In Bali the motorcycles outnumber cars two, maybe three, to one. Dirt bikes, street bikes, crotch rockets, Harley’s and rice burners, Indians, Triumphs, and Vincents. The scooters are teeming and ubiquitous: I saw a Vespa all tricked-out with ape hangers, fat tires, and chopper forks—the Indonesian Easy Rider weaving beach traffic.
It was hard not to see kismet in all two-wheelers: My traveling buddy and I grew up riding motorcycles. Always his motorcycles. In tenth grade he had a CR-250R and a TRX-250X. We’d gas up Saturday mornings and head for the levee, follow it to the railroad and be in the next county before easing throttles. Jim was always better than me—at lots of stuff, but especially motorcycles. I can ride good. Jim’s a good rider. The way some guys are handy with their iron, the way a mason is with a trowel.
From the backseat of our cab in Bali, we couldn’t help but laugh at the river of bikes, a two-wheel current towing our four-wheel barge. Indonesians—the Balinese anyway—can flat-out ride. We weren’t yet to our hotel and saw a 120-pound girl half in the saddle of a Honda Shadow too big for her to put both feet down at a red light. She stood out-rigger right, her left flung over the seat, resting on the surfboard she was hauling in a DYI side rack. On green, her tan elbow dropped and she took off like a trick rider on a galloping horse. It was a nice surfboard, too: four-fin short, totally custom, which told me she could get tricky on the waves as well. Her bikini was not un-flattering.
We routinely saw two, three, four riders aboard one cycle. And we saw five: Dad up front ahold the handlebars, Mom back on the fender and sandwiching three bobble-headed toddlers in helmets. 20 KMH traffic, wheel-to-wheel. I just had to wave from behind the window as they passed. The kid in the middle kept hands on his brother’s waist but gave me a nod. All week, I had eyes out for six aboard. Seeing how deft pops was with five made me wonder what was possible. I myself never liked a rider. Passengers give a different balance to the bike and me anxiety for their safety. Jim rides two better than I do alone. The women I’ve seen on the back of his Fat Boy all seemed happily captive. Jim owns only one helmet. A woman’s that some different women have worn. They’re always lured by the chrome, but the chrome never keeps them. Jim seems genuinely stumped by it. I told him he might want to clean his house.
We were in Bali for a couple of reasons. The first was that we were on vacation. Jim works overseas for a giant multi-national that pays well for the work and for the austere conditions. It’s a strict Islamic country. No beer, bacon, or boobs, Jim says. Every 90 days he gets 14 in leave and a deposit in his travel account equal to the most expensive ticket available. Because we’ve known each other since ’83 and because it’s not always fun to travel alone, sometimes I go along. We’ve been to Costa Rica twice, Germany, Switzerland. We were headed to Spain this year for the running of the bulls, but Jim’s vacation started on the last day of San Fermin, so we pushed that idea to next year and the Bali idea blossomed like a lotus.
The other reason we were in Bali was I had read the break in Kuta offers perfect beginner waves much tamer than the famous expert waves that surround the island. I got on a surfboard for the first time eighteen months ago, in Jaco, Costa Rica. If you can do a burpee you can get on a surfboard. The hard part about surfing is knowing when to get on the surfboard. The wind, the reef, the tide, every wave being a discreet event—all these things are more-or-less intuited factors in the timing that make surfing, even bad surfing, a difficult and glorious tango with the planet. The more you know, the less you need goes the saying. Good waves break laterally and a good surfer rides the glassy unbroken face of the wave more or less parallel to shore. Bad surfers ride the white, broken water straight at the beach. This foamy perpendicular stuff is what I do, and when I say that I surf I say it without irony or shame. It’s totally aspirational. Surfing is about as much fun as you can have by yourself.
