Bali: Us and Them

Bali, Indonesia

© 2018 Dale Smith


Debra and I have been dating six months. With children and pressing work schedules, our relationship has been slow to unfold; we have never spent more than three consecutive days together. We know each other, but not well. Now we’re finding our seats on a midnight flight to Bali, a journey that will link us together for 14 days. I watch Debra now as she shoehorns herself into the pittance of space allowed coach passengers, arranging the things she will need to access on the 23-hour flight. Who is this woman? I wonder. Who is she to me? Who are we to each other? What will we learn about one other and ourselves on this trip? 

We touch down in Denpasar at a little past seven in the evening of the following day and grab our baggage from the carousel. The customs inspector is fascinated with the Balinese man in front of us with his suitcase full of candy bars and waves us through without a glance. In the lobby a young man holds a sign with my name on it. A few minutes later we are riding in a SUV into the chaos of the hot Denpasar night.

It’s Saturday night and the streets are choked with cars and motorbikes. Our driver, Komang, is twenty-six and lives with his wife and twin infant daughters in a three meter square room for which he pays thirty dollars a month. Our destination is Ubud, the cultural and artistic center of Bali, an hour away. We have reservations at the Bunga Permai hotel, which we booked on the internet. As we lurch bumper-to-fender along the two-lane road, I get the feeling that Komang is not quite sure where in Ubud the Bunga Permai actually is. He stops for directions at a liquor store and there is a lot of finger pointing this way and that. when he climbs back into the SUV Komang assures me we are closing in on the Bunga Permai. Finally we spot a small hand-painted sign, turn up an unlit, unpaved road and there it is, shadowy in the darkness, the Bunga Permai. 

Wayan–the name given all first-born Balinese, both male and female–shows us to our room. Arriving at a destination at night means you awake in the morning with no idea what the world looks like outside your intricately carved door. Our ground floor room is part of a two-story red brick building with a thatched roof. A queen-sized, four-posted bed sits in the center of the large room; a mosquito net is draped over it like a protective veil. There is a large armoire, a safe bolted to the wall and a fan to stir the night air. I rummage through my luggage for a corkscrew and pop open the bottle of Balinese red I scored while our driver asked directions at the liquor store. “We made it,” I say stating the obvious. A few minutes later I am in bed, waiting for Debra to finish her shower and join me. By the time she slides into bed, I am asleep.

In the morning I discover a free-form swimming pool a few steps from our walled-in private patio, and a maze of cobblestone paths that meander through lush, leafy gardens. At $25 a night, including breakfast served in a gazebo with a view of the lush countryside, the Bunga Permai is a bargain.

Refreshed from our deep sleep, we decide a four-kilometer walk into Ubud would be an invigorating way to start our day. After all, we routinely walk four or five miles at a time back home in the arid Sierra foothills, so this stroll would be no sweat. But we didn’t factor in the 90 degree heat and matching humidity. By the time we reach a temple a few hundred meters down the scorching asphalt and head up a steep incline, we are drenched with sweat. 

I look at Debra, at how quickly she has wilted. Her blond hair, fluffed and stylish when we left the hotel a few minutes ago, lies limp against her skull and her cotton dress clings to her body. “Maybe we should catch a ride,” I suggest. 

Our first stop in Ubud is the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. For 5000 rupiah, about 50 cents, you are free to walk the mossy stone paths that lead to three separate ancient Hindu temples. The overhanging canopy casts lace patterns on the walkway. Long-tailed macaques lounge on the wall along the path. Three troops of monkeys inhabit the forest and battle over territorial rights. One of them, a large male, squats on the wall with his female companion and bares his dagger-like yellow incisors as I photograph him. I don’t know if he is warning me, or if I have caught him in a yawn.

As I shoulder my camera backpack I warn Debra, “Keep an eye on your purse. These monkeys will steal your stuff if you turn your back.”

We meander along the path until we come to the main temple. A donation (how much of a donation is up to you) will secure the obligatory sarong and gold sash that will allow you access to the temple grounds where you can wander and wonder about the religious significance of the intimidating sandstone sentinels with their fierce, don’t-mess-with-me expressions. The macaques lope through the courtyard like kids at recess, seeking shade and an occasional lick of the limestone facades. While I am in a crouch photographing a stone carving of a deity that appears to be devouring an infant, a macaque steals the water bottle from my backpack. 


The Ubud-Lovina Run

The next day we arrange transportation to our next destination, Lovina, on Bali’s northern coast. The cost for this one-way half-day journey is thirty dollars. The driver, another Wayan, speaks no English, so Nyoman, a Bunga Permai employee who speaks maybe twenty-five words of English, rides along to smooth out any rough spots in communication we might encounter along the way.

Our first stop is Nyoman’s parent’s house, where he lives, so he can change from his hotel duds. As Nyoman exits the car he turns to us and says, “My pet snake to come with us to Lovina, yes?” 

