When people are asked to cast their minds to the Indonesian island of Bali, a rather specific visual tends to manifest. We think idyllic sandy beaches, perfectly bronzed Australian surfer gods with artfully distressed dreads and more than a handful of bohemian ‘gap years’ discovering their inner selves beneath the palm trees.
Now, don’t get me wrong, stereotypes like this wield some hefty validity. With Asia’s very own paradise long-since identified as a haven for travelling misfits, Bali is a locality that boasts some rather enviable qualities. Having said this, I remain an advocate for honesty. With travel writing increasingly inundated with cliché depictions and unrealistic expectations, it seems only fair that my accounts give you a flavour of authenticity (for a better idea of what it is I mean by this, check out my post on Paris here). Whilst my five days in Indonesia were fairly fabulous, a return flight to Ngurah Rai airport doesn’t automatically equate to a Hollywood transformation. As I learnt the hard way, there’s more to being Julia Roberts than flip-flops and a sarong…
Sharing a mutual distaste for beaches, our family of four had decided to avert the coastal areas of Kuta and Seminyak and instead pursue a little culture in the villages of Ubud. Having survived the one hour shuttle across Bali’s bumpiest roads, we arrived at our villa in the late evening. With memories of the chaos of Kuala-Lumpurian city life fresh in our minds, the soft music and al-fresco reception came as a rather welcome change of pace. As a flurry of teenage bellboys scurried towards the moonlit rice fields where our villa was located (each of them trying earnestly to squash their grunts of exertion having heaved my mother’s 300 pairs of shoes above their heads), we couldn’t quite believe our luck. However, as seems to be the case with all of our travelling escapades, this idyllic façade was as short-lived as it was fragile.
Picture the scene. Following a hearty meal of western indulgence (you can take the girl out of Britain but I’d like to see you try getting her to turn down fries after a week of ‘chicken rice’), we decided to retire to our living quarters for a peaceful night’s rest. To anyone reading this, you may have already made the connection. In hindsight, a hotel situated in the midst of an Indonesian rice paddy was bound to incorporate a little of the natural world, we simply hadn’t realised just how much of it we would be privy to. With the mating call of a thousand frogs ringing like a battle cry, our serene escape descended into chaos. As my mother’s limbs began to flail, disturbing spasms racking her body as she clung to my father in search of refuge from the creatures that surrounded us, my hopes for an unassuming arrival drifted further out of reach. With my father’s curse words shattering the noise of my mother’s sobs and my brother’s exclamations of glee as a metre-long lizard scurried across our bedroom ceiling, I can distinctly recall exchanging a glance with the hotel staff. As she looked to me for reassurance that the screeching lady would someday regain her sanity, I shrugged. The English had arrived and we sure as hell weren’t in Kansas anymore.
With the tensions of the previous evening forgotten, we vowed to kick–start our Balinese adventure with a new attitude and within minutes, I was hooked. Ubud’s streets are a winding family of cobbled possibilities, each one leading to yet another make-shift market stall selling trinkets you do not need but cannot resist. The food is characterised by a refreshing simplicity with freshly squeezed fruit juice available at every corner. You’ll have to excuse the hippy rhetoric, but I have concluded it is a specific kind of vibe in the greenery of Ubud that culminates in a tranquil ambiance I have yet to see rivalled. As the hours (and days) pass in a happy blur of colour, it is difficult not to adjust to the slowness of this Indonesian island. People in Bali do not rush. There’s no pressing need to be somewhere else or do something else; plans here aren’t made but stumbled across. I must admit, the hubbub of urban commotion has long since held an undeniable appeal for me, the prospect of teeming city streets and an eclectic fusion of characters is impossible to resist. With this in mind, it is perhaps the amalgamation of individuals we encountered rather than the rural landscape that held such charm for me. It is rare to encounter a place where the saying ‘anything goes’ is more than the faded message printed on an outdated bumper sticker, but in Bali, this has become a poignant philosophy. From Hollister-model-lookalikes sipping coconut water in a pavement café to middle-aged women scribbling poetry in their leather travel journals, this island has become a paradise for the everyman. Whether you’re an adventure loving 70-year-old with a Vespa and a greying ponytail, loved-up honeymooners enjoying a romantic break or a family of four making the most of the summer holidays, Bali will welcome you with open arms and give you one hell of a story to tell.
