At this moment a year ago today (forgetting about the time difference) I was bouncing on a rackety seat on a minibus bound for the Bali coast, just me and a Finnish girl, staring out at the Bali countryside; the mountain, the rice fields, at the perfectly exotic tropical landscape that is Bali. There’s a reason it’s so damn touristy, and there’s a reason the people all seem so darn happy. It might also be because of all the Hindu Gods. I was leaving Ubud and heading back to Padang Bai, the town where I stayed my first night in Bali. Ubud wasn’t for me…after an afternoon of exploring the town and its many yoga studios and health food restaurants I was exhausted. While Ubud is said to be the center of Balinese culture, and the endless rows of temples and extravagant gardens and nights of Balinese dance truly are something to experience, its hard to shake the overwhelming Western hippie population and homemade organic squash soup. My best bet was spending my last day and a half I had left in Bali in a place that I knew and a town I hadn’t finished exploring: Padang Bai, home of the “secret beach” and its own theme song.
Before I left for the tropics, I was sitting in a cafe in Busan, South Korea, playing on my laptop in an attempt to plan the last leg of my Asian invasion in Malaysia and Indonesia. It was 35 degrees and kimchi-style humid in Korea. The 6 weeks I spent there in July and August were the typical Korean sweaty and sunny for summertime. But I was ecstatic at the thought of going down south again. And to the southern hemisphere even! The last hot and balmy place I’d been to, where coconuts fall from the trees and sea turtles roam by the moonlight, was Costa Rica, Panama and Belize on my first backpacking/volunteering/Central American adventure. On that trip, due to the awesome eco-tourism program in Costa Rica and Steph, my fabulous marine biologist friend from home who was living in Punta Gorda, Belize at the time, I was given the opportunity every wanderer longs for. I got to bond with the locals, live like them, and get to know these countries on an organic level. So for my follow-up tropical excursion, Asian style, I wanted to replicate my Central American way as much as possible. I wasn’t going with an organization or meeting any friends, but I wanted to keep my wandering to the less popular destinations and do my best to meet random locals. And see more turtles. I succeeded in doing all three of these things. On the trip I did indulge in some “touristy” elements, yes, but I also got to lounge around in the more off-beat parts of the country and meet some fantastic people.
Which is why I didn’t plan on going to Bali. We’ve all heard of Bali. I wanted Lombok (the beautiful little but lesser-traveled island to the east of Bali), Sumatra, and Java. I felt rather proud of how I’d been traveling up to that point, and I wanted to top it off by roughing it in the canyon in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, and exploring the wonders of Indonesian culture in the heart of Java. I planned to have Lombok satisfy my palm-tree-snorkelling-on-the beach craving. I didn’t need Bali, I thought.
From Korea I flew to Kuala Lumpur, and after an unforgettable week and a half in Malaysia, followed by a few days stuck in the equator city of Pontianak in Borneo (travel tip: book your flights in advance), I flew to Lombok.
Lombok was beautiful. I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful guesthouses on the island, had my own little tree hut for three nights, and while getting a pedicure on the beach the lady told me the story of her broken marriage and her strong Muslim faith and was brought to tears. But during the rest of my day, as I wandered around the town of Senggigi and the empty spots between resorts and spas, I felt unwelcome. The Lombok people in general are still wary of foreign tourists, but accept it for the money and big resort opportunities. Needless to say the happy beach feeling wasn’t happening for me, and I had a few days to spare. When I discovered that there was a slow boat to Bali every afternoon for 300,000 rupiah (about 30 bucks) complete with a shuttle bus from my guesthouse, I bought a ticket.
The port town of Padang Bai, Bali is where all the boats from surrounding islands dock. I’d read that the place was worth a stay. I looked up a few guesthouse names and figured I’d find a place when I got there. So when we docked and the few other backpacking buddies on the boat all stood waiting on the street corner for a bus to Kuta (surfer/tourist haven), I knew I was making the right decision. I was gonna get to know this port town of Padang Bai.
