Wednesday, June 21, 2006

First day in Bali

The plane landed smoothly at the international airport in Bali, a somewhat small airport surrounded by blue skies and beautiful ocean waves. The international terminal was an interesting mix of modern airport construction and traditional Balinese architecture. As we walked into the building we passed a gorgeous Balinese statue above a goldfish pond. It was obvious that the Balinese took tourism seriously and had taken steps to make the airport experience a pleasant one while simultaneously introducing visitors to Balinese life and culture.

The airport was pleasantly air conditioned, although the Balinese don’t particularly like cold temperatures, so it wasn’t the perfectly frigid air of Kuala Lumpur, but still much better than India. Everyone, including security, was pleasant and smiling, even the ones that did not speak much English did their best to communicate, always with warm smiles. While this tends to be a part of the Balinese culture – they are very friendly – I am sure it also was a result of a tourist-heavy economy. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also received professional customer service training by the airport authority or local government – something that some of our airport workers in the West need to go through!

The baggage claim area was small, clean, and orderly. Most of the luggage was already coming off the flight. I had to run to the bathroom – again! – but was happy to find clean, modern restroom facilities on a par with the airports back home in the U.S. (Sheesh, is this a travelogue or a critique of restrooms? – ed.) When I came out and went back to the luggage carousel, all the luggage was off the plane. I waited until only a handful of people were left. Still no luggage.

A couple of German ladies were talking to an ever smiling airport worker who was trying to inform them in English that their luggage had not made it. Needless to say, they were reasonably upset, probably having traveled thousands of miles to enjoy the beaches and sun of Bali only to find their luggage didn’t make it. All the while the airport staff were smiling, speaking calmly in soft tones, while guiding the passengers to the lost baggage claim desk. Again, simple customer service techniques that some of our airports back home could probably use.

As the two German ladies were led away, I began to get nervous about my own luggage. Sure enough, a pleasant looking airport worker with a smile asked me which flight I had arrived on and asked to see my luggage receipt. In the nicest way possible he explained that possibly my luggage too had been lost. He asked me for a detailed description of my luggage and showed me to a pile of unclaimed luggage from the flight, but I didn’t see it. I was beginning to really get depressed about this whole trip, first I get sick in India and now my luggage is missing. I felt terrible, although much better than the 12+ hours ago when I was at the Delhi airport, I hadn’t eaten in more than 24 hrs, was dehydrated, and felt like my legs were going to collapse at anytime. Luckily all the medicine prescribed by the doctor was in my carryon, although I was a bit distressed about clothing, as I had not showered in more than 36 hrs and was still wearing the same clothes after having sweated in the heat of Gurgaon and Delhi, India. I wearily began to walk towards the lost baggage claim desk, head down and dragging my carry on. At this point, I just wanted to get to my hotel and collapse, luggage be damned.

Just as I was about to reach the desk, I heard loud cries of “…sir, sir…wait…” I stopped and turned around to be greeted by the same kind gentleman running full sprint towards me………with a familiar looking green and black suitcase pulled behind him!! Sure enough, it was my luggage, he had found it in a pile of luggage that had been separated from another flight and was on another carousel. I thanked him profusely, a huge smile on my own face now as I finally realized that maybe things weren’t so bad.

Customs and immigration were a breeze and I walked outside to immediately be confronted by a smiling young man who asked if I was staying at The Oberoi hotel. Sure enough, my name was on his list and he quickly showed me to his car. The parking lot was small, but orderly and clean. There were plenty of people and cars at the airport, but just the usual hustle and bustle and none of the chaos as experienced in India. When I got in the car he handed me a hot towel refreshment and a cold bottle of water. I took the opportunity to down some more medicine and we were on our way.

Traditional Balinese music came from the car speakers, no vocals, just pleasant sounding percussions and flute-like instruments. It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before, but was somewhat peaceful and relaxing, sort of like the tumbling of water through a fast moving creek. Not quite loud, not quite soft, just constantly flowing and somewhat in the background.

The roads in Bali are well paved but narrow. There aren’t many multi-lane, wide paved streets, which is just fine as it keeps up appearances of that “quaint, resort town” look, even though roughly 3 million + live on the island of Bali, with more than a million (so I was told, correct me if I am wrong) in the principal city of Denpasar. Traffic was busy and I noticed that everyone either drove a motorcycle or an SUV. Rarely did I see any sedans. Even though traffic was busy, I rarely heard a horn, except for the taxicabs. We passed gleaming shopping malls obviously built for the tourists, touting the latest fashion from the top brand names and stores, all in English. We also passed a lot of surf shops, as surfing is a big sport in Bali, there were a number of international surfers on the plane picking up their surfboards from the luggage carousel.

What I found really interesting were the number of “farms” and rice paddies seemingly scattered intermittently among the shops and businesses as we traveled to the hotel. It was odd yet I found it made the city appear more….I don’t know, real. It’s hard to explain.

