I think it’s the only place in the world I’ve been to which positively radiates ambience and balls to the wall hecticness all at the same time.
I’ve always been mighty fond of the island, but the usual holiday blues which wash over me around the tail end of my stays have been replaced by an emptiness that only estate agents and people who have killed must feel. Don’t get me wrong, it has many charming points such as the island’s verdantly enchanting exterior, the warm water, the fiery postcard-perfect Tanah Lot sunsets, the Hindu recitals, and indeed the Hindus themselves.
Before Bali, going abroad with the olds was about the extent of my overseas experience. I didn’t know what culture shock was. I certainly didn’t get it on our last holiday to Lanzarote. It was a family holiday after all, which consisted of two weeks solid sunbathing, trudging up dormant volcanoes and karaoke. One night we got so drunk on sangria I threw up in the hire car on the way home. My brother was horrified because he copped the brunt of it all, even though he bizarrely offered to clean up the remnants of my spaghetti and bile, for the rest of the holiday the stench in our Peugeot became unbearable. Apart from that little incident, Lanzarote wasn’t exactly the most exciting for me, nor was it challenging, especially in the cultural sense.
Bali, at 17 years was a different story. I hated it at first and the concoction of suffocating heat, pungent smells, moped noise pollution and relentless hassle sent my head reeling with bewilderment. The main catalysts for my initial unease were the street touts. I hated them at the start. They knew the easiest targets were fresh out of Ngurai, and they spotted my bemused looking pallid face coming a mile away.
“You wan wachees?” They asked.
“Cheeep price. Rrrolex, Brrrritlin, I hab my flend. All vlery cheeeeeeeeep!” Another one said firmly gripping my sweaty arm.
I valued my personal space so the grabbing didn’t go down too well.
“Mate, lay off the arm. Can’t you see I have one already?”
I flashed them my Casio watch to prove I was already equipped, but a vain attempt at retro-chic only made matters worse. Have you seen Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey? The bit at the start where all the chimps gather around the monolith in stunned puzzlement? Well, it was like that – the touts swarmed around me with a chorus of oohs and ahhs, as if I just whipped out a £5,000 diamond studded Cartier and was considering part-exing the thing for one of their Rolexs.
I flashed them my Casio watch to prove I was already equipped, but a vain attempt at retro-chic only made matters worse.
I realised after a few days of getting into the swing of things, the sound of Fast Eddie Murphy and the like, slamming shut their trays of fake Zippos and watches was actually part of the experience. It didn’t take long for me to get over the initial culture shock and I found myself getting into the groove. I even started getting cocky; a bunch of us were just finishing our grub at a pizza restaurant and a seller called Sly Stallone approached our table with a tray of rings.
“You wanna ring my friend?”
“Nah.” I replied. “I want dessert. Got any Beng Bengs?”
He got a whiff of an opportunity and his eyes lit up with cartoon cash signs – I was sickly white after all, and still very much a prime target.
“I get you Beng Beng, how much?”
He lost it.
“I get you Beng Beng,” he raged. “Special fucking Beng Beng! How much for special fucking Beng Beng?!”
I was a bit confused by this. I didn’t know that undervaluing the price of Indonesia’s favourite chocolate bar would ignite such a tirade.
“Eh? I was only joking mate.”
“You say you joking but you come here, laff at us. What you do? kung fu, boxing, karate?”
At this point I started to get a little worried because only the month before a Javanese street seller apparently went all Chuck Lidell on a tourist’s ass and ended up jamming a blade into them, presumably for circumstances similar to my own.
“Outside if you wan fight.”
“No mate. I don’t want to fight you, I just wanted dessert.” He clearly wasn’t going to do anything here, especially seeing as though the place was packed, so with that he broke off his icy stare, tutted and scratched my cheek with his long fingernail, before leaving the stunned restaurant in silence.
When I returned the following year, the street touts had disappeared. Rumour has it, the majority of the touts were Javanese and following a few other knife incidents, the Balinese rounded up the culprits with machetes, ousting them altogether. I still feel 500 rupiah for a Beng Beng was a fair deal though.
The beauty of Lakeys is its simplicity. As a temporary resident you are enticed to doing absolutely nothing except for hauling your carcass out of bed, peeling back the curtains and getting amongst it, if it’s good. There’s no driving either, unless of course you need an ATM and you fancy a day of getting followed and stared at by the locals in nearby Dompu.
All the prime contenders are there out front and only a glorious reef hobble away, thus sparing you two of surfing’s greatest pet hates: “Oh, you should’ve been here earlier” and “It was sooo sick out there bro,” when actually it wasn’t. In Bali, it was the opposite. Every day we’d get up at 6.00am, load our Kijang up for half an hour and then spend the entire morning driving around checking spots before finally settling on one around lunch. Nath and his fellow Welsh cronies got fed up with this.
“Why should I spend half the day driving, when Ulus is firing?” He reasoned.
I thought he had a point, but I kept reiterating to him that I hated shooting Ulus. It’s terrible, and if some organization somewhere gave an award for; ‘The world’s most annoying place for photos’ Uluwatu, without a doubt, would roundly spoof over anything that even threatened to come close.
The swell kicked in. We thought quickly about it. Padang was breaking but we didn’t have a chance in hell of getting waves out there so we gave it a miss. On this swell Ulus was a no-brainer and had to be good, but even better than that, and a possible trump card – Lacerations on Nusa Lembongan. We’d take the fast boat out there and when we returned, we’d firmly stick two fingers up to the Welshmen with a memory card full of digital gold. We then spent the morning driving around in the Kijang, organising stuff and buying supplies. We then made some phone calls, hailed a bemo to the port, boarded the boat, zipped across the channel and waited for the tide to fill. But guess what? It was flat. Not a pulse. We knew Lembongan was notoriously inactive at dead low, but it was an hour off high and on this size swell, it should’ve been romping through, leaving us no other option but to return slightly humbled. Uluwatu pumped that day and according to Nath “we should’ve stayed, stand-up pits were on offer”.
