Posts Tagged ‘beach’


Judgement – With An Ironic Twist

March 24, 2014

So here I am again at the beach warung, relaxing and pondering the manifest benefits of living in Bali. The two twenty-somethings sitting nearby are deep in conversation, discussing and dissecting every man that walks past. They avidly gawk at body shapes, musculature, degree of hirsuteness, perceived cockiness and body language and acerbically comment on each attribute. And from this superficial data, they somehow manage to glean an astonishing insight into the characters, histories, backgrounds and personalities of the men in the passing parade.

“OMG, look at him – betcha he’s a wife-basher!” and “What a creep. He’s gonna hit on us in a minute!” (he didn’t) and “That one’s a rapist for sure” and “Looks like my loser ex-boyfriend.” and “Wow! How arrogant is he?” and “Body like that should be banned from the beach”. This opinionated, ugly profiling goes on for a good five minutes, until another unfortunate male walks past the judgemental duo who are about to rip him to pieces.

They freeze for a moment, because this one has committed the cardinal sin – he is wearing Speedos. Well! He cops the full vitriolic treatment, despite looking quite presentable. His black briefs aren’t overly tight and they are certainly not revealing, except in the vague Christo sense that there may be an underlying architectural structure under the drapery. But that doesn’t stop the peanut gallery.

“Disgusting! Look at that – showing off his junk like that!” “Yeah, I can’t stand exhibitionists! Why don’t they wear proper gear?” (I presume she means those Truly Silly Pants that make grown men look like toddlers wearing hand-me-downs.) “What a sleaze-bag. Betcha he’s a flasher …” and so on until the poor unfashionable man, blessedly oblivious to the slander,  disappears from sight.


Then comes the interesting bit. As the women leave the beach bar, they shed their sarongs, leaving them clad in their bikinis. Both their tops seem to have been carefully selected to show maximum cleavage, considerable side-boob, more under-boob than strictly necessary, and a carefully-engineered gape at the front, which they skilfully employ while leaning over to check their toenails.  Several times, in fact, and always in the direction of an audience.

Their bikini bottoms, which incidentally are about a quarter the size of the aforementioned offending Speedos, are of a pale, clingy material that displays prodigious amounts of gluteus maximus at the back, while their fronts feature astonishingly prominent camel toes of almost gynaecological detail. They make Speedos look like empty garbage bags. Their several slow, deliberate pirouettes in front of patrons as they left the place ensured that no-one, but no-one, would miss their all too obvious gender markers.

And before you leap to attack me, I am not judging these women’s attire, or their social display behaviour, or their right to comment on the physical appearance of men. God knows women have had enough of that from men over the decades, and maybe some feel it’s time for payback.

But I do respond negatively to rank hypocrisy, and to attitudes that are based on “Do as I say, not as I do.” or “One rule for me, another for you.” Maybe some people who hold these attitudes are blind to their part in the grand Game of Life, or maybe some just want to play by their rules alone.

That’s why I suspect that, for these women, the irony of their performance totally escaped them.


The Marquee Job – A Metaphor For The Planning Process In Bali?

May 1, 2013

Bali has many attractions to tempt visitors. Its culture is alluring, the scenery is stunning – once you get away from the The Great Southern Urban Blight – and the opportunities to relax are boundless. With proper planning,  sustainable policies and infrastructure that matches its population, it could be fabulous.

Good planning would mean that hotel and condominium permits are curtailed to match demand. Instead, permits are issued at the whim of Regents who can not see beyond the windfall of the ‘special fees’ that such permits deliver. The resulting oversupply of beds means that competition for guests is fierce.

But instead of competition driving down the high room tariffs, hoteliers have been told by the government that a ‘fixed price’ regimen is to be implemented for accommodation. Ostensibly to maintain the perception of ‘quality’, the real reason is obvious. Lower room tariffs mean a reduction in the government tax take. Hoteliers are now being threatened with loss of their star rating if they reduce prices in line with the normal rules of supply and demand. A modicum of long-term planning could have avoided this ridiculous situation.

Good planning would also mean that supplies of electricity and water were sufficient for both the existing and the projected population. It would also involve introducing methods of conserving and recycling both water and energy. Proper planning would avoid the situation we see regularly here – load-shedding power blackouts, a poor water supply and distribution system, and salt-water contamination of ground wells. But there is little evidence of any such planning.

Good planning would mean that purchasers of cars here would have to demonstrate that they actually have somewhere to park the things, instead of clogging up every narrow road and gang outside their garage-less dwellings. Pro-active registration policies could reduce the increasing numbers of over-sized private cars, bought for status – and invariably on credit – which try to squeeze into narrow streets, causing monumental traffic jams.

Good planning, and proper information channels, would mean that owners of restaurants, stalls and other businesses would know in advance when visitor peaks are expected. Right now, the owners of hundreds of businesses are staring glumly out into the streets, wondering where their customers are. They are oblivious to the dates of school holidays and other tourism-drivers, because no-one has told them and they haven’t bothered to find out.  So they let their staff go, without pay, until suddenly the tourists are back and everyone is under-staffed and under-stocked. There is no planning for peaks and troughs, and so the mad oscillations continue.

