A Balinese Christmas: Observations from Indonesia

Having only so few vacation days as an English teacher in Korea, I wanted to take full advantage of my Christmas holiday. This year I decided to spend Christmas in Indonesia. So on the morning of Thursday, December 24th, I made my way from South Korea to Bali, by way of Taiwan. I had the most ridiculous layover in the Taipei airport, and for the sake of your sanity, I won’t elaborate. Suffice it to know I had duty-free liquor and the Taiwan National Museum of history to entertain me. And this sign. For seven hours.

After a lonely Christmas Eve dinner consisting of terribly tasteless Taiwanese noodles and an equally disgusting can of Taiwan Beer, surrounded by happy families and smooching couples, I was beyond ready to leave the country at 8pm. I had a window seat, and I may or may not have spent a good amount of our flight time glued to the window searching for reindeer. And though I didn’t catch any Rudolph sightings, we did fly over a few thunderous tropical storms. I’ve never seen electric storms from the air, before. I’ll be happy if I never see them again.

The hot, humid, sticky air hit me like a sledgehammer when I walked off that plane. The giant red signs warning “Death Penalty to Drug Traffickers” had me panicking for no good reason at all, and I welcomed my first Bali Hai beer like it was my Christmas Day saviour. Yes, it was a convenience-store beer, but it was cheaper than water and I was already dehydrated from standing outside for 30 seconds (note to self: if you’re traveling to the tropics from a snowy-climate, for the love of God bring a change of clothes. My thick hoodie and long pants weren’t quite cutting it). By the end of the trip we’d started to measure distance in terms of liters of sweat lost.

The first thing I noticed about Bali (after the humidity, of course), was how the illuminated sign on the roof of my taxi boldly declared “taksi”. Which actually sounds about right, if you ask me. I soon learned that Bahasa Indonesia (the local language) is a form of pigeon English that often makes more phonetic sense than the English I’ve become accustomed to. And while we’re on the topic of taksis, if you ever find yourself hopping into one in Bali, don’t bother looking for the seatbelt. They don’t exist.

“Excuse me, is there a seatbelt back here?”

“Seatbelt? What you need seatbelt for? It’s nighttime!”

Of course. I should have known. ;)

In point form – some other observations:

  • There are Hindu shrines everywhere. Most of the dieties have 4 arms. I want four arms.
  • The locals leave offerings to their gods, and they leave them everywhere. They’re like little palm-leaf baskets full of berries, crackers, incense, etc., and I swear they leave them in the middle of the sidewalk just to get a laugh at the tourists trying to hop over them.
  • Aside from the huge Hindu influences, I could have been in Australia and I wouldn’t have known the difference. There are so many Aussies in Kuta Beach that the locals have adopted an Australian accent. They yell out to you, addressing you as “mate” in such a voice that for the first few times I actually believed they were Australian. It was very much like being on the Spanish island of Mallorca, only instead of Australians, it was German tourists swarming the beaches there and the locals addressed me with a “guten Tag” even though we were literally in Spain. Of course, in catering to tourism, Christmas was still everywhere.
  • I’m not sure whether it was intentional or not, but my friend’s Christmas dinner involved the hottest green pepper he had ever tasted; I actually thought he was going to die as I sat there watching him struggle with it across the table. No, I didn’t do anything about it. But it was rather an entertaining sight, watching his eyeballs bulge. When his eyes stopped streaming and his face had returned to a more neutral shade of red, he asked the waitress about it. She responded with a laugh, “oh, you must have got a spicy one” and then winked at me as though he was the biggest baby she’d ever seen. Ha!
  • The locals are incredibly friendly. Their English is almost immaculate and they are always, always smiling. I’m well aware that their economy depends on the tourist dollar, but even the local woman harvesting rice in the fields we floated by in our whitewater raft took a moment to stop and smile and wave to us. There was a little boy who approached our raft, completely naked, and burst out laughing as he used both arms to splash us as we floated past him. And Indonesia must have the nicest security guards in the world, I think. They’ve got to be bored out of their minds, sitting there all day, but they always have the biggest, sweetest smiles on their faces and always seem genuinely happy to see you. They all just seem so… kind. Friendly. Genuine. Laid back. The rest of the world could take a lesson or two from the Balinesian mentality.
  • If you find yourself in Indonesia, you must go whitewater rafting on the Telaga Waja rapids at the footsteps of Mount Agung in Bali. It was a most memorable experience; especially the part where we stopped half-way down the river and cracked a beer under the waterfall.
  • If you eat out, food is cheap. Like $2 cheap. Beer is even cheaper. A regular bottle of Bintang goes for about $0.65.
  • Motorbikes are everywhere, and are the main means of transport. Families of 6 pile on a single bike, and usually it’s only the father who wears a helmet. Safety first!
  • Women who are menstruating aren’t supposed to enter the Hindu shrines, or walk up to the temples. Oops.
  • Have you ever had a “chicken abortion”? I could barely coax it down my throat with a name like that. It was egg-yolk yellow with a shot of grenadine at the bottom to make it look like blood. Barf! I don’t know whether to blame the Aussies or the Indonesians for this, but whoever it was deserves a slap in the face.
  • I had every intention of going surfing when I was in Bali… until I saw all the washed up fish on the shoreline. Parrot fish, puffer fish, tropical eels. I didn’t particularly want to be floating in the water alongside their other dead friends.
  • I did get to ride an elephant, play with an orangutan, ride a camel, and spend time lying next to a tiger cub. I also got bit by a monkey and am currently undergoing the intensive rabies vaccination process, which you can read all about here, if you feel so inclined. ;)
  • On New Years Eve, I was “forced” to participate in a Bintang chugging contest. I’d like to say that I won, but that is so far from the truth that I can’t possibly make a claim to it. It started off well, but once I took a break it was all over. Anyway, the point of the matter is that I still got a prize: a 120 minute Balinesian massage at the Rama Beach Spa. Yes, yes I did. And let me tell you something – I have never in my life felt so relaxed. This was, hands down, the absolute best massage treatment I have EVER received. And it was fullllll body, and I got over my inhibitions in about two seconds. Yes, it was THAT good.

After throwing 2009 a great big goodbye party from the beach, I welcomed in the New Year with my feet in the sand. Life is rough. ;)