The Fernweh-farer: The Happy Hustle

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Sure, Bali is zen. Yoga and meditation are abundant. But Bali also does not run short on contradiction. Beneath the quietude is an undercurrent of hustle and let’s make a deal. The place and people are hard work personified. Because tourism lays such a foundation for many, there is a noticeable binary pull between the Bali that locals love and wish to portray, and the forces that compete for the recent influx of tranquility seekers and, with them, a steep rise in foreign dollars ready to secure paradise.

I am one of these interloping seekers. Making the pilgrimage to an island that has reached the layperson’s grasp, and achieved awareness as a result of pop culture and the golden age of travel. Hawaii was the island dream of thirty years ago. Bali is the nirvana of the past decade.

A truly unbeatable villa view

Along with the surging popularity for travelers, the Balinese people are smart to recognize the impact the nomadic footprint has on their way of life and, damn straight, they are determined to get what they can in return - and I fell for their intuitive entrepreneurship. This trip was really about the people of Bali.

The Indonesian province is already a highly affordable destination for travelers, and can serve as a budget-friendly location for the bargain hunting wanderer - even one unflinchingly unwilling to sacrifice first-class amenities. However, one willing to put in a little extra legwork by flexing negotiation skills, will both save some coin and also take away meaningful interactions with ever-smiling locals. To re-emphasize, even for those shy to haggle, Bali is still a bargain destination for most Westerners.

Motorscooters offer brief quietude interludes

At most markets and street stalls, there are no signs for prices so a few back-and-forth bouts of “make me an offer” are the accepted, and expected, method of transacting. However, keep a big picture in perspective and do not unceremoniously haggle over 10,000 Rupiah for that bunch of mangosteen. That farmer’s livelihood relies on the sandal and shorts crowd to put food on their table in return. Hardly warrants walking away from a deal for what amounts to ~$.70 USD.

Few moments passed upon arrival before one’s skills are put into practice. In practical application, one finds that grade school summers tucking into Price Is Right over a bowl of cereal served you better than secondary advanced mathematics courses. Resist overconfidence though, street smarts win the day here and the majority you encounter possess the advantage.

Upon stepping foot outside Ngurah Rai International, two things immediately take you aback: the speed with which your sunglasses cloud over in the stifling humidity and the speed with which taxi drivers ascend on anyone with a backpack or rolling case in tow. The drivers stack eight deep to compete for passengers, each shouting that their ride is the most comfortable and the best deal in town.

I already had a ride pickup arranged, but that did not prevent me from paparazzi treatment as I moved through the crowd of escorts.

Balinese secret weapon

One determined operator was certain he could sway my plans. He stayed at my side for a walk all the way to the ride-share pickup area. Insisting I was “crazy” to pass up his ride for whomever was waiting for me. The closing pitch, he “had Drake ready to play for me!” Little did he know, this would have served to disqualify had I been on the market.

Not until my ride pulled up and driver hopped out that this persistence ended cordially. A smile and a shrug of the shoulders as if to say “I gave it my best shot” - and he had. I felt a twinge of regret for having booked a ride before the cab line, this persistent Drake fan had won me over.

The drive from Denpasar to Ubud is wildly entertaining, if not white-knuckling. Our small compact car dodging and weaving around scooters and through roundabouts. Passing custom-built flatbeds toting cows who looked on with the uninterested glazed over expression of a five-year-old watching the nightly news.

About two-thirds of the way to Ubud, everything changes. The roads compress to two-lane and the lush vegetation replaces stone storefronts. We pulled into the Villas that would be my home for the next week and my driver commented “this place is hard to find.” Yes, I know. Exactly my aim.

Palms and rice terraces

I booked a somewhat off-the-grid Villa complex that was family run and encompasses only six units. Entering my private suite, laid before me was a perfectly symmetrical patchwork of emerald green rice fields just beyond the private infinity pool. The vibrancy of the green plugged landscape like something pulled from the Wizard of Oz, with the fanciful feeling of otherworldliness matching the mood.

These full-service villas are quite common across Bali and are reminiscent of Italian agriturismos - designed so that an occupant does not have to leave should they choose no too. However, my intention was to explore both the rural Bali and also the city of Ubud.

Canopies and clouds

The amazing crew that ran the villas at all hours were a joy to interact with each morning. With the villas located 9km southeast of Ubud center, daily rides into town were routine and some of the most memorable times during my stay.

Each driver took immense pride in their jobs while sharing an aspiration and dream for greater things. My most frequent companion was Komang (a common name bestowed to the third male of a family) and he was eager to study as a chef. Meanwhile, Wayan (denoting the first male of a family) was passionate about all things coffee and dreamt to open a cafe one day after perfecting his home brewing methods.

Their willingness to open and share with a complete stranger an unguarded example of the trust and acceptance that I met with nearly every encounter on the island. Through basic English, we could share a similar underlying desire to do our own thing. I hope by sharing their dream with me I played some extremely small role in manifested desire to make good on the goals. I’m rooting for them both.

Keying the pervasive feeling of non-stop hustle and ingenuity on the island is that a large number of the businesses operate as warungs, or small family-owned shops and restaurants. Most of these storefronts invite patrons into the family’s home, where your lunch plate is prepared in the same kitchen that later that evening will serve the family. It is intimate and adds a layer of appreciate to each meal and experience.

