Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Bali Bubble

With no plan, we started our day with a surprisingly excellent breakfast, which was included in our £4 room rate. We set off, then arrived at the ferry port and joined the short queue of waiting cars and bikes. Amongst the little scooters was something we hadn't expected to see – another pair of overlanders Manu and Ivana. It was a lovely surprise, and it turned out that they were also acquainted with Frank, one of the German bikers we had met in Laos. The world of overland travelling is rather a small one I suppose. It wasn't a long crossing by any means, but with Manu and Ivana to talk to the time passed quickly, even if we did have to shout over the din of Indo-pop blasting from the speakers.

Once we had had our licences checked by the police (same for all scooter riders) and exited the port, we waved goodbye to the others and got on our way towards northern Bali. The quality of the road was excellent, much better than we had dared to hope. The driving also seemed to be immediately better than the standard we had become used to in Sumatra and Java, which was an added bonus. We cruised along at a very decent average speed (for Indonesia), eventually turning off from the coast and heading south through the centre of the island.

The road here changed to a narrow, steep pass, snaking its way over the mountains. It was at this point that we decided to take back our earlier statement that the driving was better in Bali. The cause of this retraction was the seemingly endless coaches. The drivers of these just careered down the mountain at dangerous speeds, not being at all fussy about sticking to their side of the road. We had to dive out of the way several times, leading us to wonder what they would do if they came around a blind bend to see a 4x4 rather than our relatively narrow bike.

The traffic on the descent was almost solid, a reminder of what it was like in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. We negotiated it as best we could, overtaking wherever it was safe to do so. Things did eventually start to flow a little better as the road straightened out, but the going was still pretty slow.  Oli was following behind a 4x4 and trying to overtake, when suddenly they just slammed the brakes on. Oli did likewise, but it wasn't quite enough. We ran into the back of them, hitting the rear bumper with our front tyre, bouncing off, and crashing over. I got thrown slightly further than Oli, but got up pretty speedily when I realised I was lying in the opposite lane.

Although a little shocked we were totally unhurt, another testament to always making sure we wear our safety gear. Some local boys helped us pick up the bike, then we just gave everyone the thumbs up and carried on. Admittedly we should not have been following the car so closely, but the safe gap just doesn't exist in Indonesia. If we do try to leave one it just gets filled with scooters or the car behind overtakes and sits in it, which is a little frustrating. By no means do we ride recklessly, but Oli resolved to be even more cautious from that point onward. Still, it was a little ironic that we had made it through the worst of it (Sumatra and Java), only to have a crash in Bali.

Our accident had occurred only about twenty minutes before our destination. With our lack of research, we were headed to Ubud for no better reason other than Diah (our Medan CouchSurfing host) telling us it was nice. Thankfully for the last part of the drive we turned off the main road, and wound our way through increasingly narrow streets. The scenery was beautiful, with endless rice paddies stretching to the horizon. We also spotted plenty of examples of Balinese architecture, unique and interesting. We had never seen anything like this style of building before, and immediately started to appreciate why Bali is such a popular destination. Unlike most of Indonesia, Bali is strongly Hindu, which gives it a very different character.

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We arrived in Ubud and commenced the search for rooms. We saw some beautiful places, but all were way outside of our ideal budget. We briefly considered treating ourselves, but decided we couldn't really justify the expense. We carried on looking, but were beginning to get a bit disheartened. The fact that it was a weekend definitely wasn't helping matters, as the more affordable places all seemed to be full. Seeing that we were looking for a room, a man approached us and said he had a place very nearby. We thought we might as well go and check it out, and were pleasantly taken aback to find that it was beautiful. Seeing the room we assumed it would also be out of our measly price bracket. When he said it was 200,000 (£10), we were so amazed we didn't even bother to haggle.

Whilst we had loved Sumatra and Java, they had taken it out of us. Our hotel was the perfect relaxation spot for us. We spent the next few hours just relaxing on our balcony, as well as taking ridiculously long showers. It had been a long time since we had enjoyed the luxury of hot water, and it really did feel like a treat. The bed was super comfy and enormous. We turned in early, and slept like babies.

