The best way to explore Bali is to straddle a stranger on the back of a moped. For a week I sweated from every crease and crack in the back seat of taxis’ as they slothed across the island. When a grandma balancing a basket of flowers on her head overtook me, I broke the no-mopeds-in-Bali rule. Gojek, the Uber and Lift of Asia, doesn’t just offer GoRide, but GoMassage, GoGlam, GoAuto, GoFix and GoLaundry. A tap of the screen gets a chauffeured moped at your feet that’s 10% the cost of a Taxi. At the end of the day after sitting hunched over, hands wrapped around a stranger, bum numb from cushionless seats, you can tap for a masseuse to kneed out the moped muscles.
Unfortunately, Bali Marina, my temporary home, is in the No-Go Zone. Ride share apps are banned and the boundary is enforced by app glitches and the Taxi Mafia who lurk at the jaws of the bridge, the border of the restricted area. They lean against cars waiting with open doors for stranded tourists and with clenched fists for Gojek drivers. The No-Go Zones are not the nether regions, but chic tourist towns like Uluwatu or isolated pockets of the island that have only one access road in and out like the marina.
Living in a No-Go zone, I am forced to bargain with the Taxi drivers that fester on the medium strip. If you think bargaining for a Bintang singlet is vexing, then try haggling with six guys standing in front of six taxis, their livelihoods dependent on correctly assessing your worth.
If my shirt has no sweat patches, holes or grease stains, the drivers hike up the price by 20%. If the starting price is 20% higher, then the lowest price I’ll bargain them down to is also 20% higher. It seems there is no minimum cost, just an assessment of what I can pay. The issue is, the only way to venture out of the No-Go Zone and avoid the overpriced taxis and self-worth assessment is to hitchhike or walk 6 km in 41 degrees, 93 percent humidity heat over a bridge that has no pedestrian walkway in air that paints you in rotting fish and gasoline.
Hitchhiking, it turns out, is the best way to get off the Marina’s island without a loss of self-worth or net worth.
So, on my day off, I try my thumb. In less than a minute, a pruned man with a C spine and vintage moped slows. By vintage I mean archaic, and by moped, I mean a cocktail of parts.
“Selamat Pagi,” I say as he gurgles to a stop. “Terima Kasi.” I hope a good morning, thank you, and two arms pointed to the bridge is enough to score me a ride. He smiles, nods, and pats the seat behind him. I sit on scorching black leather and the moped creaks and sinks two inches. The man is as heavy as a bony ten-year-old, so I grab his singlet fearful I’ll crack a rib. He turns around with a gummy grin that says, hold on tighter, I promise I don’t drool. I just hope he didn’t lose the teeth in a moped accident. He revs, and we are off, headed over the bridge that will get me to the mainland. As we climb the bridge’s arc, the moped slows, chokes and he taps the neck and mumbles. His grimy palm does the trick and we make it to the top then coast down the other side. At the bottom of the bridge, I point to a service station and he lets me off.
I’m now in the Go Zone and match with Zeni, my moped driver. A policeman posted on the corner strolls over and tries to hail me a taxi. He only listens to the no thanks when I show him my phone and Zeni’s avatar two blocks away.
A flashy black moped with a guy holding out a green helmet stops, and I hop on straddling the leather seat and huging him as he zips into the swarm of mopeds. This is the Uber-XXX of Bali. We dart around cars and jump the curb in a Kongo line of mopeds heading through Denpasar.
The cars trade time for safety, and if I were less impatient and more sensible, I would be in a sweatbox chugging along too. But, I’m practical and therefore arrive in Uluwatu in 36 minutes with a sore back and car fumes and grit glued to my sunburnt arms.
The driver drops me at the top of Suluban headland which overlooks the famed surf break that peels across the jagged reef.
It’s almost a year since my last surf. I should reacquaint on rolling waves that spill onto silken sand, but I’ve been living on water for five months with my board stowed in the gulley of the boat, and I haven’t used it once. Even if I just float out there for two hours amongst the hoots of surfers who just scored a 4-second barrel, I’d be stoked, but getting out the back to clean water requires a dogfight with the waves using shoulders that need a chiropractor after the trip up here.
