Requiem for a family holiday in Bali

Oh Bali.

You are gamelan wafting on the late afternoon breeze. You are a hawker selling honey from a bucket still buzzing with bees. You are the offerings that contain incense sticks, a shot of coffee, three wrapped sweets, a small bag of blood, some biscuits, and a cigarette, because Made says, “My God likes a smoke in the morning”. You are condoms in the Circle K mini mart called Oh Sutra! You are all the meals I bought for my toddler, which he refused to eat. You are cheeky kids throwing a line in for fish pond koi. You are a chicken perched on the front step of a Ralph Lauren outlet store.

You are dirty beaches. You are a gigantic statue of a man riding an elephant-fish (or is it a fish-elephant?) You are my son, issuing a volcanic vomit over an entire restaurant table after a “mixed juice”. You are my daughter getting the paparazzi treatment from Chinese tourists on an Ubud street. You are frangipanis under a burning sun. You are coconut husks drying on a string. You are $12 massages and delicious chicken on lemongrass skewers. You are my sister-in-law inventing games in the swimming pool. You are a hive of Balinese men and women doing secret temple business, sorting rice, butchering pigs, and folding banana leaves. You are my two-year-old learning to speak Bahasa better than the rest of us, all bagus and baik baik and tema-cussy.

You are banana pancakes for breakfast. You are luxury villas with struggling septic systems. You are street side vendors selling Bintang singlets. You are the people who buy them. You are fried chicken restaurants called “JFC” and “Ayam Pop”. You are greasy mie goreng. You are the neighbourhood-owned skateboard, carved entirely out of wood. You are Little Tea moving only at two speeds: running or being carried. You are my brother staring at his daughter with a look of the purest delight (and just a touch of Bali belly). You are a basket overflowing with pineapples. You are a family of five on a scooter with no helmets. You are fish steamed in banana leaves. You are painstakingly intricate textiles from all corners of Indonesia, Sulawesi and Aceh and Yogyakarta, and you are cheap, polyester sarongs imported from Taiwan. You are gelato in the flavours of salak and durian and soursop. You are my little boy asking for the fiftieth time, “Where’s Ketut?” You are my daughter eye-gouging her cousin and stealing all her toys. You are a shop window displaying bikinis available in either Xena Warrior princess chain mail or raw hide brown pleather.  You are teak joglos with woven palm frond doors. You are the dubious tap water that my kids insist on drinking in great mouthfuls. You are toddler tantrums in the middle of the street.

Etched in the cement, “When I follow my heart, I wake up in Bali”…

You are precarious electrical wires and open sewers and a wheelbarrow fixed with reflective foil and a piece of string. You are noodle carts and sate vendors set up on the edge of the sand dunes. You are stone statues under tassled silk umbrellas. You are a delicious cafe breakfast with a side of exhaust fumes. You are a Royal Wedding Eleganza Extravaganza, with teenage boys in formal wedding make up and old ladies gussied up in their best polyester lace. You are rutting roosters. You are the backpacker set dressed like the cast of Friends, all jean shorts (jorts?) and bandanas and straight legged pants. You are the duck with the mullet, who bursts into a restaurant expecting to be fed (and he is).

You are the shit from the duck, which covers Little Tea’s feet and coats my dress when I pick him up. You are the same shit that then rubs from my lap onto Baby Tea before I’ve noticed what happened, thus sending me back to our accommodation to change my dress and the babe, all the better for her to throw up on me again.

You are the rice paddies gleaming in half-cut morning light. You are the construction site my son has mistaken for a sandpit. You are the stalls selling penis bottle openers in all sizes and states of erection. You are a beach walk punctuated with copulating monkeys. You are the Malaysian tourists at the airport who generously share their sweets with Little Tea even though he spits those lurid pink biscuits straight into my hand. You are the book Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, which we read about fifty gajillion times. You are the petrol sold street-side in glass bottles.

