More Notes from a Tiny Island

Another entry from my time on Bali. I was still annoyingly double-spacing all my periods. Aside from that, it’s an enjoyable read. 

Benoa. I hereby retract all the mean things I’ve said about Benoa.  Okay, maybe not all of them.  It is still a soulless resort town catering to incoming cruise lines chock full of tourists with no desire to immerse themselves in Balinese culture.  It is still lined with hotels demanding ludicrous rates that won’t take in a lowly traveler, even on Christmas Eve.  But now that I got the “local” edge, Benoa has become a little more fun.

Watu surprised me with this question:  “Want to go parasailing?”

I admit, the “sport” has never been on the top of my list, but I’ll try anything once.  In a blink, we found ourselves back in the land I swore against last year.  Except now, we were backstage to the tourist show.  Watu knows someone who runs a tour package business and gets friend prices on campy attractions such as this one.  Arriving at the “Jet Set” water sports center (take your minds out of the gutter, Dan Savage fans), we were escorted past tables of wealthy Korean tourists and into a seaside bale laid out with comfy rubber cushions.  The manager cheerfully ran down his price list.  Not only did they offer parasailing, they also offered scuba, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours to Turtle Island.  Best of all, the prices were marked down like a Canadian pharmacy going out of business – the local prices!

Parasailing always seemed silly to me before; it seemed even sillier to me now as a harness snugly hugged my crotch, a parachute laid across the sand behind me, and I was instructed by a dreadlocked Bali stoner in a Rasta shirt to “just hold on to the ropes, mon, don’t leggo.”  After standing there for a good five minutes, scanning the water for which of the hundred boats on the water had me tethered to it, I was about to ask when this thing got started.  Just then, I felt a mighty tug from my crotch, sort of like an elephant getting fresh on the first date.  Suddenly, I’m airborne!

I had no idea Benoa Bay was so beautiful.  Sometimes, it takes a hundred meters of altitude to change one’s attitude.  The entire peninsula was visible, surrounded by lush coral reefs.  Directly beneath me, I saw the motorboat carving ess-shaped curves into the clear green waters.  This is really fun!

The rest of our party took their turns, good times had by all.  But this was only the beginning.  Still ahead was adventure on the high sea.

Watu always told me she doesn’t like to swim at the beach.  I thought maybe she was afraid of sharks, or was creeped out by swimming where fish pee.  I had no idea that she simply does not swim. Counterintuitive, I know… a person born on an island who doesn’t swim. But this is Watu, and she will likely kick my ass after reading this.

I learned the extent to which Watu does not swim when we motored out to the corals.  She and our tour guide friend were to do some snorkeling while Rice (who appropriately, is a chef on Bali) and I went scuba diving.  I’d been in the water for about ten minutes, telling jokes to a clown fish, when I spied a commotion up on the
surface.  Watu’s legs were kicking frantically.  Barracuda attack?  A cramp from all those crackers she ate?  Being only a few meters down, I surfaced to find her still flailing, strapped into a life jacket, turned around backwards in an inner tube, escorted by two handlers who kept saying, “You don’t want to go back to the boat!  There is so much beauty to see on the reef!”  Good thing they got her back on board when they did.  The eyes behind those goggles were seeing red.

Before long, all of us were back on the boat and heading back out to the mysterious Turtle Island.  I knew nothing of Turtle Island.  What secrets did it hold?  How did it get its alluring name?

As it turns out, Turtle Island is named for all the turtles that live there.  Hmph.

Seriously though, this place was pretty cool.  They have nurseries that raise the little guys until they’re old enough to go out to sea. I’d never been close enough to touch one, much less pick one up and dance with it.  They eat kelp in a way that is so cute as to make me
laugh.

Turtle Island is also a sanctuary for injured animals, namely fruit bats (when you see them up close they are quite visibly mammals), toucans, pythons, sea eagles, and plenty more.  Guests can hold just about every animal in the menagerie, and you know I did!

After all was said and done, we thanked our new friend, the events manager, and the four of us made one last stop:  the Jimbaran fish market.  I’d visited this place once before on my own, but it’s much more worthwhile to go with friends, as money spends a lot further when you’re ordering by the kilo.  We feasted like royalty on clams, squid, snapper, and prawn, all swimming freshly just an hour previous. Bellies full, it had been an awesome use of a Sunday.

*****

Jakarta.

