Sunday, May 19, 2013


Whenever I get into a taxi in Bali, it's always the same. First come the pleasantries - exchanges of names and places of origin - then comes the inevitable upselling. It's not enough for you to want to pay them to drive you from Point A to Point B. You have to be keen to want them to drive you from Point B to Point C, then Point D, then Point E, and so on down into the nether regions of the alphabet.

“You been to Ubud? I take you to Ubud," they invariably say, as Ubud is both a) beautiful and b) a long taxi ride from the urban sprawl. "Very traditional. I take you to see the real Bali.”

My internal response is, "But I don’t want to see the real Bali... unless the real Bali has $7 cosmopolitans. Which seems unlikely, if only for the fact that the cosmopolitan wasn't invented until 1986."

My external response is to simply smile and nod, as the internal response, spoken aloud, would probably paint me as some sort of shallow, selfish alcoholic. And that would never do.

However, even shallow, selfish alcoholics are occasionally dragged off the broad and winding road of shallowness, selfishness and booze and forced onto the straight and narrow path of cultural exploration and insight. And so it was this afternoon that I found myself at Tanah Lot.

Of course the straight and narrow path here is figurative. The path to Tanah Lot was like all roads in Bali - convoluted, slow, and choked with minivans and scooters. Unlike the roads in Australia, which are ruthlessly monitored for any transgression of the innumerable rules, Bali roads are cheerfully chaotic. There may be laws governing helmets, seatbelts, loads, numbers of passengers, right of way and lanes, but there is no evidence of them ever being enforced. The minivans plough along with a posse of scooters surrounding them on all sides, like thoughtful, lumbering whales accompanied by shoals of darting fish. The vans have a certain priority due to their bulk, but the scooters make up for it by being able to slip through tiny breaks in the traffic. It's traffic management by social consensus, and I find it perversely appealing.

Tanah Lot, when one eventually gets there, turns out to be a Hindu temple built into a crag of rock the size of a couple of tennis courts, sitting a just a few dozen metres offshore. At low tide it's possible to wade across to it, but it was high tide when we visited, and apparently the monks aren't too keen on tourists at the best of times.

This is understandable, as Tanah Lot is a pilgrimmage site, and there were literally thousands of people bustling around outside it. Apparently the Thing To Do at Tanah Lot is to watch the sunset, so the shore was crowded with Balinese, other Indonesians, and a handful of confused white people, all jostling to find the best place to watch the sun sink into the sea.

At one point an Indonesian girl approached my friend and me and made a gesture with her camera and pointed at a group of her friends. We assumed she wanted us to take a picture of all of them, and we obliged. But we'd got it wrong. She wanted us to be in the picture with the friends. And so we found ourselves surrounded by giggling Indonesian Muslim girls, while the original girl, and her friend, and someone else who was possibly her dad, all snapped merrily away. I wondered if random white guys really so rare and fascinating that it’s worth inserting them into your holiday snaps, but I can't see any other reason for it.

The Sumo regarded it all with a resigned belligerence that suggests that his spirit animal is Grumpy Cat.

Lord Vader, however, found his blackened heart warmed by the sight of the amber sun sinking through grey and white clouds.

And eventually the two of them discovered a degree of fraternity in the twilight's evanescent glow.

Until the Grumpy Sumo discovered Bintang.

Then it was all over for the night.


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