I had just landed in Bali for a weekend trip from Singapore. The guy on the flight next to me was going for two weeks from Paris, making me instantly envious of France's comfortable vacation policy. He asked if I had researched how to get from the airport to the hotels. "I'm just going to Uber," I replied.
Stunned, he asked me, "You think they have Uber in Bali?"
If there's one thing I've learned during travels, it's that where there are cars and internet, there is usually Uber. I've used it in places from Cairo to Bogota. For North Korea, I assume it doesn't exist. And in Iran, perhaps not yet: The app was usable when I was there, but said "No Cars Available" when I opened the app.
While its availability is near-uniform, whether Uber is allowed by various local regulations is another story.
I ordered an Uber and two minutes later experienced something new: The driver wasn't calling me from a phone number to find my exact whereabouts, but rather through Facebook-owned WhatsApp. He added my number to his phone to find I also use the messaging platform. (I appreciated the move since it uses regular internet data as opposed to a mobile network's phone charges.)
After I entered the car, he offered me a bottled water — and later, candy. And then a wifi password. Before I could even ask, he offered me a phone charger offering both Android and iPhone options.
I nervously wondered if I had chosen the default UberX option or accidentally clicked on an Uber Premium/Exec/Luxury/VIP/Pamper ride?
No, it turned out, it was just UberX.
"Is there Uber in Bali?" I heard the French guy's voice in my head. If only he knew: He was probably still standing in the airport's taxi line.
Inside the car was a binder with photos showing a monkey on a tourist's shoulder, exotic waterfalls and people riding jet skis. All covered in a nicely, laminated book.
He asked me what my plans were for the next day, offering to be a tour guide and driver. The cost would be $35 for up to 8 hours.
His job as an Uber driver was just the beginning. An ideal ride for him was far less about a nominal fee and a 5-star rating. Rather, it was a chance to upsell a rider to a private tour in later days.
Before driving for Uber, my driver said, he worked in laundry services at a local hotel, but he made a lot more money now and gets to choose his own schedule.
And it's not just him. He told me he's part of a WhatsApp group with dozens of other drivers doing similar work. They're all using Uber to meet tourists, becoming their personal tour guide, and then getting paid directly in cash — of course.
He uses the WhatsApp conversation thread to share and converse with other drivers about best tips for their line or work and recently to share where there are police checkpoints. Bali recently officially banned Uber from the island, but it has had a challenging time enforcing the rules as drivers and passengers alike are still using the service.
At age 26, the driver had a wife (whom he met on Facebook), a 3-year-old daughter and another child on the way. He claimed he made more money than ever before, which made their lives better.
He also had the newest Samsung Galaxy, and his car was quite nice (remember, he was also offering high speed wifi from his vehicle).
The ride took about an hour and cost $6.