There are three small birds sitting in a kind of fir tree. I don't know what the birds are but they are soundless, small, and are the colour of cappuccino, with a milky breast. They are simply looking at me. I can hear the sound of a waterfall gently plopping into a pool. I'm wondering if the screeching sound is monkeys.
It is my birthday today. I have not been given monkeys as a present – as far as a I know even people who are not 58 today are being plagued by monkey sounds – but I have taken it upon myself to get a room in a rather nice hotel on Monkey Forest Road, Ubud, Bali. It is terribly hot. I'm getting through T-shirts the way you get through tissues when you have a cold. They are collecting in damp piles in corners of various hotel rooms up and down the island. Soon I'll have to find a laundry (of which there are many).
I arrived in Bali on Friday the 13th of January, just to make sure that good luck was on my side, after a long flight from a London that was toying with snow. An Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the history of flight, took me to Dubai, and then a plane that wasn't the largest in the world but still pretty impressive took me to Bali. When I got out of the airport I wondered why I had packed for snow.
Yes, dear reader, I am one of the few people on the the island who will look pretty comfy in a snowstorm and I hold out hope that any time soon the monkeys on Monkey Forest Road will suddenly look up and say...so that's what snow looks like! It might happen. I hope it does or all this cold weather clothing is just dead weight I'm lugging around in 30 degree heat and 100% humidity.
I left Slovenia mid-December packed for three trips. I had Christmas in London (quite cold), then a wedding in Poland where I landed in a snow storm after circling Polish skies waiting for them to plough the runways. Then I headed off for the equator. My bag is packed for Santa in Oxford Street, my son's wedding in snowy Sopot, Poland, and monkey-strewn humidity.
I had no ticket to Bali when I left Slovenia. All I knew was that London at Christmas would be wonderful, and my son's wedding would be something I would remember for ever. I'd get to London, enjoy it, then find my way down to darkest Kent and stay with my brother for a while. I knew things would be okay when I bought a bus ticket to Kent, not knowing if I'd find a local bus to my brother's house on Boxing Day. I didn't need to worry. The bus driver from London Victoria was my nephew Nathan, who, in the summer, had been an estate agent. He dropped off the bus and took me right to my brother's door, where he lives. There were no local buses that day, so the Universe was on my side.
I had no ticket to Bali but upon visiting a random travel agent in Dover, the girl gave me a good price, I gave her my details, and she turned out to be my niece’s sister-in law. Family, it seemed, were all over this story.
I had read about the complexities of Indonesian Immigration (outstay your welcome and you'll be imprisoned) but it was a simple affair.
"How long are you staying?"
"Twenty seven days."
I think it's when you leave they clap you in irons.
Outside I was hit by the humidity of a balmy 11pm and taken by pre-arranged taxi to a small hotel about 10km south of the airport in a place called Jimbaran. I settled in, I fell asleep, I woke up to the start of four months of travel around Bali and Malaysia. I pulled on shorts and t-shirt and hid away the clothes I'd needed for Polish snow.
Jimbaran is near the airport and only seems to get passing trade. Tourists head south to Kuta or north to – everywhere else. I stayed for a week. It has a long beach and while it's not the kind of beach that cubicle hell office workers pin to their flimsy walls, it affords a very long, slightly messy walk in the mornings and a chance to get a base tan without too many people staring. For me, a week in Jimbaran was a good start. I adjusted to the time difference (when I get up, for my friends it's still yesterday). I adjusted to the money (I'm not paying 10 thousand for that! Oh, ten thousand is 70 cents.) I adjusted to the heat and the humidity. Okay, I began adjusting. It's still a bit like living in a sauna.
One thing I loved about Jimbaran is a road called Raya Uluwatu. Imagine everything in the world with the possible exception of whales and snowballs. Shove it all into one street and sprinkle it with a coating of rubbish, then fill it with motorbikes and dig up the pavement. What you have is Raya Uluwatu. Every step you take has to be carefully considered. Shall I step into a hole, get hit by a motorbike, or wonder what on earth this shop is selling? You can't do all three, you have to choose. At one point I chose to watch a man on a scooter carrying two small children and two dogs. One dog got off to have a pee, then it hopped back on and off they went. The rules that not more than 15 family members and 12 pieces of furniture are allowed per scooter seem to be flaunted on Raya Uluwatu.
