KUTA, Bali — The Balinese dancer wore hotpants.
She and her co-worker stood above me on a dance platform with skin-tight black short shorts and matching jog bra, both adorned with strategically placed Christmas lights. They were both gyrating to rap music with moves that would cause Shiva, Vishnu and every other Hindu god to roll over in their heavens.
These dancers I never saw on Bali tourist posters.
They may as well. As much as “Eat Pray Love” has made Bali the international center for healing and their smiles have made the Balinese among the friendliest people in the world, the town of Kuta has become just as big a part of the Balinese experience.
Kuta is Bali’s version of Cancun. It’s a year-round Australian frat party where young blokes and blokettes take the three-hour flight for a weekend of massive drunks, gropes and dance. It’s where Hinduism stops and capitalism begins in Bali. After all, nothing says spiritual healing like Viagra shots atop the Sky Garden Lounge.
I spent most of my 1993 Bali trip in Kuta. My Irish PR friend had a flat she shared with me right outside of town, which is an overgrown beach/fishing village near the southern tip of mainland Bali. Every single night we trooped into town, met the gang who had set up temporary roots for the winter and drank and danced til the sun came up. Back then, Kuta was a series of low-end taverns with nothing fancier than a couple neon signs. I remember dancing under the stars and sitting languidly outside the dance floor, talking about dreams, regrets and the total tranquility that is Bali.
Last night Bali was as tranquil as Vegas on New Year’s Eve. Jala Legian, Kuta’s main drag, has become one long neon strip of techno bars, each one with big-screen TVs showing old Australian Rules Football (footie) clips and advertising their special drink. (Viagra shot: vodka, Red Bull and blue Curacao — to replicate Viagra’s blue pill. Get it?).
Looking at the clientele, no one was within 30 years of Viagra. I sat in the rooftop bar of the Sky Garden Lounge, a four-story nightclub that rocks til dawn and is the epicenter of the Kuta Krawl. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a steady string of Bintangs and chilled vodka from the only hulky Balinese men I’ve seen. They wore head scarves like sushi chefs. You could tell how long they’ve worked there just by their Australian-accented English.
The rooftop was huge, a massive sprawl with trees growing up through the middle and ferns looking strangely out place near the outer walls where men lured women to padded chairs for their first wayward hands of the night.
The music was a mix of Australian pop, American rap and very few oldies — and none of them good oldies. When about 300 Aussies started waving their arms around to “YMCA” I wanted to put in a request. But I doubt anyone but me was old enough to remember Iron Butterfly’s “Ina Goda Davida.”
I felt horribly overdressed with my white cargo pants, yellow Tommy Bahama shirt and Italian loafers. In fact, I felt horribly overdressed because I bathed that day. The men wore nothing more than baggy shorts and torn tank tops. The women wore the shortest shorts that would keep them from being thrown into a Balinese jail. They all pulled it off. If the Sky Garden Lounge was any indication, Australia is the healthiest country on earth. Every single person was in shape. I think I saw one fat person and she was probably from New Jersey. It’s like Australia is the birthplace of a master race of some kind. How do they stay in shape drinking beer from dawn to dawn?
Some Aussies came as a group. Four guys showed up wearing tight blue tanktops reading “Buck’s Bali 2012” and each had a nickname on the back: Stinko, Rando and one merely called himself Group Sex. The Aussies speak English but I don’t think their dictionary includes the word “subtle.”
After a second rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” I split. I wanted to see why Kuta had made international news almost exactly 10 years ago. On Oct. 12, 2002, a bomb blew up the front of Paddy’s Bar. A few seconds later, another leveled the Sari Club next door.
Both were right next to where I was drinking last night.
More than 200 people died, all reportedly due to an Islamic terrorist group called the Jemaah Islamiyah who hated the fact that an island in their country hosted such filthy Western traditions as drinking, dancing and laughing. Dozens were arrested and three were executed in 2008. But many received light sentences, including Abu Bakar Bashir, a radical cleric who was allegedly the ringleader. The Indonesian Supreme Court overturned his convictions in 2006, sending Balinese and Australians screaming to the heavens.
As I walked out of the Sky Garden Lounge, a giant two-story memorial stood where the Sari Club once did. On it, under an elaborate Balinese design, are the names of the 200-plus victims. Nearly half were Aussies. Many were Balinese with a few Danes, Canadians and English thrown in. I saw three Americans. They were basically the makeup of the crowd I’d just left.
There is no Sari Club anymore. It’s now an Indomaret convenience store and a shop selling Balinese handicrafts. As my taxi pulled away, the music on Jala Legian seemed to get louder.