Almost everyone dreams of going to Bali, that exotic Indonesian island just off East Java. The promise of sun, sea, and surf is the reason most Caucasian tourists are drawn to it. And indeed, for all its worth, IT IS a vacation spot to die for. During the day, one can swim, shop and go sight-seeing. And in the evenings, one can drink, dance, and party all the night long. By some ironic twist of fate, I was lucky enough to visit the place at a time when I was in dire need of some personal healing.
During my Applied Study Program in 2006, an invitation to attend Bali’s annual Queer Film Festival was extended to our Surabaya hosts by the local LGBT organizers. But the short trip was by no means a “pleasure trip”; it was business-as-usual for us interns-trainees. Our three-day visit would be jam-packed with activities – film showings including an exclusive “private” screening of a documentary, visits to local gay groups working on HIV/AIDS advocacy, and some mentoring sessions from Dede Oetomo of Gaya Nusantara.
Besides, being the only female and lesbian in our group, I was really getting fed up with all the testosterone from hanging out with straight and gay men all the time. Thus, I specifically requested our lesbian host in Bali to introduce me to a nice, English-speaking lesbian who could show me around the island’s LGBT hotspots to help me with my project study. True to Indonesian-style “hospitality”, she succeeded in hooking me up with a young lesbian based in Bali. I didn’t realize then that she would play such a vital role in my memories of Bali.
While we had other companions from Surabaya, they were taking the cheaper, more tedious land-trip with ferry transfers, much like our local RORO (“roll-on, roll-off”) system. At the time, a weird phenomenon was occurring somewhere in the outskirts of Surabaya. A local oil company building its pipeline had punctured some natural underground tunnel, and made hot mud spew out. The hole continued to emit lava-like material even after several days already, and with no signs that it would ever stop, it has started to contaminate the nearby communities’ water supply and waterways. Travelers and motorists have been diverted to a different path since the lava flow had also affected a national highway. Our poor friends had to take a longer route that would take them almost a whole day’s travel.
So my group took a domestic Garuda flight instead, shortening our travel time to a maximum of an hour or two. Flying over the rest of Java, there was a great view of one of Indonesia’s active volcanoes. Just like Kawa Puti in Western Java, I was unimpressed only because I was Filipino and we had Taal and Mayon volcanoes to be so proud about. Nonetheless, the volcano appeared majestic from above, with small puffs of smoke billowing from its crater to join low-lying clouds.
Arriving in Bali, I wondered about its rather small airport for international tourists. It was like our ordinary domestic airports in the provinces. I thought our international airports in Cebu and Davao were much bigger and at par with modern standards. Then again, their local carriers were also tiny, dragonfly-like contraptions like we have in the Philippines for domestic, inter-island flights, so who am I to judge.
The hotels and beach resorts were off to the coastline still, so we had a bit of a drive to make before we could check into our rooms and refresh ourselves. We were informed in the van that since it is expensive to stay in Bali, we were to share our accommodations with our Gaya Nusantara partners-guides. But because of Indonesian religious and cultural practices, and I was the only female in the group, I was not obliged to share my cottage with anyone. What luck!
Upon checking in, we immediately headed for the famed white sand beaches of Bali. Kuta Beach is a known surfing area for its big waves. Soft, almost powdery, granules under my feet, wind in my hair, I watched the giant waves intermittently rise and rush the shores. For miles on end, the even coastline and coral-less waters stretched as far as my eyes could see. It would really take a while to walk or jog from point of the beach to the other. I didn’t dare try to swim in those crashing waves; instead, I got myself my first henna tattoo from a resident artist on the beach. Some ladies also offered body massages and a combination manicure-pedicure service right there on the beach, but we didn’t have much time anymore as dusk was slowly gathering around us.
Bali’s sunsets are also quite something to see. While sunsets are always ideal to see on the beach, there are just some places on this earth that provide the best views for a setting sun. Watching that orange orb transform the horizon from yellow to orange to hot pink, before falling into a gentle blue-gray and finally, black with wisps of white light, one can just stand there mesmerized, unaware of the passing of the minutes. There is such peace that falls upon everything, and you find yourself letting go of all the day’s troubles, knowing that tomorrow is another day, another opportunity.
After a bit of rest and a quick shower, we were suppose to grab dinner and head to the first screening. But my new lesbian-friend offered to pick me up at our beach resort and take me for dinner at a really famous restaurant.
The restaurant she took me to, Made’s Warung, was quite popular with expats and tourists. Their menu offering was extensive and included Western choices. After eating fried tofu, assorted veggies and chicken for days on end, I yearned for something closer to Filipino cuisine. In fact, I desperately missed my pork diet. Asking me what I wanted to eat, I told her that I was dying for some grilled babi. She laughed and explained that Bali is culturally Hindu-dominated, so eating pork is allowed while touching beef is not. After almost three weeks of not having pig’s meat, I finally got my wish. But something about my order still reminded me that I was in Indonesia – the dish was still spicy hot! But this time, instead of creamy, chili-hot much like our Bicolano dishes, this sauce was swimming in chili-infested oil. It was all reminiscent of that spiced-up soy sauce used for wantons and siomais.
