NUSA DUA, Bali — A sloth’s existence gave way to massive guilt yesterday and I actually got what passed for exercise around here. Not counting the 45 minutes I did on the illiptical machine to wash away the cobwebs from a 37-hour flight, the most strenuous thing I’ve done is swim to the pool bar to order another Bintang.
But this Courtyard has a myriad of free activities and I thought a bike ride would be a nice idea. A little exercise, more sightseeing, meet some locals. Add in searing 90 percent humidity and it’s basically a trip to a Finnish sauna.
The guide was Yusef, “Joseph” in Indonesian. He was a short, spry coffee-colored kid in his 20s with perfect hair and smile. He looked like he hopped off a Balinese tourist poster. He was insanely polite. He called me Mr. John and every time I addressed him, he’d bow toward me, his hands together in prayer. It was a little unnerving until I asked him why the Balinese are such happy people.
“Because of you, Mr. John,” he said. “You people bring us life.” In less flowery terms, we’re tourists and pour money into the economy. I get it. I just never thought I’d be treated like royalty just for buying a lot of beer.
The bikes were typical of rentals anywhere I’ve ever been. They were tiny, old mountain bikes. My seat was so low I nearly kneed myself in the chin on every pedal. But the streets in Nusa Dua look like they were paved last week and traffic in this gated compound is minimal. That’s right. It’s gated. Every taxi, mini-van and private car is stopped at one of two giant gates and searched with mirrors under the chassis and opening of doors.
They sleepy guards aren’t terribly suspicious. They usually just open the door, look you in the eye, size you up as a potential Islamic terrorist and let you go. I imagine I could’ve snuck in a few chest bombs if I really wanted to.
The fuck-you gates make vacation here extremely sterile. However, it makes for a glorious bike ride.
Yusef and I were joined by a young Indian couple living in Nashville via Bangalore. They didn’t feel at all weird riding a tandem bike that looked like it’d break in half at any moment.
The route was basically a tour of Nusa Dua beaches. We pedaled up the palm-tree lined main boulevard, did a right turn on a manicured corner next to the giant, gold “Welcome to Nusa Dua” sign and found ourselves on a paved jetty heading out to sea. At the end was a pretty, red bodega in the shape of a Hindu temple. Looking back, you could see the private beaches of various hotels. They were all spotless, void of rocks, debris and people.
Yusef said this is the off season. December is the second rainiest month — next to January. No one wants to put up with the hour or two of rain that makes everyone worry that a tsunami is coming. He said July and August is the high season.
“It is too hot,” said Yusef, whose golden skin proved he’s an expert on the sun. “Maybe 38 degrees (high 90s). And very crowded.”
He said you need reservations everywhere. Hotels are packed. There’s no place to lay by the pool. Instead in December I struggled to find anyone even on the beach. This really is paradise.
We pedaled along the paved bike path that strings along the beaches like a pearl necklace. I could tell the Courtyard was only mid-range accommodations. We passed the Hyatt Regency and it had all the trappings of an oil sheikh’s retreat. Between the opulent swimming pool and beach, all with padded lanais chairs and drink stands, were four-poster double beds with curtains. If you want an escape from the sun and a quick shag, you can retreat to your personal beach bed. At least you don’t have to worry about sand getting in the wrong place.
We went by the Westin and it had waitresses dressed like Balinese dancers carrying brightly colored drinks in tall glasses to bronzed, filthy rich tourists with gray hair and gold chains. By their unfortunate Speedos, I could tell they weren’t Americans. In fact, Yusef said I was one of the few Americans he has seen on Bali.
We continued to a little island connected by a small bridge where we stood among a lava field of jagged black rock. A volcano erupted here in 1963 and didn’t kill anyone but made for some rugged terrain along the beach. Looking down about 50 feet, I could see the pollution here was minimal. I could see about 30 feet to the ocean floor.
Too bad I won’t see if up close and personal.
I explored the diving scene here and after 30 minutes of touring dive operations, I have a better chance of bungee jumping with rubber bands as I do scuba diving in Nusa Dua. I went to three dive shops and they seemed as dark and shady as some opium dens I stumbled onto in Northern Thailand back in the ’70s. I took a cab up to Tengeng Benoa, the spit of land that juts up into the ocean from the northeast corner of the Bukit Peninsula. It’s a rough-and-tumble strand of water sports shops, scruffy retail stores and the occasional low-end restaurant.
The first one I visited was Benoa Marine. It was a sprawling operation in an open-air room the size of an airplane hangar. A lot of bored-looking men in matching mustard-yellow polo shirts stared at me curiously as I walked in. I sat down with a kid in his low 20s who had this odd, confused , accusatory look on his face. Like, What are you doing here and what do you want?
I asked him where we went and he just pointed out toward the sea. He could’ve mean Nusa Dua or Australia for all I know.
How far do you go down?
“About 12 meters,” he said. That’s abut 35 feet. That’s little more than snorkeling.
“What’s the visibility?”
“About five meters.” That’s 15 feet. You can run into a reef in that vis.
“What’s it like in the summer?”
“It gets up to about nine.”
OK, thanks. I went to another and a man led me to a crude concrete changing room where a portly dive guide was slipping out of his wetsuit. I cut to the chase. I’m not spending a day to look at murky water.
“What’s the visibility out here?”
“About five meters,” he said, not even close to trying to sell me on it. “If we’re lucky.”
The third one I visited was next to a graveyard which I found more convenient than ironic. About a half dozen rough-looking dudes kept exchanging glances as I asked questions. They echoed the others, but when I requested a deeper dive, they said they could take a boat to Nusa Penida, the real divers’ island east of here. I can go 20 meters deep but vis is only about 12 meters and it’s a five-hour trip, including the drive up the east coast of Bali to get the boat. And the whole day cost $130.
I asked about the dangerous downcurrents that killed two tourists on back to back days last August. They had no earthly idea what I was talking about. I might as well have asked about molecular biology. They finally figured out what I meant with “current.”
“Oh, strong current,” one tall, lanky dive master said. “Strong.”
Putting my hands in guys who spent 10 minutes figuring out the price of a two-tank dive is a good way to ruin a vacation. I’ve dove in Indonesia twice. I don’t like the idea of a third time is a charm.