Thursday, June 22, 2006

Desperate times.

The bus to Legian village wasn’t a bus at all. It was simply a driver in an SUV. There was only 1 other person in the car with me from the hotel. In about 10 minutes we were in the heart of Legian village and the car dropped us off in front of a surf shop.

The place was dead. I mean it was quiet, nothing was going on. Legian village runs right into Kuta and both places are the most heavily populated tourist areas on Bali. The streets of Legian village are packed door-to-door with gift shops selling all sorts of wares and handicrafts as well as t-shirts and sunglasses, pirated DVDs and software, clubs, restaurants and bars. It went on for blocks in both directions. Everything was open and shopkeepers roamed the streets trying to entice prospective buyers into their shops. There were a few tourists like myself walking around, but it was mostly empty and devoid of any foot traffic. Restaurants were completely empty except for 1-2 token tables. Bars of all sorts advertised special prices and all sorts of incentives for travelers to stop in for a drink, but to no avail. The gift and souvenir shops were quiet, their proprietors sitting on the sidewalk outside or walking up and down the street trying to get someone, anyone, to buy anything. It was an odd sight for what used to be a crowded tourist trap. The terrorist bombings and travel warnings had worked – no one was coming to Bali anymore.

I hadn’t taken more than 5 steps when a gentleman introduced himself as “Billy” and physically tried to pull me into his shop, which was rather distressing. It is one thing to be accosted by hawkers and shop owners in the street trying to convince you to come into their stores, it is another to have a complete stranger pulling on your arm. Annoyed, I shook him off and glared at him. I felt bad for these people who were desperately trying to make a living now that the tourists were all gone, but grabbing people and pulling on them does not make a person view favorably on your establishment or business practices. It just pisses people off.

As I walked I was surrounded by shop owners who walked with me in step. “Change money, sir? Buy a souvenir? We have t-shirts, watches, DVDs! Looking for handicrafts?” It was impossible to discern who was talking to me about what nor where their shop was located. These were desperate people. I firmly shook my head and went straight to the pharmacy to pick up more medicine. I left the throng of followers outside and got my medicine and proceeded to walk down the street. Again, every store and every person tried desperately to convince me to shop in their store. I did eventually buy some T-shirts from a fellow who was friendlier and politer than most. If I had the money, I would have bought something from every single store I saw as it was obvious these people had gone a long time without any business and they were quite desperate. At the shop I bought the T-shirts from I asked the proprietor what it used to be like.

“Before the terrorist bombings you could barely walk down this street. Cars, motorcycles, and taxicabs filled the streets with traffic and the sidewalks were so packed with tourists you could barely move. Business was good and even though many of us sell similar items all were able to make a decent living. New restaurants, clubs, and shops were opening all the time. Now they are all gone. The newer places have already closed their doors, those planning to open have all changed their minds. Those of us who have managed to hang on are getting more desperate by the month. Nobody comes to Bali anymore. Everyone is afraid.”

It should be noted that Bali is a very unique part of Indonesia. While Indonesia as a whole is a secular Muslim country, Bali is completely different from the rest of Indonesia. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Muslims make up a severe minority of the population in Bali. Over 90% of the population is Balinese-Hindu with less than 5% Muslim. The remaining population is mostly Buddhist or Christian. This makes the Balinese culture quite unique and different from the vast majority of Indonesians. They have little in common with their fellow Indonesian-Muslim citizens and strongly oppose the current Islamification that is rising in mainstream Indonesian politics and society. They fiercely oppose terrorism and make great pains to point out that the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks were not from Bali but had traveled from other parts of Indonesia to carry out the attacks. They hate the terrorists even more than we do, as the terrorists have succeeded in derailing the tourist economy which is the biggest money earner on Bali. Their entire economy is based on tourism and the terrorists destroyed that. Begin a conversation about terrorism and you will quickly be treated to a profanity laden tirade about how the terrorists ruined Bali and the various painful punishments that should be inflicted on them. As a unique side effect, the terrorist attacks have firmly placed the people of Bali against Jemaah Islamiyah, the fundamentalist Islamic organization believed to be linked to Al Qaeda and the Bali bombings. Just another proving point that terrorism’s worst victims are their own people and countries.

Further down the street I reached the spot of the 2002 terrorist bombing that killed more than 200 people. There is a memorial constructed where the building used to be with the inscribed names of all the dead and which country they were from. Across the street was an empty lot of rubble, all that remains of one of the businesses that was destroyed by the bombing. A tiny handful of tourists and locals was standing in front of the memorial reading the names of the dead. It was a sobering reminder of the terror inflicted on this once peaceful and beautiful island.

I took some pictures and then slowly walked back to where the hotel’s car had dropped me off. By this time I was feeling very weak and dizzy again and was looking forward to getting back to the hotel. Again, it was a struggle to walk back without being hassled by every shop or restaurant I passed on the street. I felt bad for them as they were only trying to stay in business and they seemed so desperate for anyone to buy anything. The driver picked me up and I went back to the hotel to rest.

I was supposed to meet our agent in Indonesia along with representatives from our freight company for dinner that night, but being sick I really did not feel up to it. I tried to call them, but no one picked up the phone and they were not replying to my messages. So I just hunkered down in my hotel room and waited for the inevitable call for dinner.

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…..

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Welcome to Paradise…….

