Monday, June 19, 2006

Got away from it all those past few days with no computer and no Internet. And, strangely enough, no withdrawal symptoms either. I was vacationing in Bali, and though I said we didn't need a plan, maybe we should have had one anyway.

My impressions of Bali:

The people have one staple diet -- radish & sotong soup. The radishes are usually those just fallen off the radish truck while the sotong are simply blur. And they get eaten for breakfast unless they get smart, fast.

There is an unquiet desperation for the tourist dollar in Bali. hawkers and street vendors are everywhere, all asking to know where you're from, and most try to make civil chit-chat until you realize that they have something to sell -- some decorative nonsense, or the promise of the adventure of a lifetime, or a sight you'll never see again and if you haven't seen it, you haven't been to Bali. Some vendors aren't even that civil; they crowd around you, blocking off all possible polite exits and shove their wares in your face, while undercutting each other 's prices to entice a deal.

It's sad 'cos they destroy what would otherwise be a scene of breathtaking beauty. For example, the rice terrace and the view of Lake Batur that our cab stopped at on our day-tour we couldn't wait to leave because of the vendors who effectively cut off the scenery while they surrounded us. It's even sadder that there doesn't seem to be anything else they could be doing to make a decent living.

Most of the attractions, even public parks, require some entrance fee and even the ancient Besakih temples required a donation (US$7 per pax recommended) for a guided tour.

Some vendors go so far as to simply be plain dishonest, like the lady who insisted I buy a sarong or I wouldn't be allowed to visit the temple. So, sotong that I was, I bought the sarong she wrapped around my waist at a price that would have allowed her to retire after lunch. It turned out that as long as I wore jeans (which I was wearing at the time) I would have had no conflict with the dress code anyway.

There was this little kid at the Besakih temple who placed a small flower on June's pouch and refused to take it back. He kept chanting, "gimme money" repeatedly and kept following us until our guide advised us to put the flower on the ground and walk on.

Then there was this jolly cab driver whom we engaged to take us from Kuta to our hotel in Benoa. He engaged us in loud conversation and offered to show us where we could see a beautiful sunset "near our hotel" so we said, "ok," as long as it was on the way. It wasn't, and we had to pay an entrance fee to go in, and the cab driver encouraged us to go explore and take photos, though it was nowhere near sunset yet. And he kept his meter running all the while. AND as we were still unfamiliar with the denominations of Indonesian currency then, we seriously overpaid him his fare and he didn't return any change to us. This we discovered only on hindsight when June suddenly wondered why she was so short of cash.

These people really got fat on June the radish and me the sotong, but these experiences hardened our hearts to all street vendors and cab drivers from then on. We said, "no," a lot, and many times we didn't see anybody, we didn't hear anybody and we just kept walking. June made it a point to bargain for everything and we faithfully counted our money and our change till it became a little embarrassing.

And, no, we weren't impressed with the local food either. The decent places to eat were just as expensive as fast food, the menu items didn't seem to offer much variety; and the cheap places to eat would have qualified for a stunt on "Fear Factor." No thanks.

The really sad thing is, we didn't mind spending more on established businesses and multinationals. We couldn't bargain these rates but we happily forked over our hard-earned savings to them anyway. I guess if there's a product or service we want, we're the type to go get it without the provider's effort. But if there's something offered to us that we don't want, no amount of persuasion is going to make us feel good about paying for it. And so our tourist dollar still goes into the hands of the corporations, and away from the hands of the locals whom we were there to "help out" in the first place.

I have photos, of course. A whopping 80+ I've uploaded that mostly tell the tale of our travels. The slideshow takes a while to load, so please be patient. Click.

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