A Whirlwind Trip to Asia, Part 1: Bali, Indonesia

The immediate question most people had upon telling them I was going to Indonesia was, “Why?”  Of course, my first answer is always “Why not?” and my second answer is usually “Hashing!” See the world, meet new people, go for a run, sing silly songs, and drink copious amounts of beer. The great thing about hashing is it allows travelers to get off the beaten path, which sometimes means literally getting lost in the woods, but it’s always guaranteed to be a good story nonetheless.

Every other year, a country hosts World Interhash, an intimate gathering of just a few thousand hashers from around the globe. As with InterAmericas Hash (why I went to the Pacific Northwest last year), the location rotates based on votes, and this time it would be in Bali, Indonesia. This would be my first trip to Interhash and first trip to anywhere in Asia. My only prior knowledge of Bali had come from (don’t judge me…) reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” book about a decade ago. Don’t worry, I’m not going to Bali to pretend like I’m on some kind of “spiritual journey.” (Bali seems like a magnet for these people. I went too far down the YouTube rabbit hole and ended up on a video by some girl who was in Bali to do a juice fast and get colonics… I could not click away fast enough.)

Since I’m a regular person with a 40-hour a week job, my vacation hours are precious! Because I have other trips to take this year, we’d have to cram as much as possible into four days in Bali. Ready? Go!

Day 1, May 19, 2016

The trip actually started on Tuesday night (5/17), with an inauspicious omen — we received notice that our plane had been struck by lightning in Fort Lauderdale, and therefore would not be arriving in Jacksonville to shuttle us off to New York in time for our connecting flight to the other side of the planet.

Almost nothing will send a traveler into panic mode faster than knowing you’re going to miss a plane (only thing worse is losing your passport… or maybe your hotel room catching on fire, like what happened to me in Italy). JetBlue was incredibly accommodating; after putting us on all new flights, they gave us both a meal voucher as well as a credit for a free one-way flight somewhere. Devon used his bard skills (+3 charisma) to score us upgraded seats on the ride to NYC and then an exit row on the 15-hour trip to Guangzhou. The secret to sleeping on a long-haul flight seems to be a dose of ZzzQuil. I fell asleep shortly after takeoff and woke up feeling so fresh and so clean~clean with only an hour left to go until landing.

During the layover in Guangzhou, I discovered that disposable face wipes can also be used to clean your entire body if you’re desperate (and grimy) enough. Food in the airport was sparse, and I was immediately intimidated by a Starbucks menu entirely in Mandarin. Devon managed to navigate the language barrier (+2 intelligence) and get me a veggie club sandwich from a food kiosk. The flight to Bali was pretty uneventful. We arrived at 1:00am local time — about 10 hours later than we’d originally planned — so we missed all of Thursday’s festivities.

The great thing about Indonesia is if you’re staying for less than 30 days they issue you a “visa on arrival” which doesn’t cost anything. Currency exchange is amusing, since US $100 is equal to about 1,000,000 (yes, one million) Indonesian rupiah. I’ve never been a millionaire before! We bought sim cards for our phones and grabbed a taxi to Sanur beach.

As soon as the cab pulled away from the airport, the first thing to greet us was a human body sprawled out in the middle of the road by a wrecked scooter. The most disturbing thing about it wasn’t the fact that it was a potentially/probably dead person, it was the body just… there… with cars passing by as if it was normal road debris. The cab driver said these kinds of accidents happen all the time, since owning a car is prohibitively expensive for the average Balinese person. (It wasn’t surprising to see an entire family of four riding together on a single scooter… in sandals or barefoot, without helmets.) Traffic in Indonesia goes on the left-hand side of the road, but much like in Europe, scooter drivers seem to go wherever they want, and lanes/speed limits are only suggestions.

When we arrived at the Sanur Paradise Plaza Hotel, we thought our travel woes were finished — but wait, there’s more! Even though Devon called the hotel from NYC to confirm our reservation and let them know we’d be arriving late, our reservation could not be found… it appeared that they gave our room away. At this point we were both tired to the point of delirium, so I was about to just sleep on the couch in the lobby. The manager said that despite what our confirmation email was showing, there was nothing he could do about it tonight, because they were fully booked. About the best we could do was spend the night at their other hotel (2km away, but fortunately, they provided a shuttle for us) and come back the following morning to check in at the beach hotel. As compensation, they upgraded us to a 3 bedroom suite for the night.

It was a bit overkill since the suite was bigger than most of the apartments I’ve had, with upstairs and downstairs common areas, plus 3 full bathrooms and a full kitchen. It seemed like a waste since it was just Devon and me and we wouldn’t even be there a full night, as it was now approaching 3:00am. We showered, slept for the remainder of the night, then watched the sun rise from the balcony.

