I left Singapore just after six and I didn’t arrive in Bali until it was dark. From the airplane window the island looked large, and far more inhabited than I had anticipated. Lights lined highways that stretched like tree limbs, all the way up north towards Mt. Batur. The outline of several other volcanoes were just evident in the last purple haze of the failing daylight. After clearing customs, me and two other girls were mobbed by a group of taxi drivers. They circled around us like a pack of hyenas snarling over a fresh kill. We spoke shotgun English to one another, too fast for them to understand, and lamented their predatory tactics.
Extracting myself from the circle, I found the cheapest taxi driver and followed him to his car. I got exactly what I paid for. My driver texted the entire half hour ride, and nearly made paraplegics of several scooter riders who got to close. He was disappointed when we reached the hostel and I didn’t give him a tip. I was thrilled when we reached the hostel without having to call an ambulance to pull someone’s arm out his grill.
Having only a few days in Bali I wanted to make the most of it. Just as my driver was turning the wrong direction down a one way street, I had seen a motorcycle rental shop. I already knew the company from their website, and I knew they had dirt bikes. That night I found it difficult to fall asleep in my pod at New Seminyak, preoccupied with the excitement of getting to ride the next day.
The Foreigner Fee
The next morning I skipped breakfast and walked directly to the rental agency. I was their first customer, and they were still moving the bikes out of the claustrophobic showroom, into the parking lot outside. Walking inside, I immediately saw the bike that I wanted. A Kawasaki KLX 150. I’m familiar with the brand. My motorcycle in New York is a Kawasaki, and the godlike Ninja 650 that I rode on Koh Samui was also made by Kawasaki.
The woman running the agency spoke refreshingly good English, and she helped me to fill out the rental forms. One of the “options” was a rental motorcycle license. For just $20 you could become fully qualified to drive something that could maim you with a single mistake. Thinking about the hilarity of laws in Asia, I thought back to a sign that I saw posted in the common room of my hostel.
Reasons you’ll get pulled over:
1. Not putting on your turn signals
2. Driving over the speed limit
3. Being a foreigner
I decided to risk it. The same sign also said that the maximum bribe I’d be expected to pay is $10. I could get pulled over twice and it would still cost the same as “renting” a license. I payed then headed downstairs to pick out a cool helmet. The bike was outside, filled with petrol and ready to ride. Starting it up, the aftermarket exhaust ripped through the peace every time I twisted the throttle. I drove the two-hundred feet back to my hostel in second gear. Parked out front, I left the helmet on the mirror and walked up to my room to change into my swim trunks.
Forty-Two Flights of Stairs to the Bottom
Even though I put jeans over my swim trunks and had a decent helmet, the conditions I drove under would still be appalling to any serious motorcyclist. Moving down from the helmet I had a t-shirt on. I rode without gloves, and shoes instead of boots. When riding in America, I weigh five pounds more just from the protective gear. Unfortunately, unless you want to carry around a leather jacket in countries where it regularly hits 95 degrees, riding in Asia necessarily entails taking certain risks.
The traffic was intense, but riding in Cambodia had prepared me for the worst. The day I encounter a worse driving situation than what I found in Phnom Penh, is the day I renounce my faith, and start believing in god.
Back in Bali, I drove too fast and did things that would be unfathomably illegal in America, and I was still one of the tamer drivers on the road. On the highway I maneuvered between cars and took off from stoplights with as much gusto as my dirt bike could muster. My destination was on the very southern tip of the island, a beach that I had read about that was supposed to be gorgeous and deserted. Two adjectives that I wish I could apply to all swimming holes.
As I get closer to the southern end of Bali the traffic died away and I found myself on well paved roads without another car in sight. The dirt bike sounded like a chainsaw ripping through the dense jungle foliage on either side of the road. After just thirty minutes I already loathed the custom exhaust system, and I quickly rethought all of my ideas about bike customization in the future.
Arriving at the road that would bring me to the beach, I was immediately rewarded with my choice to rent a dirt bike. Most of the road was mud, and the rest was patches of rough rock. I labored through it in first gear, loving every second. The ultimate feeling of machine conquering unruly territory. Horribly wrong as a principle, but immensely satisfying in the moment, especially when done with a purpose. Ten minutes later I reached the edge of the cliff.
I parked my bike next to half a dozen scooters, marveled that those pipsqueak machines made it through the muck, and walked over to the edge. Stretched out in front of me, several hundred feet below, was Nyang Nyang beach. I stood awed, and then took several pictures to commemorate the moment. Not one to appreciate beauty from afar, I slipped down onto the rocky staircase that was carved into the rocks. Consciously I pushed out thoughts of the sweat drenching experience that would be walking back up those five hundred steps.
The difficulty in reaching it is one of the main reasons that Nyang Nyang beach is devoid of human life. First, the ride far outside of town, to the tip of the island. Then the dirt trail, followed by a walk down 500 stairs. Finally, you walk across a large pasture, past a couple of cows, hop a fence, and your feet land in sand. Still wearing jeans and sneakers, I stood in the sand for a moment and listened to the waves tumble to shore. A few surfers stood off to my right, and they seemed as eager to ignore me as I was to ignore them.
The water had a deep blue luster that I’ve only ever seen in Florida, miles offshore, at the point where land vanishes and only ocean remains. The sand gently slipped into the ocean, becoming paper smooth where the waves washed over it. Several hundred yards out a few more surfers paddled. Throwing themselves into the waves with a level of skill that I envied.
Taking off everything but my swim trunks, I threw my things carelessly onto the sand and waded into the crescendoing surf. The strong current immediately took hold and pulled me offshore. Within minutes I was several hundred feet out, lying on my back and floating along. The whole time aware of the difficult swim that would be required to reach shore. Just a little longer, just a little longer, I kept telling myself. Land continued drawing away from me, as if the earth was moving under me and I was frozen in place. Everything green and binding towards shore. In the opposite direction: blue, welcoming, and free.
The Life of a Billionaire
That afternoon, exhausted, sunburnt and happy, I went to another beach called Green Bowl. Beautiful in its own right, it was terribly disappointing by comparison. Too many people, not enough sand, nothing to blow the hair back. An Indonesian lady walked around offering massages, and a man with a cap sat texting on the stairs. I felt like I was in a different world than the one that exists on the sandy shore of Nyang Nyang beach.
The sprint back to shore hadn’t been easy. I had fought the current, unruly waves, and it took me ten times longer to get in than it took to get out. Tired, I walked down the beach, following a slight bend in the shoreline. Just like that I had the beach to myself. Half a mile of pale sand and tumbling water. A billion dollars couldn’t have bought me a more unique experience, and it’s moments like these that encourage you to reflect on what matters. In such a perfect setting, you’ll either be happy or you won’t. Money has nothing to do with it anymore, you’ve arrived..
I sat cross legged under a lean too made out of bamboo fronds and meditated. The heat, the waves, the saltwater tang in the air, I was present in my conception of paradise and it felt fantastic. I made the vow that I would come back to Bali one day in order to learn how to surf. I would return to Nyang Nyang beach and conquer the current not by fighting against it, but by effortlessly paddling over it. That promise still stands. Money is the means to the end, a way to get there, but the beach, that’s the real reward.