The three brightest stars in the sky above Kuta Beach are not stars at all, they’re aeroplanes. They orbit the sky, once, twice, before descending. I watch as they approach, becoming larger and more fanta-coloured as they draw near.
The aeroplanes drop like muscular angels to the earth, chasing one another up the runway, lifting the skirts of their wings like frisky schoolgirls, teetering on the narrow lip of land that separates runway from sea. Finally, they come to a standstill before the crooked elbow of the disembarkation ramp, disgorging another fat helping of tourists into the swollen body of the Denpasar Bali airport.
To balance out the equation, three aeroplanes take off. They enact the dance in reverse, lifting their gaze to the horizon, hunkering down, and launching themselves at the sky. As they claw their way up into the stratosphere their blunt bodies shed vortex after vortex of spent air molecules. The sound falls like a meteor shower on my head, mingling with traffic to create a peculiarly Balinese symphony. The change in air pressure as the planes fly overhead leaves me flattened and subdued.
In contrast to the antisocial airport, the beach is full of human-friendly shapes: surfers, mandorla shortboards and the pleasingly symmetrical silhouette of traditional Balinese fishing boats, jukung. Lifeguards in Baywatch buggies ply the shoreline. Dogs on leads buck their owners in a comic play of walker and walked, whilst higher up, on the tree-line, the well-heeled make ready for a performance of gamalan, sipping cocktails with names more redolent of the Carribean than this overpopulated strip of beach that lies terrorised and trembling under the flight path of the Denpasar Bali airport.
The human magnitude of the beach is astounding: surfers and their girlfriends; honeymooners; gangs of local youth who have come to perve on bule in bikinis; hawkers selling beer; photographers; wedding parties; families; schoolgirls. Amongst the masses there are tetchy parents, who at this late stage in the day have surrendered, like cornered sloths, to the devilish antics of their children: I watch as one embattled father pivots in the sand, permitting his 2-foot son to fill his pockets, hair, underpants and ears with as much sand as his eager hands can gather.
Gazing up, I’m surprised to see that the wattage of the sunset has dimmed. Black pinholes appear in the sky. Straining my eyes, I consider that the pinholes may be the first rents in the sky formed by the noses of another phalanx of recalcitrant aeroplanes. Unlike aeroplanes, however, these shapes don’t emit light, nor do they grow larger. They remain where they are, pegged to the sky, shivering, flicking their tails (they have tails!) and occasionally, ducking their heads. The penny drops. They’re kites.
Caught up in the speculation of planes, kites and heavenly bodies I stay longer on the beach than I intend. It grows dark. I should be going.
There’s a gap in the wall where I need to exit the beach, making for the alley that doglegs around to our guest house. I look for the vaulted golden arch of McDonalds and the immaculate ‘K’ of KFC and make for a point midway between the two. If I reach the mobile telecommunications mast I’ve missed the exit and gone too far.
Up on Jalan Raya Kuta there’s a queue for sundaes and a queue for cars, neither of them seem to be moving fast enough for local taste.
When I came to Bali, 23 years ago, none of this was here: only bamboo shacks and the odd two-story hotel. Cock fighting was the preferred mode of entertainment and you could still expect motorcyclists to give you the courtesy of a three-second lead on crossing the road.
My ethical discomfort at being here increases as I watch a waifishly thin elderly Balinese woman dodge traffic, shouldering her load of fried snacks and fresh fruit. I wonder if she feels like a stranger in these streets. The set of her mouth is resigned as she steps calmly into the path of an oncoming motorbike, which mercifully swerves, carrying its cargo of bronzed blonde bodies past her.
As I walk up the alley I dodge invitations, exhortations, hexes and harassment, hopping and swerving past shoppers, children, pedestrians, dogs and the beautiful hand-made offerings that every Balinese man, woman and child provides to their gods daily, regardless of whether they’re listening or not.
The new gods are all about us. They don’t care for frangipani, woven coconut-leaf baskets or sticky rice. They want Bintang, sunglasses, seafood and the coldest beer in town. Some are humble and polite but most, I repeat MOST, are here on their first foray abroad and are willing to limp no further than an arm’s distance from their own culture. They might extend a hand to stroke a bolt of Batik or sit through a performance of kecak, the monkey dance, but their feet are firmly rooted in flip-flops and their hands cup spongy I LOVE BALI stubby-beer coolers.
It’s a funny match, this place and Richie and I. So was Astana. So was Phuket. But its the will of the journey for us to be here, just as it was the will of the journey for us to be in those other places.
As I cock my eye toward the leaning towers of books on display in a 2nd hand book exchange I smile at how beautiful and confounding this adventure is. Lately, at the tail end of the journey, separated from home by nothing but the Timor Sea and the absence of a boat to take us, I’ve come to realise, even accept, that overland travel does not conform to easy solutions. In this respect, it’s the antithesis of plane travel, which is cheap, convenient, straight-forward and predictable.
The places where you don’t want to be are often the ones that, for some reason or another, you are forced to remain. Stuck. Bogged down. Waiting for a sign. Even amidst the shelves of tourist tack, the piles of refuse on the beach, and between nights of sleep disturbed by bass from the sleazy disco bars on Jalan Legian, I find myself looking between the graffitied vertical concrete planes of Kuta for the spiritual equivalent of a field of poppies.
Somewhere between the airport and the insubordinate tangle of liveliness on the beach, my resistance to being here kisses and makes up with my gratitude for being alive.
If we have to take a flight, I accept that. And if an opportunity to sail to Australia arises, I’ll leap at the opportunity. It’s happened time and time again on this journey overland from England: at the moment of surrender, when ego and expectation fall away, the muse of travellers finds us and intervenes on our behalf.
Until such a time, I remain in Kuta, halfway between the airport and the sea; between home and away.