Crossing the Equator to Steamy Kuta Beach

Trip Start Jan 15, 2005
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Kuta Beach, Bali is steamy in every sense of the word. It's very hot and humid here, and the tourist nightlife is crazy every night. I went out the other night to a place with a live Indonesian band with a lead singer who sang in a high voice with only a slight accent - they played Hotel California twice, the requisite Bob Marley tune and other songs you'd expect to hear at McGees if a band were playing.

Bali is a Hindu oasis in the midst of a Muslim nation, and it's not without its share of trouble. The memorial to the Bali nightclub bombing in 2002 is right in the center of the popular area here, and serves as a constant reminder that it isn't always paradise. The graffiti here often says things like F* Teroris and there are many tee shirts that the locals wear expressing the same sentiment (Bali peace, F Terrorists...) - the Balinese people are quite peaceful and happy. It seems to me that the economy has recovered - even though it's the off-season here there are quite a few tourists, there are hardly any empty lots, and the bars and losmen (guesthouses) all seem to be open.

Religion is evident everywhere on Bali. The Balinese women of the house every morning dress in their ceremonial attire (sarong to the ground, a lacy shirt and a sash around the waist) and put out tiny offerings around their home or work: small palm leaf baskets filled with rice, flowers, fruits and incense - all symbolic. I've also seen one offering shrine to the gods that had a bottle of Jim Beam, but it looked like someone had been enjoying that already ;-) They put the offerings to the gods in their household shrine which is basically an empty seat up high on the wall - no statue, and they also put them on the ground at the entrance for the demons. As you walk down the street you often have to step over the demon offerings, but people are so obsessed with cleanliness here that every morning the shopkeepers are sweeping and washing the ground in front of their store. All of the statues here are wearing sarongs - funny to me at first to see statues with skirts on. But the sarongs they wear are all black and white bold checked plaid - symbolizing your ability to choose between good and evil. They believe that the volcano here and the island are the navel of the world, and that the gods live on the island, especially the fertile lands inland - while the demons inhabit the ocean and beaches. I think there may be some truth in that... the guide book I have says that Bali "perches precariously between being Eden and Eden after the fall". Kuta beach, though pretty, doesn't compare in beauty to the interior of the island and it's crawling with vendors and Indonesian men looking for lonely rich foreign women (evidently I qualify). Plus Kuta is frantic with bars, restaurants, clubs and vendors. The interior of the island is cooler, greener and more serene.

The touts and vendors here make walking the streets of Kuta an obstacle course. As you walk there's a symphony of "Hello Darling, Hello Missus, You have look?, Come see, Manicure? You want hair braided? Transport? I give you good price... for good luck" If you so much as glance at anything it's pulled out and offered to you - have look. At least they don't try to put the bracelets on you or anything. I've decided the best way to deal with it is to not look at the stalls at all, or walk quickly behind other tourists who can act as a shield. When all else fails, if there are other people around to serve as potential targets, a simple No Thank you does the trick. What I just don't understand is the transport guys who stand 3 feet apart and hear me turn down transport, but ask anyway in the hope that I've changed my mind in the 2 seconds it took me to walk past them???

Shopping here is honestly a sport, not a pleasure. You absolutely have to bargain, and in the end you usually pay far less than half what they initially offered. I've found (through trial and error) that it's best to be "Canadian" and plead a poor exchange rate because no one knows it off the top of their heads. The American dollar is still the most popular currency and for some reason that seems to mean that Americans are rich to Balinese.

Arriving here I decided to stay in a nice place for the first night since I was getting in late - it had mosquito nets over the bed and everything. The mosquitos weren't a problem in the room, but I saw my first cockroach in Bali and I swear it could've taken on a small dog. In the morning I set off to find my accommodations for the rest of the trip. As I walked down the main street I was totally unprepared for the harassment of the vendors - especially persistent since there were few people walking around that early and they believe that the first sale of the day brings them good luck for the rest. It was brutally hot already at 9:30 AM and it's hard to learn the streets and find particular losmen when the side streets are more like alleys and you're afraid to look too much to the sides of the street because the vendors will pounce. Eventually I found the general area I was looking for and looked at probably 10 places before deciding on one. It's the off season here now, so I could pretty much stay wherever I wanted. The backpacker area here is between small streets, called gangs, called Poppies I and Poppies II. I decided to stay between the two streets on an even smaller but much more quiet road. My losmen is nice - fan and cold water in my garden room with a little porch off the pool for about $7 a night, including breakfast. I picked it because it was the cleanest I saw and the guests were actually talking to each other - some of these places get quite coupley.