I fear that planning, at any level, is not one of Bali’s strengths. The government seems to show little evidence of strategic long-term planning, and individuals seem to show little tactical planning ability. When action is taken, it tends to be reactive, and there seems to be little understanding of the consequences of those actions. Maybe that’s why there is so much back-flipping on policies, so many abandoned projects and so much confusion here.

Sitting and watching preparations for a wedding at a little beach restaurant in Petitenget, I witness a  perfect example of the ‘no planning’ mindset that seems to afflict Bali. In this microcosm of what is happening here on a larger scale every day, I watch a group of industrious lads meticulously setting up a marquee and table on the beach sand. They have been doing this for the last 90 minutes, perhaps ten metres from the water. The tide is coming in.

Planning Ahead - Setting Up The Marquee

Planning Ahead – Time And Tide Wait For No Marquee

One of the wedding planners wanders over from the restaurant, speaks to the workers and gestures at the incoming waves. The lads stare out to sea for 5 minutes, verify that they are indeed waves out there, then shrug and continue working.

The next wave swamps the marquee and table and saturates the carefully arranged tablecloth. The boys, bemused, move the whole outfit 3 metres back and start re-setting the decorations and replacing the wet stuff. The tide is, not surprisingly, still coming in. In fact, the high-tide mark, clearly visible, is a good 20 metres shoreward, but this does not seem to register with them or affect their endeavours.

Ten minutes later, as I am leaving, the water is again lapping at the legs of the marquee. The boys, Canute-like, stare out to sea and will the tide to retreat. Inexplicably, it doesn’t, and they painstakingly shift the whole edifice back another 3 metres.

I don’t know how many iterations of this little drama occurred, because I left, unable to watch the inevitable. But I’m willing to bet it was at least three more …

I wonder if education might help. If schools and colleges encouraged their students to plan ahead, use logic, understand consequences, and gave them the tools to do this, would this change the paradigm? Would this result in a new generation better able to plan for Bali’s growth?

Or is what I keep seeing here just “The Bali Way”, and therefore unchangeable?


The Changing Of Lovina

April 18, 2013

Every so often one needs what my avian friend Hector refers to as a Short Essential Break.  These SEBs serve to reset perceptions, decompress from the daily chaos of South Bali, and just do some inspired blobbing.

My most recent sojourn was to Kalibukbuk, known to most as the central hub of Lovina – the generic name for a ten kilometre stretch of closely-spaced villages west of Singaraja. It’s a low-key place – which for me is its attraction – and it’s different enough from South Bali to make it either a pleasant stop-over or a destination in its own right.

Since my last trip there, things have changed a little. The sleepy little strip, with its super-low meal prices, its laid-back sellers of knick-knacks,  and its providers of friendly service at approachable prices seems to be starting to develop a ‘down-south’ mentality. Of course, I would expect prices to be higher than last time. After all, Lovina is not immune to the cost increases experienced by the rest of Bali. But the cancer of opportunistic greed seems to be creeping in here slowly and surely.

Local friends here blame the new North Bali airport – a pipe dream that will take a long time to be realised. Even the concept itself  is still in the dreaming phase, much less the realities of infrastructure development or transportation logistics. Yet the mere possibility of its future existence seems to have driven land prices through the roof, and created unreal expectations of a tourist bonanza (and its attendant opportunities for charging high prices) decades before the first tourist plane touches wheels to tarmac.

This attitude seems to have permeated the low-level hawker industry too. As I stroll around, an optimistic purveyor of coral gewgaws tries to sell me some trinkets, worth maybe fifteen thousand rupiah each, insisting that he never bargains, but sells only for fixed price. He tells me, “I will only sell for thirty, no less.” After bargaining for some time with ‘he-who-never-bargains’, the price drops to twenty each for five items. Still too high, so I start leaving. “Twenty each”, he insists, “but you can have one more for free.” I weaken, agree, he bags the merchandise and I pull out the negotiated 100,000 rupiah.

He looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and horror. “Where is the rest?”  I tell him that’s it. “What?” he says with just a hint of fake anger. “You agreed! $20 each for five!”  After I stop laughing, during which his stern facade slips only a little, I thank him for the entertainment and start leaving. He only lets me get a few metres before he acquiesces, grumbling, to the negotiated price – in rupiah. “Pelit”, he mutters as I leave. Yes, stingy I might be, but not yet that completely stupid as to fall for a bait-and-switch scam.

Kuta-style hawkers aside, the place has a relaxing ambience not found in the Deep South. That evening, I savour the quiet at my hotel’s beach-side bar, sipping a wee scotch and gazing over a sea, smooth as trowelled ant’s piss in the lambent evening light. No surf, no surfers – just a few fishermen knee-deep in the shallow waters two hundred metres from shore, bamboo rods held with casual patience. Glorious.