Bhoma protect the temple grounds

I always arrive to a destination with a few must-try local dishes. In Bali, that meant babi guling and local coffee. I “tested” a few examples of the former and fell hard for Babi Guling Gung Cung. Tucked away down a nondescript side street in the center of Ubud, the place would be easy to miss if not for the locals posted up on the stoop and the smell of glorious barbecued pork snaking its way from the entrance. Babi guling is not necessarily a dish one has every day. That would be like ponying up to your favorite roadside pulled pork spot for a daily sandwich and side of slaw. This slow roasted suckling pig specialty is helmed by masters of feel and instinct at the best spots in the country, and Gung Cung is a gem.

If you find a spot that has mastered the balance of crispy skin, bumbu (spice paste), satay, long beans and rice - arrive as early as possible. The crispy glass-like shards of burnt orange skin are prized treasures for the plate, and the first element to go as orders pile up. I arrived just in time, got my order in and then confirmed to the proprietor that I was “ok with a little spice.” She shot me a look like she had heard this before to little success.

I settled on an upstairs deck overlooking the temple gardens of the home, and sipped on an ice cold Bintang beer that was quickly developing a pool of condensation under it in the all-encompassing humidity. Each drag of crisp lager sprinkling my shorts and shirt with off cast drops of its losing battle with the elements. I did not mind. Any shower in this environment is welcome, and I took a few moments to press the chilled bottle to each wrist.

Babi guling and Bintang

The plate of greasy pork meat arrived on a straw plate with a fresh beer that I did not yet ask for, but was appreciative of the prognostic instincts of the restaurant owner. Three triangles of glorious reflective pork skin caught the mid-day sun and put off an aura worthy of the dish. Tucked in the top right corner of the plate sat a small dap of sambal. Her parting words for me before retiring back downstairs to attend to more patrons, “careful,” pointing at the small mound.

Compared to two other versions of the dish, this one hit a symphony of additional taste notes. The smokiness of the pork meat seemed more noticeable and the accompanying rice had just a hint of what I believe was coconut milk which, surprising as it may sound, really worked to balance. She was correct to warn me about the sambal, as just a drop cleared out the sinuses and the chili paste high-fived the heat of the day to hasten the full swing of my perspiration.

Finishing off my beer, I swung back through the bottom floor of the establishment to see the pig skin entirely sold out and nearly 3/4 of the meat claimed. It was barely 12:15. I handed over my 40K Rupiah (roughly $2.50 USD - insane!), and offered up a “matur suksma” as verbal gratitude.

Rice terrace steps

Belly satisfyingly full, I spent time the afternoon walking some of it off on the Campuhan Ridge Walk just to the west of the heart of Ubud. The trail runs along a ridged hilltop that comes heavy with stunning views that surround on all sides and slope sharply down each side into lush windswept fields of grass and rice terraces. It invites both leisurely pacing and reflection, two approaches that surfaced often while on the island.

A goal each day in country was to follow-up my complimentary french press at the villa with more caffeine hunting throughout the day. Try this, next time you are at your local supermarket, take a look at the sourcing details on the bags of higher quality beans stocking shelves and you are sure to find an Indonesian variety. I knew this coming in and was determined to seek out as many opportunities as possible to sample the local roasts and teas.

A great way to start is visiting one of the numerous coffee and tea plantations that squat on the slopes of the forests. On a trip to Mount Batur, we pulled over at Alam Bali Agrowisata at the suggestion of my driver. All of these plantations work, essentially, the same way. You are given a brief history and overview of the production process and then seated for a tasting flight of roughly 10-12 coffee and tea offerings. I visited two separate facilities during my trip and neither charged for the tastings, but you are funneled through the shop at the conclusion in the hopes of a purchase. I had wonderfully knowledgeable tasting guides at both, and tipped them each at the conclusion as well.

Mount Batur in repose

Flight highlights included the proverbial and straight-ahead black Bali coffee, as well as the ginger and ginseng varieties. However, the tea offerings really caught me unprepared for the subtle flavor notes and excellent steeping. I did not escape either gift shop without bags of mangosteen, rosella and turmeric tea. Each built the noted flavors on a solid base foundation of smoothly defined tea, so as not to overreach with cloying ruination.

Like all things in life, particularly when traveling to other cultures, these facilities are not all inspiration and romance. The luwak coffee trade is still thriving in this region and that comes with serious concerns over the captivity and unnatural treatment of the Asian palm civets that eat and defecate the beans used for roasting. What is produced is marketed as “the most expensive coffee in the world” and, it is I presume, but I highly doubt that is based on taste and certainly not in tradeoff. The luwak coffee was never included in the free tastings, but an attempt to sell me on a cup met with three refusals at both locations. I would encourage similar responses if you decide to go in an effort to tamp down the demand for this style and, hopefully, expedite the move away from its appeal among planters.

Coffee and tea flights

If a more traditional shop and wifi setup are necessary, one is hard-pressed to find a better setup than Seniman Coffee. These purveyors are advancing the “4th Wave” of coffee, where high-quality harvesting, roasting and consumption experiences are brought back home to the coffee producing countries. A noble endeavor that allowed a traveler like myself to enjoy local beans on local soil, creating a full circle of benefit for producers, cafe owners and residents alike. I would often grab a seat at the bar and put myself in the hand of the barista. Give them a short description of flavors and roasts that appeal to you, and they never failed to craft the perfect pour-over cup.

Freshly roasted Indonesian varietal