Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Marie Turks

It was 5:25 p.m. when I stepped off the plane, and a breeze, like an ice-cream-covered kiss from my three-year-old niece, greeted me. A tear formed and crept from my eye as I grasped that I would have a mere six days in Bali, so short a time. I had not even retrieved my luggage and, already, Bali had claimed me.

After I collected my bags and wheeled them beyond the receiving line at Denpasar Airport, I saw a crowd of chauffeurs standing outside and holding up name placards. They were standing at the receiving rail, hoping to pair up with the appropriate arriving passengers. Or maybe they were waiting in line to get my autograph! But not one of them was waiting for me.

It sounds stupid now, but rather than rushing to call the hotel shuttle to inform them of my arrival, I kinda wanted to take some extra time to sit at the airport after my plane had landed in Bali.

Why did I feel so compelled to spend time at the airport?

I suppose that I wanted to take the time to immerse myself in the fact that the plane had landed and that the island had indeed received me. I did not want to rush into the Bali experience.

I sat outside on one of the airport benches, just beyond the arrivals receiving line, and watched other travelers meet their chauffeurs, families, and friends. I overheard a group of airport-shuttle drivers conversing in Indonesian as they smoke cigarettes. I sat, watched, and listened; and yes, I waited.

Delayed gratification, you could call it. I wanted to savor the last few minutes of not knowing whether Bali would become the island of my dreams. I wanted to remember myself as I was at that very moment—the pre-Bali me. This is me and I have arrived. What happens once Bali begins for me may change my life.

Bali, I know you’ll be worth the wait.

I let my patience do its thing for about twenty minutes before calling the hotel. Then I went back to the receiving line and stood there to wait for the hotel shuttle.

The white van from Stana Puri Gopa Hotel arrived at the airport. Yuni, a hotel escort dressed in a lime green hotel uniform, walked up to meet me at the arrivals area. In all my travels, I had never been met at the airport by someone holding a sign with my name on it. When I saw Miss Marie Turks taped to the ornately carved, wooden placard, I felt almost important.

We hopped into the van and before we left the airport, I noticed that the air smelled of sweet water and that the people smiled from their hearts. Looking around, at every horizon, I saw the peaks of lush islands. And at very third kiosk, it seemed, there was a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Along with most Indonesians I had met so far, Yuni spoke English well. I am amazed at how most service-industry employees in foreign countries speak English better than native English speakers. And more often than not, they speak two or more languages and have only a modest education. Yuni seemed friendly enough and she looked about my age, so I figured we should drop the escort-guest bit and have a real conversation.

“Yuni, I would like to ask you a question. Everyone in Indonesia that I’ve met so far speaks very good English—at the airports, in the restaurants…it’s impressive. Did you learn in school?”

“I just learned English three years ago. When I was looking for a new job, every place wanted me to speak English because we get so many guests from Australia. I took one class, but I learned more from television and while I worked at different hotel. Then I worked at Puri Gopa, a home-stay, so I needed to know English better.”

“What’s a home-stay?” I asked. Don’t tell me I’ve booked a room to stay at somebody’s house…

“It’s a small hotel. The staff at a home-stay talks to guests more than at a big hotel. [Most] Balinese people speak some English now.”

“So you’ve just learned English…how does it sound to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean, do you like English? Do Indonesians like the way English sounds? In the U.S., it is not common for kids to learn other languages because the U.S. is one large country. English is the main language. Most of us learn other languages in high school and then college, but we never get the chance to practice unless we visit other countries.

“When I went to high school, l picked the language I studied because I liked the way it sounded. Indonesian was not offered as a language to study…it’s a beautiful language. Do you like English?”

“I never thought about it; English is everywhere, so I learned it. I could not have good job otherwise.”

“You must see many foreigners; what language do you like best?”

“One time, we had big group of Japanese guests. I like the Japanese language,” she laughed. “It was difficult talk to Japanese guests. They don’t speak much English. They know only ‘breakfast, please.’ They would say ‘breakfast, please, breakfast, please,’ all the time, day and night. It was funny.”

Bali was more hot and humid than I thought weatherly possible. I didn’t know whether my armpits were leaking or crying.

I asked Yuni about markets near the hotel. She said that all the shops were within walking distance from the home-stay, and that most shops stayed open to ten p.m.

When we arrived at the hotel, I heard the music of cymbals, flutes, and drums rising from the building across the street. There were palm trees everywhere, picketing in the streets, which narrowed and twisted far into the distance.

Stana Puri Gopa lies at the southeast end of Bali in the Sanur district. Lonely Planet Indonesia describes Sanur as an artistic community. The more popular districts of Kuta Beach and Nusa Dua cater to night-clubbers and high-end tourists. Since I am neither of those, I thought, Sanur and I should get along well.

