The fish watches me as I scoop the floating cempaka and frangipani flowers out of the tub so I can shower. I don’t know why this particular koi always swims over to observe me as I bathe. I know it’s the same fish; it’s the only one the color of guava and the size of a papaya in the little stream that wraps around our villa. Lacking a grasp of the intricacies of piscine optics, I question if it can really even see me. Does it smell me? Does it expect me to feed it? I wonder these things as the water warms and I step down into the jungle-lined tile bathtub. The koi stays until I’ve returned the bar of lemongrass soap to the scallop shell, the miniature cannonball of botanical shampoo to its basket, and begin drying my hair. Without fail, the koi is always gone before the towel hits the rack. I’m going to miss having fish join me in the bathroom.
Back in the spring of 2003, the first edition of a not-so-little book titled 1,000 Places to See Before You Die was released. We found the book, which has since morphed into an entire line of similarly-themed volumes, to be a huge disappointment. While 1,000 Places did contain plenty of noteworthy landmarks, festivals, parks, and monuments, it also contained a preponderance of hotels. The more time we spent paging through the book, the more we regretted the purchase. In our minds, especially back then at the budget-conscious age of 27, the hotel was just a means to an end, little more than a place to brush one’s teeth, store a suitcase, and, if all went well, fall asleep next to a special someone. We’ve stayed in nice hotels, both before and since buying the book, but never have we thought of a hotel as a destination we were glad to have visited before we died. Until now.
The international terminal at Bali’s Denpasar airport lacks the exotic fragrance of incense and flowers that envelops the inter-island side of the facility. I held my breath as I made my way along the jetway in effort to better inhale a mighty whiff of that tantalizing Balinese scent, only to have my lungs fill with stale, air-conditioned air once at the gate. This was my first, biggest, and last disappointment of our five-night stay in Canggu.
Getting anywhere on the southwest coast of Bali takes time. Cars and trucks jockey for position along the two-lane roads as thousands of motorcycles and scooters wend their way through the congestion. Parades of scooters take to the crumbling sidewalks and motorcycles slip through on the center-line as all four-wheeled traffic grinds to a halt. The Hotel Tugu Bali, located within sight of a prime Bali surf break, was a mere twenty kilometers away, little more than twelve miles from the airport, but the drive takes nearly ninety minutes in midday traffic. The hotel’s driver, Wayan, greeted our delayed flight from Singapore, ushered us to his leather-clad Toyota SUV, and promptly handed us bottles of water, ice-cold washcloths for refreshment, and a delicious platter of fresh tropical fruit. If nature contains a more brilliant shade of purple than that of a fresh dragonfruit, I have not seen it.
We walked the lengthy, candle-lit, wooden walkway to a massive greatroom of traditional design with a soaring pyramidal ceiling. Two individual pots of coffee were brought for us to enjoy while our passports were being copied, the credit card swiped. Then it was tour time with Pande. First stop, the Red Room featuring a 300-year old Chinese temple that had been disassembled and reconstructed inside this blood-red room; the hotel owner wanting to save it from the wrecking ball of Chinese progress. Beneath the temple was a table that could seat sixteen or more; we took our dinner there alone that night, under the temple. Original artwork of Balinese kings line the walls of this room and the other across the wooden walkway.
The room facing the red room contains the largest single-slab marble table in Indonesia, a cannon left over from the revolution against the Dutch, and two intricately carved chairs that used to belong to the king of East Bali. Numerous other artwork and portraits in this room belonged to other regional kings of “Old Bali.” Back in the greatroom, where all traces of our bags and coffee had since disappeared, we were told the story of the thirty-foot wooden Garuda statue that dominated the platform stage in the middle of the room. The largest Indonesian carving from a single piece of wood, the Garuda was found lying in a woodcarver’s yard in Ubud, its original purchaser having had to cancel as the statue was simply too big for the government building it was acquired for. The owner of Hotel Tugu Bali had it brought to Canggu, ordered the walkway and entrance to the greatroom disassembled to allow it entry, and hired fifty men to carry it inside.
The tour continued across the grounds. The hotel has just 22 rooms, each of them spacious, with private outdoor entry, and set up as a collection of villas. Rock-lined channels with miniature sculpted waterfalls line the pebble-embedded pathways that massage your feet as you walk. Dozens of koi swim past wherever you go. Tropical flowering trees and shrubs combine with Hindu statues and torches and a miniature temple to envelop the grounds and create the feeling of private seclusion in a tamed jungle, despite a road and other buildings not being very far away. There is an herbalist shack, a barber in the bale that used to be a former Balinese king’s bedroom, the spa, and the public pool with several fountains flowing into it. It’s all very nice.
