Old Times

At least  couple times a week, I like to take a walk on the beach down in Sanur, about 10 minutes by motorbike from my house in Renon. Our first couple years in Bali, we lived in Sanur, which was very convenient, I must admit. Back then, I went swimming almost every day. That’s what one does when he first moves to Bali and lives only a couple blocks from the surf. They were good times, those. I was newly retired from a long career and basking in the sheer freedom of the thing, floating about in the warm, salty sea, as aimless as a chunk of driftwood, and happy for it.

In those days, only 7 years ago, much of the coastline in Sanur was still open beach, dotted here and there with little warungs and tokos (local cafes and shops). The tourist section was at the east end, starting with the old Grand Bali Beach Hotel and some long established restaurants. Further up was the Bali Hyatt and further yet the Mercure, but both those are situated back from the beach in their own enclaves, hardly noticeable from the beachfront.

Things have changed now — again, in only 7 years — with hotels springing up all along the way, and overpriced restaurants clustering nearby to reap the benefits of the hotel clientele. It’s kind of sad, really — all these grand, beautiful resorts crowding to the edge of the hitherto pristine sea. It is difficult to find a spot nowadays where you can just throw down your towel and lie in the shade of a tree or the bow of a primitive fishing boat as I used to do.

The last beach to the west — Mertasari — was for a long time the least populated spot on the entire Sanur coastline. There would be days when one would barely see another soul. I would lie in the shade beside one of the gaily painted catamarands, stroll into the surf three of four times, and return to the house several hours later as brown as a coconut shell. In fact, I was told by a waitress in one of the popular little bars nearby that I was no longer attractive, because I looked like everyone else now, no longer a fair-skinned bule.

Fond memories of those ‘ancient’ times prompted me, earlier this week, to climb into my swimsuit, pack up a backpack with suntan oil and a bottle of water and a book and a towel, and revisit those old haunts. But yeah … they’re not there anymore. Seems that everywhere you go, you find a hotel standing in the way. Where once there was vacant beach, now it is difficult to find a spot between restaurants. Add to that, that by the time I got down there, the ocean tide was far out and the remaining water was only knee deep or so. Keenly disappointed.

Plus, I had chosen the wrong beach (although it used to be the right beach, in the day).

The best bet is still Mertasari — or the west end of Mertesari, anyway. Here, the coast takes a sudden turn to the southeast as it approaches the mangroves further along the way. It is the most popular beach with locals, and I think it is protected, to some degree, from too much development. Every Sunday, you will find hundreds of Balinese at Mertasari, families, children. They will go there to swim or bathe or picnic, or fly kites when it is windy. Sunday is the Indonesian one-day weekend (most folks work six days a week). On all other days, however, Mertasari is still relatively peaceful, with just a couple small restaurants standing in the way (which themselves are cheap and pleasant if you feel like having a coffee or a simple breakfast or lunch).

But anyway, I started out to talk about walking. This day, I walked along a fairly peaceful section of beach which yet retains the character of the old water front, with a row of open-faced little shops selling fairly worthless little souvenirs for a wide range of prices, ready and willing to bargain. It’s a cultural thing. Let’s make a deal. They know, as well, that many tourists are unaware of the whole bargaining thing (and equally unaware of the relative value of the Rupiah or of comparative prices elsewhere), so why not start the bidding for that baseball hat with Bali written on it at 100,000 Rupiah (about three times what it’s worth)? Of course, there are also sarungs and shorts and flowered shirts and dresses and wooden sculptures and wrist watches (real Rolex!). And so on. And if you don’t want to buy any clothing, they can always offer a massage instead. More and more, however, these little tokos are being pushed into oblivion by the hotel boutiques. I can envision a time, perhaps within 5 more years, when these little shops will be things of the past. Bali steadily outgrows its own character, which, I fear, will ultimately be replaced by assembly line businesses and chain stores.

Along the way, I stopped to talk with a man sitting on a wall in the shade. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then he asked if I would sit down and chat for a while. He wasn’t selling anything (to me, anyway), had no deals to make, but just liked to talk. And so we talked about his family and my family and the hurricanes in America, and the American electoral process and how it could possibly happen that the people had elected one president but ended up with another, and about the beachfront in Sanur and how much it had changed in such a short time, and the superiority of motorbikes over cars, and so on and so forth. We sat and smoked together, and the placid morning turned to tranquil afternoon, shadows sliding gradually toward the surf.

This is my favorite thing, really – the impromptu conversation, a meeting of two people, one American and one Indonesian, separated by space and culture, united by the common concerns of all men, sharing the simplest of all things — a smile, laughter, a pat on the back, a forthright, unfeigned grasp of hands in parting.

Sampai jumpa.

Until next time.