Looking back, the past month and a half has been an absolute whirlwind. In a nutshell, I’ve gone through three international passport controls – Indonesia, Australia, and Thailand – not to mention countless domestic bus, plane and ferry terminals too, racking up god knows how many carbon footprints and collecting enough ticket stubs to kindle a small fire.
To recap from the last blog post, when we were back in Malaysia, our next stop was to be Indonesia. More precisely: Sulawesi.
Exactly. That’s what I said.
Turns out, not many people know about Sulawesi – including backpackers. It wasn’t until Lucas showed me on a map, keen to go, that I had any idea a place with that name existed, or that it was in Indonesia…
Exploring such an unfamiliar and untrodden territory was both a blessing and a curse, and we threw ourselves into the (shallowest) deep end by flying into Makassar, Sulawesi’s capital, to get our bearings.
We were welcomed back to Indonesia (both our second time) in clouds of clove smelling cigarettes, followed by curious wide-eyed stares and enthusiastic heckling by those intrigued by our otherness. We were quick to realise that Westerners were about as uncommon to see as flying pigs.
As big Asian cities go, Makassar was nothing to write home about; it was just another busy and noisy capital with not much on offer apart from places to eat, drink, and work. However, our plan was to base ourselves there while we set about planning ‘things to do’ for our 2 weeks in Sulawesi.
But planning these ‘things to do’ was a challenge in itself.
No one – or barely anyone – spoke English, so basic communication was a struggle; hurdle number one.
Hurdle number two: there was hardly any information on the internet either to help us figure our shit out.
It became apparent that Sulawesi was a relatively untraveled country – and safe to say far removed from the average backpacker’s radar – which meant there were barely any blogs or forums with tips on how to get around or where best to go on this huge Indonesian island.
It didn’t take long before we began to feel frustrated and inept as travellers, while caged in the capital.
Craving a change of scene ASAP, there was even more reason to get out of the city with Lucas’ birthday at the weekend. I was adamant that we were not going to be celebrating it in Makassar’s flamboyantly pink, conference-style Fave Hotel where we had been staying up til then. We could do better than that.
I had seen photos of a beach in a place called Bira (a mere six hours east of Makassar) so I went on a Google frenzy to evacuate us from the capital, pronto.
In my haste and desperation, I accidentally (yes, accidentally) reserved a non-refundable beach hut on Bara Beach, in Bira, a quiet but beautiful sandy strip of coastline on the other side of South Sulawesi. So that was that – we would leave the capital for five days, in search of the Indonesia we’d been hoping for.
Fingers crossed it would get better.
When I arrived with the birthday boy at the local bus terminal to get the coach to Bira, a shitstorm of chaos ensued.
It seemed that two white travellers asking for bus tickets to go as far as Bira was not the norm and we became prime targets, swarmed by touting drivers offering private rides galore. The one thing I had managed to read on a blog post was NOT to take a private ride to Bira, so I was instantly on the defense.
Within seconds I was in my ‘don’t give me your shit’ zone, big time – probably embarrassingly so – refusing to be mugged off and scammed by opportunistic taxi drivers.
As we stood out in the sun, sweating with our backpacks on, overwhelmed and totally at a loss with the inability to communicate, the situation becoming increasingly more stressful, I was wondering ‘is Bira bloody worth it?’ Guilty that all this was happening on Lucas’ birthday… (but one to remember, surely?)
After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, bargaining and promising, we agreed on a fixed price in a shared car and off we went – trusting our driver, ignoring the blog post, and trying to chill out and hope for the best. There was no way they were going to sell us a ticket for the bus anyway, so it was the only way we’d get there.
Six hours later, we made it, and at first sight it already seemed to be bloody worth it. I was practically horizontal with relief that I hadn’t cocked everything up by sending us on a wild goose chase across the island at the last minute.
Bara Beach turned out to be everything I’d hoped for – it had sunsets, pure white sand, turquoise water, and hardly anyone else around. It was dreamy. We happily spent the next five days swinging lazily in our hammock on the balcony of our little beach hut, playing frisbee in the sea, and walking along the wide empty stretches of beach in our new paradise, away from the city.
We also spent many a merry evening at Cosmos, next door, where we befriended a nice Dutch couple and fell in love with a family of baby kittens.