I don’t remember a thing from the plane ride to Kuala Lumpur except waking up often shivering in my thin airline blanket. The stewardess had to wake me up to let me know we had landed. The plane was already emptying. Bleary eyed, aching, and weak from not having eaten in nearly 24 hrs, I stumbled from the plane and into the airport. Just stepping into the airport was like a breath of fresh air. The airport in Kuala Lumpur is fairly new, I believe it opened in the last 5 years or so, although I could be wrong. I had never paid attention to the airports I had been to in the past, but when you just spent your last week in third world hell, having utilized transportation infrastructure from several decades ago, and then suddenly step into the modern world, you sit up and notice. As tired and sick as I was, I walked around with wide eyes, just soaking in the delicious, cool, 72 degree air conditioned interior. No crowds here. No noise. It seemed absurdly quiet having just come from Delhi airport. Everyone walked around calmly and seemed to know where they were going. The airport was spotlessly clean and just gleamed from all corners. It seemed massive and enormous after India and I just sat down for a minute and closed my eyes, soaking it all in. I felt better just being there.

I went to the restroom and had to peel the contact lenses from my red eyes, as I had been too sick to bother to remove them. They had been in my eyes for more than 24 hrs, which is a really bad thing for daily contact lens users. I spent a long time in the bathroom, thanks again to my stomach, but I did not seem to have a fever and the shivering and chills were mostly gone, although my body ached everywhere. Even though I had not eaten in more than 24 hrs I was not hungry and did not feel like eating anything. I did get a Coke and some water to keep me from getting dehydrated.

I laid down on a bench and closed my eyes, but the pain would not go away. I had about 1 ½ hrs before my plane left. Finally I got up to walk around because lying or sitting down just hurt too much. As I was walking, I saw a small shop that gave reflexology massages for travelers. Having experienced them before, I knew that they did wonders for your legs and feet and thought anything was better than just sitting in agony. I paid for a 45 minute massage. Boy, was I glad I did. By the time they were done, all the pain in my body was gone. I still felt awful, still weak and dizzy, but the body aches and pain were gone. It was money well spent.

I went back out to wait for the flight and they were finally allowing us into the inside waiting area. Kuala Lumpur is a bit different, even though you are already in the airport, they have a secondary waiting area before you enter the plane. You must go through a security check before entering the secondary waiting area. So everyone sits on benches and chairs outside the actual “gate” waiting for security to let them in.

Malaysia is an interesting country. It is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, with many different religions. While ethnic Malays are the majority and control most of the government, the population has large ethnic Chinese and Indian populations. Hence, you have Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians living side by side in relative peace and prosperity. While there are rising Islamic tendencies being reported by the media, for the most part Malaysia, particularly the big cities, is a working secular, multicultural society. At the security check at my gate, the guy in charge was clearly Indian. The 4 women manning the x-ray machines were obviously Muslim, complete with Muslim head coverings. 1 Chinese guy and 1 Chinese woman manned the handheld metal detectors. 2 other armed security guards, who appeared to be Malay, guarded the gate entrance.

When it came time for boarding there was none of the chaos that I had experienced in India. Everyone waited their turn calmly and quietly. Again, thanks to my company, I was flying in Business Class and allowed to board first. I quickly sat down before my weak legs gave out and again wrapped myself up for the flight to Bali. I was feeling a bit better after the reflexology treatment and so I didn’t fall asleep right away.

An American and his wife, clearly Indian, sat down across from me and when they mentioned Bangalore, India, I perked up.

“Did you say you just came from Bangalore? I just came from Delhi!” I asked him.

“Yes, my company moved me to India about 6 months ago for a 3 year temporary assignment. We were so excited to go, as my wife immigrated to the U.S. when she was only 7 years old and had not been back since. Boy, what a mistake!” he replied.

Turns out his wife was an American citizen and didn’t really consider herself Indian, having been in America for so long and having grown up there. He worked for some hi-tech company and when the job opportunity came up to work in India he and his wife thought “wouldn’t it be great to go back to India and live for awhile, give the kids a chance to learn about their mother’s native culture and country” and also his wife felt that it would be a chance for her to reconnect with her roots.

“Boy were we wrong. We have been there for 6 months and we hate it. And we still have 2 ½ years to go!” So much for enjoying India.

“Everywhere is so dirty and crowded, nothing works right and nothing is on time. Trash is everywhere, everyone litters. And because my husband is “white” everyone rips us off. They see a white face and they mark up everything.” Complained his wife. So much for reconnecting with her roots. “I don’t remember much of India when I was a child, but had I known it would be this bad I would never have wanted to come back.”

We traded notes on India and while some of their observations matched those of my own, clearly the things I had seen were much worse than what they viewed through their ex-pat softened eyes. While I generally agreed with some of their assessments of Indian life – the crowds, the pollution, the trash, everything running late or not working right – I had a hard time believing their life was so difficult living in multinational corporate sponsored ex-pat housing with private international school and a live-in maid. Still, one comment stuck with me.

“When we stepped off the plane into the Kuala Lumpur airport, it was like a breath of fresh air. We just felt better. We had never really paid much attention to airports before.”

I could understand perfectly.

Conversation finally ended and I settled back to sleep. Soon I woke up as we began our descent into Bali. Beautiful blue ocean waves formed white caps as we came closer to ground. Forests and perfectly formed beaches could be seen everywhere. Perhaps I would enjoy my business trip to Bali………

To be continued.