At the Denspasar Airport, the automated system announces one city more clearly and loudly than any other.

“Lion Air, flight 3411, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

“La Guardia Air, flight 935, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

“Air Asia, flight 2852, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

You can almost feel the phlegm fly out of the speakers.

It’s to be expected.  Jakarta is the capital city of Indonesia, one of the most populated in the world.  It is a destination for international businessmen, religious pilgrims, and uncles, aunts, and cousins visiting their families after a year of working the hotels of Bali, the logging operations of Borneo, and the fishing vessels of Sulawesi.  No wonder the robotic voice suddenly sounds so enthusiastic!

Today, Watu and I were to be on that Lion Air flight.

Before I speak on Jakarta, a word about Lion Air.  Haters need to back off Lion Air.  So what if they have a questionable track record of planes missing the runway?  So what if they are dependably one to two hours behind schedule on every flight?  The fact is, they push the finest tin to roll out of Seattle-Tacoma: the 737-900 fleet.  These bad boys are equipped with more emergency exits than George Bush’s Oval Office, fly quieter than a sleeping babe on barbiturates, and boast a formidable collection of tri-lingual in-flight publications. And unlike Air Asia, the cabin does not fill with smoke prior to takeoff and the stewards do not snarl when you push the call button for a lukewarm Bintang.  Hats off to you, Lion Air!

Landing in Jakarta can be disorienting.  The smog clouds the sky completely, while the city lights burn bright, creating the illusion that the plane has suddenly inverted itself, and you are landing upside down (not to hate on Lion Air, though).  After a safe, upright landing, we were picked up promptly by Watu’s friend Deti, who gave us a special late night tour of the city, something only available after midnight, as traffic is otherwise prohibitive to traveling more than one mile in an hour.

In her most enthusiastic, highly caffeinated tour guide voice, she began announcing:

“To your left is Stadium, a club where the water is more famous than the alcohol.” (only some of you will get this joke)

“To your right is very famous building, the World Trade Center, still standing!”

“To your right again is delicious restaurant from Scotland, Mac-Donalds.”

“To your left, you will see the famous prostitutes of Jakarta.  And up ahead, Jakarta’s famous lady-boys.  Look, one approaches our car right now!”

It was a most entertaining hour, followed by a stop at a late night bar, where we played Swede into the wee hours.  We finally found a reasonably priced hotel (the Go-Go Godzilla) around 5am, just enough time to catch a few winks.

Though the Hotel Godzilla was nice enough, it could not compare to the place we’d check into for the next two nights:  The Hotel Mercure. Watu’s friend is a manager there, so we got friend prices at this four-star.  At first, it was a little obnoxious in that lobby… kids running to and fro (holiday weekend) with nannies chasing after, Chinese tourists wanting to take pictures of me – the only white guy in the whole place, and a lounge waitress who had a hard time following Watu’s native (and very pretty) Indonesian tongue.  But once we got up to the room, all that was forgotten.

The suite was furnished with an Ottoman-style recliner, as seen in my psychotherapy sessions.  The view overlooked the beach (and to some lamentation, the tacky carnival pool below).  The bathroom was stocked with fluffy towels and herbal soaps.  The television was satellite, and the enormous bed was fitted with 400 count Egyptian cotton sheets. Best of all, the air con was cranked to “polar.”  We had a laundry list of things to do in Jakarta, but most of them had to do with lazing around the sweet suite.

A romantic side note here.  Dr. Phil goes on and on about the importance of trust in relationships.  He suggests all these exercises that you and your loved one can do to build up that trust.  I think you can skip all that business in one simple step.  Real trust comes
in the form of tiny scissors.

I was enjoying something on Asian MTV when Watu came at me with the
tiny scissors.

“This is driving me crazy.  Hold still,” she commanded.

I thought she was going to trim my increasingly less subtle unibrow. But no.  She went straight for the nostrils.  I’ll admit, I’ve been meaning to do some man-scaping in the nostril department, but that’s the kind of thing a man does on his own, locked in the bathroom, wrapping his shameful dust catchers up in toilet paper and flushing them away to oblivion.  This was a kink for which I was unprepared.

Though nervous, I lay very still, partly out of trust, partly out of fear.  You don’t want mistakes when soft tissue is involved with stainless steel.  It wasn’t easy because I kept fighting to stifle laughter, but now I breathe easier, and my heart beats more merrily. She’s really something special.

