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Bali: Paradise Buried.

If Bali is on your bucket list, scratch it off. I’ll save you the long plane ride and the money to get there by telling you that the romantic, idyllic paradise you have in your mind about Bali has been buried under tourists, traffic and trash.

Our introduction to Bali might have jaded us. I know it jaded my wife.

The line at immigration was not long, but the clerks were very slow. Directly in front of us were two grungy euro looking trekkers with dreads. I fully expected them to get seriously scrutinized and delay our entry even longer, but they sailed through like dignitaries to the upcoming ASEAN conference.

Then it was Mary Ann’s turn. Well dressed, polite, and the most honest looking face on either side of the coconut, I expected her to just pass through like a wind across the plains. However, the immigration man started seriously looking at her passport, page after page after page. We have residency permits from the UAE and Panama in our passports, along with stamps and visas from more countries than I can count.

The immigration clerk took her passport and handed it to a supervisor. He took his time scrutinizing it. Then he called over a guard, and they whisked my wife off behind a grey metal windowless and closed door.

This is the reception you get at immigration in Bali. Well, at least it seemed like it to us.

I figured I was heading for the same fate, I just had no idea why. Bali is part of Indonesia. Indonesia is a Muslim country, so I doubted the UAE residency permit was the problem. Neither of us has been to Israel, so what could it be? The first thing I did of course was politely demand to know where they had taken my wife.

“To office” was all the clerk said.

“Why” was my logical response.

“No full page” he answered.

“May I go back there and see her?” I asked, fully expecting a negative response.

He finished putting my visa in my passport and just waved me away. So I walked over to the door they had taken her through not knowing if it was going to be full of hungry tigers, hot oils, dragons or what. I found her sitting on an industrial couch which was indented with the impressions of too many posteriors that had sat there for too long. I asked her what they told her. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say “hell if I know”. I told her what the clerk had told me “no full page”.

The look of recognition crossed her face like a sunrise on the beach. “I told you I should have gone to the consulate and gotten the extra pages put in. But I have two blank pages. What is wrong?”

Then they called her into the inner sanctum, just her. 15 minutes passed while I watched a 15 year old tourism highlight video.    I began to think this was all I was ever going to see of Bali. It wasn’t even in English.

She came out alone with a look of bewilderment and the attitude you see before surrender. She explained to me that the last two pages of the passport are for “Amendments and Endorsements” and that they could not put the Visa sticker on one of these pages, and all the other pages were full. Well, this is one of those problems that you feel lucky to have, but stupid to have to suffer through. A full passport is a beautiful thing, unless you are using it.  I asked her what we could do, and she said we could “get on a flight to somewhere else Anywhere else.”  She was saying just loud enough that the officials in the back bowels of the immigration bureaucracy enclave could hear it. These guys were all dressed like traffic cops, cheap white uniforms with tin badges. I expected to see a whistle. One of them came out to ask her to go to yet another cage full of dragons. He did not close the door behind them this time. I could hear Mary Ann saying “OK, OK, we’ll just leave.” I had no idea where we would go. Thailand was underwater, we’ve done Hong Kong. Australia is too damn far. Besides all that, if there is no space in her passport, we’d probably end up in another colorless office with even less colorful mignons.

Then she walked out of the office and told me to follow her. She said something I never thought I would hear my Jesuit schooled wife say. “We are going to have to bribe the guy.”

So I went into this little office. The calendar on the wall was from the wrong month, and two years old. That calendar was probably the most modern thing in the office. If I remember correctly the phone on the desk actually had a dial on it. I was welcomed in like a sheep to slaughter. Little did he know that I was not exactly new to this. I lived in Latin America for too many years and dealt with too many petty  men in uniforms of too many corrupt governments to let him bother me. This had never happened to me in Asia, but I knew it was just human nature.

He started off by asking what I did for a living. I could have told him I was a writer for Conde’ Nast and that this story was going to go a long way to stopping the almighty tourist dollar.  My mind which has read a thousand spy/adventure novels was telling me to say “Yeah, buddy, I’m a major in the USAF and if you don’t quit messing with my wife I’ll call in an airstrike on your grandfather’s fishing boat.”

But I realized that he was in the right. He was being an asshole about it, BUT, Mary Ann DID have a full passport.

So it came to the transaction.

“What is your policy?” I asked.

He was at least honest enough to say, “This is only my policy, not the government’s.”

OK, OK, the negotiation was on. This was his way of increasing his take home pay. In these situations, the objective is for neither party to lose face. I waited for him to make the first offer. When he did, I turned to Mary Ann and said simply, “Shall we go to Chiang Mai?”

He showed a bit of vulnerability. I could tell he was counting on this American cash cow to make his day. I could have gotten rougher with him than I did, but he DID have us over a barrel.

I then offered him ½ what he asked for. This was no different than buying a knock-off watch from a street vendor. He came back with half between that and his asking price. Knowing that all I had in my pocket was half that again, I agreed. He was a very happy little crook, until I emptied my pockets and said “oops, that is all I have.” The top bill was a US$100 bill, which works like gold nuggets in the modern world.

