Bali Virgin – 1986

Bali Virgin – 1986

I was a student nurse when my fellow nurse friend J suggested going to Bali for our holidays. It would be my first overseas trip by plane. I had been on a cruise around the pacific islands 3 years before. But Bali? I knew nothing about it. She did. She’d been twice before so knew what she was talking about. She suggested a week in Ubud up in the hills & a week in Legian near Kuta beach. I didn’t want to spend a week in the mountains, I whined. Can’t we just stay at the beach? No.

I was told it was hot, so I packed accordingly. We were flying with Garuda. Only Garuda or Qantas flew to Bali from Australia then. I have a feeling there were no direct flights from Melbourne, because we had to fly to Sydney & kill an hour or two between connecting flights. 8 hours to get to Bali. We arrived late afternoon or early evening I think. 

Passengers applauded & cheered when our plane successfully landed. It did look like we were going to land in the ocean because it was all we could see. The landing on the tarmac was bumpy.  Apparently there were lots of potholes on the single runway. I didn’t know then that Garuda had a reputation for having a poor safety record.  Metal steps were wheeled over to the side of the plane & there was a short walk to the international terminal. My first impression of Bali was a nearly tangible heat as I stepped out of the plane, a smell of petrol fumes combined with the smell of cloves, which I learned were from the popular brands Gudang Garam or Bentoel clove cigarettes.

Transport had been organised with our Ubud hotel – a white mini van collected us & we commenced our hour-long journey to Ubud. There were no traffic lights that I can recall. A better built road led from the airport & gradually became smaller the further inland we drove. The buildings along the way were momentarily illuminated by our headlights & most looked in poor repair.  I won’t judge, as this is a ‘third world’ country.  Little warungs with a single light globe suspended over a bench seat in front of tiers of arranged wares were a common sight.  There seemed to be deep gutters along either side of the road & makeshift ramps to houses. J reeled off names of villages as we passed through. Batubulan with its row upon row of stone statues for sale. Celuk with its larger better quality buildings displaying signs for gold & silver. Mas with sign after sign denoting woodworkers. I wondered how they managed to make a living with such a high concentration of each speciality in one village.

Traffic was light, but our driver seemed to toot the horn often. It was not a sign of what the hell are you doing or get the hell out of my way, as the car horn is used in Australia. Instead, it was a reminder that I’m behind you so be careful or I’m about to overtake you. It also meant that I’m coming through the intersection or around a blind bend.  The roads to Ubud were narrow, tarred a smidgen wider than a single lane, so a lot of giving way by driving half on the dirt or pulling into driveways & waiting to pass.  Motor bike riders drove down the centre of the road, only moving to one side if tooted.  They weren’t wearing helmets. A lot of them were wearing jackets in this heat! I don’t recall seeing any street lighting, so my early impressions of Bali was that it is very dark at night. Thankfully I packed a torch!

J is suddenly excited. We are in Ubud! The road winds downward to a bridge & then turns to the right as we ascend to our hotel. Hotel Tjampuhan. J was recognised & greeted warmly at reception. We were booked in and taken to our room. Steps. There are an abundance of steps. I could hear the sound of running water as we followed the porters downwards, across, downwards, upwards & downwards again, with our suitcases perched on their shoulders as if they weighed nothing. The pathways were cobbled cement & stone, dotted with small lanterns. We arrived at a 2 storey bungalow. Once through the door, a narrow staircase took us up to our room. A double bed took pride of place in the centre of the room, with dimly lit lamps on either side. A single bed lay at right angles to the double & a door led out to the balcony. A bamboo and woven rattan wardrobe with no doors stood near the head of the double bed. There was no other furniture inside that I can remember. Two low cushioned bamboo chairs & a table with a batik tablecloth sat on the covered balcony, pot plants abounded & a wooden statue tethered to the roof swung gently in the breeze. I don’t think there was any glass in the windows, just flyscreen.  The walls of the room were made of woven rattan & the ceiling was steeply pitched with rows of neat bamboo poles to which the thatch was tied. A fan rotated idly, suspended from a structural beam – it made a clicking noise. On the end of each bed lay freshly picked white & yellow frangipani flowers & a folded towel. The porter lit a mosquito coil & placed it under the double bed before departing. Downstairs to the right of the exit door was a small bathroom with a toilet, shower, wash basin & mirror. Fortunately in my younger days I was reasonably fit, so stairs were not an issue.

