Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Battles, Bali & Borders

I have good timing. Just last week Monday I was flying out of East Timor's capital Dili. The next day it seems there are running gun battles through the city. If I had of stayed any longer I could have become an impromptu war correspondent.

But as it turned out I only discovered the news a few days later in Bali that there was any trouble at all in the city. And even then when I was being told about it, it was like "um, no way, that is not true, surely not". There was absolutely no sign when I was there that any trouble was brewing. Life seemed normal. Pity it is so true. East Timor was just getting on its feet.

Check your weapon
Check your weapon at Dili airport

Anyway we ended up spending 3 days in Bali. A bizarre place. It was my first time there, and I will go back. But away from the beach, bars and bogans. When we flew in it was straight out to the tourist village of Ubud, only about 25km away from Kuta but a long drive all the same. The streets and roads are narrow and clogged with motorbikes, taxis, buses, cars and the odd cart being pushed along. Everyone tries to get where they're going as quickly as possible. A major change from Dili, where the taxis are lucky to get past 40km/hr.

Ubud was fantastic and the accommodation sooo cheap (around Au$8 for a double room and en-suite). But it seems some other tourists had got there before we had. The streets were lined with home stays, bungalows, resorts, shops and services, catering for masses of tourists. Luckily it seems most of them are not going anymore, so we could pick and choose, unluckily it also meant that anywhere you walked some tout was calling out to you to see if you wanted "taxi, transport, yes?" (coupled with a two-handed steering wheel mime).

We escaped into the surrounding countryside one afternoon for a hot walk around and through the paddy fields. Along the way we caught a glimpse of some of the real Bali life, while watching people work in the fields and women taking offerings to Hindu temples. One of the main things I noticed in Bali was how seriously Hinduism is practiced. Maybe I am a tad naive but I had never realised it before. Temples, shrines and offerings dot the streets. You have to be careful not to kick any of the little banana leaf, rice and incense offerings that are put out every morning in front of the shops and homes.

Kuta was another story. We had one afternoon and evening to fill in there before our flight out east late at night and the place was not really my cup of tea. It is filled with surfie and bogan types, a lifestyle I just don't subscribe to. The beach was an eyeopener, locals offering everything from massages to pineapples to the sun baking few. The scene that typified the clash of cultures the most was a bronzed girl flashing her norks to the world on a banana lounge while having a pineapple cut up in front of her by a local woman covered head to toe with clothing and a hat.

Beach & bogans
Kuta beach

It was good to move on from Kuta, but also a bit sad that I couldn't have seen more of the island and escaped to littler known places. We flew off to Jayapura, West Papua at 2:30am and got in there early in the morning. I had heard that it was now possible to go straight to the border and get your visa exit stamp there instead of the previous saga of having to go to immigration in Jayapura town itself. This it seems was the case last month. Those Indonesians like to change their bloody minds.

Over an hour in a taxi and quite a few hundred thousands of Rupiah and we were dropped off, just a short stroll from Papua New Guinea. When we discovered that the policy had now changed and stamping was now taking place back in Jayapura. We weren't going to budge. This would mean quite a considerable outlay in cash and also would take most of the afternoon. We wanted to get into PNG and organise some tickets to get further into the country. So it was a Mexican standoff. Neither side giving way. Our passports were pored over. Every previous country stamp I have been to looked at and the visas as well. We stayed for over an hour like this. Eventually with the border guards telling us to wait for the bigman to yay or nay if we could exit without getting the stamp.

In the end they became pretty friendly, offering us food to eat and bizarrely chatting away to us in Pidgin. They talked amongst themselves and we sat down and waited. Eventually they pulled out some homebrew or something a rather and drank that. There were no other people crossing the border apart from the locals and some dodgy looking Malaysian guy.

The big man came and our moment arrived. He chatted away back to base on the two-way radio and we waited anxiously. I was certain that we would have to go back. Surprisingly he passed our passports back and said we could go. Victory for us and jubilation. We set off very happy with our packs on our backs and greeted the PNG immigration officers like they were old friends. No problems getting into PNG and we were out trying to get to Vanimo. This turned out to be a bit of a small drama in itself and some creative thinking allowed us to slyly slip a hire car guy a small amount of money to get dropped off in town instead of the ludicrous amount they originally told us it would cost .. K180 (Au$70).

So I am currently back in PNG. I just can't escape this place it seems. I have been catching up with friends with more catching up yet to do. And things .. well things it seems are exactly the same as when I left it. This I like. I know how things work.

Town park
Vanimo town park

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