Twenty-five of us stood in a line under a broiling, tropical sun in Bali, Indonesia. Our rented motorcycles, supplied by enterprising young Balinese who stood in the shade, puttered quietly in neutral. We had come from the United States, Australia, Germany, and France to the island of Bali to lie in its sun and to travel the narrow country roads. But now we waited for our driving tests to begin, administered by local police officials who almost turned me away because I was wearing sandals.
I had been to bali and ridden its roads by motorcycle before. But that was eight years ago. Then, there was only one major hotel on the island, located on the reef-protected beach at Sanur. Nearby Kuta, where a long curving beach of white sand meets the high surf of the Indian Ocean, was just a tiny fishing village, host to a few hundred backpackers who made it a rest stop on their sojourns through Asia. I had time, neither a license nor insurance was required and the rental fee was just a few dollars a day.
Today, major hotel chains like Hyatt and Obeoi have large tourist complexes on the island, and the Indonesian government is building a huge hotel on the beach at Nusa Dua. Most of Kuta's roads have been paved and the backpackers replaced, by and large, by tens of thousands of French and Australian tourists who now flood the island year-round. The motorcycles are still there and are still being rented by a growing number of entrepreneurs from Bali and Java. The motorcycles, usually available in the 125cc to 250cc range, are more popular than ever with younger travelers.
The local authorities, however, have grown more sophisticated since I was last in Bali. Now, tourists need a special motorcycle permit unless they are licensed to drive a motorcycle in their home countries. And insurance is mandatory. My wife, Sheri, and I wanted to rent a bike for four days but we lost nearly one day because of the new, time-consuming procedures.
Bali is an ideal size for touring by motorcycle. It is only 89 miles long and 50 miles wide and many of the better-known towns and villages are an easy day trip from the tourist towns of Sanur and Kuta, located on the southern tip of the island. But there are hazards. Few of the Balinese who rent the motorcycles supply helmets. If the bike breaks down while you're out on the back roads, there are few repair shops around. And, although some of the roads we traveled on were in good condition, many others had potholes, loose gravel, and narrow shoulders which sloped down to irrigation ditches. Finally, Balinese drivers think nothing of rumbling down the road behind you, horns honking, before passing you and leaving a cloud of dust and pebbles in their wake.
One alternative to motorbikes is public transportation, provided mainly by bemos,m light trucks which have been converted into minibuses. They are cheap, a typical bemo trip of 12 miles costing no more than 30 cents. But bemos have their own drawbacks. Because a bemo driver will stop for any and everyone, what would be a 15-minute trip could stretch to an hour. And conductors will enthusiastically squeeze 15 people into the cramped passenger compartment of a bemo designed for eight. During out two weeks on the island, we took demos quite often. Four days touring the island at our own pace by motorcycle was a welcome change.
Sheri and I aren't experienced motorcyclists so we were determined to drive slowly and carefully. After getting my license, I spent the rest of the day familiarizing myself with the motorcycle, a 125cc Honda, and taking a test run with Sheri over to Sanur, only a mile or so from Kuta. The next day, I felt con fident enough to try an extended trip. We were staying in Kuta, in one of 10 comfortable cottages run by a local restaurant owner. The cottage came complete with a kitchen unit, a modern bathroom (including sunken tub), and a working ceiling fan. It cost us $14 a night. We arose early, leaving after a breakfast supplied by the cottage staff.
Just outside of Kuta, we stopped to fill up at a gas station run by Indonesia's giant oil company, Pertamina. The cost was about 50 cents a liter. We then headed to the royal temple of Mengwi, located about 45 minutes from Kuta via Denpasar. Once past the town, designed, it seemed, to frustrate all but the most persistent and cool-headed driver, the road was good and the traffic light. Then the joys of touring Bali by motorbike could be fully realized.
We sped past newly planted rice paddies which hugged the carefully terraced hillsides. Yet not far away on this lush island where rice is cultivated year-round, local villagers were harvesting a new crop and arranging it in neat piles. White flags and makeshift scarecrows flapped in the breeze and small boys with long poles directed flocks of ducks along the side of the road.
Hindu temples and their intricate carvings are everywhere on this island of nearly 3 million people. Balinese practice their own unique form of Hinduism, the dominant religion before Islam drove it from all of Indonesia except Bali. Every village has at least one temple with its distinctive split gate and its thatched roofs which rise in succession one over the other, tapering to a peak.
Perhaps the one place which epitomizes both the good and bad effects of foreign influence on Bali is Ubud, the center of modern Balinese art and just a short drive from Sangeh. Ubud has long been a favorite with European artists and the primitive style of its painters, now world-renowned, is derived in part from European artists such as Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet who painted here.
Branching off from the main road are dirt paths which led us past the homes of dozens of local artists who turn out hundreds of paintings depicting village life in all its myriad forms. Some of the work is quite good but much of it is mass-produced for the tourist market. And almost all of it is overpriced, driven up by the influx of foreign visitors in the past few years.
For the best exhibition of the unique artwork of the town, we visited Puri Lukisan,m the local museum. Just beyond its walls are green rice paddies and beautiful flower gardens while inside are the sculptures, sketches, and paintings of a number of local artists.
Some Europeans have made Ubud their home. Up one winding path we found the art gallery and home of Antonio Blanco, an eccentric artist who gave us a personal tour of his collection of poems, paintings, and collges. A Spaniard by birth, Blanco had come to Ubud long before it was discovered by the tourist trade. With his Balinese wife by his side, he chatted with us about his life in Bali and about his home, a place he rarely leaves. As we walked around his hilltop retreat, through its lush gardens, and looked out over the terraced ricefields in the distances, we could understand why.
By the time we left Ubud, it was already becoming dark, and although we didn't want to drive at night, we decided to stop at a small village, a few miles from Kuta, just off the main road. The village was holding its biannual temple festival.
At the ever-present food stalls, men and women ate babi guling,m roast suckling pig served with rice. As it was a local festival, a serving on a banana leaf cost little more than 20 cents. We also found our favorite tropical fruit, mangosteens, whose reddish rind is removed to reveal white sections of sweet fruit.
Gemelanm music signaled the start of the ceremony. Gamelan orchestras, composed of drums, gongs and xylophone-like instruments of various shapes and sizes, are found throughout Java and Bali. But in Bali the gamelan is louder and more insistent. From the temple came a procession led by three men wearing the Barong costume, their manes dangling almost to the ground. Women attendants held umbrellas on high poles over the Barongs as the group walked to a clearing outside the temple.
The music grew louder, smoke from burning incense filled the air and the group began marching slowly in a circle. Villagers to the side of the devotees began to chant in low, sonorous voices, their words mingling with the gamelan music. The older men and women in the procession seemed entranced and they began a free-form dance, waving their arms and prancing about nimbly.
Finally, the group lined up in a row facing the villagers. For a few moments , it became quiet and all was still. Then, another round of chanting and gamelan music began. There ceremonies would continue throughout the night. After a while, we quietly slipped away, not starting our motorbike until we were out of earshot of those who keep the magic of Bali alive.