I magnanimously surrendered the double bed to J. We unpacked, laid our suitcases on top of the wardrobe & then sat out on the balcony for a smoke. Yes, we were both smokers back then. We’d each bought a carton of Alpine menthol duty-free for about $5. J bought a bottle of Malibu & I think I bought a bottle of Tia Maria or Bailey’s Irish Cream.  Despite the sound of the river running in the darkness below, it was quiet here. A faint mumble of voices could be heard from our neighbours – there were four rooms to each bungalow. We were both tired so had an early night. I couldn’t read because there was no light on my side of the room. I would probably have had to hold the book directly under the lamp to read anyway, it was so dim. The wattage of the bulbs were about as bright as an oven pilot light.

It appears I am an early riser when in Bali & J is not. Our hotel is built on the steep slope of a valley with a river running through it. Sitting on the balcony in my nightie, I took note of my surroundings. Tropical vegetation flourished. Humungous frangipani trees and palms were almost at eye level.  Tiny birds were chattering & to my delight several squirrels leapt acrobatically amongst the branches. I’ve never seen squirrels before. So busy! And much smaller than I thought.  There were butterflies visiting the pot plants. I could hear roosters crowing from somewhere nearby & the faint hum of motorbikes on the road. Then I heard this rhythmic brushing noise – an elderly groundsman is sweeping up the leaves & flowers from the pathway with his broom of coconut leaf reeds. A noise that is synonymous with mornings in Bali – a noise I grew to love in the coming years. He looked up, saw me & smiled. I smiled back.

It’s only 6ish in the morning. I rescue my novel & quietly read & smoked until J emerged from sleep. There is no TV in our room. There is one TV in the whole hotel. I don’t think there was a telephone in our room either.  Mobile phones had not been invented yet, nor had the internet.  Later that day we made a very expensive phone call home from reception to let our parents know we had arrived safely.  Our only other form of communication was sending postcards via the mail. Mind you, they were usually delivered after we’d returned home, defeating the purpose somewhat.

At last J was awake & joined me on the balcony. We were both hungry. Breakfast & dinner were included in our tariff. Breakfast was to be served on our balcony. J had stayed here before, so knew how to summon our houseboy. The wooden statue hanging in the corner under the eaves had a removable ‘appendage’ that sat erect in a groove in its base, if you catch my drift. It’s used to strike the hollow statue – a small kulkul. J summoned our houseboy – Ketut Karta, or Jimmy Carter as he was known & he arrived dressed in a traditional batik sarong, plain shirt & head cloth (udang) with a broad grin & hug for J. This was her 3rd stay at Hotel Tjampuhan. Pleasantries were exchanged & I was introduced. Breakfast ordered: fresh pineapple juice, tropical fruit (pineapple, banana & papaya with a wedge of lime) & a cheese & tomato omelette. It became my staple morning fare. Yummy. I’m not a hot drink person. I loathe coffee & rarely drink tea. The pineapple juice became a firm favourite. It was divine.

