Eat rendang, pray for Russians, love the wifi in Bali

wifi losmen signs

     Free wifi is God. We can all agree on this by now, right?

wifi stone sign

     You can engrave it in stone…

wifi wood sign

     …or carve it in wood.

     I was in transit in New Delhi airport. My Air India flight to get there was delayed four hours and then my next flight was delayed four hours. I asked the agent if there was an explanation and he simply replied with a cheery, “We’re always late!” (It reminded me of the story of the Indian stationmaster at a suburban station where the trains always ran late and the one day he ensured that the train left on time, everyone missed their train and the angry mob beat him up.) For both delays I was given free food to mollify me, to my shame. If at the Boston Tea Party the British had said, “Yeah, look, we’re really sorry for all the taxation without representation, but for your inconvenience how about a voucher for some free gruel before we send you on your way?” I would have been cool with it.
     Anyway, in the airport I met a tall, blonde British girl named Stephanie. The skin on her face was so amazingly flawless and blemish-free that it looked cartoonish. I usually don’t pay any attention to skin, but I found myself staring hard at her. I might have had a thin, bubbling film of wonder on my lips.
     I asked. She said she puts honey on her face and then bathes using a combination of honey, olive oil and lemon juice on her body.
     When I stopped staring at her face I noticed she had equally amazing, lustrous hair. I asked about that, too, and her secret was to rub in mustard oil.
     If I had seen Stephanie in California, I probably wouldn’t have talked to her. Too awkward. She’d have reflexively been reaching for her pepper spray and I’d have to evaluate if this was somehow violating the terms of my parole. Too messy. But traveling? I talk to everybody for any reason.
     Now I am in another place where I notice nice skin: Bali. Must be the humidity. It’s my fourth or fifth time in Bali, maybe my sixth time in Indonesia. It’s a vastly underrated place, easily in my Top 10 of favorites.
batur hitchhike

     This girl picked me up hitchhiking. Balinese women often dress like they are headed to a ceremony probably because they are headed to a ceremony. In Bali the festivals and ceremonies are endless, which is part of its charm. I always see people making little offerings or weaving something from plants and wonder how people earn money or when they work.

     I’ve been hitchhiking all over, from Ubud up to Lake Batur and back, and down through the southern peninsula. It’s been easy. It’s easy everywhere in Indonesia I have ever tried. It’s so easy that last time here I had an all-time experience: a couple stopped to pick me up who were driving home from the hospital with their newborn baby. Where else in the world would that happen? Did you know that in Bali a newborn baby doesn’t touch the ground for its first three months? (Students, you can drop out of school right now because is free education.)

     Funny story that would be funnier if I knew how to tell a story:
     I made a beeline to my favorite restaurant in Ubud, Puteri Minang, on the main road just near the post office. I sat next to a French girl at the table closest to the cash register and I overheard the owner take someone’s bill and say, “23,000…euros (instead of rupiah)!” I said to the girl, “That guy has been making the same joke for years.”
     She said, “I know,” and pointed to a paper taped to the wall, a printout that looked like a restaurant review. I leaned closer to look at it and said, “Hey! I wrote that!” The owner had printed part of my blog last time I was here.
puteri minang sign

puteri minang rendang

     Beef rendang. This tastes the opposite of what it looks like. I was taking photos of food when another traveler said derisively, “Oh, are you one of those (people)?”

     Ubud, now famous from the book and movie, “Eat Pray Love”, has become a mecca for older female travelers. I’ve never seen women outnumber men to this extent anywhere. A manifestation is that now central Ubud is almost completely saturated with fifi restaurants. It’s hard to find a place where normal people eat. I love succulent tempeh satay in a heavenly rich peanut sauce infused with potent wifi as much as anyone, but can I have a rough edge once in a while, a simple warung (food stall)?
This sign says it ALL about Ubud.

     This says it ALL about Ubud.

     I hitchhiked to the far southwest corner of Bali to the temple on the cliffs of Uluwatu, and when I came back, two local Aussies picked me up. The driver said that the last hitchhiker he took was a stunning Russian girl. “In fact,” he said, “I’m going to leave you in the same place I left her.”
     I said, “Good, I hope she’s still there!” but he shook his head and said, “No, she was really messed up.” She had just come out of a high-end rehab center specially for Russian heroin addicts and wasn’t quite right. (I forgot to ask about her skin.) He went on to say that the Russians now have a “presence” in Bali. It’s funny that we all know what that means.
     For the first time I have noticed Russian travelers. Many have yet to adjust to the heat judging from their lack of clothes, which is downright startling. Even more spent are the big Chinese tour groups—also a new entrant to Bali—who stagger around dazed in the midday heat.
nyepi project

     A Nyepi project. Some people say it is a work in progress. I say it is already a masterpiece.

