I once vowed never to go to Bali. The drunk Aussie tourists! The traffic! The noise! The tacky souvenirs! I mean, why would you go?
Well, earlier this month I caved in. They were holding a writer's festival at Ubud, the bustling town in the hills, well north of both the smoggy capital Denpasar and the beachside tourist trap of Kuta.
I wanted warm weather, and it was cheap. Wasn't Ubud full of temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people?
Well I went. And I wasn't greatly impressed.
First the good points. Perfect weather, lovely countryside once you get away from the towns. Fantastic, fresh cuisine including home-grown fruit, meat and coffee. Sumptuous but cheap hotels. Beautiful culture with Hindu temples every 20 metres, lovely dancing and artwork.
The Ubud Writers' and Readers' Festival, starring singer Paul Kelly and novelist Alexander McCall-Smith was great, staged in laid-back tropical cafes and function centres.
In short, Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops.
I am not exaggerating to say that vendors of transport and souvenirs harass tourists from morning to night.
Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, "Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going ... miiiisss?" I thought my name had been changed to Miiisss.
I was once strolling along one of Ubud's main roads when a young man drove his motorbike across the footpath, blocking my way so I had to stop. (The word "taxi" is used loosely in Ubud - they're not regulated, nor do they have meters and anyone can call their motorbike or car a taxi.)
This tout smiled and asked if I wanted "transport". I smiled and explained very politely that, in Australia, if a woman gets on a motorbike with a stranger, that is called prostitution.
He looked as though I'd just told him the sun was a balloon. I don't think he honestly had a clue what I was on about.
So why did I decline? Umm. Apart from possible serial killer issue, how about the strong likelihood of falling off the unregistered and possibly unroadworthy bike with no safety gear or helmet on to the crappy roads, well beyond the reach of any known travel insurance policy?
I often wondered what these touts would think if their sister or mother got on a motorbike with a strange man.
On another occasion, I had slipped away from the noisy, dusty main streets into the countryside and was happily walking past rural villages and fields (which are quite lovely) when another young motorcyclist stopped and approached me.
"You want transport, miiiissss?" he yelled. "No thanks," I smiled and kept walking. But he wouldn't take no for an answer, following me on his motorbike. "Where you staying, miiisss? You must need taxi." This went on for about five minutes, with me walking away from him until he left.
In the space of a week I started to hate walking the streets of Ubud - a bizarre thing when you're supposed to be relaxing on holidays. I would cross the road if I saw a gang of young men sitting on a stoop but they still would yell out 'MIIIISSSS, TRANSPOOOORT!!!"
I once saw a Western tourist with a T-shirt that said "no transport, no massage", which I laughed at, but I later seriously wished I had my own.
Then I started pretending to use my mobile phone as I walked, which oddly enough actually worked, save the odd, determined "Miiiisss … "
I developed a resentment of locals, which I'm sure is undeserved. I just wish they could see how bad their touts are and lock them away in a dark room.
Tourists are similarly harassed in Ubud if they go shopping in the kilometre-long retail love-in that is Monkey Forest Road. Picture walking down Chapel Street and being constantly screamed at from each doorway to buy things. Should I have enjoyed this?
As I walked along this thoroughfare, I started to notice ever-cheaper and more tacky souvenirs – wooden penises, plastic skeletons having sex. I mean, who buys these things? Imagine the conversation with the quarantine officer at Melbourne Airport: "Aah, thank you sir, we'll have to get your wooden penis irradiated but otherwise, it's all fine."
More to the point, who makes these souvenirs? Are there entire villages near Ubud that make wooden penises?
Occasionally in Bali, itinerant hawkers would bail you up.
One of the most disturbing incidents was the day I went on a half-day bus tour of the countryside taking in a spectacular volcano north of Ubud. We stopped on the rim road to view the distant volcano and on the way back to the bus an elderly man shoved a wooden statue of a Hindu god in my face, babbling in a very agitated way "You BUY?', pleeeese Miiiiss!!! You buy!!!!"
I made the mistake of touching the sculpture and he shoved it further towards my face, screaming at me. I knew it was an act he put on for every tourist so I didn't get too upset. It was just absurd. And really rude. Then he blocked the path to my seat. My tour guide watched on benignly. In the end I edged into my seat, stared straight ahead and the hysterical hawker went away.
Many times, with the "transpooort" guys and hawkers, I wondered: do the locals have any idea how their treatment of tourists comes across?
Then I thought, is it just me? Do other Australian tourists find the whole tout behaviour thing charming or amusing? I mean, do they see it as part of a carnival atmosphere that you just laugh off?
I thought it was vile. It didn't reflect well either on the Balinese or on the tourists; it was a lowest common denominator tourist hell.
Maybe I'm uninformed. Maybe the locals are so impoverished they adopt desperate measures to grab cash when they can, and we as rich Westerners should feel glad they are making a living. We should thus smilingly welcome the overt rudeness and invasion of privacy and lack of respect.
(Bad behaviour does go both ways - I equally would condemn those frightening Aussies overseas who urinate in the street and wear bikinis into temples. I was gobsmacked to see one topless young white guy at 11am one day strolling down Monkey Forest Road, open stubby in hand, his shorts almost down to his thighs to reveal his underpants).
My point is, aren't there better ways of doing business? If a tourist is treated so badly they don't want to ever return, isn't that a bad thing for Bali? Or do tourists not care how basely they're treated as long as they get a cheap flight, room and meals?