You won’t believe what I discovered in Bali.
Imagine being in a car with someone learning to drive. The roads are busy, and everything they do makes you cringe. But then, for every moment of fear, you’re constantly surprised at how everything seems to work out okay. That despite the endless car horns, the journey seems to be almost effortlessly smooth and that reaching the destination is not only likely, but that it seems to be a sure thing.
These were my first few moments in Bali, Indonesia.
I was there for a holiday with my partner. She had been there many times, but this was my first. My personal travel history instead features a lot of the northern hemisphere, the usual places that most passport-wielding Australians go, as well as Russia, China, and about five days in Japan for a work trip. But my experience in south-east Asia, just six short hours by air from my home in Melbourne, was non-existent.
In my mind, Bali is a place where Australians go, itching to get into, or get out of, their best singlet; where dishevelled surfers go to escape their homes and find the next fantastical wave; and where people try to smuggle in illicit drugs in boogie board cases. But I didn’t always have this cynical view.
When I was a kid, the ‘safe space’ on the playground was often referred to as ‘bali’. At the time I didn’t really get the reference. I likely had a better knowledge of the Greeks and Romans than Australia’s geographical neighbours. But now, seeing this ‘safe space’ for the first time out the window of our taxi, I kind of get what the other kids were getting at.
We had caught an early flight and so I wasn’t exactly awake as we arrived at our accomodation, a posh hotel on the airport side of the city. It was the kind of place with enough facilities that if you stayed there, you might never need to leave. But before we could get too comfortable, there were two important tasks left to do: we needed coffee and we needed a local SIM card, and both tasks would require some pretty impressive exploring.
The roads in Bali, and in much of Indonesia as I would discover later, aren’t really built for bipeds. While you can certainly walk on them, you need to share them with cars, motorbikes, and other pedestrians. Making your way on foot involves stepping carefully through the dusty area that lies at the very edge of the asphalt. But this isn’t where the real courage lies. Because should you wish to cross the road, you will need to combine a defiant raised hand to the oncoming traffic with a courageous step, an Indiana Jones-style leap of faith, in the hope that the vehicles slow for you. Oh, and don’t stop. Whatever you do, don’t stop.
Traffic in Indonesia relies greatly on rhythm and pace, kind of like an orchestra, so a pedestrian on the road needs to follow the same rules as the other cars and motorbikes, only without the safety of wheels and a windshield. If anything, crossing the road is like Frogger, a video game that involves a frog leaping from lily pad to log to anything it can find to get across a river and to the other side. Or if you’re on the younger side, think of the excellent Crossy Road, a video game just like Frogger only with a few more colours and a healthy dose of product placement.
But back to the journey. We made our way along the road, literally, until we came to place with lobsters bobbing unknowingly in a tank near the entrance. Thankfully, it also sold coffee. But before I go on, let me say that Australians, and especially Melbournians, are quite, well, selective about their coffee. We know what we like, perfectly-made espresso, and we know exactly how we like it, with warm and foamy milk. We’re picky, I guess.
My first coffee in Indonesia wasn’t quite like this. Instead, the thing I noticed about it was the grains. Lots of grains. But there’s a solution to this. Because alongside the coffee came sugar in the form a syrup, which achieves the remarkable feat of picking up the grains and almost merging them into goodness. The whole thing is quite easy to drink. Very sweet. But easy.
After drinking our coffee and watching the lobsters squirm in the tank, we ventured into the side streets in search of a SIM card, with the asphalt giving way to gravel. The houses, and the style of houses, differ greatly here. There’s still a few glamourous buildings, but between them are small square houses, tiny stores, and, occasionally, downtrodden shacks.
We asked around, and it turned out that very few people sold SIM cards, but we did get a lead on where we might find some. After a series of directions that we both had to repeat back to each other to remember, we went north in search of a particular market.
Now at this point, it was difficult not to feel like we were living the fabled ‘hero’s journey’ (think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or pretty much any Hollywood film, uh, Transformers?). We had been given our quest, advised of our path, and now it was time to follow it.
“They walked perilously along the side of the road. Motorbikes passed them, people passed them, cats passed them, but they continued. Forging beyond the trials and to the end of the street. Their reward? Internet. Glorious mobile internet.”
You get the idea. At the end of the road, we reached a large and incredibly busy intersection. Ahead were the oversized signs of the west. McDonalds. Starbucks. Burger King. We guessed that these were for the western tourists or, more importantly, for the kind of money you only get from western tourists. And given we were western tourists, there was also a chance that this area would have the SIM cards were looking for.
We made our way across the intersection, dodging a few wayward cars in the process, to approach what we thought would be the market that was promised. But in this instance, it turned out to be more like a supermarket, which thanks to the the blank stares we received when we asked, we discovered didn’t sell SIM cards. We left disheartened, but the stop wasn’t a total loss. As we left the supermarket, we started to see a sea of white people coming towards us, many of them wearing singlets. Staring back, it was quite an odd culture shock, even if we were also some very white people, sans singlets thankfully. And then we realised that we were just a few steps away from Seminyak, one of the most prominent western hotspots in Bali.
Walking through the area, it is easy to see why the area is so attractive to Australians. We passed a multitude of random shops, a fried chicken joint called the Hangry Chicken, and finally arrived at what looked to be a market. We looked at each other with the sense of joy you only get when the potential for an electronic dopamine hit is just around the next corner. The market was a shed lined with multiple stalls selling everything from food to clothing and as we circled the area, our eyes glanced at every glass box, coat hanger, and at one point, line of hanging uncooked chicken, until we finally came across a store with lots of brands that looked like they could be phone companies.
I grinned and let Emily do the talking until finally, after several back and forths, she said to me.
‘They need our passports.’
My eyes widened as I tried to remember where our passports were. And then it occurred to me. We had left them in the safe in our hotel room. I gulped. This wasn’t how the hero’s journey was supposed to go, and there was no solution in sight.
So in the end, after reluctantly accepting that our lack of passports also meant a lack of SIM cards, we instead distracted ourselves by buying sun hats, a few knock-off DVDs with dodgy credit lines, and a couple of drinks, before taking a hair-raising motorbike ride back to the hotel. It turned out we really didn’t need internet on our phones to enjoy the area, and naturally, I told myself that maybe this was the real journey.
Although in saying all that, the moment we arrived at the airport the following day we bought the first SIM cards we could find. Because, you know, old habits die hard.