Monday, June 2, 2008

Bali, May 2008

I went to Bali for the first time for a 9-day vacation in early May. It was supposed to be a 10-day vacation, but I changed my return flight to fly back early. It was without doubt, the least fun holiday I have ever taken. This marks the first time ever that I changed my return flight while on a vacation.

Bali's a nice enough place, I suppose, if you're into the surfing, lying-on-a-beach-getting-a-tan-with-a-bintang kind of vacation. It's also reasonably cheap, although I think the whole island of the gods on USD10 a day notion is a bit far-fetched. Being a terribly popular tourist location located in the exotic Far East, it's also stuffed with Australians, Europeans, Japanese, Koreans and increasingly, mainland Chinese (who I hear are also buying property in Bali).

Anyways, I didn't go to Bali for the surfing, the beach (Seminyak good, Kuta not so good, really), the diving, the massages (which were incidentally, great value), the food, or god forbid, the culture. My opinion is that if you've seen one temple/cathedral/mosque/torii, you're seen 'em all. In any case, I'm a flaneur by nature. Walking the streets is how I really get to know the feel of a place, and not just through visiting the canned tourist attractions. I once footed it from Canal Street to the Met when I was in Manhattan.

I went to Bali for one very simple reason: I wanted to learn how to paraglide, and Bali's the most convenient, accessible and reasonably priced location close to Singapore to learn how to do so. Seeing as how I knew no one else who wanted to throw themselves off a cliff (!), I travelled alone to Bali. Not an issue though; there are just some of us that have always dreamt of flying.

The learning site was at Timbis beach (more accurately, the cliff above Timbis beach that pilots step off after inflating the canopy), and the views were spectacular. Definitely not a part of Bali many tourists visit. The closest place to Timbis that most people would recognize is Nusa Dua, but in truth, Timbis is nowhere near Nusa Dua. It's actually closer to the temple at Pura Gunung Payung. Timbis lies along the southeastern edge of the Bukit peninsula.

The instructor was experienced, competent and safety conscious. Those are all good things. Unfortunately, he wasn't such a great teacher. There were of course practical handling lessons, but no theory or classroom lessons. We were just expected to read the textbook he gave us.

The real issue was the weather. Although I was there for nine days, I flew all of one day. That's right, one day. The instructor claimed that the weather wasn't typically so bad, that they would normally fly more than twenty days in a single month. But I wasn't so sure. I can personally attest that Bali is a great place to fly, if you already know how. But is it a great place to learn?

Beginner pilots can only fly in light, steady (non-gusty) winds of less than 15 mph. That by itself already doesn't happen consistently everywhere, not just Timbis in Bali. But what complicates matters at Timbis is that Timbis isn't a training hill. Instead, it's a cliff site that relies on sea breezes and ridge lift. That makes for spectacular views and pictures for sure, which is attractive to someone new to the sport. But what the splashy websites don't say is that while everyone takes off from the cliff, only advanced pilots are skilled enough to land back on the cliff (a difficult and dangerous feat for a beginner to attempt). In contrast, the beginners like me are supposed to take off from the cliff, but land on the beach at the foot of the cliff, where the L-Z is a long narrow stretch of sand (cushions falls, just in case). The problem is, at high tide, there is no beach.

Every morning I spent in Bali was spent bumming around in Kuta or Jimbaran, while waiting for the all-important phone call at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon telling us
(the other Singaporeans I met there and I) if the wind conditions were right for that day. Why 3 o'clock? Because that's when the tide starts to recede. And if wind conditions weren't right from 3 pm till 6:30 pm (when it gets dark), there would basically be no flying for that day. So we couldn't leave the vicinity of south Bali for a day trip anywhere (for instance, to Ubud) because we had to be available for the phone call, but there would be no guarantee of flying for that day even if we set the day aside. 

Both the wind and tide conditions have to be just right for student pilots in Bali. Most days, we spent the afternoons from 3pm onwards at the cliff, hoping for the winds to die down before it got dark, while more experienced pilots circled overhead. Most days, the wind didn't didn't die down. It wasn't very fun sitting there watching the instructor give tandem flights to the gawking tourists for USD75 a pop. I got so frustrated I cut my trip short and came home early.

While waiting for the winds to die down, I was entertained by stories by one of the Singaporeans (who apparently loves Bali enough to want to retire there) who saw, on her previous trip to Bali, a bunch of Filipinos and an American complete the entire 8 day course in one week.

I thought that was a fascinating story and how lucky indeed the Filipinos were! I was even kind enough not to point out that this was her fourth trip to Bali without completing the course. She's going to be back in Bali in August again, apparently on a month-long trip.

So, what's a landbound Singaporean with a yen for flying, living on an island where the national pastimes are really, let's face it, just eating, shopping and chillin', to do? Now that Bali's not really an option, I guess I'll just have to look for some place else that really does have reliable conditions for students.

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