I arrived in Bali November 6th, exhausted and disoriented with no plans for what I was going to do for the next six weeks in Southeast Asia. I followed advice from friends in Australia, and headed straight for Kuta as it is the main place people seem to go when they are in Bali. My flight got in late and it was raining as my taxi from the airport dropped me outside my guesthouse. (There are no hostels in Bali, just homestays, mid-range guesthouses, and the occasional hotel. I had decided to splash out and go flashpacking in a guesthouse for my first few nights there, but at $30 a night it hardly seemed like a splurge). As I wandered around I felt like Leonardo Dicaprio in The Beach when he travels back to Bangkok to get supplies from the hidden paradise he’s been living in off the shores of Ko Samui, finding himself overwhelmed by all the lights, traffic, people, touts, and loud noises swirling about him. I find that every city and town has a personality, and I knew Kuta was not one I was going to be friends with.
Trying to give it a chance, I wandered about the area for a few days, checking out nearby Legian and Seminyak, and found myself more confused at how so many of my friends said they loved this place. The streets were crowded, the touts were obnoxious, the beaches were dirty, and the shops and restaurants all looked like a drunk Australian had thrown up on them (I mean that both figuratively and literally).
Now to be fair, I now know that people go to the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak area to surf and party, but when I was there the weather was crap and I was ready for a detox so I didn’t see the allure. The upside of my time in Kuta was meeting an Australian surfer named Dwayne who has been coming to Bali for over 20 years. It was fortunate for me the swells were not good (ya I totally know all about surfing don’t worry about it) which left him with a lot of downtime to serve as my personal tour guide. Dwayne took me around on his motorbike to all the best places to eat, showed me the night markets, helped me barter, and answered my endless stream of “I’m a foreigner and didn’t bother to learn a damn thing before coming here” questions. Bless him.
When I said I needed to get out of Kuta and was heading to Ubud, he offered to take me on his motorbike as he needed to go there to pick up a cat statue (I tried to figure this one out but I’m still very confused on the whole situation. It’s a wooden cat and it says “Welcome”. My campervan told me to never trust a smiling cat…) Wanting to save money on the taxi fare, I agreed to the ride, despite obvious logistical issues. How were two people, my guitar, and my giant backpack going to fit on this tiny little motorbike? We ended up with the backpack on my back, hanging off the back of the bike, and my guitar between Dwayne’s legs in the front. I couldn’t feel my feet for most of the 2 hour trip and thought at every bump in road that I was about to fly off the back of the bike. But what a way to see the country!
Cat in hand, Dwayne headed back to Kuta that night, leaving me all smiles as I soaked in the artistic and spiritual hub that is the mountain village of Ubud. Many people think of Bali as one place; a specific destination, when in actuality it functions almost like it’s own country. While it is an island in Indonesia, it has it’s own language and culture, as well as many diverse towns and landscapes. There are touristy seaside areas, active volcanoes, black sand arid beaches, mountain villages, cliff side surf breaks, and areas with miles of temples and rice paddocks. Where Kuta is for drinking and surfing, Ubud is for relaxation, healing, and meditation. There is an amazing energy in this place and in the type of person that it attracts. I initially stayed in a place called Jati homestay, where I walked off a central road in town through a narrow alleyway to find myself wandering past a yoga studio and the family compound, complete with multiple art galleries, to get to my bamboo bungalow overlooking a rice paddock.
Just a two minute walk from a busy street, the only sounds from my room were that of the often heavy rains, the water trickling through the irrigation canal in front of the rice paddock, and the roosters running about through the palms. Now, just in case that sounds a bit too perfect, I will admit these were like owl roosters; nocturnal little shits. (Reminds me of the episode of Family Guy where they make an offensive yet hilariously left field reference to disabled roosters, then show 5 all lined up cock-a-doodle-dooing to the sunrise until they span to the last one who says in a drunk voice ‘goodnight everybody!’ Jamie, at least I know you’re laughing).
I spent my days wandering the streets (oh how I love a good wander!), getting lost in road after road of shops with little Balinese artists displaying their work while actively creating more. I try to avoid the places that have too much on display, as I don’t like the stuff that is mass produced for tourists, which is how I stumbled upon Komang.
Through very broken English I learned that Komang had been working on the piece in front of him for 6 months, and it would take about a year to finish. He showed me an impressive variety of paintings throughout his gallery and, to my initial hesitation, his bedroom attached out the back. I felt awful leaving him without buying a painting, but I forgot to factor into my Asia budget money to buy and import massive art pieces to the States. Rookie mistake.
One day I decided to explore more of the the village on the outskirts of town, setting out to follow a long road that supposedly would loop around and get me back to town in about 1.5 hours. I started walking, getting lost in my thoughts amongst the quiet countryside and vast rice fields, but eventually began to wonder when exactly I was going to start looping back to town as the hand drawn map I was given had directed.
I have no phone or watch and therefore on an overcast day I also have no concept of time, but felt I had been walking a while. The further I walked, I began to notice the reaction to my presence changing, both from the villagers I passed as well as the stray dogs that roam the streets in abundance. More and more people stopped what they were doing to point me out to their children, who would in turn laugh and wave, making it clear to me I must be lost as these people obviously didn’t see many tourists their way. One group of kids adorably begged me to take their picture, and thanked me profusely for doing so, even though I obviously had no way of giving it to them.
