— For Uncle Pat
We had neighboring rooms in the same sandy, humble homestay at Bingin Beach in Bali. The homestay was wedged alongside several other small guesthouses on the lower rung of a steep hill overlooking the bay. I met him one morning over breakfast. There was only one plastic table in the small warung, at which he was already seated, and I was going to stroll down the beach and look for somewhere else to eat, but he insisted I share the table with him. So I sat down with a sleepy smile and gazed out at the storm-coloured day, the grey-blue bay before us. A few white women in colourful sarongs strolled along the thin strip of beach, looking for shells. A couple of local fishermen steered their wooden canoe in over the shallow inner reef. Out in the bay were scattered dozens of small wooden fishing boats, and way out to sea a procession of container ships shifted slowly across the horizon. It was a rare overcast morning in Bali, cooler and darker than usual.
He was from New Zealand, but I’d be lying if I said I could remember what he looked like. Nor do I remember his name. This was a few years ago. Eight, to be precise. Yet I remember everything else from that day with unusual clarity. We chatted over fruit salad and honey-drenched pancakes, then sat in silence over steaming cups of sweet black Balinese coffee and watched the occasional sets of steely-aquamarine waves spring up out of deep water and pitch over the shallow reef. The waves were good, no doubt, but there was a cluster of at least thirty surfers hustling and scrapping frenetically over the tiny take-off zone for the inconsistent sets. The sea was a bluish metal colour, reflecting a brooding cloudy sky.
He and I decided to go and look for waves elsewhere. Paranoid about having a motorbike accident and ruining my dream surf trip, I had hired a car (a cheap and cheerful Tata, shoe-box-shaped, the colour of burnt vomit) to use during my stay in Bali, and although we talked of going as far as Keramas, we ended up driving only the relatively short distance along the Bukit Peninsula to Uluwatu.
We parked in the dusty dirt parking area that was crammed full of scooters, motorbikes and taxis. The place was overflowing with people. We went to have a look from the top of the cliff. Uluwatu, being such an iconic surf spot, and so highly frequented by both tourists and locals alike, is more often than not an over-congested ego-fight between hundreds of surfers, all wanting a bite of the sweet cherry, and encompassing the full spectrum of the following three variables: wavecraft, skill level and etiquette. So when we looked down at the surf that day, we were astonished to find it largely uncrowded. There were dozens of people sitting in the cafés and bars along the cliff, drinking Bintangs and eating megoreng. Throngs of tourists milled about buying fake sunglasses and souvenirs from the myriad vendors that operated out of stalls along the winding walkway that descended the cliff down to the water. Reggae music blared from Single Fin, the trendiest bar at Uluwatu. The air was filled with the lushest smells, a heady blend of incense and coffee.
Yet, for all the people hanging around, there were only a handful of surfers in the water—ten at most. And it wasn’t as if the ocean was flat. On the contrary, we watched a solid set roll through, lines of waves marching in from the horizon like corduroy, mostly unridden. We looked at each other with perplexed expressions. The waves seemed about three feet in size (in surfing feet this is about head high) and seemed to be running from the bottom of Temples down through Racetracks. But it wasn’t a picturesque, postcard morning. The sky was still overcast and the ocean was grey and stormy. The weather was unusually wintery, the first cool day I’d experienced in the month I’d been in Bali. Still, it didn’t seem like much of a reason to put people off. Oh well, we certainly didn’t need a second invitation. We hurried back to grab our boards and get in there before everyone else had the same idea.
To get into the line-up at Uluwatu, you’ve got to paddle through the famous cave. The first time can feel like a rite of passage. When the swell is small, and even more so when the tide is low, you can pretty much walk/wade through the cave, and then pick your way over the reef and paddle out. I’d surfed Uluwatu several times before, but never seen the cave paddle looking so uninviting. A rough torrent of wash and foam would churn through the narrow gulley, battering the walls of the cave noisily, before draining back out quickly, only to repeat the turbulent cycle again. We had to time our paddle out carefully.
Once we were through the cave and making our way out into the lineup, we realised why it was so uncrowded: the waves were a lot bigger than they had looked from the cliff. It was more like triple overhead, with occasional wide sets the size of two story bungalows. But it wasn’t so much the size alone that had put people off—Uluwatu can be really good on bigger days—it was the rough and stormy nature of the conditions, the weird, erratic swell pattern and the unpredictable roguish sets that caught everyone off guard.
