It's all part of the Balinese belief in karma phala, that one's behavior toward others dictates the treatment one receives. Karma, which can sound flaky when espoused by a hippie in the United States., is a serious guiding principle in Bali.
It was perhaps for this reason -- there is no other plausible explanation -- that we decided to rent a car in a country where the steering wheel is on the right, driving is on the left and the traffic makes the Beltway at rush hour look like a lonely country lane.
A woman carries scuba gear on Bali's Tulamben Beach.
In the worst spots, and there were many, motorbikes carrying up to five passengers or an absurd volume of cargo swerved chaotically among cars, trucks and bicycles, all of which came a hair's breadth from tragedy before slowing or veering away.
Yet not once during the entire week did we see one argument, middle finger or indignant glare. Often, when I was the offender in a near-death blind pass -- a moment that would trigger a profane outburst from, say, the Pope -- I would guiltily glance toward the other driver, prepared to pull over and apologize, only to find him grinning at me, delighted at the serendipity of the road spirits.
The Oct. 12, 2002, bombings on Jalan Legian, the busiest street in Kuta, Bali's busiest tourist district, stopped tourism cold.
"In February, you could sit here and literally count the cars passing by," says Rick Lamirande from a table in a street-front bar on Jalan Legian, just a few hundred feet from the bomb site. Before us, a steady stream of cars and motorbikes file past. Rick and his wife, Ruth, from Houston, are on their 11th visit to Bali in the past seven years. "I feel completely safe here," Ruth says. "I wouldn't think of vacationing anywhere else."
The strip looks less like a South Seas daydream than a scene from Cancun, minus Mexico's high-rise hotels: An interminable string of bars, shops and street vendors offers everything from cheap massages and tattoos to $1 watches and rental motorbikes. Jalan Legian parallels the beach a few hundred yards inland, and the space between the avenue and the shore is a labyrinthine carnival of color and chattering hawkers that appears busy enough at first glance. But the mostly empty bars and desperation in the peddlers' voices tell a different tale.
The beaches and streets of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak in the south -- about a 30-minute drive from our hotel -- were the only places we encountered appreciable crowds of tourists, mostly Australian, British, Japanese and Taiwanese. Most had come to surf or decompress on the wide beaches.
We find time for both. Twice I pay about $2.50 for a ride in an outrigger, piloted by a sun-charred Balinese man in a thatch cone hat, to the reefs off of Kuta. Hauling myself over the gunwale as the lone passenger, I ask my driver if he speaks English. "Yes," he says. Excellent, I think, because the surf looks treacherous from shore and I want some guidance.
"Which of these reefs is best for body-boarding?" I ask.
"Yes," he says.
Five minutes later he slows the boat to the leeward side of one reef. We are floating on an indigo plane; behind us, Kuta's crescent beach stretches up the coast, smattered with tourists and peddlers. Beyond that, faintly visible through the humidity, rise the green hills of central Bali and Ubud.
"Where should I go in?" I ask, waving my hand alternately toward a few nearby breaks.
"Yes," he answers.