A little boy skewered a pair of green and pink plastic bags to make a kite. Down past the navel of the island to Kerambitan, a girl with her hair folded in a scrunchie backed up deliberately to make the string taut while some geese watched. She wore a crisp checkered and dotted orange and white dress that jumped as she jumped to launch the kite — other times, she just one or other of the two boys standing forty feet away pull it from her hands with the cord. One wore jeans and a yellow polo with pictures of bears in hats. The other stood barefoot in green shorts and a colorful shirt bedecked with blue Hindu deities and the word “KRISHNA” printed on the bottom. After a few seconds — the boys would backpedal holding the string to keep it afloat — the kite would fall, and they would run grinning to recover it.
In October of 2002, religious extremism struck the island for the first time in modern memory, killing 202 and injuring hundreds more. Three years later, three suicide bombers detonated near Kuta, killing twenty. In 2006, Indonesia endured the highest avian flu death toll, but in 2008, the United States lifted its travel warning: two-thirds of a million more tourists found their way to Bali in oh-nine than the year before. Still, from the grumblings of business owners and drivers in Ubud and farther out of town, it seems like those enterprises relying on tourism have continued to suffer. The rebounding years have seen a thickening of the tourist habitat, but in the big money areas, the foreign-owned big capital affairs are the ones that survive. The serene cook and owner of Satri’s, a restaurant hidden down a narrow corridor off Monkey Forest Road, shuffled smilingly when customers came in for cooking classes advertised by word of mouth. But in the tourist’s Bali, there are far too many words, and too few mouths — and the quieter finds are often swallowed in the din. Satri’s Banana Chicken, usually cooked by her husband Susila, must be ordered a day in advance. “Too many restaurants,” said Satri. Too much competition.
Most westerners surfing, partying, or eatingdrinkingsmoking in Bali don’t appear the slightest bit uneasy. The palm trees and reefy beaches and temple roofs don’t jive well with the image of politically unstable deserts as seen on the news or behind Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. A colleague from Beirut swapped summer stories on my return — “Isn’t it dangerous?” She asked. I didn’t know how to answer — I had never even thought to think that it might be unsafe (and so my Spidey senses wouldn’t have tingled even if there was something worth tingling over), but she did. I showed her some pictures.
Certainly Bali’s sunny disposition has not transformed and it remains much safer than many places built on the shifting sands of deep ethnic or political tension, but it’s hard to wonder whether less appealing scenery would have made the cautious less readily willing to forgive. But for piña coladas with local arak for less than three dollars? Even Beirut can’t top that.
Back in Kerambitan, two soccer teams played for the local championship in jerseys bought online — it was Chelsea, the English Premier League frontrunner, against Greece. I asked if I could play and several guys set off to look for shoes my size. The best fit had my toes curled back to the knuckle, but I couldn’t say no — not when the priest blessed us all with holy water and grains of rice pressed to the forehead — even though I handled the ball like Captain Hook juggling. For the first few minutes, I basked in their drastic overestimate of my abilities and took to the field with an obvious nickname to fight for the Greeks. “America,” a fierce-looking Chelsean eyeballed me at the opening handshake. “Wazzzaaaaap!”