Day 2, May 20, 2016

Friday morning’s breakfast was a welcome break after 2 days in transit (I missed all the food on our long flight because I was sleeping, and the previous night’s “dinner” was a can of Pringles from the Denpasar airport). Afterward, we schlepped our luggage back to the other hotel, where the manager was super apologetic about the whole mess up, and upgraded us to a poolside room with a king bed. It turned out to be a much better accommodation than the original room I’d reserved, so I reckon it was worth the minor inconvenience. When he said “poolside,” he was not kidding! You could stumble out the door and into the pool. The bed was comfortable, the air conditioning was frosty, and the bathroom was completely outdoors (surrounded by a high privacy wall). So fancy!

After getting settled in, we strolled around the corner to the Inna Grand Bali Beach Resort, which was the main venue for all of the Interhash festivities. After picking up our registration packets, grabbing a beer, and socializing for a while, we had to go back to our hotel and change into our swimsuits because our clothes were soaked through with sweat. We spent the rest of Friday at the beach, sitting in the shade, drinking some cold adult beverages (Bintang beer) and goofing off with other hashers.

The heat was an uncomfortable, sweat dripping-in-unmentionable-places experience that I’d never had before — and that was just mostly standing around in the shade! I saw so many YouTube videos of people in Bali doing things like yoga… outdoors…! And not looking like they’re going to pass out?! The humidity was so intense that I set my bathing suit outside to dry overnight, and it was still wet the next morning. If your hair behaves a certain way in humid weather, just let it happen; resistance (and hair product) is futile. It was so hot I felt like peeling off my own skin, so I wouldn’t suggest wearing make-up either. I would also highly recommend only packing the lightest, most breathable fabrics you own, or just wear your bathing suit as much as possible (and don’t forget sunscreen). I’m saying all this, and I’m from Florida. Trust me.

Day 3, May 21, 3016

Saturday is a hashing day! The group had about a dozen run sites to choose from, so a few of us picked the Sangeh monkey forest.

We had to meet around 9am to select a run site and get on the appropriate bus. The ride to Sangeh took about an hour, during which one of the locals gave us a brief Bali history lesson. Fun fact: instead of submitting to Dutch colonial rule, the Balinese royal family offed themselves in ceremonial fashion via ritual suicide (puputan). Really set a, uh, jovial mood for the day.

It was nice to observe some of the countryside beyond the tourist enclave of Sanur. It soon became very apparent how remote some parts of Bali are, since modern infrastructure seems to just disappear a few kilometers out of town. My phone lost its signal and it never came back after we left the Denpasar metro area.

Not to be outdone, the weather in the mountains somehow felt even hotter than the beach.

Actual video of the weather in Sangeh.
Actual video of the weather in Sangeh.

The run was split into short/medium/long trails, and I picked the short one. We followed shreds of colored paper which led us into the monkey forest, through rice fields, across a bridge spanning a wide gorge, along hedgerows between cow pastures, down some very steep stairs carved into a hillside, across a shallow river (SO cold and refreshing!), up some more steep stairs, through local streets, and back to the start; about 5k altogether.

After the run, we were given lunch and copious amounts of Bintang. I watched some hashers feed monkeys their leftovers, but I was mostly keeping my distance after I’d been told they will bite and steal things from you (the monkeys, not the hashers — although they do share many other behaviors, poo throwing aside). I had some great conversations with a few Aussie and Kiwi hashers, discussing travel and tattoos. (My two favorite topics!) They asked me to explain how the tipping system works in the States, but I was mostly not any help at all, because it honestly makes no sense to me, either.

It was a fun day, but being out in the sun and drinking beer had me falling asleep at dinner, so I ended up crawling into bed pretty early.

Day 4, May 22, 2016

On Sunday, we decided to skip the group trail. I wanted to find some birthday presents and souvenirs for people back home, and it seemed like Denpasar’s jewelry and fabric markets were the place to go. Since Bali does not seem to have public transportation, a few travel bloggers suggested renting a scooter or bicycle, but after the dead body incident and seeing the traffic patterns, I could not have “noped” any harder.

A friend’s Balinese wife suggested we take a cab to Pasar Badung. Immediately after we stepped out of the cab, a group of people descended on us like buzzards to fresh carrion. Amid people waving trinkets or perfume in my face and shouts of “Miss, you want to buy? Miiiiiiiisssss, you buy?” it was very difficult to get my bearings. Even after we repeatedly said, “No thank you” and walked away, one woman refused to leave us alone. I was paranoid that she was trying to have us scammed somehow. She mostly just pointed at things and asked us if we wanted to buy them. She probably thought she was doing us a favor. Eventually, we were able to lose her.

