Southeast Asia, Day 14: Intense questioning at the Bali Airport

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

Street art in Indonesia

This morning was my final morning in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s strange, how I had a two-person room, a quite intimate room, with the same stranger the entire time I’ve been in Malaysia, and I never spoke to her beyond “oh, I thought you were asleep” after coming in late or something of the sort.

Here I was on my final morning, and I gathered my things in a pile and shoved it out into the hallway so as not to disturb her sleep. Sometimes, I wondered if we were on the same sleep schedule, as she was never sleeping when I returned home, even if it were at 3am. Other times I wondered if she just couldn’t sleep knowing that someone would sneak into the room in the middle of the night. Who knows...such is the mystery of hostel life.

This hostel (Mingle Hostel), as magnificent as the decor and cleanliness was, wasn’t run very well. Yesterday the front desk told me there was no checkout. Then, just before I went to bed, I saw a sign on the desk that read “CHECKOUT AT NOON.”

After checking out, I stored my bag at the hostel for the remaining few hours before I had to head off to the bus station.

The hostel is in Chinatown, and I was looking forward to buying ALL OF THE THINGS before heading off to my next destination. However, today is a Sunday, which apparently means that things in Chinatown are closed. I could no longer get travel bags and luggage tags and beads and craft supplies and stickers at dirt cheap prices! However, Malaysia in general was much more affordable (and by affordable, I mean things are relative to USA prices regarding toiletries and whatnot, compared to the exorbitantly overpriced Vanuatu), and I planned to pick up some contact solution, eye makeup and stickers at reasonable prices at the pharmacy. You may be reading this from the USA and thinking, “$3 for a miniature bottle of contact solution is pretty normal” but not when you compare it with $10 in Vanuatu. Or $60, for a full-size. Yup.

I run around until it’s time for me to head off to the bus station, just after 1pm. My flight is in the evening, but it’ll take about an hour to get there on the bus. One thing that frustrates me about Malaysia is the lack of guidance in public transit areas, like the bus station or airport. You have to know where you are going before you get there, because the guiding signs are nothing like they are in Helsinki. I wandered around the rows of small vendors and staircases leading to bus platforms, seeing nothing marked as the airport shuttle. After asking about three people who give general directions such as “Over there,” I got a specific platform number and off I went.

The bus ride was short, or at least felt short, since I slept, and then we arrived at KLIA 1. There is KLIA 1 and KLIA 2. My impression was that they are connected, as one airport, since the bus stops for each were only 15 mins apart from each other. So I got off at the first one. And I wandered. I wandered through the MASSIVE mall of shops (Malaysia seriously cannot get enough of their retail) up an escalator to a FOOD COURT before I could even find the area where the check-in desks were. And I looked at the boards of outgoing flights. Nothing. I then asked a person at the info desk to tell me where I find Malindo airways. “Oh, that’s at KLIA 2. Go back downstairs and take the train.” That’s it, no elaboration on the train. So then I wander again through the shops and the mall and the food court back to another general area, ask another info desk worker and find the train. And then I find out that the train is $3 to ride, and it comes only every 30 minutes. WHAT.

Thankfully, I allotted plenty of time. But god what a mistake it was to not know that I was departing from KLIA 2. But nowhere on my ticket or my booking information told me this. I would only have known if I previously knew that it was a pain in the ass to transfer from KLIA 1 to KLIA 2, because in any other airport, if you departed from terminal 1 vs terminal 4, you would just be able to get there, somehow, conveniently and for free. Not in Malaysia!

About 45 minutes after arriving, I arrived where I needed to be. After passing a “Chicago’s own Garrett’s Popcorn” stand (?) I checked in for my flight and boarded.

"A Chicago Tradition"

Upon arrival in Bali, Indonesia, I filled out a customs form and tried to book it through the area, as I had nothing to declare and, well, I pack a carry-on so I don’t have to hang out in the airport for long.

It reminded me of when I was traveling out of the Tajikistan airport and our guides were like, “Don’t make eye contact and no one will ask to look through your stuff." Not that I was hiding anything, but I just wanted to leave.

But I made the ultimate mistake, but it was an honest one, because I really wasn’t sure if I could pass through without someone going through my bags. My backpack cleared the scanner, and nothing unusual was on my customs form, but a uniformed man beckoned me over a split second after I glanced in his direction, and thus the search began.

And then, the search began, like the one we were promised at the Uzbekistan/Tajikistan land border that was never as bad as the guides had described.

He went through my entire bag. He opened up my magazines, flipped through every page. He opened up the front pocket and picked through my toiletries. He looked at my passport. He found a ziploc bag of embroidery thread that I bought in Malaysia and questioned it. “What is this? What is it for?” I am just curious to know what illicit things they think it could be used for, other than making bracelets or embroidering. It’s a bag of yarn and string, after all. He squeezed the bag and put it through a second scanner as he went through the other items.

