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Indonesia: Kuta

A rooftop Hindu temple in Kuta
A rooftop Hindu temple in Kuta

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.

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.

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 Warung

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.

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.

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 anything). 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.