The food was still great of course; tasty and delicious. Really yummy, in fact! And the restaurant itself was quite impressive. The atmosphere alone is an ambience worth spending for. Candle-lit tables abound, but were always filled up too quickly. Huts like our bahay kubos were a more private option for dating couples, but this was not so fascinating to me anymore because it was commonplace in Filipino restos and beach resorts. The restaurant also had a fancy bookstore and souvenir shop to browse from while you wait for your dinner, or right after your dessert.
Meanwhile, the Queer Film Festival was being shown in the club strip. Heavy traffic always occurred in the area since the different bars were always filled to the brim with guests and customers. While most of these clubs appear “unisex” or for straights, there are some which are clearly “identified” to be for LGBTs. And while in the Philippines, we have “GROs” and “escorts” that front for our subtle skin trade, in Indonesian bars, bartenders and waiters/waitresses blatantly flirt with you to send a clear message. I would also learn that certain massage services in hotels also “dummy” for the sex industry. Around this time, except for known “bath houses”, I believe spas and massage centers in the Philippines have not yet been popularized enough to double as prostitution dens for LGBT customers.
After the film showing, we went our separate ways as the gay men and MTF transgenders went to the gay bars. I joined our lesbian host at an exclusive party which lasted until the wee hours of the morning. At 3AM, the bars and clubs remained brightly lighted and blaring with music at a distance, while the quiet and darkened beach cottages stood mute to the rhythmic roar of the ocean. Nothing could be more romantic than walking home under the moonlight, skies so clear that each and every star was visible. I slept, physically tired, but deeply comforted. I did not feel so alone or out-of-place anymore.
I woke up to an equally bright morning. The sun shining its warm rays on everything and the day soon became hot and humid. Fortunately, we were driving inland that day, towards the cooler, higher points of the island where we would have a private screening at a film director’s home. We were going to see her documentary entitled “The Last Bissu”, about the Indonesian counterpart of our Filipino babaylan, transgender religious leaders of the olden days which will soon be lost to the oblivion of ancient Indonesian traditions.
Although the drive only seemed like a Manila to Tagaytay travel, the place called Ubud is more like Baguio with its cramped, densely-populated environment and its reputation for being an artists’ haven. A market area had stalls set-up tiangge-style where an assortment of souvenirs were sold – from batik cloths to wayang puppets, to indigenous musical instruments and wooden house decors.
Meanwhile, from the film director’s home, we caught a view of the nearby villages which were still very much agriculture-based. A small community actually had a miniature rice terraces on the hills near a stream bordering their own homes. I guess the villagers knew about making the most of the rainwater before it causes a mudslide or flows into their water source, causing much siltation in their waterways.
On the way back, we took a late lunch at another popular tourist restaurant, Warung Murni. Besides trying out the local cuisine which was heavily-influenced by Indian recipes, we got to eat Balinese style – sitting on cushions and mats beside a low table about two to three inches from the floor inside a native bamboo hut. And I remembered stories my grandmother told me; about the old Ilocano tradition of eating meals before a very low dining table which now seemed to be borne out of our strong Indonesian ancestry.
After a brief shopping spree for souvenirs, we went to a large museum which housed paintings and sculptures of different Hindu gods like elephant-headed Ganesha and multi-armed Kali. A giant mural of the epic story “Ramayana” graced one huge wall. Interestingly, our mentor, Dede pointed out the sculpture by the pond as a depiction of an “intersex god”. The artwork clearly showed a figure with breasts on its chest, as well as obvious male genitalia.
That evening, before another round of film showings, we had a buffet dinner by the beach courtesy of our local LGBT hosts. Lighted by tiki torches all around, chairs and tables were set right on the beach. Food and drinks were in abundance – both Indonesian cuisine and Western choices, so I headed directly for the pork dishes. I ate the sate babi and babi guling quite heartily while watching the new films. After eating, I left early, joined by my new friend. I was totally enjoying the amenities of my beach cottage – the pool, the giant bathtub, the gigantic bed and efficient room service.
The next day, we were meeting up with at least two NGOs working on HIV/AIDS. The Indonesians are not so hypocritical about the skin trade even with their predominantly Muslim culture. They are also not quite so naïve when it came to safe sex practices and HIV/AIDS prevention. Tourist destinations like Bali are hotspots for the sex industry and the government and NGOs are not remiss in their duties about educating the public on STDs and HIV/AIDS. Both information and services are easily accessible, and condoms given out for free are a dime a dozen here.
Our last day in Bali was a “free day” for sight-seeing and shopping. There were some old ruins to see in Tanah Lot, best-buy souvenirs along Poppieslane, and that other fancy restaurant near Jimbaran beach with a breathtaking sunset. There were still so much to do, like bungie jumping and para-gliding, but with so little time left, we nixed those adventure activities.
Taking that last flight out that evening, I finally understood why I fell in love with Bali and the memories I took home with me will certainly last me a lifetime.