After showering, it was time to explore the hotel grounds. Out on the pathway I could see we were about half way up the slope. I could see more bungalows higher up. There was a smaller stand-alone bungalow of a different building type a few steps up from ours, with a small ornamental pond. It was the house of Walter Spies, a German painter who lived there in the 1930s. Down the steps took us to a tennis court, which could be partly seen from our balcony & a little further along was a uniquely shaped pool, fed from an underground spring.  A frangipani tree stood guard above, allowing gifts of fragrant flowers to gently drop into the pool below. Not far away was the Tjampuhan river – not wide but fast flowing. In one word, the area was lush. And green, so so green. A screech drew us up many of the steps to investigate the cage of the resident male peacock. Noisy much? Across the path from the cage to nearby foliage hung a huge spider web with the biggest mother of a spider I have ever seen in my life insitu. ARGH! It must eat birds, that one! I’m not staying around for an introduction. Instead I bolted in the other direction, waiting to hear J’s scream (which came!) as she spotted the multi-legged monster before following in hot pursuit. Arachnophobia times two. It is energy-draining having an adrenaline surge in tropical heat!

Our hotel was a decent walk into the main township of Ubud, & partly uphill. We walked alongside the tall stone walls of our hotel, down past the Beggars Bush pub around the corner on the left, across the Tjampuhan bridge with the famous Murni’s Warung & shop on the right. I have very fond memories of her cashew nut pie with vanilla ice cream. Mmmm.

Next to Murni’s is a group of shops selling linens, carvings, jewellery and masks. The road becomes steeper as we pass through the cutout with its steep retaining walls covered in trailing vines, with tall trees & shrubs casting shade on either side.  A low hum of childish shrieks & laughter can be heard – there must be a school nearby. I recall that most of the shops along the main street were not fixed price. I had to learn to bargain, which I hated. I bought a batik sarong in one, paying just over half the starting price, a ‘special morning price’. I was quite chuffed with myself for my bargaining skills but at the same time felt a little ashamed because the price was so low. Then I was approached by a hawker on the street whose starting price for a sarong was less than what I’d just paid. My shame quickly disappeared. You don’t see nearly as many hawkers nowadays in Ubud. They were responsive to a no thanks & a shake of the head on the whole. Having pale white skin made me a bit of a target – no need to tattoo ‘Newbie’ across my forehead!  A bit unfair really, because I freckle rather than tan.

On our right we came to the very popular Ubud Music shop. Hold onto your hats folks, because bootleg music cassettes were huge business in Bali in 1986, just as DVDs are today. And yes, you had a long list of requests from family & friends, just like with DVDs.  We bought lots of ‘best of’ compilation cassettes during the early years. Many of them came with the song lyrics tucked inside the cassette box.   It was someone’s job to listen to the music & write down what they thought was sung, but was often not the case. Many a giggle was had reading these amusing translations. I wonder what they would have written for Blinded By The Light, by Manfred Man? It took me years of flubbing over those lines before I learnt the true lyrics!   There were some music stores that had a cassette players & later, CD players so you could take your selection over to the shopkeeper to play & you could listen with head phones. Try-before-you-buy.  The music shops were also home to the hippest Balinese young men. The Ubud music shop had a Kodak/Fuji counter where you could drop your camera film off for development. We were very impressed with this service as it was done in a fraction of the time it took at home and it was cheaper.  Our photos were presented in little flip display folders. I still have them, 30 years on. (hoarder much?) The music store was also a good money changer.  Traveller’s cheques were the most common way to take spending money overseas.  I don’t think Bali had ATMs at the time. The exchange rate was always better for traveller’s cheques than cash, but it meant carrying your passport with you all the time.  I had one of those pouches that hang around your neck under your clothes until I graduated to a bumbag.  Not ideal in the tropics, but what can you do? 

On the other side of the road was the Cafè Lotus, with its beautiful vista of lotus ponds in front of Pura Taman Saraswati – a temple honouring the goddess of wisdom, learning & the arts. Ancient moss-covered stone carvings with water spouts surround the rectangular ponds. Single tall stems of bright pink lotus flowers rose majestically from within their lily pads. Beautiful & serene. We popped into the Cafè for an overpriced drink before going camera mad. Cafe Lotus was also my first introduction to squat toilets. The trick was to remove the whole leg from clothing on one side & hold it to avoid stretching undies elastic.

