Bali: once a far-off, exotic land we dreamed of from the gloom of the English winter, and then suddenly a real place, twinkling before our eyes in the dark, humid night. As the ferry makes the short crossing, local men teach us Balinese phrases to revive our road-weary minds and help us shift cultural gears from Muslim Java to Hindu Bali. Sighting that long-awaited land from the top deck makes every minute of the 15 hour bus journey worthwhile, and we’re full of anticipation for what is to come…
Our dream for Bali was to find a quiet coastal spot where we could settle and let the cogs of daily life slow down to a virtual halt. In reality it seems we’re about two decades late. Natural beauty has been swallowed up by resorts over spilling with sunburnt, singlet-wearing Aussies. The worst offender is the infamous Kuta Beach – the island’s dreadfully tacky tourist hub. Aside from being the birthplace of the Asian surf scene, it thrives on under-age hedonistic debauchery and all-night parties. It is the complete antithesis of our Balinese fantasy: filthy, noisy, crowded, tacky, over-priced and unrelenting. Sketchy looking characters hiss offers of drugs from dark doorways, and surly hawkers bully you to buy mass-produced, wooden penis key rings with such aggressive insistence it takes steel willpower to stand your ground. You can of course haggle over knock-off DVDs, but you’ll later find they don’t work, and the overall experience is an exhausting test of tolerance. Perhaps all inquisitive explorers should dip their toes in cess pits like Kuta, if only to then wash their feet and walk on to greener (and cleaner) pastures. For us, however, it provides no answers in our quest for seventh-heaven.
Cut to two days and one fast-boat later: We’ve swapped the overcrowded mainland for a tiny patch of paradise on a quiet offshore island. My bare, happy feet point west, back towards Bali as I sit perched on an elevated terrace overlooking insanely turquoise reef. Brightly painted local fishing boats bob gently on the surface. It’s late afternoon, the sun still strong, but a generous breeze keeps me comfortable – the same breeze which is guiding the rolling surf towards the reef edge, where it breaks neatly in a long, foaming line. Ben is out there somewhere and as I squint to make out his silhouette amongst the other board riders, I’m aware of voices and laughter beneath the terrace. Peering over the ledge I see women and children collecting seaweed from the shallows. In all shades of green and brown, it is in abundance on this island, brought ashore by regular storms and strong tides. It will be laid out to dry along the narrow, rocky footpath which lines this small bay. Eventually it may turn up on my plate, a cheap and nutritious alternative to leafy greens used in many local dishes.
Behind me is a lush, well maintained garden, dotted with Hindu statues, intricately carved wooden archways, sweet smelling frangipani trees and colourful religious offerings to the gods, lovingly placed on stone shrines each morning. It’s a tranquil place where the wind and waves make more noise than the softly speaking locals. It is simply divine.
Cooling off in the swirling currents of this shallow, turquoise lagoon is about as refreshing and delightful as life gets, but it’s not my only option; behind me, centred in the gardens, lies the enticing infinity pool – a veritable luxury to a backpacker. In a moment of disbelief I check my wallet. Surely they haven’t really charged me £9 to stay here?
Maybe tomorrow I’ll explore the underwater world, or take a class at the yoga shack. Perhaps I’ll accept a local woman’s offer to observe a ceremony at her temple. I could venture to the organic eco cafe on the rugged, untamed back road that weaves through the village, or take the lazy option and indulge in cheap, spicy snacks overlooking the sea.
But one thing I know for sure is this: if I stay in this spot long enough with my bare, happy feet still pointing west towards Bali, Ben will return from the boisterous surf (potentially very sunburnt and physically ruined from the experience), a cold beer will be placed in my hands, the sun will sink in a magnificent display of orange and pink, bright stars will shine and one fine day in paradise will roll peacefully into another.