Bali is contradiction – an island paradise, but also a jurisdiction harsh on convicted drug smugglers.
Diana Streak reflects on Bali’s different images.
Do you remember kaleidoscopes? I was reminded of those old-fashioned toys during a week-long holiday in Bali. While living in Indonesia for a couple of years, Bali was a regular weekend escape from the edginess and pollution of Jakarta, lubricated with an embarrassing number of pina coladas.
This was the first time I had visited Bali as an international tourist, and it left me with a slightly different view. It was a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope. Sometimes, between the beautiful bejewelled images, the mechanism sticks and you see a rather distorted image or you hit a blank and see an unexpected darkness.
Where else would an overweight, hairy bloke walk around a supermarket, standing over food counters with nought on but his shorts and flip flops? He certainly wouldn’t do it at home and the Balinese would cringe at the thought of being so slovenly. So why do we feel entitled to shed the skin of manners when we are there?
To this day I am ashamed of a tantrum I threw in a taxi cab in my first few months of living there when the language barrier became too much. It was behaviour that would get me thrown out of a cab in Australia in a second.
Click. Arriving at Ngurah Rai International Airport (the 20-odd trips before had been a casual one-hour hop from Jakarta), my daydreams of pina coladas are demolished by the very large, very bright signs yelling that death penalties apply for drug smugglers. But still some risk it, as Australians who see Bali as their personal playground are deceived by the locals’ easygoing charm and the apparent lack of rules.
Click. Later, walking the streets of Kuta, my British friends and I are offered drugs on every corner. Click. After my initial paranoia of locking my suitcase, wondering whether some cunning baggage handler could have set me up, my fears are dissolved by the warmth of the customs official. The delightful fellow asks me about my visa, flirts with me gently about my name and a dead princess. The stark warning of the drug signs dissipates.
Click. Relaxing after the obligatory poolside massage at the package hotel, mostly patronised by Australians, the middled-aged woman from Queensland on the lounger next to me strikes up a conversation. We watch the fat, beer-swilling Aussies wallowing in the swimming pool, comparing their tattoos, drinking bottle after bottle of Bintang beer. The men are even worse. Mrs Queensland sniffs disapprovingly, “What worries me is that they never seem to get out of the pool to pee. I always swim at the other end.”
“Why don’t they just go to the Gold Coast?” she wonders. We agree it’s because here they can get away from the RULES.
Click. The smiles are genuine, but can disappear in a second. During a drive up to the arty mountain town of Ubud we are pulled over by a police vehicle. Our driver had obstructed too much traffic with his (legal) U-turn. Four stern policemen climb out of their vehicle. I am quite prepared to engage them, but my friends who had lived there longer warm me, “Don’t get involved, let him handle it.”
So we watch as the farce unfolds. The documents are pulled out, the lecture given by one of the uniforms. The others saunter around, smoking their kretek – clove cigarettes – and casually opening the back door of their vehicle to prevent us seeing the financial exchange that allows us to continue on our journey.
Shaking his head, our driver explains that he had to pay 50,000 rupiah ($A5) to avoid a fine of 200,000 rupiah and official entanglements. So, of course the bule (Westerners) cough up for the fine, a quarter of our fee for the drive. It’s not for nothing we are known as “walking ATMs”.
Bali’s seductive charm.Click. Friend Juliet is incensed one night because she has inadvertently paid for our taxi ride with two hundred- thousand rupiah notes. The new red ones are very similar to the old ten thousand ones. “Bastard,” she hisses afterwards. Mark rolls his eyes. “Ju, do you really think he would tell you? Anyway, it’s only ten quid.” “Yes,” she says quietly, “I guess that would feed his family for a while.”
Click. We hear about the wife of a man who had lived in Bali for years. She was on the back of a motorcycle with an Indonesian friend when they had an accident and she was thrown into the road. Before she could move, a speeding car ran over her and crushed her leg. The Indonesian friend panicked and fled. Desperate to get to a hospital, she had to persuade a reluctant taxi driver who didn’t want to take her because of all the blood that would mess up his car. After paying him, she passed out. Because of the delay she lost so much blood she could not be flown to Singapore (the usual course of action for serious medical issues) and later had to have her leg amputated.
Yes, some of the shards of plastic in the kaleidoscope lens are very dark indeed. There are many layers to this seductive, contradictory place, and under the irresistible charm and smiles lies a shadowy side that Westerners cannot begin to fathom, but we love it because it offers an escape from our anodyne lives, and damn those pina coladas are good. TTW
Diana Streak travelled to Bali at her own expense. Photos © Diana Streak.