Bali Is For Lovers

Bali Is For Lovers

Nearly a year after terrorists’ bombs put Bali at the top of the U.S. State Department’s travel-warning Web site, Bali awaits its fate.

by Joel Patterson

At eleven o’clock at night on October 12, 2002, religious extremists detonated bombs in two of Bali’s most-famous night spots. It was a hot Saturday night, and Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club were packed with young people dancing, drinking, hanging out with friends. When the bombs went off, the explosions were so powerful, they broke nearly every window in a half-mile radius. According to eye witnesses, the blast ripped the shirts off people’s backs, and the streets were strewn with body parts. Two-hundred-and-two people from 23 countries died that night, and over 350 were injured. Terrorism had come to the least-likely place imaginable, and the following morning the shops, hotels, and restaurants that for decades had bustled with chaotic energy sat empty and quiet.

Overnight, Bali went from being a destination people dream of to the most frequently mentioned location on travel-warning Web sites. Since its “discovery” 30 or so years ago by Australians, Japanese, and Americans looking for an unspoiled paradise off the beaten path, Bali had become one of the world’s premier tourist destinations. Because it provided a cheap, friendly, and somewhat lawless (e.g., hallucinogenic mushroom shakes and “special” massages) vacation, it quickly became the exotic destination of choice for young travelers.

For surfers, it became a mecca.

When Gerry Lopez and Peter McCabe pioneered Bali’s myriad world-class waves in the 1970s, the Bukit Peninsula became known as heaven for goofy-foot surfers. Movies like Morning Of The Earth and Bali High carried the images of the small island’s potential to surfers around the world, and by the early 80s, point breaks like Uluwatu, Bingin, and the legendary Padang-Padang had become synonymous with left-handed perfection. Crowds steadily grew year after year.

But surfing wasn’t all Bali had to offer. With its picturesque palm-fringed black-sand beaches, ancient Hindu temples, great food, endless sunshine, accessible diving and snorkeling, and toothy smiles, Bali had something for everyone. And the people came. Eventually the runway at Denpasar’s airport was widened and lengthened to accommodate larger and larger jets, and direct flights from Australia, China, and Japan became abundant and available, opening the doors to travelers who wanted a tropical vacation but didn’t want to island hop on twin-engine prop planes. It was on.

The island’s economy—which for centuries had relied on the farming of rice, sweet potatoes, and sugar—swiftly shifted from agriculture to tourism. People left the fields in droves and relocated to the maze of streets, small hotels, restaurants, and shops in and around Kuta Beach, the epicenter of Bali’s tourism boom.

By the early 1990s, the population’s shift toward the coast and the influence of a steady stream of traveling surfers created Bali’s first generation of homegrown surf talent, which featured a gifted young Balinese named Rizal Tanjung. Although he wasn’t the first Balinese surfer to pick up a board and excel, he was the first to become a traveling, well-rounded professional. Rizal’s time in the lineups of Padang and Ulu made him a natural at Pipeline, and his familiarity with wedging beachbreaks like Canggu meant California, Japan, and Europe were similarly easy to adapt to.

As Rizal gained experience and respect, he found himself in a unique position to open doors of opportunity for the next generation of Balinese surf stars. With his help, young surfers like Wayan “Betet” Merta, Made “Bol” Adi Putra, Tipi Jabrik, and Pepen Hendrix found sponsorships with surfing’s most established brands and gradually made their way into surf magazines and videos around the world. Anthey, in turn, paved the way for the next wave of Balinese talent. Marlon Gerber, Dede Suryana, Dedi Gonzales, and Garut Widiarta are just a few of the current twenty-and-under crowd who prove the notion that surf-talent-wise, little Bali is Asia’s superpower.

Nine months after the bombs rocked Kuta, the locals are worried … and for good reason. Bali’s tourism industry is still reeling. Most hotels are at less than 40-percent capacity, restaurants sit empty on Friday nights, and the normally relaxed smiling population speak nervously of the future of their businesses, their families, their island. Willing to risk it for the points of the Bukit, vacationing surfers have disregarded official warnings and news reports of a politically unstable Indonesia and returned in force. But while the lineups might again be clogged with Japanese and Aussie surfers hoping to spend some time in the tube, the rest of the world has yet to forget the sights and stories of October 12. Add to that recent outbreaks of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China (half the flights to Bali connect through Taipei, Taiwan), and you have the formula for a tourism meltdown.

