KUTA, Indonesia — Having never heard a single criticism of Bali, I was unprepared for my first impressions of the tourist mecca.
I was now in a place known as “Island of the Gods.” What could possibly go wrong?
My evening Lion Air flight from Jogyakarta was pleasant enough, and the prepaid, hassle-free taxi from the airport delivered me to a hotel near the border of Kuta and Legian, both known for their beach scenes. Sure, the roads into town were dirtier and more grim than I had expected, but the route from the airport isn’t always the best measure of any destination. (Think: JFK to Manhattan.)
Without a reservation, I am turned away from the first 350,000-rupiyah ($37) hotel I try. The front desk suggests the place next door, for which I thank him, and I trod outside to encounter my cab driver again.
“You have reservation?” he asks.
“No, they’re full,” I say. “But they said to ask next door.”
“Come,” he says. “I take you.”
Tired and thankful, I climb back in the cab and accept a lift for the 25 feet to the next hotel, much like that scene in “L.A. Story” where Steve Martin drives to his neighbor’s house, a stone’s throw away.
“I go talk to them,” the cabbie says. “Wait here.”
He returns, tells me they have a room, and I get out. I thank and tip him, then walk to the Sinar Indah reception desk and inquire about the cost.
It’s 450,000 rupiyah ($48).
No problem. It’s late. I’m beat. A room and a shower sound great. OK, I say.
“Just one night?” the hotel employee asks.
Yes, I say.
“Because tomorrow we have a room for 350,000 rupiyah.”
It’s at this moment I realize the taxi driver I had just tipped has fixed the room to earn himself a kickback. As far as lessons go, this one was relatively inexpensive and painless. Yes, I should’ve known better — especially as a New Yorker — but all I can do at this point is vow to be more aware in the future.
Hungry, I quickly unpack, shower and change, then head downstairs to grab some grub. The guy at reception stifles a laugh when I ask if there is somewhere nearby I could get a bite to eat.
Not even 50 paces down the treacherous sidewalk from the hotel’s driveway, I’m approached by a woman on a motorbike who mumbles some words to me. I step closer and ask her to repeat herself. All I can make out are the words “my room.”
Now, I’m being solicited.
Waving her off, I keep walking and notice how unprepared I am for this. I mean, it’s not like I’m walking along the seedy streets of Times Square in the mid-1980s. The last thing I expect in Bali is to be propositioned by a prostie.
Before reaching the end of the block it happens again a couple of times. I turn on my blinders and keep walking in search of dinner. The same scene repeats itself a few more times, and about a half-hour later I give up on finding a meal and head back to my room.
It can only get better, I hope.