The weather was at its coldest when we were waiting for the bus to take us to the airport. The girls, whose minds were firmly south of the equator, had only worn light coats. They were stamping their feet and jumping around to keep warm. Steam punctuated every sentence although all they could mutter was, “I can’t wait to get to Bali” and, “How much longer until the bus gets here?”
The rest of us had dressed sensibly. We waited until we had passed through customs in Indonesia to perform an onion striptease – peeling off coats, scarfs and shirts – to reveal the T-shirts and shorts eagerly waiting beneath. We landed in Bali for our one week break from winter to ring in New Years on the beach. There were six of us: an Indian, an American, a Sri Lankan, one German, and two New Zealanders – an odd mix that never failed to gain a look of “How the hell did you all meet?”
Once out of the airport we were mobbed by overly friendly cab drivers desperately eager to help us find a hotel. We took a ride with the cheapest one who touted an exceptionably beautiful hotel in Kuta Beach. The courtyard was exploding with green growth of every kind. Bali is a volcanic island and remarkably fertile. Flowers bloom year round, trees are a dazzling array of green and everywhere screams of life and beauty. Our hotel was marvellously decorated with sculptures and Hindu shrines, one flowing peacefully into the other.
We found that in Bali there is no separation between life and spirituality. They are one and the same. Tiny offerings of food and flowers nestled in woven banana leaves are placed on the streets and in front of any of the hundreds of statues every morning. From the balcony of our room we could see the ocean and would have had a beautiful view of the sunset if we could see it. Every afternoon a thunderstorm rolled in that chased the heat of the day away and left the night refreshingly cool. We knew we were coming during the rainy season but we had no idea the weather would be so clocklike in its precision.
The excessively friendly taxi drivers fighting for our attention was just a small taste of life in Bali. Hawking goods seemed to be the number one occupation. Most Balinese spend the day lounging in the shade waiting for people to walk by so they can peddle. You can’t walk down the street without being hassled by twenty or more locals trying to sell anything – from rings, sarongs, temporary tattoos, wooden statues of Buddha and Shiva, pot, black velvet paintings of the ocean, massages to T-shirts loudly declaring “Hell with Terrorists” and “Osama Don’t Surf.”
The constant refrain shouted towards you is “Hello”, “Excuse me,” “I give you good price,” “You want massage,” “Very cheap,” “You buy – good luck.” If you feign interest to be polite, you’re trapped and you have to be rude to get rid of them. Ignoring them doesn’t seem to help much either as they just walk along beside you yammering in your ear.
The majority of visitors to Bali say hawkers are the most annoying thing about the island, but for me, it was exchanging money. We converted our won into U.S. dollars in Korea to change them to rupiahs in Bali. We converted half our money at the airport and planned to do the rest as we needed it. It was only at the hotel that we discovered Bali’s peculiar exchange laws.
The Asian economy crashed in 1996 and at that time a lot of counterfeit bills were printed so Bali stopped accepting any American money from before 1997. There is nothing more frustrating than having a large pile of worthless money. We were finally able to exchange most of our money at a rather shady airport bank except for a one-hundred dollar bill with a suspicious looking torn corner. We finally unloaded it at a resort where we ran up a huge tab snorkeling and para-sailing.
You get eight to nine thousand rupiah to a dollar depending on where you exchange so the price of everything seems high at first. Fifteen thousand rupiah for a drink! It’s highway robbery! It’s outrageous! It’s horrible! It’s … less than two dollars. OK, I’ll take five. Everything was cheap. An exceptional meal for two cost about fifteen dollars, a silk sarong about five dollars. When bargaining over trivial amounts you feel you’re taking advantage of people whose economy was devastated by terrorists. After New York was attacked no one said don’t go to New York, but America had no problem labelling Bali as a security risk.
One third of Bali’s economy is dependent on tourism. You can see the desperation on people’s faces when they rent you a surfboard knowing their way of life may soon change if visitors don’t come back.
It was on New Year’s Eve that we felt their despondency most profoundly. Cab drivers and other locals were telling us that the number of visitors was growing to where it had been before the attack but nothing like what it should be for the holiday season. We went hopping from one half empty bar to another until we came to one where they gave us beer for free because they wanted us to have a good time. Tessa, the New Zealander, said she was Australian to try and cheer the Balinese. They kept saying, “Tell your friends to come back. Tell them Bali is safe.”
The rest of the vacation was a dizzying blur of blissful relaxation. We went both under and above the crystal clear water, snorkeling off a dive boat along a coral reef and para-sailing, securely strapped between a high-power motorboat and a parachute.
Jessica and I got a total of three massages. One was a shiatsu – deep tissue massage that lasted two hours and left you feeling invigorated instead of relaxed. One massage was on the beach in the shade of palm trees by three women, and one the full-body treatment – feet bathed in a bowl of scented water, lotion gently and powerfully rubbed across your body by a gorgeous woman, followed by a bath in heated water with floating rose petals.
We swam under a powerfully intense waterfall, hand-fed monkeys at a monkey sanctuary, watched giant bats with four foot wingspans hang lazily from trees and toured centuries-old temples. We went to Tanah Lot, a temple on a rock jutting out of the ocean inaccessible at high tide. At the base of the giant rocks on which it rests, Hindu holy men bless you after you wash yourself in a spring and place a flower behind your ear. On the opposite cliff there are a number of restaurants where we sat sipping papaya juice or drinking from huge coconut husks.
It was while sitting across from the temple that we were finally blessed with a sunset. I’ve never seen the sun set into the ocean before. Behind the silhouette of the temple it painted the sky a breathtaking kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and yellows.
That evening we boarded a direct flight to Japan where we had an assignment the next day. The Japanese newspaper had the headline BITTER COLD FRONT LASHES THE ISLAND. Our brief taste of paradise was over and we were headed back to reality.