Next day, needing to rent a scooter to visit friends three or four kilometres away (and way too far to walk in my current state of sloth) I find a bike rental place, and discover that the previous day’s hopeful vendor is not an anomaly. After negotiating a ridiculously high price for a day’s rental down to something merely over-priced, I pay and get the keys. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning. “We close at 8pm. Please bring the bike back before then”, says the proprietor.

I explain that, no, I will bring it back at 11am the following day, because I rented it for a day. “Ahh”, says the nice lady, “You are from Legian.” I am nonplussed by the non-sequiteur. Seeing my confusion, she explains, “In Legian, a one day rental is for 24 hours. In Lovina, one day is 12 hours. So I leave, she calls me back, and grudgingly allows that, just for me, she will arrange for the earth’s rotation to be shifted back to a 24-hour cycle, but just this once.

Before she can change her mind about re-writing celestial mechanics, I take off, and immediately marvel at the handling of this little bike compared to my own. It feels as if the road consists of  a bed of lubricated ball-bearings. The steering responds like a startled cat on shabu-shabu, and the brakes are … well, hesitant. I stop and check the tyre pressures, which are unfortunately OK, which means the problem is more deep-seated. Never mind,  it adds a frisson of excitement to an otherwise quiet day, even though I feel like a rhinoceros strapped to an office chair that has been suddenly catapulted out into traffic. At least I have a helmet …

That night, I talk to some locals and expats, and discover that ‘Joger-style’ village greed has surfaced here too. (In the South, the Joger company chose to close down one of its outlets rather than bow to the endless and increasingly rapacious demands for money from nearby villages.)

Here in Lovina, the story goes that a developer in the final stages of construction of a high-class 8-villa complex has just been hit with an economic body blow. Just before its official launch, the local village has apparently demanded ‘village fees’ of 30 million per villa, per month, regardless of occupancy.  Interesting to see how that pans out – if true, 2.88 billion rupiah per annum would be a nice little windfall for the village – if the owner can avoid bankruptcy, that is.

I really hope that this bit of news is not true. Let’s hope it’s one of those legendary ‘misunderstandings’ which are so common here. It would be a shame for Lovina, and its future, if what appears to be an emerging hardness of spirit and Kuta-style opportunism kills the friendly and laid-back character of the place.

One wonders though, if it is the impending, though distant prospect of a North Bali airport that is causing this sea-change, or whether it is something deeper and more pervasive that is happening in Bali. I guess only time will tell.


The 800 Pound Gorilla Behind Bali’s Beach Warungs

September 5, 2011

Bali beach warungs are perfect places to unwind at the end of a long day of work. At least it is for those so afflicted. For me, they are perfect places to relax after a long day of, well, doing not much at all really. They don’t even have a permanent structure, just a few beach umbrellas, some plastic chairs, and if you’re lucky, a tiny rickety table on which to place your drink. Several large coolers packed with ice hold copious amounts of Bintang beer and a range of soft drinks for those whose beverage preferences run to the non-alcoholic.

Watching the passing parade of locals who flock to the water’s edge at sunset is always entertaining. Family groups are in abundance, energetic types play beach tennis, couples canoodle – ever so discreetly – and family dogs frolic joyously in the relative cool of the evening. There are plenty of tourists too, but for these denizens, the raucous excesses of night-time are yet to make their presence felt. All seem suffused with the afterglow of the day, the magic of Bali itself, and the humbling spectacle of this island’s  stunning sunset displays. On the beach, the last hour of the day is a time of reflection, both physical and metaphorical. I love it.

And so it was the other night, no doubt influenced by this tranquillity, I decided that a Bintang was too crass a beverage to spoil the mood. I asked for a Teh Botol –  a bottled sweet black tea invented and produced in Indonesia. It is hugely popular with the locals, partly because it is formulated for Indonesian tastes, and partly because many of the locals prefer a non-alcoholic drink.

But in response, the warung proprietor looked uncomfortable. The other family members who were there helping pointedly looked away. I thought that I had unwittingly broken some taboo, and in some ways, I was to realise later, I had.

“Sorry, no Teh Botol”, said my host apologetically. “But we have Coke, and Sprite and Fanta.” Now one of the things that some locals find uncomfortable about us bules is our disturbing tendency to be too direct, at least according to Indonesian mores. Not wishing to discourage this stereotype, I felt compelled to ask, “Why not? Surely all your local customers would buy it?”

“Yes, many people ask for it, but … we can not.” More shuffling ensued. Finally, after persistent questioning, the real reason emerged. “We are not allowed. Coca Cola won’t let us. If we sell Teh Botol, Coca Cola will not supply us with their products, so we will have no Coke, no Sprite, no Fanta. Tourists want these, so we have to obey.”

It turns out that the family-owned Indonesian company Sosro, which started bottling tea in the 1970s, has been giving powerful international brands, such as Coca Cola, a real run for their money in the battle for drinkers’ palates, winning 70% of the non-carbonated drinks market in Indonesia. Coca Cola’s own entry into this sector, the Frestea brand, has had less than stellar sales. Simply put, Sosro would seem to be an unwelcome competitor.

