Bali Beginners – 1979.

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 On October 12, 1979, I knew all about ‘Bali Hai’, from the stage play and the film ‘South Pacific’.  The white sand beaches with the dinky little waves splashing in from the clear, ice blue seas.  The wet boles of serenely slanting palms that shaded oddly pale skinned natives and American servicemen as they whiled away the days in supposedly innocent pleasures.

 I really knew little else, but on that day nearly 22 years ago I left for Bali, armed with a brand new passport and a certified Birth Extract and pumped up with vaccinations for cholera and typhus. 

 I didn’t even know where Bali actually was except that it was ‘up there’, somewhere.  ‘Up’ where the fathers of friends had spent the war years that I vaguely remembered and could see in old copies of ‘Pix' magazines stored in the big tin trunk in the motor shed down the back by the chook house and the fruit trees.   I didn’t know how big or small it was, although I thought I would probably walk around it one day while I was there and perhaps find that little curved cove from the film.  Surely someone would know where that was!

 I didn’t know about the people, their culture or histories although I knew from the film that they spoke English, perhaps with an odd sort of accent like Rossano Brazzi.  I didn’t know about the geography (except that it was a little island) or the flora (except for leaning palm trees and carefully mown lawns), the fauna, or what a tourist did when one got there. I knew that the weather was nice and warm and it rained heavily when things went wrong, or were about to go wrong.  I knew that from the film.

I knew that we were to stay at the Bali Beach Hotel but I didn’t know if there was a choice or if that was the only place there in which to stay. 

 A holiday in Bali was a strange exotic overseas adventure and everyone I told about it reckoned would be ‘ a bit of alright’.  I can’t remember who we flew with but I suspect it was Qantas.  After all, what other respectable, safe airline was allowed to fly into and out of Australia in those days – well other than British Airways but they didn’t come into little old Adelaide – and anyway a dinkum Aussie lad wouldn’t go off with, well, sort of foreigners, now would he?  I don’t remember getting on the plane or anything about the flight over.  I probably had my knees tightly clenched and stared fixedly ahead from sheer fear as I’d never been on a big jet plane before.  I’d never been overseas before (if you don’t count a ride on the Horse Tram across the 300 metre causeway at Victor Harbour as ‘overseas’.) and real foreigners were the other kids I’d grown up with at school who had garlic salami in their lunch sandwiches.

But there are some things I do remember.  

I remember walking towards the door of the plane to go down the steps after we landed in Bali.  I remember the wave of heat and humidity that seemed to flood into the cabin as we slowly jostled down the aisle but I don’t remember that now characteristic smell.  I remember walking across the edge of the asphalt runway, across the fine gravel verge up to the door of the airport building.  No aerobridges back then!

I remember standing around inside the single storey building, sweating and waiting for customs and immigration I suppose, and needing to find a toilet.  Careful observation indicated a door through which men regularly entered and as regularly came out of after a short time.  Casually I sauntered across, pushed open the door, stepped over the raised door sill and instantly recognised that if I grounded that suspended foot then the ‘water’ (?) swirling across the floor was going to run over the top of my shoe and soak my sock.  Human reaction is a thing to be marvelled at.  I’m sure that without perceptible hesitation I turned 180 degrees with that foot still in mid air and placed it back on the spot from which I had so recently raised it.  Instantly my need to go to the toilet was replaced with a parched throat that required immersion in cool water or cold beer before I could speak again.

I remember seeing the printed Bali Beach Hotel sign held up as we left the building (some things don’t to change) and finding a seat amongst the other tourists in the small bus while the luggage was loaded into the back.

As we drove out of the airport I Gede Widia (‘G’day’) introduced himself to us as a Prince of the Royal Family of Bali and our guide during our stay at the Bali Beach Hotel.  We were impressed and felt so lucky to have fallen in with good company.

It was night time and his commentary fell on deaf ears as we drove through narrow streets, avoiding everything else on the road with astounding good fortune and precision driving, another thing that has not changed.  Our attentions were focussed on the smallest sights of the strange world outside.  There were few street lights to allow us to see much of where we were going although there were many more kerosene lamps and flaring braziers in the open fronted shops lining the streets in some parts.  Small groups of local men in strange garb stood together in these shops, or sat smoking along the edges of the road.  Women with huge bundles on their heads appeared to go from group to group, or also stood talking with other women as we passed.  Their casual glances towards the bus showed no interest at that time, but we were to find out soon enough that they would become most interested in us when we were on the streets with them in daylight.  (One more thing that has not changed.)

    The Bali Beach Hotel and a local Jukung under sail.


                              Hotel Pool.


                            Hotel decoration.

