The Hale Boys Reunite In Bali

Every year like clockwork the Hale Boys gravitate to a central location en masse, putting aside our professional, social, and personal obligations in order to cement and further build upon 13 years of friendship, and counting. In recent years pressing issues have claimed some as martyrs but all of us are aware of the stakes at play, and they are by no means insignificant; an opportunity to talk shit, laugh, and then ask each other how we really are. As one might imagine, the answer to how we really are isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. In so many ways this is an opportunity for us to rally around those who aren’t doing too well. In other ways, it’s to have the most fun we’ve had all year and a reminder of our time in school together. 

The 2018 retreat, like the one before it, was in Bali. Bali is a central place for most of us. Apart from myself, who had spent recent years in Pakistan, for the rest of the Hale Boys it was a 3-4 hour plane journey tops. For the two in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta respectively, it was a 2-3 hour journey eastward across the Indonesian archipelago. For the other two in Perth, it was straight up north through the Indian Ocean. My trip was slightly longer this year as I was crossing the vast expanse of Australia from east to west but I was to be duly compensated; the Hale Boys were floating around the airport area for another three hours till my flight landed so I got a hefty greeting party. Hooting, shouting, and long-held hugs were followed by the realization that the yearly Hale Boys retreat was up and running again.

Then there was our Balinese host. One of the main reasons we kept coming back to Bali was that one of the Hale Boys is Balinese. His name is Laksamana Udayana, but we shuffle between the nicknames of ‘Kiki’, ‘Kikimana’, ‘Kikimana Bumiputra Udayana’, or for those who could not quite keep up with the barrage of pseudonyms, simply ‘Lax’ (fittingly he is quite relaxed by nature). Lax wasn’t one of those people who had travelled to Bali and then stuck to the island, but someone whose family has been settled on the archipelago for generations. His religious traditions are a mix of traditional Hinduism from South Asia and the animistic practices of the indigenous island folk. He is in all shapes and forms a bumiputra (a person of the soil). 

As we drove out of the airport we passed the infamous and much touted ‘ACC Minang’ or, as we referred to it, pre or post-departure diarrhea. On our many trips to Bali we had seen this warung hustling its culinary delicacies. As our group guide, and the only certified bumiputra, we deferred to Lax for advice once again on whether we should consider eating there. He replied with an impassioned sermon on what made ‘good’ warung food. Warung food in Indonesia, just like Mamak food in Singapore and Malaysia, or the dhabas in South Asia, are arguably benchmarked against two Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): taste and hygiene. ‘Good’ warung food should have an average score in both indicators but whatever score was given to taste, ACC Minang’s hygiene score would always be a resounding zero. The cooking oil seemed to have been reused since the time the Dutch colonised Bali and if there was a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book that would come to mind after eating there, it would be ‘Love in the time of Cholera’.

As with all Hale Boys’ retreats, there was careful planning and strategic decision making to be actioned and in recent years we had cracked the code for travelling on a budget. For the first few days we lived in the lap of luxury and for the last few days we crammed into Lax’s house and scraped together an existence with the dwindling cash we had left. We would check into the same five-star hotel on each visit (as we were September staples) and Lax would spend the nights with us as part of his role as leader of the faithful. Those three days would be spent lounging in the rooms and at the pool like beached whales, soaking under the sun and staring into space while in between we caught up on where life had led us over the last 12 months. 

We always used our hotel hacks. A buffet breakfast was included, fit for the imperial throne of any civilization, past or present. The trick was to eat slowly and steadily rather than to stuff your face. It was not a battle but a war. There were six different cuisines on offer so it felt reckless to try anything short of all six. Since breakfast ended at 11 am we would filter in at 9:15 and spend the hours gradually filling up the tank. 

Then we drank till dinner time and used our next hotel hack. As good as the bar cocktails were, they were hard to swallow once billed for. Our custom was to buy duty-free alcohol which we would fill our water bottles with and take down to the pool. I’m sure many of the patrons and staff would have wondered why we were constantly parched.   

There were two food items that remained infamous on our Bali trips. One of them was babi guling, which is one of Bali’s best dishes. This suckling pig is stuffed and infused with a spicy concoction typically involving turmeric, coriander seeds, lemongrass, black pepper and garlic, and traditionally spit-roasted. Every time we reached the warung for babi guling, the boys told me it was time for nasi haram (forbidden rice) on account of the pig, which most Pakistanis would run a mile from.

The other food item was our late-night sweet sin. After a heavy meal we were determined to scour the roads for a terang bulan stall. Terang bulan is a big, round Indonesian pancake,  made of sugar and coconut milk and cooked in a pan smeared in palm margarine. The pancake is then stuffed with additional sugar, sweetcorn, and large lumps of Nutella. We stood by the roadside stall, polished off a box of them, and barely made it back to the hotel room before slumping off into oblivion. It became a regular act of culinary self-flagellation.

Our last few days were spent in Lax’s house to see off our yearly retreat. I had stayed there so many times that I knew how to get into his house (push the lever from the bottom of the gate, and twist the lock from the center), where to find washed laundry, and how to unlock the back door to get to the smoking balcony. This consistency in a world of burgeoning chaos that we live in is comforting.  

Lax would usually drop each of us at the airport after the retreat was over, and the drive last year, like most in the past, was largely a quiet one. This was partly because we were disappointed that the retreat had ended, and partly because we were replaying the shared experiences in our heads. 

The TCK nature of the trip didn’t escape us. Three Indonesians, one Malaysian, a Singaporean and a Pakistani constitute the Hale Boys. We studied together in Australia and have moved all over the world but always gravitate to one place every year to rekindle memories from our school years in Australia, while looking ahead to our future lives in our respective cultures.

The final hug is always a tough one, as we don’t know where we will be in one year. But we always take comfort in knowing that hell or high water, we will make the retreat happen again. I for one really hope it continues to be in Bali.

*Warung: roadside food stall in Indonesia.

*Mamak: roadside food stall in Malaysia and Singapore

*Dhaba: roadside food stall in South Asia