My first trip to Bali was with my brother in 2009. Apart from family trips as children and my visits to him in Brisbane and vice versa here in Sydney, it was the first dedicated holiday we’d taken together and the first time we’d hung out overseas. I was piggybacking this trip on top of five days in the Northern Territory with my then girlfriend and met my brother at Darwin airport late one afternoon.
To say we enjoyed those next five days in Bali would be a massive understatement. It was not only a great pleasure to have such an excellent trip, but also something of a surprise. Both of us had been deeply suspicious of Bali on account of its being the destination of choice for hordes of pissed-up Australians – people we snobbishly call “Bogans” and try to avoid. Once we’d booked the tickets, however, and I began to do my research, including some lengthy sessions on Google Earth, I was very excited about seeing this island.
Bali occupies quite a unique place in the region for being predominantly Hindu. Buddhism and Hinduism both took root here, most especially during the 9th and 10th centuries, with increased traffic from Javanese and subcontinental traders. The culture that developed from this period onwards is a mix of traditional Balinese culture and a local interpretation of Javanese and Hindu influences.
The structure and rhythms of this lifestyle have proven very enduring. Bali is a very religious island, yet the religion, despite its occasional ostentation, is a friendly and private affair. The observance of often quite simple religious ceremonies and practices is so intrinsic that people simply go to it with hardly a mention. All of which makes Bali stand out distinctly from the Islamic Republic of Indonesia of which it is a part.
Thus, by the time we met in the airport in Darwin, the two of us were very excited. I was especially enthusiastic about getting some good shots as I’d just been trying out my new L series 70-200mm lens in NT and was loving it.
We arrived in Denpasar quite late, got a cab straight to our hotel and went out looking for a restaurant. My brother had actually booked us into Seminyak, right in the heart of the scene, but it was a Tuesday night and not especially busy. We found a nice place on the beach front, ate fresh fish, and that was that. The only incident of note was when my brother was approached by a very large and masculine transvestite who said “Mmmm, you big strong man,” in a trés seductive voice.
The following morning we hired a car and set off relatively early, keen to get out into the countryside and see more of the landscape. That first day was largely spent getting completely lost in the warren of lanes and villages that are woven into the rice-fields. We were attempting to reach a famous seaside temple, Pura Tanah Lot, then to find the town of Ubud itself. We found the temple after many picturesque wrong turns, but when we set off to reach Ubud, we really took getting lost to a whole new level. My brother, who was driving like an absolute champion, weaving in and out of the scooter-traffic, was struggling to retain his equilibrium as we repeatedly failed to orient. The lack of signage, the apparent sameness of so many villages, the absence of vantage points from which to make sense of the landscape, all meant it was almost stupidly difficult to be sure where we were. What made it all still a bloody great drive, however, was that everywhere we went was either fascinating or astonishingly beautiful.
I was struck most of all by the lushness of the place and the wonderful traditional architecture. On that first day alone we must have passed through thirty-odd little villages, most of which consisted of a main street lined with elaborately-carved stone-fronted houses and temples, bristling with flowers and trees. The amount of quality masonry and the quaint, cosy beauty of the houses – which was almost universal – fascinated me, partly because they reminded me of the streets of stone houses I’d seen in Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum. I wondered how long these villages had looked like this – and felt I was visiting a living, ancient form of urbanisation.
Over the next five days my brother and I made our way north, first to Ubud, where we spent a couple of nights, and then on into the mountains around Munduk with its amazing views across to the volcano, Gunung Raung, on the island of Java. Every day brought new surprises and pleasures. The food we ate was almost universally excellent; the people were outrageously nice; the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. We drove high up into the misty hills, through foggy, wet farms of hydrangeas; looked down on wide, splendid vistas, visited waterfalls and lake-side temples, rode elephants through the jungle, and finally reached the north coast around Singaraja.