“Snake?” says Debra. And then, as if it matters, she adds, “What kind of snake?”

“A python snake,’ says Nyoman.

Just to be sure I’ve heard him correctly, I ask, “You want to bring your pet python with us to Lovina?” Nyoman flashes a smile and nods his head enthusiastically.

“Not this time, Nyoman,” I tell him, and he seems okay with this. 

We stop for lunch at an upscale buffet-style restaurant high on the flank of an extinct volcano, with views of chartreuse rice terraces as far as the eye can see. I then remember that I had eaten at this same restaurant on a previous trip to Bali, just prior to being struck down by food poisoning so severe it nearly killed me, but I push the memory from my consciousness. 

The restaurant parking lot is choked with drivers waiting for their tourists to finish their lunches. When we invite Nyoman and Wayan to join us for lunch Nyoman declines, telling us, “No, this is only for you.” Debra and I are both uncomfortable with the 'us and them' mentality and persuade our traveling companions to join us. The restaurant is filled with tourists, digital cameras dangling from their necks like amulets. A Balinese tour guide in ceremonial dress sits alone at the end of a long table, empty chairs between him and his charges. We order milkshakes and help ourselves to the buffet of greasy noodle dishes that support the local fly population. As we are eating, Nyoman, tells us that this is only the second time in his twenty-three year life that he has eaten in a restaurant.

A steady rain falls as the two-lane country road winds past fields of pale blue hydrangeas and subsistence crops. Poncho clad motorbike riders whiz past us on blind curves as if there is no tomorrow, but then I remind myself that the Hindu concept of tomorrow is completely different than mine.

On a sharp, downhill hairpin turn, the SUV’s engine inexplicably dies. There is much anxious chatter between Nyoman and Wayan then Nyoman jumps out and blocks the tires with rocks and bamboo logs he finds in a ditch at the side of the road. Debra and I get out of the car and stand aside, out of the way of the collision I feel is mere moments away. I ask Nyoman what the problem is, but the explanation exceeds the reach of his vocabulary. “Car broken,” he tells me. 

Just about now, with the buffet an hour behind us, I am aware of an urgent pressure in my bowels. Nearby, an elderly man appears at the end of a driveway leading to a Western-style house. Nyoman and the man are engaged in a conversation, presumably about the availability of AAA service in the area. I wipe the sweat that has suddenly formed on my brow, and say as calmly as the situation will allow, “Ask him if I can use his bathroom… now!” The old man nods sympathetically and leads me toward the house and I thank the universe for providing a modern bathroom in my time of need. My hopes of comfort are dashed when the old man leads me around the house to the backyard to what appears to be some sort of falling down storage shed that turns out to be, in actuality, the ‘mandi.’ In the unlit darkness is an Indonesian-style toilet that requires advanced yoga skills to use it. Next to the toilet is a stained plastic bucket that may have originally been yellow, or orange, it’s hard to tell. At the bottom of the bucket is a wet rag. I pull the small packet of tissues from my back pocket which are at this moment, more valuable than Immodium.

The SUV miraculously self-repairs and by late afternoon we are checked into the Aneka Lovina Beach Hotel for $35/night, which includes breakfast. On either side of a cobblestone path are white-painted brick duplexes that terminate at the restaurant and pool. Beyond a wall that separates the resort from the rest of the world is a narrow strip of beach with a fleet of outrigger canoes pulled above the high tide line. The beach is littered with trash; a dog carcass bobs in the surf. A young man on the beach waves for our attention and offers to take us on an excursion the following morning to see the dolphins that populate the waters a mile offshore.


Day of the Dolphin

Putu, our 25-year-old dolphin guide, was waiting for us on the beach with his seen-better-days dugout outrigger at 7:00 a.m. He would have preferred to take us out an hour earlier, when seeing dolphins would be pretty much of a slam dunk, but that ungodly hour was out of the question for Debra, whose day rarely began before ten. 

Drowsy but fortified with a hastily gobbled breakfast, we throw our towels, snorkeling equipment, dry-bagged camera and a baggie of bread crumbs for the fish into the boat. We plop down on the 1”x6” planks that serve as seats and are off to the dolphin races. 

The mountains behind Lovina are steep and green as we head into the blue Bali Sea. Almost immediately the outboard engine, which resembles a weed eater dangling off the stern, starts to sputter. A cloud of dread flutters over Putu’s boyish face as he fiddles with the choke, the throttle and anything else he can fiddle with to keep the engine running. Despite his best efforts, the engine dies. Putu pulls continuously on the starter rope until it again coughs to life. Twenty minutes later Putu points to a riffle on the water’s surface and sure enough, we see a single dorsal fin emerge from the rolling swell fifty yards away. Another appears, then another. Then the dolphins are gone. My thought is that the engine, which now sounds like a fistful of coins tossed into a blender, is spooking the dolphins and just as I am about to ask Putu to shut it down, it dies on its own. But the dolphins have vanished. What I had hoped for was some one-on-one time with a dolphin. I wanted to watch him swim alongside the outrigger with its permanent smile and bright humanoid eyes. But these are wild dolphins, not performers at Seaworld, and a glimpse of them is all we will see this morning. By now Putu is near exhaustion from pulling the starter rope. Finally something shakes loose and the engine once again sputters to life.

