There is something curiously captivating about the island of Bali, Indonesia. I spent a good portion of the trip looking within myself for the answers as to why. I have never been exposed to a developing nation and I think that in itself was the captivation. Stepping off of the plane meant stepping into a completely unfamiliar world. Or so I thought…
June 3rd, 2012. Bali Ngurah Rai (Denpasar) International Airport. 5:00pm
I had just finished scoffing at the Starbucks outside of the airport when our cab driver loaded us into the car. Wasn’t this supposed to be paradise? It seemed strategically placed as a sort of pacifier for the privileged tourist who, after surviving customs without proper AC or bottled water, might have already exhausted their patience for life without luxury. On the drive to Sanur it was easy to see that there are just enough safe-harbors of Western amenities that the average tourist could spend weeks there without ever feeling too far out of their element.
We pulled up to our hotel, made our way through the security checks and I promptly bit my judgmental tongue.
This was way worse (and by that I mean shamefully better) than Starbucks.
We had driven for almost an hour through dirty streets lined with dilapidated buildings, shoeless children and stray dogs. And yet, it took all of five seconds to forget that there was a world beyond the gates ofour beautiful, lushly landscaped five-star Hyatt beach resort. (A BIG thank you to Brad for sharing his credit card rewards with us!)
The dream continued all the way to our fully-stocked beach view rooms.
The four of us walked around in awe for the next half hour and then, without hesitation, settled right into the Bali life – luxuries and all.
June 4th, 2012. Bali Hyatt Sanur. Sanur, Bali, Indonesia. 10:00am.
We befriended a waiter of ours who offered his brother up as our personal tour-guide for a day. He took us through different villages around the island – each with their own craft such as wood working, silver making, etc. We drove by endless rows of rice paddies and shanty shops and at one point, a cock fight! We watched as groups of men waited road-side for trucks to elect them for a job. We even toured a Hindu temple. Though Indonesia is primarily Muslim, the population of Bali is more than 90% Hindu and the island is teeming with ornate, well-manicured temples. We were starting to discover what Bali was really like outside of our hotel haven. Our driver then took us to Ubud where we got to ride elephants. The whole thing screamed “corny tourist” but was a rare experience nonetheless. And then my favorite part. The part that puts Starbucks to shame. We drove up to a coffee plantation where they produce Luwak Coffee. Luwak Coffee is considered to be the best in the world and is among the most expensive. Why? The beans that are used to make the coffee are carefully picked out, consumed and subsequently secreted by a cat-like animal called the Kopi Luwak. These beans are then hand-roasted to make the coffee. We coined it “shit coffee” and our tour guide must have thought it was clever because she happily referred to it as “sheet coffee” over and over again in her heavy Indonesian accent. Unpleasant name aside, we had to have a cup. It was delicious. “When in Bali,” right?
The next few days were a blur of beach and sun. We made our way to Kuta beach so the boys could surf – and so Kelly and I could watch our gear and fend off the stream of peddlers. This was followed by lunch which was also laden with one persistent peddler after another. And because we must not have had our share yet, we hired a car to take us to the markets in Ubud the following day so we could buy ourselves the famed Bintang tank tops.
The following afternoons were always spent at the pool bar and inevitably, we’d make our way down the beach or the street front to find a restaurant for dinner. Expats are plentiful in Bali which meant we had an incredibly diverse selection in international cuisine. We tried it all. Most of the restaurants are typically open-air without any walls or gates. Though they have indoor kitchens, many of them grilled food at the front of the restaurant to lure in passersby. Nothing beats a delicious meal under the stars with live music permeating the ocean breeze. And to top it off, the average three course meal including dessert and drinks usually ran you about Rp 100,000 (or USD $10!)
By the time our last full day arrived, we were growing tired from all of the running around we had done. Riding through Bali traffic is tense because the roads are clogged with scooters and there seem to be no traffic laws – just heavily ignored suggestions. We didn’t want to spend anymore time in a car. Walking the streets isn’t any less exciting. You are constantly (sometimes politely, sometimes bluntly) having to turn down street vendors. The sidewalks are hollow underneath and between the gaping holes and the daily religious offerings that are placed on the path, you find yourself in a constant game of hopscotch. S0 we opted to hang at the hotel and make the most of what it had to offer. We started on the beach and rented jet skis. Steve and Kelly on one and Brad and I on the other. The bratty part of me that just wanted to park my butt on the beach was quickly overruled by ocean water to the face. We were off and I was going to have fun whether I liked it or not. I took the front seat at one point and Brad showed me how to “slide out” on the jet ski. It is a maneuver that involves gaining speed then quickly turning left, then sharp right and releasing the throttle. In theory it is supposed to send you speed-sliding in reverse but I just managed to dump us into the ocean. I did get better with practice, though!
Afterwards, in an impromptu mockery of privileged people everywhere, we loaded up on Bintangs and played every rich-man sport the hotel offered: golf, badminton and tennis. Needless to say, we stunk at all of them and finally resorted to something we were all pros at…the pool bar.
June 9th, 2012. Sydney, Australia. 8:00am
Before we knew it, our trip had come to an end. We spent our departure day at the pool and finally made our way back through Bali’s chaotic traffic to the even more chaotic airport to catch our red-eye. Security is no joke in Bali and after successfully passing through no less than three security check points we finally found a seat at our gate. We arrived in Sydney around 6am and in our Bali daze made it through the cold and rain and back to the apartment. We made it there by 8am and went straight to bed.
I woke up several hours later to find that it was still raining outside. It was weird to think that two places, seemingly worlds apart, could be traversed in just a six hour flight. The cab driver that took us to and from the markets in Ubud put things in perspective perfectly. His modest wage afforded him a single room dwelling where he shared a bed with his wife and two children. Rising rice prices made it increasingly difficult for him to put food on the table. Despite what he was saying, he remained jovial. Like most of the Balinese people we encountered, he was nothing but polite and gracious. We may have been the ones who put the unsightly Starbucks at his airport but we were also the ones that paid him a cab fare. On the one hand we were pock-marking his land with uncultured Western businesses. We were coming in by the thousands, talking to them in English and lazily lapping up the luxury of our American hotels. But on the other hand, we brought them opportunities they hadn’t had before. I suppose that is the plight of any developing nation that relies on tourism. The good always comes with the bad. I believe in hard work over luck but this was the moment when I truly felt lucky. I was born into a world of endless opportunity where I didn’t have to know the difference between old world culture and new world progress. I only ever had one. But I suppose that is our responsibility as travelers. To attempt to learn, understand and respect the intrinsic value of both.