Speaker by Various Artists


by Greg Wood

Apart from the weekly motorbike lying in the middle of an intersection like a brave but dead horse, its rider standing over it in tears, you almost never see a crash in Singapore. In nearly three years, I've only seen four big ones: two Porsches turned into parallelograms, and two taxis turned turtle. The Porsches were late at night; the taxis at 8.30 in the morning. None of them was a pretty sight.

While I can kind of see the teutonic missiles finding their target, initially I couldn't understand how the taxis got that way. But right now I'm trying to figure out why there aren't hundreds of them tipping over all the time. You see, almost all of Singapore's roads have median barriers. The chances of having a head-on are minimal so, in that quirk of logic that Ralph Nader used to love, people drive faster because they feel safer - or in the case of the taxi I'm in right now, invincible. It has 400,000 ks on the clock, 500,000 figurines on the dash, we're doing 95 in a 60 zone, and it's raining that hilarious rain you see in the tropics, like the sky is filled with hundreds of giant water balloons that explode, dropping their load, every time the thunder claps. Which is often. There's even a fatefully apocalyptic sky like the one at the start of The Terminator - all turmoil shot through with real horror-movie lightning. It's helping to scare the crap out of me, anyway. I'm expecting the driver to turn to me and find out he's a grinning skeleton. Or wearing a Sars mask.

Take me back to Bali!

In Bali taxis go just as fast as you want, but never more than 50. In Bali, the beer is cold enough to drink, but warms up just quick enough that you have to drink it fast. In Bali, the people are suffering, but they're happy.

What a great, amazing place. A thought, though: I wonder if I would've enjoyed it so much with five times the tourists bunging up the place? Yes folks, after the bomb in Kuta and the war, numbers are less than a quarter of what they were - and they've been that way for six months. For a place that exists on rice and tourists, that's a hell of a drop - and that's without Sars ripping nearly two-thirds of the people off flights around Asia. One result is luxury hotels, usually 80% full, struggling for 15% occupancy. Other results: one temple guide reporting, with a very puzzled look as if trying to understand who built a fence around his world while he was asleep, just ten visitors in a day at what Lonely Planet calls Bali's most outstanding sight. Lines of fifty hawker shops outside the temples, simply closed, ghost-town style. Kuta feels like Takapuna at 7am on a Sunday. And metered-taxi drivers will wait TWO HOURS for you to finish dinner, not expect a tip, and still laugh at your jokes.

That kind of behaviour is the most beautiful, and the saddest bit: the Balinese seem resigned to the situation, believing it's punishment for greed. Yet they're still super friendly and super helpful, and the shops that are still open haven't slashed their prices. There's still honour and pride - it's just that they everyone wears an expression that's half grin, half chagrin.

Apart from that slight haze of puzzled resignation, the place is fabulous. Ubud is like heaven. Magical. Nothing is as it seems, yet nothing seems dangerous. The roads are narrow and steep and lined with stone walls and steps and temples and houses and paths so jumbled together that you can't tell what's holy and what's not, leaving you feeling like Crash Bandicoot without any baddies or traps. Shopping is serendipitous, there's beer everywhere and some of it is even cold. Right in the middle of town is a soccer pitch where nine teams play at once, "just for sweat" according to Wayan the driver (every boy is called Wayan or Madé - One or Two - depending on their position in the family). And like I said, nobody drives over 50k - not even the taxis.

Speaking of drivers, we were invited to stay at the Four Seasons Resorts to, well, try them out. We misheard the instructions and proceeded to, well, freak them out. I've never seen faces like the ones on the security guards at the top gate, the porters, the front-of-house person, the drivers, the gardener and the concierge when we turned up in the Suzuki Jimny we'd hired for NZ$16 a day. Shock and Awe. We figured it wasn't so much the car; it was the fact we were driving it. I suppose they expected better from people paying US$575 for the night (US$575? Now that's Shock and Awe indeed). And that was nothing to what happened when we got our big bottles of Bintang Beer out of the back. Bloody kiwis.

It is a magical place, and everyone should go. It's the crazy full sound of the four guys on the beach - double bass, two guitars and a Heath Robinson drumkit - playing a swing version of Summertime for us on our anniversary, while we tucked into 5-minute-old crayfish and barracuda and endless icy cold giant beers for all of forty bucks. It's coming back to our bungalow time and again during the day, just to see what the room-pixies had done in our absence: mood lighting, slippers arranged, an avalanche of fresh white towels, more cold water in big glass bottles. It's standing in a waterfall behind a temple in the paddyfields, feeling just right.

And it's returning to base the day the war started, to find the guards at the gate checking our car with a convex mirror on wheels and a torch, looking for bombs. I woke in a cold sweat that night, dreaming of Kuta, and walking outside to hear nothing but bugs and see nothing but stars - the way it should be in paradise.