Thursday, April 8, 2010


It was Tuesday in Bali. I’d been in Kuta for a few days. I’d originally planned on going to Ubud, a more traditional, artsy town in the island’s interior on Tuesday for a couple of nights. Not too surprisingly, girls interfered. I’d met a cute and interesting Aussie girl the night before. She had to take her drunken brother home from the club early, but we made general plans to meet back at the same club tonight. I decided one day in Ubud would be enough - I’d stay in Kuta Tuesday night.

Kuta during the day presents a bit of a problem. Sure, there’s the beach, but I’d spent the lion’s share of the previous day sitting on the beach. There’s surfing, but I can’t surf. The touts around town are largely too relentless and annoying to deal with, thicker than tropical mosquitoes. I could always drink all day - in Kuta I would have plenty of company in that endeavor - but I wanted to be at least mildly coherent to meet this girl. A day trip was in order.

The largest city on Bali by far is Denpasar. Nobody goes to Denpasar. Denpasar is just under 20 kilometers from Kuta. It’s reputed to be dirty, grey, drab, and harsh. Lonely Planet declared it to be a workaday city with next to nothing of interest for the tourist. I was going to Denpasar.

I went to Kuta’s “Bemo Corner.” This is an intersection that bemos, ie minibuses reminiscent of Filipino jeepneys stop on their run between the airport and Denpasar. Lonely Planet told me the bemos were fairly frequent. Touts in the area told me otherwise, this info is outdated, there are no bemos anymore. I didn’t believe them, as they had a vested interest in providing alternate transit. After waiting 20 minutes, all the while low-balling various transit touts that approached me, I gave up on the bemo idea. Fortunately, a motorcycle taxi driver agreed to my asking price at that same moment - $2 for a ride.

The motorcycle taxi ride was terrifying, thrilling, annoying, and fun, often all at once. The driver, as per Bali tout statute A2, offered me rides to other parts of the island, tickets to cultural shows, a round trip to Kuta, hookers, and drugs. I told him to drop me off at the Denpasar museum. He offered to wait in the parking lot and to give me a ride back later. Given his obvious shadiness, I declined all offers. Generally, he would turn around to face me while making these offers while weaving through traffic.

People from 3rd world countries have some amazing innate abilities. They can haggle better than a bankrupt Scotsman. Than have no fear of local wildlife, including ferocious dogs and monkeys. More than anything, they can drive. They can drive a motorcycle in traffic while looking the other way. I saw guys on motorcycles that were carrying 19 inch tube TVs while driving. I saw families of four on one motorbike. I rode in an SUV that was almost always within an inch of a motorcycle on the highway. Driving on rural Indonesian roads appears to be far more stressful than driving in Manhattan rush hour. It’s an entirely different kind of driving, altogether.

I left my motorcycle driver at a park in the center of Denpasar. It was a five minute walk to the museum. This walk was unlike any I had experienced in Bali. I saw zero other white people. I had zero touts attempt to stop me or sell me anything. This was my first time in Bali that I was able to walk five consecutive minutes without running into a tout. It was fantastic. Thank you, Lonely Planet, for steering the paleface clear of Denpasar. I loved it already.

I walked into the museum, which had amazing courtyards filled with Hindu shrines, and the tout-free streak ended. Guys trying to sell me fans and other knick knacks came out of the ether. I ignored them and entered the museum proper, and was quickly joined by a small Indonesian man with a mustache. I told him I didn’t want a guide, but he said he wasn’t a guide but a man who was studying the art in this museum. I wanted to be left alone, but the non-guide kept following me around and telling me about the various pieces of art. He seemed kind and genuinely excited about the art, so I stopped trying to ditch him, even started asking him questions about some of the art.

The museum had five different buildings. There was an elderly German couple leaving as I moved to the second building. Other than them, the museum grounds were occupied only be me, my guide, some workers, and of course touts. Every time we changed buildings, the touts would try to sell me more crap. I was a bit annoyed that my guide, er, not-guide, didn’t chase the touts away when I clearly wasn’t interested in buying anything from them. At the last building, I tipped him 5,000 rupiah, which is about 50 cents. Not much I know, but the admission to the museum had been half that. Plus, he never shooed away the riff raff.