A uniformed bellhop took my bags and instructed me to follow him. I trailed behind him, and when we were almost at my room, I discovered a uniformed hostess had been quietly shadowing me, carrying an umbrella-topped orangeade.

We passed a man and a woman sitting in chairs outside their room. They were wearing shorts and T-shirts appropriate for the warm Balinese twilight. The man was drinking a bottle of Indonesian beer and the woman was reading a thick paperback book. Next to them, on a wire clothes rack, were two adult-sized swimsuits—presumably theirs—and two kid-sized swimsuits. A family holiday, I suppose.

The bellhop, hostess, and I rounded the bend and stopped at room number 16, my home for the next six days. In front of the room’s window sat two chairs and a table. The bellhop opened the door, I walked in, and—ahhh—air conditioning!

The hostess served the chairs my drink and the bellhop showed me the remote for the “whisper quiet” air con. Next, I was introduced to the finest ivory marble and red granite bathroom twenty bucks a night could ever hope to rent. It was clean, and unlike most of the mandi I had experienced in Indonesia, had plenty of bathroom tissue. If I had stayed at the Bali Hyatt, I’m sure all the necessary toiletries like soap, shampoo, and shoe polish would have been provided. But at Puri Gopa, TP was about all there was. That was just fine, because I brought all the necessaries, including soap, shampoo, antibacterial hand-wipes, and shower shoes to tide me over for the next six days.

After I set-up shop in the bathroom, I changed clothes, seized some rupiah, and started out in search of bottled water. My hotel door was half-opened when I stopped cold in my air-conditioned tracks. Night was descending! Since mosquitoes come out in the dark, I stepped further back inside the room, searched the bathroom arsenal, and located my bottle of defense. Aha. I camouflaged myself with Deet.

Of all things, I was thankful that I had decided to cough up the painful five bucks for insect repellant before leaving California. Indonesia had just recovered from a nation-wide epidemic of dengue fever. Mosquitoes transmit dengue fever and malaria when they bite, so it was a wise choice not to forego the protective coating.

Layered for warfare, I ventured beyond the gates of Puri Gopa, heading west. I heard cymbals and flutes serenading the waxing moon, I saw plumeria flowers littering the sidewalks, I smelled incense plumes under the overtones of my Deet—and I felt absolutely beautiful as I presented myself to the streets of Bali. Sanur romanced me from the depths of my soul to the soles of my feet, which, by the way, floated down the road.

I felt Bali, I heard Bali, I smelled Bali, I was Bali, and Bali was me. Where have I been all my life? I asked myself.

At the mini-pasar, a shop girl hovered near me as I surfed the aisles. As soon as my arms began overflowing, she handed me a basket. (Now that’s what I call service!) At the counter, I exchanged forty-two thousand rupiah for ten bars of cosmetic soap, eight pouches of emping snacks, six liters of Aqua water, and two bars of medicated soap. For the price of one bottle of Deet in California, in Bali I purchased souvenir gifts for ten friends, liquid replenishment for my thirsty insides, and disinfectant soap for my dirty outsides. Five dollars never traveled so far.

“Terima kasih, Ibu,” I thanked the gals and floated on.

Three minutes elapsed from when I left the pasar and I was back at #16. I consumed a liter of water in one gulp, joined the chairs at the table outside my room, and synchronized my heartbeat to the drums bellowing from the temple next door. I stared into the heavens while the world around my ornately painted door basked underneath the moonlit sky.

Before I hopped into my plumeria-covered bed, I adjusted the air-con remote and splayed myself on the mattress. The next day, I planned to walk around, look around, and be around.

Lights out, drums on, and my sleepy conscious wondered, Huh? Why me? I’m just a little chocolate girl traveling from California…how in the world did I end up here in paradise? I must be dreaming.

Night-night.

* * * *

I woke up to meet the morning before other eyes arose—or so I thought. There were cock-a-doodle-dos everywhere.

Really! How can such sounds from such small animals in the distance reach my ears behind a thick, teak door

Nearer to me, faceless wings hovered above me and whistled lullabies into my ear while I slept. I did wake up once during the night, but I did not want to turn on the lights because I was too scared to see what the alien insect looked like. Besides, I had only pity for the creature, it probably slipped into my #16 just to escape the heat outside.

Ready for the day, I stepped outside #16 and I found a three-inch brown beetle wiggling on its back near my doorstep. The beetle reminded me of myself in bed during the night, when I heard that winged insect hang-gliding around my ears.