Bar a few intense paparazzi-inclined Indos who had a habit of shoving their iPhone 6s in our face taking selfies and videos of us (as I said being white is a big thing there) we kept ourselves to ourselves and were able to enjoy Sulawesi properly for the first time since arriving.
After some R&R we reluctantly headed back to Makassar, begrudgingly swapping our beach hut for the flamboyantly pink Fave Hotel once again. Almost immediately, back in the mayhem, deafening calls to prayer searing our senses, Lucas turned to me and said ‘I think I’m done with Sulawesi, I’m ready to go to Bali now’. To which I replied, without even needing to think, ‘me, too.’
So that was our brief stint in Sulawesi. I’m sure the country has so much more to give, and is definitely one for the ambitious traveller, but strapped for time and strapped for patience, Bali’s comforting westernisation was calling a little too strongly.
For anyone who’s spoken to me about Bali, you’ll know it’s not my favourite place (I won’t go on another rant about why) but for the sake of some home comforts, affordable luxury, and avocado-based meals, I was willing to give it another go. Also, I kind of had to as my (twice postponed) flight to Sydney left from Denpasar a few weeks later, so it was time to go back regardless – unless I was going to postpone it a third time. Which was tempting…
We stayed in Canggu first, the hipster/surfer hotspot, where nothing much had changed from before (rife with arrogance and ego, tattoos, tans, and beautiful bodies.) But in fairness we did stay in a beaut hotel overlooking the rice terraces, with a pool, and resident cat.
The majority of our days there were spent eating tofu and avocado variations while pikeying wifi in cafes packed full of resident ‘DN’s clacking away at keyboards. The nights we spent drinking and dining off even more fancy menus, truly making the most of these novel ingredients and western amenities.
Once we had exhausted Canggu’s restaurants, and a lot of our money, we booked ferry tickets to head to the Gilis to get back in touch with the ‘real’ Asia and cut our spending by half. We decided to stay a night in Gili T – the wilder of the three Gilis – with a reputation for drinks, drugs and debauchery. Having come from the quieter bar and cafe culture of Canggu, it was both a welcome and warisome adventure.
Gili T was reminiscent of any party town abroad where the sun is out: imagine a scene of extremely sunburnt, half naked people in their late teens to early twenties, in all states of disarray, who have been drinking since midday – some already completely shitfaced, hugging their knees in the sand trying not to be sick on themselves.
It evoked a Magaluf-meets-Festival vibe, with a mixture of hippies and hotpants, dreadlocks and diamantés. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but if I were to generalise, I would say the majority of people there were Brits.
But hey, I was too, so god knows what people thought of me.
We tried to get into the Gili T party spirit, we really did. We even had some interesting commercial propositions involving some oregano-looking marijuana and soggy shrooms from the local lads. But having gone for a candle-lit dinner on the beach (there are some nicer areas, I suppose) we decided to call it a night after the Bintangs failed to boost morale.
The next day we took a short ferry over to Gili Meno, literally across the water, where we would spend the next four days. Gili Meno was the complete opposite of Gili T – it was secluded, quiet – we practically had the beaches to ourselves – and there were no drunken dickheads. The island was so small you could walk it in a day (which we did) and the water was crazy clear with some of the best snorkelling ever.
We spent about three hours in the water, one day, swimming with turtles, surrounded by shoals of glittering rainbow fish, and looking for sharks in the depths, being tossed and turned in the rolling currents all the way round the island. I say ‘we’, some other members of our snorkelling group did otherwise. Namely a super cringe forty-something-year-old Russian woman who was prone to throwing tantrums, one reason being that she claimed there weren’t enough fish in the sea and what a waste of time it was. The captain was near about ready to throw her overboard and leave her in the sea. I would have helped him, to be honest.
Sedated by a few lazy days in the sun, we headed back to Bali after Gili Meno, this time to spend just under a week amid the verdant views of Ubud where we had booked a private villa through airbnb (still affordable luxury) complete with our own rice terrace and an amazing outdoor shower.
Ubud, again, hadn’t changed enough to alter my first impressions of it – and I doubt it ever will. Gone are the true spiritual journey seekers, replaced instead with hoards of travellers and tourists buying dream catchers and miniature buddhas. So we holed ourselves away in our private apartment playing house, drinking wine and eating cheese while bird-watching on the terrace. How very civilised it all was.
