Saturday, August 04, 2007


Bali Kopi (1995)

The Grand Bali Beach Hotel, Sanur, Bali (or, at least that's what it was called in 1995).

Bali Kopi--or is it, Kopi Bali? No matter. I just read that the Excelso brand is the Indonesian equivalent of Starbuck's. Oh, well...Hoping--wishing--that I'll return before too long: twelve years is long enough, don't you think? I wonder if Ktut is still driving his bemo in Sanur?



Bali Kopi: Bali Coffee. It is made with the Robusta bean. These beans produce a smooth cup of coffee with what I like to call a “weighty” nuttiness. The Balinese version sometimes resembles sludge. However, the perfect cup of Bali Kopi is absolutely sublime, especially when lightened and sweetened with condensed milk. Bali Kopi beans can be bought at a little coffee toko (store) called Excelso in Kuta. I didn’t want to go to Kuta this trip; however, I wanted coffee…

I had already spent almost three weeks in Bali on this, my fifth trip to the island. Not a tourist anymore, I was here to do research. “Fun” was not in my vocabulary. My hyperkinetic intensity surprised even me. Pessimism and negativity enshrouded me. The sheer beauty of the place sparked me only sporadically. I didn’t feel I had accomplished much of anything, even though my tapes, pictures, and notes provided direct evidence to the contrary.

Ubud, Bali’s cultural center, is my home away from home. The perfect place to spend my birthday. Alas, the town’s generator blew up the evening before the blessed event. There I was, in my favorite place, at my favorite hotel, on my special day! Without a hot shower! I felt even more wretched. What else could go wrong?

My psyche craved rejuvenation. What better source for this than the Grand Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur? This sparkling new complex stands on the site of the old Bali Beach, one of Sukarno’s original tourist havens, which burned down in the early 90s.

My Balinese teacher-friend and erstwhile tourguide drove me to Sanur. My capriciousness was working to his advantage: he was excited at the prospect of my staying at the Grand Bali Beach himself. I had the pleasure of seeing him take his first elevator ride. A luxury for him, and, indeed, for me. I sorely needed a respite from my frenzied activity. Something to remove the catastrophic pall I felt had covered my journey up to this point. The Grand Bali Beach hit the spot.

My room overlooked the ocean. That first morning, during low tide, I observed Balinese and tourists alike wandering far out on the sandbanks. The sun had already risen, but the horizon was still a mixture of blue, gray and pink. The slightly murky water hazily reflected the sun’s rays. A picture of tranquillity. I contemplated wandering outside myself.

Instead, I had breakfast at the Bali Kopi coffee shop. As the American Consulate is next door to the hotel, I went over and hoped the Consul might be able to help me with my project. He wasn’t in.

Feeling dejected for the umpteenth time this trip, I wandered into the street. What could I do next? I knew I wanted to go to Denpasar to do some book shopping and to Kuta to get coffee and buy a Hard Rock Café T-shirt for my assistant postmistress back home. Most of all, I didn’t want to pay the hotel taxis’ prices—after all, I was no longer a tourist.

Thus I found myself on the street when, lo and behold!, I spotted a bemo. A bemo is a minibus/van, a widely used means of transportation on the island. Very crowded on market days, these vehicles are often filled to the brim, with humans and fowls alike. I approached the driver and attempted to bargain, to get a “good” price for the trip to Denpasar and back. We agreed on 15,000 Rupiah (Rp.), roughly equivalent to $7.50 before the recent economic crisis. We were off and running!

My driver’s name was Ktut, which means he is the fourth (or possibly, eighth) child in his family. Of medium build, a little stout, and fortyish, he spoke (and, it turned out, understood) a negligible amount of English. I asked him to take me to the Gunung Agung and the Gramedia bookstores. As I had never explored anything before in Denpasar besides the airport, I was content to just sit back and enjoy the breeze, the sights, sounds, and smells of the capital of Bali.

In a very nice, very friendly, very Balinese way, Ktut asked me if I liked Bali. I told him I love Bali very much, that this time I had come on “business,” and that the trip had been a little different. I am not sure how much of this he understood. He began to mention the usual places of interest and Bali’s special qualities. Somewhere in the middle of all this the subject of Bali Kopi came up. We had something in common! In the meantime, we appeared to be lost.

