Walk like warriors, we were never told to run
Explored the world to return to where my soul had begun,
Never looking back, or too far in front of me
The present is a gift, and I just want to Be.
– Be (Intro), Common
Bali bound. The brochure-beckoning paradise beloved by everybody from the beleaguered backpacker to the surfboarding bro to the barefooted boho beset by beads, baggy trousers and bangles up to elbows. Blue Eye bimbled through blue waters toward this braggadocious utopia, as the boundless abyss above burst with airbus traffic bringing in the beguiled, and bailing out the bedraggled, before Bali itself sunk to the seabed under the burden of its blossoming (blossomed?) tourist business.
A brain filled with blemished and bastardized beliefs about a place with ostensibly bottomless popularity but so blatantly operating beyond its means, my estimations were not bettered by the browning harbour water as we approached the bustling bay of Serangan, which we found betrayed by a bonanza of tourist boats billowing black smoke, bestrewn with bloated and floating bags, and bereft of any of the beauty I have come to expect – no, demand – of the tropics.
But belligerence ebbed. It began with a Bintang – the bafflingly drinkable Indonesian beer – and then a binge on barbecued Balinese grub, all for a couple of bucks, bequeathing these Brits-abroad with a well-being befitting of this little bit of the globe. And then a blithe band of Balinese brothers with beatific smiles join our table to welcome us and bestow us with brilliant company. This is better.
Abandoning Blue Eye to bob and barnacle-ise in the besmirched bay we headed inland. Two brothers – Josh and Ed – bounced onto busy tarmac at Bali’s airport, and from there on all locals believed that the four beerbibbers bounding between Bintang bars must be two sets of twins: Josh and Ed both blond of bonnet and long of biped, and James and I hair-bunned and brushed brown by boat life, destined to bewilder all Balinese we came across henceforth.
If the skies and seas embalming Bali were bustling, the interior was bona fide bedlam. Brigades of bikes brisked back and forth with but an inch between them, blanketing the roads like bees over a beehive. But what at first looked like anarchy transpired to be organised chaos, guided by a collective bee-like conscience that the Balinese share amongst themselves, and that bit by bit Bali-goers buy into too. We became bees boldly buzzing across busy intersections in the blur as bedazzling as it was barbaric. At times it must surely bash people together and beset them to bandages, or at least blow things up into a blustering barney, but in all our time beeing on bikes we don’t see it once, because in Bali there is an implicit understanding of how to bee, and how to be.
To be balanced. Balanced on ones bike, of course, but also balanced of nature. The backstreets of Bali might be blockaded by the bountiful bikes, but even in the midday blaze where brows ooze a blend of brine and beer beneath a breathless helmet, the vibes are anything but bellicose. It never boils over into broils: rage is simply not a way of being here, road-bound or otherwise.
There can probably be no better faiths to pile traffic jams on than the Buddhist and Hindu building blocks upon which Bali is based. The former, famously calm; the latter, a religion that reveres the cow purely for its gentle nature. Thus the Balinese abide in a perpetual bottleneck but go about their business seemingly oblivious, routinely making their bi-daily offerings in small bamboo trays to the likes of Brahma on bristling pavements, and bowing bonces to statues on the side of bombinating roads to pray quite unbothered.
As the night beckons, bevies of beautiful tourists (border control must rebuff the ugly Bali-hopefuls, because there is barely an objectionable face in sight) emerge from bathrooms to bequeath themselves to booze and boogying in bamboo bars. Bouncers beam smiles and benevolently beseech the return of feet to flip-flops in a manner absolutely befuddling after years of subjection to bestial, blaspheming bouncers in Blighty. It might be the beer blathering, but Bali is beginning to beguile and besot because it seems to bestow everybody with some sort of betterment that they won’t quite be able to take back with them. Flip-flops are boisterously kicked back off because in Bali you are being, and who was ever being with their shoes on? But soon a benign bouncer returns, and apologetic feet return to flip-flops once more.
(Meanwhile, back in sleepy Serangan, bovine beasts amble along the backstreets, free to go as they please. Hindu’s might bow bindi-bearing brows to these cows, but they in turn bow their burly bonces into open bins, and bite down on bags. A braver non-believer than I might submit that the cows are not the only ones consuming rubbish.)
South Bali bears the brunt of the bedlam. About time to become a bee and buzz northbound to Ubud: the beating heart of Bali’s culture. A bustling town, but one abutted by bucolic pastures: blissfully quiet paddy fields broaden out beyond the burble of urbanism, the beauteous terraces filled to the brim with rice. In the bower of palm leaves, barely beaten paths bridge over ancient waterways – Bali’s bloodlines – and behold boutique cafes that beckon with their Bintang, or berry and beetroot smoothies, or banquets of cheap Balinese food.
Time in Ubud is placating. We bumble along the berms, bungle through barely-known canyons, and even bundle into the back of a taxi in the very early hours so as to join the baggy-trousered brethren and observe a memorable sunrise from the peak of a volcano.
Blood-pressure becalmed by mere proximity to Balinese being, even bank-bandits can’t blight the mood or blemish the trip. Fraudulent card activity, the buggers, but no bother because the bank will reimburse. Then there’s the bouts of Bali-belly to burden the bowels, a bacterial brace of them, but it would be unbefitting to cause a ballyhoo over it. You don’t see the Balinese blubbing.
Head back south for the beaches. En route there are bamboozling bike-related phenomena to behold: scooters buried beneath so much cargo that a bus could barely bear it; a husband driving and on the back a mother breastfeeding her baby; and a schoolgirl does her homework as she bestrides the back of another, brown hair and book pages blowing in the breeze alike. And still, despite the unabating blockade, the baking streets are bewilderingly bereft of berating.
Bursting beaches are bespangled by bronzed bods basking in bright sunshine and a balmy breeze. A bricolage of beings: from bikini bathing blondes to beautiful frisbeeing brunettes; from bony bohemian brothers to bulging bicep blokes; from ebullient Balinese bro’s renting out boards, to the beach-businessmen bartering bow and arrows, much to the bemusement of all beachgoers. For as far as the eye can see along Bali’s western beaches, spellbound bodies both burnish and burn beneath the inebriating ambience of Bali being. And before they know it, the day is concluding: another beauteous sunset gives way to a blaze of pinks, purples and dark blues, before a belated black claims the day.
Bali bewitches. It absorbs the moment in a beat: blink and you’ll miss it, but such is the price of being. Already time for two blond brothers to board a plane back to Blighty. Blubbering withheld, the blur of beaches, Bintang, bike-trips, boogying, brunches, and all that’s between – the beeing and the being – will be born-again over beers back in Somerset’s Bell Inn, where Bali will be brought back to life through a bee-like collective conscience.
A confession: I’m about bankrupt of B’s. But when it comes to being in Bali, my balance is still in the black: it’s easy to feel one belongs here. A book cover I judged too quickly before, having now browsed through Bali’s pages it is a blessing to observe my beliefs about it were wrong, erroneous or, if you will, bollocks.