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We would have loved to do nothing the next morning, but really needed to try and sort our computer out. To do this, we just needed to download the Linux start-up file. The first net-cafe said the rate was 1000 rupiah a minute, twenty times the going rate in Java. Not willing to be ripped off we went to the next one, which was considerably cheaper. Unfortunately it filled up with teenage girls watching Indo-pop videos on YouTube. The bandwidth was pretty choked, and our file timed out after two hours. To add insult to injury, we also discovered that the crappy computers had filled our USB up with viruses.

We decided to abandon and try again later somewhere else. By this point it was high time for lunch, so when we stumbled across a veggie cafe it seemed like a good shout. The food was actually awesome, and we ended up going back for lunch the following two days as well. However, the clientèle were a little strange, even by Brighton standards. Ageing emo-skater dudes sat talking to Russell Brand look-a-likes, but the oddest people were dressed almost like slutty fairies. One lady was wearing a lace up top that was completely open at the front, meaning we could see way more than we bargained for. She had topped her outfit off with a wooden crown and feathers. Each to their own I suppose. We have to say though, after a long time in relatively conservative countries, the amount of both male and female flesh on display in Bali was definitely a shocker.

On the way home we decided to try another net-cafe. This time the file also failed after two hours, but only because the connection died. Thankfully the owner was a really decent guy, and downloaded it for us overnight without any extra charge. This did the trick, and after Oli did his thing we once again had working wi-fi on our computer.

With the computer fixed we felt we could get on with the important task of relaxing and recharging.  We caught up on our laundry, then went out to wander around town. Ubud is known as the cultural centre of Bali, and there certainly were a lot of interesting and classic buildings around to back this image up. However, we found it a bit of a strange place. It obviously attracts a lot of very rich tourists. The main tourist stretch is lined with exclusive boutiques and fancy restaurants on both sides. A lot of visitors were splashing some serious cash in the shops, and Oli and I were surprised to see so much designer ware on sale.

An obvious  and understandable effect of this is that many of the locals assume that everyone visiting town has this kind of money. Just walking 100m results in six or seven offers of taxis, with the drivers apparently unperturbed by the fact that we had already said no thanks to the previous guy. Sheltering from the rain, Oli and I spoke to a guy who started the conversation by pointing at Oli and saying “You, big money yeah?” I pointed to the holes in Oli's t-shirt, at which our new friend looked appalled. I should have shown him my shoe held together with string to finish it off. The joke of it was this guy owned ten motorbikes and had the kind of fancy phone Oli and I can only dream of these days. Of course we get that we are relatively wealthy compared to the average Indonesian, and we are incredibly lucky to be doing this trip, but regular assumption that we live a millionaire lifestyle gets really grating.

The next day we felt up to doing a little exploring. We had been a little shaken from the crash when we first drove towards Ubud, but were keen to go back and see the area again, hopefully appreciating it a little more. It ended up being well worth it, as we loved cruising past the picturesque rice fields, pretty villages, and endless temples. We finished up with a diversion to see some stunning rice terraces, truly the quiet, beautiful Bali of postcards. Sadly, our memory card decided this would be an excellent time to stop talking to our computer, so all of the photos are currently held hostage. Hopefully we will be able to sort it out at some point and update this, as they are rather lovely if we do say so ourselves.

That evening was our last in Ubud. We decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal out, and ate delicious thin based pizzas in a roof top restaurant, accompanied by fresh mint lemonade. Our extravagance cost us under £7, cheap by European standards, but way more than we would usually spend. We love Indonesian food, but it did feel great to eat something different for a change. It also felt a little odd to be sat in a proper restaurant with professional service. It was lovely don't get me wrong, just not what we are used to these days!

Leaving the next morning was difficult. We were pretty sure we weren't going to find such luxury again, but it had provided a very much appreciated respite from more rustic lodgings. We were also going to miss the mascot of the place, a very tiny, very fluffy toy dog called Dori. I usually don't understand the point of little dogs (apart from Pippin of course), but he was awesome, always insanely happy and excited to see anyone that cared to pay him attention. Those of you who have met Susie will know I appreciate this enthusiasm in a dog.