He went through my clothes, and my souvenirs, all while inquiring my plans, the usual questioning. What was I doing here and for how long, where did I just travel from, why am I traveling. He asked if I was returning to the USA immediately afterwards. No, I am going back to Vanuatu. This confused him, and I told him I live and work there, and he inquired for how long. The tone was that of a comfortable conversation, and I never felt threatened, however, I was just wondering where this was going to end. He seemed unsatisfied with the search, as if he was sure he would catch me on SOMETHING. He returned me my yarn and waved me off, disappointed. With searches like these, I am always curious as to why I was flagged. I am not the only solo female traveler on this flight. I don’t look particularly unusual (I think). So, why? I’ll never know.

Once I got to the open area, it was time to find my ride to the hostel. Yesterday I reached out to the hostel owner, attempting to arrange an airport pickup, as they advertise on their site. When I was checking internet on the airport wifi (which was a whole ordeal to get access to), I learned that he didn’t respond to my email until about an hour before I was planned to land in Indonesia. So here I was in the airport, and he said he was able to pick me up, but I had no idea when or what he looked like, or a slew of other information. As I stood looking around with my tablet, trying to figure out if someone would have a sign with my name on it, I was harassed by dozens of taxi drivers huddling around tourists, desperately trying to get a fare. I emailed the hostel and he confirmed that a man was already on his way. I was sick of waiting, but eventually the driver appeared and took me to the car, shoving off the other taxi drivers as though he were my bodyguard protecting me from the paparazzi.

I arrived in the evening, so it was dark, but I did get a rough idea of what the area appeared to be. My hostel was in the village of Canggu (my friend Patricia, whom I met in Uzbekistan, recommended the area for a hip nightlife, great food, and a chill surf vibe), a good hour drive away from the airport, through winding streets packed with scooters and motorcycles. I’m pretty sure this car was one of the 5% of non-motorcycles on the road.

It’s hard to describe what this area looked like. There were streets with small shops and tailors and homes, and then there were streets of rice fields on either side of you. Some of the roads reminded me of those in the edges of Port Vila, with big concrete walls blocking you from seeing what’s on the other side of the sidewalk, but then the road would end at a brightly-lit, hipster burrito restaurant with 12 big-screen TVs. It was very confusing.

Eventually I checked into the hostel, which was just beside the beach and comprised of two spacious rooms. The room I was in housed 8 people on 4 bunk beds that had privacy curtains and mosquito nets that wrapped around them completely. Each bed had an individual reading light and outlet: signs of a good, thoughtful hostel. The lockers were massive, large enough to hold huge rolling suitcases, if need be. In the back were two restrooms with toilets and showers, as well as a posh outdoor shower area with a modern stained wood fence for privacy, and smooth grey pebbles on the ground to drain the water. This hostel and the surrounding area felt very hipster- and surfer-friendly.

I immediately met a handful of people at the hostel, two of which were a late 20s-ish German couple who had been travelling for months with no final destination in mind. They were drinking on the enclosed patio area, which was shared with the neighboring room. Now, it was nearly 9pm, and they were getting ready for some sort of rave or concert happening nearby. We could hear the music pumping from the patio. They invited me along, but warned of the nearly $70 ticket fee. I was already exhausted and didn’t think I would have a good time, so it wasn’t worth my money. They mentioned it was possible to sneak into the bar from the beach, so we walk over to try.

I genuinely don’t know how to get inside the bar, which is overlooking the ocean on a small cliff. There doesn’t appear to be access from the road, and so I walk down the cliff and around to the beach, and a security guard catches me and eyes me suspiciously. He asks me what I’m doing, and I tell him the truth, I just want to get to the bar, but I cannot find an entrance. He tells me to go back on the rocks by the ocean, climb back to the road I was on, and then walk down the road about a half mile, where there’s another road leading to the entrance. I follow his instructions to the road, but give up there.

I ventured off for food. As I mentioned before, the area can seem underdeveloped at times, with grass beside an unfinished road edge for a sidewalk, and streetlights only sometimes sprinkled along the road. I brought a flashlight with me. There wasn’t much foot traffic, as the preferred mode of travel is motorbikes, which I’m not allowed to ride here because PC rules forbids PCVs from riding motorcycles in countries where there is Peace Corps…and there is Peace Corps here. There is no other mode of travel available on dry land other than walking, so here I go. I feel perfectly safe, despite being the only one out, since there are plenty of shops open.

I stop at a Greek restaurant with an inviting patio area, where there’s already about a dozen people dining. I take a look at the menu, and I ask for the first thing that looks appetizing. They’re out of that particular item, and I look at the rest of the menu and can’t be bothered for anything else so I decide to head out for other options.

I walk for a while until I get tired and settle on a convenience store. There’s no food of substance, so my dinner ends up being a chocolate bar and a bottle of cranberry cocktail. I head back to the hostel and enjoy my sad dinner on my bed, before heading off to sleep to the sounds of a thumping music fest. Tomorrow I'll be exploring Bali on foot.

Convenience store finds, for the modern lady, and formaldehyde free!