It all begins in Bali, the trip to Morocco, four oceans no planes. We chose it because it was south of the Equator, easy to get to and glorious.
We arrived in the early morning of September 6 after a long day of flying out of Seoul, with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. As we had feared, they wouldn’t let us on the plane unless we could prove we had onward transportation—our pleas that we were “taking the boat” out of Indonesia were met with incredulity at the Incheon airport’s Air Asia desk.
So we bought the cheapest ticket we could, from Jakarta to Singapore, non-refundable and unusable. Any David Hazzans or Josephine Turners out there who want it, send me a note.
When we arrived we were exhausted, not just from the flight but from packing up 14 years of our lives in Korea. But Bali is the cure for any stress. You couldn’t invent a more magnificent piece of Earth.
It’s encircled by sandy beaches white and black, with huge waves the surfers love. I’m too uncoordinated to surf, but swimming in the waves is an experience all its own—close your eyes, dive into the wave and you’re thrown like a dead fish halfway down the shore. Of course you have to be careful—if there are lifeguards in Bali, I didn’t see any.
The vendors on the beach largely leave you alone—a single, pleasant “no” is all it takes for the potential masseuse, bracelet salesman or sunglasses merchant to move on to the next sunbed. On Kuta beach, reputedly the busiest of them all, locals sell beer and soda while you watch the sun set over the island.
And then there are the legions of fit and attractive young people roaring it up on their surfboards and on the shore. We met a 21-year-old Safeway manager from Eugene, Oregon, so pale and redheaded that if the sun touched her she might explode into flames; a former U.S. marine with his combat medals tattooed on his body, who was trying to break into comedy filmmaking; a Ukrainian-Portuguese couple from Dubai finally getting around to their honeymoon two months after their wedding; and a lone 20-year-old French vegan, sipping on a coconut, uncertain whether she would be staying another week, another month or another year.
The problem with all this hanging out on the beach is you don’t meet a lot of Balinese who aren’t serving you a drink or driving your drunk ass back to the hotel. The Balinese you do meet are extremely hospitable, smile often and seem to appreciate the business we bring—but what do they really think of us?
We never found out, but whatever kindness we saw felt genuine. Right behind our hotel in Kuta was a large neighbourhood untouched by daiquiri bars and surf shops, And in the evenings, Jo and I walked through here, often the only tourists, and were constantly smiled at and waved to. During the Galungan holiday, the Balinese took out their lace blouses and colourful sarongs, and celebrated with their families the victory of Dharma over Adharma, all the while continuing to greet us like neighbours.
But not all is roses—we are fearful for what might be the most difficult part of our journey, the Pelni ferry from Jakarta to Batam, a 30-hour trip that only goes once a week, and is our sole option for reaching the Southeast Asian mainland without having to scramble halfway north on the island of Sumatra for a ferry to Malaysia.
At the Pelni ticket offices in Kuta, they lazily told us “the application” wasn’t working—they couldn’t book any tickets, which in my opinion is one of the more important jobs in any ticket office. I went back every day to be greeted with the same reply: “Broken, application broken, buy in Jakarta.”
But Jakarta isn’t exactly next door to Bali. Once we’d spent a week getting ahold of ourselves, we boarded a crowded and tourist-free minibus to take us to the ferry to Java, and then a crowded and tourist-free ferry to the Javanese coast.
We followed up a calm Eid holiday in the Banyuwangi district with an eksecutif-class train to the industrial port city of Surabaya, an evening in the street shacks there, and then the daylong Argo to the great megalopolis of Jakarta, and the warm of arms of Elanor Kim, an old friend from Seoul who lives in the glitzier end of the city.
Our next step is to brave the Jakarta traffic for the office of the country’s national shipping company, Pelni. Already we’re behind schedule—we would have liked to have been on the mainland by now, working our way toward China. But as it stands we’ll have to rush through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, seeing very little on the way. It isn’t terrible—we’ve been through these parts before—but if the ferry is full and we have to stay another week, the mild rush will become a sprinting race.
At least we have Bali, and I wouldn’t have traded in anything for our week there. As we move farther north and the summer moves into autumn, we may be running out of paradises.