All at once these things happened:
+ My girlfriend’s friend got married in Bali.
+ We were given an opportunity to travel to Istanbul at a sharp discount.
+ My friend got engaged, and when she offered to have the wedding in either Toledo or France, we obviously voted for France.
Consequently, we were looking at an epic travel schedule this summer and were both very excited. But, when seeking advice about gay travel in all of those places we could only find a lot of general “it-will-probably-be-fine” boy-centric advice. This didn’t stop us from going but I figured while I was there, I’d try to personally fill in these gaps. Autostraddle has graciously agreed to be the platform for me to post my travel stories so that queermo lady-identified types have access to more applicable, specific information. Also, it was just a really exciting trip!
So I’ll be sharing my journeys with you in a three-part post. First up was our trip to Bali in May. I’m not going to bury the lead here: Bali was awesome, and we should all probably go there right now. It’s inexpensive, beautiful and culturally rich. It isn’t the gay-friendliest place in the world, especially if you’re Balinese, and the limited nightlife and gay travel opportunities are dedicated to men. Nevertheless, my girlfriend and I always felt welcome and safe on this trip.
Except for when I lost my passport in Hong Kong.
1. All The Secret Spaces of the Airport
Traveling to Bali from the U.S. is kind of epic, especially if you buy your tickets on the late side. When we got off the 14-hour flight from LAX to Hong Kong, I discovered that my passport was missing. I flagged down multiple Cathay Pacific employees until finally one of them let me look for it on the plane. When we didn’t find it, I was told that I would probably have to go back to Los Angeles.
You know how travel books and blogs and whatnot always tell you to carry a photocopy of your passport and you never do it? Fucking do it, guys. Because when my girlfriend pulled out the copy of my passport, there was no more talk of Los Angeles.
Also, you know how people say you should just keep asking when dealing with a company bureaucracy? Do that too. We had to talk to four different people in two countries before American Airlines confirmed it was company policy to rebook us for free, not the $1,000-$1,800 each that we’d been quoted.
We spent the rest of the morning touring all the secret rooms of the airport. Chinese immigration made me sign a form that basically said they didn’t want me in their country, but were letting me in just this one time, okay? We spent the afternoon at the American Consulate, where everyone was friendly and moved slowly. For dinner we ate congee so hot it burnt our mouths, fell asleep sitting up at the hotel bar, and collapsed in our bed.
2. Staring at the Ocean and Reading Books is Even More Fun Than It Sounds
We wanted to spend at least a few days at the beach, but Bali has many different kinds of beach. There are the touristy party beaches in the south, which were not so much our style (see section header). There are also a large number of beautiful surfing beaches, but we don’t surf. We scanned our guidebooks until we found Lovina, which was described as “a good place to work on your journal,” as if that were a bad thing.
We got to our hotel after dark and to be honest, we felt a little wary. For one, the entire staff came out to meet us because we were the only people there. They gave us a room with twin beds, causing us to abashedly ask five Balinese women for a room with a double bed.
Nonetheless, once the sun came up we realized that actually we were in the best place ever. Our room was bright and sunny, there were flowering trees in the courtyard, and the dining patio was about six feet from the ocean. The greatest part, however, was a little room they’d built above the breakfast patio.
The beach was on a little stretch between two fishing villages, and many vendors came by to try to sell us things. They were really nice about it, and I have nothing against carved wooden dolphins, but I definitely was not interested in buying one, really, I swear.
After we got our fill of the water and sun, we snuck upstairs and sat and read all day. My girlfriend, who owns 2,000 books and shuns sunlight, had never been happier.
3. In the Night Market
One of the best meals we had in Bali was at the night market in Singaraja, the town closest to our hotel. We wandered through a maze of fruit stalls until we came out into a long row of beautiful, glowing food carts. This is where many Balinese people go to get a quick bite to eat — we saw whole families seated on mopeds, eating together. The vendors cooked our satay, stuffed crepes, and a dish of rice cakes and tofu right before our eyes. The sauces were sweet and spicy, with a hint of peanut. I didn’t try the crepes because I can’t eat gluten, but the satay was tender and fatty in exactly the right way, and there was a wonderful contrast between the soft texture of the rice cakes and the chewiness of the tofu. We sat on benches behind a satay cart and watched people and mopeds pass by.
While I think it was totally safe to eat from food carts, I also made the mistake of sampling the fruit. See, a week earlier I had watched that show on the Travel Channel where the guy eats crazy things, and he happened to be in a Balinese fruit market. He took a bite out of this plum-like fruit and declared it the best thing ever. But it’s that guy’s job to a) have guts of steel and b) exaggerate about how good things taste for television. Suffice to say: the fruit was only OK, and the next day I felt sick. Though, really, all I had to do was eat rice and drink tea for 24 hours. It was worth it.
