BALI : 08.04.09 - 16.04.09
We flew into Bali the day before Indonesia's general elections, the third since the country became a democracy in December 2006. While we were glad that there were no incidents (like those going on in Bangkok at around the same time) in Seminyak, where we planning on staying a couple of nights before making the day's journey to Gili Trawangan, evidence of the elections was everywhere - from the military patrolling the streets right down to reminders to vote on the receipt slips from the ATMs. The (English) papers were full of the importance of independence and the difficulties inherent in providing a country with so many people (255 million) with polling stations - would those in hospital get to vote? It was refreshing to be in a country where a democracy was not taken for granted and I wished i could speak enough of the local language to ask how seriously they took this responsibility.
As it was, we strolled the streets of Kuta, Seminyak and Legian, knocked out by the heat but captivated by the sights and feeling of finally being in SE Asia. Rows on rows of motorcycles lined up at traffic lights, thr drivers bafflingly wrapped up in ski jackets and jeans in the midday sun. Groups of men huddled in the shade of trees or shop doorways playing chess with legs akimbo. Desperate to see water, and drawn by the surf for which Kuta is famous, we sweated past stalls and stalls of the same bangles, dresses and t-shirts to the sound of the same catcalls, "Hey meestrr, you like sunglasses? Oh sorree, meeesis, haha!" (Charming) or even more frequently, "Transpor'?" Finally making it to the beach we flopped down on sun loungers under the shade of umbrellas (no tan is worth that heat!) for a moment's peace before again being mauled. The beach was the women's domain, and spying fresh meat, we were instantly surrounded by middle-aged fingers poking at our skin with cryies of "Massaash? Cheap price for good luck for you!" Obviously a massage on the beach was much more up my street so while Jess headed to the sea for a swim i had my feet pummelled and prodded (excellently, i should add) for a bargain three quid. Could have been more relaxing though - delighted to see that some sucker had fallen for their wares, i was treated to the displays of no less than three baskets of bangles ("cheap price!") at the same time. Jess having returned from her swim and together having persuaded the women that we weren't interested in bulk buying bracelets, we watched the sun set over Legian beach as the surfers and fire twirlers played in the waves.
One of the main reasons for staying in Kuta was to arrange our trip to Gili Trawangan, the third and liveliest of the Gili Islands. The trip took some organising - due to boat malfunctions (and our tight budgets which meant no speedboats across) we were forced to take the public ferry to Gili T. WHich would have been fine, until you combine it with a 4.30am start, a short drive, and early morning waiting room, a 2 hour bus ride, a 5 hour stinking ferry, anouther hour's bus journey (through lombok, unfortunately the only part we saw of the island), then another hour's boat journey, all with two 18kg bags and one fractured pelvis injury (making it impossible for Jess to haul hers around). We did what any sane females would and befriended an army man and his friend, who claimed to considerit "training" to carry both his own pack and Jess' on his shoulders. (Thank you Greg!) We were followed down the gangplank to sqwauks of the locals' laughter, "oooh, strong!!". And so began our time on Gili T.
The island claims to be paradise and it's pretty near. Pony and carts run excited tourists to their various hotels of which there are a few seaside expensive (but tasteful) ones, then plenty of guesthouses in the local village, which was where we stayed. Pondok Lita has a few rooms on one level, overlooking a courtyard of greenery where we ate our breakfasts (one of my favourite things about staying in Indonesia is that even on the smallest budgets, banana pancakes and java coffee are invariably served for free in the morning) and it was home for four nights. The days we spent waking up to the call of the muezzin, snorkelling (with the huge turtles that live on the reef just off the shore), walking around the island (one circuit is only 2 hours' walk) and drinking fresh juice (all incredible) but the nights are always more alive on Gili T.
There are really three bars on the main strip by the sea and you'd invariably find everyone you know in there. We'd formed quite the community what with the two English guys, a French divemaster who was also on the ferry a Kiwi who was very fond of turtles and a Belgian who lived two doors down from us, and would spend the nights dancing on the bar, drinking local rum.
in need of a night off (or at least a few hours' respite), Jess and i went on a night dive, my second ever. It was the perfect dive because with your own torch, you were relatively free to be your own explorer, in the nets, around the cages where marine biologists are trying to rebuild part of the reef, hanging above the coral with the fishes darting and the crustaceans scuttling. WIth the lights out, the phosphorescence in the water was like hundreds of dazzling blue stars. We came back on the boat exhilarated ... so went straight to the bar to celebrate.
Our last night came far too swiftly and we ate out in one of the beautiful tourist restaurants to mark it (we had been eating locally during our stay because the locals are interesting, the food really is as good and is SO much cheaper) and had wonderful snapper and fresh salads with mojitos. In full swing of pouring out drunken dreams and stories to each other (Jess and i both get a bit over excited in the presence of good food), we were presented with a bottle of wine... which cost more that our weekly budget. Apparently their 'best customer', "Mr" Frank had wanted us to have a good night. Gili T is great.
So life passed at the most relaxed pace - until the morning we left. Both out until past 5 (at the Blue Marlin 'pirate' party, a theme some people took more seriously than others!), we 'rested our eyes' for ten minutes before getting ready for the ferry back (with upgrade on the mended boat!) at 6.45am. I woke up at 6.42 and blinkingly disbelieving, started throwing things in the rucksack while trying to wake comatose Jess. "Oh, the clock got lost." "Yes, sh*t, get up, argh..."... and, unfathomably, we made it - still unwashed, tops on inside out and me with no contacts in - but we did it. The day passed in a snoozing daze of travel.
Our Bali trip ended with 2 nights in Ubud, a small town about 2 hours north of Padangbai port, where we left the ferry. In my still blind, half asleep daze, I burnt my leg on the motorcycle exhaust which took us (terrifyingly) to the guesthouse - a seeping blister from which i still carry nearly a week later - but aside from this, Ubud was lovely. Despite being 'touristy', the locals were less intent on forcing their cars/motorbikes/bracelets/themselves on you as they were in Kuta, and we could stroll the streets, have coffee and massages without feeling gangpressed into getting them. We spent a morning at the Monkey Forest, a park of leafy green trees and watering holes where monkeys are left to roam freely. Watching their human like antics for hours (including washing a leaf, playing, grooming, and violently attacking the back of a young blonde tourist's head (mine) left us hungry. Stopping at a local warung, we ordered chilli corn on the cob. And blew our mouths off. "Shall i call the fire brigadier?", the waiter asked concernedly with a twinkle in his eye.
Two glasses of coconut milk later and we were off to see a local dance and fire show, which if the operas in China were anything to go by, I thought was going to be two hours of mind-numbing hell, if good for the soul. Surprisingly though, the 100-man choir (more noise making "tukka tukka tukka tukka" than singing) and oriental dancing were captivating, and the fire dance, which involved a man dressed as a horse trampling bare-foot over burning coconut husks, even more so. We finished our Bali trip with another local dinner of mie goreng (fried noodles) in preparation for the 12-hour journey to Java the next day.