The hype for Bali was off the charts. Everyone whom I talked to about the small Indonesian island described the place like some sort of paradise on Earth, lost in time and space, unmatched in spite of – or because of – it being a tourist hotbed. It seemed to have many faces, many facets. For my sister and her fiancé, it was a land of adventure. It was a family playground for an Australian colleague, a place of pampering for a Japanese friend. All of them described it with reverence, the word “magical” bandied about enough I envisioned singing animals and fairies and princesses.
Hype being what it is, me being who I am, I arrived holding no small bit of cynicism. The ride from the airport was immediately disconcerting; it had been a while since I travelled in the third world. The drive was a shitshow, a cavalcade of motorbikes and roadside shacks, poverty on full display as my officially sanctioned taxi raced down side streets and alleyways. We were soon engulfed by traffic, chaotic traffic. My driver dropped me off at a standstill intersection he claimed was five minutes from my homestay. Stupidly, I acquiesced.* Armed with a useless Google Maps printout, and getting sporadic help from locals, it was about a 25 minute walk.
*Evidently my assertiveness ends at Japan’s borders.
The first day and a half was a manifestation of my worst fears about the trip. Kuta – Bali’s main hub – was gross. In the physical sense, for one: trash everywhere, including on the beach. But it wasn’t just that. It was local shacks and rundown stores next to fancy restaurants and resorts. Streets were marked by the aggressive call of merchants, by incessant offers for massages and taxis and tours and weed. The first night, I witnessed a group of drunken tourists contemplating whether to comply with a lady of the night’s request to see their “bananas.” I couldn’t walk away fast enough. All of it was disgusting.
The island was beginning to feel like an enormous tourist trap. The driver I hired for my first full day was fine – the price was fair and he was friendly*– but he too fed into the beast. He kept trying to impose this supposedly-amazing place called “Turtle Island” into my itinerary, a place I had discovered earlier with the benefit of the internet was kind of a scam. I resisted. Even the beach I found myself on was beautiful to be sure, but devoid of character, dotted by resorts and makeshift booths – manned by aggressive vendors, of course – offering surf or parasail or jetski lessons. Everyone had something to sell.
*Too friendly. As the day wore on, he started catcalling every female we passed in the car, saying “Ooh la la” loud enough to turn heads. Guys are the worst.
Not all of it was awful, of course. I went to two small, stunning beaches next, had a good lunch, then watched a ritual dance at sunset. But most of it still felt somewhat concocted: the beaches segregated from the surrounding areas, designated for tourists; the temple’s open-air arena recalling a luau or worse, a Vegas show. I couldn’t reconcile my slice of the island with the grandeur everyone described. Back in Kuta, I met up briefly with Panek (“Jack”), a local guide my sister had recommended. We made tentative plans for the rest of my stay. Still, at the bar that night, I found myself googling things like “Bali overrated?”
The trip turned the next day. Maybe I just turned. It was, and I appreciate this fully only in retrospect, Christmas. As planned, I shifted base to Ubud, a smaller town to the north. It made all the difference; even the ride helped. From the back of Jack’s motorbike, I soaked in the beauty of the island for the first time – villages, fields, sheer greenery. I had seen some of it the day before, but it was refreshing to breathe the air, to not think about ulterior motives. Plus, Ubud had personality: shops that were distinguishable from one another, destinations that didn’t feel manufactured. It felt more than just the façade of a community, of character.
Christmas also marked the best culinary day of my life. It started with a fresh banana pancake from my homestay hosts in Kuta. I then had two of the island’s signatures in Ubud: suckling pig for lunch, smoked duck for dinner. The meat was fresh, the sauces bold. Feeling ambitious, I had a second dinner at a hole in the wall, a tuna bathed in a sensational Balinese sauce over rice. Those meals – surrounding a day at two beautiful locales, a monkey sanctuary and an art museum – were transcendent. They even underscored the fact that food had been the constant when I was grumbling around in Kuta.
I arranged a cycling tour through Jack the next day. It was another highlight. Accompanied by a local guide, six of us biked our way downhill, through rice fields and villages and nothing in particular. We stopped at a local temple and toured a traditional home – where the grandmother offered us a taste of a spice-filled meat she was cooking in banana leaves. It was all pre-arranged, of course, and there were plenty of other groups around us, if just out of sight. Still, there was an authenticity to the experience, compounded when it poured rain for the last third of the ride. I loved it.
I understood Bali a bit more after that. Sure, the traditional house I toured was visited multiple times that day. Hell, at a coffee plantation, I watched as two kids put away their grinding and roasting tools the moment the tourists turned away. But the commercialization is Bali too. It is in and around that environment that the locals live their lives. Jack and I were riding through a village on motorbike the next day when we saw an oncoming crowd. We pulled over, and witnessed an entire village parading by in their Sunday best, a ceremony to commemorate the end of the year. Less than a mile from where the cycling tour had taken place, we were the only outsiders here.
Ultimately, I did get a bit of everything from Bali. I went to another art museum in a gorgeous locale on the outskirts of Ubud. I heard live music at a couple of restaurants in town, watched as couples salsa danced to their hearts’ content. I went on a rafting excursion on the Telaga Waja. I visited Tanah Lot, the Tegalalang Rice Terrace, and Lake Batur, all on the back of Jack’s motorbike. Mostly, I ate and drank and walked around, taking it all in. There were a few things I missed out on, but it was a full trip nevertheless.
The island has definite flaws. Its fundamental contradiction centers on its tourist-dominated culture paired with everything else – its nature, its simplicity, its beauty. Even outside the confines of town, Jack and I had a guy ride up alongside us to see if I needed a place to stay: a sales job on motorbikes at full-speed. I would venture to say that nobody rediscovers or reinvents Bali. I daresay nobody even really finds themselves, all Julia Roberts-like. But personally, I ate unbelievable food, saw haunting landscapes, and had some great adventures. I didn’t quite find Bali magical, but it’s a pretty amazing place, and a properly rated one at that.
++Apropos of nothing, I figured out on the trip that Indonesia was essentially the 13th country I’ve visited (counting Hong Kong, Macau, and China as one). I then withdrew 6.66 million rupiah across two transactions (not consciously), and also had a black cat run across my path. My last day in Bali, I slipped on some rocks and cartoonishly flailed and fell on my ass at a major tourist attraction, had a pretty severe allergic reaction to shellfish / bad water that had my face puffy and my body covered in hives briefly, and now I’m spending the night at the airport because a delayed flight made me miss the last train home – after being kept up the previous night at the hotel by a mysterious and constant whirling noise. Not that I’m the superstitious sort. I’m just grateful my plane made it back.