     At the end of the month is Nyepi, the day before Balinese New Year. Absolutely everything shuts down, there is no public transport of any kind, no one goes outside, and tourists aren’t supposed to leave their hotels. It is taken so seriously that they even close the airport for the entire day. Is that not the ultimate sign of importance and devotion? What other place, especially one so dedicated to tourism, would do that? You’re not supposed to watch TV or cook during the day or do anything but sit around with your family. I asked one guy what he would do and he said, “Gamble!”
female construction workers

     We all love Bali, no one has anything bad to say about it even as we bemoan the traffic and congestion, and yet the casual attitude towards littering and women doing the heavy work is disheartening. I see this all over Asia, but in my idealized Bali, it offends. (though obviously not enough for me to actually do anything about it.) A Balinese woman I know shrugged when I asked about it. She said if a woman gets married, she must move out to the husband’s house and the son will inherit the family house. Carrying big loads on your head is just one of a series of injustices.

toilet batur
     Every time I am in Ubud I must mention the story of how I found three little kids 20 years later. When I tell this story to Balinese no one thinks it is interesting, probably because the family home is eternal. Everyone knows everyone, no one moves permanently, so where else were they going to be?
batur view

     View from the crater at Mount Batur, 6:15am. You can’t climb Mount Batur without a guide even though it is 10,000% unnecessary. Down by Lake Batur there are two official offices where you can get guides and they have prices posted, but they’ll try to rip you off anyway and claim that is it a per person price and not a group price. Our worthless guide drove us as far up the mountain as he possibly could in his motorbike (we didn’t realize we long passed the normal starting point) and it took no more than 45 minutes to go up to the crater. I think it’s absurd to hike in the dark with flashlights for the sunrise, but I am in the minority about this.

homestay melon

     I stayed in the top room of this home where the family rents out their extra rooms. Somehow among the hundreds of cheap places to stay in Ubud—and it’s not even in Ubud— managed to be near the top of Google. (The website has a photo of this same field growing rice. Now, since there is less water, honeydew melons. The volcanic soil is incredibly fertile in Bali.)
     This feels remote but it’s just 20 minutes east of Ubud. The village is nothing to get excited about—which is exactly why it is exciting. It’s a simple Balinese village. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming, the family makes some money, good feelings all around. The room is basic, but a deal at 80,000 rupiah (US$7) for a night including breakfast. It’s perfect for a relaxing spell away from everything. Your parole office will never find you.

astiti room

     This fantastic room is the deal of the trip so far. It took me forever to bargain, but it was only 100,000 rupiah—US$8.80! Ubud accommodation can be great value for money.

     South of the airport on the peninsula I stayed in a newish “boutique” hostel called Jolie Hostel. Maybe when it opened it felt boutique, but having that many people use the same two showers means the drains get backed up and the whole place looks run down pretty quickly. There was an Austrian guy who had been staying in a dorm bed (109,000 rupiah, about $10) for six weeks. I asked him why he would do that to himself when he could have his own place elsewhere and he said it was because of the beaches. I think he said beaches.
     When I asked more specifically where he was from, he said it was a little place near Vienna. He said it in the same resigned, conversation-ending tone as one would say, “Northwest Kansas” or “Southern Turkmenistan.” Who knows little places near Vienna? When I dragged it out of him that he came from St. Polten, I said, “I’ve slept at the St. Polten highway rest stop twice.” I do this all the time. (I am that annoying.) You can’t be from Central Europe and assume that I haven’t been to your town. You just can’t.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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Eat rendang, pray for Russians, love the wifi in Bali — 21 Comments

  1. Welcome back! Missed hearing from you. I’m off to Santa Barbsra tonight. Mui exotico.

  2. Bali sounds wonderful. I think I might head there just to see the sunrise from that crater. What’s with the mentions of parole officers? Did you get in trouble recently?

  3. Great post! I like the story of your blog post on the restaurant wall. I will check out the restaurant in June when I’m in Bali. I have yet to have a really great time on Bali, so I will hope for better times this time around. Good writing!