Then this slimeball opened up Mary Ann’s passport and found a very suitable little place for the visa, quite easily. The bastard.

So now we were off to our pre-booked and pre-paid 5 star beach resort. (By the way, we would have lost that payment if we had not paid off the immigration man and he knew it.) We had to wait in a log line with dozens of other tourists to get an authorized taxi. I had to ignore, ignore, and ignore again a gypsy cab driver. We finally got to the front of the line after being pushed back in line by a group of Russians and bought our trip. Bali, being just one of the thousand islands that make up Indonesia, uses the Indonesian Rupea, which is one of those mostly worthless currencies. At the time of our trip it was about 8600 to $1. So the cab ride was like a 1,000,000, or something with a lot of zeroes.

After 36 hours in Singapore, the first thing I noticed was the litter. As we drove out of the airport the next thing I noticed was the traffic. We were back in the land of motor scooters, but even that concession to the congestion did nothing to ease the pain. Nothing moved. It took us an hour to go the short distance to our resort.

Thisis just an example of the traffic in Bali. Traffic jams are everywhere, day and night. It takes hours to go miles.

The narrow streets were not ready for the current population or tourism, and they are still building resorts. Apparently there is nowhere to take the refuse other than the swamps along the road. This is Bali? This is the Bali of my paradise fantasies? It was my wife’s vacation so I stayed quiet. But I could see her, still affected by the rude official introduction to the country, having the same reaction I was. THIS is Bali?

When we finally arrived at this 5 star joint we looked around for the normal reception party we have come to expect…a cool cloth to wipe off the tropical sweat and a cool drink to make you forget that you just spent 5 times as long in a cab as you should have, We barely got a hello, and our room was not ready. (It was already 2 p.m.)

This was just day one. My next post will be a bit more positive and show you some of the natural beauty of this island. Please excuse this rough introduction. Thanks for reading, tell a friend, ESPECIALLY someone who wants to go to Bali.

International Air Travel, My Style.

As I start packing for yet another intercontinental flight, I came to the happy realization that I am now quite good at this. I know not to take more than one pair of shoes, two pairs of jeans, and save the weight and space for a few extra pair of BVDs.

In the last year I have been in five continents and if you want to get technical,  I could claim two sub continents. India is known as a subcontinent, but the Indian people are fond of telling you that they are their own continent. It is hard to argue with 1.2 billion people. And then there is the Middle East. I live here and I’ll be damned if I know what continent I live in. This aint Asia, nor Europe, nor Africa. I have never heard of anyone calling this area a subcontinent, so what is it? I’ll just go with subcontinent for ease of calculations.

As far as air travel goes, the Middle East is Middle Earth. Both Dubai and Doha bill themselves as the cross roads for the world. In a way that is very true. A person can fly from Dubai or Doha to anywhere important directly. Both cities are home to an excellent airline. Dubai boasts Emirates Air, and Doha is the proud home of Qatar Airlines, subtitled “The World’s Five Star Airline”. There is virtually no major country that is not served by either of them, together they have the globe covered. On top of that Emirates Air just reduced their fares because the price of oil dropped. Name me one other airline that did that!

I live in the UAE, about a half hour away from the Dubai Airport. This being Emirates home base you would think that I would be loyal to the home boys and that at least the majority of my travel would be with them. However, as any of you who know me are thinking right now, not necessarily.  For my trips to Thailand, the third of which  I am packing for right now, and for our trip to Hong Kong last month, I take Qatar. Why? Well, simply put $. Hundreds of $’s less. More $’s to spend on tours and stupid souvenirs. To fly Qatar I must first fly to Doha, which is a very short flight, then change planes at the Doha Airport. Qatar is building a new super airport, but I have no idea when it will be completed. For now, all planes coming and going must park in the next county. Passengers must  ride a bus into the terminal, and then another bus back out. It is a bit annoying and adds at least a couple of hours to my travel time, but it is the price I pay to save the $s.

Now that I have been a steady customer of Qatar, I am starting to climb up the ladder of their frequent flyer program. Soon I will be a Silver Flyer (please do not confuse that with Silver Surfer) and with a little creativity I will enter the ranks of the Golden Ones (please do not confuse that with getting older). As anyone who flies a lot and stays loyal to one carrier knows, stepping up a rank means multiplying  every mile you travel towards the grail of a free ticket. Someday, Qatar will owe me a free trip to somewhere I would never pay to fly to. (I hope that makes more sense to you than it does to me)  I am considering adding that to my bucket list; “Get a free flight to somewhere, anywhere at all”. It would not be my first time to achieve this, but last time I did it, mining companies were buying my tickets and it did not mean as much to me.

Back to my inspirational moment that led to this posting. Being good at international travel means more than leaving room in your suitcase for underwear (clean and otherwise) and souvenirs.

