Sydney - Bali, 7th - 8th January
We wake up with the alarm at 5:30 am. It isn’t easy. We have hardly slept all night. We call England to find out what is happening with Ed. Unfortunately, there has been no change. He is still under anaesthetic and the reason for the seizures isn’t yet clear. “We need to keep being patient and trust that the doctors know what they're doing” - Victoria hardly manages to say through her tiers. Ours are also rolling down our cheeks at the other end of the planet. We have nothing to say but can only trust that it is all going to be okay.
We feel lost. Should we be flying back? The forthcoming experiences won’t be true while Ed is in hospital ... I can’t imagine the horror the three of them are going through there. Family support is most valuable now. We will do what we have to.
With heaviness on our chest, we collect the scattered bit and bobs into our rucksacks and walk out on the streets of Sydney one last time. We get on a bus and then on a train towards the airport. One last look at the Opera House from the Bridge. That was it. The airport isn’t part of Australia any more for us. We find breakfast and wait for the gate to open while we observe the planes taking off through the big windows. Passing through the gate is slow, but that doesn’t stop them from holding us in the bus for ten minutes, before returning us back into the building. The captain wants additions checks. Did it have to be today?
A whole eternity later we are finally in our seats and Nic and I are looking through the film catalogue. We need to fill our thoughts as soon as possible, even if it is with something superficial. Otherwise, we might explode from our emotions soon.
Oh, food is coming - looks like things are falling into place. But why are the stewardesses just walking past us? As everything is dealt with online nowadays - we start “digging” through our email to confirm our hopes that we have paid and must receive food. With enough patience and explanations, the tray come but now the debates are on the ingredients of it - is it vegan or just vegetarian. I am on the edge of crying - the day is not going well and it has hardly started.
It is all dealt with. Two films later we arrive at Denpasar Airport - the capital of the Indonesian province Bali. We change some money - the rate of the Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) is currently 18:1 to the British pound, so we will be walking around with many thousands. We find a SIM card even before the passport check - there is no life without the internet. Well, now we can appear in front of border control. Here, they don’t just look at and stamp our passports, but also take pictures and fingerprints. We are about to walk out.
The airport might be modern, but the traditional Balinese motives are everywhere - decorated archways, fences and railings. I start to feel it. In the taxi to our neighbourhood Seminyak, we go deeper into reality. Here, we are in a completely different world. A world of mad traffic and crazy people on mopeds. A world of wires hanging from the poles and sheets hung next to the dusty streets. A world of temples. So much culture is surrounding us. After four months in Australia, we have definitely forgotten what that was like.
We are all picturing the same thing when we hear Bali, right? - tropical climate, beach vacations and spiritual awakening in an “Eat Pray Love” style. If you haven’t read the book or watched the film, let me synthesize it for you: the heroine learns how to eat in Italy, pray in India and love in Bali. Be honest - it is mainly because of Julia Roberts that you’ve heard of this place. But actually, what do you know about it? I will confess … I don’t think I could have pointed to it on a map a few months ago.
To begin with, Bali is an island - part of the archipelago of the country Indonesia in the south part of Southeast Asia. Somewhere between continental Australia and continental Asia. Bali is far from the largest island in the country but it is the most visited one. Tourism represents around 80% of the island’s economy. I think Julia Roberts has a finger in these statistics. Unlike our adventures so far in the Land Down Under, the culture here has been developing since 2000 BCE. And within almost 6 thousand sq. km. live over 4.5 million Balinese and visit another 2.5 million tourists. It is tight!
For me, one of the most interesting facts about Bali was that it has little in common with Indonesia although they come under the same umbrella. The Balinese language, for example, is different from Indonesian. And while Indonesia is primarily a Muslim state, in Bali Hinduism is practices, and more precisely, Balinese Hinduism. There are some differences to the Indian - for example, the architectural style of the temples; The local temples have staggered roofs which isn’t typical in India. The other interesting facts about the local culture I will leave for our meeting with Adi. (You will have to follow the texts carefully.)
The taxi drops us off on the desired street. This is clearly a very touristy part of the town. We are immediately surrounded by straw bags, ugly magnets and bottle openers in the shape of … penises. But with 20 kilograms on our backs, we need to find our villa first. Yes, a villa - with a pool, outside shower and canopy around the bed. But the address doesn’t seem to be right - we walk around like crazy people but even the people in the shops have no idea where to direct us to. And the AirBnB host doesn’t answer to our messages.
Okay, we give up. We are hungry, thirsty and the luggage is very heavy. We will wait for instructions in a restaurant. Just as we order our first Balinese lunch, the host video calls us. With a lot of pointing and turning the camera, he eventually understands where we are and sends an employee on a moped to guide us. Okay, but not now. We are having lunch and we’ll call once we’re ready. Two minutes later … He can’t find you, where are you? We are having lunch, as we said already. More explanations follow and we might have agreed on something.
