Bali is not designed to give a pleasant first impression, especially if you arrive by plane and then, as so many tourists do, head straight to nearby Kuta Beach. Take those idyllic visions you have of shimmering white sand beaches and tubing azure waves; of rice fields and tropical fruit trees; of friendly, smiling locals and the quiet sounds of nature and leave them with the empty peanut wrappers in your seatback pocket. You won’t find them near Kuta. As I wrote in an email to my sister on the night we arrived, “Kuta is everything I hated about Morocco, only with a McDonald’s and Circle K on every corner.” It wasn’t just that I already missed Japan, I was plain sorry we even came.
Wanting to do some surfing — it had been over six years since I last paddled out into noteworthy waves — and spend a few days in a tropical beach town before heading inland, we decided to bug out of pricey Tokyo after just five days and head to Kuta, Bali. Sure, we knew it would be crowded and even a bit dirty — it’s the developing world, after all — but the shock of going straight from oh-so-polite and courteous Japan to the streets of Kuta was the most drastic cultural shift we’ve encountered on this trip. Our short stroll after dinner had us fending off myriad t-shirt peddlers and Javanese massage workers, all while dodging an unpredictable stream of motor bikes. Every taxi that passed slowed and honked. Every store we passed called out to us, “T-shirt, boss? Just one dollar, boss!” Every fifty feet, another person trying to rent me, boss, a motor bike. Boss this. Boss that. Every twenty seconds. An endless loop of attempts at grabbing my attention. Kristin was invisible. All efforts to negotiate a transaction and pry the six-figure Indonesian Rupiah notes from us were directed only to me. Politeness faded and my “No thank yous” and “Maybe tomorrows” eventually fell into silent, unfortunate rudeness. Eyes ahead, just keep walking.
Kedac, the surfing instructor I hired* for two days of private coaching, picked us up after breakfast the next morning and, after a quick glance at Kuta Beach, decided the waves were too small. We went over my surfing history by email so he felt confident in taking me forty minutes up the coast to the beach at Batu Bolong. There we paddled out into the most crowded lineup I’ve ever experienced, this coming from a guy who learned to surf at overpopulated, compact New Jersey breaks. Kedac was fantastic, constantly advising me to adjust my position a few strokes here, a couple strokes there, instantly infusing me with a season’s worth of local knowledge. I was in perfect position so many times, but the waves were too small and too slow and the board I was on was too short for my atrophied paddling muscles. Unbeknownst to me, Kedac rode a wave onto the beach and rented a 7’8″ egg from a nearby rental stand and then paddled it back out to me. I caught the very next wave I paddled into, a nice stomach-high left that seemed to stretch all the way to Java. The stoke was back! But every wave was a party wave; there was no surfing etiquette here where the number of true beginners outnumbered the veterans ten to one. Someone dropped in on me on my next wave, they fell backwards while popping up and their foam longboard shot into the air. I caught it as it hit my waist and tossed it aside as I continued my glide along the face for another fifty meters. Kedac was relieved to see me laughing off the newbie’s faux-pas.
Impressed with what he saw the first day, my jello-arms aside, Kedac felt confident in taking me to Green Balls, a more powerful reef break on the south of Bali, not far from famed Ulu Watu. This was the Bali beach of our dreams. Unlike ugly, litter-strewn Batu Bolong, Kristin would have that perfect sandy beach to lounge on while I surfed, shaded by the mouth of a basalt cave and the jungle of trees on the cliff above. Five hundred stone stairs hug the side of the cliff leading down from the parking lot to a small patch of beach. The return trip, tired after a long day of surfing, tends to keep the masses away. My sore arms and shoulders were painful to the touch and kept my side-sleeping self awake most of the night, but the faster, slightly larger waves were easier to catch and I soon found my groove. The waves peaked exactly where Kedac predicted they would and though there was a long wait between sets, I was still often in the perfect position. Three hours later, exhausted and thirsty but satisfied that my muscles remembered how to surf, I paddled in, back to the Kuta I was slowly coming to accept.