On one corner of the intersection is the Ubud Palace, home to nightly Balinese dance performances. Opposite is a large bale banjar – a roofed open-air community meeting hall.  One night Karta & his mate took us to see a movie there.  Locally screened movies were advertised by loudspeaker on the back of a travelling pick-up truck, with a painting of the movie as advertising, standing up on the flatbed.  The movie was projected onto a large white bedsheet at the back of the bale. Rows of bench seats were full of locals. J & I were the only white people there & somewhat of a curiosity. We watched a Jackie Chan movie (my first) in Chinese with Indonesian subtitles. Every now & then Karta would whisper a translation that was not required, usually during a fight scene.  Words were unnecessary. We nibbled on sunflower & pumpkin seeds – no popcorn here! Half the intersecting streets were closed – awash with parked motorbikes from cinema patrons. 

Diagonally opposite is the Ubud Market. It was very different from what stands there today. It was very cramped, hot, crowded & noisy. The top end of Monkey Forest Road had warungs, restaurants, homestays & very few hotels. The rest of the street was lined with rice paddies stretching back to the forest. It was beautiful. It was quiet. It was not crowded & there were no traffic jams.  I have a photo of a duck herder walking through the rice paddies with his charges. This is a time before they renovated the monkey forest itself. You could stop by the side of the road just after the bend & hope you’d see some macaque monkeys after someone called for them. An elderly woman took donations at a little hut if you wanted to enter the forest to see the temple. A sarong & temple scarf were required. She also sold bunches of small bananas you could feed to the monkeys. The baby monkeys were so cute with their little wrinkled faces & tufts of sticking up black hair.

After lunching at a cafè, we walked back in a U-shape via Hanoman Street, back to the main road. Our walk back was a hot one. We could have hailed a bemo. Back then they were different – like a small flatbed pick ups with a covered metal roof on the back & bench seats either side within. They were painted a pale blue & were everywhere. But we walked. We stopped for a drink near the music shop & sat on the steps to drink our Seven-Up & Coke. Canned drinks were rare. The seller gets a refund on the empty bottles so would follow you to make sure they got the bottle back. I got stalked at Ulu Watu for my empty bottle once! There were no bar fridges back then, so stocking up on soft drink wasn’t practical. They were bought from the bar at the hotel & drunk on the spot or your empties were collected the next day from your room.  The ice truck made a daily delivery – a large block of ice would be carried by huge ice picks from the flat bed to the hotel bar. 

The hotel bar was located at the end of the lounge, which consisted of cushioned chairs & small tables set up on a big stone balcony overlooking the river, which you really couldn’t see for foliage. A few steps above the lounge was the dining room. There were no tables for 2 here. Communal dining at tables for 6-8. It was a great way to meet people & chat about what to see & do & what you had already seen & done. Dinner was included in our tariff & consisted of a small buffet of traditional Indonesian dishes. A lot of the time I had no idea what I was eating. I did love a spicy snake bean dish which made a regular appearance. The food was great.  We usually had some sort of fruit for dessert – cooked Salak or Jackfruit or Star fruit. All delicious.

The time between sundown & the night is brief in Bali. Minutes rather than hours. And in those periods of dusk I had my first bat encounter. In the diningroom one flew, dived & swooped to our accompanied squeals. It came awfully close. It was small but fast. Once darkness descended it either disappeared to terrorise someone else or was still doing its swooping dance but I could no longer see it.  The lighting again was very dim & there were only tea light candles on the table. Dinner by brail. The electricity in Ubud was unstable for quite a few years. I was solely responsible for an outage when I plugged in my hairdryer for the first time in the bathroom. First & last time. I had a perm, so it didn’t really matter but I did have to go to bed with wet hair.

Karta & one of his mates took us sightseeing on their motor bikes after they finished work. They did get us helmets, but it was not the norm. At the time it was only law to wear them in Denpasar. I loved being on the back of the motorbike. Such fun with a smidge of danger. We went all the way up to Kintamani overlooking the volcanic Lake Batur, with Mt Batur in the background. It was beautiful, if a little foggy in places. The boys took us along the road around the rim until we got an optimal view. 