My first impression of Bali was mess. Everywhere is mess. In the morning, every dwelling has a little ritual to give the house and its occupants good luck. They place baskets of leaves filled with small offerings of food, sweeties, perhaps a cigarette, a flower or two and burning joss sticks. It's lovely, and fuels the new-age traveller with a feeling of harmony and tranquillity. About half an hour later it just gets scooped up into the ever-growing pile of crap that litters absolutely everything. Rats eat it. Dogs eat it. Cats eat it. It isn't the snow for which I am sartorially prepared, but it drifts in a similar way and gives the whole place a coating of...crap.
I didn't like it at first, but after a week I began to embrace a culture knee deep in junk. It's artful. It is bad the way that Pavarotti was fat. I saw a very pretty girl on a moped, as beautifully dressed as any Balinese girl could be. She finished her drink and simply dropped the polystyrene cup, letting it bounce and roll and become part of Bali's perma-crap. And in this alternative version of recycling, the Balinese people are incredibly happy. They seem to have little – at least the ones who peddle their wares in Raya Uluwatu – but from the heaps of junk that surround them they smile, constantly. They smile at me. All of them. Yes, most of them want to sell something, but the ones who aren’t selling seem to to think that smiling and saying hello is the best thing ever. I smile back. "Good morning to you and your spectacular pile of discarded plastic," I say, and they clasp their hands together and wish me happiness and good fortune.
After a week I took a guided tour that ended up where I was heading next – Ubud. The tour involved batik, traditional Indonesian art, and civet-shit coffee. It's true. I saw not only the civets but the shit that is so lovingly collected.
Let me be a little more factual. Civets, a kind of weasely creature, eat the coffee beans. Only the best best, mind you. Civets are choosy. Having eaten the beans, they partly digest them and then crap out the rest. The actual bean is unharmed by the most determined of civet bowel movements and the plucky harvesters scoop it up, process it, and make coffee! I drank some and then was invited to buy some. Frankly, it tastes like it's been shat from a civet. The people at the plantation seemed saddened by my not buying some. Where had they gone wrong, they wondered. I think involving civets in the process might be a place to start looking.
Ubud is a town writ large on the tourist map and contains the afore-mentioned monkeys. From an anthropological viewpoint, the monkeys are just part of the family of man that ends up here. I read that it's a bit like Sedona in Arizona; a place of crystals and alternative lifestyle. This concerned me because I've been to Sedona and I didn't like it. Ubud, it seemed, would not be my cup of tea. I'm here for 9 days. This is day 7. I've seen far too many westerners who insist on sitting on small mats to eat, who chose breakfast as a way of cleansing their soul, who think that being surrounded by monkeys and civet shit will stop them from looking like twats. Some of them carry heavy things on their heads because locals carry heavy things on their heads and therefore it must make them one with the universe. No, it just makes them look like twats. From what I've seen, if they are trying to find themselves they should look elsewhere, because they are only going to find an even bigger twat.
If Jimbaran was full of junk, then Ubud is full of twats. So far the junk is better.
A stroll through Ubud is a walk through a never-ending throng of people wanting to taxi you somewhere, or give you a massage. A walk through Ubud is:
"No thank you."
"No thank you."
(you get the idea.)
In two days I head east to the coast and a bit more sea and hopefully, less people who are trying to find themselves, rub me or drive me somewhere. I've found a place that is really cheap for four nights. I'm going by bus, and I half expect my nephew Nathan to be at the wheel. "Hello Uncle Pete," he'll say, oddly brown and hopefully not carrying something on his head. I'll report back.
Meanwhile, what shall I do for my birthday? Taxi? Massage? Wait patiently at the far end of a civet for my afternoon cuppa? Who knows.
[ps...Have you tried the Armchair Detective Challenge yet?]
Slovenia, writing, other things