And I won’t lie, Kuta was also home to a Hard Rock Hotel and a Harley-Davidson dealership. It’s thought that Jim could wear a different Harley t-shirt every day for two months and not do laundry. A lot of times he doesn’t (do laundry) which is why his bachelor pad has, this is my theory, repelled potential mates. About the Hard Rock, I can’t really explain except Jim has an equally large collection of Hard Rock shot glasses from global ports of call. None of this is really my cup of tea—billboard tee shirts, shot glasses, collections, capitalism’s bric-a-brac—but putting up with it is cheap airfare. And really, the Hard Rock Hotel was not nearly as awful as I feared. I mean terribly kitschy in the Hard Rock way, but amusingly decadent too (two pools!), and when I left my wallet behind, the manager called me at our next hotel to report it safe in his keeping. This has not been my experience with hotels in the States.
Another redeeming quality: the Hard Rock is about a half click from that famous beginner’s break. We walked to the beach and surfed until we couldn’t lift our arms. It seemed I had gotten better since Jaco—magically so, having practiced exactly zero times in the year and a half between that trip and this one. Really it wasn’t me, it was the conditions: easier waves, all folding similarly (slightly left) in 3 meters of water over a soft sandy reef. I was still missing them early and missing them late, timing them perfectly and falling off anyway like the third-timer I was, but I was also catching ones here and there all by my self, no coach yelling paddle or now. And one time, very, very briefly I rode clean water to the left just ahead of the white lip chasing me. A real-life trailer for the major motion picture that frequents my dreams.
We took a cab to the Harley dealership. It was about what you’d expect, except we were in Bali so somehow better. Or not as bad. I love a big American motorcycle. I mean, who doesn’t? But Harley-Davidson the brand, the “lifestyle?” I roll my eyes. Motorcycles used to be all Brando and Lee Marvin in The Wild One. Now they’re a hobby of my dentist. About Jim’s Fat Boy: It was stolen off my front porch. Chrome mags, chrome swing arm, chrome mid-frame. There was more money in chrome on that bike than the bike cost stock. Brando should’ve been so lucky. But it was stolen on my watch. When I called Jim in the Middle East to tell him, he was naturally pissed. I hadn’t locked the forks. I almost never did because you need a RFID key fob to start the thing. The thieves were determined and resourceful. They must’ve had a lift truck or something. How else do you take 1200 pounds that isn’t yours and won’t start? I came to believe the bike was marked for reassignment, locked forks or not. This is the kind of guy Jim is: after a minute he laughed and said, long as we’ve been riding motorcycles, a stolen one was bound to figure in the story at some point. And he’s also like this: He laughed a little sharper and said since we always ride his, that figures too.
In Uluwatu, just up the coast from the floating temple, is the break at Padang Padang. To get to the beach one descends a hundred odd steps of twisted crevice in black volcanic rock, bending, craning, stopping to let people go the other way. The slot is so tight that short boards are easily bumped and scratched. Longs don’t fit, but that’s okay because it ain’t really long-board water. Padang Padang was just as thrilling to me as the Swiss Alps, or the hot springs in Costa Rica. I had goose flesh just watching those perfect tubes curl closed, spitting humans out their mouths. The surf was so strong, ankle biters were really knee cappers and the rhythm of the Indian Ocean filled my ears. The sun was hot, but delightful zephyrs blew in from the sea. The sky was faultless cobalt and I could smell coconut on all the sunbathers. I started to think maybe the saying should go: the more you learn, the less you want. I made a little pact with myself to try to come back and get in one of those tubes someday. Big picture, this is not likely to happen, I understand. But this too is surfing: I feel it draw me as strongly as the force that makes it possible.