We were headed for Kuta. Originally this was somewhere we had sworn to avoid, but bike jobs made a visit essential. Noah (the American biker we met in Thailand) knew a guy that knew a guy, so we had arranged for our new tyre to be sent to them. Our contact Kusuma knew a backstreet mechanic specialising in dirt bikes, which was perfect for us.  Getting there took longer than planned, as helpfully our GPS was painfully unaware of the intricacies of Kuta's one way system. Nevertheless, we eventually made it. Three hours later, we had a new front tyre, fresh oil, and had sorted out the seized brake piston. In hindsight we may have bent the rim of the wheel a little when we crashed, as fitting the tyre was a  bit of a nightmare and took forever.

Our other reason to be in Kuta was entirely a good one. Darryl and Christine, the English couple we met in Laos, were due to fly in from New Zealand the next evening. They had let us know where they were staying, so we thought we might as well go and check it out. It was a lovely little family run place in the quiet back streets. Covered parking for the bike sealed the deal. We emailed Darryl and Christine to let them know that we had already settled into their hotel like creepy stalkers. Luckily they found this amusing rather than alarming, and declined to call the police.

We had opted to add breakfast to our room rate, as the price seemed really reasonable for what was being offered. When it arrived in the morning however, it was looking rather measly. The portion was so small that we assumed it was only for one of us, and that the other would be on its way shortly. When nothing else appeared Oli was dismayed, so went downstairs to check if it was a mistake. It turned out that the “breakfast included” offer meant only one per room. Not always the jolliest when he is hungry, Oli politely expressed his disappointment. This earned us a complimentary extra breakfast for the next day. Nice one.

As our friends weren't arriving until late the next evening, we thought we might as well make use of our day. Our last stop before Australia will be Timor Leste. Visa on arrival is only an option for the land border if you first obtain a letter permitting you to apply. Essentially this involves going through all the motions of a visa application, except for the actual payment and receipt of the visa itself. We had heard that it could take three days for the application to complete. If we were going to get it in Bali rather than West Timor we needed it the next day, so were hoping for the best.

All I can say is that if all officials were as lovely as the visa officer and security guard at the Timor Leste consulate, the world would be a better place. When we asked how long the process would take, we were told three days. Amazingly though, when we said that we had been hoping to get the letters the following day, we were told that it was no problem, and that we could come back tomorrow afternoon. We had come prepared with all the documents we needed, but hadn't realised we needed to provide passport style photos with a red background. I have no idea why it needed to be this colour, but we found somewhere to sort us out quickly. The pictures were so heavily air brushed they didn't really resemble us, but when we handed them in it didn't appear to be an issue. All in all, it was a very painless consulate visit.

Feeling productive, we carried on ticking jobs off our list. After visiting the post office, next up was exchanging some money. The currency in East Timor is the U.S. dollar, and we had read that finding an ATM outside of Dilli might be an impossibility. With this in mind we thought we had better have a little to start off with, especially as we would need to pay the visa fee at the border. The security guards were delighted with the bike, so we left them posing for photos whilst we did our thing. I guess if anyone was planning to rob the bank, that would have been a good time to go for it.

When we got back to our hotel, Oli decided it was time to clean the air filter. To be fair, it definitely needed it after a month on the Indonesian roads. Unfortunately for both of us, he also decided that the best place to clean it was the bathroom. The cleaning spray was a rather strong solvent, which was not ideal when combined with the not particularly well ventilated room. We both ran out to the balcony, where we had to sit for an hour with all the windows and doors open. Eventually the room was safe to re-enter, but we vowed to remember this event for future reference. 

Darryl and Christine arrived later that evening. Knowing that we were friends, the owner had given them the room next door to us. If they hadn't thought we were creepy before, surely they must have then! It was really great to see them both, and we all had a lot to catch up on. Since we saw them in Laos they had been travelling around Australia and New Zealand. We chatted for a few hours, before realising it was pretty late. It had been a very long day for them, so we thought we had better let them get to bed.