So my little warung, and thousands like it who want to sell a competitor’s product are seen as a threat to the mighty Coca Cola Amatil empire? Come on! Bully-boy tactics, whether they originate at a company’s head office, or are simply a misguided application of muscle by local distributors are still unconscionable. Beach-side warungs are subsistence operations which barely make enough to pay their expenses. The little extra money that they could make by selling Teh Botol to their local customers, many of whom don’t even want sugary sodas, could make the difference between survival and going out of business. Many locals survive on a monthly income of around one million rupiah. That’s $110 AUD, or $117 USD. Warungs fall into this category.

Last year, Coca Cola Amatil Ltd brought in revenues of just under four and a half billion dollars, and posted a net after tax profit before significant items of over $506 million. And yet they feel compelled to monster the little family warungs in Bali to prevent them from selling a few bottles of tea, on pain of having their supplies cut off? Unbelievable.

One would hope there is more to this story than what I have heard to date. One would hope that there are not just penalties, but also incentives provided to warung owners to selectively sell one company’s product exclusively. And I’m not talking about getting a cheap, Coke- branded cooler either. One would hope that a huge multi-national corporation would show a little social responsibility towards its impecunious vendors in Bali.

Is one hoping in vain? Or is this just normal practice in beverage marketing by the big boys?


The Island Where Air Means Water

August 29, 2011

It’s remarkable how people scoff when I say that I want to take a holiday away from Bali every so often. “Your life is already a permanent holiday!” they say disbelievingly. Or my brother’s gentle dig: “Oh yeah, I’m sure you need the break from your stressful life …”

Well actually, I do. For visitors, Bali is a stockpot of dreams that simmer gently for a few weeks to provide an unrealistic, albeit nourishing soup of experiences. But for long-term Western residents here, day-to-day demands intrude on the idyllic existence. The Bali dream is still there of course, but it becomes a pleasant backdrop; mere scenery in front of which the administrivia of bills, shopping, getting stuff fixed and generally managing one’s life takes place. A break in routine is often called for. Mine involved a few relaxing days on a quiet, peaceful island.

So it is that I find myself on a ‘fast boat’ on the way to Gili Air, just off the coast of Lombok. It’s certainly fast – the four huge outboards are running at full military power, and we are literally flying at times. The Lombok Strait has graciously provided us with a two metre swell on the starboard beam, and the fresh wind creates an unpredictable chop so that the sea looks like it is boiling. As the boat crashes jarringly into a trough every few seconds, the intrepid captain’s chair on its hydraulic mount smoothly absorbs the shocks. On my hard seat, my spine attempts to do the same. I guess it works, because I am five centimetres shorter by the time I arrive at our destination three hours later.

Within minutes, I see that Gili Air is very different to Bali – a lot hotter too. As you would expect, the vegetation is quite different on the far side of the Wallace Line. There are coconut trees and other tropical plants in abundance of course, but it’s a surprise to see conifers and other plants more often sighted in Australia. The island itself is tiny – just over a kilometre or so across, so walking everywhere tends to be the preferred option. Cars and motorbikes are banned, but for those with flagging energy levels, there are the ubiquitous cidomos – traditional horse-drawn carts that serve as the somewhat expensive taxis here. Of course, bicycles are readily available too, but with the depth of sand on most of the tracks, pedalling is heavy going.

I need to stretch my back after its pounding on the boat, so I opt to walk to my hotel along the sandy track that circles the island. It’s so peaceful that I forget that Gili Air ‘roads’ can be just as dangerous as those of Bali. I hear a jingling of tiny bells somewhere in the distance and think, how sweet; it must be Christmas. Two seconds later, a stealthy, but frighteningly rapid horse brushes past my shoulder. With extraordinary presence of mind, I realise instantly that the cart it is pulling is wider than the animal itself and leap dexterously to one side to avoid being crushed by the wheels. Well, actually, I sort of fall over in a heap, bags and all, but it is a fairly graceful sprawl, and almost painless considering the alternative of becoming Gili Air’s first recorded road kill.

These cidomos are equipped with little air-bulb trumpets not unlike those employed by clowns for comedic effect. Strangely, they are apparently only used to attract the attention of a potential fare when the cart is empty. The idea of using it to actually warn day-dreaming pedestrians of impending death by chariot obviously hasn’t caught on yet. I resolve to register my disgruntlement by walking everywhere for the rest of my stay. But I do listen for those tinkling bells a little more carefully. I even circumnavigate the island in less than two hours – not including the three mandatory pit stops to re-hydrate of course – and only have five near-misses.

