And so it's time for the Big Challenge... or that's how I've been feeling about leaving the safe haven of Australia and heading into the anarchy of Asia. Landing in Indonesia in the middle of the night, without any accommodation booked, precious little local currency, hardly a word of the local language, and nothing but an open mind... well, two years ago I wouldn't even have boarded the plane. Back then, landing in Sydney with everything pre-booked was scary enough.
Because I landed late at night, Bali's Denpasar airport was almost totally shut when I landed, and the hotel booking desk, on which I had been pinning my hopes, was closed. 'Never mind,' I thought, and wandered out into the airport car park, where I started asking the hotel reps hanging round whether they had any rooms. My first request ended up with a US$30-per-night response, which was expensive, but better than sleeping on the streets. Another passenger had booked into a US$15-per-night hotel, but they'd made their reservation some six weeks in advance. Things were looking grim, but funnily enough, I didn't really mind. Tired and stiff from the flight, I was too dumbstruck to worry.
That's when I saw a little man carrying a sign saying 'Hostelling International', the universal name for Youth Hostels worldwide. I'd renewed my hostel card back in Cairns, mainly to get a discount on the coach ticket to Brisbane, so I grabbed the man and asked him if he had any rooms and how much they were; 'Yes, we have rooms, at 12,000rp a night,' he said. After some quick mental arithmetic – 3000rp is about one US dollar, so that was about US$4 per night – and I was home and dry. I got into the van, seemingly the only person stupid enough to turn up in Denpasar without a prior booking, and off we went through the night streets of Bali.
Driving in Bali is everything you thought the Greeks were, but worse. Nominally the Indonesians drive on the left, which I hadn't been expecting as this used to be a Dutch colony, but given the astonishing number of motorbikes and crazy drivers, it's more a case of, 'Give way to me, 'cos I ain't giving way to you.' Jet-lagged and wide-eyed, I small-talked with Putu, the hostel manager, and wondered how fortunate I was to be heading towards a bed; the feeling of landing on your feet by the skin of your teeth is quite an adrenalin rush.
Even arriving at a hostel – a clean, secure and pleasant one, I should add – is a culture shock when you first visit a country like Indonesia. I decided to get into some good habits early on, so I set up my mosquito net (even though Bali isn't a malaria area) and went off to brush my teeth. Not so fast, though... the drinking water is guaranteed to give you Bali belly, even if you only do your teeth with it, but luckily I'd brought a bottle of Aussie water1 from Darwin, so fresh-breathed and sweating profusely in the tropical temperatures, I bivvied down for the night.
A First Taste of Asia
The next day was my first proper experience of culture shock, and it filled my mind with all manner of thrills and spills, particularly as I've spent most of my travelling life so far in highly anglicised cultures. I'm sure that southern Bali is pretty mild stuff compared to legendary places like India, but it's still a world apart from the West, and I wasn't disappointed. I also wasn't that spooked – I found places like Amanu far more remote, not surprisingly – but that first day in Kuta will stay with me for a very long time.
That morning I joined the hostel's free shuttle bus to Kuta, the main tourist centre on Bali and some 6km west of the hostel's pleasantly suburban setting. Kuta is home to a long stretch of surfing paradise, a beach populated by lobster-coloured tourists and the most bewildering supply of hawkers you've ever seen. My first mission was to change some money, and if I was worried about the banks being closed on a Sunday, I needn't have been; every Tom, Dick and Harry in Kuta is a money changer, and the process was no different from any other country; I just wandered around trying to find the best deal in town. I bumped into a couple from the hostel in my wanderings – Emma and Doug from Muswell Hill – and we teamed up to explore the bustling tourist Mecca that is Kuta.
The first rule of buying anything that doesn't have a fixed price is to barter. Some advice I'd picked up was to ask how much something was, and to offer one third of that, smiling as if it's a game (which it is, really). The vendor looks suitably shell-shocked and makes another offer, which you counter, and eventually you meet somewhere halfway and it's a deal. If the deal isn't to your liking, say you'll go down the road where you got a better offer, and just watch the price tumble. My first experience of tumbling prices came in a clothes shop off the main market road in Kuta.
