The pre-dawn airport queue for the Bali flight snakes across the terminal, one side to the other, but it is the only flight leaving so I begrudgingly join. In this, my first flight since the pandemic, I am joined by hundreds of others. Some, not many, surfers. A sprinkling of committed, leathery Legianistas, desperate to return to the Island of the Gods and spiritual home of the bogan travel experience. Wealthy business cats and young families. A few couples. There are no other airlines flying, so Jetstar is truly the airline of the people today. Heck, even Kelly Slater is wrestling a hundred-board bag onto a trolley and off to the oversize. Beggars can’t be choosers, but choosers can, apparently, be beggars, and with G-Land starting in a few days he flies with the peasants today.
A few mates from home are on the flight. I get a cheeky text from a mate, Sugar. He’s down the front, keen for a beer. Soli Bailey’s dad, Andrew, swings by, and we talk forecast – big, but short-lived, dropping fast then pretty average moving forward – and surf plans (mutually, deliberately evasive). They, like me, are hoping to get in quick, to hit the window between reopened borders and the rest of the planet’s arrival.
I wonder if the masses have invaded, whether Bali is really back, how many people are rampaging across the lineups of the archipelago as we speak, and how soon until the rest arrive. For no discernable reason the flight is delayed, the gate at the furthest end of the terminal deployed for the only plane flying. The airport seems vast and empty save the long, masked line, a near hike away from the only place serving coffee. No one risks it. The world has opened up months ago but we remain timid, unsure if the world is working as it was. The border bubbles we once railed against we now tiptoe out of, manila folders of printouts held reassuringly by many. For all the passion we spoke of attacking opened borders, months later we finally clutch boarding passes still feeling the friction of inertia, cryofrozen passports still thawing in our hands as the queue crawls. We have forgotten the ways we used to travel, the optimism of frequent departures and the cavalier approach to gallivanting about the planet in ways unimaginable to every generation of humanity that preceded us.
My Balinese driver of many years has a different job now. He doesn’t trust tourism again, yet. My expat friends who stayed through the pandemic I’ve not spoken much to. I’ll be honest, I cut them off, and that’s on me. They’ve been soundly barrelled for the past two years, and I couldn’t bear it. I had a bit going on myself. I’m sure they went through their stuff as well, and maybe I should have been a better friend. I wasn’t. I was busy enough keeping head and home together, as were they.
I ponder if the same rules apply in Bali. If the same time frames operate. If the smiles are still there, or have they been erased by two years of pestilence and uncertainty? If kreteks still smell the same, and if I’ll still have an immediate desire for one from the Circle K outside Arrivals. Is that even still there? I wonder if I’ve made the right call on this swell. Do I even still remember how to read these forecasts or am I just way off? Does that ferry still run? How does it feel to surf over the greens and browns and blues and whites of shallow coral? What does sunshine and blue water even feel like? Is it flooding there too?
The airport at Denpasar is a shambles. The normal two-stage queue is now a four-stage ordeal, and we spend most of it counselling confused elderly folks through the various digital gateways. The Circle K outside is boarded up, the throng of drivers outside the gates halved, but the clove aroma is undiminished.
Putu – not Ketut – meets me. As we catch up on each other’s news and drive past familiar streets and buildings, the eerily light traffic is the only hint that things are not as they always were. Putu spent the pandemic selling internet packages via phone sales and has only recently returned to driving tourists. “Getting busy,” he says, “but I’m still selling internet.” Ketut is not so sure. “He’s waiting. He doesn’t trust tourist will coming and Bali stay open,” says Putu.
It’s to be a recurring theme. A day later we are in Jalan Legian buying beads for the missus’ business. The street outside is empty, most shops still closed at 10am, others shuttered more permanently. The sidewalks, normally full of Bintang-singleted clichés shuffling through hawkers, motorbikes, and shopfronts, remain deserted. Inside, a middle-aged Swedish lady is bullying the staff about the inefficiency of their factory connections. “Why won’t they say when they will open? How can they not give me a date for my samples?” She leaves, and we chat with the owner, Ben, a friend from years of happy trade. “She doesn’t understand. Many people have gone back to the village, and they did what they could to survive. Now they are comfortable there, and it’s hard to make change to come back when not so busy yet. No one is sure the job will be coming back and staying.”
It’s a repeated refrain among many Balinese and Indonesian friends. Once bitten, twice shy, and the last two years have bitten hard. The confidence in the service sector does not match the enthusiasm of the government for reopening. Across the ditch in Australia, people have for months danced the same hesitant dance with booking flights and making plans.
While Kuta and Legian slumber, Canggu heaves. Bulldozers tear up the illegal but profitable beachfront bars and warungs, and the cloistered villa enclave is soon to be replaced by big, square catacomb hotels. The cranes are setting up. Expats and digital nomads gravitated here, and the Bukit and the crowds may have dropped, but never ceased. The booking sheet at our hotel has the adjacent villa marked with a name and an arrow right across the page ending in the date October 2023. The overrevving, shirtless expats tearing through traffic on stripped-down, hipped-up bikes are more obvious, possibly as there are less scooters on the road, or maybe due to the Italian guy who tomahawked through an intersection after an idiotic overtake the day we arrived. The boisterous gay Euroblokes frolicking in the pool of a beachside bar are more noticeable than before, a flamboyant minority contrasting with the majority of fully dressed, pool-averse domestic tourists. It’s hard to tell who’s been here the whole time, or who, like us, has just arrived. Either way, it feels like it’s running at under 70 per cent.