We finally reach our home for the next five nights. Inside the gate we pass numerous koi in a channel that wraps around the villa and terminates in our open-air semi-enclosed bathroom. The guestroom is massive. Over twenty-feet square with a massive teak king bed that has six linen curtains that can be closed around it. The tile floor is cool to the touch, the furniture comfortable, spacious, and high quality. One wall consists entirely of windows, looking through to the flower-lined plunge pool that is ours alone. There are too many other niceties to mention without boring you, if I hadn’t already, not the least of which was the daily refills of incense, the scented candles that illuminated our bathroom at night, and the daily poems and notes that were left after the thrice-daily cleanings.
Whereas most of the three hundred hotels we’ve visited in the past two years were chosen based on price, we selected Hotel Tugu Bali in spite of its cost. As you might remember, we kicked off our previous stay in Bali with three nights in dirty, congested, raucous, Kuta. It was during that stay that a surfing guide brought me to Batu Bolong, a prime surf spot on Bali’s southwest shore, about forty minutes up the coast from Kuta. Batu Bolong can be crowded, but it’s got a great vibe, little development along the beach, and a parking lot near the temple with a beach bar, café, and multiple stalls to rent surfboards all in sight of the waves. Hotel Tugu Bali, as I saw online, was in the sweet spot, steps from the channel where we paddled out on my visit in April. Our credit card didn’t stand a chance.
Exhausted from the heat and the stress of getting our bicycles shipped home from Singapore, we were content to spend our first night indoors, tucked into the feathery nest of a bed. Only I couldn’t sleep as the sound of the surf kept me awake. It sounded big. Fast. It would be over my head, in more ways than one.
We took our breakfast on a grassy lot overlooking the beach, feasting our eyes on the surf, our teeth on the fresh fruit and eggs benedict. November surf wasn’t like the April waves I rode here last time. The tide was coming in and the waves were breaking with power. The lineup was crowded and tiny, the paddle out would be a long one. Kristin hurried off to her free one-hour welcome massage and I walked over to the beach parking area to rent a board for a few days, settling on a 7’2” thruster at 100,000 rupiah per day, about $24 USD for three days with a rash guard thrown in.
I paddled out each day after breakfast, a little earlier each successive morning, and each day I got worked over. One wave even broke the fin from the board, snapping it off at the base; something I’ve never seen happen in my 23 years of sporadic surfing. The number of waves I rode compared to the number that broke atop my head was greatly skewed in the wrong direction. But I expected this. Surfing is the single hardest sport to maintain proficiency at if you allow your skills to atrophy. It’s not like mountain biking or skiing or any other sport I can think of; trails and mountains don’t actively try to kill you. And as each day went on, as it did back in April and the last few surf trips I’ve made to Hawaii and Costa Rica, I found myself wondering why I still pursued this old flame. Had, in fact, the passion already burned out long ago?
I’ve heard former deer hunters say that they eventually hit a point in their lives where they couldn’t justify sitting around in a tree all winter long. This is how I now feel about surfing. All that time sitting and waiting for a wave, only to find I was a few paddle-strokes late or too far to the left, or too far to the right, or worst of all, out in front of it and now getting rolled over and over and over in the surf like a shoe tied to a cork in a washing machine. I was never a very good surfer, but I enjoyed the road-trip camaraderie that accompanied every session, whether it was with my lifelong friends from high school or the ones I made in graduate school. The clichéd bromides about brotherhood and surfing ring true. The actual surfing, the act of riding a wave, is plain euphoria. There really is nothing like it. And I do get my share of waves and sometimes, when the planets and stars align, manage to induce some hooting from spectators on the beach (this happened precisely once, on a nice cutback I made here in Bali, and I will never forget that moment). But most of the time – nay, nearly all of the time – is spent waiting. And that’s where I realize that what I loved most about surfing was just hanging out with friends.
In Bali I paddle out, alone, into a crowd. Some polite smiles and what’s ups may occur, but mostly it’s a collection of international travelers, many with hired guides, quietly stalking the same prey. And I wait, like the lonely hunter in a leafless tree. A wave approaches. I’m in the perfect spot and it is gorgeous. Head-high, peeling to the left, and fast, but not too steep. It’s my ideal wave, only there are dozens of other surfers taking aim. And, thanks to too little recent practice, I’m too slow, I miss my mark, the gun jams.
No, that is not a euphemism for why we don’t have any children.
I continue paddling after waves that never seem to break as the tide drops. Unlike the beach breaks I was accustomed to surfing in New Jersey and North Carolina, the waves get mushy and the reef gets exposed with the lower tide here at Batu Bolong. I paddled in on that third day without having caught any waves. My first time getting blanked in memory. I returned the board and joined Kristin by the pool. I might not have made much use of the hotel’s surfer-friendly location but I would at least take advantage of its luxurious amenities.
We’re spending the next few weeks inland, in Ubud, celebrating the end of our two years of travel, relaxing in a tranquil oasis before returning home to Washington State and resuming our careers. I have no plans to return to the beach or go surfing while we’re here in Bali. And I’m not even saddened by this.
It’s the not being sad that sort of breaks my heart.