The two of us picked off a few insiders, but we were both on our small-wave boards and struggling to deal with the lump and bump, particularly on the bigger waves. When we were next alongside each other in the lineup, we talked about going in to change equipment, since we both had bigger boards in the car. He caught a wave and disappeared.
It took me a while to get one, but eventually I caught a small insider, navigated a choppy head-dip, straightened out and aimed for the entrance to the cave. But there was a strong side wash that quickly dragged me out of position and I missed the cave. I was pretty far down and close to the cliff and there was a solid set looming. So I had to scramble off the reef and make the long paddle back out into the line-up. I hadn’t realised that getting in would be so tricky. I felt a bit embarrassed and humbled. I was going to have to try again. I saw a local pro airdrop into a solid double-overhead wave, soul-arch the bottom turn, and stand tall in a stormy, chattering blue-grey pit as I paddled over the shoulder.
Suddenly my new friend appeared beside me. He’d missed the cave too. We took a big set wave on our heads, got tumbled under water, like being in a giant washing machine, and I hit the reef hard, scraping skin off my hands and knees. I climbed back on my board, hands stinging, and looked back to watch the wave that had mauled us boom against the cliff, sending a huge plume of spray and whitewater up into the air. We looked at each other. How quickly our laid-back, cruisey surf had turned serious! “That was bloody hairy,” he laughed. “I don’t wanna try that again. I nearly got smeared against the rocks. And you’re bleeding, mate.”
High up on the limestone cliff you could just make out the tiny dots of people watching leisurely from the comfort of dry land. Of course none of them are there to watch you in particular, but they are watching you nonetheless, and you’ve got to walk past them on the way up after your surf. Uluwatu is a natural amphitheatre. It made the idea of getting pinned against the cliff even more unpleasant.
So we decided to ditch the plan of shooting for the channel and take the longer, tamer route of paddling down to the next beach, which we thought was Padang Padang. The current was strong and it carried us swiftly down, parallel to the cliff which was topped by a belt of green vegetation and occasional peeping temples like small brown mushrooms. My hands and knees stung where the reef had grated me, but I was fine. Before long we rounded a corner and were surprised to discover that the next beach was not Padang, but rather a tiny secluded bay, tucked safely away like a shy kitten between the two bustling and iconic lions that are Uluwatu and Padang Padang.
As the big grey feathering waves disappeared from view behind us, we paddled into the little sheltered bay and at that very moment the great dark vault of cloud that had been covering the sky drew back and the sun emerged from behind it and lit the ocean up like an undulating sheet of glass, turquoise, glittering. The swell was completely missing this place, which seemed nothing more than a little wedge cut out of the sheer cliff, with a tiny strip of golden sand separating rock face from water. Thick green foliage hung down the sides of the cliff. There was not a breath of wind here and no hordes of tourists gawking down at us. In fact, the place seemed deserted. It felt like floating into a different day, in a different ocean, under a different sky. For the second time that day, I was reminded of how quickly things can change. There wasn’t even a wave big enough to catch in to the shore. We had to paddle all the way in. A small red boat bobbed rhythmically off to one side of the beach, its anchor wrapped around a palm tree. A steep winding stone stairway led up to a cluster of modest warungs on the cliff top.
We had hardly uttered a word to each other since agreeing to paddle down from Uluwatu and now standing dripping in the sand, in the quiet shadow of the cliff, we looked at each other in curious wonder, and commenced to ascend the stairs. There was such a silence, a serene stillness in the air, that we found ourselves almost whispering to each other so as not to disturb the tranquility. The sky, now unvaryingly blue, appeared to have completely abandoned all its stormy remnants. The day had become hot and the sun flashed sharply off the sea, causing us to squint as we huffed and puffed up the winding steps.
There were several Balinese kids hanging around at the top and they evidently thought it funny that we had arrived on their doorsteps, out of breath and with surfboards under our arms, at possibly the only spot along the peninsula that didn’t actually have rideable waves. “Did you catch some sick waves, hey mate?” said the leader of the teen gang. His buddies grinned and tittered behind him. They told us that this beach was called Suluban.
We got them to take us back to the Uluwatu parking lot on their scooters. I paid the boys and they rolled off. I looked around me. There was a continuous flow of people in and out of the gravel parking area, the sun blazing down on the scene without mercy. I decided to go and buy us some bottles of water and I heard my friend’s phone ring as I walked away. A pod of American tourists erupted into laughter as they clacked past in their flip flops and neon Bintang vests. They were pointing at something. A monkey bolted across the car park with a second monkey tearing after it. Both creatures shrieked with abandon and raised a cloud of white dust in their wake.