Naturally, when we ring again that we’re ready, he doesn’t pick up or respond to our messages. Oh, wow! We put on the rucksacks again and walk up the street. We have to be able to find it ourselves again. After a lot of asking and a lot of arm-waving, one guy thinks he might know where we need to turn. Yes, Bali has that sort of town planning - the streets and intersections are so many and unsigned, that even the locals that spend their whole day on them, don’t know where they are. But fortunately for us, he was right - at the end of the small street, we see the employee that was meant to help us.
Finally! He gets off the moped, takes out the keys from behind the bar in the middle of nowhere and takes us to the villa. The street is narrow and dodgy - one of those where you can jump through the window into the neighbours. But I am still excited about this authentic place where we will spend our next few days. I shouldn’t have been. The authenticity turns out to be much less pleasant than expected. We walk into a dirty house with a green pool and non-existent kitchen. The toilet is not to be discussed and the bedroom has a broken canopy and dead cockroaches on the floor. Nothing can be properly locked although we already established that anyone can come in. Complete failure!
It is clear that when one day starts off wrong it will be like that the entire time. And our beginning was not good at all. With all the issues today and worry we’ve been carrying, I can’t imagine having to endure this misery. It is probably not likely that we will find a new place now so we put on the swimsuits and head to the beach. Just in case, we decide to check a few hotels in the area. Maybe we will find a way to save ourselves from this unwanted situation. We go into two hotels on the way, but their prices are far from anything that we can afford, regardless of how desperate we are ...
Just before we get to the beach, on the left side a small cute hotel appears - colourful, cosy, with a pool. Okay, let’s check. We explain our situation and the receptionist quickly finds a free room. Even the price isn’t too bad. But we’ve been burned once already - first we need to see it, then we’ll decide. From the door of the small room, I take the backpack off, leave it by the bed and we go downstairs to fill in the documents. It is welcoming and lovely here, it has a SPA centre and fresh orange juice for the new arrivals. I think it will be easy to say goodbye to the dead cockroaches.
With a quick step, we return to the horrible villa. Truthfully, we are worried about all the electronics we’ve left in that poorly secured place. There is no one in the small side street. We quickly stuff everything back into the bags and are gone like the wind. But not before we take pictures of the state of the place as we’ll need it for when we complain about it on the AirBnB website. Outside, we think we see the host, but he doesn’t react so we just sneak out without saying a word. I am not bothered at all about what he’s thinking at the moment. The luggage is now in our clean hotel room and we’re going to the beach!
Our street leads to the Double Six beach - I have no explanation for its interesting name. It is full of people, each of them holding a cold beer or a large coconut with a straw. I also want to devote my time to those luxuries, but first I need a dip in the water! I need to let the ocean wash me - from the sweaty hour in the sticky Balinese climate, from the stagnant worries and the collected tension. The ocean is warm and the high salt levels can’t stop us from enjoying it.
The beach strip is full of bars while the beach in front of them - covered in beanbags of different vivid colours. There are fun kites in the air. People are buzzing with joy and freedom. Live music comes out of every bar. The atmosphere is filled with so much positivity and calm. We find two free beanbags on the row closest to the ocean - we haven’t come to Bali to watch the butts of other tourists after all. The beer is ordered and the GoPro is set to memorise the sunset. This trip is beginning to resemble a real honeymoon. Lost in translation, we order huge amounts of food but nothing can stop us eating it all.
The day has been so long and exhausting. The sleepless night, the stressful flight, the wander on the narrow street with heavy rucksacks in the hot and humid new climate … I think our decision to move to the hotel was a deserved reward. If it wasn’t for our worrying, the experience of the villa may have been just another unique experience that we could take on readily. It’s not like a haven’t brushed my teeth in the bathrooms of Lednitsata chalet or used the toilets on Tevno Ezero hut. But this time we need to feel like at least one thing is in our control; to turn the series of unfortunate events. Mostly with the hope that will transfer to Ed.
Time to see Bali!
Before breakfast, we stop at the reception desk with essential questions - where can we do laundry, which agency should we use for daily tours and where can we rent a moped from. Turns out, all of the above are services offered by the hotel too - let’s start with the mopeds. Are there any available for today? We are sent off to breakfast while they check. There is nothing but fruit on the menu for us … naturally, so we are left a bit hungry. Plus there is no moped either. But they send us to a different place that has some available.