The way back from Padang Padang took us past something else you never see in the US: a mosque next to a Catholic church next to a Buddhist temple next to a Hindu temple, all four sharing one big parking lot (filled with mostly motorcycles). Our cabbie confessed Hindu and his wife made a daily canang sari for his dashboard. These devotional shrine-trays were everywhere in Bali: in cars, on the ground, next to cash registers, atop vending machines. At the Hindu temple next to the Buddhist temple very old women sat in a circle and made canang sari from bales of palm leaves they tore into ribbons and wove together. Into these movable shrines good Hindus lay offerings to Vishnu, Brahma, and the like. Religion’s another product I don’t have time for, but there was something irresistible about the canang sari: so delicate and intentional. Uniform as snow, distinct as snowflakes. The cabby’s wife put plumeria blossoms in her devoyions—red at the bottom and yellow on the left, simple and lovely. In the many, many other canang sari I examined, I found: incense, U.S. coins, whole cigarettes, lozenges, life-savers, a condom, a joint (I think), seashells, a tollbooth receipt, what seemed to be a tooth, and something I could only guess was an acid tab. The devotions got me thinking about a cemetery near my house where people leave similar offerings on new graves: poems, candles, art, Zippo lighters. And they made me remember Saturday nights in high school, waiting in the car while Jim ducked into a short mass before we went out raising hell.
Speaking of raising hell, a beach town is a beach town the world over. Legian Street, the main drag in Kuta, is not much different from the Boardwalk in Atlantic City or Avenida Pastor Diaz in Jaco. By day, Legian bustles with souvenir trade that goes from quaint to noxious in about 3 minutes. At night, Legian is a thoroughfare of nightclubs and bars, dance venues with fog machines, bubble machines, towering DJ stands, and shifts of bikini girls dancing on platforms high above the crowd. The music is so loud, the bass so reverberate that all the songs make one long soundscape that people under 40 drink, smoke, swap saliva, and sometimes even dance to. People over 40 watch and fondly or otherwise remember youth. Late, late at night the storefronts of Legian Street are shuttered and dark. You pass men standing sentry at even darker alleys leading to the block’s sketchy interior. When you pass these men at their adits, they hiss at you: Sexy lady, sexy lady. Or ass, ass, ass. Or cocaine, cocaine. You might not be interested in these things. Doesn’t matter, you’re going to hear the sales pitch anyway. Yes presumably begins negotiations. No means maybe, and they follow you up the block commencing negotiations. Fuck off, gets merely a change in the offering and new negotiations. It’s simply relentless. This is how I found myself discussing the cost of a joint with a pimp or a drug dealer or something in front of the Night Club Super Complex Sky Garden. Sky Garden is just up from the street from Paddy’s Pub, site of the 2002 terrorist bombing. After I did my best to insult the dude’s flesh offering, he said, “You want some weed, then?”
I had to laugh. “How much for a bone?”
Kid gives me a blank look. “What you want, Boss. I got it.”
“A joint?” I make the smoking motion.
“I got it,” he says, pulling at least an ounce from his pocket.
I laughed even harder.
We tried to walk toward a cab stand. The kid walked backward without looking, so he could continue talking to us, dropping his price, changing the product, all but pleading. I noted that the cabs had all but vanished. It was so late it was early. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Hard Rock.
Kid goes, “Girls. Sexy girls. You look. You no like, ok.”
“You’re not listening, Champ. It’s not happening.”
“Cocaine. Good stuff. You can’t get this stuff.”
“Weed. You make a hundred joints.” Kid turns and walks with us.
“What am I gonna do with 100 joints?”
“Good times, Boss.”
“I told you. No.”
Kid stops. We keep moving. Kid says to our backs, “Viagra?”
I give a knee jerk no. And then it settles on me.
“HEY. NO!” I say adamantly as I’ve ever said it, Jim cackling with delight.
“C’mon, Boss. Don’t lie.”
Up the block we get more pitches. The last one goes girls, coke, hash. No. No. No. Then: Taxi? There’s not a car in sight. Kid’s riding a KTM 450, the same make that won the 2015 Supercross in Las Vegas this spring. He slaps the seat. I shrug my shoulders at Jim, who’s already throwing a leg over the fender. At the fountain in front of the Hard Rock I pay the driver.
“Tip ‘im,” Jim says. “He rides better than you.”