In Bali you don’t really stay in guesthouses or hostels, you stay in losmens. They are basically homestays. You get your own room but the courtyard and kitchen are filled with kids doing Balinese dance and Aunties cooking and selling various items at the front entrance. My first night at the losmen I met a group of traveling friends (French, Dutch, Australian…the usual) and we ate together at one of the town’s three restaurants and drank at one of the town’s two bars. Our bartender requested that we address him by his prefered name “Africa” instead of his birth name (Ketut). His bar played reggae and posters of Bob Marley adorned the walls. He had big hair and a big smile and was dating a wandering Aussie girl with dreds in her hair, who’d taken shelter in the Balinese hospitality instead of University in Melbourne. They told me about the two quaint, beautiful and unknown beaches on either side of the town and how they didn’t like Kuta at all. I told them everything I knew about China and the cities I’d visited. I can talk about China for days.
The next morning after breakfast in the courtyard of our losmen, we parted ways. They were traveling the island on motorbike and had more of Bali to explore. I hopped on a bus to Ubud. It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to return to Padang Bai. But I stuck it out for the day in Ubud. I went to the Monkey Forrest and treated myself to an evening of Balinese dance. I sat in the sun and had an avocado smoothie for breakfast my morning in Ubud, but that was it. I was on the first bus west back to the coast. I checked into the same losmen and the mother greeted me with a warm smile. “You come back?!” She exclaimed. “Yes, I just couldn’t stay away!” I responded. She gave me the key to my room and I set out for the beaches.
I snorkelled in clear coral filled waters all day, stuffed myself with Nasi Goreng (rice and vegetables) in between and was at the bar by night. My last night in Padang Bai I went to the main bar on the strip where it looked like a band was setting up. I walked in alone and took a seat on a stool at the bar and ordered a Bintang (Bali beer). Not even a few sips into my beer and a Aussie girl swiveled around to face me and introduced herself. She was visiting Bali for a month and spending most of her time in Padang Bai, staying in a losmen where she knew the owners well. She knew everyone at the bar, mostly local Padang Bai boys, and she introduced me to them as well as her visiting Aussie boyfriend. After a few rounds we got up to dance and the band began to play.
That’s where I heard the town’s theme song. It’s Australia’s unofficial national anthem “Down Under” but the chorus changed from “I come from a land down under” to “I come from a Padang Bali” followed by other Padang Bai related lyrics instead of Aussie ones. They sang their hearts out, jamming on tam tams as we danced like the world was coming to an end, and it was only a random Tuesday in September. I wondered if all of Bali was like this, or if it was just Padang Bai. I figured it was probably the latter.
We retreated to the back porch and the owner brought us another round of Bintangs. I had realized earlier that day on the beach that it was September 11th. I brought this up to Wayan, one of the bar owners. “Yes, we know about that. But that terrorism happens everywhere. It happened here in 2002. There have been many threats since. Balinese people are scared everyday that it will happen again.” He reminded me of the bombing that occured in Bali over ten years ago and killed over 200 people. That moment, like so many others that happen when you travel, made me realize just how small my world is.
“It is because Balinese people practice a different religion than the people of Java, which is the main governing island in Indonesia.” He said.
“Yes, Bali seems to be its own country, so different from the rest of Indonesia.”
“Can you tell me what island in Indonesia isn’t like its own country? All of them are special.”
Once again, I was humbled. From the zealous people of rustic Sumatra to the tribes in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia is one diverse nation. While Islam is the main religion and home to the second largest Muslim population in the world, tribal traditions still exist in Papua and there’s the Christian island of Sulawesi just east of Lombok. Then there’s Hinduism in Bali, and still an unknown amount of undiscovered islands with an infinite number of unique cultures, practices and people. Wayan was definitely right, each island in his Indonesia very well could be its own country. You can say that about the U.S. and its 50 united States, about every tiny European country, the countries in the United Kingdom, even about Canada and each of our provinces.
“While the capital city of Jakarta and the rest of Java want to make all the islands the same, us Balinese just want to keep our Hinduism and our traditions. Even our language is a little different. You can’t make all of Indonesia the same. But they are trying.”
In this globalized world everything is mushing into one big ball of sameness. But people are resisting. This is especially true of the archipelago of Indonesia, and from what I got to see every province and island remain distinctive. I hope it stays that way. The immense popularity and faith of its people make me optimistic that at least the island of Bali can escape the inevitable cultural gentrification.
At about 2 a.m. I said goodbye to my newfound friends. We danced to one last song and hugged goodbye, wishing each other well.
I walked the block and a half back to my losmen, in the quiet calm that only a nighttime beach town can provide. I gazed up at the night sky. I was in the southern hemisphere for the first time, and tried to make out the southern cross in the stars. I couldn’t, obviously, and it didn’t make my evening and my momentary spell of the island of Bali any less special.