Let us consider proper travelling clothes. First let me say that anyone who dresses up for a flight is living in the fifties. Today, unless you have to go to a meeting right off the plane, it is ridiculous. Think of flying like taking the bus, it will simplify the journey.

So what to wear?I’ll do this from the bottom up.

Wear flip-flops or sandals. Not all airports make you take off you shoes, but when you have to, it is really nice to just kick off the sandals. In fact, a lot of TSA types will just let you pass if you are wearing nothing but flip-flops. If you are unfortunate enough that your destination is, say, Minnesota in January, you can pack a pair of mukluks and put them on before you leave the terminal.

Pants. Loose and baggy. That way they do not creep up on you and cause a lack of blood flow to sensitive regions. Also, if you can find loose and baggy cargo pants, then you can carry some essential in-transit items on your person, such as a couple of power bars, Ipod and  ear plugs, reading glasses, stuff like that. Yes, it means divesting your gear in one of those little trays before you pass through the security gate, but the trade-off is worth it. If you put all these things in your carry on bag it just causes more work for you once you get to your seat.

Shirt or blouse. Planes are notoriously over air-conditioned. What I find works best is a long sleeve cotton T.

Head gear. Most people do not wear anything. I always wear a ball cap, even when I am not travelling. I have found that this strange custom of mine is great on an airplane when I want to sleep. I can pull it down over my eyes. Combine that with the Ipod and you can drift into another world, while on your way to another world. The hat also keeps your head warm.

These days airlines have started stocking their inventory with planes that have the acronym ER at the end  of the type designator. I.E. B777ER. The ER stands for Extended Range. If you look at international routes available you will find some TRULY Extended Range flights. I think the longest regularly scheduled flight these days is from Atlanta to Johannesburg.  That is something like 19 hours. Dubai to Los Angeles is 16 or so. Just a few years ago either of these flights would have been impossible. You would have had to change planes and probably carriers in London, or Amsterdam. Maybe more than one stop. If you think 16 hours is too damn long to be cooped up in a steel tube at 38,000 feet with recirculated air spreading flu germs, well you are not alone. A lot of people still opt for a lay-over in some city. But the problems with that solution are scarier to me than catching this years flu bug. Let’s take a look at them.

Lost luggage. Every time you switch planes in transit you give overworked underpaid luggage handlers another chance to send your bag to Shanghai when your destination is Topeka. Don’t even bother wondering how they do it, but misdirected luggage is still a significant problem even though the world’s airlines are getting much better about getting your bag on the same plane you are on. That being said, it has never happened to me (knock knock) .

Another disadvantage of a lay over is the extra costs. An overnight in say London could just about double your airfare, considering hotel, taxis, meals and a night on the town.

Maybe all you want to do is get out of the flying tube and walk around an airport for 4 hours between flights, like the good old days. Consider this, count meals, that trip to the book store, some time in the bar, the cute souvenir refrigerator magnet at the gift shop that you would not have bought if you had not made the trip to the bar  and before you know it your travel budget has taken a hit. Plus, that gives the luggage handlers four extra hours to choose which plane to put your bag on.

I always opt for the non stop on the ER. Just remember, you get on the plane, and sooner or later, you get off the plane.

Now about that recirculated air. Well, other than looking like a Tokyo traffic cop and wear a surgical mask, there just is not anything you can do. However, the air up there is not the only source of exotic diseases in an airplane. The plastic tray and the arms on your seat can hold and transmit all sorts of maladies. And then there is the toilet. I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer and I use it before and after I touch anything. I think of it as preventing others from catching what I have, so I don’t feel like a paranoid. I also wipe down the food tray and the arm rests. Why risk it? Catching one of the worlds staphylococci can really ruin a nice vacation.

If the person sitting next to you is coughing, hacking, sneezing or bleeding uncontrollably, ask to be moved. Same thing if they stink, or especially if they are so fat they should have been made to buy two seats. If there are any empty seats, the cabin crew will try to help you, if you ask nicely. If you are not nice to them, about anything at all, they will not be nice to you, about anything at all. Frankly I think it is pretty shitty job which I would never do. Nobody tips you and some passengers can be real jerks.

Always carry a pen with you because you will need to fill out one of those immigration forms before you stand in the long line to have your passport inspected. Borrowing a pen from another (read: better prepared) passenger is embarrassing and brands you as a novice.

Many people will go to the trouble of finding the local currency exchange and buying Rupees  (whatever) before they leave home. I wonder if they have ever heard of an ATM machine?  Also, I just can’t understand why anyone uses travelers checks these days. These must be the same people who dress up for the flight. Hello? Eisenhower is not President anymore.

Thats it for today. I am off for Thailand now. All packed in my style, which means I probably forgot some stuff. My next blog will be from Chiang Mai. Stay tuned, tell a friend and please make a comment. Even if you do not know me, just tell me what you think about this post, even if you think it stinks like the guy who sat next to you on your last flight.

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