Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bali: Part Two

A very long time ago I started to write about Bali. I got through a big chunk, but there was still much to be told about that impossibly gorgeous Indonesian island. I should have written sooner. It's been more than a year and a half since I saw Bali, eighteen long months that have caused my memories to weather and smudge. I am terrified of losing those memories. In fact that might be one of my greatest fears, to lose the places I've seen to time, for them to fade until they're undistinguishable. So to alleviate these fears I turn to writing. And now, after too much of a delay, here's part two of my tales about Bali, the little Hindu island that completely burrowed its way under my skin and into my heart to the point where it broke a little the day I flew away.

I last left off with Lovina, the small beach town on the north shore of the island. Because I always love any form of writing that includes a map (yes I am a dork), I thought I'd help you all out (and myself, because well, geography is not my strong suit). This is Bali.

Lovina is at the middle-top, directly to the left of Singaraja next to a picture of a dolphin and a little swimming person. This island may seem big but it is actually about the size of Delaware, i.e. tiny. After three nights we left Lovina and headed to Kuta, which is at the very bottom of the map, where the island juts out between the Indian Ocean and Badung Strait. Lovina and Kuta seem very far from each other, but if memory serves correctly the drive was about 3-4 hours.

To get to Kuta we turned to our Balinese driver/tour guide/protector/guardian angel/Renaissance man/friend, Guspur. When he dropped us off in Lovina we had arranged for him to come back and get us for the drive to Kuta, and Guspur showed up dutifully on time. We loaded our bags in his van, said goodbye to our beautiful Lovina hotel and headed south.

I saw a lot of spectacular things in Bali, but some of my favorite memories come from sitting in the backseat of Guspur's minivan, luxuriating in the AC, munching on jack fruit crisps (he always had bags of them waiting for us) and listening to the greatest soft rock hits of the 80s and 90s. On the way Guspur would fill us in on Balinese history or geography. If we saw something on the side of the road that looked interesting he'd stop and let us get out to investigate or take pictures. Our ride to Kuta was relaxed and unhurried. This was not the way I had grown accustomed to traveling in Asia-no death defying bus rides, no nauseatingly bumpy (and sometimes crash-y) train rides. This was easy, the way every road trip should feel.

Guspur told us more and more about his life. In addition to his jobs as a driver, tour guide and DJ, he also coached soccer. He told us about his trips to Java with his team, and even showed us a video of the team he made (and sang the background music for, naturally). He talked about his family, about his plans to build a house. He showed us videos of other foreigners he had driven around the island. There was one English or Australian guy who he couldn't speak fonder of. They had climbed a mountain together (there was also video of this-Guspur really liked taking videos). And it became clear that for Guspur, the people who rode in his van weren't just customers. They were people he let into his life. So many Balinese people were this way, but it never became less extraordinary-how open and welcoming these people could be. It's so different from how we are as Americans-where individualism and privacy are everything, and where outsiders are often marginalized and made to feel unwelcome. I felt welcome every second I was in Bali. I understand on a cynical level that tourism is such an important lifeblood for these people in financial terms. But I also think it was deeper than that. Especially with Guspur he seemed genuinely delighted to talk to us, to get to know each other via the great, universal medium of a road trip.

I could never get enough of what was outside the window. Car rides usually put me right to sleep, but this time I didn't even want to blink. I didn't want to miss any of it. It was amazing how quickly Bali could change, how in an hour it could go from flat, black sand coast to hilly, rocky peaks shrouded in mist to lush green rice paddies. There were glassy lakes, which Guspur told us were footprints of old volcanoes. There was temple after temple after temple, all ornately carved and usually bedecked in various brightly colored fabrics. There were actual, live volcanoes. We stopped a little ways inland at one of them, Mount Batur, a gray hulk of a volcano with a smooth lake at its base. We ate lunch at an open-air restaurant that overlooked the volcano, with a buffet of every possible delicious Balinese food there is (think chicken and pork satays, yellow coconut rice, fish steamed and wrapped in dark green banana leaves, and heaps of shrimp and vegetables). The food was great, but it was obvious that the restaurant was arranged for and existed because of that view.

