Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Tropical Paradise? Tourist Honeypot? To be honest, we don't have high expectations of the island of Bali, if only because it is Indonesia's most popular destination, although we aren't so certain when we step off the ferry and find our way to the bus terminal. There is a languid air about the place and of the twenty or so people there, only four look like they are waiting for transport. Then we spot a minibus going in the direction we want, but it's jammed tight, and we aren't tempted. Soon after it leaves. And so does our hope of any further onward travel today. It's only just gone 4 on a Sunday afternoon, but there's not much action going on. What little there is focuses on the Bakso Man. We succumb. There's not much else to do but chew on the rubbery little meatballs. Time passes. We keep on chewing. What we need are other prospective passengers to fill up another minibus, but there's more chance of a snowstorm. Just after 7, whilst we're considering kipping down for the night on the benches, three lads appear. There's now 9 of us, and after a quick conflab with the flabby conman, I mean driver, where everyone agrees to pay a bit more (except us two, because the driver forgets he'd already quoted us a higher price than everyone else) we finally depart for Lovina, a quiet beachy place on Bali's north coast. I'm convinced it's snowing as we leave the terminal, but it could be a bakso-induced hallucination.

We spend a few days lounging in Lovina, a fairly peaceful place, where a few tourists come to escape the party scene in the south. There are more hotels than tourists. I'm not sure if this is a reflection on the tourists, or the optimistic locals. However, we are thrilled to have a room big enough to play frisbee in and an attached bathroom that's larger than most of the rooms we normally get. The Balinese are renowned for their friendliness and openness. So many conversations start with a hello, how are you, where are you from, where are you going? but too many end with the conversation-killing you want transport? Every shop and cafe has a blackboard offering the same services - tours, transport and laundry. One entrepreneur is even offering "laundry transport" - presumably to save you taking it down to the shop yourself. We head on to Ubud, stopping on the way in the hills to visit a small Hindu-Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess of the waters, Dewi Danu, worshipped by all the farmers. Bali is after all a big rice-producer and there are paddies everywhere. However, we have heard that less and less people want to farm on the island, presumably as tourism is recovering from the 2002 and 2005 bomb attacks and there are other,easier, ways of earning a living. (One popular way is to stand around around on street corners, offering transport. Another one, the woman at our hotel was thinking of starting, is a laundry service for "the prostitutes that come here from Java". Hmm.) It's at the temple that we finally come face to face with Bali's mass tourism. Coach after coach disgorges tourists from other parts of Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, Europe, Australia and the US of A. The temple is built in Balinese style, with a series of thatched roofs, on a small island in a lake. Most of the tour groups don't stay long, unless they have opted for the boat ride around the lake. It's fresh up here and we have a chilly evening at our guesthouse chatting with a friendly Dutch couple.

The journey to Ubud seems strangely complicated. First we have to take a bemo to Denpasar, Bali's capital, then another across town between bus terminals, and then a third to Ubud, which is a little bit northwards. (If you're wondering why I'm always writing about the transport on these pages it's because it sometimes comes back to haunt me and writing is a cathartic process. And besides, this is a travel blog.) At the first terminal in Denpasar we seem to hit an invisible brick wall. There is a bemo lined up to go to the next terminal but it is empty. There are no punters waiting, just the strong smell of urine, which reminds us nostalgically of India. No problem, we can wait. We wait over an hour and a half, turning down a few offers of a "special" bemo, or seats on buses going "close to Ubud". We see only one other foreigner in this terminal and we know it's because so few actually use the public transport network. Of course, we are starting to understand why. You need the patience of a saint, and we ain't saints. Mind you we have legs, so we get up to walk. Just as we are striding off a driver catches up with us with a tempting offer to take us to Ubud. Sixty thousand. Thirty each? we ask, and he indicates to us to get in. It's double what we were going to pay, but it's still the best offer we've had. We say yes and finally depart. It all seems too good to be true, and we both have our doubts when the driver tries to dump us on the edge of Ubud into the hands of waiting hotel touts. We ask him to take us to the centre, as agreed. A couple more times he tries to offload us, but we finally reach the gridlocked centre. We pay him the fare and get out. He shouts after us. He wants another 60 thousand! We stride off down the street, ignoring him, and only afterwards do we start to wonder who ripped who off? We're convinced we agreed 60 thousand for two, but maybe......No, we're certain. However, as we walk down the street and merge with all the other tourists, we realise that as long as we're here, there'll always be a bounty on our heads. A man smiles at us as we pass him:

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