We passed through several traffic circles and the centers were usually constructed of large, beautiful Balinese fountains and sculptures. I wanted to take pictures, but we were traveling too fast. Needless to say, the exquisite detail and design took my breath away. And these were just traffic circles.

Soon we made it outside of Denpasar where the roads became narrower and the surroundings decidedly surburban, if not village like. Small, traditional Balinese homes dotted the roadside with the occasional restaurant or gift shop crammed in-between. Traffic became less congested and foreigners walked the street in sandals and shorts. Finally we turned around a number of curvy roads, passing numerous restaurants only to stop in front of a guard gate to a long driveway with a large Balinese sculpture off to the side that was just amazing. It looked like it could have been standing there for a hundred years but was probably only a few years old. When the driver rolled down his window to check in with security, I could smell the ocean and hear the waves. It was a pleasant sound.

Since the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people and injured 209 (mostly tourists) and in 2005 that killed 23 people and injured more than 100, security at hotels and other tourist hot-spots has increased dramatically. The hotel I was staying at was located on the beach in Seminyak, far from the crowded tourist traps of Kuta and Sanur. Even though Seminyak has its fair share of tourists, it pales in comparison to the more populous areas of Kuta, Legian, and Sanur. Even more, the hotel I stayed at was pretty far off the beaten track, located on a less trafficked beach in a residential area far from the shops and noise of Legian village. The hotel was also a resort with rooms spread out over many acres of beachfront land with small thatched “villages” for rooms, making it an unattractive target for terrorists looking for mass casualty. Regardless, immediately after the 2002 bombing, the hotel management quickly hired additional full time security and installed a guard shack at the main entrance manned by 2 guards 24 hrs a day. All vehicles at the entrance must stop at the gate where the guards will thoroughly check the inside and outside of the car, including mirrors to check for explosives, etc underneath the car. They question each driver to verify they have business at the hotel and are issued a security pass. The pass must be returned to the guards before exiting. Logs are kept of each vehicle that enters, including license plate number, number of passengers, time of entry and exit, etc. While it certainly wasn’t Fort Knox, it did put one at ease knowing that not just anyone could get in, although I am sure a determined terrorist could find a way to get in. It just wouldn’t be as easy as it was before 2002, which is the whole point of deterrence.

We made our way down the long driveway to the main “entrance” which was simply a stone pathway past traditional Balinese buildings with thatched roofs that housed the gift shop and office staff which bordered numerous Balinese statues and fish ponds. The ocean was much louder and as I climbed the steps into the “lobby” I could see way. The lobby was basically a giant open air room with high ceilings that bordered the beach. Waves crashed on a beautiful white sandy beach less than 50 feet away. It was very warm, in the high 80’s, but with the breeze from the ocean and the pleasant atmosphere it just didn’t seem that hot. I was quickly checked in and then shown to my “room” which was very far away. I was taken away not only by the beauty of the hotel and the beach but also with how incredibly large the complex was. It took a good 5 minutes of fast walking to reach my “room” which was basically a traditional Balinese hut with thatched roof – and air conditioning of course. Hands down the nicest hotel I have ever stayed in, period, and again thank goodness my company was footing the bill.

I felt dirty and sweaty and tired and quickly took a nice long bath in the huge marble bathtub where I promptly fell asleep. I woke up a little while later only to put the “do not disturb” sign outside my door before crawling into bed. It was about 4pm.

I slept soundly and did not wake up again until the next afternoon. My eyes were heavy and my head groggy as I realized that I had been asleep for nearly 24 hrs. I opened the drapes and blinked in the sunlight and there were several messages taped to the door from management concerned that I had placed my room under “do not disturb” status for such a long period of time – was everything alright? Did I need anything? I quickly called them and told them I was just tired from traveling and needed the sleep, I did not mention that I was sick.

I got up and was immediately dizzy and light headed. I staggered to the bathroom where they had a scale and checked my weight. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m not sure what I weighed before I left India, but according to the scale I had lost somewhere between 6-8 lbs in less than 3 days. I hadn’t eaten in nearly 3 days and had nothing to drink but water and 1 Coke. I slowly got dressed as I did not have any energy and my mind seemed to be working slowly. I realized that no matter how my stomach felt I better get something into my stomach. I also needed some more medicine and so I grabbed my camera and left my room.

I grabbed some dry toast (you don’t want grease, or butter, or anything else when you have a stomach infection) and ate it slowly. I also drank a lot of water. The hotel staff looked at me strangely, I am sure they rarely got requests for plates of dry toast with only water to drink. The “restaurant” is literally on the beach and I noticed 2 security guards at both ends of the beach standing watch. It was a public beach, but security would keep beach hawkers at a long arm’s length reach away as well as look for anything or anyone suspicious. I sat there for a long time, just eating slowly and soaking in the atmosphere, just listening to and watching the ocean. I finally felt good enough to take the shuttle bus to Legian Village, which was the closest area to buy anything. There were plenty of nice restaurants around the hotel, but other than the restaurants it was strictly residential. So I went out to the main entrance to wait for the bus to Legian.

To be continued…..

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