Ktut had reached a major street. He drove up and down it slowly. I began to realize he did not know where the bookstore was. He began to stop anyone on the street, trying to get directions. Finally, we got some help. It turned out we were on JALAN Gunung Agung—in other words, Gunung Agung Street! Ktut must have thought I wanted to go to—well, the whole street, I guess! We found the Gunung Agung bookstore. All the books were in Indonesian. Crestfallen once more, I asked him to take me to the Gramedia bookstore.

I had screamed out, “TOKO BUKU (bookstore)!” a few times already. In case it’s not obvious by now, I really don’t know Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Language). We were well matched: me, with my Indonesian; Ktut, with his English. As frustrated as I was, I nonetheless realized I was beginning to have FUN! Another amazing realization hit me: Ktut was having fun, too! He nodded in (mock?) exasperation during my rantings and ravings. And then, grinning broadly, he retaliated with an expression of his own: BALI KOPI !

Ktut kept a patient vigil in his bemo as I shopped. It was still early in the day when I rejoined him. A brilliant idea popped into my mind: why not hire him to take me to Kuta so I could get the T-shirt and coffee, after all! Even before we left the parking lot, we had made a new deal…for Rp. 15,000 more. It was on to Kuta!

Why didn’t I want to spend more time in Kuta? Kuta is the most commercialized spot on the island of Bali. Open sewers have been replaced with covered trashcans bearing the inscription, “Please Keep Kuta Clean.” The colorful, stately temple processions have disappeared along with the sewers. I feel these time-honored markers of the traditional Balinese way of life must be held in secret now, away from tourists’ prying eyes. The beauty, as well as the trash, have been swept away.

Street vendors now hound you with trayloads of fake designer watches and other cheap knockoffs. Many of them are professional pickpockets. The Balinese say they all come from other islands, particularly Java. The shopkeepers’ philosophy is no longer, “How much do you wish to pay?”, but, rather, “You’re not offering [us] enough.” And then, there’s the Hard Rock Café.

I had promised my assistant postmistress a Hard Rock Café T-shirt. The Kuta location was the logical choice. I handed Ktut a “to-do” list: Hard Rock Café; Excelso (the coffee store); and Baliku (a clothing store where wonderful cotton batik kebyar [mixed batik] garments are sold). Items one and two were easy—we both grinned happily when I returned to the bemo with my Bali Kopi. By the time we got to item three, the clothing store, I had decided I wanted to go to not just any Baliku, but to the GUNUNG Baliku! The one almost right in front of us was not good enough!

We reenacted our Denpasar scenario. This time, I screamed out, “GUNUNG TOKO BALIKU! The poor man struggled heroically to comply with my request. I stuffed an extra Rp. 5000 in his pocket as a reward.

No two ways about it, I was having fun! It was getting late. Ktut had been at my beck and call for over five hours. He wasn’t complaining, but I’m sure he’d had enough. As we drove back to Sanur, I got one of my last glimpses of the Balinese countryside: the perfectly aligned and sculpted rice fields and terraces are still there. The roads and highways are still thronged with humanity: on foot, on bikes, on motorbikes, in an ever-increasing number of cars. At sunset, I could still see farmers—men wizened more often than not by the sun, rather than by age—carrying bags slung over their shoulders, coming out of their fields with scythes and other tools of their trade. Sarong-clad men, doing traditional work. My Balinese teacher-friend had informed me that the men still wear traditional clothing within their family compounds, but that, in their outside work, pants are now much more the norm. “But aren’t the sarongs more comfortable?” “No.”

Back at the Grand Bali Beach, I gave Ktut one more Rp. 5000 bill. All in all, he received a well-earned Rp. 40,000 (around $20) for his trials and tribulations with me. I could not resist impishly bringing up Bali Kopi one last time—he grinned broadly in return.

The next morning, at low tide, I wandered far out on the sandbanks myself.

1996 (revised 1999) 1535 words All Rights Reserved

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