The face of the young Balinese Customs Officer lifted as he made eye contact over the counter, his grin widening as he repeated his question. “Where is your friend?” he asked me, looking expectantly at the line forming for the checkpoint to my left. I matched his smile and, although I knew that he meant boyfriend and might not necessarily comprehend my answer, I replied in mock exasperation that I didn’t have a friend; not a friend in the world. He laughed appreciatively, handed my passport back and I continued on to the post-baggage claim x-ray. In complete contrast to the austerity of the official olive-green government uniforms, the men wearing them might as well have been hanging out on the boardwalk with a large Bintang in hand-a situation much better suited to their easy demeanor and casual body language. As each of my worldly belongings made their way through the x-ray on a slow moving belt, I stepped through the metal detector and was immediately met with another disarming smile. Again, the whereabouts of my lover were inquired upon. This time I responded simply that I didn’t have a boyfriend, amused at the fascination with the subject. A look of temporary frustration crossed over the Officer’s face as he looked around the room. I followed his gaze as he landed on a tall, blonde Westerner who appeared to be traveling alone. He quickly looked back to me, triumphant in his conclusion. “This is your boyfriend!!” he confidently exclaimed, pointing to the unsuspecting man. I laughed again as I heaved my backpack up over my shoulders, shaking my head slowly as I walked away through the sliding doors and into the night, alight with a smile that would rarely leave my face for the next month.
I loved Bali immediately. The humidity that enveloped me within seconds was a welcome change from the windy chill of the winter that I had left in Sydney. The sticky, thick air was an intoxicating mix of incense, gasoline, tropical flora, and burning fields. My taksi driver barely spoke two words of English and drove like a mad man, weaving in and out of trucks and the dozens of mopeds and motorcycles that filled the left hand lane of traffic. He honked once, lightly, to signal that he was coming up behind someone. He honked twice, harder, to let someone know that they were getting a little too close. In the next few days, I would learn that if someone honked as they were driving up behind you, it wasn’t to tell you to move out of the way as we would assume as Westerners; it was to ask if you were in need of transportation. I had only ever witnessed this road lingo once before, in the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, and I couldn’t help but embrace the organized chaos that it represented. My mom once told me that I lived my life like that-in organized chaos-so perhaps I naturally spoke the language.
After searching some back streets, my driver finally dropped me off at the Big Pineapple, a guest house located in Sanur, about a 20 minute drive from the airport in Denpasar. Over the next few weeks, the Big Pineapple would serve as a home base of sorts. It was the place where, after spurts of exploring, we would come back to for a night or two to regain our composure and plan the next adventure. Mia, the woman who ran the place, spoke English well and was a source of information and assistance who was always quick to welcome you back and never surprised that you had returned. When I first walked in to Big Pineapple, there was a group of people gathered in one of the open rooms next to the pool watching a movie. They barely glanced up as I checked in and made my way up to the air conditioned dorm room that I had been assigned. Hungry and alive with the energy of being somewhere new, I claimed my top bunk bed and quickly set out by myself into the dark maze of streets in search of food. There is one thing that I strongly suspected-but wasn’t entirely sure of-before I started this trip that is now a proven fact: I prefer traveling alone. I like the disarming vulnerability that I feel, the adrenaline of knowing that I alone control my path, experiences, triumphs, failures, and their effect on my journey. I like that when I am alone, people smile easier, accept faster, and open themselves up more to me-and perhaps I to them. There is a certain fantastic challenge in successfully navigating the unknown alone; I’ve always liked challenges. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that most of us will be lucky enough to eventually run into that one person who fits into our own personal ideas of life, philosophies, and style of travel as easily and inconspicuously as a shadow fits to a body, but despite the best efforts of Balinese Customs, I didn’t expect my number to be drawn anytime soon.
It was late, and after walking around for thirty minutes or so, I ended up at one of the only restaurants next to the beach that was still open. I ordered soup and a small Bintang, and asked the friendly waiter to write out how to say “thank you” in Balinese on one of my napkins. This was a Western place and while the food wasn’t anything great, I still savored the warm liquid as it made its way down my throat, quickly following it with the soothing cool of the pale lager. On one of his routine passes by my table, the waiter conversationally asked where I was staying. Although I had liked him immediately, I was still wary to divulge too much information; my parent’s warnings about the risks of traveling alone as a female replaying themselves in the back of my mind. I answered vaguely in the hopes of deterring his questioning but he persisted, his eyes slightly concerned. After a minute or so more, he dragged the name of the guest house out of me, and quickly insisted that I not walk back by myself and that I should instead wait five minutes for him to finish his shift so that he could drive me back on his motorbike. I reluctantly agreed, appreciative of his kindness, but quickly tuned in to my intuition. Even after searching I could detect no internal warnings, so a couple of minutes later I followed him to the employee parking lot, climbed on to the back of his motorbike, and slowly relayed directions to him as he made his way down the nearly deserted streets towards the Big Pineapple. As I climbed off of his bike in front of the gate, I extended a genuine smile and a heartfelt thanks in the words that he himself had taught me not twenty minutes before: “Mah Kasih!”