Having accidently adopted a tour guide in the form of a taxi driver named Ketut, we were carted around the island on a hop-on-hop-off tour of the best and brightest sites. For anyone that has visited Ubud’s Monkey Forest, you too will be able to recall the number of signs littered throughout the Sanctuary asking that visitors do not engage the monkeys. In fact, for anyone with even the slightest degree of common sense, avoiding an altercation with a wild animal would probably seem like a logical approach. Apparently, my father (and our family’s very own Karl Pilkington) didn’t get the memo. Despite the tears trickling down my brother’s face as he employed my body as a human shield from the apes strolling freely throughout the area, dear old dad seemed unfazed by his child’s distress. With my mother waiting safely outside the gates and no one remaining to admonish him, my father felt it necessary to reassure himself of his masculine bravado. Following the tensest stare-off in history and a series of alpha-male demonstrations from both parties, (only one involving the beating of hands on a chest; seriously Dad, you’re not King Kong) we escaped narrowly with our lives.
Having been blessed at an Elephant Cave Temple, sampled the finest Asian coffee at a nearby plantation and taken many a selfie with a flower in my hair and sarong around my waist, we spent what remained of the evening at a traditional Indonesian dance show. At this point, I could gush about the magical atmosphere or surreal ambiance, but, there seems little sense in delivering an inaccurate portrayal. Whilst the costumes were as colourful as they were intricate and the musical talent of those involved was admirable, the incessant banging of thirteen consecutive gongs quickly became more irritating than enchanting. With little understanding of the story line (I’m fairly certain a monkey king was involved) and the pounding in my head becoming increasingly distracting, we returned to our villa and disaster struck.
I’ve had my fair share of dodgy travel experiences. I’ve braved the unknown meat curry on an overnight train in India, choked down chargrilled dog in Beijing and put my stomach to the test in darkest Russia and on every occasion, I’ve come away unscathed. Unfortunately, this luck was not to last. I cannot tell you what it was that elicited such adverse effects from my poor disheartened self, but I can assure you, you don’t want to try it. As I lay there, dizzy, disorientated and convinced of my approaching demise, the sounds of my family frolicking in the pool just metres away did little to lift my spirits. In a blur of bitterness, jealousy and the odd brush with death, my Balinese adventure swiftly became less eat-pray-love and more is she still throwing up? Feeling irrevocably sorry for myself and helpless to stop the remainder of my time in Bali slipping away, my fragile form elicited a disturbing sense of satisfaction from the peeling faces of my sunburnt family. It was only in the wake of this momentary contentment and upon arriving at the airport to catch our overlay to Singapore, that I experienced a terrible realisation. In a cruel twist of fate, and in spite of the numerous reminders I had received to ‘check the room’ before we vacated, I had left my iPad behind. To their credit, my parents dealt with this calamitous news quite well. Perhaps it was the potency of my emotional distress or the remnants of my life-threatening ailments that evoked such leniency, but it was with relatively little quarrel (and the small matter of a £100 courier fee) that my misplaced tech found its way home to our English cottage a few weeks later.
Whilst this tale appears rather unfortunate, there is indeed a point to this story. Although my malady offered an inauspicious conclusion to our time in Indonesia (even if I do owe a thank you to whichever misguided chef temporarily broke my body for encouraging such clemency in my guardians), my time in Bali was a series of thrilling highs and lows. Though I probably could have done with a little time with Julia’s healer and a jot of spiritual discovery wouldn’t have gone amiss, it was the trials and tribulations of our Balinese adventure that made it one to remember. For all my complaints and teasing of gap-yah nomads, I can only hope I will have the opportunity to return to this Indonesian nirvana in the very near future.
Maybe this time I’ll make it to one of those infamous beaches without losing my mind (and lunch) along the way.