Bali

The first time I went to Bali was by accident. I don’t think I had even heard of this tropical “Island of the Gods”, except perhaps in connection with the song “Bali Ha’i” from the classic musical “South Pacific”.

It came about this way………

I was nearing the end of my first year of real work, and had time and money for the first holiday in my life that would be independent from my parents. Where to go? I contacted a former flatmate from the not-so-long-ago student days who was a ‘cadet journalist’ at the West Australian Newspaper, and currently attached to the Travel Section. She said Portuguese Timor sounded interesting, so that was it. Such is the way many of life’s paths are taken, with a chance remark, the throw of a dart, the ‘sliding door’……

With some vague notion of Somerset Maugham and gin-and-tonics on a balmy balcony, I borrowed my mother’s smart green suitcase and Extra Smart matching Vanity Case. I made 6 brightly coloured 'sun frocks' and painted 6 pairs of wedge and/or chunky-heeled sandals to match the dresses, which I packed along with a few pairs of short shorts and strappy tops. What ignorance! Not only did the balmy-balcony vision not materialize, but this was the mini-skirt era, and I was woefully unaware of the insult my excessively-exposed limbs must have presented to the modest, traditional and relatively isolated people and communities that I met.

The plane from Darwin approached Baucau airstrip, and then suddenly lifted again sharply. There was a collective intake and holding of breath among the passengers, hearts in mouths, stomachs on floor, wills being mentally written…… then a group outburst of relieved laughter when the pilot announced “Sorry about that! There’s a herd of wild buffalo on the runway, and we’ll have to circle a few times to make them move so we can land.” This was it – Adventure Already, and not quite there yet.

There's much to tell about Adventures in Portuguese Timor, but I'll make this part brief so as to move on to Bali.

All the passengers got off the plane and stood around en mass, claiming bags and being claimed by drivers. Soon the crowd was dispersed, leaving just me, my matching luggage, and two Australian fellows whom I had met on the plane. And then it hit me. I was on my own, in a foreign country and (to me) foreign culture where I didn’t speak the language, and I had made no arrangements whatsoever as to what to do next.

I just Stood.

Fortunately for me, the two Australians saw my predicament and approached – if I had no other arrangements, would I like to go with them and book into the same accommodation? Undoubtedly, YES!

We travelled around Timor together for a while, an excellent situation for me and a ‘formula’ I have chosen to repeat on my many travels since – I find teaming up with two blokes who are already travelling together (in whatever relationship) gives me companionship, entertainment and a sense if security, while still being independent when I (or they) want me to be. Anyway, I digress.

I was just on holiday, but ‘the boys’ were at the beginning of their Overland Trek, a common adventure for us young of the time. This meant leaving Australia for England, or vice versa, and aiming for the other, and Taking What Came in the way of Adventure along the way. The time-line was usually one to two years, but nothing specific.

So one day the 'boys' announced they were leaving for Bali. ("Where?") The thought of being on my own in Portuguese Timor was not attractive, so we agreed that we all three would go to on to Bali, where we would stay together for a few more days before the boys continued on, and I would stay.

I remember getting to a rural area called Kuta, although I don’t remember how. From a marigold-covered shrine on a dirt road (later known as "Bemo Corner") was a wide-ish track that went to the beach, along which were pigs, coconut palms, roosters and areas of family compounds. A few enterprising landowners had added extra accommodation for travellers on their land, and I was able to rent one of these.

My room was one of two that were attached by a common wall, opening onto a shared narrow verandah. Each room had, just outside the door on the verandah, two bamboo chairs with a little bamboo table between. Inside, the room was a combination of bare cement and bamboo, with sparse, basic furniture and little else – no mirror, no curtains, indeed no glass in the one tiny window, high up on the wall. Ablutions meant diagonally crossing the open compound area (lit at night with a kerosene lamp), all neatly-swept soil, dodging pigs, children and chooks, to an enclosed trough of water with a dipper, and a hole-in-the-floor loo.

I remember the water in the trough being crystal clear and refreshingly cold. The method was, stand beside the trough, and use the dipper to throw water all over self. Soap up. More dippering to rinse off soap. More sloshing to refresh. The major rule for the novice (or in fact anyone) was – DON’T ALLOW SOAP OR EVEN ONE SUD TO GET INTO THE TROUGH OF CLEAN WATER!!!!!

A wander down the lane to the beach was cool, close and comfortable. Every time I emerged from my room, or returned from the beach, there was some refreshment on my little outside table. A few bananas. Hot sweet black tea with a piece of sweet bread. A cake. Orange juice. A glass of the delicious sludgy coffee that I have never been able to re-create myself. A pawpaw. Always something. I never noticed the hand that quietly brought these welcome treats, but the timing was always perfect.

On the beach, fishermen worked at boat-building, net-mending, fishing and cleaning the catch. Other local people were there, too, just Being There, doing nothing discernable. Children playing. There were usually a couple of vendors with food – small banana-leaf parcels of sticky rice with some tasty savory bit in the middle, or a basket of fruit. That’s where I learned to cut pineapples properly.

A few fellow travellers would be at the beach, or walking in the lanes, or at the food stalls in the street, but the age of Tourism, Package Holidays, night clubs and processed food had not yet come to Bali. Rubbish hardly existed in a land where food, building materials, packaging and offerings were grown in the fields, jungles and seas, and returned back from whence they came long before Recycling became a business and/or art form. And Kuta was as it had always been, the local fishing beach and back yard.

I would sometimes go into the Markets in Denpasar, where I met a Chinese family who invited me to stay with them above their jewellery shop. I slept in the ‘girls room’, which contained just three narrow beds for the two sisters and me. The maid slept on a woven mat on the floor, between the beds. I think this was normal, not just because I was there. She went to bed last and was always gone before I woke up in the morning.

The girls' brother took me on his motorbike to a village festival where they were having a 'highly recommended' shadow puppet play, which began, eventually (by my western watch) at 2 am. And I went, by design or accident, to weddings and markets and funerals and ceremonies and festivals, where I was the only pale face.

I remember, at one stage, I had not been able to talk to anyone for 4 days. On the evening of the 4th day I was waiting at a bus stop and a local chap was also waiting. Joy-oh-Joy!…he spoke to me in English!!!!! It was late in the afternoon, just as the sun was going down, and everything had a glorious golden glow. I commented on this beauty, and the man said: "Ah!…we have a Balinese saying…" never choose a bride in the twilight!”….because, at this time, everything looks beautiful!”

I have been back to Bali many times since, and enjoyed each varied experience on this little Island, every trip with many more stories to tell. But I think my fondest memories are of the first 'accidental' visit when the gentle Hindu Gods beckoned me to their island, still much untouched by the outside world, and I count myself very lucky to have had this unique serendipitous experience.