It was early, so breakfast was not yet being served. I walked one block east on the narrow road to the beach. An elderly woman had just climbed up a tree to pick plumerias, which resembled the ones that were on my bed and in the bathroom when I arrived last night. The woman must have been close to seventy years old and the tree was about twenty feet high…yes, twenty feet high! Ironically, a small boy about five years old sat on the ground and watched her labor.

As I walked up the road towards Sanur Beach, I was so thankful for and amazed by the clarity of my mind and spirit. I felt so clear-headed…it was almost uncanny.

At the beach, Balinese women were sweeping the sands with eighteen-inch brooms. I stopped, and for the first time, I beheld the Balinese sun. It was glorious and it bathed the distant islands in a splendor of heavenly light. For a moment, I felt like the light transported me into the sky. I saw music and felt purity.

At last, I stepped from my reverie, back into reality, and into the tropical waters. It was only 6:45 a.m. and the water was already warm.

I walked back to Puri Gopa’s restaurant for breakfast. The restaurant employed straw blinds to shade its customers—it had no windows or doors. The restaurant opened at seven a.m., and though I was three minutes late, I was still the first guest. I ordered the complimentary continental breakfast, and shortly, pineapple, honeydew, watermelon, a slice of lime, hot tea, oat toast with strawberry jam, and ‘80s rock music were my companions.

“Ma’af, Ibu. Saya mau madu, tolong…terima kasih!” Asking for honey was one of the best decisions I made that morning. I expected the standard, clover variety that sludges its way out the bottle, but instead I received free-flowing nectar from the flowers of Eden. Balinese honey streams like silk and it flirts in a coquettish pink tint. The taste of this miraculous honey prompted my inner-bee to search for a grocer as soon as breakfast disappeared.

While I sang along to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” I asked my Lonely Planet where to rent bicycles by the hour. The motor scooters tempted me, but I didn’t think my cycling skills were up to par compared to Indonesian standards. Balinese roosters ride like they’ve just flown the coop! I opted for the pedal bikes instead.

Upon returning to #16 after breakfast, I decided to rescue the overturned beetle. I used the four-inch slab of wood anchored to my room key to hoist Pak Beetle back on its legs. Past the heavy lifting, I sat with the chairs for a while and watched a tiny, brown-bodied, white-headed bird build a condo in the berried branches of a palm tree. After the bird had installed marble floors in his mandi, I went into my room, changed from my tear-soaked blouse, secured my purse, and headed outwards to buy honey and more water.

Three steps out the door, I noticed green uniforms were preparing room #15, complete with the freshly picked plumeria nestled into the folds of the bedspread. I’ll have a new neighbor soon.

As I floated north on Sanur’s central street, Jalan Danau Tamblingan, I saw that the eyes of the souvenir shops had not yet risen. It was 8:30 a.m. and it would be at least another hour before their metal shutters rolled open. That’s fine with me, I can scope out the drag before the consumerism begins.

Even though the shops had yet to awake, the taxis and bemos pulsed with wide eyes and they honked at me every ten seconds. Maybe they’re honking at me because I don’t know how to tie my sarong. My bare thighs are peeking with every step I take! After a dozen or so honks, I finally deciphered the sirens; the vehicles wanted to “transport” me. While the humidity nurtured my complexion and nature called me her beloved, alas, the handsome men wanted only my rupiah.

On my way to the market, I spied an internet café so I decided to enter and send the “I have arrived” email to my family and friends. It’s hard to believe I have been in Bali for fifteen hours, nine of which I’ve wasted on sleep, and now, two of which I’ve spent with an internet connection of 28,800 bps. “Twenty-eight thousand eight hundred bauds per second” was the answer I failed to seek, and as a result I walked fifty thousand rupiahs less to Hardy’s Supermarket in search of honey and water. I didn’t regret losing the time or the money because I had nothing but the both of them to spare. And the day belonged to itself; I was just grateful that the day invited me along for the living of it.

Hardy’s was located at the north end of Sanur. Inside, I browsed the aisles, looking for honey. Along the way, I explored the fruit section and seized a bunch of rambutan, two mangosteen, one marquisa, and one snake fruit.

I’ve only tasted canned rambutan, so I couldn’t wait to taste it fresh. The Lonely Planet described mangosteen as a delicate fruit for which queens have offered ransoms. If it’s good enough to tempt the taste buds of a queen, it’s good enough to tempt mine. Marquisa was a mystery to me, so it went into the basket for later analysis as well. A friend had introduced me to snake fruit while I was in Jakarta, so I recognized the fruit in spite of the sign above it that read selak.

