopping in the Kuta region. The store facades and bars certainly reminded me of Miami Beach with their modern architecture and design, but again the lack of patrons at the restaurants and clubs was shocking. I'm not sure how these places stay in business!

On Sunday I paid one of the waiters at the hotel restaurant ~US$10 to drive me to the temple Tanah Lot on the back of his motorbike. I thought it would be an adventure, and I was right. The traffic is crazy between Kuta and the capital city of Denpasar (they basicaly run together), and almost everyone rides a motorbike and swerves in and out of the cars. At 2pm I met Wayan (most of the first children here are named Wayan, and the second ones are named Made - regardless of sex), he gave me a helmet, I jumped on behind him, and we were off! It wasn't as tough balancing or hanging on as I thought it would be, but the ride was still more thrilling than any rollercoaster.

Wayan took me to his family compound in Denpasar first so he could change and shower, and I met his wife and adorable 9-month old baby boy. The home is fascinating - it's a walled-in collection of open-air and closed-in rooms that each serve a distinct purpose. The temple in the center is the most ornately decorated of the structures. The architecture across Bali is mostly traditional and always beautiful & exotic (with the exception of the occasional concrete shops); it's just like I'd imagined from photos.

We stopped for petrol at a station in Denpasar where a toothless old man, upon learning I was American, smiled, grabbed one arm with his other hand, and said "Yeah! You get Saddam! Get him good!" It's nice to know that the Balinese, along with the Australians, might be the only people in the world who don't collectively hate Americans on principle.

Our next stop was the temple complex of Pura Taman Ayun near the town of Mengwi. It was a beautiful and atmospheric old temple built in 1637 and surrounded by a tranquil moat. We walked through the grounds, sat and chatted for a while, and then continued on to Tanah Lot on the southeast coast. Tanah Lot is something of a tourist trap. It's a famous temple that's well-known for spectacular sunsets, and it's a stop on every tourbus schedule. As such, when you leave the parking area and walk down to the temple itself, you first pass down a street that resembles the most packed sections of Kuta, complete with Polo & Gap stalls and people hawking cheap wood and stone carvings.

Once we made it past all that, we emerged on the beach in front of an impressive sacred temple built on an island that's only accessible by foot at low tide. Legend has it that the temple is guarded by sea snakes, and to illustrate this there's a cave to the left where for a 2,000Rp donation you can bend over, walk in, and see (and touch) the "holy snakes" - poisonous banded kraits that are curled up in the corner and watched over by an old man. He's probably just there to keep them from leaving, but regardless it was cool to see the beautiful black & white kraits up close.

Wayan and I climbed up to the cliff overlooking Tanah Lot, and parked ourselves on the grass for a few hours until sunset. We talked a lot about the differences between Balinese and American culture and tradition, and I especially gained an appreciation for the hardships the people here have been facing since the 2002 bombings. On a side note, that morning I'd gone to see the site of the Sari nightclub, and it was impossible to imagine an act of terrorism happening there. The hollowed-out concrete shell of the old building still stood with a plaque listing all the victims' names, but even that seemed unreal.

Sunset came at 7pm, I took the requisite photos, and we jumped back on the bike for a hair-raising ride in the dark back to the hotel. At 8pm the cafe next door just happened to be showing "Wrong Turn" on DVD (see: Tim's favorite movies of 2003, a few entries back). I made myself comfy with a great chicken curry dinner and a few beers, and thought about how amazing it was that I could be halfway around the world in an empty back alley restaurant watching one of my favorite little-known films on an excellent home theater system. The one other patron, a Frenchman, and the two waitresses seemed enthralled by the movie as well, which somehow made me happy. The young Balinese women were hilarious to watch as they clenched their fists and covered their eyes and jumped up and down during the tense scenes!

I packed up on Monday morning and took the 1pm shuttle bus to the town of Ubud, which is north of Denpasar. It's the culinary & cultural capital of Bali, and it's a whole lot more relaxed than Kuta. I met a girl from Bristol, England named Rhiannon on the bus up here. She's just started her first travel adventure and is on her way to New Zealand for a few months. We hit it off and started hanging out; on Tuesday a South African girl named Tamarind checked in and joined us, so all this week we've run around as a fun little group.

My friend Alexa had recommended a place to stay in Ubud called Warsa's Bungalows; we found it, liked it, and immediately settled in. The pool at Warsa's is especially nice, and we've spent nearly every morning this week there reading, swimming, and working on our tans. The food here in Ubud is even better than in Kuta (if a little more expensive), and we've been repeat customers at Casa Luna and Tutmak Cafe. During the afternoons we've been taking long walks through the countryside around Ubud. The terraced rice paddies are beautiful, and the villages are packed with expert wood- and stone-carvers. I wish I could fit something into my backpack, because the artwork around here is splendid.

I'd go into more specifics, but really Ubud has been all about relaxing and enjoying the culture, so the days are kind of blending together. Tomorrow I'm off on another adventure: I'm leaving for Lombok, the less-developed Muslim island to the east of Hindu Bali, and from there I'll make my way to the backpackers' paradise of Gili Trawangan. Wish me luck, and I'll write again soon! Much love from Indonesia,

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Marga on

You really took some amazing pictures there! I can see that you do enjoy the traveling.

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