The greater Kuta Beach area is neither Paradise lost, nor found. It’s a special plot of Purgatory. On the beach at Green Balls, the Indian Ocean still dripping from my hair, I was immediately surrounded by some very haggard looking Indonesian women trying to sell me homemade bracelets and questionable alcohol. No thank you. Not now. One reached out to start touching my shoulder. Massage? I asked her to please go away through gritted teeth while my inner voice roared in frustration. She hissed and left, heading straight for the next white-skinned target.
Showered, massaged, fed, and rested, we decided to test the waters of Kuta’s hedonistic nightlife. Fifty meters from the monument dedicated to the victims of the Bali nightclub bombing, we paid the 100,000 Rupiah cover charge (two beers included in the $8 USD entry fee) to enter the club that replaced the one targeted by Islamist terrorists in 2002. Sky Garden Lounge is a sprawling cavernous place, four stories tall, with eight separate clubs and bars in one. Hundreds of Australians, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans, mostly college-aged, packed the dance floor as two bikini-clad, rock-solid, Indonesian dancers gyrated on either side of the deejay. A lone, bald, septuagenarian Aussie male in a tank top and shorts, his legs crossed femininely, watched from a bar stool with a broad, warm, reminiscent smile. Youth is indeed wasted on the young.
We climbed a staircase to a balcony overlooking the dance floor then another to a catwalk and finally reached the rooftop bar where a breeze offered refreshing comfort in this tropical sweatbox. A few cold Bintang pilsners later we decided to brave the dance floor, a most unusual decision for us. And an hour later, reeking of smoke and drenched in sweat, we made our way for the exit, passing a half-dozen Indonesian prostitutes waiting patiently for those unable to land a partner for the night. The kilometer walk back to our hotel took us past numerous prostitutes and drug dealers. How odd to be openly offered marijuana, mushrooms, and cocaine the very same day the Indonesian government executed eight foreigners for drug trafficking. But that’s Kuta for you.
We spent our final day in Kuta taking the best and ignoring the worst. I rented a board for 50,000 Rp ($4 USD) on the beach in Kuta and paddled out into the tiny, mushy, beach break that was all too reminiscent of the summertime swells I surfed with friends as a teenager. As was the crowd. Three hours later, thirsty and sunburnt, I found myself sitting on a plastic beer crate in a circle, cold beer in my hand, with a group of Indonesians who spend their days renting surfboards and selling drinks out of a cooler to tourists. They passed around a bag of singkong chips while discussing the more intimate details of Japanese, Australian, and Balinese women and together we laughed and drank until the afternoon rain started to fall. A truck would soon be by to pick up the hundreds of empty beer bottles consumed that, and every, afternoon on the beach.
The rest of the day was spent doing the things one should do in Kuta. We got another Balinese massage that afternoon, our third in three days; we enjoyed another extremely tasty and ridiculously inexpensive meal; and we had another Bintang or three at a pub on Jalan Legian. And over and over again we were asked if we wanted to buy a t-shirt or shoes or drugs. But we didn’t focus on the constant solicitation, but rather on the scents and sights of this place. For even the most derelict souvenir shop burned incense throughout the day and had fresh, flowery offerings in a lotus-shaped palm basket on the sidewalk in front of their store. The offerings of flowers and herbs and sometimes a little bit of food were replenished daily, always adding a welcome splash of color and beauty in this filthy, concrete, tourist playground.
We left Kuta on our fifth day in Bali and transferred inland to the cultural, yoga-centric town of Ubud; real Bali, the marketing brochures proclaim. Kuta may not have been the Bali of our dreams, but it’s still Bali. And to skip it entirely would be every bit a mistake as to never leave it.
*I first filled out a request for intermediate coaching from the highly-rated Pro Surf School but, being as I was only one person and not a beginner they punted my inquiry over to Kedac at Blue Ocean Surf Guiding. Kedac charged $40 USD for a half-day private instruction, including board, leash, rash guard, and transport. He also made sure to get Kristin and I bottles of water and some snacks after each session. I’d certainly hire him again, even if just for the transport and board rental though it was very helpful having someone share locals-only advice throughout the session.
Special Thanks: Continued thanks to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc., for their ongoing support of our trip. We’re currently formulating our plans for the rest of this year and though we haven’t any finalized plans to share just yet, we are going to be back on our bikes sooner than we originally thought! Details coming in the next newsletter!