I have to confess, the first time I went to Bali I wasn’t that impressed. It was crowded, it was chaotic, and it was (relatively) expensive. It wasn’t the island paradise I’d been expecting – the relaxed, easy-going, quiet world where we could walk to everything and everywhere we’d ever want that I had built up in my head. Instead, a crush of traffic greeted us as we set off to our first destination, Ubud. It felt like we never left the city on our way there, one built-up area flowed into the next, with nary a rice paddy to be seen along the journey. It took us 2 hours to move 20 kms, and even then we didn’t actually arrive at our hostel. After 2 hours of chaos, our cab driver kicked us out and told us to walk the rest of the way, there was no way he was going to be able to make it all the way there. (Thankfully we only had about 2 km left to go at this point and we found free wifi at a restaurant to help us find our way). Ubud was nice, and I did see rice paddies and a bit of nature eventually, but we quickly left for a week in Gili Trawanganan, a small island off the coast of Lombok. We spent our last night in Kuta, Bali to be near the airport before heading home, and I left Bali feeling pretty indifferent about the island. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.
Thankfully, I took a second chance to go back to Bali, and I am so, so, so glad that I did. I had the fortunate misfortune of being temporarily laid off from work for the summer, which meant I had a few months with no obligations (and no income). Obviously, staying home was out of the question, but I needed to go somewhere that wouldn’t completely drain my savings account either. Hello, Bali!
This time around, I based myself at Stormrider Surf Camp in Canggu. The traffic out of the airport was exactly as I’d remembered it, but once we got close to Canggu the cluttered buildings gave way and suddenly it felt like we were actually travelling through countryside. Real, authentic, rural Bali. The surf camp itself was exactly what I had been expecting, and missed out on, the first time I went to Bali. Small, quiet, and unassuming. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, the dorm room was spacious, clean, comfortable. And everything was BEAUTIFUL. (honestly, I wish I was STILL here)
But this isn’t a story about life at the surf camp (future blog post coming on this topic). This is a story about how surfing everyday, a few adventures with new friends, and unbridled enthusiasm from others helped me view some things from a different perspective and made me fall in love in Bali.
Bali is famed for its beautiful beaches and amazing surf. No matter the conditions, there is always somewhere you can go to catch a wave, whether you’re a total beginner or a pro or anyone in between. The tepid water almost feels like jumping into a warm bath, and the shoreline stretches out seemingly forever. I’m not a morning person. At all. But there’s something about getting up bright and early, strapping your surfboard to the roof of a van, and setting out for the beach that makes mornings ok. Within days I was hooked on the morning ritual. Wake, throw on a bathing suit, sleepily eat breakfast, strap board on roof of van, drive to the beach. It’s therapeutic to sit on the beach and watch the sets roll in, wave after wave crashing on the shore. Calming to grab that wax and rub your board down, taking time to inhale deeply the sticky sweet scent of surf wax. And then you get excited while you pull your rashguard over your head, strap your leash to your ankle, and grab your board. One, two, three, four, five steps running into the sea and suddenly you’re lying on your board, paddling out and diving under pounding waves to make your way out into the water. Surfing requires strength and skill, but also an equal amount of patience and respect for Mother Nature. My first couple days I didn’t really get that, and I sat out there trying to catch every wave I saw coming. Quickly, I learned you’ll get nowhere fast if you don’t sit there, enjoy the moment, and wait for the right time to start paddling. Lesson #1: breathe, relax, be patient, and enjoy the moment. Instead of trying to paddle my little heart out and catch every wave I started looking around, started noticing small nuances of where it was easier to paddle, easier to catch waves, and also noticed how relaxed I was myself, how easy it was to get outside my own head, and just be there, in Bali.
Of course, the minute you leave the beach, Bali can start to feel pretty hectic again. Scooters are EVERYWHERE on the roads, and more often than not, driving where they shouldn’t be. Sidewalks, opposing lanes of traffic, weaving in and out of cars, there doesn’t really seem to be any rules to where they can and can’t go. A couple of girls from the hostel invited me along with them to visit a waterfall they’d heard of. From the map, it didn’t appear to be far, and it would be a fun way to spend an afternoon. Thing is, the closest thing to scootering I’d ever done before was riding an ebike through Bagan, Myanmar (where there was SIGNIFICANTLY less traffic to contend with). No matter, how hard can it be? I hired a scooter and got ready to follow Caitlin and Lucy to Kanto Lampo waterfall. I was not given a helmet with my scooter. Within minutes, Caitlin’s knees were bloodied from a fall off her bike and I was beginning to second guess our ability to make it to the waterfall alive. A quick stop for some petrol and bandaids for Caitlin and we were off, joining the hoards of other traffic on the road. Lucy drove in front, with Caitlin on the back of their bike holding the map and directing. With a pounding heart, a body tensed with stress, and visions of my skull cracked open on the pavement, I followed them and we edged our way through the masses. Twice, other traffic cut in between us and I lost sight of the girls. Which would have been fine, but they were the ones with the map, and not only did I not know how to get to the waterfall myself, I also had no idea how to turn around and get back to the hostel if I had to. Avoiding other scooters and cars, avoiding crashing and decorating the road with my unprotected head, and repeating under my breath “it’s going to be ok, you’ll find them again, it’s going to be ok” I weaved my way through the cars, speeding much faster than I was actually comfortable with. Eventually, I caught up to them again and two hours later we had finally found Kanto Lampo. IT WAS HELL. Or at least, it was for me. But when we got to the waterfall, Caitlin jumped