Friday, April 4, 2014

bali: part I

He may have been high as a kite when he booked our transport to Bangkok. This smiling small man stood behind a makeshift desk in Ton Sai testing our 80’s pop song knowledge while filling out our boat/bus combo tickets to Bangkok. Being good sports and playing along with his game, he gave us a pretty discount on our ticket. Although, I believe he forgot to tell us the detail of our modes of transportation due to his dazed and confused state. So the following  evening while I was being tossed around a dilapidated coach bus on the way to Bangkok from Surat Thani, unable to sleep or read, my thoughts traveled back to him.

Of course we had to endure one more typically ridiculous Thai transport before we left the Land of Smiles. After hours of waiting around, three different shuttle buses, street side bodegas, and a seedy bus, we arrived at Koh San Road at 4am - but our departing flight to Bali was not until 7pm.  We found refuge from the hawkers and drunks in a 24-hour McDonalds. The strange array of characters that stumbled into the McDonalds in the wee hours of the morning helped pass the time. Restless and unrested, we were itching to leave this grimy street and get to the airport. Once a decent hour rolled around, we caught the public bus to Thailand’s regional airport, all for a whopping 23 cents.

We sat in that airport for twelve hours, alternating between reading and writing – oh what we will do to save money. Eventually our gate opened and we were able to check in. My life fits in a backpack. My teaching paperwork, collegiate degrees, wardrobe for work, travel, and pleasure, and mementos gathered along the way are rolled and tucked into a polyester casing. I have lived quite some life while abroad so my heart races in fear of being overweight whenever I check my bag. Luckily, the scales were in my favor and I was under 20kg – surprised that that is all the weight the life I live bears.

A three hour flight brought us to Jakarta at 11:30pm where we added another stamp and visa to our passport. With a five hour layover keeping us from Bali, we set up shop in oversized faux-leather chairs in the departures lounge, keeping deadlock grips on our bags as we failingly fought off the calls for sleep. Eventually, a two hour puddle hopper flight carried us to the final destination: Bali. First stop: Legian.

The towns of Seminyak, Legian, and Kuta claim a strip of Bali’s southwestern coast. While Seminyak attracts upscale Russian tourists and Kuta Aussie partiers, Legian falls somewhere in between the two. We planned to stay for 3 days to relax on the beach and do a day tour to Uluwatu and Nusa Dua.

A friendly taxi driver questioned us about fascinating America before he dropped us off in front of our resort, Padma Balisani. White stone walls, dark wood, and exotic flowers decorated this resort that showcases a pool and swim up bar in its center. After 48 hours of traveling and less than 6 hours of sleep, we crashed in the white cotton sheets with the shutters closed and curtains drawn. A few hours later we woke from rumbles of hunger, our bodies angry and confused.

We forced ourselves to walk down the road to do some exploring and grab lunch. Our first task was to exchange money where we became instant millionaires thanks to the Indonesian Rupiah. As we passed countless clothing stands all selling the same printed shorts and restaurants designed to attract Western appetites, one sad reality became noticed. The children. Dozens of local children, with scrappy clothes and lanky limbs, rule the streets begging a foreigner for an “Australian dollar” or selling friendship bracelets. They work in packs and use their big, empty eyes to guilt their token foreigner to hand over the money. I have come across children beggars in my own night market back in Thailand; however, never this many or this determined. Who knows where the money goes or who their “bosses” are, but I do know that this is not a chosen lifestyle, but rather one they are born or forced into.

Legian is another victim of aggressive tourism and greed. Locals trying to capitalize in the influx of tourists grab your shirt to pull you into their store or hound you for transport services. They call out taxi! taxi! transport! transport! so often it echoes in your sleep. There is no beach bungalow charm like Thailand, just built up boardwalks and roads cluttered with shops selling cheap merchandise. That being said, we did not spend time on the streets of Legian besides walking over to our favorite local warung restaurant that served good cheap Balinese food. 

The following morning, feeling somewhat caught up on sleep, we booked a driver to take us to Uluwatu Temple and the Nusa Dua beaches. We met grinning Wayan, who grew up in Western Bali but moved to Denpasar for work, and hopped in the back of his clean sedan. He first brought us to Nusa Dua which is in the southernmost region of Bali. Gorgeous beaches and pricey resorts make up this area. Driving through gated communities and walking through resort’s private umbrella dotted beaches, we realized we were in a different world than we’re used to – one with the glitz and glam of money. 

Wayan parked the car and we soaked in the sun, swam in the Indian Ocean, and strolled through the small holy parks in the area. A narrow path led us to a ‘water blow’ as Wayan called it. The swell of the ocean’s waves gathered in this geyser’s crevice, building up its power slowly until the force was too great and a massive burst of water rose above the rocks, suspended mid-air for a fleeting moment before the salty wave rained down.