Then we went to Pura Besakih – the mother temple: the holiest & biggest temple built over 2000 years ago on the side of Mt Agung. Again it was entry by donation & we could see that some guest book entries had been doctored with extra zeros on donation amounts. Not very subtle. Again, sarongs & temple scarfs were a requirement of entry. It was a steep walk from the car park to the famous gates at the entrance to the temple. And lots and lots of steps. If I’d had a Fitbit back then…..haha! The temple was divided into lots of smaller ones & the view from the very top was amazing! Fortunately, there was a drinks stand at the top where more soft drink bottles were stalked. Climbing was hot work. Coming back down we paused at a few market stalls but didn’t buy anything. Kites seemed very popular.

I had a very sore posterior going over the bumps & potholes on the the way back to Ubud. This side of the road was not as well maintained for some reason. Foolishly when we arrived back at the hotel I climbed off the wrong side of the bike & burnt my inner calf on the hot exhaust pipe. Such a rookie mistake, and I was definitely a rookie! Karta found some aloe vera growing in a pot plant & spread the sticky sap over my burn. It healed really well. When we removed our helmets & sunglasses, both J & I burst out laughing, despite my pain. Our faces were black from the exhaust with white rims where our sunnies had been. We looked like black & white minstrels.

We also got bike rides to visit Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave in Bedulu. It wasn’t far from Ubud. The cave looks nothing like an elephant. It was a place where Buddhists went to meditate in the 11th century. The compound had statues and bales & was close to a river. Across the road was a leather market. Most of the leather was in shades of tan. I bought an Akubra shaped hat & J bought a handbag.  We visited a few other places on the bike. It was easier to tour around back then. There was less traffic & less tourists. 

We were taken up to Sayan, turning right out of the hotel & up the hill. There are a few hotels & restaurants along this stretch of road, but most of it was farmed with rice paddies. It was picturesque. Not built up like it is today. You could see Mt Agung from the side of the road. A photographer’s dream. Not far from the end of the road was a T- intersection. There are some very exclusive & expensive hotels along this stretch of road, like the Amandari, but Cahaya Dewata Resort was pretty much it in the mid-1980s. After pulling into what looked like a paddock, we walked through a patch of bushy jungle, scaring some free-range chickens in the process until we came across this new restaurant called Kupu Kupu Barong.  Half of it was on stilts perched over the edge of a deep river gorge. The restaurant itself did not have a wall facing the sheer drop to death, just a rolled-up bamboo blind and a whopping big telescope. We were the only patrons, so we had a drink & banana pancakes before we put the telescope to good use. The view was amazing.

There were terraced rice paddies from the top of the gorge all the way to the base, with zig zagged paths amongst tall palm trees. Through the telescope we could see labourers carrying baskets of rock on their heads walking from the bottom to the top. I wondered if they were the same height by the end of each workday or if their heavy trek squished the discs in their spine. Hell of a way to earn a living. Karta & his mate told us that white water rafting happens on this river. I reckon the view above downwards is better than the wet view upwards! A few years later, Kupu Kupu Barong built a resort & spa next door, with a pool very similar in shape to Hotel Tjampuhan’s. It is popular with honeymooners.

At night after dinner, J & I would wander down to the Beggars Bush pub by torchlight for a drink & some company.  The owner was a member of Hash House Harriers & he took people out on bird walks. When the pub first opened, you won yourself a free beer if you managed to hook a ring tied with string suspended from a rafter three times over a steer horn mounted on a pole in front of the wall. I spent hours swinging that ring & not once did I hook it. J did it once. The bartenders were good value to talk to & if you waited long enough, some of the locals would come in for a chat and game of backgammon. Living the high life even back in my 20s! I visited the bar often when I stayed at Hotel Tjampuhan on later solo trips & made friends with a barman M & his Aussie girlfriend J there. We were pen friends for a few years, even after they married & moved to NSW.