We couldn’t find that place but stumbled across a different one. Mopeds are plentiful in Bali! We wait for the clients in front of us to finish and we’re learning from them for the upcoming haggle. It’s like you’re in Istanbul here - there are no announced prices anywhere and they are set only after a quick evaluation of the buyer. Nic and I definitely look like we’re easy to cheat. After long deliberations, we get the price down to what the man in front of us paid - 80,000 rupiah or about £4 for the day.
Then the fun part comes - learning how to drive the thing. No, Nic is learning. I have no intention of having any responsibility whatsoever on two wheels. It takes a few scary attempts in the narrow street until Nic gets the balance of the gas and a few others to remember how to start it. But no even five minutes later I am on behind him and we go out on the big crazy street.
With every muscle of my body, I hold onto the near surfaces - the sides of the moped or Nic himself. I am scared of every movement that he tries to make and stiffen even more which then puts him on edge. He starts turning right - I balance to the left. “Don’t do that!” - he says - “It is dangerous not to lean together!” Well, how was I supposed to know? We’re such a great team! The few short minutes it takes us to get back to the hotel, seem endless. We leave the big bags in the room and try to set off again. If only we remembered how to start this machine.
Once again stuck to one another, we head to the seaside street to avoid the traffic on the big roads. But this only lasts for a short stretch as we reach a paid area and are pushed to get out into the circus of the local traffic. From the colourful beanbags on the beach last night, we saw a huge monument to the south-east. According to Google, this is GWK Cultural Centre, but for some reason, we can’t find it on any of the organised Bali tours. Although it looks like a serious tourist attraction. So we will go there alone - brave it, on a moped.
Driving is just as scary, especially when we have to stop a few times to find our way on the map. It’s not like in a car to just put your phone on the front and it takes you. But what is normal in this traffic anyway.
The roads are a madhouse. I feel like all vehicles, especially the mopeds, are some sort of liquid that fills every possible gap. The lines are just a friendly suggestion as a two-lane road is in reality at least four according to the drivers. The rules of overtaking on the right only are more of a local legend. If you somehow get to a roundabout, then going around it is the most unexpected manoeuvre. The locals choose their direction of driving according to the situation. Nobody pays any attention to a rulebook. It is also never clear which is the main road and which a secondary. One day you will pass with right of way, the next you will be letting out a column of vehicles from the smallest street. It is a question of luck.
There are also no limitations to the maximum number of people or items that you can have on the moped. From sleeping babies and all of their siblings to long ladders, street food cards, huge bamboo bundles and whatever else you can picture. (But you can not be capable of picturing it.) You can tell from afar if someone isn’t local if they only have two people on the moped or if the only thing they carry is a simple surfboard on a stand. Amateurs! If a car decides to merge into the traffic, the driver or the passenger - depending on the direction - just stick out a hand through the window and make a stop sign until they get to where they wanted to. It is clearly an unspoken rule that this is the way to gain the right of way in the chaotic traffic. And of course, we can’t forget to mention the constant (yet seemingly random) beeping. Constant! The reason is yet to be determined.
What can I say … driving in Bali requires only one thing - a sixth sense. Even if you pay attention and keep a wide look on the roads if your third eye can’t foresee the following 10 seconds, you have no chance. I can only be grateful that Nic gets along well with his internal self.
Successfully, we reach the desired goal and park the moped. We are both soaking in sweat - that’s what happens when you squeeze your husband for your life. We have to spend a whole 5,000 rupiah for parking. According to a rough calculation that is about £0.27. Why did we stay for four whole months in crazy-expensive Australia, when only 5 hours away there was such a cheap place?! The Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural centre is a brand-new attraction in Bali. It was open only six months ago. Well, that explains why we couldn’t find it in any guide of the island. The park is developed as an artificial Hindu museum in the open - a place where you can meet the gods and orders of the religious in a little less sacred environment than the active temples.
It has not been completed yet. A lot of areas are still building sites, unforested and altogether unattractive for the tourists. But the centre is large and is home to a few huge sculptures of the main gods. We walk by water cascades or open fields. We learn that in Balinese culture, the turtle is believed to be a strong and protective element. A stone turtle is laid in the base of every new building to protect it from natural disasters. And when they build and pour the concrete, the most accessible wood material is used as supports - bamboo.
The complex revolves around the enormous statue that we saw last night from twenty kilometres away. The tallest monument in Indonesia - 121 metres. The statue is raised on top of a sold (ugly-ish) building and depicts Lord Wisnu riding Garuda. In the sticky heat, an unexpected effort is required to reach that part of the park, but perhaps what we saw was worth it. We hope the building itself will offer something interesting, but it is too not yet finished and there’s nothing there. This place definitely has the potential to be one of Bali’s most important attractions and I will gladly come back in a few years. When it is developed, occupied, cosy and wholesome.