After being forcefully soaked by the “water blow”, we returned to the air conditioned refuge of the sedan to head to Padang Padang beach. This cove is where Julia Robert’s famously filmed her Bali beach scenes in Eat, Pray, Love. Wayan parked on a steep hill as we walked down a slanted path that weasels its way through two boulders. The tunnel path opens up to a brilliantly blue lagoon with walls of lush greenery casting a shadow. Tanning tourists were sprawled out on the small stretch of sand, some taking a break from their sunny slumber to watch the surfers ride the waves. We stood and reveled in Bali’s hypnotic atmosphere – so seductively relaxing. With shoulders red as poppy flowers, Mikaela and I decided it was time to part ways with the sun and find shade in the grounds of a temple.


After a half hour drive up and down one way streets, passing yoga studios, bungalows, and resorts, the sedan climbed a hill to reach Uluwatu – a temple on the cliff. Wearing a royal purple sarong in respect of tradition and religion, we entered the temple’s sprawling grounds. The holy building is perched atop a jutting cliff, with its terraces walls and gardens tracing the incline.  Surrounding the temple are acres of forested jungle where monkeys play and vast grasslands where cows graze.

 
We entered on the eastern cliff walk, startled by the impressive view. Grand flat-faced cliffs dropped down to the cool blue ocean below. Tropical ferns and ivy spilled over the tops of the cliffs, slowly growing closer to the bottom. Rhythmic waves beat the rocks like a drum, a base so low and subtle your breathing begins to match it. Spots of vibrant purples, pinks, and yellows catch the sun and the flowers open their petals wider.


We walked along the cliff walk towards the widow’s peak of the cliff where the Temple holds vigil over the sea. Following down the meandering paths and returning to the cliff walk, we continued along to find a grand clearing. This had to be Bali’s version of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. You tasted sea salt in the air and heard cyclical waves from the tide coming in. Standing atop a cliff so tall and looking out into the vast open sea, you feel so small but so full of life. These are the views God gave us to enjoy.

As the sun fell closer to the horizon we decided to pack in the day tour and return to Legian. It was not a welcomed homecoming as Legian is a far cry from the paradise of Padang Padang and Uluwatu. Nevertheless, we decided to try a new local restaurant to spice up our routine. Before we could enjoy some gado-gado I needed to exchange more money. I found an exchange place that takes Thai Baht and attempted to make the transaction.  I realized the man was doing a card trick with the money and not counting out enough rupiah. Smelling the scam, I demanded my money back. So after a battle with two sets of hands gripping opposite ends of the money, I left with my Thai Baht in full. Corruption and tourist scams are everywhere in the world and I have been lucky enough to avoid many of them. However, this close encounter left a bad taste in my mouth and made leaving Legian look even better.

The following day we decided to lounge by the resort’s pool to read and relax. Bali is a lot like Florida with their afternoon rain and thunderstorms. At around four o’clock bulging, ominous thunderheads rolled in and covered the sun within minutes. The grey dense clouds appeared so close that I could reach up to the sky and graze them. 


Instantly, fat rain drops barreled down and multiplied. We ran for our room to wait out the storm. The rain beat down on the roof, shutters, and trees, overpowering the thunder and deafening any thoughts. As the storm eased and released its grip on Legian, I noticed the time neared sunset.  The best sunsets come after storms.

We headed to the beach, cutting through resort driveways and restaurant alleys. As we turned the corner I saw the ground mirror the sky. The tide was so low and the sand so saturated that the vibrant colors painted in the sky were reflected on the land, creating a 360 degree spectacle. 



We ran out on shore and marveled at the most glorious sight. As the minutes passed and sky changed, the sunset just grew brighter. Soft golden yellows and pale blues cooled into fiery pinks and radiant purples.  This magnificent sunset has topped any other I have seen. We danced in the shallow water and watched the surfers chase waves for over an hour and the sky did not stop performing its own miraculous show.

 
When streaks of indigo smothered the final ashes of the glowing fire, we headed back to town. We were both at a loss for words from what we just experienced. However, we both knew that we needed to stay three nights in this unimpressive city to witness that sunset. The good always outweighs the bad. You can encounter people and places that are running on an entirely different wavelength. There may be no connection or appeal; however, as I have learned, there is always a reason for the encounter. We needed the reality check of a greedy city to appreciate the full rare beauty of that sunset.



We packed our belongings before bed since the next stop of our Bali adventure was taking us to Ubud the following morning.  Even though Legian was riddled with tourists and aggressive vendors, I am grateful we spent time in Legian because we were able to experience the gem locations of this area.  I fell asleep with the colors of that night’s sky dancing in my head, looking forward to tranquil Ubud. 



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