The morning we left Melbourne last week (ten days ago? Two weeks ago? My backpacker’s fluid sense of time has not taken long to come back to me), I hugged our friends Kerry and Leanne goodbye and told them to come meet us soon in Asia.
“The whole trip is very casual; I’ll send you all the details,” I said over my shoulder as I waved goodbye. “I made an Excel sheet with all the information!”
This didn’t strike me as terribly weird until they laughed and called back after me, “Of course you did! Why doesn’t that surprise us?”
See, even though, yes, I may have charted out our flight times and confirmation numbers back in Auckland and, yes, I might have shaded in the document’s alternating rows and printed out multiple copies and sent it as an e-attachment to my parents, there’s still quite a lot that’s been left up to chance and surprise — either despite or because of my better judgment.
In fact, I maintain that this minor spurt of organization served mostly just to keep Hayley and me from, say, missing our flights, or having nothing but blank stares for the woman from EuropCar when asked for our booking number. And as the trip progresses, truly, even the minor amount of preparation I’ve done is waning steadily. Especially now that we are officially in Asia, where we have booked next to nothing, researched laughably little, and have had not one familiar experience over the last 24 hours.
To wit: here are a few examples of basic research we did not do, important information we did not write down, and general facts of life that came as a complete shock to us upon our arrival in Bali last night.
- The language. “I can’t believe we’re in Bali!” Hayley squealed as we taxied down the runway at Denpasar Airport. “What does that sign over there say, I wonder?” We both took a slow look at the sign across the tarmac and simultaneously came to the realization that we didn’t even know how to say “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” or (stupidly) “vegetarian” in… whatever language it is they speak here. Oh, that’s right: we weren’t entirely sure about that last part either. The languages of all the other countries we’d be visiting had seemed so eponymously self-evident – Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian – that we’d neglected to even look into this. Cultural exploration at its best, huh?
- The fact that these are apparently the only occupations they could be bothered to come up with for the tourist visa application form here:
- The money. After collecting our baggage at the airport, we stood in front of a row of ATMs, dumbfounded by the heat and our own inability to shift decimal points in theoretical monetary figures. Finally, after verifying a rate of NZ$1 to IDR6,700 at a currency exchange desk, we decided to start with an initial withdrawal of about NZ$100 each. This led to the most careful and deliberate keying-in of a figure I’d ever done on a cash machine. I punched in the number “700,000” while hoping I hadn’t botched the endless trail of zeroes at the end, and quietly made a note that this was likely the highest figure I’d ever see used in relation to my own bank account.Walking around with 700,000 of anything tends to make you feel like a very high roller, at least until you need to, say, take a cab from the airport (IDR95,000), buy a bottle of beer (IDR19,000) or, my favorite, purchase a small bottle of hand-sanitizer (IDR12,000) for fear of contracting the dreaded Bali-belly by washing your hands in the island’s famously tainted water. That quickly brings you back down to the backpacker’s frugal mindset.
- The traffic. Good God, the traffic. Imagine a city where the narrow streets seem to have no names, just the vague distinction of being located off some dim alleyway or along a main highway. Now picture it with the traffic of a New York, but replace the cars and cabs with feisty little motorbikes. There are seemingly thousands and thousands of these flimsy, growling little bikes in every street, shoved one up against another against another in front of bars, being ridden side-saddle by unflappable girls in miniskirts, acting as the family station wagon from which the legs of toddlers and babies dangle while their parents check their text messages. Imagine the bikes clogging every available street surface, weaving in and out of traffic with what must be either a total sense of ease with the roads or an urgent death wish. Imagine a sedan “taksi” cab trying to wedge its way into a slow-moving line of them grumbling up the side of the highway, poking its nose through the gap in the bikes before swinging out onto the road with all the grace of a Mack truck merging into a lane of Tonkas.We unwittingly threw ourselves into all of this just taking a cab from the airport to the hostel last night. Later, sitting at a street-front bar and sipping bottled Bin Tang pilsner, we witnessed people carrying laundry, baskets of food, dining room tables sitting on the back of these bikes, newborns propped up against the handlebars in configurations that made Britney Spears look like Mother of the Year by comparison.
- Walking. Hoo boy. “It’s just walking!” you might say. “How can you be unprepared for that?”The simple answer is, of course, that I’m accustomed to walking in countries that encourage personal injury lawsuits. Walking down the street here in Sanur, you have a few options:1) You can just walk in the street. This is inadvisable due to the general, shall we say, insouciance of the moped set here.
2) You can try for sidewalks. This may sound like the obvious choice, but it’s a little more difficult than that. For starters, not all roads have sidewalks. In fact, based on what I’ve seen, I’d venture to say that very few roads have sidewalks. If you are lucky enough to happen upon a sidewalk, you must keep your eyes on it constantly, because they are not what I’d call structurally sound. At least twice a block, you’ll find yourself leaping over a gaping, cement open grave of a hole in the sidewalk; testing a loose slab of concrete to see if it jiiggles; clutching your handbag after tripping over a jagged level-change.
Now, my first impressions of Bali may have to do mostly with how foreign the whole place is, but none of these observations are meant to say that I haven’t been enjoying my time in Bali. We’re at an excellent hostel that actually has a swimming pool. Into which I basically hurled myself this afternoon after a morning of strolling around town, letting Hayley bargain for sarongs and grinning each time I saw a giant statue of Ganesha atop a traffic roundabout. Last night we spent a grand total of NZ$4 gorging ourselves on platters of Indonesian food that included, glory hallelujah, tofu, aka the most expensive item in every antipodean supermarket refrigerator case. Magnum ice cream bars cost about one American dollar here, and the lack of potable tap water has given me, I’ve decided, free range to order multiple rounds of fresh-squeezed juices from little organic cafes on the side of the road. Seated at which, for the record, you’re sometimes surprise witness to random parades of an undetermined nature:
Tomorrow, we leave Sanur and head for Ubud, which I seem to remember hearing was something like “the cultural center of Bali.” I know they have a monkey forest, and rice paddies, and I once read a review of a hostel there praising the property for its proximity to something called “the Yoga Barn.” And we just booked our hostel 20 minutes ago. Up until which point I’d been pulling a slow-burn freak-out over not yet having arranged a place to sleep tomorrow.
Apparently I haven’t quite reached that zen state of blissful unpreparedness just yet. But I’m getting there. Maybe after a few classes at the Yoga Barn…