We ate and stared. I could have stared for hours at this. There was so much contrast-the vibrant green earth next to the colorless, barren mountain. A large crater lake sat at the bottom, and beside it we could make out a village clustered on the banks. Guspur dutifully filled us in on history-that the village had been destroyed several times by eruptions. He said that every few years there was a ceremony where people sacrificed animals to appease the gods of the volcano. As a Hindu island, gods and the happiness (or lack thereof) of the gods is very important to Balinese people. Over and over again over the course of my time there I was reminded of how spirituality and every day life are inextricably linked in Bali. Religion and belief aren't things people partake in once a week or during daily prayers. They're tied into everything-especially the earth and everything on it. 

I love the fluidity of Balinese spiritualism-a way of life that isn't bogged down in rules and laws, but seems to float easily through everything. Most Balinese people are Hindus, but they also place a great emphasis on animism. This means they believe that gods and goddesses and spirits are present in everything, from the smallest plant to a huge volcano. You may think this kind of belief is crazy. You may disagree with it. But if you ever go to Bali, I think you'll at the very least understand the root of it. It's very hard to be in Bali and not feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of nature there. All of the extraordinary things that in most places are spread far apart are instead condensed onto this one tiny island. You simply can't get away from the power and beauty of nature there. There's nowhere to turn that is plain or unremarkable. It's high volume beauty everywhere and all the time. And I feel like if you grow up with that, it would be hard not to see a higher power in everything around you-to not feel like the earth you stand on is full of spirits. 

( Quick aide: My favorite Balinese spirit legend (a legend that Guspur told us about, naturally) is that the island sits on the back of a turtle. The turtle in turn is supported by two dragons. When the dragons move and the turtle moves, earthquakes happen. As a result it's very important for Balinese people to keep the dragons happy.)

Eventually we peeled ourselves away from the view of the volcano and continued our little road trip. As it grew dark we made our way through Ubud, back past the airport we had flow in through in Denpasar, and finally into Kuta. 

I may have to revise my earlier statement. I think it would be possible to grow up in Bali and not feel like the earth is magical and full of spirits-if you grew up in Kuta. Not that Kuta isn't beautiful. The earth part of Kuta is stunning, white beaches next to dark blue ocean. But the beauty of nature is easily overtaken by the craziness and noise and crowds of the town part of Kuta, a place that could not be more different from the rest of Bali. It's Bali by way of Miami and Myrtle Beach. 

Kuta is where the fabulous people go. Okay well actually the really fabulous people go to Seminyak, the beach next to Kuta with the outrageously expensive resort hotels. Kuta is just for the average fabulous person from Australia or Asia who has jetted in for the weekend for sun, surf, and most importantly, the nightlife. 

As we drove through Kuta to our hotel, I couldn't keep my jaw off the floor. Where an hour before there had been lush, scenic rural life, now I was in the middle of an urban jungle. Western shops lined the streets, everything from Quicksilver to Dolce and Gabbana. Trendy restaurant after restaurant crowded for space along the streets, selling every international food except for Balinese. Tanned throngs of skimpily clad girls and shirtless guys made their ways back from the beach to hotels. Dressed to the nines crowds headed into the fancy restaurants. This was not the Bali I knew. I couldn't help but wonder where in the hell was I?

Guspur navigated his van into a tiny street with the very distinct name of, Gang Poppies I. This street was crowded by stall after stall and store after store. Every few feet there were signs for massages and manicures (did I forget to mention that because of cheap massages and mani/pedis offered EVERYWHERE in Bali I developed something of a spa habit while there?). Stalls hocked cheap T-shirts, Koozies, and every possible trinket or souvenir you can think of. Bathing suits, boogie boards and surf boards crowded for space. The van just barely fit on the street. Finally Guspur got us into the front of the hotel we had found in our guest book.