It’s still a terrible place to shoot though.
Matt Capel’s a card. He was only in Bali for six hours and somehow he wound up netting a new girlfriend. I say girlfriend, but his new Javanese bit of stuff was clearly the only party who classed their encounter as a ‘relationship’. In two days, she’d found her one and wasn’t shy in letting him know about it.
He showed me the texts.
“Matt, I thinking I’m love you. I’m not like normal Javanese girl. I come over tonight for your banana. I need my eye drops.”
“Matt, I want zigi zigi with you. When you come to Java? I’m love you.”
“I thinking you have girl in England. Who is this girl Lauren?”
I had to hand it to him. The Devon lad handled her pretty well, even though he sought our advice for the content of his dumping message.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have girlfriend, and I can’t have relationship with you. I’m busy traveling and do not have time for this. I hope this is ok. I had fun.”
I’m still not sure what the eye drops thing was about, who Lauren was or why Matt had to reply in broken English, but it was a necessary act and she had to be cut loose. “It was getting out of control,” he said. She was full on. She wanted me to curb surfing for the day and go to the beach with her!”
Kuta is a borderline warehouse of carnal opportunity and depending if you’re on the market (or not in some cases), what your preferences are or where you go, the combination of anonymity and cheap booze can land you in a whole of host compromising situations. Years ago, I remember a random surfer from Britain who trundled back from the Sari Club draped in Bintang attire and Javanese hookers. They got back to his room and got down to it.
The next day when I saw him, it was like he just accidentally unloaded a full clip into a newborn puppy.
“What’s with the worried look mate? Has that Arak hit you?”
It turns out that in a moment of absentmindedness he forgot to slap on a Jimmy hat and consequently spent the remainder of his stay celibate and in constant mortal fear of the horrors his little pecker may have landed him.
Similarly, Kuta’s virally charged atmosphere doesn’t just affect bloated German sex tourists and surfers alike. The female of the species are at it too. A mate of mine once told me that stacks of mutant Aussie chicks go to the island solely for young Balinese schlong. I couldn’t think of a worse job for the poor Balos involved. I’ve seen the girls in question. But I guess for them it’s all about the money. Rumour has it after lavishing their new overseas girlfriend with attention they wait for them to return to their home country and set up a monthly funding programme. Then, while the cat’s away, they move on to the next horny customer – all while reaping the rewards from the previous taker.
Maybe I’m in the wrong profession after all. I still don’t know what happened to that Johnnyless British lad.
My girlfriend thinks I’m pretty shrewd at spotting character traits in people. It stems from the first time I spotted her friend’s slightly manic demeanour way before she did. I told her I thought her mate was barking and to stay clear if she knew what was good for her. She said I was being negative and miserable and I should ‘try to see the good in people.’ In the end, the misus eventually realised my analysis was on the mark and the friendship was firmly placed at arm’s length, which in turn led to a frank apology and her admission to my uncompromising intuitiveness. I don’t actually agree with this. In fact, I’d say I am pretty aloof most of the time.
Matt Capel’s a card. He was only in Bali for six hours and somehow he wound up netting a new girlfriend. I say girlfriend, but his new Javanese bit of stuff was clearly the only party who classed their encounter as a ‘relationship’.
I know this because I failed to recognize the simmering madness that had stricken a former travel companion called Scott, who I skulked around Indonesia with several years ago.
The thing is, he seemed like a really decent bloke; he loved a beer and surfed competently and I had no idea he was clinically unhinged, nor was I aware of his love of drugs.
The indications were there early on. He regularly made exuberant claims such as “I used to be in army and managed to get myself discharged on mental health grounds – I said I saw Christ!”
He also told me his name wasn’t actually Scott – he said he had it changed by deed poll to Sertie Fried-Fish, as a way of proving his unyielding aberration to his superiors. He even had the VISA card to prove it.
I have no idea why the coin didn’t drop sooner. Maybe I put his peculiarity down as mildly eccentricity – and besides, having met him in Bali I knew full well it was a place that smacked of freakish people and odd behaviour.
It only became obvious around New Year when he returned to Bali after a drug and hooker-fuelled binge to Thailand. He turned up at the hotel completely out of it, and wearing nothing but a torn shirt on his back, grubby shorts and bare feet. His face was scratched all over and he was complaining that he’d been mugged and left for dead in Bangkok. Duly, I gave him some cash to get to the embassy in Denpasar because all his belongings had been stolen. But from then on, things took a turn for the worse. The ‘normal’ guy I had been traveling with, slipped impossibly deep into insanity. He regularly caused commotion at the hotel, and unusually for Bali (the Indonesian’s never turn down a crust) eventually got himself kicked out of the Losmen for launching Bintang bottles at the wall, because I wouldn’t lend him my flip flops. After that, he openly admitted to having unprotected sex with a prostitute later that night and then threatened voodoo on the bouncers at Paddy’s Bar for ejecting him into the street.
The last time I saw Sertie Fried-Fish, he was loitering around the back streets wearing a rice bowl hat and a white T-shirt daubed with anti-authoritarian statements in black marker pen. I decided after the flip-flop incident I would steer clear of him but on that occasion he was impossible to avoid.
He still was high as a kite but in spite of the dilated pupils and manic Jack Torrance grin, he seemed perfectly okay toward me. He even paid back the money I gave to him for the taxi.
Words and Photos Ben Selway