There are things money cannot buy. We have no idea what but sometimes they nudge you when least expected.
Travelling light on a small budget with no plans other than to enjoy sunshine, fresh air and cold beer leaves doors open for aimless travellers.
Booking a cheap flight at random can be fun. It’s how I discovered Marco Inn, a small hotel – four up, four down and less than a minute’s walk from the town’s beach if you take your time. Marco’s is dead centre in the small port of Padang Bai where ferries to and fro from Lombok, the next island to the east.
But Padang Bai is no longer random, it’s home away from home except there is no cold weather, traffic or pollution. The stress we impose on our western lives vaporises. The town is not wracked by tourism but charmingly immersed in the spiritual life of Bali, a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism shared between countless temples.
Marco’s always has a few thrifty travellers who feel at home here. Over the past years a bonus has been meeting regulars, a cheerful, loosely knit team from Europe, mostly escaping from their northern winter.
Among them is Otto, a constantly smiling German guy who rocks up with a guitar and girlfriend, Maria. He’s a plasterer by trade whose home in Europe is a 40-year-old Mercedes camper van. He travels his territory working on plastering contracts. This enables him to pack his guitar, hop on a plane to Asia’s tropical climate and hang loose for six months.
Otto and Maria have a ground floor room at Marco’s. It opens onto the courtyard where guests enjoy breakfast at about 7.30. This coincides with Otto sitting in his room playing classical guitar music, or maybe a flamenco. Every morning is a world class solo concert – no fee, no booking.
A transient fraternity enjoy Padang Bai. The hotel has a lot to offer for a few dollars a night. It’s rumoured to have been a brothel but the showers are cold – a blessing in tropical humidity but maybe not a good idea for a brothel. I live on the second floor which has a long balcony, comfortably cushioned cane chairs and views over red tiled roofs to the town’s beach.
Stray cats prowl and howl among house-top temples, a row of trees line the beachfront. Watching ferries manoeuvring into the terminal, where lorries wait their turn to board, is an entertaining pastime, especially in the early evening while enjoying an iced gin and tonic and not much else is happening.
At dawn the town’s small Muslim community emerge, reacting to their Muezzin’s call to prayer: “Allahu Akbar – God is Great …” from the local mosque.
The call also stirs a multitude of fighting cocks housed in bamboo cages along the waterfront and scabby dogs join the discordant chorus – a battle with no winners.
Two cats, which I call mine, sleep on my doorstep or my window sill. They are wild, untouchable and short on cat charm but like to make sure I’m up early enough to go to the local market to buy them fresh fish for breakfast.
I’ve named the tom Ginger, and his sister NG – Not Ginger – because she isn’t. She’s a sort of grey tabby of mingled heritage.
The town’s life revolves around Bali’s spiritual rituals. Several times a day Mrs Marco will dress in a sarong, a white blouse, tie a silk sash around her waist and perform a peaceful ritual of distributing offerings to the islands’ gods – jasmine and frangipani flowers, rice and small treats – around the hotel’s courtyard temple. The air becomes heavy, perfumed with flowers and incense.
The market opens at first light and remains busy after sunrise. By then warm gold sun filters through beachside trees and thin tropical mist. I head off at about 6.00, enjoying the silky air.
My fish lady is close to the market’s ornate entrance which is graced with leering stone faces whose protruding eyes follow me everywhere.
She sits on the ground, invariably wearing a pink jacket and warm smile. Battered scales rest on a low table alongside a variety of fish. I have no idea what they are but I generally point to what look like small bright eyed mackerel. They’re fresh and I hold up ten fingers which I figure would be about a kilo. They are carefully weighed, placed in two bags, one inside the other to prevent fishy leaks. I hand fish lady crumpled bank notes whose puckered presidential faces show less life than the fish. 10,000 rupiah, about a dollar.
The five minute walk to Marco’s is punctuated with chats. Shopkeepers are sweeping the beachside road, clearing leaves and bits of rubbish with brooms fabricated from long twigs bound onto a thin, uneven branch. The sweeping, gentle scratching, is the only sound other than the roosters who’ve settled down a bit. The dusty dogs have been kicked away and they lounge around panting and scratching vigorously.
Beachside stall holders are setting up small displays on unstable tables, fruit, biscuits and assorted treats they have brought from the market. They’re used to an eccentric bloke wandering around. ‘Hello Papa … abacabar … Pagi’ a morning greeting akin to “G‘day, how are you?”
A couple of wrinkled ladies, who seem to be a daily fixture, sit on a small wooden platform plucking leaves, which they use to make tea, from twigs. Behind them is a poster advertising exotic bottled water.
Sometimes I’ve bought seasonal fruit, maybe rambutan, bananas, mango, jack fruit. Everything is a dollar a kilo and a kilo usually seems like two. While chatting I give fruit to some of the folk, sometimes they return the favour, offering small pastries, little treats. Neighbourly gestures. Part of a gentle lifestyle.
I return to Marco’s and brace for a cat attack. Nyoman, who looks after the hotel, cooks breakfast and has an endless supply of fresh Bali coffee, wards off attacks while I put a couple of fish into bowls for Ginger and NG. I don’t know why I bother, they have zero table manners, snatch the fish and rush to favoured eating spots, sometimes my bedroom! Remaining fish are put in the hotel fridge for later if they’re lucky or tomorrow if I oversleep.
My room costs me ten bucks a night inclusive of breakfast. I’m a creature of habit and opt for a banana pancake. Nyoman makes the world’s best. I pour honey over it, roll it up and slice off morsels for myself. For some reason I’m joined by a squadron of bees. I’m not the only guest who uses the honey but am the only one who attracts bees and they launch themselves at my pancake. I learnt the simple trick, a decoy, by putting a dollop of honey in a saucer, a sort of dining room for them, making it safe for me to eat without devouring a bee or two. This has become a moment of entertainment for bemused guests.
Mrs Marco, decorates the table with a small bowl filled with frangipani flowers, all perfect and floating on the water. This homely touch sits next to a red plastic tray holding sauces and condiments: chilli, tomato, salt, pepper – and a jar of honey.
On this morning, in fact the morning I was due to leave and head home, there was a change of routine. An extra bowl was filled with fresh, perfect, jasmine flowers powering the air with scent.
This small hotel with its courtyard cats, tame bees and daily ceremonies had, over the years, become a second home. Today my bag was packed, the cats had finished their first breakfast, I’d said goodbyes to dozens of people and was waiting for Made in his taxi. The bees had left, the cats stretched out in the courtyard sun, Otto had finished his morning concert and other guests had left, heading to the beach.
Then, from nowhere, the jasmine attracted a newcomer – a hummingbird appeared, hovering above the jasmine, wings invisible and tiny tongue probing the jasmine, searching for pollen. It went from flower to flower, taking time. I didn’t dare move while it spent a couple of minutes filtering nectar, the food of the gods. Then, as silently as it appeared, it was gone. A tiny moment in time, a perfect farewell which all the money in the world could never have bought.
© Roger Garwood 2021