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Published: December 13th 2017
Bali, the only place on earth I’ve ever been with all three of my wives.
I even managed to go with the first two together, showing what a special place it must be. The island has a long reputation for romance, allure and intrigue which may explain how all this came to pass, despite my only having been married the once.
To solve the puzzle we’ll need to indulge in a spot of time-travel, skipping back a couple of decades to the days when I was still genuinely young, free and single. Youthful exuberance had seen me jack in the job and head off adventuring round the world, the spirit of freedom leading me to first let my hair grow unchecked, and then, in a moment of madness, to shave it off entirely. Interestingly this stark new look, coupled with a pair of swanky wrap-around Oakleys added just a hint of menace to my demeanour, strangers suddenly becoming noticeably more guarded.
The poor Bali locals didn’t know quite what to think, their confusion compounded by the constant accompaniment of not one but two cute Danish girls, one a bubbly brunette and the
other a statuesque blond. Just who the hell was this guy???
The simple answer was a regular Joe with a psychotic barber who’d made the simple decision to team up with a couple of other travellers to cover the cost of car-hire. To the Balinese, though, it seemed to imply that I should be treated with some special level of reverence.
A few days into our trip we visited Tanah Lot, the stunning west-coast temple which back in the nineties was yet to be overwhelmed by the full crushing clamour of tourist-bus hell. Even at sunset the three of us were amongst just a handful of people around, and as a result it wasn’t long before we were accosted by an ardent hawker keen to sell us his cheap trinkets. He was a weedy little chap with beady eyes and a fawning manner, which didn’t inspire the greatest of trust. As the girls stooped to examine his sparkling wares I caught him casting his eye covetously from one to the other, his fluent spiel coming to an abrupt halt as he suddenly clocked that I was in possession of one lady too many.
‘Aaahh...’ he probed with barely contained zeal,’ Which one your wife???’
Before I could explain we were all just good friends the girls took over, replying loudly, at once, and in unison ‘Both!!!’
This caught our new chum up short and he stepped back for a second eyeing me distrustfully.
Fortunately as his searing gaze searched for the truth the Oakleys inscrutably reflected back only his own shrunken image, which seemed to unsettle him a little and soften his resolve.
‘You holy man?’ he finally sputtered.
I calmly nodded in the affirmative as the girls attached themselves firmly one to each elbow and, instantly losing interest in making any purchases at all, marched me off triumphantly up the hill.
I had to feel a little sorry for the guy as he forlornly watched us go, cramming his numerous odds and ends back into their little box and questioning, perhaps for the very first time, whether his lifelong commitment to the Hindu faith was, in fact, the wisest of all available choices.
And that was it from then
on. Wherever we went the girls kept up the firm pretence that I had two constantly attentive happy brides to eliminate any unwanted attention. We spent the next three weeks on a sort of unofficial extended honeymoon until, on saying our goodbyes at the airport, the marriage of convenience was annulled, presumably on the grounds that being married to a monk turned out to be not so much fun after all.
Four years later I would return with another young lady who wasn’t my wife but we’d claim, for convenience, was. This time the situation was slightly less devious as obviously there was only the one of her, and though she wasn’t my wife then, as it turned out one day she would be.
And now, all this time later we’d returned, hoping against hope that Bali wouldn’t have changed all that much. This was always going to be something of a long-shot, given the number of intervening years. After all, if I turned up with a couple of young Danish girls these days folk would be more likely to ask if they were my daughters than my wives, and the girls liable to
emphatically deny both. Such is life, my friends.
In short Ubud, our first stop, a sleepy little oasis of tranquillity in the nineties, had since learned to Eat,Pray,Love and most important of all Shop, its over-crammed centre starting to bristle with western stores.
Time stands still for no man, which is a shame, as all I really wanted to do was hire an identical old Suzuki Jeep to the one we’d had all those years ago and get the hell out of there. All the rental places these days were stocked with sleek modern air-conditioned hatchbacks which were much quieter, comfier and more efficient but also infinitely more dull.
Once upon a time cars had soul.
As you drove you felt part of the machine. Folk became genuinely attached to them even giving them names, part of the family. These days cars have all the personality of a cheap Chinese dishwasher, and we’re asked to choose between bland look-alike brands on such meaty grounds as how many cup-holders they might have.
Ubud’s gone the same way, it has to be said. Sure, it may now
have tinted windows, air-bags and a 5-star safety rating, but for me it’s lost its essence, its spirit, and I’m not sure even a hundred yoga centres can revive the strength of its central core.
Luckily, just as I was about to give up in despair, I was saved by an old-time Bali wheeler-dealer, some random guy who sidled up as I stood sweating at the main crossroads, offered me a tattered business card and asked if there was anything he could get me. One look told you that he could likely lay his hands on anything you could possibly ask for... ‘Motorbike, Mushroom, Marijuana...???’ as they used to whisper furtively in the old days. He could probably even rustle up Marilyn Monroe, if that’s what you were after, though she’d likely have a dark roots and a conspicuous Balinese accent.
So what the hell. No harm asking.
‘Yeah, I’d like a 1990s Suzuki Jeep please...’
To his credit, this threw him only a little, a quizzical glance his only response.
‘Tomorrow morning? For about a week?’
By now he could see
I was actually serious.
‘OK, I have friend. I call him...’
Five minutes later it was all arranged, and I left him a small deposit to seal the deal. Frankly I thought it likely I’d never see him again, but blow me if he didn’t drive it round personally to the hotel the next morning.
He handed over the keys, before sheepishly explaining its one hidden feature. The driver window, big squeak when wind. And other hand hold window when wind, or come off and fall in door. Is old car, but mostly OK. Any problem, call me.
Well I couldn’t have been more pleased...
And so we were free!