Back in #16, I emptied two bottles of Aqua into the marble bathroom sink. The sink now served as a bathtub for my fruit. I scrub-a-dub-dubbed my objécts d’art and the taste experiment began:

Rambutan: I peeled back the soft, hairy covering, fingered out the treasure, and…yep, you’re even better fresh.

Mangosteen: It was about the size of an orange, though it was brownish-purple, topped with a green-leaf beret. You have a lot of peel for such a small inside…you taste like a juicy white grape, and oh! You have a pit. I’m glad I bought two of you.

Marquisa; Oh. You’re passion fruit with a yellow skin instead of a purple one, yummy-yummy!

Snake fruit: Pak Selak, you’re old hat…you’ll be shed later in the week…but first a little nap.

* * * *

When I awoke, it was lunchtime, so I ventured out to see Bali in its prime. The shop batiks waved their banners, scooters zipped the streets, and bemos searched for passengers. Jalan Danau Tamblingan throbbed with activity. As I trotted along, merchants beckoned, “Good afternoon!” “Have a look my shop!” “Good afternoon!” “We have batik!” “Good afternoon!” “Good afternoon!” and “Good afternoon!”

They sure know English here.

Honk. “Transport?”

“Terima kasih, Pak. Tidak!” I said to each and every one addressing me as I scoped the street. I could not believe the hustle and bustle. Is this the same street I walked earlier?

I like to shop but this is outrageous. Honk. The shops hosted palettes of batiks, arrays of sandal shoes, and choirs of bamboo wind chimes. I decided to save the shopping for later.

Honk. “Transport?”

My eyes were on the lookout for food. I had walked for five blocks on the Jalan Danau Tamblingan strip and I saw a Dutch restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a French restaurant, and a Chinese restaurant. Where is the Indonesian chow?

The restaurants hustled for customers just as the shop merchants. It was madness. “Eat here!” “Good afternoon!” “We have good food!” The restaurants posted their menus on sandwich board kiosks. I came to the Lily Café and its kiosk boasted Indonesian fare while its floor emitted a shine, its tables wore cloths, and its chairs sat empty. I’ll take it.

The waiter accepted my order of Gado-Gado and a lime freeze “tidak ice.” I remembered a warning I read: Americans should beware of ice.

“Where you from?” the waiter asked. His waist wore an ivory sarong and his head nested a green handkerchief shaped into a swan.

“California, in the U.S.”

“When did you arrive?” he probed.

“Last night.”

“How long you here for?” he poked.

“Six days.”

“Where your hotel?” he prodded.

“Up the street,” I evaded.

I could not decide if the waiter was just being friendly or nosy. Lonely Planet described Indonesians as friendly, but I was not prepared for the litany of questions. I felt very uncomfortable because I was traveling alone.

Are you a stalker?

“First time in Bali?” he served.

“Yes. Do you have many tourists in Bali now?” I volleyed.

“Since the bombing, few tourists. You’re the first guest today.”

“It’s still early,” I offered. “Are you from Bali?”

“Yes, I live in Bali, not Sanur; in a different area. I come to Sanur for work.”

The conversation bounced around a bit more and then the chef sounded the bell—end of the first set. Then, instead of more conversation, my lunch was served. I beheld a fabulously huge plate of boiled cabbage, bean sprouts, and carrots, topped with peanut sauce, and sided with cucumbers. On a smaller plate, steamed rice steamed and a shrimp cracker basked on top of the mound of rice.

I took one bite and the game was over! I’ll be back here to eat again.

The swan-headed waiter left the meal to me, while Lionel Richie and Diana Ross enthralled me with their “Endless Love.” In between bites of Gado-Gado, their duet became a trio.

Twenty thousand rupiah gone, selamat siang said, and I braved the commercial road back to Puri Gopa. What to do, what to do. I considered going to the beach, but the idea of crowds and curious questioning defeated me. So I donned swimsuit number one (of three), borrowed a Puri Gopa towel, and advanced towards the pool.

The man and woman I saw reading last night now sat at the pool watching their son and daughter. Naked, their kids jumped up and down in the smaller pool. Oh to be young! If I jumped around in the water naked like that, someone would be calling the police.

I entered the pool, wearing my swimsuit of course, and twenty minutes later, I exited the pool. After a little rest, a little sun-gazing, a little more rest, and a little shower, it was time for dinner.

I sought and found Casa Luna, another restaurant with Indonesian fare. I enjoyed their curried vegetables, sided by a glass of watermelon juice, stared at the tiny tailless lizard which scurried and roosted on the rafter right above my head, and left the table with twenty-two thousand rupiah less in my coffers.

The meals here are bargain! That cost, what…a little less than three bucks? If I don’t pay attention and spend more, when it’s time to exchange my rupiah back into dollars, I might end up making money on this trip.

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