Worried as usual, he stood patiently by the car while we went to check for rooms. It being past dark on a Friday we were out of luck. Guspur herded us back into the car and to another hotel on our list. Same deal. Finally on our fourth or fifth try (Guspur refused to leave our side the whole time, and clucked in disapproval over the rates we were sometimes given), we found a hotel with a vacancy. Guspur helped us with our bags, and we made arrangements for him to pick us up after three nights to go to Ubud. He cast an anxious glance around at the revelry, waved goodbye, and headed into the night. 

Suddenly we were on the college spring break I never had. The hotel was a free for all of drunken twenty-somethings. It was a large, multi story building, with a huge pool in a central courtyard (a pool with a swim-up, fully stocked bar, obviously). The room was luxury, or at least the new definition of hotel luxury I had come up with since traveling around South East Asia. A fancy hotel was one with AC, no mosquito nets (because there were actual doors and windows), and an en-suite bathroom. If those three things were satisfied it was thrilling.

This hotel had all three of those things AND real cable TV. Not the fake cable that a lot of other Asian hotels had with like 5 news channels and Discovery Channel. This was real cable, like cable back home. There was even MTV. We settled into the room giddily, showered, changed, and then set out into the night. We ate at a restaurant near the beach, one of those vague European kinds all over Asia that offers everything from pizza to fish and chips. Then we decided to head to one of the many blocks in Kuta full of bars and clubs.

Now I have been to many a bar in my life. I have even been to a few clubs. But Kuta nightlife is hardcore, no playing around nightlife. People come to Bali simply for the nightlife in Kuta. And if you need any proof for how wild it is you need only know that it is frequented heavily by Australians, who are definitively the drunkest nation of people on Earth (that should be on their currency). None of us were looking to bop fists to techno music next to coked up tourists, so we found a bar a little more our speed. It was crowded, with the usual mix of leathery middle aged people who acted well below their age, creepy European men who did nothing but stare from across the room, and inebriated but otherwise normal men and women from all over the world. There was a band. We got some Balinese beer and danced and sang along. It was sweaty and silly and lovely.

Whenever I was out in Kuta, in the very back of my mind I thought of the 2002 terrorist bombing that ripped through a packed nightclub there, a nightclub only moments away from the bar we visited on our first night. The bombing killed a lot of tourists (most of whom were Australians) and it hurt the tourism industry, which is so important to the island. But ultimately things bounced back, which was clear by the time I was there in 2009. The thing about terrorist actions is that in addition to being cowardly and evil they're usually ineffective when it comes to getting people to stop living their lives. I remember thinking, as I looked around the crowded bars of Kuta, full of people dancing and drinking and in general engaging in much revelry, that humans are extremely and wonderfully stubborn creatures. No one is going to get us to stop flying in airplanes, and no one is sure as hell going to stop us (and especially Australians) from going out and getting drunk at bars. 

I wish I had some wild stories about my nights out in Kuta. But sadly I was too old and too American to get too crazy (seriously, Americans are some of the quietest and least drunken tourists around, WHO KNEW!?). There was one club I was dying to visit, if only to see if it was real. I had read about and heard about a club with a bungee jump. It was in Seminyak (the fancy beach), which was a 5-45 minute cab drive away (depending on traffic, which could get brutal). We went there our second night with the intention to go to said club. We dressed up, had dinner at a cute little restaurant down the beach. Then around 11pm we walked over to the bungee jump club. Because we were not regular club-goers, we were early. As in four hours early. As in at the club 4 hours before it OPENED. Yes friends, this club did not OPEN until 3am. This may shock you. I know it shocked me. It is because sadly neither you nor I are fabulous. The fabulous people go out when the rest of us are soundly asleep. The fabulous people do not sleep at night. They sleep during the day and are nocturnal. Because how else do you go to a club at 3am?!

I glimpsed the bungee jump above a large fence, so I know it's real, but I never did see it in action. This is my one regret about Bali. What I would have given to see one of the fabulous, jetsetters lose his or her dinner while bungee jumping at a club? Oh well, maybe one day.