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In late May I traveled to Bali. At less than 800 dollars round trip, my flight from L.A. was dirt cheap (until the Bali bombings, flights from the States averaged around 1,600 dollars)—one of the few positive effects of the bombing. I connected through Taipei, where every airport employee wore a surgical mask to protect them from SARS, and on my connecting flight I read articles from The Economist and The New Yorker about terrorist trainging camps in Indonesia and the rising violence among certain Hindu sects in India and other parts of Western Asia. I was prepared for the worst.

Then a funny thing happened. I got off the plane, the sun was shining, people smiled at me, the Bukit was four to six foot, and the food was better than back home. I spent time with our Bali-based photographer Dustin Humphrey and his girlfriend Mira. We had dinners at their home in Nusa Dua, which was hosting traveling surfers Keith Malloy, Mike Todd, Ben Bourgeois, and Mike Losness. Dave Emge was staying there for a month to film for the new Poor Specimen film. Bali appeared alive and beautiful, like in the old films.

Rizal is ordering lunch. He’s standing in front of a glass case full of freshly cooked Indonesian food in a suburb of Kuta, near where he grew up. He points at curried potatoes with onions and peppers, skewers of chicken and beef satay, boiled spinach, and tempeh with peanuts. He commands the crew behind the counter in authoritative-sounding bursts of Indonesian, and they move quickly, filling green banana leaves with mounds of steaming food, then in one final indecipherable motion, they wrap them in brown paper to be taken away. Recently married and now with a newborn baby boy at home, Rizal’s ordering for three and coordinating the process via a small Nokia mobile phone with his wife Chandra at home in a high-end neighborhood 40 minutes away on the Bukit Peninsula.

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Rizal Tanjung is the monarch of Bali’s surf royalty, and he looks the part. At six foot two, he’s substantially taller than the average Balinese, and his soft, round features, smooth skin, and straight black hair hint at the Chinese in his family’s lineage. So does his sense for business. Not only is Rizal the most recognizable Asian surfer alive (in Japan, where he’s occasionally referred to as “the Kelly Slater of Asia,” he’s treated like a superstar), he’s also become a prolific entrepreneur. At only 28 years old, he owns a handful of small-but-successful businesses, including a surfboard company (Kurawa), a line of clothing (Rizt), and the rights to sell and distribute Gravis shoes in Indonesia. Add to that being constantly photographed by Japanese tourists and waking up several times a night to tend to his six-week-old son Verun, and you wonder how he finds the time to get in the water. But he does, and with over a decade of experience as a pro surfer and world traveler, Rizal is just hitting his stride.

“The chicken is so fresh here,” he tells me. “It’s not like in America or Europe, where they inject them with so many chemicals that the meat becomes chewy and tasteless.” Rizal has eaten chicken all over the world. He’s spent whole summers in California surfing WQS contests and filming for Taylor Steele movies, in which he’s become a regular. In Japan, where Balinese surfers appear frequently in magazines and videos (so frequently, in fact, that most of the professional surfers from Bali speak Japanese as well as they speak Indonesian), he’s regularly mobbed for his autograph. But Bali is his home, and a day or so ago, he’d flashed a relieved smile when he mentioned that his days chasing the World Qualifying Series around the globe are over: “So many years I spent June and July in California, surfing small waves in onshore wind, knowing that back as home Padang was breaking. No more.”

In December of 2002, without one minute of practice, Rizal made the finals of the trials for the Pipeline Masters, easily dispatching over 100 of the world’s best Pipe surfers. As a kid, he spent a lot of time surfing with Gerry Lopez and other world-class tube riders, but where Rizal has found success in surfing is in his well-roundedness. He attributes this in large part to Bali, where there are just as many fast, wedging beachbreaks as there are world-famous barrels. “The guys back then just wanted to get barreled, so that’s what they did,” he says about Lopez and fellow Bali surf pioneer Peter McCabe. “But now, when it’s smaller, we go surf high-performance waves, do turns, boost airs. Bali has everything.”