Free to be pulled over and ripped off by the Police near Kintamani (just like the old days), and later semi-kidnapped by a persistent hotelier in Lovina, who pulled up alongside on his moped and knocked on the aforementioned dodgy window (which fortunately didn’t collapse on this occasion) demanding almost forcibly to escort us to his lodgings, and free the next day to escape, heading up into the hills and finding a
touch of the genuine old-time Bali in the hills around Munduk.
And here, as we trekked between sparkling waterfalls, I was to discover a whole new culinary experience in the form of Kopi Luwak. Perched high on a slope overlooking the forest we stumbled on a tiny bamboo cafe which just oozed charm, a far cry from Starbucks in Ubud, serving up a wide range of local coffees, teas and sweet treats.
Kopi Luwak, as the keen film buffs among you may recall, was the Balinese coffee favoured by Jack Nicholson’s gruff millionaire in The Bucket List, one of the finest most prized blends on earth. It fell to Morgan Freeman’s humble everyman to reveal to him that its unique flavour was due to the beans, before being ground into your cup, having first been ingested by a civet, a sort of local hybrid raccoon/cat, and passing right through its entire digestive tract before being diligently collected from its droppings and recycled into your early morning pick-me-up.
Now there are multiple questions here, clearly.
Firstly, who thought of feeding coffee, originally an Ethiopian bean the locals had noticed
made goats a bit frisky, to an obscure South-East Asian stripy cat whose natural prey, one would imagine, did not include hot beverages. How many other creatures must they have had to try before stumbling on this one? And who, having done so, was desperate enough to think, hey, you know some of these crapped out beans don’t look too bad, we could give ‘em a try, and then manage to persuade everyone else this was a good idea, despite, unlike Coke, being very up-front about just what exactly the secret ingredient was. Why was it now the priciest thing on the menu and most of all why, despite knowing all this, had I just ordered myself a cup?
Conventional protocol for travellers round these parts is to be very picky what you eat lest Bali belly rear its ugly head, carefully screening restaurants for cleanliness and writing-off half the menu to rule out any salmonella surprises. Even drinking the water is a no-no, and here was I about to indulge in a nice cup of cat-shit.
And, do you know, it really wasn’t all that bad.
All the other delicacies
I’ve tried have been universally awful; caviar is just slimy salty jelly, oysters slimy salty snot. Proper pukka champagne tastes way worse than its cheaper alternatives while truffles mix Dr Peppers with raw bleach.
Kopi Luwak is better than all these. Ok, ‘nice’ would be pushing it, but it certainly has an undefinable unique tang which oddly, is nothing like fine coffee nor even fine shit.
On reflection my feelings were similar to my first prostate exam: I’d survived, it wasn’t actually nearly as bad as I’d imagined, but personally I was keen to avoid it in future subject to overwhelming medical advice.
As a result we high-tailed out of there the next day down the coast to Tulamben, one of Bali’s top scuba spots. Chief attraction here is the wreck of the USS Liberty, sunk during World War 2, which I’d dived once before, my Danish wives lounging lazily by the pool as I teetered perilously down the rocky shore trying to keep up with a tiny heavily pregnant lady whom the locals had tasked with carrying all my dive gear (including tank!) atop her head lest I should fall
and hurt my precious self. Way back then I was the only diver at the only hotel around, but since a whole string of resorts have sprung up stretching the length of the beach and beyond, allowing us to spend several days of underwater fun while relaxing in style.
Wife No 3 had for once persuaded me to indulge in a spot of luxury at Ocean View Bungalows, right on the beach, and very nice it was too. A modest tariff by western standards secured us a very large room fronting the sea with the use of not one, but two large swimming pools in a tropical garden setting.
It always puzzles me why holidaymakers need to surround themselves with levels of luxury never experienced at home. Our Ocean View bed was ludicrously large, big enough, I suspect, to have housed an entire Balinese family, including livestock. With the addition of a small grandstand we could have staged minor sporting events, trampolining perhaps, or, given a suitable run-up from outside, the pole-vault. As I drifted off to sleep that first night I realised a cuddle in the wee-small hours would require an early start
and quite possibly the use of a map and compass, at the end of which I’d likely find myself in a different time-zone, buggering-up the morning alarm call.
Down at the restaurant things were similarly swanky, though the local staff may not have quite grasped the finer points of 5-star etiquette. On asking the waitress her recommendation out of two menu choices, she replied, with a refreshing candour, that she found both equally disgusting. And later at night’s end, there was no need to ask for the bill as she simply strolled over and announced that we should probably pay now, as she wanted to go home. And really who could blame her, for as I stumbled in blearily next morning there she was again, smiling happily as she handed over her list of disgusting breakfast options. She’d likely been serving ignorant privileged dickheads like me night and day ever since she began to talk, or possibly even before, as she looked around the right age to have possibly served me in utero down that rocky beach all those years before. As a result, she possibly didn’t share my sentiment that everything should be just like it
was in the old days.
Bali’s changed, but for better or worse, well, that depends on your outlook. For doddery western fools like me authentic eastern charm may be thinner on the ground, but who can blame the youth seeking change in the name of progress, or condemn the old timers worrying just where it is we’re progressing to?
If you really did have a time machine would you choose to travel forward into the unknown, or back to simpler times? Or stay exactly where you are, save all that time and effort inventing the damn thing in the first place and just chill out, enjoy life.
Maybe that's the secret. Should we all just shun our material lifestyles, slow down, and spend more time getting in touch with our inner selves? As the years go by I find myself thinking increasingly we should, a sentiment my younger self would have found frankly laughable.
Perhaps that’s just me getting old.
Or perhaps these days, even without the two Danish wives, the Oakleys and the shaven head, I really am becoming a something of a Holy Man.
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