It was just a pity we did it all in a Suzuki Katana. This vehicle must have been named ironically on account of the great contrast with the refined workmanship of its Japanese sword namesake. It was a cramped and rattly piece of junk, with ill-fitting doors, ass-breaking seats and a dashboard that looked like it was a mock-up for kids to play at driving. The air-con was an epic fail and the leg-room negligible, so we sweated it out somewhat crampedly, the windows right down and the breeze blowing in more of the sticky air. Still, at a meagre cost of $92 for five days, it was indeed a bargain.
Without wishing to provide an exact chronology of our journey, two incidents stand out. After buying a proper Bali road map in Ubud, Matthew and I thought all our navigational troubles were behind us. Yet, as we tried to leave Ubud and make our way to an elephant sanctuary somewhere to the north, we struggled to find the road which we had decided was most appropriate on the map. The problem was that it simply wasn’t there, though at first we thought it was our mistake and that perhaps we needed to re-examine our expectations of what this road should look like. The nearest thing we found was a drive-way that ran past a boutique hotel and plunged sharply towards a gully. I became enthusiastic when we saw that it seemed to continue into the forest and urged my brother to drive down the steep hill. He did, and soon we found ourselves at a dead end on a little square terrace overlooking a steep drop into a river.
This might not have been such a problem if a) there had been enough room to turn the vehicle around and b) the Suzuki Katana had enough power to reverse up the hill. There wasn’t and it didn’t. Despite several attempts at backing up the very steep incline, the car just wouldn’t go. Not only was the engine pissweak, but there was no space for a run-up.
In a very short time, I was blanching with guilt and my brother was seething with frustration and rage. Feeling responsible, I looked desperately around for a solution. If we could create more turning space – perhaps by placing logs and stones along one edge of the little terrace, then we might just be able to swing the vehicle around and punch on up the hill. I set off into the forest and climbed down to the riverbank, yet there simply wasn’t the right sort of material to pull it off.
My brother tried reversing a few more times, but there was no room. He was convinced we had no choice but to get on the phone and organise a tow, which was likely going to be a lengthy and expensive process. It was at this point that I came up with the crazy idea of us pooling our strength and lifting the car to turn it. After all, we are both pretty big blokes and such a flimsy excuse for a tin biscuit box couldn’t possibly weigh that much. Matthew was keen to give it a go, and sure enough, when we braced and heaved a moment later, we got the back end off the ground and swung it around about a foot before having to drop it. A good start indeed.
It was as we heaved the thing up the second time that we heard the excited shouts from the road. Looking around, we saw three young Balinese guys running towards us waving excitedly. They had seen we were in trouble and come to offer help in that wonderful, eternally hospitable manner of seemingly all Balinese.
We laughed and shook hands and opened our arms and joked about the situation in gestures and broken English. Then the young men joined us in the heave and again we lifted and swung the vehicle. This time it turned around just enough to make the rest of the manoeuvre. Keen as ever to help, one of the men now jumped in the front and made this very tight turn, with barely an inch to spare. As soon as the car was facing the slope, he revved the engine and charged off with a screech and whiff of burning rubber. The Katana hit the hill at speed and shot on up the slope like an excited pup. After driving in the thing for a couple of days, we hadn’t exactly been confident. There was a great flood of relief as it zoomed back up the hill.
Afterwards we both felt a mix of thankfulness and embarrassment, so, unsure what to do, I pulled all the money out of my pocket and gave it to the guy who drove the car. I think he was quite surprised. As we drove off along the main road we’d hoped to avoid, we really had a very good laugh about it all.
The second incident I mention was of a less salutary nature, though with a similarly happy conclusion. Driving just north of Ubud, we passed a view of bright green rice terraces stacked across the other side of a valley. In the foreground were a few pockets of jungle with tall palm tree sentinels through which the wide curving decks of rice could be seen. The land sank deeply away from the road which lent our vantage point a taller scope. Both my brother and I had been eager to see and photograph such a picturesque scene and this stood out like a postcard.
We cruised slowly until we found a wide gap and a place to pull over, then prepared to get out of the Katana. There were a few hawkers around along the roadside, and we figured it must be a popular viewing spot. One woman waved to us from the other side of the road, offering a large bunch of small, sugar bananas.
