Ubud, for me at least, was a living hell. For my birthday I did nothing at all because I didn't like the expensive hotel and I didn't like the crowds who are funnelled to the place looking for enlightenment and tourist tat. I walked through a small market selling enlightenment and tourist tat, and for a while, the narrow street was held up by a westerner lying down across the entire width of the street to photograph a sleeping dog. He wore a green boiler suit and cowboy boots (it's magnificently hot and humid, remember), a bandanna, his hair in a bun and his beard was festooned with beads. Everything about him said “Look at me, I'm pretty awesome and different and cool and if you won't look at me then I'll lie down in a narrow street to force a crowd to wonder who I am.” You don't need to do all that to photograph a dog. I've photographed dogs. You point the camera, click the button on the top, and you have a picture of a dog. He was a twat and I'd had enough. In the morning, I would catch the bus to the seaside.
There was no bus to the seaside. Or rather, I was the only person who wanted to go to Amed where my madly cheap place was, so no bus. A taxi was half a million and it would be almost a million to get a taxi back to Denpasar (a million is what, 70 euros or 75 dollars, ish). A change of plan was conceived. There's an island in the south east called Lembongan. It's in the right direction. Half a million would get me to the port, on the boat, back on the boat to the mainland. Then it would be cheap to get to Denpasar, and hey, I'd get a boat ride. And I found a place on the island that was also madly cheap. I cancelled the Amed place, got the Lembongan place, and bought my ticket to an island for the following morning.
An hour after the bus should have arrived, I was still sitting in the heat of the hotel I didn't like. Would Ubud be the last place I'd ever see? Was it my own personal purgatory? No, the bus arrived and I got on it.
It wasn't a bus exactly. It was a minivan with no A/C and some travellers who looked like they might be dead. I got in and we drove around and around Ubud, forcing more people into the hot tin can of Doom. We drove past the hotel three times and it was the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave...
“Are you going to Lembongan Island too?” I asked of the girl next to me. I wanted an answer before she slipped into a coma. “No, the airport,” she said.
Ahh. I had paid the hotel guy half a million and received a small damp piece of paper which the driver never looked at. How, exactly, would I end up on an island?
Mysteriously, he stopped at a port and took me into an office and the girl stuck a sticky label on my chest and the driver drove his limp damp death-defying travellers away. Ten minutes later my bags were grabbed and I had to chase after them. I have one enormous bag full of wedding clothes and snow gear, and one bag which I never, ever, EVER, let out of my sight. I ran after it, then I was put in the back of a trailer and transported along a bouncing road to a boat. My wedding clothes bag was carried into the sea...
Slightly useful travelling tip. If you're going on a boat, wear swimming gear. Boats float. You have to walk into the sea to get to it. I did that and found a seat and for 30 minutes we smacked and bounced at great speed toward Lembongan, powered by 5 car-engine-sized outboard motors. The up and down smacking wasn't too bad. The rolling to the side, where all you can see is water at the left windows and sun at the right windows, was disturbing.
At the other side I was impressed to still be alive, and even more impressed that my sticky label was there to inform a driver where I was staying. Me and several others were dropped off in an assortment of huts and dingly dells and fields and holes in the ground. I was the last of them, and my hole in the ground turned out to be a very pleasant room in the middle of a field. It had A/C, a fan, a bed, a cold water shower outside and a sort of toilet! What more could I ask? Well, electricity would have been nice.
It gets dark very quickly in these southern latitudes – there is almost no twilight – and without electricity I wasn't sure what to do about the situation. The owners had informed me that they were away for a few days and I didn't know where I was. I had lights, but no socket power, no A/C, no fan. I wondered if a fuse had blown. Beyond my porch light there was darkness.
I ventured forth and followed the sound of humans. The town, such that it is, was oddly dark, but not completely dark. There were lights but not many.
A quick chat with a local told me that the power to the island stops when it's windy, or raining, or there's an R in the month, or if it's dark, or if anyone admits to liking bananas. The lights of town were from generators, as was my porch light. I grabbed food, where I was told all about the problems of power and how I should really hire a motorbike and go to the other island. There's a bridge where recently 10 people died and 90 people didn't, and I should go there. On a motorbike.
I like power cuts, actually. Facebook seems to think that social media brings people together, but it doesn't. We all see groups of people studying their phones and never speaking. But in a power cut, everyone talks to each other. There's a wartime camaraderie that transcends even battery-powered connectivity and the noise of a generator is the music that we dance to. People cheered when the power came back. They laughed when it went off again. They cheered when once more, the generator could be turned off and we all went back to being strangers.
I returned to the room and a good night's sleep on the hardest bed I've ever slept in. Slept on.
I had four nights in the cheap room and I loved it. It cost 48 euros for 4 nights and it was better than the expensive hotel in Ubud. The locals were friendly, the tourists weren't looking for themselves, didn't hold up traffic to photograph dogs, and Ratih who owned the place was gentle and kind. On my last full day I had my birthday treat at last. I signed up for a snorkelling trip.
I was a little nervous about it actually. The sea has been choppy, I last snorkelled over 25 years ago and I rarely swim. Looking at the sea from the beach suggests it contains nothing at all. Every reason, then, to go snorkelling.
It was about 40 euros for a boat trip to 3 places, then all the food we could eat and a bonus boat trip through the mangrove forest. Sign me up!
A guy collected me the next morning and we drove on an unmade road along the beach to a very pleasant location, where I was given fried banana and a coconut drink that looked like the final moments of harvesting DNA – a kind of white glutinous...gloop. After half an hour of waiting for others we set off in a boat and were given instruction – very good instruction, I have to say – on snorkel-related themes, and then we fell over backwards into the water. And there, despite my previous doubts, was coral and tropical fish and things swimming too bright and numerous to mention. At one site there were Finding Nemo clown fish, some fish under a boat so menacingly huge I swore when I saw the first one. Swearing with a snorkel in your mouth is a bit like having a cleft palate, but I couldn't help it. They were monstrous fish. The coral was healthy and covered in large blue starfish and all kinds of aquatic whatnot. A lone sea turtle flapped by. I dived as deep as I could, and it was all less life-threatening than the hot bus from Ubud.
It was a good day. Even the slow float through the mangrove forest was oddly charming.
The following morning it rained as I've never seen it rain before, and nobody came to collect me for the 12:30 boat back to Bali. I made my own way to the port and got on the 4pm.
And now I find myself in the last port of call in Bali – a very cheap place on the outskirts of Denpasar, the capital. It is not at all scenic here, but the room cost 105 euros for 7 nights. The room is huge, with the finest shower a tired human being could ever want, and the softest bed I've slept in since I lived in France. There's a real desk for my laptop so no more burning my leg by resting it on my lap. Free coffee all day long and the guy downstairs will even cook a good meal at a good price. I wanted this time for work, and it is perfect. While I'm away I'm writing a sequel to The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey, because people liked the first one and I enjoyed writing it, and hopefully, if there's time, the sequel to The Midlife of Dudley Chalk. That's a much bigger undertaking, so we shall see if I can get at least a working first draft done.
Next stop, Kuala Lumpur, which happens on February 8th. I shall keep you posted.
Slovenia, writing, other things