After a quick lunch on the terrace, we move to the amphitheatre for Balinese traditional ballet. That is what it says on the leaflet - don’t laugh when you see the video. The dancers depict the story of Garuda - half-man, half-eagle. Though I am not sure I can retell it. There were battles, there was a damsel in distress, there was love.
We are ready to get back on the moped. And trust me - I can’t wait! The adrenaline is starting to get to me. On the way to Uluwatu Temple, we leave the loud and impossible traffic of the “urban” areas and dive into the “countryside”. Here, the environment is green, open and more authentic. If you are imagining Bali according to “Eat Pray Love”, then you’re picturing somewhere like this. The traffic is visibly less. Nic can mange much easier and both of us start to relax the tensed muscles. The air is different. The turns aren’t scary. I might be falling in love with Bali!
With our arrival at the temple, we are given purple sarongs. As in almost every religion, when visiting the sacred temples, covering is necessary. And because of the local climate, it is clear that all tourists will be in shorts, so everywhere we’re given a sarong with the ticket. In most places, they allow uncovered shoulders or chest, but covering the legs with the big colourful skirts is obligatory for women as well as men. Nic suits them very well.
The sacred places here are more like complexes than specific separate building. Something like a monastery but there are no residential or work rooms. There is one main “church” but at the same time, there are many small “chapels”. And now imagine all of those without walls or a roof. These sacred areas are closed off to us and only the monks can enter. But we see something like a small square with countless altars - each with their staggered straw roofs.
The main temple has been built on the cliff edge. All tourists’ pictures are the same and they copy the ones from the leaflets that brought us here. But the silhouette truly is impressive. Further in the park, while sitting in front of blooming trees for photos, I become an object of interest. A girl comes to me and wants to take a picture. You want me to take a picture of you? No? You want a picture with me? And after her, arrive the rest of the young group and all line up next to me, handing their phones to Nic. I’ve heard that us westerners, are a point of great interest in the Asian destinations, but I didn’t expect to be the star of the show. I am not certain how I feel about this, but I choose to take it as a compliment.
We finish the tour with the sight of a few wild monkeys. They don’t seem to be very interested in us, but we are happy to see them. But still, we follow the instruction: no eye contact and we hold all hats and sunglasses securely in our hands. All jewellery is also put away in the bags.
From Uluwatu, we decide to return to Seminyak without navigation. Freely on the green turns, and my hands are now holding onto the moped instead of suffocating Nic. Naturally, this experiment didn’t work out and we got lost somewhere along the way. But so what! People say the best way to get to know a new place is to get lost in it. Perfect to also find a non-tourist market for fruit. All of them - exotic that cost a fortune back home but here we pay pennies.
Back on our super tourist street, we drop off the moped - alive and very happy. We collect our large amounts of washing and take them to a laundry place. There is a wash-woman taking the new orders. She empties our bags on the floor and starts counting the different types - tops, underwear, socks … We will get along just fine. I am certain the locals don’t pay as much as she’s asking for, but it is double in the hotel. How could we not agree? Someone will wash, iron and fold instead of us (me).
Let’s go to the pool then! So far in Bali, we haven’t seen a single public space with walls and that deprives us of the comforts of air-conditioning. And so all day, we’ve been on the moped and inside temples, to the point that we can stick to each other like a fly to honey. Soaking in the pool with a cocktail in hand might just be the perfect solution to this problem.
But as wonderful as our experiences are, in these quiet moments our minds hold on to the topic that has been following us wherever we go. Ed. We start the conversation again and end it with a decision. If his condition doesn’t improve by the time we leave Bali, from Singapore, we will fly straight to Manchester. That’s how it should be.
For dinner, we find the most wonderful authentic restaurant - completely vegan, submerged in a jungle-garden. The mosquito sprays are necessary, but we dine like kings at a bargain price with starters, mains, dessert and unlimited quantities of tropical juice. All you can drink mango juice! How can you not love Bali?
I feel like in these two days some sort of awakening happened to us. Not that Australia wasn’t the most wonderful experience, but compared to the madness here, it seems like there is a constant hibernation there. We remembered what it is like to see something new after every centimetre. What it is like to take new people into consideration. And most importantly what it feels like to see something different. Something you have no knowledge of. A culture that has nothing in common with yours.
In the next story, I will introduce you to the famous Adi. And through him to the many details of the culture of Bali that excite me to this day. Now, sitting in the house in England, I dream of going back there. Maybe today, I understand why the part about Bali in “Eat Pray Love” is titled that way. As you learn from the book - love; the balance of life.
Vassya (and Nic)