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As with all Balinese, last October’s bombings have effected Rizal’s livelihood. On a car ride a few days earlier, Rizal told me about the Kuta Beach he remembered from his childhood, with farms, dirt roads, and a slower tempo. Something in his voice hinted of regret that so many of his fellow islanders had left the fields for the tourism industry. Good businessmen understand that the strongest economies are built on foundations of economic diversity. The bombing, SARS, and warnings about travel in Indonesia have the island’s tourism-focused economy on the ropes.

On June 12, 2003 the U.S. Department of State posted the following warning on their Web site: “Bali, Indonesia, was the scene of a major terrorist attack in October 2002, and the potential remains for violence and terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests … The terrorist attack in Bali, which took place in an area with a large number of foreign tourists, clearly indicates that a security threat extends to private American citizens … As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists will seek softer targets. These may include facilities where Americans and Westerners are known to live, congregate, shop, or visit.”

With far fewer tourists on the island than a year ago, Rizal has seen a downturn in the surfboard business, and Rizt, which originally did tops and bottoms, has been scaled back to a popular T-shirt line. But Bali’s tough economic times haven’t slowed its production of young surf talent, an area Rizal has been instrumental in developing. To put it simply, if you’re a sponsored surfer from Bali, odds are Rizal has had something to do with your success. And with the island’s lineups showcasing homegrown talent more and more each year, a silver lining shows around the dark clouds of Bali’s foreseeable economic future.

We leave the little restaurant with our grapefruit-size packages of food in black-and-white-striped plastic bags and step out into the oppressive sunshine of midday Bali in the “dry” season. Rizal walks around to the driver’s side of his luxurious new Hyundai SUV, and before opening his door, winks and says, “I can’t wait to get home anhe time to get in the water. But he does, and with over a decade of experience as a pro surfer and world traveler, Rizal is just hitting his stride.

“The chicken is so fresh here,” he tells me. “It’s not like in America or Europe, where they inject them with so many chemicals that the meat becomes chewy and tasteless.” Rizal has eaten chicken all over the world. He’s spent whole summers in California surfing WQS contests and filming for Taylor Steele movies, in which he’s become a regular. In Japan, where Balinese surfers appear frequently in magazines and videos (so frequently, in fact, that most of the professional surfers from Bali speak Japanese as well as they speak Indonesian), he’s regularly mobbed for his autograph. But Bali is his home, and a day or so ago, he’d flashed a relieved smile when he mentioned that his days chasing the World Qualifying Series around the globe are over: “So many years I spent June and July in California, surfing small waves in onshore wind, knowing that back as home Padang was breaking. No more.”

In December of 2002, without one minute of practice, Rizal made the finals of the trials for the Pipeline Masters, easily dispatching over 100 of the world’s best Pipe surfers. As a kid, he spent a lot of time surfing with Gerry Lopez and other world-class tube riders, but where Rizal has found success in surfing is in his well-roundedness. He attributes this in large part to Bali, where there are just as many fast, wedging beachbreaks as there are world-famous barrels. “The guys back then just wanted to get barreled, so that’s what they did,” he says about Lopez and fellow Bali surf pioneer Peter McCabe. “But now, when it’s smaller, we go surf high-performance waves, do turns, boost airs. Bali has everything.”

[IMAGE 3]

As with all Balinese, last October’s bombings have effected Rizal’s livelihood. On a car ride a few days earlier, Rizal told me about the Kuta Beach he remembered from his childhood, with farms, dirt roads, and a slower tempo. Something in his voice hinted of regret that so many of his fellow islanders had left the fields for the tourism industry. Good businessmen understand that the strongest economies are built on foundations of economic diversity. The bombing, SARS, and warnings about travel in Indonesia have the island’s tourism-focused economy on the ropes.

On June 12, 2003 the U.S. Department of State posted the following warning on their Web site: “Bali, Indonesia, was the scene of a major terrorist attack in October 2002, and the potential remains for violence and terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests … The terrorist attack in Bali, which took place in an area with a large number of foreign tourists, clearly indicates that a security threat extends to private American citizens … As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists will seek softer targets. These may include facilities where Americans and Westerners are known to live, congregate, shop, or visit.”

