Unless you live under a rock, the popular idiom, don’t judge a book by its cover, should be familiar to you. Heck, even Patrick Star would have heard the words at least once in his rock-dwelling life. But the truth is that we all tend to pluck the ‘don’t’ out of the saying every once in a while. I, for one, chuck a book back on the shelf if there’s real people on the cover design (call me crazy, but I find it weirdly off-putting), sort people into stereotypes based on their appearance and choose restaurants according to their star-ratings. The idea I’m leaning toward is that even countries can be victimised by this quote, as breathtaking Bali is often depicted as a dangerous place, when in reality its comprised of happiness, gorgeous beaches and rich culture.
When I first heard that my family had booked a trip to the country, my thoughts immediately fled to images I’d seen strewn on the news and social media: intoxicated Australians, people riding scooters without helmets and extreme cases of ‘Bali belly.’ But lying in bed in Legian after only one day in the sunny paradise, I couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be, and that’s saying a lot coming from a girl who visits New York City in her dreams every night.
The blue buffalo journal I kept throughout my first overseas trip is rather long-winded, but if you’d like to understand the REAL Bali without ever leaving the safety of your cosy bed, here’s how: grab a cup of hot tea and keep reading.
5th April 2015
I’ve been in Bali no more than five hours and I’m already head-over-heels in love with it. This is my first international trip, so everything is a brand new experience, including going through customs and having my passport checked. The airport was packed with people who looked like they had stories crammed inside of them to share with their families back home, or with the country they were flying to. I, on the other hand, was an empty book. By the end of this trip I should (hopefully) be a grand storyteller with many pages full of adventure.
The plane flight wasn’t very different to domestic flights, apart from the longer hours and the freezing cold ice cream, which stupid me decided to stick in my mouth all at once. Of course, it immediately clung to my dry lips and I panicked big time, but my Dad didn’t stop laughing until long after I’d torn it from my skin. Good one, Kayla. Anyway, two movies and six episodes of Friends later we touched down in Denpasar, Bali’s capital.
The very first thing I noticed was the unique architecture; the airport looked like a long line of modern temples connected at the hip. While my fifteen year-old brother, Jack, said, “Look at the Chinese huts,” the little girl sitting behind me exclaimed, “It’s Japanese houses!”
We hadn’t even disembarked the plane and already it was blaringly obvious Balinese culture is not something we are accustomed to. We have a lot to learn.
After we passed through customs we were greeted by a myriad of Balinese guides being held back by barriers, waving signs in the air with family names scrawled on them. Standing across from them will be the closest I ever come to feeling like a celebrity being bombarded by paparazzi.
We eventually found our friendly guide at the back of the clump, who took my suitcase and ushered my family toward his mini-bus. On the ride to our hotel in Legian, we all had rubber-necks from craning our heads out of the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of this new world we have fallen into. I immediately had a pretty huge culture shock. Like the airport, every building is ancient and intricately patterned, attached to gargoyles, sculptures and full-blown temples. The road resembles a racetrack with tall gutters painted in black and white stripes, and there are absolutely zero road rules. Seriously, none. We only came across one set of dingy traffic lights the entire ride, which barely anybody adhered to, and there are no speed limits. Scooters zip through every gap they can squeeze through and some cars even drive on the wrong side of the road.
I recently obtained my probationary license, which I luckily passed on the first go, though many of my friends have tried and failed two to four times. In Australia there are many stages to receiving your driving license, but I wonder if they even have them here.
The hotel, Legian Furama Xclusive, is super nice: tall white blocks for the rooms with mushroom-shaped hedges and an awesome swimming pool. It’s shaped strangely- long and angular- and you can see into the hotel lobby from beneath the water. The hotel room itself is spacious and comfortable.
After changing into some lighter clothes (it’s VERY hot), we headed over to the beach, which is just a skip and a hop away right across the road. Hundreds and hundreds of scooters are parked down both sides of the street as far as the eye can see. I’d love to ride on the back of one, but I can’t see that happening.
The beach is, put simply, paradise. Who cares that the dark sand leaves your feet covered in a black mist? Not me. Thousands of umbrellas, bean bags and deck chairs are spread along the sand, clustered in front of bars and grills every ten metres. Every waiter we passed enthusiastically beckoned us to join them. I’m not accustomed to seeing restaurants on beaches or being served while sitting in a bean bag, but hey, I could get used to that.