off the back of the bike, “wasn’t that amazing?! I just LOVE scootering around!! This place is so BEAUTIFUL!” Wait, what?! I hated the trip. I thought I was going to die or get lost in Bali forever, or some other horrible thing. Amazing, fun, beautiful. These were not adjectives I would have used to describe the trip to the waterfall. The waterfall itself, however, was beautiful. We paid the 5000 rupiah entrance fee, and some Indonesian guys helped us down the cliff and into the river below the falls. One of the guys offered to take photos for us on our camera and the other helped us clamber up the rocks under the waterfall. We thought to ourselves, for sure they’re going to want money for this. But after a lovely swim in the falls and the river, they helped us back up the rocks and said goodbye. They didn’t want money at all. Perhaps our measly $0.50 fee paid for locals to help the few tourists who made it out here? Perhaps they were just doing it out of their own accord. We never knew for sure, but one thing was certain, outside of the busy tourist areas, these people seemed happy to talk to us and help out without ever asking for anything in return. Spirits lifted, we returned to our bikes to start the long journey home. Slightly less scary than the trip out, but still stressful, we ended up in peak Bali rush hour traffic for longer than anyone would have been happy with. Finally, only 4km from the hostel, the inevitable happened. Lucy & Caitlin’s bike had a flat tire. We pulled into the nearest petrol station and called the hostel, “can you send someone to help us?” In the end, nobody fixed the flat. Two surf guides showed up where we were waiting. One jumped on the bike with the flat and drove it back to the hostel as-is. The other took Lucy on the back of his bike, and Caitlin jumped onto the back of mine. Great. I was just getting the hang of this scooter thing solo, how am I supposed to do this now? “Don’t worry,” Caitlin assured me, “it’s just like driving with one person.” I was unconvinced, but Caitlin had a helmet, so I figured if we crashed she’d fare better than me anyways, so it would probably be ok. Flustered, I accidentally turned right into the right-hand lane (Bali drives on the left), but the traffic just sort of parted ways and let us through without incident. Apparently Balinese drivers are used to people going all over the place. By this time it was completely dark, and we soon figured out my bike did not have a working headlight. It was fine while we were on the main roads with lots of traffic, but our last 2km was on a very dark, very unlit road, with hardly any traffic. We would not see a thing! Handing Caitlin my phone, she turned the flashlight on and directed it on the road in front of us. And so we made it to the hostel at last, tired, hungry, and holding a phone up for light. “Well, that was fun!” my passenger said as she hopped off the back of the bike. And you know what, it was fun. Even though I did not drive a scooter again for the rest of my trip. Lesson #2: adventures are fun, and aren’t supposed to go according to plan. Instead of being stressed about it, find something to enjoy about it. As Lucy said while we waited at the petrol station “of course we should get a flat. It wouldn’t have been a real adventure otherwise.”
I may not have driven another scooter after that fateful day, but I did take one more scooter trip during my time in Bali. This time, I rode on the back of Lucy’s bike and gave directions as she drove to Ubud. We were on our way to the Sacred Monkey Forest for one last day of sightseeing before Lucy left for Scotland. This time, we used my phone and Google maps for directions, and it ended up being an incredibly enjoyable trip through rural backroads. I don’t know how Google did it, but it managed to avoid almost all of the busy roads and directed us through some of the most amazing scenery I’d seen so far in Bali. Aside from a couple instances when I honestly thought Lucy was going to crash our bike, the trip was relaxed and almost traffic free. We cruised through farms and terraced rice paddies, watched processions on their way to various Hindu temples, past children splashing and swimming in the irrigation canals, and winded our way through jungle and ravines on our way to Ubud. Once in Ubud, the traffic was again horrendous, but walking through the monkey forest was beautiful and we stayed in Ubud to have dinner at a great little Italian restaurant. This time, on a bike with a headlight, we took our time on the way home in the dark and didn’t worry about a thing. Lesson #3: Bali is really beautiful. Like, really, REALLY beautiful. Lesson #4: I prefer to be the passenger and not the driver when it comes to scooters.
My last two days in Bali were spent alone at Jimbaran. No more surf camp, no hostel, no friends to hang out with. And I realized, I missed it. All of it. Getting up early every morning to go surfing, the burning shoulder muscles from paddling, countless litres of saltwater inhaled up my nose, quiet evenings of mie goreng and Bintang, playing Yahtzee with the Germans, sharing my dorm room with 7 other people who were now my friends, and yes, even being stuck in traffic on the way to the beach, or riding scooters and having adventures. My second day at Jimbaran I walked up to the main road to Uluwatu and just walked through the crowds and alongside the scootering masses. Because lesson #5: everything is beautiful if you just give it a chance.
I can’t wait to return to this island paradise and go surfing again. And yes, I may even hire another scooter and try exploring some more of the island. And you know? If you leave Kuta and Seminyak behind, Bali really isn’t expensive at all, especially if you eat at local warungs (cafes) instead of looking for more established (and westernized) restaurants. Everyone I met on this trip was so friendly and so helpful, from my fellow travelers in the hostel, to the surf guides taking us out surfing every day, to the local fisherman down on the beach eager to show off a part of his life. I fell in love with the real Bali, the Bali where little boys grow up body surfing on broken pieces of wood, where farmers plant rice, and fisherman still row out on tiny boats. I fell in love with the Bali where everyone has a smile to offer and no one is in a hurry to do anything. Because really, being in a hurry is pointless, you’re going to have to spend 2 hours in traffic to get anywhere anyways. Lesson #6: always leave your assumptions at home. It’s a mistake to do anything else.