In fact, despite spending so much time walking, for two days I don’t realise that the roads consist primarily of sharp coral sand which, when scrunched between sandals and soles, causes massive abrasion. By the time I’ve worked this out, my feet look like I have been given a pedicure with a chainsaw. Next time, it’s closed shoes for me. Or (shudder) sandals and socks. Walking at night is fun too. Gili Air only appears to have mains power for a few hours a day, which makes PLN in Bali seem fantastic by comparison. Long stretches of road are pitch dark, which makes carrying a torch mandatory. After blundering into bushes while avoiding the unlit horse carts, nearly falling into the sea, and stepping in countless piles of horse dung, I will know to bring a flash-light next time.

All this exercise tends to work up an appetite, and fortunately there is an abundance of fresh seafood on the island. At night, eateries everywhere lay out the catch of the day in readiness for their nightly barbeque. At one beach-front place, I choose a delectable red snapper, which, cooked to perfection,  is brought to my table with an assortment of side dishes. Unfortunately, the meal also seems to come with free cats. Four of these persistent creatures stalk my fish dish from all sides, climbing on me, scaling adjacent chairs and even jumping on the table. No amount of shooing, cuffing them over the head, or physically hurling them off the seawall makes any difference. They just won’t go away, to the vast amusement of fellow diners. I finish my meal hunched over my plate, elbows flailing at hungry felines. Not the most relaxing meal, but delicious nonetheless.

Apart from these minor inconveniences, don’t let me put you off a visit here. It’s peaceful – but with a mild party/pub scene if you want it – and the views to Lombok are spectacular. The locals are friendly, there are no crowds anywhere, and no-one tries to flog you stuff. In many ways, it is a step back in time, and a very healing place to be.

Just take care when you hear those jingling bells …


[… and here’s some real information about Gili Air from the Travelfish team]


Let’s Keep Cycling Fun And Lycra-free In Bali!

June 4, 2011

Bike riding is on the increase in Bali. I’m not talking about motorbikes, but pushies. Sepeda. Deadly treadlies. Oh, there have always been frighteningly fit expats around who power through the streets, easily keeping pace with nominally-faster motorbikes in our terminally clogged thoroughfares. There have always been those expat women floating serenely through the traffic on their traditional style ladies’ bikes, wearing elegant long flowing dresses and looking utterly unfazed by the heat. And there have always been local kids zooming around on tiny, erratic bug-like things that are obviously an interim stage before they graduate to motorbikes at about 8 years of age. But there seems to have been a quantum leap in the numbers of cyclists recently, and this is getting scary.

Soon after sunset, when the air cools, big pelotons of young riders appear on the roads and continue swooping and darting through traffic until late at night. They seem like organised groups, and are obviously having fun. Most seem to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of road mores – in the sense that they at least – generally – stay to the left. But there is not a helmet to be seen, none of their bikes have lights, and riding three or four abreast seems to be the norm. While I hope fervently that it won’t happen, it is only a matter of time before a car ploughs into one of these nocturnal groups.

Children naturally imitate their elders, so it should have been no surprise for me to encounter such a group in one of the smaller streets in Legian last week. The trouble was, all thirty or so of the tiny riders were in pitch-darkness and all were riding fast. The entire width of the lane was occupied by excited kids looking sideways while yelling happily to each other as they swept around a blind corner, straight at me. I managed to stop my motorbike before any contact, but two of the budding BMXers still ended up wobbling into each other and falling off. Sadly, they both gave me the traditional dirty look reserved for bules in Bali, because naturally, it must have been entirely my fault.

No-one denies the health benefits of bicycle-borne exercise, or that the carbon footprint of a bike and its rider is much smaller than that of a motorbike. Except for the occasional release of methane in an exertion-induced kentut, bicycle riding is generally regarded as more friendly to the environment than motorised transport. And I am the first to encourage it – as long as this laudable pursuit does not go down the same path as it has in Australia.

On my last trip to Melbourne, I arrived on a weekend. I needed to drive to a bayside suburb along a main road which follows the line of the bay. To my surprise, it was completely closed to cars – something that apparently happens every weekend. Not for a scheduled bike race, I hasten to add, just so that recreational riders can use a main arterial road without the hassle of dealing with cars. Cyclists are the only ones who can use the road, causing untold angst to thousands of residents who have to find their way to their destinations through choked back streets that eventually feed into overloaded main roads many kilometres away. Maybe the preponderance of surrealistic Green-dominated local councils has something to do with it. Maybe it’s just that social engineering in Melbourne has finally tipped over the edge into unbridled lunacy. Who knows? While some of those weekend riders are no doubt motivated by opportunities for healthy exercise, many unfortunately give the impression of being self-centred fanatics, if not complete psychopaths.

It wasn’t enough that many of these ‘enthusiasts’ in their visually confronting harlequin-bug costumes saw fit to dominate the only viable thoroughfare, they also took over the side streets. Negotiating those congested minor routes was a nightmare. As well as the displaced cars, these streets also had to cope with clots of angry, Lycra-clad ectomorphs oozing endorphins, and consumed with an irrational rage towards anything on four wheels. They ignored stop signs and traffic lights, cut in, changed lanes without warning, and overtook cars on the left and on the right. Thank the gods that none had mountain bikes, or they would have ridden over the top of my car. Some even thumped my roof as they passed, glaring and yelling “Bloody Cager!” as they passed. Apart from anything else, I resent their hijacking of the motorcyclists’ term of endearment for a car driver. Bloody cheek!

