There’s something lucid, gentle and titillating about the sound of this word. A soft start and a gliding end. Graceful and clear, like a woman who knows what she’s after. Except, Bali is not.
In Mad Men, Rachel Menken told Don Draper about the word “Utopia”. She said the Greeks had two meanings for this word: eutopos, meaning “the good place” and outopos, meaning “the place that cannot be”. In Legend, Ronnie Kray told Leslie Payne, “Did you know that ‘utopia’ is the Greek word for ‘nowhere’? For 50,000, I can make that somewhere. I can turn it into a place where people will smile at me, and children will dance.”
Bali, in many ways, is like Utopia. Nowhere that was made somewhere. Somewhere that is a good place, a place that cannot be.
This beautiful, tranquil, out-of-this-world island located in the east of the Indonesian archipelago has survived two terrorist bombings within 3 years.
The next day after one of these tragic incidents happened, police found a total of six legs and 3 heads but no middle body at the scene. It was a clear sign of suicide bombers. Another three naïve locals had bought into the nefarious God-fearing nonsense of extremist group, and bit the dust.
Over the past decade the Indonesian government has been running rehabilitation programmes and offering economic help to the families of terrorism convicts. But how much help has been given? How much have things really changed? We don’t know. The local doesn’t know either.
I had been to Bali twice. Twice, with who I thought was the love of my life. For five years, it was my one and only favourite place in the world. But now, I’ve seen more and collected a few other favourites, so I’m not sure.
In February this year, I travelled to Bali for a weekend. Having stayed in Seminyak and Canggu, I booked myself a place in Kuta. A small Balinese cottage-like hotel banged in the middle of all shebang – seedy clubs, sweaty backpackers, bogans, dick-shaped beer openers that came in various colours and sizes.
My intention was simple. I wanted some time for myself and I wanted to reminisce about the good times and to recreate better ones, if the word “recreate” ever makes any sense.
I needed a closure as much as I needed a new start. And a closure is acceptance and forgiveness that only one can give oneself.
The truth is, I never really understood nor believed in the idea of recreating memories. Oxford Dictionary defines “recreate” as “create again”, but defines “create” as “to bring something into existence”. How do you bring something that’s already in existence into existence?
Say, the first time you smell the sweet scent of frangipani? The first time you see the sunrise after a long hike onto the top of a bubbling volcano? The first time you swim naked? The first time you make love in a garden while fireworks go off in the distance? How do you recreate that?
This third time I travelled to Bali, I had deliberately chosen to travel alone and to land on a Friday night.
A middle-aged, sincere-looking Balinese man from the hotel picked me up. As the car drove into the streets from Ngurah Rai Airport, familiar scenes of life called out to me and jostled against me like what would happen in an ex-classmate’s wedding. Suddenly, people that you used to sit with, your first crush, your arch nemesis, and all those bitter sweet memories tap on your shoulder to say hello. And then you have this slight sense of achievement, knowing how far you’ve gone, but also a little bit nostalgic.
If I show you a picture of a random corner of a Balinese street, you wouldn’t be able to tell where in South East Asia that is. Like any town in South East Asia, low-rise, non-artistic, hideous reinforced concrete buildings with clay roofs line the streets; locals and tourists collide; food stalls, families of four and their entire livelihood attached to Yamaha motorbikes.
After a good half an hour of smooth traffic, we came to the main street in Kuta, Jalan Legian, and were stuck there for what felt like ages. Indonesian traffic is horrendous. We made small talks, I practised my rusty Bahasa, he made a phone call to his wife, I checked my phone countless times even though it was on airplane mode. I was impatient as much as I was enlivened. This wasn’t the way I intended to spend my Friday night. So, impulsively, I left my bag with him, jumped off the car and finished the rest of the journey in the rain by foot.
One hour in Bali and I was already working on my trust issue – this place can only do me good.
You see, everything we do is about trust. Trusting the plane to take off on time, trusting our employer to send in our wages every month, trusting what we pay is what we’ll get. The difference between trusting in first-world countries, and trusting in places like Bali is that in the former, your trust is supplemented by regulations. In Bali, there isn’t much. You trust with the bottom of your heart, despite knowing that things might go wrong. There is no assurance of a safety net at the end of your leap of faith but, there could be a local policeman who would catch you when you fall, and try to ask for a bribe. Getting in a cab, renting a bike, eating what’s served to you on a plate, finishing the last drop of your Long Island Iced Tea hoping it is what it is – you just have to trust.
So what do you do? You lower your expectations. You set a maximum limit of things that you can afford to lose. My bag contained clothes, toiletries and three rolls of cheap paintings I bought from Saigon the week before. And obnoxiously, I told myself if I lose them, it would be another dinner party story I tell my friends when I return to London. This is what living in a first-world country does to you. I don’t know which is worse.
That night, the world shrunk in a dingy reggae bar. The music of the live band shrivelled up in the intense heat of a muggy, tropical night. The loud, drunken slur of a group of Australians made the open space feel claustrophobic. In a place like this, I met C and Y from Germany who looked equally out of place. They helped to finish my 2-for-1 Bintang beers and we quickly became friends.
Outside, the night was a hot, wet bed of heaving Friday night crowd. Local prostitutes, young and old, gathered by the streets and solicited their service with no shame, no sign of helplessness, nothing. Indifferent. Nonchalant. It’s like they have completely and entirely accepted this as who they are and what they do. Like cupboard food, they provide cheap and quick satisfaction to lazy and hungry men, edible even past their expiration dates.
In the background of these characters were ear-piercing music, flashing neon lights, skimpily-clad dancers on poles and motorbike drivers with LSDs in their fanny packs who were more than happy to take the tourists on a joyride.
The next day, C and I hopped on to a rented motorbike to go to the Uluwatu temple, a Balinese-Hindu sea temple that is perched on a steep rocky cliff. We weren’t sure if the bike was safe. We paid a fiver and C gave him his ID. Google Map was useless because the Balinese motorways were messed up. He hadn’t ridden for a while; I hadn’t trusted a stranger with my life for a while. So it was a deal.
We whisked through horrendously heavy Indonesian traffic, confusing weather conditions – fine rain one second, scorching sun the next – then waded through a minor flood by the airport where planes were flying narrowly close over our heads. I’d never experienced something so frustrating yet exhilarating.
Few hours later, thirsty, sticky and in awe, we stood quietly by the sea, watching the sunset and listening to the sound of the waves lapping on the rocks hundred metres below our feet.
In January 2016, after David Bowie’s death, it was revealed that in his will, Bowie asked for his ashes to be scattered in Bali.
I don’t know what Bali had done for Bowie. But Bali has done a lot for me. Like the hangover that pounds on your head and the sunburn that stings your skin, the recovery is hard only because you know you’ve given all that you have for this one helluva party that is probably the most haunting, crazy and heartfelt one that you would ever have in your life. But, recover you will anyhow, because Bali is soul-wrecking as much as it is healing.
It must have healed Bowie. It healed me.
So, how do you bring something that’s already in existence into existence?
Well, it’s not impossible when what was in existence is lost.
And you are ready to create, again.
With love x