Lonely Planet’s description of Pasar Badung: “Allow yourself to get lost here and revel in the range of fruits and spices on offer. The shops lining the side streets of the market are famous for textiles.” As I looked around, the only thing I was able to revel in was the smell of garbage, and the only textiles I saw were knockoff t-shirts with misspelled English words. It turned out that most of the vendors were absent, since the market had suffered a fire recently. The former market building was now an empty, burnt out shell. Shopping was next to impossible anyway, because if I even turned to look in the direction of merchandise, someone would try to flag me down to sell something, or get right up in my face, practically shoving items up my nose. Few things activate my “GTFO” response faster than a stranger in my face, running an aggressive sales pitch.

The market (what was left of it) was an instant turnoff, so we walked around the block to Jl. Hasanuddin, a street supposedly renowned for gold and silver stores. There we did indeed find a great selection of traditional Balinese jewelry as well as modern pieces. Unfortunately, everything I’d read and was told about shopping in Bali said to “barter hard.” Having to haggle in a foreign currency with a language barrier is how I imagine poor introvert souls are tormented in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. After strolling through a few shops and being told a dainty 22k gold bangle was US$1000, I threw my hands up and we left. (Sorry mom, it really was pretty.)

You might think a “public market” would have readily available public toilets, but nope. I hoped to stumble upon a bathroom while shopping, with no luck. I briefly considered public urination. (Alternate titles for this blog post included “Eat, Pray, Pee in an Alley.”) We left the city disappointed, empty-handed, and full-bladdered. Normally I like exploring on my own, but in this case it turned into a colossal waste of time. We returned to the beach to drown our sorrows in more Bintang.

For our last night in Bali, a friend got a small group of us together for a traditional rijsttafel dinner. A Dutch word that literally translates to “rice table,” rijsttafel is a meal of traditional Indonesian dishes adopted by Dutch colonists. The whole experience started with the restaurant sending a van over to the hotel to pick us up and take us to dinner!

We were given a private dining room overlooking a stage, where performances of traditional Indonesian dances went on throughout the meal. The menu included appetizers, soup, several Indonesian dishes surrounding a cone of rice (hence “rice table”), and dessert. The whole experience ended up costing a whopping US $12 per person (before tip). Apparently tipping isn’t a common thing in Indonesia, but we left one anyway; so much money in fact, that our servers thought we’d made a mistake and tried to give half of it back. When we managed to communicate that it was for them and the dancers, everyone came into the room to thank us.

I’m pretty flexible with my diet when I travel, but there are some things I always avoid. Sometimes this can be tricky, especially with a language barrier. Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems in Bali. The island has a predominantly Hindu population, so beef was not as ubiquitous as it is in the States (like, don’t come to Bali and expect to order a 12oz porterhouse). With Indonesia overall being a majority Muslim country, dishes containing pork were clearly labeled. (It sucks to order a plate of veggies and find a giant ham hock floating in it — that’s just me, though.)

Breakfast for me was usually something like pineapple fried rice or glass noodles with vegetables. Our Interhash registration fees covered lunches while out on trail, plus dinners each night. Saturday’s lunch was a plate of steamed corn, some kind of potato, and sticky rice balls with sweet chili sauce (everyone else had fried chicken). Dinners included a variety of traditional Indonesian dishes that rotated every night. It was meat-heavy overall, but easy for me to fill up on tofu, vegetables, rice, and fruit. Speaking of fruit; one of the more amusing pieces of advice I read before the trip was “Don’t make yourself sick bingeing on exotic tropical fruit”… Yes, I ate so many “exotic” fruits like… bananas and mangoes. Unless you’re one of those people who thinks ketchup is a vegetable, there is no reason I can see to worry about getting sick from fruit as long as you peel it first.

Single serving water. Sometimes they were recycled as beer cups.

However, drinking the tap water sounds like playing gastrointestinal roulette, so I avoided it. The hash organizers were constantly handing out child-sized, individually sealed cups of water — but that seemed really inefficient, not to mention wasteful (so much plastic!) when the Bintang beer was free flowing. We sometimes recycled the water cups into beer cups. Since the temperatures were sweltering, it felt like I was always chugging beer, which really could have ended poorly if it had a higher alcohol content. One drink I actually refused was a liquor called arak, after reading about some tourists going blind because they got into a batch that was cut with methanol. From what I was told about its production, arak sounds like something you’d find brewing somewhere in rural Appalachia.

I wish I’d had more time to spend in Bali, but we got to see quite a bit for the short while we were there. Denpasar was kind of exhausting, but I thought the beaches at Sanur and the countryside around Sangeh were beautiful. I think due to the high concentration of English-speaking expats, I was led to believe that the locals speak more English than they actually do. Outside of the tourist areas, most people we encountered only knew enough English to sell something — with the exception of one Balinese girl who just talked my ear off and wanted to know my entire life story. It’s pretty easy to see why the island has such a draw for westerners; everything is cheap, the terrain is lovely, and the people are super friendly.

Part 2 of my trip was a 20 hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan. I’m saving that for a separate post.

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