Whilst Darryl and Christine recovered from their journey and went to the beach, it was time for us to go and collect our letters. We battled through the Kuta traffic in the heat, cursing the terrible driving as usual. Whilst we were pretty sure we would get the letters with no problems, visa stuff always leaves me feeling a little apprehensive. We haven't actually had any difficulties with visas on the trip apart from not being granted our Pakistan ones, but I always still worry that they might get rejected for some spurious reason. As usual there was no need to stress, as our letters were ready and waiting for us to collect them.

Getting our visa authorisation letters completed our list of jobs for Bali. With a couple of hours to spare before night fall, we thought we should leave our back street haven and see what the tourist strip of Kuta was about. In all honesty, it was not for us. It seemed to cater to tourists that were keen to see the beach and go shopping, whilst simultaneously experiencing as little of the local culture as possible. A short walk was quite enough for us. We ended up diving into a supermarket to pick up something for breakfast, and were pretty amazed to see some of the items on offer. Surely nobody has ever woken up and thought “You know what I want? A chocolate and cheese doughnut!” On the off chance that anyone has though, such goods can be found in Kuta.

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We had a dinner date with Darryl and Christine, eating at a good value place just around the corner from our hotel. They had collected some great stories since we had seen them in Laos, and the time passed ridiculously quickly. Being able to meet up again in Bali was such a bonus, and definitely the closest thing we have had to a social life for a while!

That evening was the last one for us in Kuta. We were headed for Padangbai the next morning, where we were hoping to meet up with Frank. In the event, his bike ended up being in the workshop for a day longer than planned. This meant he couldn't make it, but we still enjoyed the stop. Padangbai was a surprisingly pleasant little town, even if people did try to sell us boat tickets for the Gili islands every time we left our hotel. We used the afternoon to do a little Lombok research, then went out for a tasty meal.

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When we woke the next morning we couldn't quite work out whether we were going to miss Bali or not. The beautiful landscapes were a huge point in its favour, and the easy availability of home comforts had been a nice treat after Sumatra and Java. However, tourism is very established there, and a lot of people make their living from this. This is all well and good, but sometimes the atmosphere was just too pushy for us, and we often felt like we were seen only as walking wallets.  When we contrasted this with how it was in Sumatra and most of Java, it seemed like a shame that things have gone this way in parts of Bali.

The ferry port was a thirty second drive from our hotel, so it wasn't exactly a taxing journey. We rolled straight on to a ferry, ready to sit out the four hour sailing to Lombok. As soon as we made it to the passenger deck we were pounced on by a lady selling coffee. We said no thank you, but she kept insisting, following us around as we looked for seats. We kept saying no thank you, then eventually got fed up and said to just ask somebody else, gesturing to all the Indonesian people that she was ignoring. At this she informed us that we were rich, so we should buy it. I told her she shouldn't assume, and that we were just trying to say no politely. Eventually she did leave us alone, but she had wasted all her limited sales time in hassling us.

We set sail for Lombok. We were quite happy with where we were sitting, but Oli thought he might as well go and do a recce of the boat. He came back pleased as punch, proudly informing me that he had found us the perfect place on the top deck. I happily gathered up our things and made my way there. At this point we realised that Oli had forgotten to share the pretty crucial fact that there were no benches, so we would have to sit on the floor. We stayed there despite this though, as it was wonderfully quiet, and we had the most incredible views of Bali as it receded into the horizon. From our secret spot we even saw a couple of pods of dolphins, splashing and playing about as we passed.

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The shores of Lombok appeared surprisingly quickly, but it was still a fairly long way to the harbour itself. The ferry treated us to tantalising views of deserted beaches, jewel green hills and completely undeveloped coastline. It was possibly one of the most scenic ferry rides we will ever have the privilege of enjoying. With this first glimpse of the island we couldn't wait to get off the boat. We didn't exactly have a solid plan, but we were sure we were going to like this place.

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