POSTCARD from BALI: March 2003
In my head I carry an illuminated flip book of rich and beautiful moments. Some are of sounds – like the first time I heard the call to prayer echoing all around me in Istanbul’s dawn light; tastes – popping a sweet plump date in my mouth along with a sip of bitter black coffee in a Bedouin camp dwarfed by sand dunes; and sights – the sweeping vista of monument valley punctuated by a lone Navajo rider.
One of these moments, so simple yet perfect, teased at my memory today as I sorted through some old postcards I had sent to myself from far away places.
“Tonight I floated under a frangipani tree, white against a deep indigo sky studded with blazing crystals. It was so still and quiet. Waxy blossoms fell around me, floating fragrant on the water.”
It has been more than thirteen years since I have been to Bali and more than thirteen and a half years since the first Bali bombings that shattered our hearts and stole our innocence.
Being younger, and more carefree then, my friend Fiona and I decided that there would be no better time to visit than in the wake of a terrorist attack. Everything would be so cheap, and lightning never strikes twice, right?
With only a handful of people on our flight, once we were in the air the crew set up two drinks carts at the front of the cabin and invited us to come up and help ourselves. In a nod to a bygone era of air travel we all stood around chatting and sipping beverages in our own cocktail bar above the clouds. It would never happen again.
We were sharply brought back to reality on arriving in steamy Denpasar Airport with its military presence, dogs and harshly shouted instructions. And then, just as suddenly, we were in a car being whisked away to our resort in Nusa Dua.
After our car had been searched for explosives we walked up some low steps that led to a foyer, which evoked the peace of a cool rainforest. Thin wooden columns stretched like tall trees towards a ceiling painted with mystical Balinese scenes. All around us, water ran over pale green stones, whispering like a stream.
As we crossed the threshold a sonorous gong sounded once, and then again, welcoming us to Melia Bali.
After we had unpacked, we walked to the poolside restaurant for a seafood pizza and icy pina coladas in coconut shells (the drinks would get bigger and stronger every day as our friendship with the bartender grew.) On our way back to the room we had to skirt the edge of the tropical pool – in darkness now. We couldn’t resist – we slipped out of our clothes and slid silently into the warm water. There we floated under the frangipani trees.
It was still dark when we woke the next morning so we decided on a dawn swim. We went down to the beach, walking along the sand towards the east.
The sun turned the pale green water pink with darker bands where the sand rose up to kiss the surface. Balinese fishermen waded in the shallows. We followed a path up to a Hindu temple on the cliff top where we sat in silence, watching the world come to life.
After a breakfast of nasi goreng, a typical dish of fried rice with an egg broken over the top served with chili sauce, satay sticks, fried chicken and grilled prawns, we walked to the markets. It was so hot. Two young men on motorcycles gave us a ride home. We whizzed through the traffic tightly clutching our parcels. In retrospect, holding onto our drivers would have been a better idea.
This pretty much formed the pattern of our days. As we walked between the resort and the market the young men leaning against their motorbikes would call to us offering rides. Fi would cheerfully call back “jalan-jalan” to indicate we were walking simply for the pleasure of it. In an age-old game, stall holders along the way would smile broadly and entreat me to come and buy from them. I would smile back and sing “only looking”.
By our third day, no matter where we went in Nusa Dua, someone would inevitably wave and call out “Hey, it’s Jalan-Jalan and Only Looking!”
Life went on in Bali after the Sari Club bombing, although everyone felt sharply the decline in tourism. Wherever we went these beautiful gentle people would ask if we were Australian. “We are so sorry – so sorry,” they would tell us sadly.
Towards the end of our stay we hitched a ride over to Jimbaran Bay where seafood restaurants line the beach. We chose prawns to be grilled, mussels with garlic, snapper, and lightly fried calamari, all fresh off the boat. It cost almost nothing.
Then we were led to our table in the sand. The legs of my chair sank deep. The waitress lit our candle and its soft light shone out in the night, joining the other flickering flames all along the beach. The fragrant air was warm and still. Waves broke gently a short distance away and, to the side, a vendor selling grilled corn on the cob adjusted his kerosene lantern.
I thought about the hundreds of people who died in such fear and pain further along this beach and felt a great sadness.
Musicians started moving from table to table. When they reached ours I asked if they knew John Lennon’s “Imagine”. It was one of those moments where time stood still. All the tables fell silent as their perfect harmonies filled the air. On that beautiful beach, on this beautiful island, we all sent a message of peace out into the world.
It was just three years later that bombs, left there among the tables in the sand, exploded once more – and I felt my heart break.