So what did I buy? Some baggy cotton trousers and a cotton shirt (which I wouldn't be seen dead wearing in London, but which proved practical and mozzie-proof garb for Indonesia) and a lovely sarong, an essential multi-purpose purchase that can be used as a body wrap, towel, bed sheet, sunshade, pillow and just about anything else you can think of. I don't think I managed to strike a terribly competitive bargain; all three cost me 42,000rp, or about £8.50, which might sound like a bargain in western terms, but isn't so great when you consider that's the cost of four or five nights in an average hotel in Bali. Still, I needed the clothes, and I needed the practice at haggling, so it was a good start.
Lunch was a pleasant surprise, too. For little over one pound each we ate like kings, with a huge plate of crispy noodles and vegetables and a Coke from one of the most beautiful settings you're likely to find, a restaurant right on the beach. Food is ridiculously cheap here, and you can eat for a few pence per meal if you're willing to risk the street vendors' appetising but sometimes slightly dubious offerings. For the first few meals, I sensibly stuck to the restaurants, trying such wonders as gado-gado (boiled vegetable salad with a spicy peanut sauce), nasi goreng (fried rice topped with a fried egg) and mie goreng (fried noodles). Indonesian food might not be that spectacular when compared to its more famous neighbours in Southeast Asia, but it's certainly value for money.
Hawkers of Kuta
Sitting on the beach, supping a cold and very inexpensive beer, the ubiquitous hawkers landed on us like flies on shit. Every two seconds a new face would buzz into view, trying to off-load fake watches, sarongs, jewellery, massages... you name it, it's here. The secret, I quickly discovered, is to say, 'No thanks,' firmly and repetitively, or even better a quick tidak (Indonesian for 'no'). Wearing shades helps, as once they've got eye contact, they latch on like hyenas moving in for the kill, but the golden rule is not to start a conversation (unless, of course, you actually want to buy something) and not to tell them your name. Doug, in one of his most endearing features, couldn't resist having a chat; he just loved to talk to people, and if there's one thing that's free in Bali, it's a conversation involving one side trying to sell something, and the other side trying to dump them politely. I sat back and watched him and Emma dig themselves deeper and deeper; he ended up buying a massage that he didn't really want, and she bought an ankle necklace simply to get rid of the woman selling it. For some reason I wasn't a target; perhaps my tidaks were more forceful than Doug and Emma's.
The whole day was constantly amazing. Waiting for our bus, we just watched the world go by; if money makes the world go round, then crazy places like Kuta make it turn a little faster, and the combination of canny natives, confused tourists and a distinctly tropical attitude towards life produces a cultural soap opera that never ceases to amaze. The littlest things become fascinating – the man in charge of parking motorbikes, the ticket touts who shout lewd comments at any girl in a miniskirt, the dogs eating discarded scraps in the streets, the taxis doing u-turns in the middle of the busiest road in Kuta, the Australian accents that the locals have adopted as a survival trait in the competitive street-selling environment – and I get the feeling this will continue throughout Indonesia.
I find myself thinking that if I get this much of a buzz from Kuta, the most touristy place in Bali, then getting out into the sticks is really going to be something...
And so, to the next challenge. The hostel, good though it was, was essentially not that different from hostels the world over, except that it had an excellent and very cheap restaurant (at least, cheap by western standards). A good, filling meal of gado-gado or nasi goreng cost 4000rp (about 85p), but I couldn't rely on hostel food forever, so I decided to go native and check out one of the warungs, the small restaurants dotted all over the place.
