Good Times and Terrible Traffic: Selamat Datang from Bali!

Hitting up Indonesia was not in our plans. But the lure of hanging out with some good friends from home in a tropical setting was too great, and we found ourselves booking a flight to Bali to meet up with Sarah and Oren, along with Christine and Hady, in mid-March. Riccardo’s good friend Pierre also made good on his promise to join us from the Congo for a little well-deserved R&R. The seven of us convened at a gorgeous villa Sarah found in Seminyak, Bali, for a few days of luxurious living.

Riccardo was eager to see how much the island has changed since his first visit, fourteen years ago. He was dismayed at what he found: the beach towns of Kuta and Seminyak were totally unrecognizable to him, thanks to massive and seemingly unscrupulous development. To give you an idea of the scope, it took nearly two hours to extricate ourselves from the bumper-to-bumper gridlock in Seminyak and get to a point where we could drive at a normal speed. Keep in mind, this is despite being on motorbikes, which normally enjoy an advantage in those conditions as they can weave between cars or pass on the sides. Air quality was dismal – a few days riding around on the bike resulted in a sore throat I didn’t get rid of until our next stop in Juara. Worst of all, the streets and beaches are inundated with Russian, Australian, and other tourists whose chief ambitions are to attain a lobsteresque skin colour, buy loads of mass-produced trinkets, and party like rock stars. The number of times we were offered various intoxicants by sweet-faced locals points to the assumption they have that visitors usually have certain activities in mind when they come to Bali.

It was very cool, however, to observe that the influx of tourism hasn’t eroded Balinese culture to the extent one might expect. The unique brand of Hindusim practiced here is in full effect, evidenced by the presence of offerings in front of every single home and business. Arrangements of flowers and fruits suspended on tall poles are for the gods, while humble palm-leaf plates filled with small flowers, grass, bits of rice and the occasional cigarette (?!) are placed on the ground to appease demons – the logic being that gods are high up, while demons generally keep low. Even the motorbikes we rented were decked out with flowers and palm leaves tucked into the front lights. Dark, elaborate temples are as ubiquitous here as 7-11s are in Bangkok, and enjoy perhaps as much, if not more, patronage. When we were there, people were preparing for a festival we couldn’t discern too much about except that it involved working for weeks on giant, horrifying-looking papier-mache sculptures without heads.

A pair of grotesque headless statues being readied for a festival

A collaborative effort on a headless sculpture

An offering no demon could refuse

A number of highlights come to mind from our time in (on?) Bali:

  • After yet another full and somewhat trying travel day, finally reaching the villa at 1 am to drop off our bags before heading directly back out to the club for a joyous tequila-fuelled reunion and a little dancing;
  • Accepting congratulatory hugs (and one smack for Ric, courtesy of Michael Terlecki) from friends at home, delivered faithfully and with much gusto by Sarah;
  • A day of poolside recovery from the previous late night, made even sweeter by Pierre’s much-anticipated arrival and some drinks and sate on the beach with him;
  • A wonderful relaxed evening at the villa featuring celebratory Moet (thanks Oren!), cocktails, tunes, parlour games, and… iPad Risk?!
  • Riding crappy motorbikes through absolutely insane traffic to reach the lovely town of Ubud, where smiling ladies at the Monkey Temple eagerly urged us to “buy banana, peed munk-eee??” (note: “f” is pronounced “p” in Indonesia);
  • Despite several wrong turns (and Googlemaps instructions consisting of no fewer than 42 steps), finding our way to the spectacular and unique rice paddies of Jattiluwih, which are protected by Unesco and hefty government subsidies;
  • Turning back from Jattiluwih just as a rainstorm of epic force was getting started – we donned our idiotic-looking raincoats, but were forced to break at a roadside shack for “teh and kopi” (tea and coffee) until the rain subsided just enough to allow us to resume the complicated two-hour ride and eventually make it back to the villa with a significant sense of accomplishment and relief;
  • Being treated to Oren’s legendary breakfast burritos, apparently perfected during his bachelor party in Cabo – a welcome change from the daily ration of eggs, nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles) offered at the villa;
  • Examining cool coral formations at Balangal Beach and sharing a few Bintangs (local beer) at a beachfront hut;
  • Celebrating Sarah’s 30th birthday with a seafood feast on the beach, more Moet, a stint at the club, and a nightcap by the pool;
  • A visit at the villa from Chris and Vanessa, friends from Montreal who are spending 4 months in Bali with their awesome baby, Nico;
  • Taking in the sunset with Pierre and Hady from the immensely popular and curiously-named beachside hotspot known as Ku De Ta;
  • Drinks (at a Cuban bar) and dinner (at an Italian resto) with the remainder of the gang (Sarah and Oren had left that morning) following an exciting three-person motorbike ride through Seminyak (Christine on the back);
  • Catching a glimpse of the elusive “real Bali” during a full and productive day of riding from Seminyak to Amlapura – narrowly escaping attack by a trio of aggressive monkeys on some deserted hilltop ruins near Padang Bai; chatting with a delightful guest house owner in Candidasa; passing through a quaint coastal village whose name escapes me, paying a visit to the Water Palace at Tirtagangga, playground of Bali’s last king who had an apparent penchant for pools; riding in the sunshine through tall hills strewn with splendid rice paddies; and discovering a soup at a roadside stall which essentially restored our faith in Balinese cuisine;
  • On our last night in Bali, following the haunting sound of bells and glockenspiels to find a group of young men worshiping at the temple – a little boy whose job it was to bang the gang every so often amused himself between bangs by playing a game on his cell phone, which was cute.

In short, we had a blast in Bali – we’d love to go back someday and figure out what the headless statues are for, but perhaps we’ll stay in a less developed area.

It’s been nice reminiscing about our time there from our current and vastly different location, the second-class compartment of a train from Kandy bound for Colombo, in Sri Lanka! That’s right – we flew here from Singapore after coming across a flight too cheap to pass up. Today is our last day here – we fly to Bangalore tonight, where we’ll spend our last couple of days with Bevan and Eliza before flying home on April 2 – can’t believe it! You’ll hear more about the last legs of our trip soon – if you can bear it.

A medley of images:

Our headquarters in Bali

Drinking away the Congo on Seminyak Beach - Pierre's first day of vacation

Traffic was slow enough for us to buy and eat a roadside snack as we drove by - we're still on the bike for this one

One of hundreds of simian supplicants at the sacred Monkey Temple of Ubud

Us blocking the view of the temple

"If you make that face, it'll stay like that forever... and you'll become overgrown with moss."

A glimpse of life in the villa, which apparently would have been incomplete without Apple devices

Petrol stop

The rice paddies at Jattiluwih - a feat of engineering and beautiful too.

Covert shot of a cremation ceremony we passed - excuse my hand.

One night, Hady ordered in a Balinese feast.

Happy!

Oren and his lovely assistant putting the finishing touches on a breakfast burrito

Celebrating Sarah's 30th with piles of grilled seafood and fish on the beach

A lovely plate to commemorate the occasion

A tiger guarding the entrance of the temple

Sundowner at Ku De Ta

Wild ride

Grumpy mother monkeys

Rice!

Shockingly these adorable fellows didn't ask us for school pens as every other Balinese child did

Bakso - an epic roadside soup experience

A pretty good venue for a roadside snack

Volcanic sand

 

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