Tag: Bali

Long haul to Bali

If you have to go to Bali at short notice but lack access to a high-powered boat fitted with supplementary vodka tanks, supersonic stabilisers and three depraved Scandinavian contortionists, you should probably fly Singapore Airlines. My contortionists were in for repairs so I decided to fly.

OR Tambo International Airport is nothing like the man. For a start, it lacks his outward sense of calm and order. Ironic, though, to name an airport after a man whose lexicon included regular use of a word that may not, under pain of imprisonment, be uttered in an airport. For the slow-witted, I’m talking about the word bomb.

I suppose I could’ve flown South African Airways. It would have been the patriotic thing to do. Then again, not allowing an immigrant family from Uttar Pradesh to ransack our state owned enterprises and loot the treasury would also have been the patriotic thing to do. Flying SAA is about as patriotic as giving Jacob Zuma a third term.

Singapore Airlines is everything that SAA isn’t. It runs on time, gives people free drinks and, unlike the rand, hardly ever crashes. The ten hour flight to Singapore was a pleasure. The pilot wasn’t even a little bit drunk. I have experienced more turbulence in hotel rooms. And their meals make SAA look like a soup kitchen for homeless war criminals.

Singapore is one of the many airlines that don’t fly from King Shaka International Airport. Hadedas barely fly from King Shaka. Most of them depart from the tree outside my bedroom window at 5.30am. Hadedas have the worst air traffic control in the world, shouting at each other whenever they take off or land. Or even just sit there.

To get to Singapore Airlines I had to fly from Durban to Joburg. I managed to get myself an emergency exit seat by weeping openly at the check-in counter while standing on my tip-toes, which brought my height to around three metres. I need extra leg room like sharks need to keep moving.

The cabin attendant pretended to give me instructions on what to do in the event of what she coyly described as a forced landing and I pretended to listen. We both knew that in the history of aviation, nobody in my position had ever swung that lever up, kicked the door open and helped his fellow passengers onto the wing.

The attendant then told me, with a straight face, that in the event of a water landing I should swim to the front of the plane where I’d find the life vests. So there was a chance we’d come down in the Umgeni River, then. Or maybe Zoo Lake? It was like a triathlon. Fly, swim, crawl to hospital.

Waiters in an airport bar took me hostage and only released me when they heard my name being called. Weaving off to the gate severely handicapped by a belly distended with beer, I made it just in time.

“Where were you, sir. We’ve been calling you,” said a gatekeeper with the face of a rejected kidney.

“I thought that was the voice of God,” I said.

This conversation might have taken place in my head. Living alone as I do, a fierce amount of conversations take place in my head.

It wasn’t long before I was on nodding terms with the onboard medication. But there comes a time on any long-haul flight when the airline treats its passengers as one would a bunch of parrots. They’ve barely fed and watered you when the blinds come down and the lights go off. It’s the equivalent of putting a blanket over a cage.

“More gin and tonic, air slave!”

“Sir, now is sleepy time, not drinky time.”

“What? This is an outrage! Drinky time has barely begun and you expect …”

“Sir, it is 2am in Singapore. Not drinky time at all.”

“Rubbish. It’s 6pm and it’s still light outside. Look.” I went to raise the plastic shutter thing.

“Mr Parrot, do not touch the fittings or we will have you shot.”

Singapore, you will remember, is the country that destroyed Helen Zille’s career. I shudder to think what their airline is capable of doing. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that Singapore is a country at all. I think it’s just a giant airport with travelators instead of roads, planes instead of trains and sliding glass doors instead of borders. I’ve visited smaller countries than Changi Airport, which appears to have a GDP considerably higher than most African states. Another reason I don’t think Singapore is a real country is their idea of what constitutes crime.

A teaser emblazoned on the front page of last week’s Singapore Sunday Times screamed, “The ugly side of bike sharing!” I assumed “bike sharing” was a polite euphemism for one or other less than salubrious activity. Human trafficking, perhaps. My brain salivating at the idea of receiving a dose of fresh filth, I flipped the paper open. The page two lead story was headlined, “LTA moves against badly parked bikes.” Ramming home the full horror, four photographs showed bicycles parked willy-nilly, some obstructing doorways, others partially blocking a staircase. A few have already been impounded. It was too terrible. I had to bite down hard on my knuckles so as not to cry out at the inhumanity of it all. But, despite the brutally indiscriminate parking of bicycles, Singapore will rebuild. Je suis Singapore.

