For many, touristic connotations arise in the mind when considering Bali. They certainly did for me, before I put much effort into detailed research before travelling somewhere new. It is absolutely true that certain areas of Bali are saturated with tourists almost year round, particularly near the airport and along the coast in Denpasar. Take just a little bit of time to discover for yourself what this unique island has to offer, though, and you’ll realize that a stint of only a few days, or even just a week, is insufficient for adequate exploration.
The Three Musketeers (Teresa, Desiree, and I) landed in Denpasar after sunset in early September, 2013. The screening process was a little more rigorous here as drug traffickers have been known to slip into Bali to feed the high demand for narcotics. There are potentially high monetary rewards at the cost of an extremely high risk for such actions. Indonesia is well known for executing high-profile drug traffickers. As I passed through customs, an officer pulled me to the side to begin asking random questions. Not realizing I was with two other people, he immediately let me go when I called to Teresa to wait for a moment as she didn’t realize what was happening. I guess he assumed that a man travelling alone had greater potential to be causing trouble than one travelling in a group, but I’ll never truly know.
Leaving the airport was the same as many other cities in Asia: we were hounded by cab drivers offering inflated prices to take us wherever we needed to go. We acted as per usual, departing the crowded areas and walking further down the road before flagging a cab, thus providing ourselves with a better opportunity for a fair rate. The drive into town was short, anyway, and cost us very little.
The shore is lined with shops, restaurants, hotels, malls, and everything else anyone needs to get by and have a good time. We walked down a small alleyway in search of a place to stay, checking out a few spots before settling, about a five minute walk from the main road. Definitely nothing close to fancy, and as cheap as anywhere we were able to find. It was certainly no Marina Bay Sands by any stretch of the imagination.
That evening, we took to walking around town, occasionally strolling down a long, populated beach. The city had several Western fast food chains that most of the world is familiar with, McDonald’s being the most prominent. They even had McDonald’s delivery service, which I’d never heard of at the time, but is apparently now commonplace. We found a very nice restaurant that served up some delicious food and drinks. Desiree got a piña colada served in an open pineapple. Teresa and I ordered satay skewers that came out on a little miniature grill that was placed on the table in front of us. There were some stressful moments while looking for accommodations that resulted in a Balinese teenager threatening my life, a flare-up of my temper, and some tension between myself and the ladies. Desiree ordered a round of shots to cheers those sentiments away and we were all smiling again.
Bali is quite different from most of Indonesia in both a cultural and religious sense. Indonesia, like Singapore and Malaysia, is a Muslim majority country. However, about 85% of Balinese citizens practice Balinese Hinduism, which is somewhat of an amalgamation of traditional Indian Hinduism as well as Buddhism. I don’t pretend to be fully educated on the subject, but I do understand that both Hindu and Buddhist gods and demigods are worshipped. There are spectacular Hindu temples all over the island and civilization in Bali dates back thousands of years. Various forms of art are frequently created and displayed, including paintings, handicrafts, sculpting, as well as theatre. I truly wish I had more than the three days we spent on the island because there is so much to see and do to immerse oneself in the culture. Unfortunately, Desiree had booked her flight home from Jakarta, set to leave in about two weeks. We had over a thousand kilometres of ground to cover between where we’d landed in Indonesia and where she’d be leaving us.
We’d done a bit of research and found that there were some quieter beach areas further north up the west coast. One such location was called Echo Beach, about an hour cab ride away. We’d decided we’d had enough of the crowded streets of Denpasar and headed straight up. I’d gotten in contact via phone with a small guesthouse where I was told a room for three people was available. Upon arriving, we realized the spot was only about a 10 minute walk from a spanning black sand beach that to this day is my favourite beach of all time.
Above two photos courtesy of Desiree Shillingford Photography
Echo Beach had the biggest waves I’d ever experienced, and that still holds true today. I’m not a surfer, I just enjoy swimming and fighting some rough, intense tides (so long as the surface beneath the water is all sand). When in the water, I’d be only a few metres apart from another swimmer and the waves would be so high that I couldn’t see anyone else around me. There was one point where I got caught in a seemingly endless series of waves. Despite being a strong swimmer, I truly didn’t think I was going to make it out. I tried to swim back to shore and wave after massive wave continued to smash down on me, filling my mouth with water, making it impossible to breath. I remember looking up at the sky where, a few hundred metres behind the beach, dozens of colourful kites were being flown above. I thought that those kites were the last thing that my eyes would ever see. The waves continued to pound as I struggled to make it to shore. I’d been forced so far from where Teresa and Desiree were relaxing that they couldn’t even see where I was. Teresa was so afraid and I am experiencing anxiety just writing this right now. Obviously, I made it back to shore, just barely. When I was finally able to touch the sand with my feet, I trudged the last few dozen metres by food, retching whatever water I’d swallowed back up. It was a horrible feeling, one I’ll never forget. One can never underestimate the power of nature, or forget how fragile we as humans actually are in the face of it. Far more powerful natural phenomena occur all the time than what I experienced on Echo Beach; these were just some serious waves that I almost didn’t make it out of.
This is not how I choose to remember the entirety of the experience, though. I shook it off, then. It wasn’t until later, thinking back on it, that I began experiencing the anxiety that seems permanently attached to that particularly worrisome memory. It could’ve gone much worse. The rest of the experience was phenomenal though. The tide was as strong as ever, even going into the evening. Kids would try to swim out, but would just get swept back to shore before they could make it out even a reasonable distance. As the sun was setting, more and more people came into the water to dive into these waves that were several metres in height. I still loved it, and I would still go back.
What could have happened still sticks with me, and, in my adult life, using all logic and reason, it still makes me very afraid. But it doesn’t constitute enough fear to deter me from travelling the way that I have and the way I always will.