You are ornate doors. You are temples on every corner. You are the chicken that crossed the road. You are the chicken that…didn’t. You are my toddler watching so much Thomas the Tank Engine on our IPad that Mr Tea says “That IPad is like cocaine”, and Little Tea says without even looking up, “No, I don’t like cocaine, I just like the IPad.”

You are warungs made colourful with plastic packets of food in all shades of the rainbow. You are the drivers who step out of cars on one lane streets to move motorbikes so they can continue driving. You are wizened backpackers covered in coconut oil on rented banana lounges, pretending that the sand isn’t burning and the sea isn’t filled with plastic. You are the airport security officers who wave us straight through the shortest queue. You are the highest flying kite, the one made from two garbage bags and string wrapped around an old can of Lift.

You are all of these things and, of course, you are none of these things, none of them at all.

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Driving across East Timor

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I’ve hitch-hiked in China, been skydiving in New Zealand and eaten dog in Tonga, but it’s in Timor-Leste that I really decide to take my life in my hands.

We’re going to hire a car.

It seems like a fairly natural thing to do on a holiday, but the roads in Timor are notoriously bad, or nonexistent. Not surprisingly, decades of occupation and tragedy have done little for local infrastructure. The country has about thirty kilometres of good road to rub together. Even in Dili, the pot holes are craterous; some the size of a small car. The roads are so bad that although Baucau—the country’s second largest centre—is just over 120 kilometres away, it will take us five hours to drive there.

But we’ve heard of spectacular beaches and snorkelling to the east. I want to go there.

The microlets, or local buses, are lively but slowed by loads of rice, mattresses and chickens in hand fashioned cages, not to mention the passengers who hang out the door. I spy one heading out of the airport: “God Only Knows” is scrawled on the windscreen next to a lewd cartoon of a green woman in a bikini. All promises of an interesting journey, but no guarantees on the destination.

And for all my early bravado, I’m too scared to get on a motorbike.

So my friend Dimity and I get off the plane, and head straight to the country’s only hire car outlet. They know the roads are bad too and the chance of having an accident is high. No one will insure us, but it seems a deal can be cut to reduce your liability in the likely event that something goes wrong. We hand over a good portion of extra money and agree to go halves if we total the car.

They talk us into a three door Pajero. It has that new car smell, but the tyres look old. None of the other vehicles look more promising. Fingers crossed, we back out of the rental premises and drive onto one of Dili’s many one way streets, the wrong way.

After looping the back streets, we begin the climb up the mountain through folds of rainforest and road side stalls selling coconuts and bedraggled green vegetables.

Eventually, we start to hug the coastline. I’m bemused by pineapple shaped pandanus baskets on tables, one corner after another. We stop. A smiling mother and her four unsmiling children untie the pineapple package to reveal two kilos of sea salt. The road winds on, and the blue ocean to our left is almost blinding. Around one corner, we spy the husk of a troop carrier bearing the UN insignia, roof crushed and windows smashed. It’s only just hanging onto the cliff.

But our more immediate concern is whether we can avoid running over someone’s prized chook. With a radio of limited means, the soundtrack to our journey is the horn, beeping as we attempt to shepherd goats, pigs and chickens away from the wheels. I’ve been warned that road kill will require significant financial compensation, and can end in fists. I don’t have the will or vocabulary for a fight, so it’s slow and steady driving behind the wheel.

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We arrive in Baucau, and the back tyre is looking precariously low. A few false starts lead us to a mechanic whose workshop is decorated with Xanana Gusmao stencils and portraits of Che Guevara. There’s a language barrier. I mime pumping up a tyre to the sudden crowd that has amassed around our vehicle. The Che fan club dissolve into giggles.

Eventually the tyre is pumped, and a container of fuel is strained through a cast off pair of shorts and funnelled into our tank. This is the petrol station, apparently.

