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Postcard from Bali: Eat, swim, read – and get soaked

February 16, 2023

Yes, I suppose we travel too much. The planet must be very pissed off with us by now. But I’m not so sure about the people of Bali, whose coffers returning tourists are beginning to refill after a desperate two years during the various COVID lockdowns.

We’re on our second visit to Bali over a fairly short period. When my wife and I came home in November after a long trip away, I thought it would be nice to spend a bit of time in Blighty, beleaguered or not. Luckily, as a member of the much-despised economically inactive, I wasn’t affected by the train strikes, I stayed healthy, so avoided dying in the corridor of some plague-stricken hospital A&E. And the prospect of teacher strikes was only a matter of concern for the next generation. As for the border staff strike, the army did a pretty good job, though I did wonder about the provenance of some of our fellow-passengers blithely waved through as we sailed through the e-gates on our last trip.

What did get to me was the feckin rain. That and the feckin ice and snow. And the fact that Christmas was severely disrupted by our offspring dropping like flies in the face of those innumerable bugs that seemed have jumped into the immunity gap left by COVID.

So I initially thought that another long-haul journey mid-January was a bit of a stretch after our neighbours started wondering if we actually lived in our home anymore. But by the time our departure came around I couldn’t get on the plane soon enough. To Bali then. To shorts and tee-shirts after weeks in polar gear. No matter that our visit was smack in the middle of the rainy season, which means that it usually tips it down at least twice a day. Who doesn’t like tropical rain (provided our homes aren’t swept away or we’re wiped out in a mudslide)?

Bali for us doesn’t mean temples, surfing, gamelans and yomps through paddy fields. We’ve done all that. Well, not the surfing perhaps, but that never suited someone with my centre of gravity. No, it means different things. A chance to catch up on some books that have languished unread after I’ve bought them in a fit of enthusiasm. See the subjects of my last couple of posts, for example. Also a chance to wean myself off certain food staples that I overdosed on back in the UK during the festive season. Cheese particularly. After Christmas we were left with an array of produce you only have to look at to start piling on the pounds. After creating a monstrously rich broccoli and stilton soup and a bunch of other overcheesed dishes, I was waddling a bit when we got on the plane. Constant grazing during the journey didn’t help either.

So it was time to adopt our usual Far East detox routine. Two swims a day. Plenty of fruit at breakfast, no daytime snacking, Asian food at night – meaning steamed rice or noodles, and modest portions of Balinese, Thai or Malaysian cuisine. Desserts? A scoop of ice cream, no more.

Not that any of this meant that we were living in a bubble. We always learn stuff by talking to our Balinese hosts. Take the fisherman who runs a beach-side restaurant near where we’re staying. The other night, he talked to us for an hour about the art of spear-fishing, about Balinese spirituality and the spirit of self-help among village communities. During lockdown, despite having a tiny market for the fish he caught, he still went fishing every day and gave it to those who needed it in the village. He also told us that a few years ago, when an Air Asia aircraft slid off the runway at the airport and went into the sea, he and many of his friends headed to the crash site in their boats and rescued many survivors.

We’ve often asked people how they coped during lockdown without the tourists on whom much of the local economy depends. Many of them said that they went back to their home villages in the country, where they would stay with their parents. The extended family seems to be very much alive, as is the wider community’s willingness to help out those in difficulty. I’m not sure that’s still the case in many parts of the world, including my own country (despite the food banks), and especially in the United States, where self-reliance is a form of religion.

There are stories in abundance, if you bother to ask. We’ve used the same taxi driver for our last couple of trips: a stocky woman with a big grin. When she met her husband twelve years ago, his parents didn’t approve of her. So she married him anyway. But instead of living with them in their big house in the city, she chose to rent a room nearby, which didn’t stop her from having a daughter. While she continued to work, she sent her daughter back to her home village to be raised by her parents. Three years ago, her husband died in a motorbike accident. A few days ago, her mother died, which left the daughter in the care of her grandfather and uncle in the village. Even so, she continued to work during the funeral ceremonies. When she picked us up the other day, she had to ask us for half her fare up front to pay for her petrol. In the absence of any welfare system worthy of the name, needs must, it seems.

And yet, like so many Balinese we meet, she has that quality of cheerful stoicism, an acceptance of what life has to offer without complaint. No sobbing tweets or lugubrious Facebook posts. Just get on with it.

Occasionally, blessings fall upon her, which we might describe as luck. When she dropped us off at the place we were staying at, an Australian woman walking past reception recognised her and immediately hired her for a journey. In a city with a couple of thousand taxi drivers, what were the chances of that happening? One small step away from the breadline, a gift from God.

