When most people say that they’re going to Bali, they mean Indonesia. But Bali is not Indonesia. It is and it’s not.
And when most of these people say they’re going to Bali, they might mean that they’re going to visit Bali, one of the major island destinations in greater Indonesia. There are over seventeen thousand islands in this largest island nation in the world. But Bali is just one of those volcanic islands.
When we said that we were going to Bali, we meant Indonesia, but we didn’t know it at the time. We knew we’d be landing in the country of Indonesia, but we weren’t sure if we’d be referring to Bali in a metonymic way of describing any number of islands in the area or if we’d be sticking to literal Bali – breathtakingly beautiful and frenetic, with a humidity and friendliness that embraces you, envelopes you.
We landed in Denpasar, Bali’s international airport, after a six-hour journey away from the encroaching Australian summer, only to be dropped back into a humid equatorial thickness that buzzes with excitement and potential. Ten years ago I had my first taste of this when I set out to backpack around Southeast Asia with friends; here I was back again and the excitement and smells were still the same.
Bronwyn had sorted out a company to look after most of our luggage (including – no, especially our bicycles) during our month in Indonesia, and Yogi, a rep from that company, was waiting for us in the arrivals section of the airport. I don’t know that I’ve ever had someone holding a sign with my name emblazoned on it waiting for me in the arrivals lobby before; Bronwyn would have the honour this time around. He helped us to take our panniers and bike boxes out to the lobby and loaded them into his van. After being shuttled to our hotel for the night, we said goodbye to both our belongings and Yogi. It felt weird parting with our stuff, but our overall luggage was reduced to such a wonderfully manageable volume that it didn’t take long to get used to it.
We spent two nights at a hotel in Seminyak, Bali’s shopping capital. We attempted to explore the area and beaches on our first day, but got roped into a timeshare presentation. The whole thing was a rather well-orchestrated trap! Picture this: an enthusiastic man on the street has us each open up a card. I win a couple of t-shirts and $50 to spend in the shopping area of Seminyak Square. Bronwyn’s card, on the other hand, claims that she has won either:
- a big wad of cash,
- a GoPro or
- a 7-night stay at a beautiful resort. Amazing!
And she can easily claim this mystery prize if we’re willing to listen to a no-obligation sales pitch for 60 minutes on the other side of town.
Ah, there’s the rub. A sales pitch.
I promised myself I would never get roped into a timeshare presentation, but the allure around Bronwyn’s “guaranteed prize” made it difficult to refuse the entertainment value of going to this thing, and we had nothing really better to do. I don’t want to go into all of the details of what happened at the presentation, but it involved a two-hour (not 60-minute) hard sell on a seemingly-endless catalogue of international resorts around the world. And all the Sprite you could drink.
Worth mentioning here is all the nuance and character of each branch of the process tree that transforms you from a sidewalk solicitation to a hot seat lead in the timeshare office. There’s the initial approach and feigned surprise of your prizewinning; you’re a mark, a target, and the sooner they can get you in a car to the presentation the sooner the sidewalk card man can find his next lead. But they employ this air of collusion and conspiracy to get you on their side: Gede (at least that’s how he introduced himself) really really seemed to want us to win this prize because it would make him look good, but he wanted us make sure that we didn’t present ourselves as backpackers.
Three weeks. Please. You say you visit Bali for three weeks. They might not let you have the prize if they think you’re backpackers.
OK. But why should that matter? The intrigue surrounding that piece of information acted as both part of the screening process and made you, as the mark, feel like it was you and your sidewalk guy versus the system. I have to say, I was tempted to really act up the part.
Not only are we NOT backpackers, I thought of saying. We’re here on very important BUSINESS.
I put hamming it up out of my mind, but it meant laying out a fiction (let’s call it an adjusted reality in this post-fact world) to both the lady who greeted us out of the car and the sales guy who they found upstairs to meet with us. After two preliminary screening sessions, the promise of that GoPro was starting too look like the opposite of an inevitability. And this so-called (there I go again) 60-minute session was going to be a much longer adventure.
Our salesman was a young British guy that extolled the benefits of this so-worth-it-you’d-be-stupid-to-not-buy-it 25 year membership, explaining that one of the main reasons he took this sales job in the first place was in the hope that he could save enough money to buy a membership of his own. Bronwyn and I had promised one another that, no matter what they threw at us, we wouldn’t be dropping the remainder of our travel savings on the timeshare, so I felt a bit bad for the guy. There he sat, across the small table with his pad of paper and dampened armpits, oscillating between solemn explanation and affable charm, trying so hard to be the unstoppable force against our immovable object. All because Bronwyn really wanted to know what her guaranteed prize was going to be. It wasn’t cash. And it wasn’t a GoPro.