To reach my connecting flight to Bali, I had to cross several topographical zones within the Singaporean People’s Republic of Changi. Across the temperate highlands of Duty Free through the megalopolis of pharmacies to the glittering cornucopia of Gucci, I soldiered bravely on. Rebel controlled roadblocks slowed my progress but, after handing over bottles of water, I was allowed to continue on my way.

I spent the flight with my knees around my ears, eating with T-Rex arms and shooting death stares at parents who think it’s somehow acceptable for their children to carry on like malfunctioning air raid sirens.

Black-gloved gunmen were waiting for me at Denpasar Airport. Were they to release me into the wilds of Bali with my bottle of rum and my bottle of gin, I would quite clearly be unable to resist the urge to violently overthrow the Indonesian government. They gave me a choice.

“Rum or gin,” said a beautiful combatant with sloe eyes and a quick draw. It was a vicious and cruel choice to have to make.

“Eat prey, love,” I muttered, handing over the gin before walking out into a thick soup of tropical humidity, Australian accents and seven billion motorbikes.

My big fat Bali holiday – Part II

“Arak attack!”

The cry came late at night in a dog-eared bar in a feral village called Amed. I went limp and dropped to the ground, which was easier done than said, and pretended to be dead. This was, after all, Indonesia – a country inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups, volcanoes, elephants, tigers and Komodo dragons that can kill with one lick of their monstrous tongues. We might have been under attack by any one of them. Maybe not the the volcanoes.

From my position of pusillanimity, I could hear people shouting and the sound of bottles breaking, but nothing to suggest that heavily armed militants were taking hostages. The music switched from Marley’s Mr Brown to Tosh’s Bush Doctor. If I was going to die, it may as well be with a song on my lips. “So legalise marijuana …” I warbled softly. It seemed a good enough hymn to die to in a reggae bar on the raw east coast of Bali.

A foot with painted toenails nudged me in the face. “Get up,” said my daughter’s voice. “Your arak is waiting for you.” Arak, it turned out, is a traditional spirit made from palm trees. It sounds harmless but get a bad batch and it’ll kill you quicker than a falling coconut. The lucky ones go mad or blind. Having arak is almost as hazardous as having daughters.

What the hell kind of child foists arak on her father? The best kind. It wasn’t the first time in my life I’d been grateful to her. She and I and her handsome Congolese boyfriend and a couple of their friends who’d been in Bali long enough to know how to defend themselves in the event of an arak attack clinked glasses and shouted incomprehensible rubbish at one another. Someone – it might have been me – ordered two jugs of the filth. It wasn’t long before three men with tattoos and clearly defined biceps asked if they could join our table.

“Sure,” I shouted. “But you Australian bastards had better not want to start any of your fighting.” The darker-skinned one said quietly, “We’re not Aussies, mate.” I recognised the accent. “You Scottish people are even worse than the Aussies.”

It was like that moment in Saving Private Ryan when a bomb goes off and everything moves in slow motion and Tom Hanks can’t hear anything.

“What?” I shouted.

“We’re from New Zealand,” said the Maori. His heavy-duty buddy said something about beating South Africa. I know they’re our mortal enemies in rugby, or maybe it’s cricket, but I don’t know which country is top of the log. Or even if there is a log.

To avoid having to talk about sport, I bought them a jug of arak. Things went sharply downhill after that. A word of advice. If you’re going to appoint a wing-man, choose someone other than a Maori. Everyone loves a Maori. Not only the girls, either. Even James Small couldn’t keep his hands off Jonah Lomu back in ’95. And it’s obvious that Bismarck du Plessis has a bit of a crush on Keven Mealamu.

On the dance floor, my wing-man’s moves were a seamless fusion between the haka and the kama sutra. Mine were a cross between a malfunctioning windmill and Stephen Hawking out of his chair. I did get chatting to a beautiful young woman at the bar. When she told me she was Dutch, I said she owed me and my country an apology. Probably not the best pick-up line. Not long after, I lost a shoe.