    By the way, you are looking distinctly svelte in that photo. Good work in the off-season.

  4. Funny post as always. I’m headed to Bali around April 10 and then more of Indonesia if you are going to stick around…

  5. Enjoyed a divine rendang in KL a few weeks ago (a tad more photogenic version to boot) but now I’ve got Bali on the brain. Kent, your commentary, as always, is enlightening. I think I may add Bali/Indonesia to the list this year although I fear that I fall into the EPL mature solo female traveller category, and the thought of fighting my way through sarong-wearing throngs of Julia Roberts/Elizabeth Gilbert wannabes puts the damper on it a wee bit…

  6. Graydon, give Bali another chance! “Looking” svelte and being svelte are two different things.
    Tihomir, I’m missing you by 10 days!
    Stephen, “presence” meaning “Boris is very disappointed in you.”
    Claire, thanks! Don’t worry about the throngs! You will have a great time. It would be funny if there were a ton of Brazilian (was that where he was from in the book?) photographers who also went to Ubud!

  7. Kent! i still check out your blog from time to time, ever since we met in morocco (remember me?). i do travel to hyderabad every year for work so let me know next time you are in india.

  8. Great to see your travelling again.
    Great little place your staying at, whats the name?

  9. It is called Astiti on Jalan Hanoman #58. Hanoman is the street parallel to Monkey Forest Road. It is way south of the main east-east street, but if you don’t mind the walk, it’s nice. You also have to insist on room 5. #1-3 are facing the busy street and 4 is only so-so.
    I’m headed back there today!

  10. Hi there, I’m new to your blog and I love it, it’s so funny, it has helped me rediscover my travel mojo, I thought I had lost it, you see, I’m one of those older women clogging up Ubud. A couple of weeks back I was surprised to see a giant in an orange T-shirt strolling west along Jalan Ray Ubud, I thought to myself that it looked a lot like the Dromomaniac fellow… now that I open your blog again I see that it most probably really truly WAS you! Weeeee, funny! I’ve just got in from Ogoh-Ogoh, an insane and wonderful evening, hope you were still in Bali to experience it. Happy and safe travels to you.

  11. Hi Dorothy!
    It probably was me in my orange t-shirt. I was doing a lot of strolling in Ubud. You should have stopped me to say hello!
    I have no complaints about the women clogging Ubud, except that none of them believed me when I said I was a Brazilian photographer.
    I saw the Ogoh-Ogoh preparations; it looked like a lot of fun, but I flew out that afternoon (and my bag still hasn’t arrived!)

  12. Bali tis my favorite place on earth since I first met her in ’98 – love to read your posts and I too “love succulent tempeh satay in a heavenly rich peanut sauce.” Have you read this post on Ubud Now and Then which was brought to mind when you mentioned its popularity with older female travelers, I’ve also heard the reference: yoga-hags as well, not as nice, but well, …

  13. LoL at “the giant in an orange shirt” reference. As for the posted article on the wall of a resto, now we are even. Please find me the number of that Hanoman Wholistic Tourist Assistance. See you around, my friend.

  14. Hi Kent, In regards to your comment, yes, I do think there are tensions building and have been for some time now. There are many factors contributing to this, too much to discuss in this comment field. Did you read in today’s paper this article about Indo, by chance:

    I have read also about an upsurge of crimes in Bali, Ubud area also. Bali is changing and has changed, and I’m not sure I like what happ’d/is happening. I know there are lots of people trying to do good, and protect the environment and its culture, etc. without going all missionary, but in the end I don’t know what the answer is.

    Ubud has changed, a lot, and well, I miss it. As Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, I do read EPL lady!) has said about never wanting to return again to Luang Prabang as it will never be like when she first met it – way back when – I am debating now my feelings on Bali! I was last there in ’09 and ’11 and saw changes in even that two year time frame. Now, omg, what has transpired. Anyway, too long a comment…sorry, peace out!

  15. Thanks for the comment and link.
    My first time in Ubud was 1989, so I have seen a few changes, too! It’s a shame, but maybe inevitable. I don’t know how many shangri-las there are left in this world.

  16. Right there with you about hiking in the dark with a flashlight. I’m as enthusiastic about mountain sunrises as the next guy, but I’d like to see what I’m hiking through and especially where I’m putting my foot!
    Are we allowed to call Austrians “central Europeans” now? If so, FINALLY, geographic logic reigns once again!

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