“Might get some bananas,” said Matthew, feeling peckish. Still sitting behind the wheel, he made a gesture and nodded to the woman, and she began to approach the car. As soon as she reached the window, the other hawkers, who seemed suddenly to have multiplied, made straight for the vehicle at pace. The speed with which they surrounded us was astonishing. I was still in the front passenger seat changing camera lenses when the wave struck.
In total, there must have been nine or ten people around us, roughly five on either side. The window was down and through this portal a flurry of hands was now thrust, offering a variety of artefacts. To say that these men were like seagulls fighting over chips seems undignified, and yet so it was – much pushing, shoving and shouting accompanied this keen offering of goods. A number of carved wooden objects were dropped in my lap as prices were yelled into my ear. Overwhelmed and amused, and yet slightly alarmed by this invasion of our space, I slapped the door lock and stuffed my camera into my bag at my feet.
On the other side, my brother now sat with a whole bunch of bananas in his lap and a porcupine of hands reaching in through his window. Both of us were too busy fending off the vendors to give each other much attention. Feeling the pressure and concerned that things might suddenly go very badly, I picked up one of the objects in my lap, one half of a set of carved wooden bookends, and said “Okay, okay, how much?”
The price was negligible – around five dollars – and I hoped that as soon as I’d given the guy the money I could justify closing the window and saying enough was enough. Yet, just as my brother’s interest in the bananas had sparked the initial frenzy, my apparent interest only intensified the efforts of the others and the pushing and shoving reached a new crescendo. I bent forward, feeling increasingly less comfortable with the whole business. I got the money for the bookends out of my wallet and pushed my bag as far under the seat as it would go. When I held up the notes they were promptly whisked from my hand. I smiled at the people who were all pressing in, smiling at me too, but with an odd sort of mania.
My brother, having finished his banana purchase and being similarly assaulted, turned to me and said, “Fuck it! Let’s roll.” He put his foot to the pedal and let the car jolt forward, just enough to get the message across. There was a collective gasp of alarm and a new flurry of activity as the hands collected the things they’d dumped in our laps. They were all very fast and accurate. My brother pressed the pedal again lightly, just enough for a quick lurch. Our assailants finally backed off.
“Let’s go!” I said, excited that we were all clear to make our getaway. Slowly at first, my brother got us going and the Katana, now our protector, rolled forward onto the road. A moment later we were sailing away from the scene.
It took about thirty seconds for the laughter to begin. At first it came on a great wave of relief, for both of us had felt slightly threatened by the insistent nature of the hawkers. But in a moment the sheer ridiculousness of it all became apparent as we looked to our laps and saw the big bunch of bananas and the wooden bookends. This set us off into fits of hysterics and we laughed until our eyes were flooded with tears. We laughed so hard we could barely breathe and my brother had to pull the car over again and stop a while.
I hadn’t laughed that hard in years and I haven’t laughed so hard since. It was intense, even painful – the gasping for air, the clench in the stomach – and every time I saw the bookends in my lap I just laughed harder and harder. We must have sat there for five minutes. The doors locked, the windows rolled up, emitting little gasps and piping hoots through the tears and spittle. Even once we’d finally gotten control of ourselves and started driving again, we continued to laugh. It just kept coming, bursts of laughter, eruptions of cackling, even further fits of hysterics. By the time we made it back to Ubud we were completely exhausted.
In a way these two incidents seemed to sum up the conflicting elements of Balinese life. Most people seemed relaxed and content with their lives, pleased with its rhythms and generally in good spirits. They were friendly, accommodating, polite and helpful. Yet that there were also people who were genuinely desperate was apparent, along with people who, perhaps inevitably, saw the wealth disparity between tourists and themselves and sought to tap it. It made me feel guilty that I might be a cause for envy or resentment, that perhaps in coming here at all we were destroying the balance. As it was, there was much to ponder on returning from this most excellent jaunt. And indeed, much to ponder when I returned to Bali three years later.