At breakfast the next morning, a waiter asked me how the fishing had gone. I drooled gently into my mie goreng. “You catch any red snapper?” He laughed like an escaped lunatic and went back to the kitchen. I turned to my daughter for help. “He was at the bar last night. He’s asking if you scored. You know? With a woman?” Shamefaced, I looked down at my one shoeless foot. It had no answers.

The young people wanted to go off and do the things young people do, which are pretty much the same things I wanted to do. “Take me with you,” I pleaded. “I can be useful.” They laughed and two hours later threw me and my surfboard out of the car in Balian, a surfing, yoga and crystal meth sanctuary on the west coast. “Good luck with the snappers,” shouted Captain Congo.

An afternoon ride on my pathetically underpowered rented scooter up the coast to Medewi seemed like a good idea. I’d already had a cracking surf in the morning and was in the mood to eat prey and love. Medewi was 30kms away. It took me over an hour to get there. The road is the main vein between Bali and Java. I was hoping to take in some of the local colour but all I saw was my life flashing before my eyes. It wasn’t pretty.

I hit a roadblock 5kms outside Medewi. Cops on both sides. I tried to hide in the cloud of carbon monoxide spewing from a truck packed with live chickens but as I drew level, one of them blew his whistle and pointed at me. One of the cops, not the chickens. A family of five, all blind from arak and riding a bike made of compressed pangolins, almost hit the cop. He smiled and waved them on.

A young Indo guy in civilian clothes sauntered up. He smiled, shook my hand and asked for the bike’s papers. Eventually I found them taped beneath the seat, where one would keep coded messages when one becomes a courier for the revolution. He asked for my international driver’s licence, which had stupidly left itself back in Balian. “Half a million rupiah fine,” he said, with a cheerful Indonesian grin. I went pale and clutched my testicles. “If you go to court,” he added. Ah. The option. There is always an option in humid countries. Let’s make it a hundred thousand and never mention it again. I fumbled for my wallet. He averted his eyes and backed away. “Pay the policeman,” he said. The cop was dressed like a war hero and didn’t seem open to haggling. I slipped him two fifty thousand rupiah notes and he melted away. There was no eye contact from either side. The civilian reappeared and asked where I was going, then smiled shyly and gave me directions to Medewi.

“So,” I said, “I won’t get stopped on the other side of the road when I come back? I mean, I’ve paid my bribe … fine … right?” He shook his head happily. “You will pay again,” he said.

“In that case, comrade,” I said, “I’d rather just turn around and go back to Balian.” Apparently this wasn’t an option. He insisted that I continue to Medewi and return in two hours, by which time the police would have packed up and gone home, presumably to thank the god of tourism for his beneficence on this bountiful day.

Medewi has an ugly boulder-strewn beach patrolled by surly non-Hindu locals gouging the tourists. Faced with that road from hell, I guzzled a few beers at a warung with no soul. Two hours later, I was back on the bike. The roadblock had gone but the traffic was worse. Not worse as in jammed. There are no traffic jams in Bali. In this swollen river of cars, bikes, trucks and buses, you keep moving or you die. Back in Balian, I stopped at a building site and used a crowbar to unclench my sphincter.

In the morning I walked along a riverbank to the beach, paddled half a kilometre out into a warm sea, caught the waves of my life and watched the sun come up behind a forest of coconut palms. Perhaps I shall stay.


My big fat Bali holiday – Part I

When temperatures drop to 13 degrees in Durban, you know it’s time to make like a swallow and duck.

My tiny endothermic brain is not designed to function in low temperatures. I have bear blood. Hibernation is a means of conserving energy during times when sufficient food is unavailable. I have been living alone for the last six months. Sufficient food is constantly unavailable.

But when snow starts falling up the road, my hypothalamus, an easily startled creature at the best of times, shrivels to the size of a peanut and my autonomic nervous system goes to hell in a hand basket. That’s when I know the moment has come to shake off the metabolic depression and emerge from beneath my waffle-stack of monkey fur duvets, get into my Arctic fox jocks, thermal vest and Gore-Tex onesie, and head for the travel agent.

