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From Canberra to Jakarta to Bali: a stranger in a strangely unfamiliar land

Sydney Morning Herald - January 26, 2019

James Massola, Jakarta – Australia's very particular and peculiar love affair with the Indonesian island of Bali is well-established, to the point where some even joke the island could be our seventh state. (Sorry New Zealand, but this story ain't about you.)

Bali can be a crazy rite of passage for some Australians, a luxury escape for others, while for some it will be about as exotic and foreign as they will ever get in an overseas trip.

But on a recent visit with my young family to Bali's beach side suburb of Seminyak, for a week of post-Christmas rest and relaxation, I was struck by just how different Bali seemed when arriving from Jakarta, rather than Canberra (my most recent home in Australia).

Like so many Aussies, I had visited Bali a couple of times before moving to Indonesia in March last 2018 and loved it.

Since moving to Jakarta, I'd been to Bali many times for work – to do everything from visiting jails to attending global conferences – but visiting as a tourist again was something else.

The first thing I noticed on arriving in Denpasar this time was how clean the air was. The stars and moon were visible at night and I'd missed them, without realising it.

Jakarta is a seriously polluted city, and its AQI (Air Quality Index) score regularly rises past 100 (considered "unhealthy for sensitive groups") and remains above 150 (considered "unhealthy" for everyone) for days at a time. We keep our three kids under three inside to avoid the worst of it, but they still have regular sniffles.

But the AQI measure for Bali usually hovers around 50 or a little lower, which is considered "good".

It's not something the average Aussie visiting from Sydney, Melbourne, or any other city would notice (all of Australia's major cities generally have AQIs lower than Bali, well below 50) but it was immediately apparent that I could breath a little easier.

Stepping out of the domestic terminal to hunt down a Bluebird taxi (no mean feat at an airport where a near-cartel of private hire cars dominate), the relatively high prices came as a shock.

In Jakarta, a taxi from my home to my office costs around 50,000 Rupiah ($5) for a 5-kilometre trip and there is no negotiation. You get in, the metre is switched on, and away you go – like in any big city.

In Denpasar, touts were offering rides (and tours, boat rides, accommodation and more) for between 200,000 and 300,000 Rupiah ($20-$30) for a five-kilometre trip to our hotel.

Even most proper taxi drivers would seek to negotiate a relatively exorbitant price and keep the metre switched off.

It was a reminder (much like the street vendors that dot the major roads of Bali) that foreign tourism is far and away the lifeblood of the Balinese economy and that any bule (caucasian) is considered fair game.

And the traffic? Practically non-existent, compared to car-filled Jakarta.

Of course, relatively speaking, the taxis are incredibly cheap in Bali compared to Australia – whether you are being taken for a ride or not.

The people you are negotiating with earn wages that are orders of magnitude less than the average wage in Australia – the minimum wage in Jakarta is set at around 3.2 million Rupiah per month ($320), and it is lower elsewhere – so a bit of magnanimity goes a long way.

The prevalence of English-speaking locals hit me, too – it wasn't something I'd noticed previously – and it underscored just how focused the Balinese economy is on tourism.

Equally, my (admittedly poor) efforts to practice my Bahasa Indonesian shocked locals, who were even more amazed that I lived and worked in Jakarta and that a bule had been somewhere in Indonesia other than Bali.

Then there was the creature comforts. The average Aussie enjoying a week in Bali would probably think nothing of enjoying the myriad pubs, bars retailing elaborate cocktails, cafes and fine dining restaurants dotted all over Denpasar.

It's not that these things aren't available in Jakarta – the city is home to some superb restaurants – but the contrast was stark.

In a similar vein, after nearly a year of mostly eating "beef bacon", "turkey bacon" and "chicken bacon" (curse them all), I took full advantage of being able to easily order pork again.

The final thing that struck me was how few mosques there are. Hinduism is the dominant religion in Bali – about 80 per cent of Balinese are Hindu – unlike the rest of majority-Muslim Indonesia, so in a sense this is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious.

What I hadn't counted on was how accustomed I had become to hearing the call to prayer ring out across Jakarta – and in the other parts of Indonesia I've visited – five times a day, and how much I had noticed its absence. It had become the backdrop to my day.

Our week in Bali was over in the blink of an eye. And more than anything else, I came away from it with one major realisation.

Jakarta, for all its faults, now feels like home. In the space of a little less than a year, it has totally reshaped my understanding of Indonesia and its people, and my expectation of what is "normal".

Bali felt more like a foreign country – different to Australia, and to Indonesia – than it did on my first visit, five years ago.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/from-canberra-to-jakarta-to-bali-a-stranger-in-a-strangely-unfamiliar-land-20190117-p50rzb.html