“Engine trouble,” says Putu, as if we hadn’t noticed. “Better to head back now.”

We nod in agreement, as I eye the two lifejackets stowed in the bow and try to drive the image of the abandoned and doomed divers in “Open Water” from my mind.

Amazingly, like a trail horse returning to the barn, the engine gains strength and soon we are slicing through the sea at a respectable clip. The engine isn’t exactly purring, but it doesn’t sound as if it will blow up at any moment, either. The motor’s responsiveness restores Putu’s confidence, and a mile from the beach, over a bed of coral visible through the clear water, he bravely cuts the engine. Debra looks at me and says, “I guess this is the snorkeling part of the trip.”

“Many fish,” says Putu, pointing at the water. I look into the water and say “Many plastic bags, too. “We don our fins and masks and plop like stones into the water without a thought as to how we will get back into the boat after we and the fish have finished checking each other out. We spend the next half hour cruising over the coral, enjoying the undersea show and the thousands of fish that seem to be on display for our enjoyment alone. Parrot fish, angels, and countless other colorful species compete for the disintegrating bread that has made us their new best friends.

When I have seen enough fish for one day, I swim back to the boat. I knew I had only enough energy left for one attempt at hoisting my body over the gunnel before asking for help from Captain Putu. This must be what a tuna feels as it is hauled aboard, I think as I flop, fins and all, into the outrigger. I make a mental note: next time remove the fins, which are longer than the boat is wide, before getting into the boat. A few minutes later and out of bread, Debra swims to the side of the boat and Putu and I haul her aboard. “Ah,” says Debra, wide awake now, “that was worth getting up early for.”

Putu fires up the engine and heads for shore but 30-seconds later the engine again gives it up, this time for good. Putu pulls a paddle from the bilge and says, “We are very close now… we paddle from here.”

Putu beaches the boat a couple hundred yards down the beach from the hotel and we are immediately descended upon by hawkers, people who comb the beaches in search of tourists they hope will buy their wares. Each hawker has a specialty-sarongs, carvings, necklaces, massage, Balinese calendars, whatever.

First to reach us is a woman with a dozen sarongs draped over her arm.

“Hello, how are you, where you from, what’s your name?” she says as we retrieve our gear from the outrigger.

“Fine, the U.S., Debra,” Debra tells her.

“Ah Debra, so nice to meet you. You are so pretty. You like to maybe buy a sarong?” says the woman as she holds a blue sarong up for inspection. “I give you a special price.” I look up to see other hawkers hustling down the beach like a buzzards to a roadkill.

We decline the offers of goods and services, and walk toward the hotel, hawkers in tow. When we pause at the hotel gate one hawker immediately sets up shop on the sand and proceeds to unroll his scroll of Balinese calendars, a complicated method of marking time with what looks like the Sunday comics drawn on some kind of parchment paper. He asks our birthdays and Debra takes the bait. “June 9th” she tells him. The man, who is quite pleasant despite his desperation to make a sale, begins counting cartoons until he reaches Debra’s birthday. He then pulls out a piece of paper that is a sort of lifelong horoscope. 

“You are loyal, hardworking, and would make an excellent pig farmer,” he tells her. 

“Pig farmer?” says Debra. “Did you say pig farmer?”

As more hawkers arrive, the woman with the sarongs, feeling the pressure of competition, begins asking us how we are, where we are from, our names, etc., all over again. A little girl with plastic dolphins on black strings squirms forward to make her pitch. “I need money to buy pens so I can do my school work.” I examine one of the plastic dolphins and notice that it has ‘Made in the Philippines’ stamped on its underside. “Business is very slow for me since the bombing,” the man with the calendars says sadly, unhappy that our attention has wandered from his calendars to the girl with the plastic dolphins. “Pens, for my school work,” pleads the little girl. “You like to buy some wooden turtles?” says another hawker, joining in. “Debra, you look so beautiful in this blue sarong… I give you special price…”

We are now surrounded by hawkers, with more hurrying down the beach. To buy anything, even one measly necklace, would initiate a hawker feeding frenzy. But to not buy something? Suddenly I am thinking of that scene in 'Zorba the Greek' where the crowd slowly closes in on the woman just before the stones start flying. Just in the knick of time, Debra buys a few dolphin necklaces from the little girl then we retreat behind the hotel wall, a barrier that underscores once again the ‘us and them’ reality of life in Bali. As we walk toward our room, the plaintive cry of the sarong woman reaches our ears, “Deb-ra, Deb-ra… for you a special price.”