4. Tourist Time
We were sad to leave Lovina, but we’d already made reservations in Ubud, where the wedding was. Ubud is touted as “the real Bali,” but I’m guessing that’s only in contrast to the touristy beach towns of the south. There were restaurants offering every cuisine, lots of museums and dance performances, ten million spas, and a terrifying amount of shopping.
My girlfriend had just finished reading the Ramayana, so we went to see a dance performance of that ballet. Both Rama and Sita are danced by women, which lent a veneer of queerness to the whole experience, though I’m guessing that’s my Western homo perspective talking. We also went to a yoga class and drank tiny, expensive smoothies afterwards, both of which were very spiritual experiences.
One of the best things we did, tourist-wise, was get massages, which are inexpensive in Bali. On the massage list it said, “Please indicate if you do or do not want breast massage.” We didn’t indicate anything, which turned out to mean we do get a breast massage, which was actually just an upper-body massage and kind of great because chest muscles get tense too.
After the massage they dumped cold yogurt on us and scrubbed us down with something gritty, then had us stand by the shower to get rinsed off. This involved both of us, stark naked, having water dumped on us like we were two years old and having a bath. The masseuses left us alone to soak in a bath full of flowers, which would have been awesome if the water and the air were not the same temperature: hot. When I lingered on the edge of the bath trying not to snuggle up to my girlfriend in a way I feared might embarrass them as we were, like, naked, one of the women was like, “Get in! It’s OK!” Did they know we were a couple? I have no idea.
5. Village Time
In Ubud, we stayed in a complex of little houses that had been built in the village of Lodtunduh. They were “eco-houses,” which I think is a nice way of saying “no air conditioning,” which we never missed since the houses were fan-cooled and affordable.
At dawn, so many roosters crowed that I thought it was a huge crowd of people shouting “AWOO! AWOO!”
Around sunset, we walked past soccer games, kite flying, river-bathing — everyone in the village was extremely friendly and very patient with our terrible, broken Indonesian. People always asked us where we were going, so the one phrase we mastered was “jalan-jalan,” which means (I hope) “wandering around.”
The house we stayed in billed itself as the “real” Bali, which was ridiculous. It was a house that no one Balinese would ever build, completely cloistered from the village with a pool that overlooked the rice fields where people, you know, worked.
On the other end of that scale was the wedding we went to at a big resort, where we passed through several security gates and had our car bomb-checked by a golden retriever that was definitely not related to the Bali dogs who came to steal our breakfast earlier.
Neither is “authentic,” because my identity as a tourist fucks that from the get-go, but I have to say, I’m glad we chose to stay in the village instead of a hotel. It was lovely drinking a Singapore Sling in a fancy bar styled like an 80’s Bond villain mansion, but the hotel felt like a fantasy world for tourists divorced from the culture. I’d rather be in the village and have my nose in the contradictions: the roosters and the pool.
Of course, I feel weird about being a tourist at all, but if you chose to visit a place where 50% of the economy is tourism, it seems dishonest to pretend you are anything else.
6. Nothing Gay Happened to Us
Most of Indonesia is Muslim, but Bali is 83% Hindu, and their version of Hinduism is relatively tolerant and open. In general, public displays of affection are frowned upon in Balinese culture, so out of respect for the culture rather than discomfort, we weren’t super “out” in public.
We stayed at the Villa Agung Beach Inn in Lovina and the Bali T Houses in Ubud. We felt completely welcome in both places, and the accommodations were incredible for the price we paid ($38/night and $50-$75/night, respectively). We also discovered Bali Friendly, which is male-oriented but offers discounts at various “gay-friendly” hotels. We ended up not going with them, however, it’s pretty awesome to be offered a discount for being gay.
I tried, and failed, to find gay stuff to do, other than some gay diving companies and some big clubs in the south. For the most part, while we were in Bali, we felt perfectly safe, but also perfectly alone. We didn’t see another queer-seeming couple the whole time we were there, even in Ubud. I saw one woman who set off my gaydar, but she might have just been Australian.
Back in the U.S., our first airport stop was San Francisco. We surprisingly didn’t see any queers there, either, but we did get to eat some raw gluten-free crackers with artisanal goat cheese. Also, the guy who saw us through customs ripped on Texas and declared that New Jersey had the best food in the country, which made us feel like we really were home.
Next up is Istanbul, provided I get my new passport back in time!