It was a Friday at the start of Autumn. Besides a few excited text messages between Maeve and I, it felt like any other Friday. We were working hard, me at my home desk, Maeve in the hospital a mile to the east. I rushed to get my work finished but it was never going to happen. I just did what I thought would be enough and cleared my desk at lunchtime. I made one lap around my bedroom, stuffing clothes and travel accessories into my rucksack before rushing out the door to meet Maeve by the bus station.
The bus narrowly avoided collision with a mobile home but otherwise rolled into Dublin airport with inevitable ease. As we checked-in and ordered a glass of cheap bubbly in Departures it still wasn’t close to sinking in. We were adventurers again, we were free and moving, we just couldn’t quite believe it.
We found a clean room with a comfortable bed and en suite with a hot shower only 20 metres down the road and woke to the alarm for a half-day’s exploring of Malaysia’s principal city. We followed our noses around town, stopping for a bowl of soup noodles on the way but not seeing all that much. Before the train to the airport we got some juice at a bar that was populated by the world’s most unimposing gang of punks, all teenage and awkward, trying their hands at mohawks and band T-shirts. An older lad, maybe just in his twenties, pulled up on a scooter and joined the group. Moments later there were three smacking sounds in quick succession and the girl beside him fell to the floor moaning pathetically. He had punched her in the head. He backed off. We looked around to judge the crowd’s reaction. It would be a tough group to break up. There was no reaction, they just acted like nothing was happening. It was sickening. She rolled onto her side and lifted her head, crying. He stepped forward and kicked her in the chin like a penalty shot and she went down again. I had this strange sense of disgust that this would be my memory of KL, mixed with the self-hate of not intervening. But it felt like someone else’s fight, like something that happened often.
A three-hour flight and more than that again of waiting in airports, then we were in a taxi riding fast on a week-old freeway through the tropical night on Bali’s east coast. We pulled up in a sleepy fishing town, all fast asleep at midnight. At one end of town, sitting at a bar by the roadside were our old friends Nigel and Etsuko, waiting with fresh beers. The young local behind the bar began strumming his guitar. A friend beside him called to us, “welcome to Padang Bai!”, as the barman began to sing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”.
They led us to our room. I had hoped it would have a bed that wasn’t as hard as a board but otherwise anything would suit. But they had done so much more for us than that. It was a two-storey tiled hut, with a veranda on each level, a bathroom with a huge shower on the ground floor and a bedroom above. The bed had two western-style mattresses piled on top of each other and a gorgeous cotton mosquito net draped over it. Bliss, paradise, arrival.
The huts stood on either side of a narrow avenue filled by a line of frangipani trees, and manicured by stonework and cages occupied by pretty birds. We woke to the sounds of water fountains, birdsong, and a smiling attendant asking for our breakfast order. That disbelief, back in Belfast two days before, was melting in the blinding tropical sun.
Padang Bai is a peaceful sliver of fishing town with a few bars and some pretty resorts of “bungalows” – shacks with steep palm thatch roofs and wooden verandas. The town is stretched along a wide curving beach with tree-topped headlands at either end forming a natural harbour. In the centre, reaching most of the way between the headlands in a straight line, is a reef, demarcated by a line of white breakers. Slumped over the reef was a grounded ship, a huge steel digging vessel that had hit the reef just aft of amidships and buckled over it. They had tried everything to free it from the rocks but the locals said that the demons under the ground had been disturbed and as long as they chose to hold that ship by their hair, no human would move her.
We hired scooters and engaged in a search for White Sands beach, one of those places that was only “discovered” about five years ago but now has a couple of semi-permanent restaurants and the beginnings of resort complexes overlooking it. We rode our bikes into one of the complexes, across a concrete floor that fell away to a stagnant pool area. It was covered in graffiti and the wires hung from the ceiling. In a few years’ time it will probably be a luxury destination for rich westerners seeking the full-service version of the postcard paradise.
“Errr, not really.”
“OK, you come to my village.”
We followed the old ritual of avoiding consent without being rude and, by glacial degrees, completed the report. I did most of the typing for him. Day One and my cash was gone, ho hum. When official business was done, I put it out of my mind.
Both days in Padang Bai we played in the waves, rode around on scooters and drank with the locals until the small hours. On the last evening we motored away from the beach in search of a high place from which to watch the sunset, one of our travelling traditions. Leading the convoy, I turned onto a track that served a smallholding on a hillside. We pulled over at the top and sat on a religious monument as the sun fell on the central Balinese highlands to our backs. Below us, a lush valley ran down to the sea, surrounded by steep hills and capped by a streak of cloud that slowly glowed redder in the dying light. A local mother stopped by us and stared, with her baby in her arms and two young siblings darting about her feet. We exchanged hellos. Some more children appeared, then more, and some adult men too. We all communicated in scattered words. One of the women gave us a pair of coconuts, better than I’ve ever tasted. Finally, the grandmother stood from her squatting pose and walked over, glaring balefully at us foreigners. She sat amongst us and taught us how to prise the coconuts for their soft flesh. She held the glare but punctuated it with glints of a cheeky, knowing nature, then made us laugh repeatedly with a charming humour. Grandma was clearly a big softy. Such are the moments that cannot be planned, they just happen if you chose to drive pointlessly in the wrong direction and throw yourself into an unknown world. They are what we go away for.