Earlier in the post I asked who doesn’t like tropical rain. After three days of almost constant downpour, I began to revisit that question. On day one it was lovely. On day two the pool was getting a bit chilly. On day three our verdant paradise was populated with mosquitoes and frogs whose croaking reminded me of the kind of involuntary flatulence that used to erupt from my mother in her declining years, and which, should I ever reach 90, I shall no doubt emulate.

In each of the places where we stayed there was a strikingly large complement of Russians – many of them quite young. Strapping men with their wives or girlfriends, most of whom seem to have bought in to the Russian admiration for collagen-enhanced lips. Unfortunately, though their menfolk might not think that way, they reminded me of the koi carp endlessly cruising around the fishpond at our hotel, mouths perpetually open for the little scraps of bread the staff leave in a basket for the kiddies to feed them.

As in other pasts of the world where recently we also encountered large numbers of Russians, I keep coming back to the question of how these guys avoided Putin’s draft. Are they all in special jobs that exempt them from call-up, or are they waiting it out away from their country until the need for their services has gone away? I was half-expecting some well-oiled Aussie round the pool to yell Slava Ukraini! The reaction would have been interesting.

While we were in Bali, we met up a few times with some friends from England. Tony first came there in 1974 by sailing boat. At the time Kuta, which these days is a slightly run-down area full of hotels and restaurants along the coastline, was some distance from Denpasar, the island’s capital. Between the two was nothing but rice fields and dirt tracks. Which reminded me that when I first worked in Saudi Arabia back in 1981, the distance between the new Jeddah airport and the city limit was several kilometers of wasteland. These days the road is built up to the airport and beyond with equally unprepossessing properties. Both examples of how “development” creeps up on you without your even noticing.

When Tony was first in Bali there was nothing for tourists to do outside the city, apart from temple-visiting, volcano-baiting and a spot of surfing. For the locals, most of whom still lived agrarian lives in the villages, options for entertainment were also limited – no internet, not much TV and radio. According to Tony, the main source of entertainment was cockfighting, on which large sums of money would be wagered. The fights were short and vicious. Owners would go to all kind of lengths to revive their flagging birds, including mouth-to-beak resuscitation. As my friend suggested, the losing owner at least had the consolation of a decent helping of chicken satay. No, not funny….

Knowing the Balinese to be such gentle and spiritual people, the whole idea of cock-fighting seems counter-intuitive, but there you go.

For all I know, such un-woke pastimes may still be a feature of village life. But if you happen to be a Julia Roberts clone looking to heal yourself by meditation and mass yoga classes, there are plenty of places that will take your money, and not just in Ubud, the island’s spiritual centre. As for me, lying on my front naked while being singed by volcanic lava isn’t my idea of a good time. Such new age regeneration techniques have passed me by. Instead, I like nothing better than looking out over a hotel balcony at the greenery, croaking (or farting) back at the frogs before heading off to the pool for thirty lengths, where I receive free Russian lessons, and then wandering down to a beach-side restaurant for a spot of parrot fish freshly plucked from the sea and barbecued on coconut shells.

And no, I don’t apologise for being away from home. Britain can be pretty grim in the winter months, the more so in these miserable times. Anyway, three weeks in that magical island have been thoroughly restorative. Before very long we’ll be back in the land of shit-filled rivers, corrupt politicians, non-existent Brexit benefits and yes, yet more strikes. Better than living in a bombed-out apartment in Ukraine or a refugee tent in Turkey, for sure. But self-inflicted pain is surely more difficult to deal with than other forms of adversity, because the recrimination it produces denies us the opportunity to pull together and face our problems.

To their eternal credit, togetherness is a quality the Balinese seem to have shown in abundance.

From → Postcards, Social, Travel, UK

  1. Jane Keegan permalink

    Excellent Steve, you’ve summed up many of our experiences beautifully. Mixing with the locals is the only way to begin to appreciate aspects of their culture. I have always admired the stoicism of the Balinese suffused with much charm too.

    • Thanks Jane, and I managed to avoid all references to Brexit, which is a rare thing for me! It was great spending time with you both. S

  2. Tony Keegan permalink

    Don’t worry about forgetting to mention Brexit Steve, that ship has sailed although it seems the crew have mutinied are are trying to steer us back to port! More importantly you forgot to mention Nyepi, the best Bank Holiday in the world and the Pecalang enforcers.


    PS I think I recognise that fish.

    • You’re right Tony. I’ll try and fit something about Nyepi in the next post (imminent). Up the crew! S

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