It was the dogs that became more of an issue. In town, the strays are used to loads of people walking about and therefore keep to themselves, but suddenly I would have one dog barking, who would therefore alert the next 7 dogs down the road, and if they were feeling extra territorial, they would all gang up on me and follow at my feet barking. Bali has had a lot of issues with Rabies, and I’m pretty sure all of my shots, for almost everything, are out of date. Feeling calm despite my situation, I managed to channel my alpha dog and keep the strays at bay, finally finding my way back to town almost six hours later. But this is why getting lost is awesome (there has to be some upside to being directionally retarded), look at some of the amazing countryside I never would have seen had I been able to read a map!
During my few days in Ubud, I had been in touch with Dwayne who had told me about his friend Sticky. Sticky is a Balinese guy Dwayne met when he first started coming to Bali who was now running a homestay in a place called Bingin. As Dwayne was leaving Bali for Taipei in a few days, I decided I’d have to leave Ubud before I was ready to check out Bingin with him so he could introduce me to Sticky and show me around. I knew that I was not yet done with Ubud, or rather, it was not done with me, so I would have to return.
Bingin is a place I never would have known to go to if Dwayne had not told me about it. It’s a tiny little strip of beach with Bungalows and Warungs built into the cliffside. People come here to surf, talk about surfing, look at other surfers, and surf some more. The surf is based on a reef break, which is too dangerous for beginners, so I just took part in the third option: looking at surfers. This is the type of beach I had expected from Bali but Kuta had not delivered to me, with clear waters crashing into the whites of the cliff face, gently lulling back at low tide to reveal colorful reef and the hollowed rock platforms that will one day be sand.
Attempting to explore beyond my cliffside bungalow one day, a friendly Californian named Willie saw me walking and offered me a ride on his motorbike. After chatting, he invited me to dinner with two of his friends. We went to a place about 20 minutes away by motorbike called Jimbaran. Famous for its seafood warungs, we got there just in time to stroll along the water as the sun was setting before settling in to our meal in the sand. It was here that I met Jennifer, a 51 year old divorcee from California. Fresh out of her marriage, recently retired, and having just sent her youngest off to college, Jennifer came to Bali hoping to figure out what the hell she wants to be doing with her life. I ended up meeting back up with her when I returned to Ubud, but I’ll save that for the next post.
The next day I wanted to check out the temple at Uluwatu, and rather than get a taxi I decided to have a go at driving my own motorbike. At this point I had been on the back with a few different drivers, and despite the seemingly chaotic whirlwind that is motorbiking in Bali, I never found myself the least bit concerned for my safety, finding it easy to space out and enjoy the scenery whizzing past. Driving one turned out to be an entirely different story. I was white knuckled and sweating as I made my way to the temple, slowing to almost complete stops at every bend on the winding, mountain roads that made up the journey. As I started wandering around the temple, I began to feel a little bit off, but assumed it was just the stress of the ride and the overabundance of tourists encroaching upon my personal space. Between the prominence of the temple itself, the monkeys playing about, and the view looking over the water as it crashed into the cliffs, you can see why so many tourists flock to Uluwatu, but unfortunately this has now become its greatest drawback.
At sunset I went to see the Kecak dance, which is performed nightly at the temple. The dance tells a story in Balinese folklore, set the music of the voices of 70 men, no instruments. Again, I spent most the time feeling more and more ill, blaming it on the heat and kicking myself for being overly hungry and unable to enjoy what should have been an impressive performance with an incredible backdrop.
I bolted as the performance ended, thinking I just needed some food in my stomach. Terrified, I biked in the dark to the nearest warung, and one hour later found myself only two bites in to my Nasi Goreng (essentially it’s fried rice). I gave up on solid food and ordered a banana smoothie, drank it down and waited to feel the wave of relief as my blood sugars restored.
I ran to the bathroom as casually as one can in such a situation and made it just in time before chucking my brains out. I knew everyone in the restaurant must have heard me, but I knew I had to cover my embarrassment, walk out front, politely ask for my bill and get the hell out of there. I had been hit by the infamous Bali Belly, and now I had to get on a freaking motorbike and drive myself back to Bingin, where I would then have to make it down the cliffside in the dark to get to my room by the water. Climbing down the giant cliff steps, I kept feeling like I might faint, a feeling immediately followed by terror as fainting would mean imminent death. Death via head cracking on ragged rock followed by body falling down the side of the cliff. Luckily, I made it back to my bungalow successfully, where I then spent the next two days in misery as my body ejected life and shook with fever.
The morning of the second day, I desperately needed water and knew I should try to drink a smoothie or something as there was nothing left in my stomach. I felt more alone than ever as I realized I was going to have to go back up the cliff and get it myself.
I couldn’t even sit up straight, how the hell was I supposed to get up the cliff? Never in my years of travel have I wanted my mommy more. Not my mom, but my mommy, as this was a basic, child’s desire to be nourished and protected.
Food poisoning kept me in Bingin a few extra days, but as soon as I recuperated I headed back to Ubud, where I knew exciting things were about to happen…