I went to Uluwatu, a temple on a cliff above the ocean, to see the sunset and a Balinese ritual dance called the kecak. After borrowing a sarong and sash, we walked 30 feet and had our first encounter with the residents of the temple - a mischevious troupe of monkeys. We'd been warned to take off our hats and sunglasses and keep our cameras close. At first we only saw them in the trees above the path, playing and leaping from branch to branch. People feed them and they're quite comfortable being near people. They're cute and so like people in their mannerisms it's amazing - but they're a little devilish as well. I saw on two different occasions people who didn't heed the warning to remove hats and monkeys jumped right up and snatched them off their heads - running up a tree with their find right after. On one occasion, the monkey peed on the man's head after stealing the hat! It was so funny - the man got so mad and tried to throw something at the monkey, missed and it seemed like the monkey laughed. Anyway, they were everywhere - babies to fat old males - they were there every time you turned around. Very cool.

The kecak dance was very interesting. Instead of having a musical accompaniment, a chorus of 50 or more men make chattering and chanting sounds in an acapella choir. They sit in concentric circles around a flaming statue and most of the dance takes place in the center. The costumes are elaborate as is the makeup, and the men leap and dance around depending on their role (the monkey character was the most active), but the women wear tightly bound sarongs and keep their feet on the ground, often with their toes pointing up. Their movements are all angular and deliberate poses, fluttering their hands and moving their heads, and most expressively, their eyes. As the sun set behind them the dance became more fire-filled with the monkey kicking flaming bales around the cement circle. Some of them went a little too far and some members of the choir had to scurry out of the way.

The other dance that I saw on a different day was the barong dance- a tale of the battle between good and evil. They had some crazy costumes for this one with elaborate wooden masks, and the music was with gongs and the traditional gamelan - a haunting sound produced from a set of medal plates hit with a hammer (looks a bit like a xylophone). The dancing was done in the same manner as the kecak, but the story was more interesting.

At night, Kuta is great. It cools off enough that you can stop sweating for a few hours if you sit still. I ran into a friend from Koh Tao (Sam the one that sounds like Ringo) in the internet cafe here and so I met up with him and another of his friends that he met on the bus from Jakarta to Bali. We hit up the Espresso Bar with the band I mentioned earlier, then headed through the metal detectors into to the newly relocated Paddy's (the first was destroyed in the bombing). It was clearly a tourist bar, with the only Indonesians in the place "working" - officially or not. Sam and Ryan were truly appalled that I knew all the words to Bon Jovi's fantastic "Livin on a Prayer" and even more frightened when I grabbed Sam's hand and made him "Hold on" with me ;-) Gotta love Bon Jovi - I thought it was hilarious that I have come halfway around the world to hear exactly the same bar music (the LOVE eminem here) that I get at home. Somehow I managed to get up for my tour the next morning at 8:30 AM despite not stumbling home until 4...

After that night I just chilled for a few nights - grabbing dinner, hanging out with friends, watching pirated movies... Daytime my main activities are shopping and laying by the pool or on the beach when I feel I can handle the hassle. I left Kuta for a bit and went to Ubud and points north - highly recommended, but I'll detail that in another entry.

My last night here I went out with a nice Swedish couple - both well-traveled students, and Jack, an Aussie butcher who lives in Sydney and is staying at my losmen. Funny enough, we ended up being on the same flight to Sydney - wild. We headed to Jimbaran Bay for fresh seafood, the beach and the sunset. It's the kind of place where you pick it out from the tank or the cooler and tell them how you want it cooked, then the whole thing with all heads still attached arrives on the table. It was fantastic. Turns out, Jack used to work on a trawler so he stuck his hand right into the tanks and picked out the squid, prawns, and some "lovely" snappers. Thank goodness because the rest of us had no clue. The food was amazing, the company was great and we watched a storm out at sea without ever getting wet. Hands down the best meal I've ever had sitting with my feet in the sand. The Swedes have traveled everywhere, and told stories of the guards with machine guns in Manilla, their experiences with vendors worse than Indonesians in India, and getting lost in Morocco.

Afterwards, we met some of Jack's friends who live on Bali - a surf instructor and a pro circuit surfer, and their Indonesian friend. The pub crawl began slowly but gained momentum, ending after 4 bars with a long walk home for us all along the beach - it was a great last night in Bali.

I celebrated my last day by sitting by the pool, shipping home a big box which probably won't get into the US until well after I'm home, and then shopping because I suddenly didn't have a full bag anymore. I'm so sad to leave Asia - I'm going to miss the food so much - so I ate like 5 times that day for a total of about $10.

I have LOVED all of my experiences in Southeast Asia, even the less pleasant ones. I will absolutely come back here whenever anyone wants to go - especially Thailand!!!
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