'Restaurant' is a euphemism when applied to some warungs. The fanciest are like restaurants, but the majority aren't, and if you had to compare the average warung to a garage, it would be the one with a greasy attendant who fills up your car with a cigarette hanging from his unshaven lips while a mangy dingo pisses on your front tyre, and the rag used to clean your windscreen smears more dirt on it than you'd ever pick up on the road. Indonesia is, according to the guidebooks, the place in Southeast Asia where most people get a bad stomach, and judging by your average warung, it's not hard to see why.
The warung I chose for my first roadside easting experience was just down the road from the hostel – a long way from the tourist strip in Kuta – and it was pretty damn grubby. I figured that if I was going to get Bali belly, I might as well get it over and done with, so I sat down on a plastic stool and ordered a nasi goreng. To my immense relief it was created and cooked in front of my very eyes – reheated food is a guaranteed way to get ill, so you should only go for freshly cooked meals – but the knife the woman used was so rusty that I wondered whether even a very hot wok would kill off all the nasties. Still, it tasted excellent, and didn't cost too much (although, not sure whether one should haggle in a warung, I paid the asking price, which could have been a rip off), and 24 hours later I was still firing on all cylinders. In retrospect, this was lucky; with dirty cats prowling about and a distinctive smell of sewers drifting into the open-air warung whenever the wind changed, I felt like I was dicing with death2.
I probably saved the situation by drinking a few cheap beers that night with Emma and Doug, and another Pommy couple, Caroline and Stuart, whom Emma and Doug had met in Australia. There's camaraderie between fellow travellers in places like this that provides a safety blanket from the slightly scary world of reality, and talking to them about their plans for the morrow – driving north in their newly rented 4WD – helped make up my own mind. I was going to head north, too, but without the luxury of self-drive; instead, I was going to check out Balinese public transport.
1 On the subject of water, I made a last-minute and truly liberating purchase in Brisbane. Aware that travellers buy bottled water all the time throughout Asia, I did a mental calculation of how much ten months' worth of water might cost me, and came up with a pretty large figure... enough to consider buying a water filter. The iodine tablets I'd bought for water purification in New Zealand would have done the job, but they taste pretty rough and you shouldn't drink iodine water more than you have to, so I scoured the Yellow Pages and found a shop in the city that specialised in water filters.
Some A$265 later (a fraction of the price of buying bottled water for a year) I was the proud owner of a pocket-sized 250g Katadyne Mini water filter that says it will remove all the nasties I might come across, even cholera, giardia, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, viral gastroenteritis, typhoid and, of course, things like worms and cysts. Between my myriad inoculations and the water filter, I should now be able to drink the water pretty much anywhere, and I can always fall back on the iodine tablets if things look particularly grim and there's no bottled water available. I've got two plastic bottles, one labelled 'Cool' and the other 'Crap', and I simply filter from one to the other, meaning I never run out of water if there's a water source nearby.
2 I would return to Kuta to fly out to Singapore, nearly two months later on , after a long bus ride from Yogyakarta during which the drivers insisted on playing extremely loud gamelan music at 11.30pm, 1am and 2.30am (not that I was counting or sanything). Soon after arriving, I would get a nasty batch of Bali belly, the final insult from a country whose standard of health isn't as bad as some other countries, but is just as effective; E.coli doesn't mind where it lives, but it really enjoys the human gut. It's funny how I was joking about it at the beginning of my trip through Indonesia; it was no laughing matter by the time I left.
Some things, though, put your health in perspective. That Saturday night, I was woken up by a drunken brawl downstairs – at least, it sounded like a drunken brawl – and a car backfiring. Chatting to the janitor the next day, I got a different story.
'So we got woken up early morning, by poliss,' he said. 'And polissmen go to room below you, and knock on door saying, "We know you got heroin, hashish, and stuff, let us in." But they didn't open up, saying, "We ain't got nothin' in here, man", so they got me to get spare key, I open the door, and bash the door down. One of them runs off down the corridor, so polissman gets out his gun and shoots him. Got his leg just here. They from Java, you know.'
Excitement in Kuta? No surprises there, then.