Monday, April 06, 2009

Bali (Pt. 1 of 3)

Never again will I have the luxury of regular four-day weekends, so I'm trying to take full advantage while it lasts. I stretched one recent weekend to six days (skipping classes Thursday and Tuesday) and made a spur-of-the-moment trip to Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia.

My travel around Southeast Asia would not be practical or affordable if it weren't for the benevolent low-cost airline AirAsia ("Now Everyone Can Fly") based out of Kuala Lumpur. It constantly offers online promotions, and fares of five dollars for domestic flights are common.

I bought my tickets to Bali only ten days out. All four flights – to KL, to Bali, to Jakarta, and back to Kuching – cost $180 total.

My original plan was to sleep in the KL airport and then catch the first morning flight to Bali, but luck was on my side. UNIMAS employee (and my good friend) Gary was informed just one day prior that he would be flown to KL Wednesday night to do some collaboration on a proposal Thursday morning. His Wednesday flight was to leave an hour before mine. With that, I had scored a free ride to the airport and exchanged a row of hard airport chairs for a comfy hotel room bed. This also allowed me to see a bit of the city, enjoying 1AM dinner with Gary at a street stall and riding the KL monorail with uniformed schoolkids at 6 that morning.

The journey to Bali was smooth. The only plans I had made prior to arrival were booking a hotel for the first night. Waiting for me at the airport was the hotel's manager, Fajar, holding a sign with my name on it (the first time I'd had this cool distinction). Hotel Miki in Kuta was a great place to crash the first night because it had an inexpensive restaurant, the rooms were comfortable, and English-speaking Fajar was very helpful.

Because the hotel is not adjacent to the beach, they throw in a free motorbike rental with every room. Fajar's younger brother was assigned to be my motorbike driver and instructor, and in exchange I would help him improve his English. Communicating with him was great fun because our grasps of each other's languages were about equal, so we alternated between English and Indonesian (same as Malay).

After eating dinner together the first night, he invited me to hop on front of the bike and drive us back to the hotel. Kuta's roads are crowded and disorderly and I had never driven a motorbike, but – at the time – I thought this was a great idea. Hey, we both had helmets! He tapped me on either shoulder to give directions, and I cranked my neck backwards to check for cars, having overlooked the existence of the side mirrors. We arrived in one piece, wide awake and in high spirits.

Early the next morning I let him do the driving to the beach, where I wanted to run barefoot along the water as the sun came up. Fifteen minutes down and then back did the trick, and afterwards the ocean to my right looked very appealing. High on endorphins, I wasn't bothered much that the water was too warm and actually quite full of trash. Soccer on the beach with a couple Aussies and a bunch of local boys built my appetite for breakfast.

Fajar had informed me with a wink that a couple cute Norwegians were also staying in the hotel. My first question was a dumb one: "Do they speak English?" Turns out everyone in Norwegian schools learns English. I sat with Ingelin and Juanita at breakfast.

Having just spent a month together in Australia, and halfway through a three-month post-graduation holiday, they were pleased to have someone new to talk to. For my part, I was grateful to find companionship in these congenial Europeans. It turned out that we enjoyed each other and had similar enough goals for our stays on the island that we remained a trio for the duration of my Bali sojourn.

In the afternoon we made a move, heading an hour north and inland to the town of Ubud, a center for Balinese art and culture. We were incredibly lucky to chance upon an opening at Jati Home Stay, rated #1 home stay in Asia by (It was booked full three weeks out when I called a week before.) One large bamboo building split into ten rooms sits on the edge of a green paddy field inside a Balinese compound owned by an extraordinarily talented artist. Our arrival was timed perfectly – just after some folks with a reservation had officially not shown up. I got the honeymoon suite with one extra large and comfy bed, and the girls got the other vacant room next door. We liked Ubud and these accommodations so much that we stayed here three nights.

The public staff of two at Jati was very gentle and kind, explaining that as long as we stayed we were part of the family. Putu cooks the complimentary breakfasts and Eddie is the expert at arranging activities. He hits up every resident to go river rafting because it earns him commission, and I became one of the few to oblige. But first priority went to the exceedingly enjoyable downhill cycling tour.