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CASS GILBERT  

Bali, Indonesia, South East Asia, 24th January

I've arrived in Bali safe and sound. The hectic and intense atmosphere were just as I expected, but has still managed to surprise me. As I unboxed and rebuilt the bike in Dempasar airport, a hoard of porters surrounded me to watch. They pointed and touched the parts which were unfamiliar to them - the speedo, the clipless pedals, the panniers - and generally smiled away. Unlike most travellers who the porters threw themselves upon to help lift rucksacks and the like for a few rupiahs, it seemed they didn't know quite what to make of me as I sweated away to put the bike together again.

I wheeled 'Possum' out of the building purposefully as if I knew where I was heading and was left alone by a crowd of people who seem to hang around every airport I have travelled through, offering their services in unison. Maybe they are the same crowd? I cycled passed the throngs of cab drivers calling cheap prices, feeling incredibly free. My first impression was the wet heat, the palm trees and the number of people both in and on the streets. The difference from concrete Cairns was dramatic. Buses and scooters tooted randomly. I weaved my way in and out of them as I left the airport. I had no idea where I was heading except that I was going to Kuta for the night to get my bearings. No book and no map! It was all very exciting. I was glad to be on my bike and not a backpacker having to decipher the whole taxi and porter business.

People smiled at me on the bike and waved. I soon found myself in the main square of Kuta and began the search for a place to stay for the night. I was hot and sweaty, hungry and thirsty, but loving it all. Kuta is made up of a network of crowded one way systems, joined by alleyways with barely enough room for a minibus to squeeze through. Scooters overtake and undertake, people dart across the road. It's very much a free for all. Without all the cycling in London that I did for Security Despatch, I think I would have been quite thrown, but as it was I happily lost my sense of direction and headed up random streets. It was hot, this town seemed so alive and hey, I was in Bali!

The place I eventually found was a 'losemen', (a cheap and basic hotel it seems) in a street called Poppys One, close to the beach, where a lot of travellers gather. I had done some asking around about how much I should be paying but was innevitably overcharged. I didn't have the energy to haggle on such a chaotic first day, and settled with a room for 40,000 rupiahs, around 5 US$. It probably should have been half that, but I figured the first couple of days are always about finding your feet and I wasn't doing so bad so far. I left my bike and set about padding around the town by foot, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and chaos of my first day in Asia. The difference from Oz, where everything is laid out for you, was invigorating.

I headed for some food. I was dying to taste my first plate of noodles out here, but instead opted for some spring rolls in place close by. A quarter of an hour later, the smiling waitress returned to say the spring rolls were 'broken'. Broken? I enquired. I seemed an odd choice of word for a spring roll. It appeared I was going to have my noodles after all. I sat and enjoyed them, washed down with a big bottle of water, and watched the world go by.

As dusk fell I headed to the west facing beach to catch the sun going down in a sky that seemed absolutely enormous. The clouds lit up spectacularly and little kids played in the water silhouetted against the horizon. Kuta is known for its sunsets. The beach was packed with people - tourists, locals, food sellers and craft sellers all drifting around. That evening, I met up with Dawn (Gilbert, strangely enough) and Keri, two San Fran girls I was sitting next to on the plane, who are travelling around the world videoing their journey and painting their impressions. I had an Indonesian dish of chicken, tofu (a bit weird) and rice with vegetables in a fantastically nutty satay sauce. The banana lassie, a shake with yoghurt, was tasty too. For a very delicious first meal in Bali it came to a total of about 5 US$ for the three of us.

We wandered around the streets, marvelling at the number of brand name stores- D and G, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Adidas, Mambo, Billabong.....they are all here. Heklers approached relentlessly with their wooden boxes full of watches and jewellery. Others sold baseball caps, sarongs, foreign newspapers, just about everything you don't want! It's quite exhausting wandering the streets, avoiding the steady stream of people and dodging the scooters zipping constantly by. Kuta is known for being a hectic tourist spot, and most people soon escape it for the mountains and quieter beaches.

The feeling at night is just as intense. The streets are still packed with people as shops are open so late. Dark alleyways hide big pools of water and are lit up by the glare of mobilette headlights whose distinctive 'put put' sound, rhythmically seem to come from all directions, (a kind of mechnical version of a chicken). I must push aside all the paranoia instilled from countless films where Asians eyeball you, leap out of minibuses and spring at you with knives! Bali is very touristy and the general feeling is that its very safe.

On the way back to Poppies One, I took a stroll along the beach front. A line of stalls were set up selling food and drink, lit up with lanterns and surrounded by people squatting on the ground, munching on noodles. I'll brave the street vendors when my stomach has had a few days to acclimatise itself! Then I returned to the room, had a chat with some surfer guys from Cornwall who are out here catching some waves, and crashed for the night. Or so I thought. Bedbugs kept me awake and I ended up sleeping on my mat on the floor. But that was just fine.

As I write this, the rain is still pounding down as it has been all night. Electricity is cutting in and out and the streets are completely flooded. Outside my room I can hear some locals bantering way. It feels strange and exciting being in a land where I can't even catch a few words of what is being said. It's all pretty incredible really. A big change from comfortable and predictable Australia. I'll stay here another night to give me the day to buy a map, some malaria tablets for later and change some money. And I've already managed to knock 10,000 rupees off last night's price for the room. That's a whole 60 pence! A little haggling is the norm here, and people expect it so I don't feel too bad. I am aware that a difference of what is ultimately very little to me, means a lot more out here.

Looking foward to getting out and riding round the island but at the moment the roads are ankle deep in brown water, hiding the big holes and making cycling a little precarious!

Well, that was just a few first thoughts and first impressions. I know things are going to be changing all the time, but I thought I'd send this while it was fresh in my mind. The mobile signal is good here in Kuta, not sure how the rest of Bali will be but it should be OK. I have a feeling that from now on, communication with the UK, is going to be just a little bit trickier than before!!

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