With far fewer tourists on the island than a year ago, Rizal has seen a downturn in the surfboard business, and Rizt, which originally did tops and bottoms, has been scaled back to a popular T-shirt line. But Bali’s tough economic times haven’t slowed its production of young surf talent, an area Rizal has been instrumental in developing. To put it simply, if you’re a sponsored surfer from Bali, odds are Rizal has had something to do with your success. And with the island’s lineups showcasing homegrown talent more and more each year, a silver lining shows around the dark clouds of Bali’s foreseeable economic future.

We leave the little restaurant with our grapefruit-size packages of food in black-and-white-striped plastic bags and step out into the oppressive sunshine of midday Bali in the “dry” season. Rizal walks around to the driver’s side of his luxurious new Hyundai SUV, and before opening his door, winks and says, “I can’t wait to get home and eat.”

Betet Merta and I are stuck in a Balinese traffic jam. Hundreds of commuters on motorbikes weave in and out of the stopped cars in a pattern that’s as chaotic as it is mesmerizing. They honk and weave but somehow never collide. As we wait, Betet tells me his Bali bombing story.

He had surfed all day with Jay Larson—who was visiting Bali on his honeymoon—and was so tired he’d passed out on his bed. His girlfriend Yumi had given up on trying to rally him to go out and was reading quietly. While Betet tells his story, the smile that’s almost always spread from ear to ear is replaced by a dark expression that fits the seriousness of the incident he’s describing.

He was in Kuta, less than a mile from Paddy’s and the Sari Club when the bomb exploded. The shock waves the bomb created threw the door to Betet’s room open. Confused about what just happened, he and Yumi went out to Legian Street (Kuta’s popular main thoroughfare) and watched the fronts of the shops and restaurants glow red in the light of the fires ignited by the explosions. People were walking away from the site bloodied and disoriented.

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In his book Three Weeks In Bali, ABC journalist Alan Atkinson (who was on vacation with his family in Bali on the night of October 12) describes the destruction just hours after the explosions: “As I get closer, the damage to nearby buildings is much more serious. Roofs have been cleared of tiles, window frames buckled, walls damaged … In the chaos and confusion I haven’t taken in the whole scene or noticed what some rescue workers are doing. I see that two by two they’re carrying stretchers bearing bodies covered in white sheets out of the rubble … Some are whole bodies, some are not. The crowd parts to my left and I can see down a side street beside the severely damaged building next to what is left of the Sari Club. Bundles are laid along there too … Not all have been wrapped carefully. I can see a black stump sticking out of one, part of a blackened skull in another. Then I notice dried blood on the ground beneath our feet.”

Three days after the bombing, on October 15, 2002, BBC reporter Richard Gallpin also described the site. “The scale of the destruction was hard to take in,” wrote Gallpin. “The Sari nightclub which had taken the brunt of the blast was no longer there. Instead there was a gaping hole in the street. Piles of rubble, scorched and twisted metal, and charred wood were all that remained. A large crater in the road, now filled with water, marked the spot where the bomb had detonated on Saturday night.”

Betet didn’t venture down to the site of the explosion, but recalls that on Sunday, Kuta was like a ghost town. “The next day everyone was gone,” he says. “It so weird to see Kuta with no tourists. So weird.”

Betet then goes on to repeat the line that nearly every Balinese surfer you talk to shakes his head and says when a foreigner asks him about the bombing: “I’m just glad it didn’t happen one hour later.” In Bali, none of the local surfers go out before eleven. That’s usually when most are waking up from their post-dinner pre-party nap.

At five foot six and no more than 130 pounds, Betet is smaller than everyone. His loose curls hang out from under his hat and a huge silver wrist watch clanks around on his wrist. I tell him he’s the spitting image of Eazy-E, but even after two minutes of reciting NWA lyrics in hopes of jogging his memory, he still has no idea who I’m talking about. Betet’s English is broken and heavily influenced by 50 Cent and radio rap, and his friends joke that because he dropped out of school before he reached his teens, he can’t even read the text messages they send his mobile phone. And they all make that look when they lovingly complain about him—eyes just closed, head wagging from side to side. Betet is everyone’s little brother. Everyone has ten stories about him, each one funnier than the one before it.

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