One morning, however, we woke with a start – and it wasn’t to do with one glass of Pinot too many the night before. At around 7am there was a huge shudder; a shudder that went on and on, growing stronger, until it felt like the walls were moving and the bed was jumping off the floor.
In my sleepy haze, I tried to rationalise it as the vibrations of a helicopter, or a big lorry down the road…. Right?
Wrong. It was an earthquake, rocking the foundations from the stilts up, through the floor and the walls.
It lasted less than two minutes but it was long enough to set my heart racing. The look on Lucas’ face of wild excitement confirmed that yes, it was an earthquake, asking me, did I feel it? Which was perhaps a rhetorical question – it would have been hard not to.
Fuelling the drama, we went online and saw that a quake of 5.5 magnitude had struck just south of Bali, in the ocean, sending aftershocks all the way up to us in the mountains on the mainland and beyond.
As exhilarating and surreal as it was, thankfully there was no damage (except to my nervous system) and when we emerged from the villa later that morning, triumphant that we’d lived to tell the tale as earthquake survivors, the locals were already going about their normal lives and couldn’t care less. I guess these things happen all the time in Indonesia, a bit like when it rains in Scotland. It’s not national news unless a road is closed.
After the quake we enjoyed a few more aftershock-free days in Bali, lolling about a fancy pool in a jungle in Ubud one day, and watching the sunset against the stormy sea back in Canggu the next, before getting ready to head off on our separate ways for a while. I had to catch my flight to Sydney to get my visa activated before it expired (remember when moving to Australia in December was the original plan….) while Lucas was going to northern Thailand, before we would rendezvous in a few weeks back in Bangkok.
If I’m honest, I didn’t really want to go back to Australia. I was hesitant. Or perhaps reluctant is more the word. I spent hours ummming and ahhhhing about whether or not I should postpone my flight to Sydney again – or just not get on the plane at all and spontaneously fly somewhere else, Cambodia, perhaps – adamant that I didn’t want to live there anymore having changed my mind along the way, so what was the point.
(Reading that back I know I sound like a spoilt brat.)
But being in Bali and being close enough to be able to ‘just pop over to make sure’ made it seem silly not to go and try and remind myself why I loved it in the first place.
After the red-eye from Bali and domestic connection from Sydney, I arrived in Byron Bay, which was where my love affair with Aus started back in NYE 2015. I thought if anywhere Byron would be able to trigger my old feelings and turn my head around again. Alas – and to cut a long(er) blog post short – it didn’t.
I spent five days in Byron Bay chilling on the beach (before the tail-end of cyclone Debbie hit), visiting old haunts, and hanging out with my cousin and his girlfriend who were mercifully there on holiday, too. We spent many an hour drinking wine and catching up on months of gossip and banter, but I just couldn’t acculturate to Australia and felt disenchanted with it all.
Sticking to my guns, I went down to Sydney for the next few days to see if I could coax myself out of my Asian obsession and realise that yes, Sydney is meant to be, it is my calling, stick to the bloody script, and stop putting it off!
It didn’t work though.
Don’t get me wrong – Sydney was a great city, it had beautiful beaches (I stayed in Bondi which – when it was sunny – was wonderful), great food, and it reminded me a lot of London. I got the insider scoop by my friend, Judith, who I met in Vietnam, taking me to the Opera House, Newtown and Manly, and I went for drinks in the CBD with a babysitter I had when we lived in Argentina, way back when. But despite having fun, it wasn’t enough to keep me there.
It’s funny to think that it was only last October when Sydney was the ‘be all and end all,’ driving me to pack up my life in London and fly to the antipodes to start afresh, with a minor detour in Asia to let my hair down for a bit along the way. Who could have guessed that the ‘minor’ detour would become a ‘major’ one, now six months in (and counting) with no sign of stopping, or a moving date to anywhere else….
Call it a culture shock, or what you will, but when I was in Australia I missed all those things I’d come to look on with comforting affection in Asia, like the insane humidity, bum guns, and stray cats. And I suppose, Lucas, too.
So I booked a flight to Thailand a week early and in all honesty, I couldn’t wait to get back.
Now we’re looking forward to celebrating Songkran with buckets of water and squirt guns, as you do. But I’ll wait to divulge our Thai adventures in the next blog post…