Sunday, December 14, 2008

Faded Paradise

Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

The motto of Lion Air is, “We Make People Fly”. Seriously. What is this, the airline Stalin used to transport prisoners to the gulags? Personally, I prefer all of my flying to be voluntary, not coerced. What is with these dodgy Indonesian airlines and their mottos?

Nate’s theory is that the motto is short for “we make people fly on planes they’d normally never consider boarding.” We booked tickets to Bali from Samarinda on Lion Air, from a stunningly incompetent travel agent who was sitting under an enormous Lion Air poster that boasted of their 180-plane fleet of brand-new Boeing 737s. Our tickets said “Lion Air” on them, but when we arrived at the airport, we learned that we’d be flying on Wing Air, Lion Air’s shady subsidiary, which runs a fleet of MD-82s that are so old and so ill cared-for that every one of them we saw had huge scabs of paint flaking off the fuselage.

An MD-82 is a stretched DC-9, modified for use in hot climates. They are the aviation equivalent of a rusted-out Dodge Rambler. On our layover in Surabaya, Erin found some free wi-fi and looked up the MD-82 on Wikipedia. Not the best safety record going. Remember earlier this year when American Airlines caused air-travel havoc when they had to cancel about 6000 flights and ground three hundred planes for safety reasons? Those were MD-80s — basically the same plane.

Both of the planes we flew on looked like hell. They had two of the old-style long cigar-shaped jet engines strapped to the sides of their tails, so we knew we were burning three times the fuel a modern aircraft would use. On takeoff, they leapt off the runways like Apollo moon rockets (their near contemporaries), and they returned to the ground like crashing meteors. I don’t know whether the planes have horrible flight characteristics, or whether their pilots were incompetent or just in a hurry, but both times we landed I nearly had my knees force-fed to me. I never felt the need for a shoulder belt on a plane before.

But never mind, we made it, and we’re safe in Bali.

“Bali?” you ask. “Neat! How retro! That is soooo 1987!”

Bali was a synonym for paradise in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and it’s clear this place has seen its best days. The main beach on Bali is Kuta, which is on the side of a peninsula that sticks out of the island’s south end, out below the bulk of the islands of Bali and Java. This exposure to a long expanse of open water must be what gives the beach its famous surf. Nowadays, on their way along the southern coast of Java, those waves harvest all the plastic dumped into the rivers and ocean by the 130 million people who live on Java and deposit it directly onto Kuta beach. It’s pretty disgusting. I still haven’t gone swimming. To this plastic problem, add the 200+ tourists who have been blown up in terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, and you’ve got yourself a resort that is well past its prime.

But I don’t complain. There are perfectly good reasons for us to be in Bali right now. The people are friendly, the food is great and there are loads of nice hotels built in the 80’s and 90’s that we can stay in for super cheap. Yesterday, Nate, Linda, Erin and I were forced (by other people’s reservations) to upgrade from our separate $25 a night rooms to a $60 a night “family” room that has two separate bedrooms with big queen-sized beds, nice bathrooms, a terrace, and a shared living room with a fridge and satellite TV. That’s $15 a person! Including breakfast! And the hotel has two swimming pools and free internet! Come on!

In a couple of days, we’re planning to move down the island to an even less popular formerly-popular beach. It seems that Candidasa was once a thriving little beach resort, until they finally felt the long-term effects of their dynamiting their coral in years past. It seems that before the tourist economy developed, people in Candidasa were poor enough that breaking up their coral reef and selling it off for use in cement manufacturing sounded like a swell idea. Exposed to the full force of the ocean, the beautiful white sand beach that made Candidasa popular simply washed away, leaving behind dozens of beautiful hotels and virtually no tourists. So we’re going to get an even nicer hotel room for even cheaper!

The reason why we’re so interested in cheap comfort is that Erin now has a total of three magazine stories to write. We’ve spent too much time adventuring around and gathering information for her two Borneo stories, and far too little time sitting still and doing the other half of journalism, which is writing. Plus, she’s just picked up another writing obligation from home, so now she needs time to figure that thing out as well.