There are lots of stray dogs running around everywhere, and dozens of peddlers trying to sell all kinds of crap, from jewellery, hats and paintings to nuts and kites. Once we were settled into a bar called ‘Capil Beach,’ we were approached by a plethora of them. They all walk around with bags of bracelets and material balanced on their heads, and another three bags swinging off of each arm. We managed to wave most of them away but there were two that hovered by our sides trying to sell us bracelets. After a long bout of haggling, they succeeded. They just seemed so desperate! They knelt by me and showered me in their goods- literally. They laid bracelets on my lap and pushed them onto my wrists, gazing up at me with puppy-dog eyes. One of them, whose name I learnt was Rani, kept patting my arm, saying “Cheap! Buy now, special sunset price!” You’d have to have a heart of stone to knock back these people without feeling guilty.
With Rani’s special sunset price came the actual sunset, falling behind the distant horizon as a band began playing on a stage in front of us. To describe the ‘Smiling Trio’ in just one word, I’d choose magical. The three Indonesian boys played alternative versions of songs like Budapest, Someone Like You and Riptide, singing mainly in English but throwing in some Balinese lingo every now and then: “And I got a lump in my choko, ‘cause you’re gonna sing the words wrong.”
We were forced to leave by the sound of our grumbling stomachs, but vowed to return to watch the Smiling Trio. The bars we passed along the beach on the way back to the hotel for dinner were spaced so closely together that the songs the bands were playing overlapped, creating a sense of cluttered music on a crowded beach.
Our waiter at Furama Xclusive pulled out my chair, which is the first time anyone has done that for me. The unexpected burst of happiness I felt was a reminder that sometimes it’s the littlest things that can fill you with gratitude. I ordered satay sticks and mmm, were they good. While devouring our first dinner in Bali, we watched lanterns being released across from us on the beach and I melted. They looked exactly like the ones off ‘Tangled’ (yes, I’m Disney obsessed), and are a high priority on my bucket list. So, ‘release a paper lantern’ is now on the to-do list.
Swimming after dinner (in the hotel pool) and then bed, where I am now. Before I sign off for the night I need to mention the Balinese. The people. They are all extremely welcoming, joyful and kind. Even though they’re far from rich, living in a poverty-riddled country and suffering from a corrupt Indonesian government without access to facilities that we have in Australia, the people I’ve talked to so far are always smiling. I’m excited to spend the next eleven days with these wonderful people and their incredible country.
6th April 2015, morning
I woke up in paradise.
The breakfast buffet included scrambled eggs, pastries, tropical fruits, squirrels… Just kidding, we didn’t eat any squirrels. But we did spot a few running along the power lines, which have no order whatsoever. It looks like a huge jumble of cords were just chucked from one pole to another, intertwining in a big mess. We’re currently waiting for our driver, Putu, who is taking us on the hour drive to Ubud, where we’re planning to cycle down an active volcano and visit some monkey temples.
By the way, this morning I saw a lady carrying a tray full of offerings and distributing them on the ground and in doorways every ten steps. There are offerings absolutely EVERYWHERE and I can barely walk three metres without accidentally stepping on one. They’re little three inch by three inch grass baskets, filled with anything that can be considered a tribute to the Hindu Gods: flower petals, biscuits, lollies and incense which burn your ankles if you accidentally step on one. Another window into their culture.
Off to meet Putu now.
6th April 2015, afternoon
You may want to sit down; I had a massive day and have a LOT to write about.
First off, Putu is hilarious! He was always making funny sounds, chuckling when we had a close call with a sneaky motorbike or uh-oh-ing when the road became too narrow as two cars and three scooters all tried to squeeze through simultaneously. One of the intriguing things he explained to us in his stilted English about Balinese culture was that right now we are living in the year 1937!! Not 2015.
He said that the Saka calendar they follow is 78 years behind our traditional Gregorian calendar, calculated from the beginning of the Saka Era in India. So technically, I could say that I’ve time travelled to the past. Then again, my family are ‘technically’ multi-millionaires right now. Considering $1 AUD is equivalent to 10 000 rupiah, 1 million rupiah is only $100 AUD. And we have much more than that in our pockets.
