Bali: Settling In

Day 129: Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
Adenium flowers at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Adenium flowers at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia
Last Monday, almost two weeks ago, I took the bus from Ubud to Kuta, the tourism center of Bali. I arranged the bus ticket with my guesthouse that morning and paid $5 for the two-hour ride. Within ten minutes of arriving in Kuta, I had wandered through the alleys off Poppies Gang I, one of the main tourist drags, and found a cheap guesthouse called Taman Ayu Bungalows. I initially booked four nights in the basic room for $8 per night, but I had no idea how long I intended to stay in Kuta. The room does not have air conditioning or hot water, but the fan keeps me sufficiently cool, and I wouldn't want anything but a cold shower in this humidity. That evening, I walked along the beach to the enormous air-conditioned Discovery Shopping Mall, where I met Deepa and Neerav, a couple who had been on part of the Oasis trip in Africa with me. They have been traveling in Southeast Asia for the past couple of months, and I happened to catch them in Bali only a day before they flew home. It was a lot of fun to hang out with them again thousands of miles away from Africa, and we stayed out late talking about our travels. They are moving from the UK to Australia in a few months, and I hope to meet up with them again for New Years in Sydney.

I spent the next eight days getting to know Kuta and catching up on my blog. Near my guesthouse is Poppies Gang I - not to be confused with nearby Poppies Gang II. It is a crowded, narrow street filled to the brim with motorbikes that breeze within inches of your arm, hawkers selling massages or transport, souvenir stalls with Bintang beer t-shirts and flip-flops, and hard-partying Australian beach bums who have traveled to Bali for the cheap Bintang and good surf. Not my scene - but I discovered quiet sanctuaries in some of the cozy restaurants along the alley. I became a regular at a Cuban restaurant called Havana Club. They have free wireless internet, so I would sometimes stay there from lunch through dinner writing my blog, going through my photos, and chatting with friends and family. I tried quite a few of the restaurants along Poppies Gang I, enjoying avocado juice, chicken satay, nasi goreng, and free wi-fi for days on end. One day, I made the long, sandy trek along the crowded beachfront back to Discovery Shopping Mall, where I enjoyed the air-conditioning in Starbucks for an afternoon. My Frappuccino was as expensive as lunch and dinner combined at some of my new favorite cheap restaurants, so I retreated back to the more affordable area around Poppies Gang I. I also ventured out a few times to Legian Street, the main busy road through the city. It is lined with bars, nightclubs, and surf shops; drunk partiers prowl the street every evening. This is where two simultaneous nightclub bombings occurred in 2002, and there is a large memorial in the middle of Legian Street to commemorate the terrorist attacks.

I have been extending my cheap stay at Taman Ayu Bungalows, and by yesterday, I finally caught up with my blog and photos from Africa and was ready to start exploring more of Bali. There are hundreds of tour operators with street stalls in Kuta, but I initially had a bit of trouble booking a tour. Even though these tours are package deals with set itineraries, they are in private vans rather than large buses. The problem was that every one of the tour operators seemed to require a minimum of two people for a trip. I had to wait until someone else was interested in a particular tour before I could go. I visited one agency, marked the trips that interested me, and later in the day went back to see if any tours had become available. I had a lucky break: this morning, I left for my first tour.

One of the guys from the tour agency picked me up at eight o'clock from my guesthouse. I rode on the back of his motorbike to the van, which couldn't fit into the narrow alley where I was staying. We drove to a hotel and picked up the other tourist, a French guy who had been traveling in Australia and stopped in Bali on his way home. We drove north for two hours until we reached the picturesque Ulun Danu Bratan temple on an island in Lake Bratan. It was teeming with mostly Asian tourists, including a large Balinese school group - a stark contrast to the tranquil setting depicted on postcards, but not surprising on this heavily touristed island.

Ulun Danu Bratan temple, Lake Bratan, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Ulun Danu Bratan temple appears to float in Lake Bratan near Candikuning, Bali, Indonesia.

Miniature Borobudur at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Miniature Borobudur at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia
It took about half an hour to reach Gitgit Waterfall, stopping along the way to see macaque monkeys in the forest along the road. There was a quaint moss-covered stone temple near the falls. We drove through Bali's second largest city of Singaraja on the way to the beach town of Lovina, where we had lunch at a restaurant that sits right beside the water. After lunch, we proceeded to the nearby village of Banjar, where we visited some hot springs that have been tamed into a recreational pool with stone fountains and statues. The milky green water smelled of sulfur. Next, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Bali, which features a smaller version of Java's famous Borobudur temple complex.

Gitgit Waterfall, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Gitgit Waterfall, Bali, Indonesia
Fountain at the hot springs in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Fountain at the hot springs in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia
Buddha statue at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Buddha statue at the Buddhist monastery in Banjar, Bali, Indonesia

It was three hours across the island back to Kuta, and a torrential, foggy downpour obscured the rice terraces and mountainous center of Bali into a misty suggestion of gray landscapes. In Kuta, I went back to the tour agency to see if any tours had opened up for tomorrow. None had, and they told me to check again in the morning. Luckily, I have no definite plan for how long I am staying in Kuta, and I've grown accustomed to this sort of last-minute arrangement that seems to be so common in less developed countries.