My first, and I think most lasting, impression of the Bali Beach Hotel was the wooden panelling along the passages and in parts of the rooms.  I think it was a mixture of teak and some species of mahogany.  It was oiled rather than varnished or polished and it glowed softly in the dim lighting of the hotel.  I’m sure that I can still remember the smell of the wood and the oil, a mixture of breath catching spiciness and mustiness. 

My other memory is of looking out of the third or fourth floor corridor windows next morning and seeing the mosaic pattern in tiles on the pool bottom.  Shades of blue predominated and the pattern may have created a Garuda or some other mystical, mythical creature, shimmering slightly under the ruffled surface of the water.

Breakfast that first morning began a love affair that has not yet ended.  Well, at least it hadn’t ended on our last trip to Bali. 

We ate fruit!  Fruit that was familiar and fruit that we’d never seen before. 

Even the fruit that we were familiar with, bananas, pineapple and passionfruit tasted with an intensity that we’d never known before.  The strange fruits, mango, star fruit, rambutan, left our chins sticky with juice and our taste buds alive with unfamiliar sensations.  Needless to say the cereals, toast, croissants, eggs and bacon were ignored then and have been ever since.

                        A new warung for the beach.

On our first walk along the deserted, snow-white beach we met the sellers for the first time.  I remember their youth.  Children really, certainly less than teenagers, but as skilled and as persistent as now.  Are they the same people, I wonder, who confront us these days.  I’ve grown older now and they would have grown up too.  Is the little boy who sold us slivers of silvery shell on cotton cord necklaces for ‘one dollah’ still flogging watches or kites or blowguns or in the ‘transporrrrt’ business?  Is his older sister, who hoped we would die because we did not buy her necklaces for ‘two dollah’, still selling, perhaps now tee shirts and sarongs?  Does anyone still make those pendant affairs of filigreed coconut shell segments held together with twisted wire pieces?  We have one still, at least 5 feet long, hanging at the side of our passage door.  Ye Gods!  That’s over 20 years old too. 

I remember the slim, brightly coloured umble-umbles on their unbelievably long bamboo staffs rammed into the sand and blown into graceful curves by the pressure of the afternoon trade winds.  The long, thin, cloth strip, the tip ribbons with their little end tassels fluttering and whipping against the background of dark green palm fronds.  The colour and movement of those flags seemed to fit in so well with the multi coloured sails of the jukung fleet.  Shivering and shaking these dugout canoes with their curved crossbeams and bamboo outriggers, the multi-coloured sails shaped like an open crab claw which seemed to be always wrestling with the wind.  Until, that is, the carved bow with it’s bulging fish eyes and long mock swordfish bill faced the open sea and the sail’s rope sheet became taut in the hands of the fisherman.  Then the whole assembly became one with the sea waves and the wind.  I had sailed single-handed racing catamarans, for many years.  Sophisticated hi-tech racing machines.  All high polish, light weight plywood shells, aluminium, plastic and stainless steel.  Here I was confronted with their ancestors, certainly not highly polished lightweight racing shells but, when we went sailing in one on a later afternoon, I felt instantly at home.  The acceleration, the hulls motion in the sea, the sense of power as a gust of wind ruffled across the surface of the sea and snapped into the low set sail, dipped the leeward outrigger a little deeper and threw the fine mist of spray a little higher.  All were familiar sights and sensations but in an unfamiliar land.  This was truly a passage through time. 

            Tanah Lot sunset.

 We took the tours that tourists still take today.  A temple at sundown. Would you bet it was Tanah Lot?  The King’s Palace for a dance.  Monkey’s in the forest.  The Kuta surf beach.  Rice terraces and paddies.  A local village.  Probably others that I don’t remember. 

 The sunset at the temple was spectacular but we were in the wrong place to see the temple silhouetted against the red-orange orb.  We were the only bus there (now there’s something that’s changed) but by the time we found our way along the dirt tracks to the right spot the sun had set.  We were reduced to buying a post card on this occasion. 

                        Ubud Palace dance.                      

Herself ‘at Dance’. Where is this beautiful girl now? 

The dinner and dance at the King’s Palace was possibly in Ubud.  After the first dance the tiny, willowy girls individually began a slow and graceful sequence of movements that were repeated with small variations.  As they finished the first round, each in turn selected a partner from the assembled throng of tourists, escorted them to the middle of the arena and began again, with obvious signs that the partner was to follow the movements.  In the best tradition of comic theatre the biggest, droopiest, most un-coordinated hulks were selected first.  Yes, I’m sure you’ve guessed how it is that I remember this so clearly.  I, who for safety reasons cleared the floor doing a Slow Waltz at the Saturday night Palliasse de Dance, was the first prize nut to be selected.  No matter how much I concentrated I failed utterly at the first movement.  Herself, who was a dance enthusiast from an early age, laughed with an abandon that only the un-trapped can relish, but when it was her turn I claim that she only fared a little better.  This was really of no consolation to me in my embarrassment and I have never mentioned it until this moment. 