On the rare occasions we departed from our John and Yoko version of non-reality, we had lots of fun around the city.  Drinks and tapas at a fabulously fancy ocean side lounge and resto with international friends, a visit to the woefully unkempt but nonetheless eclectic art museum, a tour of the salty shipyard with its magnificently enormous wooden fishing dregs, and a walk about the national monument (we would have taken a ride to the top of the obelisk, but the line looked like free cone day at Ben and Jerry’s).  Through all this, Watu snarked that although she’s a native Jakartan, she’s never done most of those things, much like the countless New Yorkers who’ve never visited the Statue of Liberty.

A few major highlights worthy of greater detail:

•       The Dufan Theme Park – Madness, just madness!  Long lines for rides
that turn the stomach, hourly parades of loudly costumed characters, and an omnipresent saccharine sweet soundtrack that stays in your head hours after the park has closed.  This is the Indonesian Disney World, sans oversized mice and chipmunks.  Instead, there are several large chickens.  Unlike a larger than life Donald Duck that gropes you into a photo op however, these feathered fiends are very camera shy, unless you agree to buy bags of their salty snacks (which don’t seem to actually contain any chicken).  I love this place!

•       Café Batavia – The name originates from the old Dutch colonialists, who at one time thought they could come up with a better name than Jakarta.  The café rests in what remains of the old city, adjacent to the city plaza and national museum campus.  The sidewalk tables outside, positioned amongst the bustling crowds of bicyclists, taksi hawkers, and teenage punk kids, make for an idyllic repose and people-watching headquarters.  Go inside, and you begin to feel very colonial indeed, as the architecture defies anything found on this continent.  Teak wood trim, high ceilings, and one hundred years of countless signed black and whites from visiting celebrities (including Portland’s own Gus Van Sant) make the Café Batavia resonate with the spirits of Morgan and Rockefeller.  Unfortunately, that spirit trickles right down to the menu, which is also disproportionate to the rest of the region, in terms of price.   However, we managed to eat well from their tasty dim sum menu, and I slowly enjoyed the finest caprioska this side of Mother Russia.  Meanwhile, the Jakartan version of Pink Martini crooned a lovely version of “My Funny Valentine” on the stage behind us.  The ambiance was set to “perfect.”  Could the Café Batavia possibly be the finest restaurant in all of Indonesia? Only one last indicator could tell for sure – the restrooms.

The restrooms at Café Batavia deserve their own paragraph, if not their own page.  Up to now, the best bathroom I’d ever visited was at a bar in Portland, Oregon.  It has a two-way mirror positioned so you can spy on your date while washing your hands.  But Café Batavia dusts this concept with a radical new take on urination.

Imagine yourself in a pristine bathroom, art deco, circa 1920’s. Black and white pure porcelain tile from floor to ceiling.  A giant, circular community sink in the center of the floor.  The motif of celebrity photographs continues here, but now they’re all female nudes (male nudes in the ladies room), mainly French, so it’s tasteful. Only after taking all this in do you remember what you came in for – the toilet!  But there doesn’t seem to be one.  Only a giant mirror covering one wall.  As you stare at your reflection, you notice the sprayers lining the top of the smooth surface, then the thin trough below. Invoking the holy unspoken first name of Mr. Clean, you realize this is a mirrored urinal! You are about to pee… on yourself!

The first moment is awkward.  It’s only the rare bathroom that reveals what you look like while answering nature’s call.  Perhaps the designers realized this, because the moment your stream hits its own reflection, a motion detector triggers the sprayers, which unleash a glorious waterfall across the surface before you, inspiring Jon Brion
symphonies in your head as your visage is comfortably masked behind the flowing stream.

Café Batavia, you make the alphabet wish it had a letter better than “A.”

•       The Big Ass Mall – Name says it all.  Seems I can’t visit a major Southeast Asian capital without dropping into a larger-than-life mall. They have air con, after all.  This particular mall was clearly established for the yuppie set of Jakarta, but we didn’t come to shop. We came to see the enormous slide.  On the seventh floor, the rider straps on a helmet, secures into a roller board, and sails hundreds of feet down a hamster tube.  Now that’s fun!