I pay the driver, edge away from the monkey that’s eyeing my backpack, and head along the path that winds past surf shops, trinket sellers and cafes overlooking the ocean. An amphitheatre of splintered chairs and tables gaze down upon the entertainment below. You don’t have to surf be part of it. Buy a 3 dollar coconut, splurge on a nip of rum and lean into the reef break sprinkled with surfers vying for the 6 ft that waves that roar below. The chance of me coming home with a souvenir of a shard of coral in my leg is high. But, here it’s a matter of no gash no glory. I didn’t come to sip and sit. I came to surf.
I rent a rainbow shortboard that’s had a few encounters with the jagged reef and follow a shirtless surfer down the steps. The path leads into a crack in the rocks that opens up onto a beach shadowed by the headland abover. I place my board on the sand, strap on my leg rope, do a couple of half-hearted stretches and ask the guy beside me for any tips. He looks at my feet.
I grew up surfing along the east coast of Australia and know each surf break has a path of least resistance that locals know, and tourists only find out once they get washed back onto the rocks.
“Paddle out through the section of reef you want to surf, but on the way in, aim for the cave. The current will drag you to the left. If you overshoot your mark, there’s no way back up the mountain. You don’t have booties?”
“No,” I say, looking at his ankle-high water shoes. “How bad is it?”
“It’s low tide. You can see most of the urchins. You should be fine,” he says.
I thank him and head for the least violent of the four main breaks along the 300-metre wall of waves.
Even the men with tatted arms and more muscles than a jetty pylon have little black booties to brave the sea urchins, barnacles and angry organisms lurking under crevasses. I’m too lazy to walk back through the cave and up the stairs to the hire place, so I pray that my soles, fortified by growing up barefooted in rural Australia, will save me from what lurks below the surface. When I was a kid, shoes were for school and going to fancy restaurants. Fancy meant the local pub, and even at school, shoes came off in the playground.
I pick up my board and pass a man with a cut above his eyebrow and a river of blood streaming over his lips and down his chest.
Water makes blood look worse. It’s nothing. Just get out there. Don’t go back dry with a face of zinc. It’s worse than walking wet with a face of blood. I inhale deep and dip my toes in. It’s warm, clear, and for the metre ahead, free from sea urchins.
The walkout is more seaweed than sharp and I only slip once. The moment the reef ends and ocean begins is marked by dark water and unbroken waves. To get there, however, I have to paddle through mountains of white. I wait for a lull in the waves, spot my gap and jump, paddling for my life. I can’t duck dive too deep as I’ll hit the rocks. The waves are strong, and every hit of whitewash sends me back five metres. Forward ten, back five is a doable ratio, and I make it out to clean water puffing, burning but without attracting sharks.
I float for ten minutes staring at the yellow cliffs and Hindu temple stitched along the northern headland. This is Bali. Crashing wave and surf chatter’s the only sounds floating across topaz water clear enough to see blooms of coral and flashes of fish. I don’t need or want to catch a wave, but I feel the pressure of the guys beside me. As the only girl in the line-up, I need to show them I can at least hold my own. I spot a set coming and paddle on the inside of a guy that’s been hogging waves all morning. He sees me coming and gives way. The wave is twice my height and hollowing quickly. The reef in front sucks up, and I know, if I’m to come out this intact, I either bail now or spring to standing and beat the frothing mouth chasing me across the face. The wave’s licking its lips ready to swallow me whole. I stand, cut left, and zip across as the vortex tightens around me. I hit the lip, hurl myself over the back and have just enough time to suck in a breath before being sucked back in and tossed around the wave’s guts. I plank my body, pull in my stomach and do a few crocodile death rolls over the reef. Just as I’m coming to a stop, my ankle scrapes. I open my eyes and am in two feet of water. I pull at my leg rope, scramble onto the board, and look up into the face of another wave just as big as the one that just ate me. I duck dive and the wave slams me into the coral below. This time, the board takes the hit and I surface and paddle like my life depends on it. There’s a good chance it does. Breathless, I make it back to the line of surfers. I didn’t die. My ankle has two grazes that will heal in a week. They aren’t even deep enough to send me back to shore.
I surf for another two hours and manage to catch enough waves to make me feel like I actually surfed, not floated, Uluwatu. I paddle to shore with nothing but a sunburn and minor flesh wounds. The cave is straight ahead and there’s still enough hours in the day for a massage and a Mohito. I salute the monkey at the top of the hill and head to the 4.4 rated massage parlour 600m down the road. As far as days off work go, today has the feeling of a champagne hitting the chandelier.