We all stretched our necks beyond their limits once again on the lengthy car ride, peering into the lives we aren’t accustomed to. It appears that temples are dispersed every ten metres throughout Bali, but I think that Bali itself is the temple, as the whole place is covered in the same feeling of sacredness and worship.
Our first stop was for what Putu called breakfast. We were the only ones in the entirety of the lavish restaurant- oh, and by ‘we’ I mean my family, Putu and two other girls who accompanied us. Mei-Li is from America, and Helen is from England, but both are studying abroad in Australia.
The restaurant was one with a view, and the most spectacular one I’d ever laid my eyes on at that. We ate fried rice and noodles overlooking Mount Batur, a volcano that spat lava over the land surrounding it in 1970. We could see the lava spread over the fields in a swooping black ash. Several picturesque mountains surrounded it and a massive, calm river ran between them. So I guess you could say the scenery was okay.
Oops, speaking of scenery, I forgot to mention that before breakfast Putu took us to the Tegallalong rice terraces. Now THAT was another gorgeous view as grass hills rolled over each other in shades of vivid green.
We were meant to stop for a quick look and a speedy photo, but it didn’t take long for my adventurous feet to tug me toward the rice paddies. One winding pathway later, my brother, the two girls and I were standing ON the hills, looking back at my surprised parents. The ground was steep and rocky, with nothing to hold on to as we descended to the bottom of the terraces through the long grass. A beautiful bamboo bridge connected the mainland to the rice fields, though when we reached the other side an old lady demanded money for crossing it. None of us had any notes on us, apart from Helen who had 100 rupiah- the equivalent of 1 cent- which caused the wrinkles etched into the lady’s forehead to furrow even deeper. Nonetheless, she let us pass.
Clumsy Kayla of course had a little slip into a muddy puddle- my whole foot up to my ankle was caked in mud and dirty water. What a great start.
The rice paddies were incredibly beautiful, but we needed to head back to the bus to make it on time for our bike ride down Mount Batur. At the summit of the volcano, we met with a couple of guys in charge of the cycle, who didn’t bother with a safety talk or helmets as it was an “easy downhill ride.” They were very casual and relaxed, and that’s what Bali’s all about. Putu followed behind us in his 7-seater car and the guides followed in a ute in case we needed a rest and a place to put our bikes. The ride was absolutely awesome. Villages and crooked little shops lined the mountain, just like in every other Balinese town. On the road with scooters whizzing past us, we rode through schools, villages and more rice fields. We stopped to witness a huge spider crawl up my brother’s arm: great webs of the enormous insects hung above us and the Balinese picked them up as though they were no more harmless than ladybugs. One of the guides thought he was pretty funny asking Helen “What’s that on your leg?” She screamed, of course.
Our first stop was at a cockfighting ring. Nearly every man in the rural villages owns a rooster, and there were hundreds running wild on the streets. As long as it’s done with religious intent, cockfighting is the only form of gambling that’s legal in Bali, as the spilled blood is believed to expel demons and other evil spirits. Two roosters are set loose in a ring with one of their legs tied up, fighting until death. The Balinese will then carry the dead rooster to a temple to sacrifice to the Hindu Gods (or something like that). Temples were situated either side of the ring, which was covered in blood stains and feathers. I personally think cock fighting is extremely cruel and inhumane, but they view it as their national sport.
By the time we left the ring, it had started to rain. Earlier when the clouds were spitting on us Putu had said that the rain is a sign of God blessing you with holy water. Well, God could certainly have chosen a better time. We had to ride in the rain, and not only was it freezing, but very dangerous. There are potholes in the roads and no safety railings when you approach the very edge of the mountain. We decided to stop at a nearby school to wait for the pelting rain to subside.
The kids have neat, checkered uniforms, providing a huge juxtaposition to the rest of their village, which is dirty and litter-strewn. The school grounds were guarded by pillars and gargoyles, but most of the chairs and tables inside were either grimy or broken. We waited until the rain became a drizzle before setting off once again, our guide leading us through a village to someone’s house.
This was the moment when I finally realised I was in a third-world country. Their home and courtyard looked like it had jumped straight out of a 40 hour famine brochure. The family allowed us to look inside their home, which was a single concrete room with a dirt floor and a filthy mattress. Surprisingly, they also had an old, boxy television set up in the corner. To gather water, they’d fashioned a gutter out of bamboo sticks which led into a large tub, collecting rainwater for drinking, washing and everything else you need water for. To my dismay, I noticed that it was infested with fleas and dirt.