Tai ‘Buddha’ Graham, Single Fin and The Lawn impresario, ripper, and wearer of many hats reflects on the situation for business owners and their staff. “Time spent with family was great, but it was otherwise tough. I had over 900 staff to support and no government handouts like in Oz. I had some epic empty surf, but people were hurting. Do I miss it? No. It’s good to see Bali finally getting some life breathing in again. People need it, they suffered through that time. Would I take it back? For the surf, not really. For the family time, maybe. Things are back from a surfing point of view, everyone’s booking tickets, but on land its not back to normal yet.”
The COVID-driven Beginner-geddon is in full swing at Canggu. A sleepy morning at Echo reveals some tasty wedges, slightly backwash affected, but fun, remarkable only for the three other guys out. The rivermouth is similarly sparse. A look through where the warungs stood until recently, toward Old Man’s reveals a near Superbank-level crowd. Sitting, waiting, windmilling at waves, clambering, colliding. My wife, also a lockdown learner, wants no part of it. She surfs The Pass back home, but this is off the charts. A shitshow.
Up on the Bukit it’s a similar story. Jake Mackenzie, Uluwatu resident charger and Drifter owner, has noticed a profound demographic change, “And it has come via Vladivostok, Comrade…” The Russian tsunami that had washed over the archipelago had stayed and pooled on the high cliffs of Uluwatu and been recently bolstered by a new wave of emigres fleeing the Ukrainian invasion and sanctions. “Look, I have lots to be grateful for – they basically kept my restaurant open through the pandemic, but socially, it’s been a massive shift. Huge, bro. And when it gets really problematic is when it hits that two-to-four-foot range and just starts to steepen up a little more. There are people that can get out there but really shouldn’t be out there, and it’s causing a lot of problems. It’s fuckin’ dangerous, man.”
We bail outwards following the first proper swell of the season. Our path across islands is not crossed by many surfers. At all. No Aussies. Outside of Bali, younger children look at you in wonder again. Away from the Western epicentres, the void in crowds has been filled in a more local, or local-ish fashion. At Keramas in the east, and the breaks westward, the Balinese rule the roost. In West Sumbawa, a new crew from Lombok have arrived and started to play territorial. One guy aggressively faded me and got pretty shirty when I went round him, and he ate it. I told him I was sorry he’d decided to do that, but not sorry I’d gone. He paddled away, yapping ’til he ran out of puff. It was a vibe I hadn’t seen at that spot from locals, but he hadn’t been a local pre-pandemic. I’d surfed there a lot, and this guy was no one I’d seen before. I saw him the next day, sheepishly friendly, and we get to chatting. I joke that he’ll need that enthusiasm when the crowds really hit, and we laugh. He agrees.
My experience of localism anywhere would indicate that new locals are always unwilling to relinquish their rights to ‘their’ spot – no matter how recently or easily acquired. Two years of unfettered access to the best waves has accelerated local skill levels. Conversely, the return of travelling surfers who have previously laid some tenuous claim to lineups at which they’ve put in time will combine to add a new dimension of competition for wave resources across the archipelago.
For the most part though, crowds are still relatively mellow. I surf Yo-Yos on a clean day with just three guys, each on a different peak. With a tour event in town, every corner of the archipelago should, by rights, be smashed by an army of pros, photogs, filmers, aspirants, team groms, hangers on and gawkers, but for now a sense of calm prevails, like the low point in a swell before the next one hits, when you just know it’s gonna get packed. That feeling, usually confined to the close geography of a particular spot, seems to imbue the whole archipelago, as if by squinting beyond the horizon one can almost see thousands of boardbags being packed, faces huddled over screens and forecasts, hordes awaiting descent.
I struggle with this. Part of me wants to be here before it all, to savour that last gasp of the COVID pause, breathe the free air before the suffocation of normality, and another, unexpected part craves the familiarity of it being busy. I long for the comfort of the Indo I knew, with all its hustle and bustle, the hectic development, ungodly traffic, and the frothing crowds. I find the two longings hard to reconcile, and it’s this paradox that brings an uncertain vibe to this short trip.
It’s a polarity that must be familiar to those who have been here over the past two years, adjusting to a new reality and then the return to What Comes Next. The things that will be missed, the things that will be welcomed back. Perhaps this push/pull has created a stalemate that hold both Bali and its visitors gently apart, mired in place for a moment, frozen slightly in time.
It reminds me of a Kecak dance – many participants build the story, yet never actually connect in touch. Soon, like in Kecak, the dance will finish, the dancers now human again, their performative trance relaxed in cathartic glow, talking, laughing, eating, smoking, and reconnecting. The bules will jump onto scooters and into tour vans and lash boardbags to roofs and carry on doing bule things, and all will return to normal. But not just now, not just yet.