Our first impressions of this chicken-shaped island came to us courtesy of the beach town of Sanur. Here, on Bali’s southeastern shores, the hot equatorial sun led us to the beach each day to cool off. Everything seemed to slow down. Here are just a few highlights of the first impressions from the first few days here on our beloved Indonesian island of Bali.
It took a while for us to adjust to this pace. “What should we do?” could quickly be answered with “Nothing. Which is fine.”
Across the length of the beach, brightly coloured jukung boats sleep lazily on the white sands. At low tide, the water peels away to reveal a plenitude of shells that kept Meg busy (this is as busy as it gets in Sanur) on at least one walk a day — collecting, photographing, then leaving them where they belong. When the tide is out, the shallows stretch out a great distance, then suddenly they drop off into a reef that creates surfable waves a very long way offshore, while inshore the waters are shades of clear blue and turquoise and just the right temperature to cool off from the midday sun.
Jutting out to sea are a few artificial bluffs with rustic pavilions at the end of them. Presumably (we never tried) there’s a charge to use them during the day; they do make for good platforms for viewing the sunrise however, before any payment-eliciting staff appear on the scene.
The Tourist Strip and Jalan Danau Tamblingan
Sanur’s tourist strip (tourist trap?) runs the length of its glorious beach. A paved walkway parallels the fringe of the sand for several miles; it’s a welcome means to walk off some off the calories of Bali’s amazing food. Along its course, smiling Balinese people peddle everything from bracelets and sarongs to massages and snorkeling trips; from wood carvings and mats to canoe rides to kid’s toys. Posh hotels open up onto the walkway and the beach; behind them, Jalan Danau Tamblingan Road bustles with restaurants, shops, dive centers, markets and more affordable hotels like the one we stayed in. Day and night the street is alive with the smell of incense and the droning engine sounds and incessant toots of scooter horns as they zip up and down the street.
It seems anyone (and sometimes everyone) who owns a vehicle of any sort — car, minivan, motorcycle, scooter — is permitted to use it as a taxi. As a result, we’ve seen many a young backpacker — surprisingly, most often young female backpacker — with a backpack fastened around them, and their arms fastened around the gung-ho driver of a scooter as he divagates and careens through traffic. The upshot of the everyone’s-a-taxi-driver phenomenon to the general traveler — and by general I mean one who doesn’t fancy trying to explain a wipeout on such a taxi to even the most generously understanding of health insurance companies — is the mild, and mildly distressing I must admit, barrage of would-be drivers that accost anyone walking anywhere with cries of “Hello Transport?”
From the moment you leave the hotel till the moment you’re seated at a restaurant, and sometimes even thereafter, you will be pestered by men of all ages standing in your way holding laminated placards of Bali destinations, having been folded so many times that by now they’re only an illegible rectangle of colourful plastic, shouting “Yes? Yes? Where are you going? Transport? Taxi! Maybe tomorrow! Where are you going tomorrow? Transport!” Some travelers find it endearing, a sonorous part of the experience; others — like an Australian travel writer I came across — vow never to return to Bali for this reason alone. (For what it’s worth I’m towards — but by no means at — at the ‘endearing’ end of the spectrum.)
The calls for transport are paralleled by the quieter, more acoustically-pleasing but no less frequent offers of “hello massage, yes?” uttered from the soft voices of ladies outside salons and spas. Their services are usually excellent and very cheap — I have this on good authority from a close and trusted lady-friend of mine who has been getting a massage just about every day here in Bali.
A Cool Dive Site
In early 1942, an American transport ship, USAT Liberty, was carrying a cargo of railway parts from Australia to the Philippines when, it being World War II and all, she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Lombok Strait and began to take on massive amounts of water. The US Navy quickly deployed a destroyer in an attempt to tow the broken ship to a port on Bali’s north coast, but they never made it that far. Because she was about to sink, the Liberty was deliberately beached on the east coast at Tulamben so that her cargo could be salvaged — which it was.
There she sat for more than two decades, until in 1963 an eruption of Mount Agung on Bali sent tremors through the earth that dislodged the ship from the beach and sent her tumbling into the ocean, a few meters offshore, in 3 to 30 meters of water. In the half century that has transpired since then, a stupendous array of coral and sea life have made the Liberty their home. The water is warm, calm, and clear; the ship eerie and ghostly. This is so inviting a dive site — you get to the wreck simply by walking into the sea from the beach — that I completed my long overdue Open Water scuba dive course here.
Along every street, in every doorway, and on ledges and statues around Bali, are the small offerings people make and replace several times a day. Usually in a hand-sized basket of woven leaves, the offerings typically consist of a small ball of rice, some shredded carrot or other vegetable, a few small flower petals, perhaps some crackers, and even the occasional cigarette. Needled into the offering is an incense stick whose smoke rises up into the air. You see them everywhere; at the entrance to most every business and home, temple and store, and on every stone statue. The sweet smell of incense from the offerings is almost always detectable here in Bali.
Smiles are absolutely, genuinely infectious, and Balinese people smile absolutely genuinely.
These guys are everywhere. I’m fairly sure I dream about them
Although many of my first impressions of Bali were formed underwater, each day I looked forward with increasing anticipation to my dinner date with Meg. The company was second to none, but I knew that already. What surprised me — and surprised Megan most of all — was the food. I had never really given much forethought to it, and I’m really not a foodie at all (read back through realmsofwhere and you will find very, very few references to food). It’s not something I usually take time to write about or photograph, partly because I find food blogs tend to be pretty boring, but mainly because I’m usually not a very discerning eater — I don’t love haute cuisine all that much more than I love peanut butter sandwiches.
So when I sat down to my first meal of nasi goreng (literally ‘fried rice’ but really so much more), accompanied by fresh watermelon juice and a delicious Bintang beer, while Meg had the best spring rolls and satay of all time washed down with a papaya juice, I knew this was going to be a fun time with food. More so because we were, as it turns out according to the Internet, at a below average restaurant (the bar is high in Bali, where even ‘below average’ is delectable) — and because everything is so invitingly, amazingly cheap.
Fresh fruit is ubiquitous and delicious; every menu has an entire section dedicated to fruit juices, lassis, and shakes. A bowl of sambals, which usually has to be requested and comes either in the form of a sauce, a paste, a chopped fresh chili or some pickled version of the latter, will clear all sinuses instantly and bring a light sweat to the brow. Fried rice and noodle dishes are sufficiently excellent on their own, but when accompanied with tempeh they are vastly more pleasing than peanut butter sandwiches. Tempeh is a soybean product, made through a fermentation process, which sounds gross but it is, in texture and taste, a superior foodstuff indeed.
At the risk of channeling a boring food blog I’ll leave it there, except to list a few cool things we’ve come across on menus in Bali that were fascinating and delicious: avocado milkshake, seared feta in spicy salad, tempeh burger, coconut juice straight from the coconut, lychee-and-lime iced tea, mushroom spring rolls, curries of all persuasions, green banana pancakes, and desserts of fresh fruit drizzled in honey and coconut. I could go on forever, but it’s actually dinner time as I write this, and I’ve just made myself hungry.