As we arrive in Denpasar, Bali under the cover of darkness the dull lights from stalls closed for the night glow alongside the roadway while the bright lights of modern hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs light up the night sky. As the clock ticked toward the midnight hour , we waited patiently to get off the plane, then waited in line to buy two $20.00 US Indonesian visas, and waited again to clear customs.
At some point along the way I dodged from the halls of the old, worn and damp airport into the nearest toilet, which proudly proclaimed it was FREE. As I passed through the small doorway, I was overcome by a horrific smell. I held my breath and powered forward pushing open door after door to find nothing more than a hole in the ground surrounded by a rim with a hose hanging nearby. Yes, we were well on our way to leaving the creature comforts of the west behind, but too tired to perform a balancing act, I ran from the bathroom to stand uncomfortably in yet another line.
For the middle of the night, the airport was slammed. We walked through the exit and were greeted by the thick humidity still hanging in the air and a rush of people held back by nothing more than a few bars. Cab drivers yelled to get your attention as dozens of prearranged drivers swarmed the exit while waving signs bearing the names of the foreign travelers they were sent to pick up. It was chaos.
Away from the rush beneath the glowing pink and blue lights of Baskin Robins, we found two men awaiting our arrival. The driver and bell hop from the Rama Beach Resort were both cloaked in the traditional Indonesia Batik clothing including Batik headdresses and skirts. As one of them, a short, small-framed Indonesian, struggled to grab our bags and lug them through the airport the sight of our Oklahoma State playing cards proudly displaying the University’s mascot, Pistol Pete, caught my attention. It was a strange reminder of home and our past, thousands of miles away in a very foreign land. It was if I was witnessing the clashing of two cultures as the small man leaned forward balancing the backpack on his back.
As our car later creeped slowly through the streets of Denpasar, Bali toward our hotel, I was shocked. Here there were no towering palm trees or white stand beaches surrounded by luxury resorts, instead the dim light revealed small stall after stall filled with cheap crap lining the roadway. Men and women tired from a days work, pushed small, rickety food carts through the streets.
As if on cue, a security guard emerged from a small station outside our hotel raising a gate for us to pass through. As we scrambled from the van and into the open-air lobby the Bali of my dreams laid before my very eyes. Here beautiful, colorful wood carvings stood tall above a small front desk with simple stone bowls filled with floating flowers nearby. A large open air restaurant and the blue light from a large, modern pool glowed in the distance.
I could hardly believe it – I was here. Bali had always seemed so exotic, so foreign and so far. With the island ripe for exploring just outside my door, I struggled to sleep and eventually awoke groggy, but ready for an adventure.
In search of the beach, we passed through hotel security again and picked one of the dirty, narrow streets we thought would lead in the right direction. Minutes later we could see the water, and dodged through a deserted restaurant to the sand below. “This can’t be it,” we said almost in unison as we walked along the dark brown almost black sand littered with trash. Here there were no tourists only abandoned Balinese fishing boats bobbing in the water and lining the shore. With each step dozens of small crabs scurried from beneath our feet forcing me to squeal, squeak and squawk my way along the waters edge.
In the distance, the golden arches of McDonalds stood like a beacon of shining hope and beneath the small figures of tourists splashed in and out of the water. “There it is,” I said with hope we’d found the beautiful Bali beach of my dreams.
As we approached, people replaced the trash littering the brown sand and old, colorful coolers filled with drinks lined the filthy beach. Every few steps another person approached us with a sales pitch. Drink? Beer? Massage? Bracelet? Sarong? Surf Lessons? It was endless. We were like a rotten piece of fruit swarmed with nagging and relentless gnats. Many people wouldn’t take no for an answer and followed us the several feet it took to reach the next street vendor who began pleading for us to buy something, anything
We cut down toward the water in an effort to avoid the crush. Instead we found ourselves surrounded by tatted, drunk Australians catching rays or catching the surf. “No wonder Bali is referred to as the Australian Cancun,” I thought, “this is disgusting.”
