In the heart of a heatwave

He drove resolutely in the middle of 2 lanes, honked indiscriminately, taking hair-pin turns downhill with a confidence that made me envious of his incredible taxi-gymnastic skills.

The cheapest transportation option had always been my priority when I travelled and this was (obstinately) no different, despite the fact that many people grew a pair of cold feet when it came to Southeast-Asian countries and their daunting transportation systems.

A fixed price of 190,000 IDR was the eventual amount for a taxi from Ngurah-Rai Airport in Denpasar to Ubud, a marginally better sum than the USD 30 quoted by the hotel. Bali clearly thrives on the large droves of tourists and the time we visited was unfortunately the highest of the high season, evident from the horrendous traffic at 10pm around the Denpasar area. I sat in the taxi for slightly over an hour, staring in horrified fascination and admiration for the driver’s skill in negotiating tight hairpin turns on steep slopes.

The Agung-Rai Museum & Resort was difficult to find along Jln Raya Pengosekan and as TC (Travel Companion) and I soon found out, occupied a huge space within which these buildings stand adjacent to each other. A kind soul appearing out of the cafe (I’d like to think he’s our godsend at 10.50pm) led us to the hotel reception, where a compulsory and exorbitant New Year’s dinner was once again foisted upon us after we checked in.

The room was…oh, so worth it – considering the free upgrade to the villa which we didn’t pay for. Hey – a private pool, an outdoor shower that lay at the edge of a small pond. My insistence on visiting a beach waned immediately. The downside was the incredible number of bugs around (I swear I’ve never seen a large ant with wings twice its body length that conveniently decided to die near the toilet) that fanned the flames of my insect-paranoia.

ARMA is in any case, a quiet retreat along small rivers and rice fields, and home to a considerable and esteemed collection of art works (as well as wildlife!), and to a considerable programme of cultural events too. I tried my best to ignore the abundance of insects among its greenery.

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Bali is a firm favourite of Westerners and especially the Australians whose country is merely a short distance away, and very exotic to those who have had an evangelical upbringing back in the Western world. It’s a strange but remarkable place, as most of them are Hindus compared to the overwhelming Muslim majority in the rest of Indonesia. Even the Hinduism they practice is not quite the kind found in India; it’s rather a syncretic mix of Javanese mythology, Indian and Chinese foundational religious beliefs. There are dramatic and prominent signs of religion being practiced; small offerings of incense, woven leaf-baskets and floral offerings prodigiously line every doorway, and even more elaborate altars are found inside the shops. Temples are merely a couple of steps away. Complex indigenous beliefs and practices are also found within this belief system, permeating the minutest of actions governing daily life.

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TC’s suggestion that we walk from the resort to the Ubud town centre – foregoing the free resort shuttle – seemed a great idea initially. We were told that it was after all a short distance down with many interesting shops. Haggling however, was the order of the day and a peculiar sort of skill which is a combination of friendliness and a willingness to negotiate hard is needed for that, both of which I do not possess.

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The awful weather – the hot, sweltering heat and humidity – proved our downfall. I expired 10 minutes into the uphill walk, but found it was perversely fun to find solidarity in watching the red-skinned Westerners expiring as well. TC on the other hand, wilted gradually but just as surely. But that did not stop us from resolutely completing the entire distance to the main street only to unanimously decide that that going back immediately for a pool dip was a great idea.

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Except that returning to the resort proved an issue. We refused to move our feet unless absolutely necessary; we had agreed after all, that the point of this short trip wasn’t to pack the itinerary tightly as European trips normally demanded of us. The arranged shuttle was nowhere in sight, but by some miracle I managed to flag down an empty blue taxi turning out from the side of the road, and arm-twisted him in monosyllabic – and probably incomprehensible – Bahasa Melayu to take us back to the airport on the day we were scheduled to leave Bali. He assured us that his “son” would pick us up in his stead which was worrying as he looked no older than his mid-thirties.

We took it, as always, with a large pinch of salt.

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