Kuta Beach is a place that has changed in the intervening years.  On our first visit we arrived at sunset.  The bus carefully picked it’s way through the dunes, past a small fishing village and onto a cleared space dressed with a topping of soil and stone, just big enough for the bus to turn so that it faced the way back out.  We were escorted to the top of the last dune from which we could just see the moonlight reflecting off a series of breaking waves as they rolled shorewards and dumped onto the beach.  We were told not to go further as only recently a visitor had been robbed a little further along the beach.  Another thing that has not changed? 

 One afternoon, full of curiosity, confidence and ignorant courage, we decided to go for a walk away from the hotel grounds through the village to a little school at the edge of a sealed road we had remarked on several times as our bus tours went past.  We were both teachers and could not resist the temptation to have a peek at what our distant colleagues were doing.  The outside of the school was not appealing and gave no cause for false hopes of what we might find within.  The building was a long blockhouse, once painted lettuce green, parallel to the road and the inevitable roadside drain, a depression with a fast flowing stream of fluid that might have been a few inches or a few feet deep.  It was a break time and the children were playing in the yard, except for a small group of boys at the end of the drain by some overhanging bushes doing what small boys do in streams of water the world over it seems. 

                    Sanur School & roadside drain.

We introduced ourselves to the adults in the yard and explained that we would like to visit.  We were made welcome and invited into a classroom.  It had windows on one side opposite the door and across the room ran long tables just a bit shorter than the width of the room so that there was a narrow aisle down each side wall.  Behind these tables were long benches of similar length.  On the front wall was a blackboard, easily identified by the remnants of blackboard paint that still adhered to some places on the surface.  Above the ‘blackboard’ was a framed photo of President Suharto with two small red and white Indonesian flags underneath it, arranged in a V shape so that the flags fell on each side of the photo.  There were 4 or 5 such rooms, all similar if not identical.  That was it!  The whole school as far as we could see.  No other buildings, nothing except a square water tank at the end of the blockhouse.  No toilets, no separate staff room, no play equipment, no books or other teaching materials were evident.  Ah well, they say Plato taught his ‘university’ under a convenient tree to avoid the distractions of worldly things.  As we left a small boy came across the yard with two buckets filled with water to empty into the tank.  To this day I wonder with dread where those buckets were filled. 

I think that this visit disturbed us both somewhat.  I was troubled about the facilities as I was working in our Education Department at the time, liaising between school Principals and communities and the architects of the Public Buildings Department, in what was called the Small School Project.  This project was set up to address the building needs of small schools which did not have loud enough political voices to get onto the normal building program.  The architects were given a freer-than-normal hand in design and budget and some very beautiful and innovative little schools were built across the state.  After seeing this Balinese school I returned to work with a changed perspective on what I was doing. 

When we returned home I began buying books whenever there were sales on and eventually posted them off to Gede for the school.  I never heard anything more and I guess the package could still be on its way. 

 To go somewhere or other one day we decided to hire a car.  And what a car it was.  A ‘Yank Tank’ of immeasurable size, probably left over from the war.  It pulled up at the front of the hotel with a delighted sort of a squeal and sat there panting!  For all the world like a large and exhausted dog it heaved up and down in a regular rhythm, accompanied by muted but equally regular sounds from under the enormous bonnet (perhaps I should call it a hood in deference to it’s American ancestry).  As excited as only a little black duck from the sticks could possibly be at having the chance to actually ride in one of these things that I remembered from the Saturday night movies, I didn’t wait for the driver to open the door.  I did it myself and waited with barely contained impatience as Herself slid into and across the back seat. 

To this day I wonder how long it would have been, or if the driver ever would have opened the door had I had waited. 

Smoothly I followed her through the door and landed on a piece of hard flat leather seat ‘upholstery’, separated only from the bare metal of the floor pan by dried grass bundles used as padding!  While I sat speechless at this indignity Herself gave the require directions to the driver and, as we pulled away from the steps we simply looked at each other and burst out in silent laughter.  Well, the laughter was not really silent but to hear it, or to have conversed above the noise of the gearbox and the differential directly under our backsides would have required the amplification powers of technology that had not then been invented. 

With an aplomb that would have done Starsky and Hutch proud the driver cranked turns into the big steering wheel with the flat of his palm and hung his arm out of the open window waving at all the young ladies we passed.  We've recently been with drivers who still do. When the time came to change the column gears the steering wheel was left to it’s own devices because the outside arm was too busy waving to be brought inside. 

 The entrance roadway into the hotel was being paved at the time we were there and Herself bristled more or less silently each time we left or returned.   

           Road building by the Bali Beach Hotel.