We cut back through the maze of umbrellas, coolers and washed-out surfers offering lessons and clamored toward a beautiful mall across the street. The Beach Walk was our safe haven, not only did it offer air-conditioning in certain high-end sections, but it literally was one of the safest places for us to be. Still, I couldn’t help be feel uneasy as we walked through metal detectors into the mall, and around each corner an armed security guard stood watch. It was a constant reminder we were in a tourist area, and the somewhat recent Bali bombings turned tourists into targets.
After the 2007 and 2010 bombings in Bali, they take no chances. Guards stand outside of banks brandishing AK47s and multiple security guards stand at gates leading to each hotel, malls, night clubs and even some restaurants. Mirrors placed strategically on wheels are used to peer beneath cars coming and going, and
For me the enhanced security led to somewhat of an opposite effect. It created a very uncomfortable atmosphere and served as a reminder that Bali may not be the safest place to visit.
Still we pressed on, wandering the streets without a map or direction. It was an endless maze of stalls selling fake DVDs, purses, watches, electronics, etc. and cheap, often trashy, souvenirs. Impressed only with our traditional Indonesia lunch we scored at Made’s Warung, we headed back to our save haven, our hotel, which was clearly designed around the image of Bali most people conjure up.
Beneath the beautiful, well-manicured palm trees, we laid beneath a beautiful cabana draped in whisky, white netting aside the crystal clear blue pool. This was a paradise far from the filfhy, chaos just beyond the hotel walls.
Determined to find the beautiful, remote Bali we imagined, we turned where else..to the Internet in search of an English-speaking driver who could take us far outside of the city. After an exchange of late-night e-mails we were set to meet our driver, Putu at 8:00 the next morning. Again, believing I was going to finally see the exotic Bali I imagine, I tossed and turned through another night.
To cut to the chase, I didn’t really find it – not that day or the next. Our wonderful driver, Putu, picked us up bright and early the next morning. As we climbed in his older, golden van he cheerfully handed us a bottle of water, and began laying out his plan for the day including a silver factory tour, a woodworking shop, a walk through a traditional Balinese house, a trip to the Monkey Forest and Ubud Traditional Market, a view of the famous rice terraces and finally a evening cultural dance.
As the car darted in an out of traffic avoiding the swarm of what Putu called ‘the mosquitoes’ or the hundreds of scooters zipping by, I waited patiently for the old, run-down buildings and sales stalls lining the road to disappear and be replaced by rolling rice fields and waving palm trees. It never happened. A densely populated area dominated the view from Kuta Beach to Ubud. The day spent with Putu was filled with cultural immersions, but many of them centered around tourism. However, it was still by far the most enlightening and exciting experience in Bali.
The Bali portrayed in travel journals, television documentaries and movies is solely a showcase of a few select cultural areas. The chaotic streets, the knockoff goods for sale on every corner, the trashy clubs and the touristy restaurants are somehow missed by most when describing the country as a cultural gem. In fact, if you truly want to know the movie that made Bali famous overseas, Eat, Pray, Love, was filmed in only a few select locations.. a small beach, the Monkey Forest in Ubud and inside the home of Ketut the guru. Ketut, who is well into his 90s, is still alive, and tourists now flock by the dozens to see him. Unfortunately, our driver says each tourist he takes to see the great fortune teller is told nearly the same thing. That’s not to diminish Ketut’s knowledge or wise ways, Putu says he was at one time the great fortuneteller for the Ubud area, but he has since faded from grace as other more effective medicine men and gurus have risen to prominence. Many of the tourists in search of Ketut are searching for a similar awakening as “Julia Roberts” in Eat, Pray, Love.
So, while many cultural jewels are nothing more than tourist attractions, there are some absolutely wonderful experiences to be had in Bali. While a good portion of the southern part of the island along with Kuta, Denpasar, Seminyak and yes, even parts of Ubud are centered around providing tourists with shopping, clubs and culinary delights – there are still some authentic experiences or at least what you think is authentic – the true Bali is what you see in the cities, and what you learn while talking with everyone from the beach bums to the hard-working men and working trying to support their growing and aging families. Meeting them and learning about the Balinese culture through their eyes is the way to truly learn what life on the island is truly all about.