Then, at a roundabout in Elwood, where I was going straight ahead, a pair of suicidal idiots shot past me on my left and promptly turned right across the front of my car. I stopped abruptly, despite a strong urge to keep going and reduce their bikes to scrap metal. Incensed, they promptly yelled abuse at me for daring to get in their way, for daring to drive a car, and for “destroying the planet”. Wow! L’il ol’ me – actually inciting passion in someone. Then, like a disturbed wasp nest, the other riders in the area swarmed to the defence of the aggrieved riders. Several dozen of them immediately entered the roundabout and circled endlessly, screaming epithets at me – and at all the other drivers blocked from entering the intersection. Very mature. After five minutes of this, they apparently decided I had completed my penance and rode off to find other targets.

But that’s Melbourne; this is Bali. So far, cycling here is at the same stage as it was in my youth –  a time of pleasure in healthy physical activity, a time of freedom and joy in self-powered motion. Let’s preserve that if possible; let’s encourage safe cycling through education and socialisation. Let’s do that before cycling becomes a hip fashion, a form of institutionalised arrogance and a cult politicised by inane do-gooders who have no idea of the ramifications of their actions.


The Other Bali – Life Outside Greater Kuta

July 4, 2010

The tourist sitting on the next bar stool, leafing through brochures,  discovers that I live here. His eyes light up and he says:  “What’s this Bedugul place like? Or Lovina – we’re thinking of going up for a few days”. “Umm …” I reply, “I’ve never actually been there. I, er, sort of hang around Legian and Seminyak. I haven’t gone much past Umalas really …” I trail off, embarrassed.  “How long have you lived in Bali?” he asks. I tell him a year. He leans back on the stool and looks at me as I was a new species of mildly toxic toad. “Soooo … you’re not interested in seeing more of Bali apart from just the South?”

I am stung. I am interested, but the terrible twins, Procrastination and Sloth, have conspired to prevent me from ever making the effort. I have all the excuses – the roads are terrible, the traffic is a nightmare, it will take too long … I mean, how many rice paddies do I want to see in one day? But as it turns out, like many preconceptions, these were utterly wrong. Having had my wake-up call from the barfly (thanks mate!) and even more encouragement from friends, I hit the road, and discover what a treasure I have been missing.

A mere 50 kilometres north of my usual stamping ground, I see Bedugul for the first time. It’s cool – the place is 1500 metres above sea level. The markets look interesting, so I bargain hard, my negotiating skills honed on the demanding strop of Kuta, and force a vendor to reduce a bag of cashews to a mere 35,000 rupiah. “Small bag”, says my Balinese driver, trying to keep a straight face. “You want I get more? Cheap?” Naturally, I humour him. He comes back with a bag four times the volume. “15,000”, he informs me laconically. He has the grace not to smirk. Harga bule; harga lokal.

Then he takes me to Kebun Raya Eka Karya – the Bedugul Botanical Gardens, established over 50 years ago. Inside the 120 hectare site (that’s 297 acres!) is a veritable wonderland of vegetation. 650 species of trees, 500 types of orchids. If you teleported a person in here, they could be forgiven for thinking they were in New Zealand, or South America, or even the famous Botanical Gardens of Palanga, Lithuania. The only thing that is familiar there is a traditional Balinese house hidden in the grounds, which accommodates 12 people . And you can rent it! Where else but Bali?

Heading North again, we see spectacular lakes – Bratan (with its 11-tiered water temple), Buyan and Tamblingan, while passing terraced rice paddies of the most brilliant shade of irridescent green I have yet seen in Bali. The road, which is surprisingly good, winds in savage switchbacks through the 1220 metre mountain pass. Motorcyclists, just as crazy as in the South, overtake blithely on blind corners, swaddled in parkas, coats and scarves. For me, it’s a pleasant 22 degrees outside, for them, it must seem like Mawson on a motorbike.

Descending to sea level again we head towards Lovina. Another surprise. It’s not a ‘town’ as such – more a series of villages that have coalesced into a picturesque 12 kilometre strip. But it’s laid-back and friendly and the coastal scenery is impressive. Restaurant prices are half that of Legian and the food is excellent. The vendors are astonishingly relaxed too. “I have sarong. You buy?” I politely decline. “OK, no problem”, she says. What? No badgering? No pressure? I like this place already. Accommodation is nice and cheap too.

I briefly consider observing some dolphins. The operator informs me that his boat departs at 6am, which means having to get up at 5am. I don’t do mornings at the best of times, and that time is ridiculous. The dolphins miss out on seeing me. Tidak cetaceans this time.