Airport trolleys aren’t designed for surfboards and airports aren’t designed for surfers. The board either keeps falling off or blocking your view and the layout of OR Tambo is such that if you arrive from Durban and are travelling on to, say, Bali, you might want to bring a pup tent and camp between domestic arrivals and international departures because the distances are vast and the signs more convoluted than our government’s foreign policy.

I remember, from a fairly young age, promising successive girlfriends and wives that one day we would live in a treehouse in Bali. I must have seen something in a surfing magazine. By the time I eventually got it together to go to Bali, a week ago, I found myself between girlfriends and wives.

Solo travel isn’t my first choice. Not because I get lonely, but because it’s so much easier to have someone else looking after the passports, filing in the forms, getting me out of the bar and to the gate before the plane leaves.

Long-haul flights are great if you’re Patrice Motsepe or Nicky Oppenheimer. But if you’re me or you, flying ten hours from Joburg to Hong Kong with your knees around your ears, being charged R80 for a beer and threatened with death if you smoke anything at all while in transit, then flying another five hours to Denpasar in Bali, isn’t all that great.

At 3pm the androids of Cathay Pacific marched down the aisles pulling down the shutters on the windows. In under a minute, the plane was plunged into darkness. People fell asleep immediately. It was like putting a blanket over a parrot cage. Not being a member of the parrot family, I insisted on maintaining my regular schedule of afternoon drinks, sundowners and several nightcaps. The droids seemed happy to comply. Well, maybe not happy. But the alternative wasn’t something they wanted to deal with.

Before I flew out, CNN was showing pictures of chaos at Denpasar Airport. It looked like the fall of Saigon. Thousands of Australians stranded because their girly pilots from Perth were too scared to fly through a bit of volcanic ash. The backlog had been cleared by the time I landed. Maybe it hadn’t. I got the feeling Denpasar airport is jammed year round with Aussies desperate to get in or get out.

Waiting to pick me up were a couple of expats who’d been in Bali long enough for them to think they could get away with wearing the kind of straw hats that nobody but ancient rice-pickers would dare be seen in. They strapped my board to the roof of their tarnished gold car and handed me a Bintang beer so big I had to hold it with two hands. I guzzled it greedily and begged for more.

Bali at this time of year offers my kind of heat. There’s very little difference between sea and air temperature and it doesn’t vary much between day and night. This means you can sleep in the ocean if you have trouble getting back to your room. Anchor yourself to a rock unless you want to drift off into the chokka fleet in the Badung Strait and end up on a French tourist’s dinner plate. Worse things can happen.

Let me say right upfront that Balinese people are lovely. They are genuinely friendly and show no signs of wanting to mug or murder their tourists. At first I thought they were practising an ancient form of Asian satire, but they weren’t. Having said that, if Dante’s vision of hell had not stopped at nine circles, the tenth circle would have been traffic on Bali. I suppose it’s no different to Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, but I wasn’t expecting quite this level of mayhem. This is, after all, known as the Island of the Gods. What manner of merciless gods would allow huge trucks from Java to barrel down the same narrow road as a family of five on a spluttering underpowered Yahama? Then again, it is men who create gods, so I suppose anything is possible.

There are shrines everywhere. Outside every business, every home. Fresh flowers are laid, incense lit, prayers said. Several times a day. It seems to be working. I have yet to see a dead body – animal or human. Or even a fender bender, which doesn’t seem possible given that everybody rides and drives as fast as they can and nobody ever seems to give way. There is almost no hooting and no road rage. None at all. Perhaps they bottle it up and go off into the rice paddies and explode, but they don’t show it on the roads.

The driver of the gold vehicle momentarily lost concentration while opening a Bintang with some kind of ring on his finger and we found ourselves down a side street.

“Warung!” he shouted, slamming on brakes. I flung my door open and rolled like a parabat, coming to rest against a Bali dog who opened one eye and went back to sleep, as if this kind of thing happened all the time.

Warung, it turned out, wasn’t a warning of imminent danger. It means “local restaurant offering dishes that are mostly unavailable”.

Between the gado-gado and the bebek, I didn’t know what to order. Then I noticed a temple across the street. A swastika was carved into the stone entrance. Problem solved. “I’ll have the nazi goreng, please.”