Bali Loves Kites
In the fields, on the beaches, from adults, or with the children, Bali flies tons of kites. We saw them on exiting the plane on arrival, and they were our last glimpse boarding the flight on our way out: Kites flying high in the Bali sky. I can understand selling them to tourists, I agree they’re a fine way to pass a windy day at the beach, but all across the fields and farmlands, kites are strung on half-mile strings and deck the island’s skies in streaming reds and regal whites from sun-up to sun-down. I never remembered to ask anyone why, but Bali loves kites.
Bali Also Loves Sarongs
To be more specific, Bali’s temples love sarongs. I didn’t see a whole slew of people wearing them outside the holy places, but inside, Balinese make sure every tourist is sufficiently ridiculous in a yard of colorful fabric wrapped up as a cheap skirt around each waist. It’s probably a ploy to laugh at all the foreigners. I can picture whoever came up with the idea first—a mischievous young scamp snickering to his cohorts about the clueless bule he just charged money to dress up in a cheap imitation of a traditional, dignified get-up: “He gave me his money and I made him wear a skirt. He thinks it’s a sarong—can you believe this?” It’s been a steadfast tradition ever since.
Don’t misunderstand me—on a Balinese person, a nice sarong is definitely admirable, enviable, definitely a respectable, chic way to dress. But it’s just not the same to spin a little fabric around those of us who are more at home in cargo shorts and tennis shoes, who are already sweaty with sightseeing and sporting wild sunburns and dehydration. It’s just not the same effect.
Maybe all this is simply part of their plan to hawk more expensive cloths to you as you enter—fancy-looking sarongs are a staple of the temple-ringing tourist traps. It’s definitely. . . well, suspicious, if you ask me. But when in Rome, do as Romans; when in Bali, wear the free skirts.
And by the way, if you see a statue wearing a nifty sarong, or one more like a tablecloth draped around a sacred tree’s supposed waist, don’t make fun of it in front of the locals. It’s a real thing, not some cutesie joke. Trust me. Save yourself some embarrassment.
Try the Baby Pig
In most of Muslim Indonesia, pork can be a bit tricky to come by—at least until you learn to code for how to get it. But in Hindu Bali, it’s hard to resist. The local specialty, the traditional preparation, the taste of favor is a roasted suckling pig. If you see dozens of signs featuring an impaled and charred little oinker, you’ll know you’ve come upon the famous Babi Guling. It’s full of flavor, oozes a spicy kick, and is very famous—in fact, in an attempt to get in on the lucrative market, one eatery touts its “suckling duck.” It’s either a publicity ploy or a sign-maker with a serious deficiency of duck-rearing experience. On the one hand, I’m sorry to say that not many of the piglets seem to make it to adulthood—it’s not easy to spot the adult progenitors of the delicacy. But on the other hand, after crunching through the crispy skin and sampling the moist, tender meat off the tiny bones, well, it’s hard to feel sorry. We recommend the Babi.
Fast Boat isn’t the Best Boat
So the entire time we stayed on fabled Bali, everybody wanted to sell us the fastboat ride to Lombok and Gili. No, I told them, it’s called a “speedboat.” And no thanks anyway, we’ll take the ferry—it’s cheap and will get the job done. After all, who complains about a few more hours traversing tropical waters?
No, Mister, they told me—the fastboat better. Is more comfortable. Has seats like airplane. Ferry she is crowded and no comfortable. Can take five hours.
I didn’t listen to them, and I had a wonderful cruise across the strait to Lombok, and again to Gili from there. The breeze wafted in the open windows, a movie played for those who wanted to watch it, and everyone else chatted or stretched out to nap on the plentiful benches. In the end, it took 3.5 hours to make the crossing, and the most annoying part of the ordeal was the endless string of crusty sailor types who wanted me to pay them to carry my bag.
The slowboat was absolutely fine. Just be sure to bring a jacket; the breeze got a bit chilly after an hour or so.
The “fastboat”, though—let me tell you about the famous fastboat. We got roped into a ride back on one these gems; the sellers convinced us we might not make our late-night flight on time in the ferry. So we forked over the extra cash, sighed, and said we might as well see what it’s about.
First off, it arrived over two hours late. That’s not an auspicious start to something selling itself on its swiftness. Second, it was packed to the proverbial gills—not a free seat in the house, not an elbow free for wriggle-room. And remember those airliner seats? Well, let’s just say they were more economy class than any economy class I’ve flown before.
Even so, I think I could have handled it if it were not for the ride itself. We spent an hour-forty-five careening over choppy waves, bow high in the cream-puff skies, eight outboards churning through the seas without a care that the hull was slapping the surf like a nun with a ruler to a schoolchild’s knuckles, and rattling the passengers dizzy. You would have thought the pilot was a teenage X-games hopeful.
