She sucked in a quick breath, tightened her shoulders, cringed a little, “Really? You know that Bali is, like, the dirty Hawaii for Australians, right? You guys are going straight into the thick of Aussie holiday disaster.”
Really? Bummer. As an American, Bali always seemed shrouded in a mysterious aura. It’s a distant universe. Unknown culture, curious food and strange Indonesian languages…Bali represented a vast islandic new world to explore.
For Australians, it’s right in their backyard. So, instead of a quiet getaway, we were walking right into a touristy trap. Floods of Aussies, bar-stuffed beaches, trinkets galore. What are we getting ourselves into?
The first destination, Kuta Beach, was certainly as our Sydney friend predicted. Even in low season the beach was teeming with scores of hungry tourists, backpackers and families alike, all battling for space on the dusty white sands of Kuta.
We arrived at Ngurah Rai Airport in the morning. Our accommodations for the evening was in the living room of a fellow couch-surfer, a Bostonian-now-Bali-resident who was at his computer programming job when we landed. So he trustingly left a key under the mat and let us make ourselves at home in his narrow, two-story townhouse.
First few days were spent learning a few lessons about the island of Bali. For one, it’s one of the only Hindu islands left in the Indonesian chain. The island is dotted with gorgeous temples and palm-leaf offerings scattered everywhere underfoot. Balinese make offerings to the gods and spirits all throughout the day by placing these palm-leaf trays filled with flowers (which correspond to the gods Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa), incense, crackers, candy, sometimes cigarettes, at the temples, on the sidewalk in front of a house or business, on a motorcycle, pretty much anywhere. The offerings illuminate the sidewalks and streets in a palette of beautiful soft colors and you learn quickly to watch your step to preserve the offerings.
Secondly, the island makes its livelihood from tourists, which can be great for the local artists and artisans of which there are quite a few, ranging from batik artists, woodcarvers, painters, jewelers, etc, Selling their creations to curious (and open-wallet) visitors is their bread and butter. Which also means that during a slow off season struggling market vendors see a big, fat green dollar sign pinned right to your forehead. So on our first afternoon on Kuta Beach, the beach known for its sleaze, I quickly learned how to haggle with market vendors. As soon as I curiously touched something, the vendor pounced with “good price” offers and “special” discounts. When I tried to gently decline the discounts and explain I was ‘just looking,’ I received sour eyes, crinkled brows and a cold shoulder. On the market road leading to the beach, I’d disappointed a slew of vendors and was feeling guilty, but by the time my toes hit sand, I was keen to their guilt trip scheme. That’s how they lure you. I decided it was better to eye carefully, don’t touch, politely say “no thank you” and walk away. They look broken-hearted, but don’t worry, they’ll find someone else to prey on.
The second-half of the haggling lesson came with our first taxi ride–a scorching 80,000 Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). Our couch-surfing host kindly informed us a normal taxi ride ranges from 20,000 to 40,000 IDR. Gah! We’d been duped! Alright, so we paid the tuition for Bali Haggling School. At least we could take our knowledge to the streets.
We explored Kuta’s beach-side food–Expensive!–and night market food–Awesome! Nasi Goreng, the staple found just about everywhere, was one of the first-to-taste. While it’s similar to the Thai version of fried rice, I have to say, the Balinese mixture with chicken, egg, sometimes beans and nuts had a softer, less spicy edge than the Thai version. Easily addictive. I also lucked into avocado season on our journey. Thailand’s access to the creamy green fruit is limited, so I consumed anything stuffed, grilled, sliced or topped with avocado.
Our host showed us a local night market where we chowed on goat soup and the infamous Balinese satay, which must be vigorously fanned until the smoke wafting from the grill becomes so thick, so unbearable and so maddeningly delicious-smelling that you HAVE to stop for a bite.
After an exhausting few days in Phuket at the Vegetarian Festival we decided to ease into the island. So instead of diving right into surfing lessons, wave-dodging, beach-lounging and souvenir-shop-till-you-drop, we decided to spend the next few days on Kuta avoiding the hoards of tourists and planning the rest of the adventure on the island to escape some of the Big Beach Crowds.