Blue conical hills misted in white rise from the far depths, reminding me a great deal of The Lost Horizon, except that there is no snow here, just blue land followed by blue sea. Where does land end and where does the sea begin? Where in the world, actually, are we? The Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere or right over the Equator, buying into the allure of famous imaginary lines?
I love islands: small specks on willful waters formed through dubious means, absorbed into countries in the most mysterious ways. Islands, in my head, are capricious. Who knows when the one you’re sunning yourself on will suddenly take it in its head to tip over and dump you into the very waters whose aquamarine shimmer you were admiring not too long ago? Sadly, they are all too vulnerable to the vagaries of nature – but that doesn’t stop them being attractive, maybe for that very reason.
I’m quite convinced that the green-blue endlessness underneath is Java, when the coastline of Bali comes into view, settling the debate once and for all. Stony cliffs drop into the sea and we are reminded of pictures of Gold Coast from movies: little do we know that Bali could almost pass off for Australia, thanks to the number of Australian tourists it draws owing to its proximity to Perth. We watch palm-lined roads and red-roofed establishments come into view, and as we begin landing realise that the runway juts spectacularly into the sea. However, the pilot changes his mind at the very last minute and takes off again, treating us to a sumptuous view of the island as he circles overhead. This is a ride we haven’t bargained for, but we’ll take it with pleasure, thank you very much.
I almost visited Indonesia five years ago when I spent a year in Singapore: the names Java and Sumatra were so magical, just the way names of distant, elusive places are. I didn’t make it; not even as far as Bintan which was less than an hour away by ferry. The reason? Someone spooked my flatmates about the harsh sun, telling them they’d come back all baked and burnt. (If you’re reading this, I still haven’t forgiven you for it.) I was never the intrepid single traveller myself, so I stayed home meekly, contenting myself with trips to the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum to learn about the unknown.
When I read the street names and the shop names on the road from Denpasar to Kuta, a wave of familiarity washes over me. I think of the Malay directions on signboards in Singapore; of the “Berhati-hati di ruang platform” announcement every time the train stopped at a station. For a fleeting moment, it’s like being home, or going backwards in time. Will I wake up in my bed in the eighteenth-floor flat in squeaky-clean Punggol, Heidi-like, with the rain beating down on the windows?
Both of us are in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, and it feels like a major achievement. It is perhaps silly to let man-made geographic distinctions impress you so much, but for some reason they do. The road to Kuta is generously dotted with shops and hotels. Giant statues rise from roundabouts: “Partha,” says our guide, pointing at the man on the chariot near the airport, and elsewhere, “Bheema”. Guardian deities swathed in black-and-white checked cloth stand on stone pedestals at several junctions, much like the ubiquitous Ganeshas of Indian roads. The island is mostly Hindu, as opposed to the rest of Indonesia which is largely Islamic, and as practising Hindus we are very keen to observe how Hinduism is interpreted in Indonesia.
The car drives us through streets chock-a-block with shops selling colourful things you’ll want but rarely ever need, “all the pretty superfluities which the East holds out to charm gold from the pockets of her Western visitors”, as Susan Coolidge put it, but I’d comfortably omit the adjective Western. They can wait, however: we first have to check in, eat, and poke around like two nosy squirrels dazzled by everything that is new and delightful to our unaccustomed eyes.