When I returned to the car a few minutes later, it was clear my Kiwi friend had received good news. He was beaming ecstatically. But how can I remember him smiling if I can’t recall what his face looked like? Perhaps I only remember the feeling of seeing another human bursting with joy. His girlfriend back in Auckland was pregnant. “We’ve been trying for years, mate”. Did he actually say that? Or is that just a movie cliché I’ve subconsciously stitched into the memory? If I think too hard about the details of this image, it might unravel. And since I came here to tell a story, let me stick to the telling of it.
We talked about going back out into the surf on our bigger boards, but I could sense he wanted to get back to the Homestay in Bingin and Skype his family. So we chucked our boards into the car and climbed in. The wax had melted off our back-up boards and dripped like runny egg white all over the seats of the rental car.
We turned out onto the road and began the drive back to Bingin. Did he tell me about his girlfriend? Or why he was in Bali without her? It’s a blank. Perhaps I was worried about my reef cuts getting infected. We stopped for petrol and an old Balinese lady with arthritic hands filled the tank up with fuel stored in whiskey bottles.
Not long after resuming our journey, we saw a tattered pinkish backpack or suitcase lying in the middle of the road, heat waves swaying up from the potholed asphalt. We stopped the car and got out to move it out of the way and then we realised with horror that it was not a suitcase, but a dog that had been run over. It was still alive somehow, but in a very bad condition, whimpering feebly in a pool of blood. That poor dog is burned into my memory, but I don’t feel the need to relay the gruesome details. We tried to give it some water, poured the rest of the bottle over its wounds to cool its body down. Cars blared their hooters and took wide berths around us. Scooters and motorbikes zoomed past. Nobody else seemed bothered. We ran up to the nearest shop, an internet café, and the women inside told us that it happens a lot in Bali. The dogs are mostly strays. We asked about a vet and she gestured to the computers humming in the air-conditioned shop. The Kiwi sat down at the nearest computer and I ran back to the car to get my phone. Someone had dragged the dog to the side of the road. A Balinese man, a car guard or minor policeman, told me to move my car off the curb. By the time I’d found a place to park further down the street and walked back, the dog was clearly dead. The general hubbub of the day rolled on without interruption under the hot sun. People came and went, some selling souvenirs or soft drinks along the road, others buying them. Even the other street dogs took little notice of the body. Only the flies seemed interested. Dozens of fat black flies.
After the ups and downs of the morning, I felt a bit deflated. We hadn’t rinsed ourselves off before getting in the car, and now I felt hot, glum and salty, as stale as a week-old gas station sandwich.
I could think of nothing to say and we fell into silence for the rest of the journey, watching the lush green scenery of rice padis and intermittent glimpses of the sparkling ocean streaming by the windows, passing occasional road-side stalls and wooden warungs, then congested commercial areas filled with surf shops and a million internet cafés, then Padang Padang with its banner for the upcoming Rip Curl Cup of Surfing.
Is that really the exact scenery of that stretch of road? Possibly not. I’m pulling these images directly from my mind’s eye and they are a composite of sensation, mood and memory. It might have been a longer or shorter drive, more or less commercial or rural. But one thing is for certain: the Bali of 2012 looked very different from the Bali of the 1960s, just before the tourism boom. You can look up the old pictures online. In roughly 50 years the place had been transformed into yet another playground for Western tourists. Capitalist tourism had infiltrated this magnificent place and was steadily Disneyfying it, sucking Bali into the pink plastic heart of the shiny, homogenous McWorld. And now in 2020 I wonder how much further it has been damaged since my trip eight years ago.
The next day I took a trip to Java and when I returned to the homestay at Bingin a week later, my friend was gone. That night, I ate dinner with the pot-bellied owner of the homestay, Ketut, who smiled sadly when I enquired about the Kiwi and said, “Poor guy huh. Bad luck. He left in a big hurry for the airport. Only here for a couple days.” What had gone wrong? Ketut’s phone rang. He looked at it, apologized to me, then answered the phone and went upstairs. I planned to ask him later about what had happened to the Kiwi, but to be honest, I forgot about it, anxious as I was about my own situation. And a few days after that I too departed Bali, my life-savings depleted, to fly to Melbourne, a city completely unknown to me, to start a new life. I went equipped with $200 to my name, a vague plan, and some ineffable yet significant part of me changed by my time in beautiful, troubled Indonesia.
* Special thanks to Kereru, Scott, Michal, Meg and Kristen, who were a big part of this trip, if not this particular day.