•       Red Square – If you know me, you know me not to be a club person. Sure, I’ll dance and act a fool at a club, but it is for the purpose of entertaining myself, not because I am entertained.  Too many clubs, especially those on Bali, play the same 12 songs over and over, hoping no one notices.  Nonetheless, as we entered the heavily bouncered doors of Red Square, I kept a smile on my face and an open minded attitude, as Watu swore this was the her favorite club in all of Jakarta.  Plus, we were to meet her friend Titi that night, and I find that name charming and hilarious.

Titi is apparently the queen of Red Square.  One word to the bouncers and we beat the line and the cover.  Shark-finning us through the throbbing crowd, she introduced us to her many friends, none of the names of which I could hear over the thumping music.  An Irish guy asked me if I was Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame, because I “looked just like him” (it must be the beard).  Yes, of course I am!  On holiday in Jakarta after a long international tour.  I was beginning to have fun.

Had the Vegas Mafia invaded Moscow, it would look something like Red Square.  The top of the center bar oscillated between various glows of color and was full of drinks and high-stepping feet.  I kept a careful hand on my Heinekin as a pair of go-go boots (Titi’s, I think) danced dangerously close.  Elbows elbowed my elbows and Watu shouted in my ear, “Wait until this place fills up!  Then the party really gets started!”  Think happy thoughts.

Without warning, a piercing whistle sounded.  All heads turned to a slender Javanese girl in tall, red leather boots, a barely-there miniskirt, and KGB officer’s jacket and cap.  Still blowing the whistle, she pointed her fist towards the main bar and began a marching step.  Looking towards the bar, the tenders lit a dozen bottles on fire and began juggling them.  They tossed, they caught, they balanced them on their heads.  They began spitting fire towards the ceiling.  They threw bar napkins into the crowd.  The place went nuts.  I can be a hard person to amuse sometimes, but when you set things on fire, I’m all yours.

Again, if you know me, you know that if you can drag me to a club, I will be one of those people dancing on the bar before long.  And on this, our last night in Jakarta, I did not disappoint.

All in all, I was sad to leave Jakarta.  Despite what all the Balinese locals and expats say, the city has soul!  Yes, the traffic can make one crazy, street kids press themselves up against your window asking for change, and the presence of open sewers prohibits breathing through the nose, but if you’re the kind of person who, like me, romanticizes the pre-Giuliani days of New York City, you will love modern day Jakarta.

*****

The Double Six is to the surfing world what the Sun Records studio is to Elvis fans.  Surfers can find bigger waves elsewhere, and Presley-philes can find gaudier ornamentation at Graceland, sure.  But the Double Six is more than waves.  The Double Six is every Beach Boys song (even if none of them ever surfed a day in their lives), every
Endless Summer movie, and every utterance of “Dude!” from Keanu Reeves’ mouth.  The Double Six is a place of purity.  The sand is white, board rentals are cheap, and the surf is up.

The tides can be temperamental, so the surfer should expect to spend a lot of time sitting on the board, meditating on the Zen of the sea. Before long though, the placidity of the solemn surface gives way to a surge that seems to scream, “Ride me out or be destroyed.”  Watching the surfers from the shore, a single wave takes down one rider after
another like the killing fields of an old war movie.  Yet there is always that one determined wave trooper, usually a local teenager half my age, who skims the voluptuous blue bosom, playfully slapping the inside curl with his fingertips, akin to a burning fighter jet with nothing left to lose.

And me?  You’ll see me for a few seconds.  You’ll see my face alight as the inertia of the wave takes hold of my fate and fires up my adrenaline.  You’ll see my long board searing through the azule water as the convex turns to crushing foam.  You may even see me hop onto my feet and struggle for balance as the gods of the sea (whom the Balinese believe to be quite angry and difficult to please) attempt to smash my face into the sand beneath the shallow sea.  They always succeed.

I’m sure veterans gripe about the development of the last 30 years or so; I doubt that in 1979 the Double Six featured a bungee tower from which you can jump while mounted on a motorbike.  However, as you drag your beaten, sometimes bloody body back to the shore, sand dripping from the bottoms of your shorts, hair all akimbo and salty, board rash across the front of your torso, the tattooed Balinese guy who rented you the board gives you a high five and hands you a cold, fresh Bintang with a layer of ice around the bottle and a rubber coozie to keep it that way.  You plop down next to your surf buddies and brag about each other as the sun goes down and a bevy of locals beats bongos and strums guitars somewhere down the beach.  Further in the distance, the sound of someone dropping 45 meters, straddling a Suzuki, echoes.  Nonetheless, this is paradise. For now.

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