Sunday, June 1, 2008

7 Days in Bali (Day 1)

Day 1 in Bali

I arrived in Bali just before 11am on a Qantas flight from Australia. The Ngurah Rai airport was noticeably quieter and more organised than it used to be a few years ago. There were no delays through customs, although the baggage was VERY slow off the plane. Money changers at the airport were giving atrocious rates, as usual.

There were only a handful of porters offering to take bags, willing to accept a refusal rather than insisting on snatching the bags out of your grip, as used to be the case. There were also surprisingly few drivers and porters outside the airport. Gone was the noisy, crushing, sweating throng of people. Instead, there was an almost orderly procession from the arrivals hall to waiting buses and taxis. I noticed a Dunkin' Donuts outside the airport - didn't recall that being there before.

I joined a number of others gathered up by a Tour East representative and climbed into a small van that was to transfer us to our respective hotels. A pleasant young man named Jana introduced himself as the Tour East guide.Tour desk at Bakung's Beach Cottages He told us he came from Tabanan, west of Denpasar. He had a set patter for newcomers, complete with the usual welcomes and warnings (including, now, warnings about money changers). Whatever school of tourist English he trained at, he seems to have been told to preface every sentence with "Well sir", whether or not he was addressing males or females, singular or plural. We were collectively told "Well sir, welcome to Bali", "Well sir, enjoy your stay", and so on.

We arrived at my hotel ("Well sir, we are now arrive at the hotel"), which turned out to be a fairly dismal and tired sort of place. This was the Bakung's Beach Cottages, mis-named, it seemed, because the rooms were in blocks rather than cottages. All rooms were "standard", I was told, after complaining that my assigned room was small, dirty and smelly and asking for an upgrade.Superior room at Bakung's Beach Cottages. Basic accommodation for budget travellers I was moved to another similarly dismal room to prove the point that all rooms were indeed "standard", or, rather, SUB-standard. When I complained that the fridge did not work I was asked to wait in my room for the "boy" who was finishing his makan siang (lunch). I waited two hours before marching crossly to Reception and threatening to get Qantas to take the miserable establishment off their hotels list if something wasn't done about the room quality. As if by magic a non-standard "superior" room was produced and all my gear was moved for the third time.

After a snooze, I ventured out for a stroll along Jalan Kartika Plaza to Kuta Square. It seemed to me that there were many more internet cafes than there were 12 months ago, but that the shops and their range of merchandise were pretty much the same. Perhaps there are a few more upmarket shops just before the Ramayana Hotel, and there are certainly more horse-drawn carriages in front of the hotel, with the smell just as foul.

I got a rate of 4725rp to the Oz dollar. 4850 is the highest I saw on the streets. I observed Jana's dictum not to change money in small shops - "Well sir, better changing money in the big money changer" - because I was less likely to be the victim of a scam at a bigger establishment.

I returned to the hotel and chatted with the two staff members who ran the tour desk. One of them, Gede, offered to teach me REAL Balinese, a language quite different from Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia. Balinese, like Bahasa Indonesia, is a member of the Austronesian language family, but has its own vocabulary and grammar. Garden view from 3rd floor room, Bakung's Beach Cottages It is spoken all over Bali and on nearby Nusa Penida, Lombok, and parts of East Java. There are at least two distinct dialects on Bali, a "Lowland" form and the so-called "Highland" Bali spoken on Nusa Penida (Bali Aga). The separation between the main island and Nusa Penida forms may have something to do with the differing influences of the Majapahit Empire on the region.

Most of the citizens of Bali speak both Bahasa Indonesia, which is taught in the schools and is the language of government and commerce, and Balinese. Gede wrote down six useful words and expressions in Balinese, promising that he would give me six new words each day.

Good morning ... Rahajeng semeng

Thank you ... Matur suksume

How much...? ... Aji kude...?

Expensive ... mael

Cheap ... mudah

Do you bargain? ... Dadi tawah?

I went back to my room with the intention of practising my new lexicon in the shower. I soon discovered that the "superior" room, although equipped with hot and cold running water, does not allow you to mix the two. You can choose to have a shower with hot water, or a shower with cold water, but nothing in between. No amount of fiddling with the taps will give you a warm shower. And if you want to clean your teeth over the handbasin you actually have to stand on top of the toilet to use the basin. The bathroom architect had clearly concluded that westerners either used bathrooms to ablute or to wash, not both.

Ah well, at least there is television. Forget it. The only channels, fuzzily available after tedious adjustments to the indoor antenna, are Indonesian language. So I drifted off watching the Indonesian news in Indonesian. I observed, in a somnolent daze, that Indonesian TV news is essentially about conferences of various kinds occurring across the archipelago. Each news story is in the same format. It begins with shots of the audience, most of whom sit fanning themselves with bits of paper listening to a politician / army general / academic at a podium, followed by clips of some ritual like the cutting of a ribbon, the handing out of diplomas or the pinning of medals on the chests of representatives of the citizenry. The story usually closes with an interview with the politician / general / academic concerned and then moves on to the next conference of self-fanning attendees.

I soon fell asleep in front of this riveting entertainment, ready for my first real day of Bali tomorrow.

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