The next day, we swing through Singaraja on the way to Lake Batur. I don’t see much of the place, but what I do see is clean. No rubbish bags, no litter. We need to kidnap some of the people responsible and bring them back to South Bali to teach us how it should be done. I’m impressed. But when we get to Kintamani, I am less than impressed. Oh, the scenic vista of Lake Batur and the volcano is wonderful, but some of the people make me feel as if I am back in Kuta Square. The place is packed with tour buses, restaurants with a view are way overpriced for the unappetising kludge they serve, and the vendors are intrusive, persistent, whiny and aggressive. And there are scam artists, who ‘repair’ vehicles they themselves damage.

I come back to the car unexpectedly, and there are a pair of seedy-looking gents crouched beside the back wheels. “What are you doing?”, I enquire. “Ahh, just checking your tyres, boss”, says one. “And your friend on the other side?”, I persist. The other entrepreneur sheepishly approaches, putting something shiny and sharp back into his pocket. “Tyres OK?” I ask, simultaneously shocking them by treating the pair to a quick photo opportunity. “Yes, yes”, they say in unison, backing away. “They will stay OK, ya?” I say firmly. It’s not a question, and they know it.

It was a very short trip, but it got me out of the ghetto. It gave me a tiny glimpse of the richness and diversity of Bali the Island, rather than my narrow picture of Bali, the tourist enclave. I know there is much, much more to see and learn. And I’m really looking forward to doing just that before too long.


In Search of the Perfect Massage

May 16, 2010

One could be forgiven for thinking that Bali’s economy is driven by massages. This most pervasive of industries flourishes in every niche environment,  from sand-swept noisy beaches to purpose-built monuments to sybaritic indulgence, where catatonic voluptuaries lie blissfully de-stressing for an hour or two.

The beach end of the market suits many, but is not really my style. I like shade. I like clean oil, unadulterated with the gritty sand that insinuates itself into my personal crevices and, when combined with the rhinoceros-like palms of the beach vendors, provides an unwanted and painful exfoliation which is less than relaxing. I like a modicum of privacy – and it’s hard to get this when the typical beach massage is in public, and involves a tag-team of manicurists, pedicurists and purveyors of sarongs, watches, sunglasses and time-share deals, all nattering non-stop. And I like to get what I pay for, which is supposed to be sixty minutes of sensual pleasure, but is  invariably thirty minutes of getting lightly smeared with industrial-strength oil which is impossible to remove without ten litres of bulk detergent and an angle grinder.

So having rejected the idea of  touristy beach-front massages, what remained for me was to explore the variety of offerings from the thousands of providers who operate typical massage venues here. This is a task that I have undertaken with great gusto – and what a journey of discovery it has been.

The most basic are those curtained alcoves behind shops – mere afterthoughts grafted on to market stalls for those times when T-shirt sales are slow. They are invariably hot, cramped and lacking in even the most basic standards – like a clean sheet or sarong, or sometimes even a massage table. These are often not big on privacy, with friends and relatives of the masseuse frequently dropping in unannounced to stare at my quivering bulk and comment loudly about my physical shortcomings. It’s not all bad – these blow-ins seem to be kindly types who offer to take my clothes away and ‘fold’ them, or check my pockets for unwanted insects. Or they volunteer to take my wallet to ensure that my rupiah notes are put away in denominational sequence and my credit cards in alphabetical order. Such convenience! Some of these visitors must be qualified healers themselves, because after laying their uninvited hands on me for several seconds during my massage, they each seem to expect to be paid fifty thousand rupiah at its conclusion.

But the biggest give-away that you are in the wrong place is the quality of the practitioner patter. An occasional “Are you OK?” is barely acceptable. Why do they ask that? Have they just done something tricky that is about to leave you paralysed? A constant stream of invasive personal questions, or complaints about their boyfriend’s personal habits is not OK.  But the absolute worst is that whining litany that commences two minutes into the service: “You give me tip? Yes? You give me tip, OK?” and is repeated non-stop for the entire massage. A massage is supposed to leave you relaxed, not homicidal. After such several experiences a decade or so back, I stopped going to places like that and went upmarket.

So began my brief flirtation with ‘top-end’ spas. In these, the decor and ambiance is all. The price is certainly top-end as well, with published rates often swelling to majestic proportions after previously unnoticed tax and service charges are added. Even without the blokey services like sliced cucumber on my eyes (which they wouldn’t even let me eat), the prices were too high. And unfortunately, like some bottom-of-the-heap places, I often found that the massage experience itself was somewhat ordinary, consisting of a wimpy effleurage with little deep tissue work. In some ways, being short-changed with a fifty minute session instead of the promised hour (de rigeur for many up-market places, it seems) was almost a relief.

Where I go now is to what I call the the magic mid-range places – a wide selection of simple, clean salons which are home to some of the most brilliant masseuses in Bali. I don’t know whether it is the in-salon training they get, or whether astute management chooses good staff – but for me, it is a winning formula. My favourite practitioners are those who are trained, but intuitive. They may have their own basic style, but because a good massage is a conversation between their hands and my body – and because my body changes from day to day – I want someone who speaks the tactile dialect fluently, adapting their style to what my muscles tell them I need at the time. I now regularly visit perhaps two or three great little salons, meaning that I have a choice of five or six of the best masseuses in Bali.

