Round The Island – Getting Away From It AllSeptember 12, 2010
The wanderlust has struck again, the driver has been duly booked and here we are – off on another trip to see more of the Bali beyond Greater Kuta. My friend, her teen-aged son, a small senile dog and yours truly are bumping over an endless series of roadworks just outside of Sanur, trying to work out why a divided ‘highway’ would be carrying two-way traffic in both eastbound and westbound lanes. And why every few kilometres, the traffic flowing in both directions in the two northern lanes is being diverted across to the southern roadway – as is the traffic in the adjacent parallel roadway. The regular cross-over points as we switch roadways are a nightmare of slow motion near-misses, merges and Bali-style ‘give way to the might’ manoeuvres.
No-one seems think this is unusual. I ask our driver: “Why we don’t just stay in the Padang Bai-bound left carriageway? The Sanur-bound traffic could use the other one.” I also wonder why there are alternating stretches of recently poured concrete and bare, bumpy earth. Don’t you normally build roads as a continuous ribbon? But my questions are met with shrugs that would be Gallic if they weren’t so Balinese. The Teenager remains oblivious to the chaos, nose deep in his laptop. I think he is Googling Bali road systems.
A rest stop in the port town of Padang Bai is illuminating. Our warung of choice, overlooking the bay, has what looks like a mid-day party in progress. Six locals are sitting around a table, and from the volume of their conversation, they have been there for some time. Anything that is said, even a grunt, seems uproariously funny to all the others. This may be because they are engaged in some sort of complex drinking ritual which leaves us watchers spellbound. First, the waiter brings six small Bintangs and places one in front of each participant. Then a cut-down two-litre soft drink bottle is produced and ceremoniously filled with beer from all the small bottles. When this improvised plastic jug is full, a shot glass magically appears, and receives a splash of a mysterious dark-brown liquid from another bottle kept under the table. Then the shot glass is topped up with beer from the ‘jug’ and one of the party downs it in one gulp to deafening cheers from his mates.
The process is repeated until the jug is empty, which is the signal for the waiter to bring six more Bintangs. We watch mesmerised as each party-goer rapidly gets through three bottles of beer and the group signals for another round. But just then, a mournful hooting sound drifts across the harbour – apparently the signal that the ferry to Lombok is ready to depart. The revellers leap up, clutching a fresh bottle each, and lumber somewhat unsteadily towards the ferry. I notice for the first time that they all have company T-shirts proclaiming them to be ship’s crew. I resolve that any future visit to Lombok will be by air.
We drive on through picturesque Candi Dasa and cut inland. We are staying at sleepy Amed. I hear the diving is excellent, but as none of us have the time, inclination, or training we content ourselves with relaxing, eating and talking to the locals, who are wonderfully hospitable and friendly. They are fascinated by our little Jack Russell, who is so different to Bali dogs that they are not convinced that it is even a dog. There are times where I have my doubts as well, because she behaves like an elderly aunt.
Another scenic drive brings us to Lovina for the next overnight stay, followed by a meander along spectacular mountain roads past the prosperous-looking village of Kayu Putih and the magnificent Lakes Tamblingan and Buyan. We pass amazing rice terraces suspended high on sheer hillsides. The Teenager is too busy to see them, because he is Googling for images of rice paddies for his homework. At least he is impressed with the temple ceremonies at Lake Beratan, although the wonderfully syncopated complexities of the massed gamelan orchestra don’t seem to move him as much as the sight of nearby food stalls. But that’s understandable – he is a teenager, he hasn’t eaten for nearly 40 minutes, and is probably starving.
Then, as we approach Mengwi on the way home to the chaotic south, something happens that stops our hearts momentarily. While gridlocked in traffic, we see a little girl, maybe five years old, squatting on her haunches on the side of the road overlooking a deep river valley. She looks like she is poised on the edge of space, toes hanging over the precipice, staring out over the drop. We are frozen. Our driver calls out to her: “Hati hati! Be careful!” Her startled response to his warning is to jump up, overbalance – and disappear into the void. We scream; the driver fumbles with his belt, ready to leap out of the car and run to the edge.
But she suddenly reappears, facing us, arms wide, laughing with glee. She has jumped down to a hidden ledge just below road level, then, after an exquisitely-timed delay, popped back up to see our reaction. Balinese humour. I debate whether to make an appointment for a new pacemaker or hurl her into the valley myself.
But it sort of feels like home. You know – sitting in a traffic jam, breathing exhaust, watching the crowds, and being the victim of yet another practical joke. At least I know I’m back in South Bali, where the chaos and the quirkiness is a way of life.