On the ride here Putu had said, “After today you will feel lucky you live in Australia,” and now I know why. I feel a tiny bit better knowing I’ve contributed to the 40 hour famine program for the past three years, but recognise that I could be doing a lot more to help these people than fundraising a couple hundred dollars every year. If I remember correctly, approximately 40 million Indonesians live in poverty, which causes my contribution to appear very insignificant and meagre.
I felt guilty peering into their home like a typical tourist- taking photos and oohing and aahing over their way of life, but was glad to hear that the tour guide paid them for allowing us to visit.
Our last stop was along the road at a place where a young boy was working, building statues by carving cement. Sweat was sliding down his forehead, and he didn’t wear any shoes. Our guide informed us that they made the statues by mixing cement and then chipping away at it with a chisel, all on a dirt floor under a dingy tarp. The boy didn’t seem phased by our presence and barely acknowledged that we were even there. Every other Balinese person we passed on the bike ride yelled out ‘Hello!’ and waved, the corners of their lips stretching to meet their ears. Everyone is so overly friendly, going out of their way just to say hey. I believe ‘Hello’ is my new favourite word. Even though it’s simplistic and one of the first words a child ever learns, it means the same both in Australian and Indonesian, and connects two people in a matter of seconds. The only other words I know how to say in Indonesian are thank you and no. Respectively, terima kasih and tidak. To remember them, I just think tear-out-my-car-seat, because it sounds similar, and to dack, because not only does it sounds the same but what would you yell out if someone was to dack you? NO, of course!
Saying hello to everyone as we rode by was my favourite part of the ride. I got a lot of special treatment too, simply because I’m a white tourist and maybe also because my hair is blonde. Well, dirty blonde, but a lot fairer than any of theirs. A couple of boys riding past me on a scooter yelled out, ‘You’re beautiful!’ and I received quite a few winks from others. Why doesn’t that happen in Australia?! Anyway, it made me feel special. UNTIL I nearly died because of it.
One minute I was waving to a huge cluster of people as I was tearing down the hill on my bike, with rain pelting my numb fingers and freezing arms, and the next I was on the ground. I flew over my handlebars, soaring through the air and landing head first into the bitumen gravel road. I cut and grazed my elbow, my hip and both of my upper legs. My head was throbbing as though a drummer was using my skull as a drum kit, and I could feel a lump forming along my hairline. Probably should have worn a helmet, hey? I felt like I was either going to faint, cry or throw-up, or some mixture of the three. My hearing started to crackle and my vision began blurring at the edges so I suspected option one: fainting.
To avoid this scenario, I rested in Putu’s car for a while, with my bike stowed in the ute behind us. I gradually regained my hearing as I waited for my stomach to stop churning and my head to cease pumping. Before we left, I managed to throw a thumbs up through the window to the huge, excited group who witnessed my fall.
The first thing I saw from the ground was our bike guide rushing up to me with a horrified expression painted on his face. Clumsy Kayla is probably the first person he’s seen stack a bike riding down a volcano. The second thing I noticed was a little boy in the group replaying the crash to one of his friends, with wide eyes and heightened hand motions. They’d all jumped out of their chairs and exhaled a collective ‘WOAAHH.’ Later on, Jack (who was riding in front of me), said all he heard was ‘Hello!’ *CRASH* ‘WOAAHH’ ‘I’m alright!’
My mother (who had the fortunate position of riding behind me and got to witness the Great Mount Batur Stack) said it was the most spectacular fall she’s ever seen.
All I can say is it bloody hurt. I didn’t cry though. Or vomit, for that matter.
After a while driving in the car, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t have the chance to ride down a volcano anytime in the near future, so I hopped out and kept riding. The group were miles ahead of me, so I was cycling in the streets of Bali by myself for a while, with the car and ute trailing behind me like personal security guards. Every time we came to a cross road I’d just throw my head back and see an arm pointing out whichever way I needed to turn. It was an inimitable experience.
By the time I joined the tail of the group, the rain was soaking through my skin and the fleshy cut on my hip was oozing more blood with every peddle, so I was admittedly relieved when we finally finished our two-hour bike ride. Overall, despite the crash and the rain, it was an eye-opening, incredible experience that I’ll never forget.