Bali, November 2010
17th to 20th November 2010
Leaving Bali, the plane taxied west along the strip of concrete jutting into the surf and turned. The surf led the way, power, weight pushing me back into my seat. We followed the surf, passed it and lifted over the Denpassar isthmus and the boats to the east. Climbing, turning north, rising above the clouds that hid the bulk of the island. Away, and three days in paradise, or one small, guarded, developed corner of paradise, was over.
It had started with landing on that same, thin rectangular peninsular and disembarking through the normal boarding tunnel into a terminal that may have been converted from a Balinese temple, with red-painted brick walls and bass-relief carvings. Once through the crowds at immigration and customs, the taxi took me past statue after statue: a pair at either end of the airport approach, modern soldiers, a great white chariot, with plunging horses and a hero from the Maharabat improbably standing astride two of the horses' heads, challenging the charioteer. All along the road, smaller statues, some surmounting wall posts or guarding bridge ends, Balinese demons, with chequered skirts around their bases. Then, a giant surfer on blue and white waves, in front of a surf shop, further on, a complex temple, rising towards its centre. Scooters dodge between the lanes of traffic, oddly, my taxi dodges between then too, suddenly straddling two lanes to overtake between two scooters, the one on the left ridden by a young man, his wife behind holding their baby between.
Cultures mixing: Hindu, Balinese, surfer western, Muslim; perhaps uneasily. The taxi arrives at a security checkpoint, a guard checks beneath the car with a mirror, and then in the boot. We are waved through into the resort area. Signs point to every major hotel chain, we follow the Grand Hyatt, and reach another security checkpoint at the drive. The taxi stops under a high, red roof with a marble path leading across a lilly pond to the lobby, but first, there is a bag check and a metal detector. The Bali resort is in security conflict, it wants to reassure tourists they are safe, but not actually inconvenience them with really stringent checks.
Skipping a guide to my room, I'm led through covered walkways to my first meeting. The meeting ends as dusk approaches, and I search for my room. I walk through tree-shaded courtyards, past green pools, between red-roofed blocks of rooms and along twisting corridors. Eventually, I find my room, large, with wide-slatted Venetian blind between the bath and the bedroom. A shower and a skype-meeting later, I venture into the frog-filled night to find the pool party. More dark, twisting corridors, following a map with no paths, dimly lit. I reach the beach front. White surf on a black sea.
Breakfast shaded by a banyan tree, beside a pond. A grey heron stands on a stone in the middle, waiting for its breakfast. A squirrel runs round a branch of the tree and disappears. Across the restaurant, another grey heron stands on a small red roof. Later, a white egret with a sinuous neck chases it away.
Time for the conference to start, but first, a maze of leafy courtyards to be traversed. A metal detector for me and a guard for my bag ensure the safety of the conference, as long as the attackers choose the middle door.
A day spent in the cool darkness of the hall, with occasional refreshment breaks. A meeting in the lobby lounge, brilliant sunshine around me, I recline in an armchair, sipping my coffee below the high roof. A movement by the sunlit pool districts me from business, a 30cm lizard has slipped into the pool and disappears from view. What species was it? A lounge lizard?
I walk through the gardens before dinner, a profusion of life all around me, a carefully restrained tropical jungle. A black and white bird, far away on top of a tennis-court floodlight jerks its tail up each time it cries. A swarm of small, square-tailed swifts gyrate above me, too fast for my camera to catch. Strange, white, round-ended cylinders hang from a tree, are they aerial tubers or fruit?
I stroll on, into the gathering dusk. I follow signs to a Balinese Feature Pool but find a building site. The pool is closed for repairs, no matter. I follow the path behind the pool and suddenly I've broken through the idyllic façade; here is the employee's entrance, with the obligatory guard post and barrier, and parking – a sea of scooters lit by harsh white lights. Front of house is warm, diffuse lighting and occasional discrete staff, but here is a hint of the hive of industry beneath, hundreds toiling in unseen glare to provide an illusion of effortless, luxurious paradise above.
Dinner is a buffet in an open-air amphitheatre, traditional Balinese musicians and dancers entertaining us. The moon shines down.
Another day in the dark hall, the conference ends with congratulations all round. Time to venture outside the hotel and across the road to an open-air shopping mall. We are still in the resort area, so a security check is obligatory. Browse the shops, watch the fire-dancer, soak up the atmosphere of the completely traditional tourist industry. Returning to my room, I finally spot a frog, about 5cm long, light-brown, hopping across the grass and disappearing in the pool.
My final morning, I swim in the pool before breakfast and return to the mall to buy souvenirs. I wander out of the mall and towards the sea, finding a park that stretches along the rocky peninsular that defines one end of the hotel beach. Locals relax beneath the trees at the neck of the peninsular, a man offers me a guided tour, but I decline. Walking up, I find a flat, grassy area and walk around it. A small path takes me to a tiny beach and a temple that looks closed. A sign tells me that I must wear a sash and sarong to enter, and that menstruating women are forbidden. A track leads up towards the end of the promontory, initially sandy, I see many tracks: large birds, twisty lizard or snake, perhaps a bicycle. Then, the sand gives way to sharp lava. Ahead of me, a pavilion stands at the end of the headland, connected to the grassy area by a high path but my path has petered out. I stand at the edge of a grey, foamy sea of stone. I press on, the promontory must have formed from a gassy lava flow that froze with the bubbles half-popped. The sharp edges cut into my sandals. Seagulls stand on a ridge ahead of me, unconcerned at my approach. They know their terrain, that way becomes more rugged, deep crevasses cut across my path and I backtrack to an easier route. Eventually, I reach the high path and walk round the pavilion. Here I can see the blue-white sea sucking greedily at the rock. It will win eventually, the edge is deeply undercut and I suspect that the platform nearest the edge might already be teetering above the waves. Looking closer, I see movement in the little pools and crannies kept wet by the sea-spray. Dark green crabs crawl over the lava, almost impossible to spot when they are motionless. There was no shade for my scramble over the rocks, the sun continues to beat down. I retreat to the shade of the hotel.
I find a lounger beneath the trees at the top of the beach, I still have an hour before I must leave for the airport. A long, white curve of sand stretches to my right, a shorter curve on my left leads to the promontory. On this side, I can see the roofs of the small temple among the greenery and a side-view of the rocky point. The sea has carved the lava into an axe-blade, tapering to a jagged edge. A large bird flies low along the line of surf, too far away for me to identify. Could it be a kite? Traders offer their wares, would I like a massage? A painting? Carvings or trinkets? I admire the art, and settle for a few fridge magnets: an angular fish, a gecko and an elephant. I decline a massage again, no thanks, I must leave for my flight.
Updated: 11th March 2011
An earlier version of this page claimed the trip took place in November 2011, naturally, this is totally untrue. I do not have a time machine, honest. Thanks to RS for pointing this out.