Against my cooler instincts, I had ceded to my parents’ plead to check myself into a Contiki resort before I arrived on the island - even though my Balinese sights had been set on the cathartic. The last thing I was looking for was one of those interactive travel packages bursting with myopic moon-bag-wielders, escaping to Bali to sit in a Balinese-themed gated community of non-Balinese tourists.
Their seven days ‘fly by’ sipping on Singapore Slings - because “they’re both Asian right?” Beneath the sparkle of strobe lights they graze through Mexican-themed buffets. With cocktail umbrellas behind their ears, their Balinese evenings ebb away as they drink; goaded now to swing their sunburnt arms around Gustav the gyrating German; and to the crackle of karaoke one learns, that they can’t get no satisfaction, no they can’t get no satisfaction, no they’ve tried, yes they’ve tried.
Nevertheless, at Denpasar International, my complimentary Contiki bus awaited. I swallowed a good gulp of humidity before being shut into a moving capsule of cold stagnant air. Immune to the bustle of Bali, I looked onto streets of markets, dashing scooters, hanging kikoys swaying like drunken rainbows. I imagined the scents - spice, sweat, incense... I smelt nothing but the deodorized Canadian beside me, rummaging through her moon-bag.
Four days into my Contiki safe-camp I persuaded a Katherin to share a taxi with me on a day-trip to Ubud. Where I planned to stay. As the ‘cultural centre of Bali’, Ubud promised prospects of depth, enlightenment, epiphany.
Leaving the claustrophobia of Kuta behind, we rode with windows wide open. Mountainous cool air graced my neck like a muslin scarf. Reams of paddy-fields slipped by in layers of green sporadically dotted with conical paddy-hats – euphemisms for the aching hands that sift the rice beneath.
En route, we stopped at a make-shift cafe for lunch. For the umpteenth time Katherine warned me about the dangers of street-food.
“I will have steamed vegtabils – nothing on, just vegtabils!” she spelt out her rations to a perplexed waiter.
I gave her the equivalent of an up-yours and ordered chilli chicken satay skewers. They arrived above steaming coals, dripping with peanut-flavoured stickiness.
On arrival in Ubud, we parted ways.
I scoured the streets for a cheap room. On a back road, a sign above a doorway boasted “Bungalows, Money Changer, Scooter Rental, Laundry, Daily Couch Tour”. I strutted in, paid, whatever it looked like, it would do – I was here to explore Bali, not the inside of a room.
That evening I wound around ancient pillars, Buddhas and spiritual curio shops. Along the lines of cultural dabblers, I traced my way through Ubud.
Cultural inklings... Spiritual materialism, I once heard it called - hippies dressed head-to-toe in traditional garb, kabala bracelets, Jesus sandals. It looked remarkably as if the Western World had come to a Balinese dress-up party.
“You come for yoga?” a monkey-handler asked, grinning. My Jesus sandals must have given me away.
Realising my proximity to these cultural-explorers did not bode well with me. I needed to sit. I was sweating. I dropped onto a stair. There was something else not boding well in me.
At some indecipherable point, I had become nothing but an extension of my curdling stomach.
Volcanic activity on Bali has, through the ages, been severe. Centuries ago, the island blistered to the earth’s surface when the Eurasian and Indo-Australian plates collided. In a clash of tectonic proportions, of cultures, of burning flavours; hot molten lava rumbled. Heaved. The pressure fissured the earth’s surface - tearing it like a slit in the stomach.
On that stair, decades of cultural colonization up-ended in a riot of hot satay sauce, erupting in self-righteous chunks.
Remember that room I hadn’t cared to see. It squat in a courtyard of bungalow fragments, a construction site to be precise - bungalows en route to being fixed, or fobbed. I was the lone guest at the inhospitable chateau. The keyless door led to a room perspiring mosquitoes, nesting from a pock-mocked mattress. A curtain-less view looked onto a courtyard where builders were due to arrive.
Oh, and working plumbing? Zilch.
Dead to paradise, I lay in bed for the next five days, occasionally humming, “Somewhere over the rainbow...”
I lay, hummed, and I too could get no satisfaction.
So to the scorned traveler, free of trail-blazing romanticisms; with your sunscreen, guides, good-sense; moon-bags, vegtabils, and your dear-dear sensitive stomachs, this is an ode to you. Katherin, you were right.