I went to a Hindu temple next to the museum after this. Another guide appeared, and I waved him away, told him no guide, no guide. He listened. I got to enjoy ten full minutes walking around the temple before another tout came up, offering to show me around the museum.

I left the Denpasar central square and walked to the market. The walk required crossing a couple of streets. Crossing the street in Kuta was a fairly painless affair, but in Denpasar, a city of 400,000 or so, it was near impossible. The stoplights are largely figureheads. I used this method to cross the street: I stood on the curb waiting for a gap in traffic. After waiting for a long enough period of time that I no longer cared if I was mowed down by a car or motorcycle so long as I was no longer still standing on that curb, I walked into traffic. It worked.
The market was absolutely elbow to tit. Between pick ups trucks, motorbikes, and pedestrians, it was one step at a time through the chaos. On the plus side, it was nothing like the market scenes in Kuta. No white people, and no touts, at least none that spoke English. There was a vast flower market that was flooded with people buying flowers for Hindu offering rituals. Moving through that, I came across a sea of tropical fruit stands. I really wanted to try durian, but I didn’t see any. I ended up moving indoors, to the fabric market, where I got suckered into buying one of the worst shirts I’ve ever bought - traditional Balinese garb, but it really doesn’t allow for much range in shoulder motion. When I tried it on that night, it took ten minutes to take it off. I almost had to go Hulk.

I left the market the way I came, and crossed the busy street the same way, standing on the curb until I no longer cared whether I lived or died so long as I could continue moving. I was starving, and I had one more stop to make in Denpasar - the mall.

After reaching the central square, I turned south, toward the mall. I came across a couple of streets that were like the other difficult to cross street. Then, I came across a street that was far worse. I would never be able to cross this bastard without actually being mowed down. Suddenly, a policeman appeared. “Hello! Where you go?”
With that, he immediately took out his whistle and started walking across the street, stopping traffic. I followed him, and then jogged across the street. He turned back and went back to wherever he came from. I continued south happily. Nice of that cop to help me on my way. Really nice of him to not demand a bribe.

The Denpasar mall was awesome. Chaos, just like outside, only air conditioned. I went to the food court and got some mie goreng, Indonesian fried noodles with egg. It was under a dollar and awesome. I had a cigarette, just because I could. I walked around and headed for the major department store to see if they had durians or other interesting food, and found some instant mie goreng. More importantly, I learned the real prices of things. Fake sunglasses cost under two bucks. T shirts cost a dollar. I didn’t find anything I liked, but this was good stuff to know when dealing with the shysters in Kuta.

I returned to Kuta, and went to war with the shysters. “Hello, my friend. You need T-shirt? Sunglass?” Both. Let’s dance.

After selecting a Bintang beer shirt and a pair of fake Ray-bans, the haggling began. The clerk started at the usual ridiculous price, lets say $30. He typed the amount onto his calculator. I countered with one cent. He laughed, but I told him we’re going to end up a lot closer to my price than we would to his. After some give and take (him - $25, me - 2 cents; him $20, me - 3 cents) he asked my real price. I told him four bucks. He scoffed. I told him I’d been to Denpasar, and I’ve seen behind the curtain, I know the real prices. The t-shirt and sunglasses cost him $2.50, $3.00 tops, so he’d be making a nice dollar profit off this.

Listen, I know that a buck or two make a far bigger difference to the average Indonesian working man than they do to a gringo like me. I’m generally not going to haggle to the last dime. I’ve been happily ripped off a number of times. Haggling is unquestionably a competition, and I don’t want to lose. Usually, I’m happy with a tie, a win-win deal, but the T-shirt shops on Poppies Gang street in Kuta are snake pits. I want to win.

And I won. Shades and a T-shirt, 4 bucks. The shopkeeper and his boss were clearly unhappy with the deal. I left the store and waked toward the beach to catch the sunset. For the first 100 yards of the walk, through the gauntlet of shady T-shirt and sunglasses and jewelry and towel shops, not a single tout tried to get me into their store. Victory.

Wish I could have said the same regarding the Aussie girl, but I never saw her. More so, I wish I could say the same regarding the Swedish girls I met at the club that night.

I also wrote a little bit about fashion in Bali on my other blog. The link is here.

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