No, I can say that fairly—there actually was a time the cross-boat waves had us listing to the point of worry and reaching for seasick bags so desperately that the pilot cut all the power. People screamed. We swayed perilously, dead weight rocking on the high waves, the hundred of us wide-eyed at each other and waiting for the boat to spill into the sea.
It didn’t, but we did take in enough water through the open windows to soak the floor and all the bags we had at our feet. Oh, and the luggage that got strapped to the top? It didn’t fair much better—we made the flight home with salt-watered suitcases.
I should’ve known better than to trust a boat with name that appears in no standard dictionary. Next time, I’m travelling cheap and easy and lexigraphically correct on the seas.
Bali Guides Can Rock the Spanish
OK, so if you go anywhere near Bali in August, you’ll find it full of Europeans on their holidays. I think they shut down half their continent so everyone can take a three-week pleasure trip overseas. It’s been a tradition ever since they gave up the whole colonizing scheme: they go visit their former haunts a few weeks and act like they still own the place.
All this is to say that Bali was crawling with not just Australians, but also the French and the Italian and the Brits, and yes, the Spanish.
Spain has a special place in our hearts—it’s where we met, it’s the language we befriended in, and fell in love in, and the place of all our mutual beginnings. Heck, I met her there, I dated her there, I proposed there, and more than any place in the world, it’s where our life together started.
So when we hear some good old Castellano, our heads turn and we see who’s there and we eavesdrop. Well, we heard some Castellano on Bali, and listened in, and we turned our heads subtly to see who, and we saw none other than a saronged and head-banded Balinese guide explaining the intricacies of his home culture to his European clients—but in Spanish syntax and pronunciation so articulate you’d swear he hailed from Cordoba instead of Kuta, more likely from Madrid than Ubud.
The English-language guides—perfectly understandable, but you’d never mistake them for a Brit. I don’t know what it was with the Spanish guides, but they rocked.
What’s With the Phallic Keychains?
Party-down beach towns have a reputation for some shady knick-knack souvenirs, right? Some beer-guzzling tee-shirts and caps with innuendo and some postcards featuring centerfold models—sure, they’re going to have that stuff. But I’d underestimated Bali if I thought it would let the other party beaches outdo it. No, Bali goes all-out, featuring in souvenir shop after souvenir shop, wooden key chains shaped like penises.
Don’t ask me why, but they’re there. And it’s not just in one place or one size—every shop seems to have them, from miniature to life-size to. . . well, you get the idea.
OK, I told myself, we’re in Legian—it’s kind of a party scene, we’ll just shop our trinkets elsewhere. In an artsy boutique in Ubud, the cultural capital of the island, we found the same stuff. In the temple souvenir shop in Bedugul, I thought I’d glance through the inventory—oh wait, I somehow missed the entire wall devoted to phallic key-rings.
My question is this: Is the surplus supply do to an over-active consumer demand for this product, or is it because no one buys the thing that everyone somehow has a few hundred in stock?
And whose idea was the wooden penis key chain anyway? Was it Freud?
(Some) Backpackers Don’t Really Backpack
I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the line I got the impression that so-called “backpackers” actually hiked along with all their goods packed tight into a back-borne pack and stopped in cheap, no-frills places when the life on the trail became too tiresome and the hygiene too, um, uncertain, to proceed without a shower and good night’s sleep.
Well, it turns out they just pack their stuff in a backpack and travel by bus and plane and boat just like normal folks. They probably will take the ferry instead of the fastboat. They’re more likely to pay less on a room and food and maybe more on beers. But they don’t really hike. Most can hardly stand to keep the packs on their shoulders for an honest quarter-hour.
After Bali and a good look at its “backpacker” culture, I think packing your stuff in a bag with shoulder-straps instead of wheels is more an identity statement than anything else. It’s just branding yourself as part of the subculture. It’s just showing people what sort of crowd you hang with. It’s not really about the backpacking at all.
Bali Corn is Worth Ten Thousand
A pleasant surprise in land of seventeen-thousand islands is that they too love grilled corn. And it’s not just any old maize they slap on the grill (take that Central America), no, these guys go all-out with some world-class sweet corn and roast it to perfection over dried coconut shells somehow whipped into white-hot ashes. Get it slathered in garlic or chilies or mayo or salt, it’s an awesome snack. Generally, they ask ten or fifteen thousand Rupiah (that’s a dollar or dollar-fifty). Sometimes you can get it for less—especially if you’re buying higher quantities—but take my word for it: the Bali grilled sweet corn is worth ten thousand of your hard-earned Rupiah. We had it every night.