So am I going to tell you where these wonderful places are? And who the ‘best’ masseuses are in Bali? Sorry, no. It would be like my trying to tell you what is the ‘best’ work of art, or ‘best’ clothes designer. Massage, like art,  is intimate, personal and utterly subjective. If you are a massage aficionado, you don’t need my help to find your perfect practitioner. If you aren’t, then it doesn’t matter anyway.


Bali: Contrasts, contradictions and rubbish

October 30, 2009

One of the many things I love about Bali is the way that apparently contradictory things coexist so happily.  On the roads, you will find ‘pedestrian crossings’ whose only purpose is to ensure that the injuries sustained by people skittled by traffic are clustered in handy first-aid access zones, instead of being spread over the length of Jl. Legian. Then there are the traffic lights, where red can mean turn left, or turn right, or if you really, really want to, go straight ahead. Less confusingly, a green light only seems to have one purpose – to signal the start of timing for a special Bali reaction test to discover how quickly everyone can blow their horn. The record is apparently held by a local ojek rider who consistently achieves the feat in less than a  millisecond.  

Of course, there is the white line at intersections too – a fat stripe set so far back from the traffic lights, it  couldn’t possibly be where you have to stop, could it? Unfortunately, it is. Its true purpose is to serve as a cunning revenue-collection device that makes Polisi materialise from thin air if even a molecule of tyre rubber touches it. And don’t even mention the ‘footpaths’, so named because they are in fact designed for motorcyclists who run out of room on the road. When selfishly stymied by thoughtless pedestrians who actually choose to walk on the footpath instead of teleporting, these riders need to stop and put their foot down for stability … hence footpath.

Then there are the written inconsistencies. In Bali you can read advertising tabloids containing ads for English classes – complete with spelling mistakes. Reassuring. Ads for pool maintenance people who rarely answer their phones or return emails, and if they should happen to do so, don’t turn up for appointments. Ads with incorrect phone numbers, unchanged over five subsequent editions. Why bother advertising?

Drive down any street and you will find signs assuring you that it has six completely different names in a stretch less than a kilometre long. Lucky I navigate by landmarks, because even street numbers are designed to confuse rather than illuminate. Sure, dwellings are numbered consecutively, but house numbers appear to be allocated in chronological order of construction, not their geographical location. My own villa is the first house in the street, so officially it’s Number 1. But there is another Number 1 in the same street, because it is the first house at the other end of the street. The owner ‘solved’ the problem by telling me to use Number 4, because he didn’t think 4 was taken yet. It’s all academic, because none of the houses have any numbers up on the gates anyway. Directions to get to my place involve statements like “keep going until you see a sleeping three-legged dog, then turn left.” I don’t think there is even a word for precision in Balinese …

But to me, the most striking aspect of Bali is the stark visual contrast everywhere around you. Impeccably dressed locals in traditional attire conduct ceremonies that are both moving and spectacular – next to huge piles of rubbish spilling from ruptured plastic bags.  At a recent ceremony, I saw a muscular local, resplendent in udeng, kamben, saput and selempot – all the traditional, respectfully appropriate garb that one would expect for the occasion. Except that he was wearing a perfectly ironed, collared shirt – with a mammoth Harley Davidson logo emblazoned on it. To me, the contrast was jarring, but his compatriots kept stealing frankly admiring glances at him. I wouldn’t have the courage to do that, but it would seem that no courage was needed.

It’s a multi-faceted society here. Bali locals can be seen taking their beautifully groomed, healthy dogs for walks on expensive leather leads, while other locals nearby take well-aimed swipes with brooms and buckets at street dogs. Small wonder that there were 124 dog bites treated last week at one hospital alone. Karma? I was asked by someone recently “You like dog?” Without thinking, I replied “Of course”, and was promptly informed that if I went to a particular warung, they have it on the menu today. Yikes! I have witnessed gentle people sacrifice chickens at ceremonies, and watched excited crowds of what appear to be perfectly normal people cheering wildly at cockfights. There are social and cultural undercurrents here that I can not begin to understand, and that means that I am not qualified to judge them. But it does give me pause for thought …

However, some ‘visual contrasts’ I do judge. We love our Bali beaches, but all along the south-west coast, stunning ocean vistas are interrupted by the shocking contrast of open drains which pour garbage and raw sewage across the beaches. Their once-pristine sands now frequently conceal festering rubbish such as cigarette butts, plastic bags, needles and other nasties. It’s ugly, but it is fixable.  They should do something about it right? Wrong. There is no they in Bali; it’s up to all of us to fix stuff we don’t like. We all know what to do to make it better. Let’s start by binning our butts, reducing plastic bag use, refusing to throw rubbish in the gutter – it will only end up on the beach. Something has to be done. But it needs to start with each and every one of us. Then we can afford the luxury of enjoying the cultural contrasts of this island.