All of the actual workers were women, young and old.  Some carried baskets containing large chunks of rock on their heads, moving it from a stockpile fed by trucks to a line of women who squatted almost shoulder to shoulder across the roadway.  These women wore woven ‘coolie’ type hats, still seen on many beach hawkers, and were armed with hammers.  They broke up the rock with heavy blows before selecting a smaller piece to chip until it fitted into the pattern of the ridge at the edge of the road base, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.  Each time a car or a bus came by they put their hammers into the baskets with the unused pieces of rock and carried it all to the side of the road, returning when the vehicle had passed.  The smaller chippings and fine dust partly filled the crevices between the base pieces, tending to lock it all into place until a bitumen topping was poured over it all.  All of this was supervised by a group of men who stood or squatted in the shade of the trees bordering the new roadway, smoking ‘kerets’ and apparently calling out occasional instructions to the women. 

Bristle,  bristle,  BRISTLE,  BRISTLE !!!!! 

 Even in those days dinner on the beach was a recognised highlight of Sanur eating.  A short walk along the beach-edge path took us past a number of open-sided, thatched-roof eateries from which we eventually settled on the ‘Number 1 Bar & Restaurant, Sanur Beach Market' as the receipt says.  At the end of the night the bill for two of us was Rp4650 including tax.  We had a large beer for Rp 675, Shrimp Avocado Rp900, Mixed Salad Rp450, Beef Satay Rp600, some sort of Chicken (I can’t read this part of the bill) Rp1100 and something else, I think fruit platter, for Rp500. 

A similar night out at the ‘Jo Jo Grill House, Bar & Restaurant’ in the Jalan Hotel Bali Beach, Sanur cost Rp5340 including 10% Service charge and 10% Tax.  This included a much anticipated bottle of French red wine. Vin very bloody ordinaire I remember, although the large beer here was only Rp650! 

 I Gede Widia, our regular guide, was a Prince of the Royal family.  Which Royal Family I can’t remember, and I suppose it may have been true.  Certainly he had the fingernail of an aristocrat or an artist.  Little finger, left hand I think.  It was carefully groomed at regular intervals throughout the day, being cleaned under the nail to a clear cream bone colour with a sliver of bamboo.  Herself’s manicured and painted nails attracted his close attention and admiration several times in the first day or so and we eventually felt confident enough to ask him about the significance of his one nail.  The story was that if you were a common manual worker you would never be able to keep a long nail in such good condition.  Therefore it was a symbol of either a man of stature in the community who had independent means and did not have to work, or the owner was an artist, socially the next best thing to a man of leisure. 

One morning while waiting for the whole group to assemble in the lobby for the day’s tour, Herself took Gede aside to a writing table in a corner of the lobby.  There his nails were treated to cleaners, cotton balls, quick trimming, olive sticks, buffs, hardeners, and emery boards that he was not too comfortable with.  (With little personal experience to draw upon you will understand that I may have these operations out of sequence, and if so I hope I will be forgiven and that it is not allowed to be a distraction in the story.)  A range of colours was presented for his selection and he chose a candy pink from memory, applied only to the nail of significance.  A coat of clear followed this to all the nails and much finger waving followed to promote quick drying.  Raucous and rough comment would accompany such a performance if this was done today I’m afraid, but in those days of innocence when gay was to be happy, it was just a natural action. 

By this time his friends who were drivers and aides on other tours had all gathered round to study the proceedings.  One of the other women in the group started work on one of them and it was not long before each of them sat very expectantly before a manicurist.  It was fascinating to stand back and watch them as they compared colours after the event, and even for the rest of the day as they checked the durability of the product.  With diligent daily attention to touch up any unfortunate damage these nails lasted for the whole of our stay.  I still wonder what they did after we left and the inevitable chips and scratches appeared. 

The last couple of days I was sick with crystals in the urinary duct and doubled over with pain or dribbling embarrassment.  Eventually a doctor was summoned and prescribed morphia tablets.  When these were lost into the toilet in a stream of sickness, a straight injection in the gluteus maximus, just to keep me going until we got to Singapore, our next stop, ‘where the hospitals were so much better’, he explained.  With these dreadful words echoing in my ears, and the pain in the pinny as well as the fog of morphine I was not sorry to leave Bali on this occasion, and it is perhaps surprising that I ever returned.  But return we have and leaving has been a sombre occasion every time since.



"Please Lord, help him remember anniversaries and birthdays, even the shopping list and where he left his shoes, like he remembers things about Bali."    Herself’.



              Denpasar Markets by the river, 1979.

                 Sulawesi Street, Denpasar, ’79.

                   Dokars, Sanur, ’79.

        I Gede Widia and Cremation Procession.


                           Hotel Gamelan.

                        New Cock Baskets.

                 Sanur Markets, 1979.

                Warung, Sanur Markets.

                Satays, Sanur Markets.

                 Denpasar Markets, 1979.

                 Denpasar Markets, 1979.



Photos by Herself.

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