Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bali: Observations, Recollections, and Musings

Well, my recent holiday in Bali was enjoyable, as always. This was my seventh time visiting “The Island of the Gods,” and, in all likelihood, my last for awhile. I may scoot down there one more time if there’s a serious promotion on airfare while I’m here in KL, but otherwise, I want to discover and explore some new places while I’m living in Asia.

In all my trips to Bali, this was the first one about which I can truly say the weather was just not that great. There was a fair bit of sunshine, but there were more cloudy days than usual, and definitely more rain than I’ve ever seen there. I’ve been once before during the rainy season (November 2006) and in those two weeks in Bali, it rained one time, at night. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise how much shine the rain takes off of a tropical vacation, no pun intended. It really limits what you can do, and casts a bit of a pall over everything. That said, it certainly didn’t rain the whole time, not by any stretch, and I had plenty of fun. I did loads of shopping, which is pretty unusual… bought clothes, some new Reeboks, books, DVDs, spices and foodstuffs, and a bunch of toiletries. I’m not sure why, but good, name-brand products (like Nivea and Biore) are noticeably cheaper in Indonesia than they are here in KL, so I tend to stock up a bit when I’m there.

As ever, the food was one of the highlights. Apart from the local cuisine, which I always love, Balinese cooks have flat-out learned to cook Italian food, no doubt because of the huge tourist trade on the island and the global appeal of Italian cuisine. One of the restaurants (called "Chasers") in the beachside town of Legian has some of the best pizzas you can imagine. They make the dough by hand , grate the cheese by hand, and bake the pies in a wood-fired clay oven, directly on the stone. The result is a perfect, crisp crust, and as any pizza aficionado will confirm, the crust is far and away the most important component of a good pizza. The restaurant sells any of their pies, which are about 11-12” in diameter, for Rp. 26,000, roughly $2.40. On this trip, the exchange rate between the dollar and the rupiah was as favorable as it’s ever been in my five-plus years of travel to Bali. On my first trip there, in June 2003, one U.S. dollar would buy about 8,400 rupiah. On this one, it was over 11,000. Most of the trip was paid for by dollars because the exchange rate with the Malaysian ringgit wasn’t as favorable.

On my second day there, I met this girl through a friend of a friend there whose boyfriend, a fellow from Australia, had been killed on a motorbike not far from where I was staying the day before I arrived. They were actually making the arrangements to send his body back to Melbourne. I was pretty horrified, because I ride a motorbike there, too. I actually had a bit of trouble going to sleep that night, just thinking about it. Later in the week, though, more details about the accident emerged, and while making it no less a tragedy and a loss, it did offer a bit of explanation. First, the guy had never ridden a motorcycle before, and I’ve read in three different guidebooks that Bali is no place to learn to ride. Second, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Third, he had been drinking. Truly a recipe for disaster… an inexperienced rider with no helmet and a buzz. That made me feel better about my own chances, honestly. Not only do I have loads of time on two wheels in the U.S., I’ve ridden motorbikes on my last four trips to Bali, working my way up gradually from renting them only in the relatively calm Ubud area to riding in the chaotic Kuta-Legian area, to even taking lengthy road trips from the beaches through the capital city of Denpasar up to Ubud and beyond. I’m always very attentive and follow the Balinese way of driving/riding, which is basically to say you do whatever the hell you want (anything goes if you’re on a motorbike, I’m not kidding) and “watch your front.” That’s your only area of responsibility—that which is directly in front of you, and when everyone follows this method, it works surprisingly well. I also always wear a helmet in Bali… given the crush of traffic in the southern part of the island, it’s uncommon to exceed 25-30 mph, and often it’s much slower as you weave around cars stopped in barely-moving traffic… but I’ve read about low-speed bicycle accidents where the rider hits his or her head just right and it’s fatal. So I always wear my helmet. Finally, I would never even think about riding a motorbike after I had been drinking. Apart from the obvious safety issues, cabs are simply too plentiful and FAR too cheap in Bali for there to even be a question about it. Reading about tourists who return home from their Bali holiday in a pine box in the cargo hold of an airplane is one thing; having it happen to someone who is only one-off from a person you know is quite another. It certainly made me just that much more aware of things as I was riding around. (I logged 150 miles on that little Honda in six days!) I love Bali, but I definitely don’t want to die there.

I only took my small point-and-shoot camera with me this time… didn’t want to be heaving my big ol’ Nikon around with me. I managed to keep my sunset shots to a minimum, but it’s hard to resist shooting at all as I was standing on the beach with that legendary Kuta sunset over the ocean, so I included a couple of the best shots here. After seven trips to the small island of Bali, I find that I am whipping out my camera less and less and just enjoying the time there more and more.