The rest of Kuta exists in kind of a haze. It feels like such an anomaly, so different from the rest of my time in Bali, so much louder and more hectic. But there were lovely moments. If Kuta were in the United States I would probably write poetry about my time there.

We spent hours at the beach, tanning (and more often baking) in the bright sun. The beach at Kuta is wide and flat, and absolutely packed with tourists and touts.

The good thing is that if you get thirsty you can get an ice cold Coke at a moment's notice. Simply sit up, look around and five people will surround you selling Coke. Same goes for fresh fruit, ice cream, beer, literally anything your heart desires. The beach is lined with people selling surfing lessons. Before I got to Kuta I naively thought I might try one of these. I had rock climbed in Railay after all. Surfing would be a breeze!

Then I got to Kuta, saw 1) how big the waves were and 2) how many people were in the water at all times, most of them on surf boards of their own. I realized that it was inevitable that if I tried to surf I would either knock someone out who was also learning to surf or get knocked out myself by an amateur (or drunk) surfer. I didn't swim for these reasons as well. Being in SE Asia I had gone soft about waves. In Thailand there were no waves. The water simply rolled gently in cute, little lapping movements. In Lovina there weren't real waves either. But Kuta, being on the Indian Ocean, had much colder water and real, honest to God waves. It is a surfing capital so I probably should have expected that, but it still took me by surprise.

So my swimming in Kuta was done in the hotel pool. Oh that pool. It was probably full of grossness because of the spring break crowd who frequented it. But it was so cold, so blissfully cold on those insanely hot, sunny days, when a five minute walk outside drenched you in sweat. My friends and I laid out and read by the pool for as long as we could stand the heat (usually 20 min. tops), and then we'd hop in the water. Sometimes we'd just stay in there. After all with a SWIM UP BAR, why would we ever leave? I remember lazy afternoons sitting at that bar on one of the underwater stools, sipping an icy Balinese beer, listening to music and conversations. One time we struck up a chat with an Alaskan boy (for some reason meeting someone from Alaska felt just as exotic as meeting someone from Poland). We talked, and swam, and drank. Then we hopped out of the pool, dozed off for a little while. When it got too hot we jumped back in, ordered more beer and did it all over again. It wasn't spiritual or magical like the rest of Bali, but it was pretty damn wonderful all the same.

We got hour long massages for ten dollars. We had our toe-nails done, then came back the next day for our hands. We browsed the trinkets and souvenirs and bought gifts for friends and family. We found an awesome restaurant with free Wi-fi (always a holy grail) and delicious baguette sandwiches.

Kuta was weird. It was a commercial, overdeveloped, noisy town full of traffic and tourists and touts. Compared to the rest of the world it would have been pretty. Compared to the rest of Bali it was kind of an eye sore.

And yet I have no hard feelings toward Kuta. In fact I have fond feelings toward Kuta. Maybe because I've romanticized anything having to do with my travels since I left. But I think it's more about the fact that when I travel I become the eternal optimist. I am the annoying travel mate who gets overly excited about everything, from the kinds of fruit that are offered in the complimentary buffet to the little soaps that come in the hotel bathroom. I've seen a lot of aesthetically ugly buildings or neighborhoods or even entire towns in my travels, because let's face it there's a lot of aesthetically ugly things in the world, especially of the man-made variety. But when I travel I have no harshness in my heart for these things. I'm so happy and in my element that I have rose colored glasses for everything. Everything becomes beautiful, even touristy sprawl on an otherwise perfect island.

I like that about myself when I travel. I wish I could retain that when I'm home, that lack of judgement or snobbery-the exuberant, excited way I would see everything in front of me. At the very least I can remember it. And even now, eighteen months later, when the rose colored glasses should have worn off, when I should be able to look at Kuta objectively and say, "Eh", I instead look at Kuta and smile. Instead I look at Kuta and feel lucky to have known it at all.

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