Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A small glimpse of paradise

The problem with traveling for work is that you have to work.

There’s not a lot of time to explore the exotic location you’ve logged dozens of hours to get to. You’re not there for a vacation. You’re there to work.

Anyone who thinks traveling for work is glamourous and exciting obviously hasn’t flown economy class across the ocean sitting beside a screaming baby the entire way.

The only advantage to being on the road is that someone else makes your bed, cooks your food and cleans your bathroom.

Having spent two and a half weeks in Bali for work, I can tell you absolutely nothing about this pretty Indonesian island. Well, almost nothing. I could write the Lonely Planet guide to the Bali International Convention Centre (now that would be a riveting read).

Still, it would have been impossible not to absorb a little bit of the local culture. Like the way Bali smells, for example.

There’s a delicious fragrance that hangs in the air thanks to the flowering trees that dominate the landscape.

I wish I could describe how amazing these flowers smell. They’re not overpowering or sickly sweet. They just smell tropical and lush and clean.

The smell of burning incense adds to the olfactory orgasm. There are tiny shrines and offerings to the gods in every nook and cranny. Almost every offering has fresh flowers, bits of food and a stick of incense. Each one is a work of art.

The people are, for the most part, absolutely lovely. I got lots of smiles and hellos everywhere I went. The cab drivers went out of their way to chat with me and were especially interested in my non-existent love life.

Coming back to the hotel late at night meant I got to see lots of cute little geckos and frogs running around outside. (Although, I wasn’t quite as enamored with the cat-sized lizard waiting for me on the wall outside my hotel room.)

I was lucky enough to have three days of vacation after the conference ended and I spent most of my time with a couple of Canadian journalists who were also sticking around for a few days.

The three of us rented a car and got out into the beautiful, green countryside for a day.

Of course, I also saw the not-so-beautiful side of Bali. The conference centre was close to Kuta Beach, which is one of the ugliest, most congested, crowded, noisy hellholes I’ve ever seen. (Kuta was the site of the 2002 terrorist bombings.)

The place caters to cheap, boozing hordes of tourists. The streets are lined with sleazy nightclubs, fast food chains and car traffic so heavy it barely moves. The beach is packed with wall-to-wall tourists and aggressive touts looking to make a quick buck.

I felt like a walking dollar sign in Kuta. It was impossible to move two feet without someone offering their services for a massage or personal transport. Or without someone calling you over to buy cheap, mass-produced crap.

The southern part of Bali is not pedestrian friendly. The roads are heavily congested and the driving conditions are harrowing. Going for a walk means taking your life in your hands. The sidewalks (if there are sidewalks at all) are rarely wider than two feet across. Walking also means you have to contend with packs of hungry, barking dogs.

And if the traffic isn’t enough to drive you crazy, the mosquitoes surely will. There are lots and lots of mosquitoes in Bali (I am actually typing this with one hand and scratching with the other).

Anyway, this isn’t meant to encompass the island as a whole. I only saw a small part of Bali and I was there for work, not fun.

I could have stayed in Bali for a few weeks after the conference ended. But I cut my holidays short so that I could spend Christmas in Toronto. Yes, snow and slush won out over surf and sand.

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