NUSA DUA, Bali — Being a closet beach bum, who likes a life where stress is defined by deciding on No. 8 or No. 30 sunscreen, I’m big on beaches. They all have their appeal. The black, sandy beaches of Santorini, the deep, thick golden sand of Tunisia, the blinding, sugary sand of the Seychelles Islands.
The beaches of Bali are right up there. Picture them gold and imagine them with no rocks or branches or seaweed or, really, many people. That’s what I experienced yesterday.
The Bali Courtyard isn’t on the beach. It’s inland a couple miles. But a smiling shuttle driver drove me through the tree-covered, modern, paved, narrow roads that meandered through all the resorts to a little opening on the side of the road. He drove me about 100 yards to this great expanse of beach that would be home for the day.
This is the Courtyard’s private beach. It’s adjacent to the Hyatt’s private beach which I’m sure is adjacent to the Corporate Conglomerate Resort’s private beach next to it. Southeast Asian governments parcel out their beach land like lottery tickets. They sell to the highest bidder and let them run amok on the property. It’s their own Lego playland. As a result, Phuket has gone from Thailand’s island paradise, where I stayed in a shack for $1.50 a night in 1979, eating curry shark and discussing Buddhism with local fishermen, to a crowded, wretched compost heap with a beach running around it. Phuket had so many German tourists when I lasted visited in 1987, they had bratwurst shops on the beach.
Bali’s Bukit Peninsula isn’t that bad. All this beach had were some lanais chairs under big, thick wooden umbrellas, a crude stand where they provided towels and a small bar selling Bintang and Indonesian bar food. The Indian Ocean is so shallow at this point, I walked out a quarter mile and the water was only up to my waist. It was as calm and warm as water in a bathtub. I didn’t feel a single pebble under my toes.
Of course, I only went in a couple times. It rained. And when it rains in Indonesia, you think it’s the beginning of the Apocolypse. The rain pours so hard it’s like standing next to a giant waterfall the size of a large county. It hits the sand like a water buffalo peeing on a flat rock. I remember one storm in Bunaken, a little island off the northeast coast of Indonesia’s Sulawesi. I could not hear a single word the people in my guesthouse were saying. It was like talking over a World War II battle.
But the Bintang was cold and the smiling workers make it easy to pass the time. Over a couple of beers and some chicken satay, I talked to a bartender named Aya. He, too, came to Bali from a cruise ship. (I’m sensing a theme here. If the cruise ship industry went belly up, so would half of Bali’s economy.) He’s been everywhere: Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Greece. But Balinese marry young and father early and he bolted Alaska two days before his baby boy was born. He’s been here pouring Bintang ever since.
The Balinese are among the friendliest in Southeast Asia. They’re always smiling. They greet you like royalty. You address them and they immediately put their hands together in prayer. Then they bow. I always feel silly being greeted this way while wearing a baggy black swimsuit hanging to my knees and a loose-fitting white tank top that would get me arrested in every temple in Bali.
But the political and economic pressures that have plagued most of the other 7,000 Indonesian islands haven’t been nearly as bad here. With these beaches and this lifestyle, tourism will always keep it afloat. They have their families. They have their work. They eat every day. They need little else. It’s a little like Marxism except the weather’s better. You wonder what would’ve happened to the fall of communism if Moscow had a decent beach.