The road trip continues. It’s as if we’ve passed through Pakistan and into Thailand as a stone littered steppe turns into green rice paddies with water buffaloes grazing. Ten kilometres on, windswept grey beaches remind me of picnics on Scottish beaches.

But it’s not a world tour; we’re still driving through Timor. Each village has its share of Fretilin flags and graffiti. “What do we wanna do for peace?” cries one school wall.

We decide to make for Tutuala and Jaco Island, renowned for pristine white beaches and the aquamarine waters that sell postcards. It’s Timor’s Far East, and the road progressively becomes more bumpy, and soon, indiscernible. We pass through crumbling ruins of old Timorese houses, raised on stilts, and decorated with swathes of shells and horse skulls. I buy some eggs and salad vegetables from a rare road stall. Forget about restaurants with byo alcohol; we’ll need to bring our own food.

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As the light turns purple and the trees become more windswept, we pull up to Tutuala, and drive up a rubble strewn hill to the village’s only accommodation. It’s a pousada that remembers better times. A gang of children gather at our feet, and then turn fallen columns into slides. They frolic on the faded tables, under painted concrete umbrellas.

The caretaker arrives, and for five US dollars a night, this can be our home. It’s musty, and has the air of a forgotten Swiss ski lodge. There are old maps on the wall, and spider webs around the beds. No running water, just litre bottles which have been dutifully carried up by the caretaker for us to flush the toilet. Some of the windows are smashed; what role did this building play during Indonesian occupation?  We beg some hot water, eat two minute noodles and watch the light fade over the cliffs.

The next day, after stiff Timorese coffee and bread rolls, it’s a treacherous 4WD crawl down to the beach. Two locals are quick to jump in our spare seats, and as we descend down a road which runs almost vertical, I understand why they didn’t want to walk. I’ve mentally emptied my bank account, certain the car is not for this world much longer, when we reach the beach, a fleet of outrigger canoes and a jumble of beach shacks.

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For a small price, the fishermen persuade us that there are no crocodiles and drop us at Jaco Island, to rub noses with the angel fish and meditate amongst the coral. They land their canoe down the beach half an hour later, with a barracuda and Spanish mackerel tied to the helm. The fish will become our dinner. The fishermen disappear, and then rain clouds gather above. It’s the rumble of an unexpected dry season storm, and soon the ocean is fluorescent against the sky. Our fishermen soon appear in the distance, and ferry us back to land before the waves take over.

A few days later, when food supplies run only to bananas and rice, our car manages to cling to the scrabble of rocks on the track, back up to Tutuala. We stop once more in Baucau. There’s a swimming pool which is filled every three days with pure spring water from the mountain side, then drained again. It’s electric blue, and with cement banana lounges, it looks like a resort for the ancients. A get-away for Socrates, a few laps between classes and opining to the village square. I feel like I’m swimming in Evian.

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We overnight at the Pousada Baucau, a bright pink guest house with the best round steak in town. I spend an hour on the porch with the hotel’s receptionist, a sparky woman named Gabriella. She trained to be a nun, but decided to leave the church. She doesn’t elaborate. Her parents were both Fretilin fighters, and sheltered in the mountains out of town. At night they would creep down to siphon water from buffalo drinking holes, filled with the blood of the disappeared, shot dead. Later, an expat friend tells me that our pink Pousada too was an interrogation and torture chamber during the occupation.

It’s a slow drive back to Dili, passing once more through Scotland, Thailand and Pakistan. The dusty capital—home to one million people, many more livestock and a giant statue of Jesus—is a welcome sight.

And unbelievably, the car is unscathed.

The country has much bigger problems than nervous tourists in hire cars, but it’s still with a sigh of relief that I hand over the keys and relinquish the little 4WD that could. We flag down a taxi driver with a cracked windscreen and just one broken door, and climb in.

I let him worry about the potholes and suicidal chickens. I watch the road, the occasional cluster of graves and the acres of frustrated graffiti splashed across Dili, as we drive to the airport.