Besides, we all felt like we could use a little comfort after we came back down the Mahakam River. We had adventures and they were cool, but each day we spent on that trip was less comfortable than the one before. We spent hours and hours sitting in a motor canoe and we slept in increasingly bad beds in increasingly dirty small-town guesthouses with increasingly questionable water supplies. When we finally got where we were going, we found ourselves in the sweatiest place on earth, within one degree latitude of the equator, far from the sea, far from any breath of wind, at a level of humidity that made the air breathable by fish, where the night was only about two degrees cooler than the day, and where the only place to wash the sweat-grime from our bodies was in the river, which doubled as the town’s sewer.

I had my bath just downstream from the neighbour’s outhouse, which was located on their dock. They were kind enough not to use it while I was bathing.

And let me tell you, the 24-hour boat ride back to Samarinda was no treat either. The upper deck had mattresses for sleeping, but the mattresses had bedbugs.

The trip was really cool. We went up one of the great rivers of Borneo, crossed the equator in a boat and reached the heart of that legendary island. I had my bum knee cured in a traditional Dayak healing ceremony, (it’s not their fault that I re-injured it again a few days later) and we got to talk to all kinds of people and see all kinds of awesome stuff. I loved it.

But as I said, it was pretty damn uncomfortable and we felt the need to pamper ourselves, so now we’re on Bali, soaking up the cheap luxury. I think there are more Italian restaurants in Bali than there are in Vancouver. They even have their own microbrewery here, which makes a very respectable pale ale — I had almost forgotten what hops taste like before I found this beer. The place we’re moving to in a couple of days is a short moto-ride from a white sand beach that isn’t covered in Javanese plastic and hasn’t had its reef dynamited and its sand depleted. There are still bits of paradise left around here.

And there are adventures to be had, too. There are at least two volcanoes we can climb, and yesterday I made the inadvisable decision to try to ride across the island on my rented motor scooter. My goodness the traffic here is insane! The east coast was way farther away than I’d thought, and the drive was much less pleasant in reality than it had been in my imagination. When I got back to our hotel just before sunset, my face was smeared with diesel soot and my ass was sore as a cabin boy’s, but I did manage to find the former splendour and present cheapness of Candidasa, so the trip was a success.

Nate and Linda are going to enjoy this cheap luxury with us until the 22nd, when they’re going to return to Sabah for Christmas. Erin and I are going to stay however long it takes for her to write her stories, and then we’re going to travel overland to Jakarta. It now looks like we’re going to skip India, partly because we’re taking a lot more time in Indonesia than we thought we would, partly because we don’t have Indian visas yet and getting them will be a hassle, and partly because we were supposed to be flying through Mumbai, where a couple of weeks ago a bunch of crazy people thought it would be a good idea to kill as many people as they could. Erin’s mom doesn’t need the extra worry. Instead, we’re going straight to Beirut, where it’s safe.

In other news, the literary agent who was reading my novel has decided to pass. She told me that my book is okay, (I believe the term she used was “hunky-dory”) but the gosh darn market is just too crappy right now, and she can’t be confident that she could do anything with it.

So, if any of you, like, know someone who, like, wants a novel, I’ve got one I could sell ’em for cheap.

Cheap as Bali! Last decade’s hot commodity at a fraction of the price! Remember back when you wanted to own a literature? It was the hottest thing since neon spandex and peach-coloured stucco on houses — everyone was faxing each other like crazy about it — the little phone antennae on the back windows of their Porches were simply buzzing about literatures and the ownership thereof. Well, now you, too, can own a literature, at a fraction of 1990s prices!



  1. I'd buy it but I left my wallet in my other gorilla suit. Sorry.

  2. From the Wikipedia Article on Lion Air:

    "In November 2004, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, Lion Air Flight 538, crashed in Surakarta, killing 25 people. The alleged corrupted accident report attributed the cause of the crash to poor airport conditions. Real data, however, showed pilot error and lack of reserve fuel forcing the pilot to attempt to land in bad weather."