Having flown across the Pacific on 17 hour flights on numerous occasions, the short hop from Perth to Bali was perfectly uneventful, other than it was via the no frills airline Jet Star, that charges for everything, plastic sandwiches, blankets and $10 per movie on tiny hand held tablet computers, but to my relief not for the use of toilet… yet. Somewhat incongruously we ate our home-made smoked salmon sandwiches to the slight amusement of the entirely Asian staff.
On our arrival we cleared immigration quite quickly as the woman agent, with full Muslim head covering, barely took notice of us as she had a cellphone discretely tucked against her ear and was in full conversation the whole time, easing the transition from formal Australia to the ways of the island of Bali.
We were met at the airport as arranged, and a small pickup truck, with me and the bikes in the back, were quickly delivered to our Sunhouse Guesthouse. Alas, it being overcast and very humid, it did not live up to that sunny part of the expectations, otherwise its a charming family place, air con and hot water, when there is power, including WiFi throughout, and it helps that I can sit outside looking at the small pool and sip a cup of tea, from the help-yourself kitchen.
Riding in a pickup gives a very different first impression of a place than one gets from the glossy brochures with gleaming white sandy beaches. In heavy traffic I enjoyed the buzz of scooters around our car and noted how friendly and curious the drivers were of this stranger amongst there mist; I was also too aware of the large pools of water that collected by the sides of roads, reminding me that it’s the rainy season, and my profound distaste for riding in rain.
The shock of the heat and humidity and the pollution added to the feeling of weariness despite or perhaps being immediately transported to a different milieu and not quite knowing where we were. However, after unloading bikes and bags, we headed to the beach, where some locals were playing ball and others pulling in colourful, narrow wooden canoes with stabilizers after a day of fishing.
A night market was just starting up and I could not resist the invitation for roasted corn on the cob from a woman who had a tiny clump of charcoal simmering. When I ordered two, she with a big smile and vigorous effort fanned the flame, filling the air with sparks and that unmistakeable aroma of charcoal. Within a few minutes she was waving at us as the corns were ready, their smoky flavour enhanced by copious butter and in my case hot chillies, applied with a brush.
The feeling of wellbeing started at that moment and we slowly made the transition and started to discover why Bali is referred to as the Land of the Gods. Having been here 15 years ago, the changes are all too obvious, and like people before us, we can tell the first-timers, I remember when Sanur beach was... For ourselves, I try to keep in check, the inevitable expectations from before and to appreciate the here and now.
Signs of progress include the usual new hotels, eateries and simply more of the same. Given all the choices, from fish and chips to pizza, sushi etc. that first night, and many times since, we had the simplest of Indonesian staples, Nasi Goring which is enjoyed by the locals for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it too helped make the connection to this place.
The first day was spent putting the bikes together, (at least an hour) walking around, getting a local SIM card,buying drinks and having lunch overlooking the beach and the sea.
Having gotten a slow start, we were determined to perfect the technique, and booked another two nights stay at another hotel, (ours being full) slightly more upmarket, with a much larger pool and an irresistible offering of a buffet breakfast, albeit we had not earned the rights to consume as had done zero kilometers on the bicycles.
On the fifth day, having built up caloric reserves, we headed to the famous seaside temple of Tanah Lot. I had given some thought to our route, as it meant going through the capital city of Denpasar, and heeding the warning of guidebooks of impossible traffic, and yet we found the dreaded bypass road, to be perfectly smooth, and traffic well behaved, certainly compared to places like India and other parts of South-East Asia. The one regret was that in focusing on the ride, I did not stop to take a photo of the sign advertising “ANTIQUES, MADE TO ORDER”, a motto that continues to resonate as we continue trying to differentiate the real or authentic Bali from the made to order Bali experience, in luxury villas, with private pools etc.
Sadly, even the trusted bible of the backpacker and off the beaten traveler has bought into the crass theater of the "Bali experience",which can only be considered as conspicous consumption, such that the Lonely Planet is now calling the Four Seasons and similar hotels as its TOP CHOICE, at prices starting at $800 per night.
Paul Theroux’s comment seems so appropriate, "Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world".
In contrast, we have had perfectly comfortable accommodations, ranging from $15 to $30 per night, often in small family establishments where the smiles and welcome were genuine. We also had the ability to compare and contrast places to stay, gently negotiate prices until a place said “hello”. In Tanah Lot, we stayed at Dewi Sinta, that same comfortable hotel, overlooking the pool, where we stayed 15 years ago, but LP no longer deems it worthy of mention.
Beyond the souvenir sellers, the temple and the jagged coastline is still magical and the army of instant photographers did a rip-roaring business, as all the Indonesian tourists wanted to have their pictures taken of us with them, and we became part of their authentic experience in a quest to know the world?