One night I was woken from a deep sleep by J’s screams. What the hell, had someone broken in? I grabbed my torch from under my pillow (no lamp near me) & found J jumping up & down in the middle of the bed hysterical. Rat! There was a rat! Where? I can’t see a rat? She said she heard it scampering along the bed head, inches from her head. I got up & turned the light on. My salak fruit that I bought from the market was gone. Rat thief! I reassured J & eventually, she settled down & believed me that her shrieks had sent it packing all the way to Java! I was wrong. Once lights had been out for about five minutes, noises could be heard. I shone my torch above the wardrobe & spotted our rodent thief turning tail up in the corner of the ceiling & disappear. I’m not fond of rats. We left the lights on from then on & it did not revisit…to our knowledge.  It did, however, leave a calling card on my new leather Akubra hat that I had left on top of our suitcases on the wardrobe!  And that hat never made it out of the room except in the bin. Febreze wasn’t invented then. Phew, did rat pee stink! And that wasn’t the only time J’s scream broke the sound barrier either! She found a huge spider in her towel when going for a shower. Don’t look at me, I’m not going in to get it! A quick dash to the mini kulkul on the balcony & I summoned Karta. In superhero mode, he picked it up in his bare hands as if it were a butterfly & let it go in the garden. Ew,ew,ew! (shudder)

I loved Ubud. It was an eclectic mix of artists shops, cafes and restaurants whilst maintaining its rural roots. Soon our week was up so it was time to go down to Legian. Hugs all around in reception as we said our goodbyes with promises to come back & stay again soon.

Going down to Kuta & Legian was almost like culture shock. It was full of hungover surfers, drunk Aussies & westernised Balinese. Prime job was to work in a music shop, dress flamboyantly & name yourself after a pop star. Traffic was busier, it was hotter despite being closer to the beach & it was pretty built up. I wanted to go back to Ubud.  Our hotel was very budget – Loji Gardens on Jl Legian. It’s long gone now. It consisted of a U-shape of 2 storey bungalows with a pool in the middle. Our room was upstairs – we had a twin bedded fan-cooled room. It was as hot as a sauna in there. Breakfast consisted of tinned orange juice & a cheese jaffle. If you were lucky, you sometimes got tomato in it. Take me back to Ubuuuudddd!

We did very little touring in Legian. We did go to Tanah Lot on a tour bus but during the day, not at sunset. I have not been to Tanah Lot, the temple on the little island in the sea at sunset to this day. The rest of our time was spent walking around the little laneways & gangs, eating & shopping. We dined one night at Poppies, which was great until I nearly stepped on a rat on the path when we were shown to our table. Again, dim lighting hides many flaws. The food wasn’t memorable. We also people watched at Made’s Warung on bemo corner in Kuta. It was a place to be ‘seen’ & it was jam-packed. We had a table on the mezzanine floor, so our people watching was of other patrons and not the goings-on in the street. I do remember having a delicious fresh strawberry juice there. I believe it still exists, though I’ve never been back there.  It was hot in there. We bought misshapen T-shirts at the Kuta market & from the market on Jl Melasti. I have fond memories of meals at the Bali Too restaurant when we felt like some Aussie food. There was also a big Mum & Pop Chinese restaurant across the road – we ate there too. I think they’re both gone too, as has the Bali Intan Hotel on the corner near the beach. I drew the line at getting my long permed curly hair braided. J got little flowers painted on her nails by the pool one day.  We also ate lobster at Fat Lenny’s, I’m not positive on the name. I do recall that they brought out 2 small live lobsters on a tray for us to choose from – the biggest was doomed I’m afraid. J commented that she hoped they tasted the same as home. Why? Because she’d only ever seen red lobsters & those were black! Bahahahaha! I nearly fell off my chair. I explained how they change colour after cooking!

So there you have it. 30-year-old memories of a bygone era. I did revisit Ubud often & spent several more visits at Hotel Tjampuhan and other hotels over the years, but you’ll have to wait for another entry …

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