Solo. Female. Westerner. On Board.
The word soon gets out and before long there is a steady stream of people checking me out like the oddity that I am. Some choose to wander by and stare, others take up the seat beside me and start up with a steady stream of personal interrogation. Where am I from? Where am I going? First time here? And then the crucial questions. Am I alone? Am I married? How many children?
In my western world, asking these questions of a total stranger would ruffle the feathers of most women. Can you imagine jumping on the train for your daily commute, and before you can even open the phone to check the lastest Facebook post, the person seated next to you starts drilling you for personal details? Before long the rest of the carriage tunes in, equally as enthralled with your life story. I don’t think so.
After years of travelling through S.E. Asia I now understand that these questions are not considered to be impolite. Balinese see them as a series of grounding questions, allowing them to “place” you.
I know that they are looking at me in pity when they realise my status of “sendiri” (alone). The concept of striking out alone is a foreign one. My Indonesian surprises most and I can hear mutterings about my age as they chat amongst themselves. An unspoken nomination process takes place. After a series of nudges and looks between them, the one with the most bravado asks the big question. How old am I? When I reveal my age of 52 (a few weeks later I have since clocked up another birthday – yikes!), much discussion takes place. The reaction is one of bemusement. The consensus is that I am very “strong”. A round of giggling starts as they openly compare the soft rolls around their middles to my relatively lean body. It’s a quiet reminder that I am very fit and healthy for my age. I quietly say a little thanks for my way of life at Sharing Bali.
I am travelling on the local ferry to Lombok, taking a short break for some solo travel. It’s been a while and I’m ready for an adventure and time to explore new places.
Earlier in the day I jumped on the Perama bus in Ubud. Destination Padang Bai. The bus is new, air conditioned, and best of all has padded seats with recliner mode. This is nothing like the bone shaking, no frills buses of previous journeys that delivered me to my destination in a pool of sweat with ridges in the back of my legs imprinted from seats worn down to threads. I have always liked travelling with Perama. It’s a good solution for solo travellers, being one step up from a local bemo but not yet reaching the level of giant size tour bus complete with tour guide talking into a microphone.
Planning efforts for this trip has been minimal. In fact I’m like the plumber who has a houseful of leaky taps. I research and make plans for our Sharing Bali guests every day… for myself I just go when I see free time looming, working it out along the way. Often I find myself in situations that no amount of pre planning could have come up with. Some are better than others but that’s all part of the deal of letting travels plans unfold.
Because I’d missed the earlier bus to make the connection to the ferry, I was on my own once I got to the harbour. I found my way to the ticket office, handed over my rp45,000 (a whopping $4.50) and set about navigating my way through a ferry terminal more suited to trucks than single females on foot.
The friendly ticket seller had said that a boat was about to leave and indicated I should move it. Now I’ve sprinted for many a plane in my time as a business traveller and made it just as they slammed the doors behind me. I have been known to whip off my shoes and run barefoot to the gate, cutting a very unglamorous look. I have never missed a plane.
I thought I had left this behaviour behind along with my previous rushed way of life, but my instinct kicked in and I started to run through the parked trucks, street hawkers and the usual crowds of people congregated at harbours and bus stations anywhere in the world, as if my life depended on reaching that boat.
A chorus of “slowly, slowly!” followed me as I wove my way through the ladies squatting beside their makeshift tables full of drinks and snacks. I made it to the end of the ramp, sweat dripping down my back, just as they closed it off. “It’s ok, there’s another boat soon” the stall holders tell me. I’m feeling like such a fool when I realise that these ferries run just about every hour, 24/7. Of course I could get the next boat. What was I thinking?
I had just added another entry to my eternally growing list of cultural faux pas. One would hope that after 20 years of making Bali part of my life, I would have this list in control, but no, habits run deep and here we are again.
It is considered disturbing and a little bewildering to run in public unless there really is a genuine emergency. Especially in a crowd. Everyone immediately thinks that something is wrong and becomes very uneasy. The slow, even paced stroll, not drawing attention to one self, is the usual pace of life in Bali. Slowly. Do I need to say that word again? Once again I am left feeling like a clumsy “tamu” (foreigner/guest) when I slip into old habits.
Sure enough, half an hour later, there’s another ferry. I wander on board, my pace back at local level and find my way to the middle deck, grabbing an outdoor seat. Trucks, buses, motorbikes and walk on passengers have to be loaded on. It takes time. I settle back, taking in everything around me, my traveller’s sense of curiosity on high.
Kopi! Nasi! Kopi! Nasi! Sellers with baskets of drinks and snacks invade the decks peddling their wares. It must be my retail background that brings out a huge tolerance and respect for these ladies. They are the original traders. They own their goods, have a string of persuasive sales lines to get you to buy, and in true salesman style are always good for a chat. I see it as delivering sensational service. No queues, it outruns a drive-through for efficiency, and delivery is immediate. It know it can get out of hand in built up tourist areas turning to aggressive haggling and harassing, but here on a local ferry its all fair in the name of trade and survival. I buy “nasi bunkus” from one trader, fresh fruit from another. “Buy one more water. 5 hours until Lombok” says the next lady. She’s right. I stock up on water.
Loaded up, ready to go, the ferry slips away from the harbour. The breeze is a welcome relief from the stifling heat. Everyone, not just the “tamu”, has worked up a sweat sitting in the afternoon heat.
Looking back at the receding coastline, I am excited about what’s ahead on my travels, but there is no doubt that there is a tug at the heartstrings every time I see Bali slipping into the distance. I can see Mt Agung. Familiar. Strong. Beautiful. Bali has captured my heart in so many ways.
This is no speed boat and certainly no cruise ship. Seats are basic. The non-stop movies and smoke haze keeps me out of the air-conditioned “lounge area”. But my deck seat is infinitely more comfortable than being jammed into seat 24A on the average Jetstar flight. Leaning on the rail, head out to sea, breeze in my face, I’m happy. I’ll take the slow boat any day.
The pace is peacefully slow. Only one thing to do and that is to succumb to the space. Time to exercise my writing muscles. No devices. My notebook and pen is all I want. Simple. I bounce between writing and just hanging out over the rail, watching the water. No thoughts, switching off for a few hours. It’s calm. A pod of dolphins playing on the water makes my heart sing.
The phone signal picks up as we get closer to land. Emails are coming in. I get a buzz answering them from the deck of my ferry. I’m “Working From Anywhere”. How lucky am I that this is my “office’ today?
The glorious sunset as we approach Lembar Harbour serves as a reminder that my inappropriate run through the ferry terminal in Padang Bai was such a waste of energy. I would have missed this spectacle on the earlier ferry!
Chaos ensues, as trucks, buses, motorbikes and passengers get ready to disembark. I squeeze my way through motorbikes jammed so close I have to walk sideways raising my bag over my head. Made it. Now to find myself some sort of transport to Batu Bolong. The “Lombok Transport Mafia” are well known at Lembar Harbour. Thanks to advice from a series of fellow travellers befriended on the ferry ride, all very concerned that I would be safe on my own, I am well prepared. That’s another blog post.