Friday, October 13, 2006

Back to Bali: Bombs, cocktails and surfers

BALI, 04 December 2005 - I managed to hop over to Bali for a few days last week in order to both soothe my metro madness and also to see how the old island was faring after the recent bombings. Lion Air did the honors for about Rp 900,000 return, which is pretty good value, I guess, although anyone hovering around the six-foot-tall mark will have a few comfort issues to deal with when trying to squeeze into their cattle-class seats. After 90 minutes with my knees around my chin we touched down at Ngurah Rai airport in the rain and a taxi whisked me down to Legian.

Tourist numbers are perhaps down, although there seemed to be a healthy amount of people on the beach: tanning, surfing, flirting and rubbing sunscreen into their firm, pert, young ... erm ...right. Anyway, a quick evening burn down to the main Kuta strip accompanied by my trusty South African housemate and valet proved interesting. I've always marveled at the sheer density of tourist-related businesses in Bali, around the Kuta area in particular. There are simply millions of them. It would take several years to have a meal and a drink in every bar or restaurant. I've never been able to work out how all of these places manage to survive at the best of times, let alone in a post-terror slump.

However, far from being run-down, Bali's restaurants and bars are increasingly more stylish and chic. Most of them have been here for years but a gradual process of renovation and improvement is transforming them from spit and sawdust backpacker boozers into nouveau yuppie fashion fests.

Down at Kuta ground zero there is still a huge space where the Sari Club stood and opposite that there is a monument to the bomb victims. Apart from that though, it's business as usual. Slump or no slump, there'll always be enough tourists to fill out the bars in the densely packed, central area around the ex-Sari. The aging Bounty Club is still doing a roaring trade plying highly inflammable, local Mansion House cocktails to tanned and tipsy Australians. If there was ever a bomb outside the Bounty, the volume of Mansion House in the place would probably cause it to go sky high.

Anyway, pressing on with our travelogue, my Springbok colleague and I settled down at the bar and plumped for the least disagreeable drink on offer: Mansion House vodka mixed with Hero-brand pineapple and coconut syrup and a dash of napalm, all served in a huge goldfish bowl. We scanned the bar. Yes, it's still packed in downtown Kuta after dark. There can't be many places in the world where you can find yourself standing at a urinal next to a man in flip-flops, a sarong, some kind of skydiving crash helmet and an "Osama Don't Surf" T-shirt. I zipped up and headed back to the bar. Everyone was trashed. Young bules on holiday are a fearsome prospect; there must be more booze consumed on this 100-meter strip of street in Kuta every evening than there is in the whole of the rest of Indonesia combined.

Several MH cocktails later we staggered into Kuta's current busiest club, which is situated right next door to the Bounty, again just next to ground zero. I could hardly see the bugger as the Mansion House was beginning to affect my optic nerves, but my comrade told me the place was called, "M Bar Go" (I bet they gave themselves a pat on the back after coming up with that name). We partied until dawn with a packed club full of Australian surfers, Japanese hipsters, rich Jakartan flipsters and some really quite jaded looking local ladies of the night.

The next day we headed down to Jimbaran, a pleasant beach just south of the airport. I was sad when I heard that Jimbaran had been bombed as it's a chilled out and friendly little place: a beach containing a promenade of seafood restaurants with tables and chairs in the sand and a nice calm, surfless strip of sea to swim in. It's a great place to go if you're after an easy to reach break from the hurly-burly of Kuta.

A waiter that we met there had just got out of the hospital after the blast, which had apparently embedded a load of ball bearings in the poor guy. It wasn't as big a blast as the first Bali bombing, but 11 corpses lying on the beach sure ain't good for business. And what has happened to Bali's business since the second bombings? Well, as if in answer to Mr. Noordin Top and his proto-Hamas gang of jihaders, Air Paradise, Bali's low-cost air link to Australia, recently announced that it was ceasing operations, which will surely be a substantial blow to tourism on the island. Any more bomb attacks would, in my estimate, presage a permanent downsizing of Bali's tourist industry.

Are more bombs likely though? Unfortunately, what with Indonesian fundamentalists making Palestinian-style guns-and-balaclava suicide videos and terrorist websites instructing locals how to be bule snipers and take out westerners as they cross pedestrian bridges on Jl. Sudirman, I wouldn't bet against it. Tourism in Bali probably also hasn't been helped by the central government's short-sighted scrapping of the free visa on arrival policy in favor of a reduced period visa that has to be paid for.

At the end of the day though, the Balinese probably have it better than Indonesians who live on the breadline in Lampung or East Java, for example. At least you've got a chance with tourism. There are problems, sure, but tourism is a pretty egalitarian industry in comparison with the other forces of global capitalism that buffet the poor of this country. Tourism provides a true trickle-down economy in which the money goes straight from the tourists to the locals without being sidetracked by corrupt officials. Here's hoping the Island of the Gods manages to weather the storm and continues to induce life-threatening hangovers in tourists for many years to come.

Simon Pitchforth