It was, we would finally learn, a 7-night stay at one of the resort villas that this company represented to be used in the next two years but not within the next two months. Will it work out? Who knows. But we can finally present the I-survived-a-Balinese-timeshare-sales-pitch-and-all-I-got-was-this-lousy-t-shirt t-shirt.
And we did get that $50 gift certificate to spend in the Seminyak square. All for attending a long pitch and pretending we weren’t backpackers.
My taste for irony, therefore, demanded that we use the $50 gift certificate to purchase a new backpack to hold all of our stuff as we not-backpacked around for the rest of our time in Indonesia. And that’s exactly what we did.
On the trip back to Seminyak (finally!), we spoke with our driver, Made, about our plans to shift to the yoga haven of Ubud to the northeast, and he offered to drive us. We mentioned that a few other drivers had already offered and we quoted their price. Made offered to match the lowest price and take us to some cool sights: a local silversmith’s shop, a batik clothing store and a coffee shop tour that specialized in Bali’s famous Luwak Coffee.
Have you heard of this before? Luwak is the Balinese word for a civet, a small cat-possum-like animal that inhabits this area and has appetite for the coffee fruit from which coffee beans are derived. The coffee bean, after passing through the civet’s digestive tract, undergoes some sort of alchemic transmutation that changes the properties of the raw bean and, ultimately, the taste of coffee you can brew from it. Like a cat-poo-ccino. Being the radical coffee fiend that I am, I simply had to try it.
We visited the silversmith first, a quick visit to the artisans shaping their jewellery and then an obligatory exit through the gift shop.
Up the street, there was a large shop with a weave station out back, where a woman was using an old loom device to produce a beautiful length of fabric. Bronwyn was keen to see some of the batik fabrics, so we had a quick look around the shop, which was adorned emphatically with “No Photo No Food” signs. Sorry folks. Nothing I can show you other than the ladies working out back.
Made had offered to take us to an old house that stood as a museum-like representation of what the original Balinese homes looked like, but the weather looked like it was going to turn on us and suggested that we could choose either the coffee shop or the old house, and I was really excited about trying some partially-digested coffee for the first time.
We were greeted by Dewa, a young man who gave us a tour through the not-quite plantation and let us smell all of the different spices and herbs they use to flavour their specialty blends.
We also saw a couple of the civets in cages and duly noted the cleanliness of their wired space: the precious coffee bean poop had already been removed.
Dewa invited us to take photos as we proceeded through the coffee
plantation theme park, showing us all of the different plants growing in their garden and the spice samples that went into making the nine or so versions of Balinese coffee that we were to sample as a part of our tour. The baskets included different flavour origins: mangosteen shells, coconut husks, ginger, lemongrass, some for coffee, some for tea. And of course, a chance to handle the good shit, if you’ll excuse the term: a small bowl of the gently-cleaned, unroasted coffee beans expelled from the civet’s body.
While we waited for our coffee and tea taster, Dewa sat with us and we discussed education, agriculture and personal experience in the cafe seating area beside the Lumbung Sari Coffee Luwak gift shop. His English was excellent; Dewa spoke with nuance and a really refined native-speaker accent, close to Australian. He insisted that all of his ability came from the (mostly-Australian) travellers and tourists that visited his coffee shop, and in the village he comes from his only exposure to English was in school.
This was a wonderful boon for us as we tasted the nine different coffees and five tea samples that arrived shortly to our table. I was in heaven. The luwak coffee ranked as the most delicious and memorable for me; we paid a hefty IDR 50,000 (near to $5 Canadian), but it was completely worth it. There’s something sweet and oddly cinnamonesque, if you please, and any bitterness that I might have anticipated was completely absent. I treated myself to a modest take-home bag with a hefty price tag to be enjoyed once a year, a tablespoon at a time, until I have grandchildren.
Bronwyn was taken (as she always is) by the coconut-infused sweetened coffee. We had tasted something similar once on a week-long holiday in Sanya in the south of China while working in Tianjin, and the coconut coffee was the best experience that we took home from that trip (to be fair to Sanya, our holiday there coincided with the arrival of a typhoon storm and the resort we were booked into targeted Russian tourists; our combined Mandarin-Russian ability precludes us from that kind of a place).
We bid farewell to Dewa after making our purchases and Made drove us the rest of the way to Ubud. We made a quick stop to buy a local adapter for our AC and USB plugs before being dropped off by Made at the end of our homestay’s road where we found our first bungalow of the trip:
Until next time…
Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com