One of my friends, Delon, (who I met through my good friend Dendy in Jakarta) went with me to Ubud for a short part of my trip and one of my favorite memories was the hike we took along the Camphuan (/chomp-OO-ahn/) Ridge near the village of Ubud. The overcast skies lent a wonderful quality of light to the dense grasses on the ridge, and as we hiked along the crest of the ridge, we could hear the roar of the river, far below and away. The abundance of green was just amazing. I stumbled on this baby green iguana too, who was kind enough to let me get a close-up picture (no amazing zoom lens here) before darting back into the foliage. Note the apparent Boy Scout troop along the trail in the top picture. They're actually middle school students—uniforms are de rigueur in Bali—and the school is just next to the trailhead.

Note that any of these hiking shots can—and should—be clicked on and enlarged for proper enjoyment. :)

Before heading back to south Bali, Delon and I stopped for lunch at one of my favorite places in Ubud, Bebek Bengil—the Dirty Duck Diner, so named for a flock of ducks who, during construction, waddled in from the rice paddies amongst which the restaurant’s many pavilions are built, and left their muddy footprints all over the place. We ate a combination of Italian and Indonesian foods, finished off by the finest cappuccino I’ve ever had. No joke… look at the perfect crema at the edge of the foam! While we were there, it started raining (we were in a private pavilion overlooking the rice paddies) and our leisurely lunch turned into three hours of waiting, because neither of us was keen to make the hour's ride on motorbikes in a steady rain. It was fine, though… we talked, played card games, visited with some Japanese tourists, ordered drinks, and watched the workers adjacent to our pavilion. They were working on a decorative stone sidewalk and kept working until the rain got heavier (note the one worker who donned his motorcycle helmet to shield his hair from the rain), then they crouched in pair under small tarps, laughing and carrying on. I’ve said this before, and it’s no less true now… if I could be reincarnated, I would absolutely want to come back as a Balinese. It’s really the only way to truly know the intricacies and complexities of the marvelous culture there, and they are simply the most content people I’ve ever experienced. There’s just an innate satisfaction and peace in everything they do… and they’re always quick with a big, gushing smile, for tourists like me, and for each other as well. Once the rains stopped, the workers cast off the tarps and got back to work, chattering and laughing away.

Bali has long since been a bit of a cash cow for the Indonesian government (some 80% of foreign visitors to Indonesia go to Bali and Bali alone), and they’re exploiting it now more than ever. When I first began going, a 60-day visa was free on arrival. That changed a couple of years ago and now, a 7-day visa is US$10, while the maximum 30-day visa is US$25. Considering the huge numbers of foreign visitors who come to Bali alone, this is an enormous amount of money. No one knows where it goes or what it funds. Moreover, when you leave now, the international departure tax is highest from Bali, 50% higher than it is from Jakarta, about US$15… this is a brand-new and very unwelcome development. So for every foreign visitor to Bali, around 2 million a year, the government is getting either $25 (total) or $40, depending on the length of the stay. It’s a staggering amount of money, especially by Indonesian standards… an average of $65 million a year is a LOT of rupiahs. Where does it all go? The locals sure don’t know. I can personally assure everyone it’s not going to upgrade any of the infrastructure on Bali. And this greed (let’s call it what it is) may ultimately backfire: Having to add US$40 per person to the cost of a vacation could well make a family of four or five seek other holiday destinations in the region. For those not expressly interested in Bali’s unique culture, much of the appeal lies in Bali’s affordability. There are better beaches elsewhere, and verdant rice paddies, tropical jungles, and fantastic food are in abundant supply throughout southeast Asia. Like many of the Balinese with whom I spoke, whose livelihoods depend on tourism, I hope these increasingly obnoxious fees are reduced or, in the case of the visa fee, eliminated. There seems to be little chance of that, however. Like any tax, once that well has been tapped, it’s awfully hard to find the resolve to shut it off.

For me, the next travel stop is the island of Penang, here in Malaysia. I’m going with friends to ring in the New Year. It’s my first time to Penang, and I’m really looking forward to the trip. It’s about a five-hour drive there from KL, and the island is connected to the peninsula by the 8.4-mile-long Penang Bridge, one of the longest over-water bridges in the world. Penang is rich in Colonial history and famous throughout the region for its food. Read about Penang here… it’s one of the most popular destinations in Malaysia for locals, so it should be a fun place to spend New Year’s!

In two months, I’ll be going to another island… Phuket, Thailand. That’s /Pooh-KET/. I always wondered how to pronounce that place and only learned it a few years ago. Gotta be careful with that one, especially if you try to say it with English pronunciation! This gorgeous island was one of many devastated by the massive Indian Ocean tsunami that struck four years ago, but has mostly recovered since then. I have literally not heard anything but good about Thailand so I’m really anticipating that trip.

Have a very happy new year and I’ll be back with pictures and stories in 2009!

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