Upon arriving at Denpasar’s airport I immediately picked up on many familiar impressions. The first was the heat. The last time here we’d been in tropical Asia for a couple months and there was not adjustment necessary. But coming from cold, overcast November Seattle was more of a shock. We later learned that Bali experiences a few short weeks each year when the temperature spikes from their well-advertised year round 85 degrees. Turns out one of those brief periods falls in Nov., just before the rains set in. So for our first week we experienced temps in the high 90s.
A much more pleasant reminder was the temple right in the airport. Bali boasts thousands of temples so one sees them virtually everywhere. The familiar “split gate” entrance and pagoda-like meru were welcome sights and took me right back. The second pleasant reminder was how friendly the Balinese people are. Everyone smiles all the time. One is always pleasantly and genuinely greeted – from the passport control, visa issue, and baggage check to the currency exchange and taxi line-up. Everyone was engaging and ready to help.
We passed up the official taxi line and bargained with a driver hanging about for a fare. We bargained good-naturedly and knocked off close to 50% from the “official” fare. Our driver was pleasant with his limited English. He told me which mobile phone company would best suit our needs and pointed out a place to buy the appropriate chip near our hotel. Once away from the airport we were assaulted with the distinctive smells of Bali: tropical flowers, roasting meat with eastern spices and clove cigarettes (not so nice but distinctive and memorable).
Familiar sights greeted us as well. We saw the traditional red pants and hats among most of the taxi drivers at the airport. We were immediately reminded that the Thais drive on the opposite side of the street form us. Signs for Bintang beer reminded us of our favorite chilled beverage – soon to be tasted. We passed many vendors selling the colorful fabrics of Bali along with the usual tourist fare: T-shirts, swim suits, sun block, and souvenir trinkets. New sights included Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC (in Kuta).
We checked into the hotel we’d booked. It was a high-end budget place with simple, AC rooms, basic but private bath, and a pool for Maia. Quite a step up from our budget days. I love how the Balinese take so much pride in their architecture. Even this budget hotel had traditional architectural appointments: carved doors, decorative masks, and stone statuary throughout a central garden. I tripped going up the stairs to our room, reminding myself that regular, even stairs are a western phenomenon.
After checking in we went out to explore the neighborhood. The tourist economy is obvious as the streets were lined with warungs and restaurants, Losmen and Hotels, Circle K (convenience) stores, travel agents, clothing stores, and market stalls selling every souvenir imaginable. Right away we encountered the ubiquitous practice of tiny offerings being places in front of shops, homes, hotels, and temples at all times of the day. Keeping the gods happy is a full-time pursuit in Bali. Even though Bali has been greatly developed over the years, one is quickly reminded to watch your step for broken pavements and the various flotsam of a rural culture gone urban.
Our first days were spent looking for hotels and restaurants to use for the tour. Some of our fondest recollections of Bali were the family compound style accommodation we’d enjoyed. So naturally we sought hotels with that same kind of authentic character. As we visited many locations I was reminded of how commonly volcanic materials are used in construction here. Tufa-like bricks are very common for their ease in production and carving. Flowers are a common motif, hardly surprising in the tropics. With the exception of Kuta, the rest of Bali seems committed to keeping their traditional culture alive in their architecture. So pleasant. Then there are the modern adaptations that don’t quite make the grade (in my opinion). I’m thinking of the plastic aquarium I found mounted over a urinal in the airport. I have to give points for creativity and uniqueness.
As we traveled around the island I was struck by the Balinese love for ostentatious, public art. In most towns of size there is at least one monumental statue, usually some Hindu deity, at a major intersection or entrance. I’m starting to understand that there is, at best, only a blurred line between art for life and life as art here. Balinese culture is so enveloped in ceremony, performance, sacrifice, and devotion. In a way that I’ve never experienced anywhere else, these elements seem to be a part of every day and every person’s life – not just dusted off for big festival days. There are statues everywhere – from the huge ones mentioned above to smaller, private garden versions. They are venerated, dressed, and adorned with flowers all the time. The creation and giving of votive offerings is truly a constant, daily activity for all.
We ventured out to Amed on the east coast of the island. It is much less developed than other beach areas. The beaches are not golden sand like Sanur, Kuta, or even Lovina and Candidasa. Instead they are pebble beaches. But the lack of commercial tourist crush is refreshing and the scalloped coast is striking. Multiple inlet beaches are lined with colorful outrigger canoes with eyes painted on their prows. Between the half dozen villages the landscape is dominated by palm trees. The drive from Selang (southeastern-most village) to Ujung was very windy and slow but allowed a glimpse of what remains of authentic Balinese village life and many stunning vistas. We saw many children working or going to school and women shucking corn or doing other tasks. Everyone was friendly and eager to have their picture taken.
The drive from Amed back west across the slopes of Gunung Agung afforded repeated views of emerald rice terraces glinting in the sun. As the guidebooks say, it defies ones ability to find new words for description (verdant, lush, vernal, luxuriant). Mt Batur was shrouded in mist but nonetheless dramatic as we arrived at the lip of the caldera. We could pick out glimpses of the silver lake below and occasional clearing of the clouds allowed the lava dome to briefly appear. We were ever so pleased with the Lakeview hotel perched on the caldera rim. It provides a comfortable venue for the group to enjoy the sunset/sunrise. The brisk mountain air was a welcome change.
Having accomplished our goals for Batur we headed south to Ubud. More remarkable rice terrace views and several wood carving villages made the drive interesting. We settled into our hotel room at Nick’s Guesthouse as the day’s light was failing. Ubud has grown tremendously in the last 15 years but seems to have retained its essential character. A comment I can add for Bali in general. There are many, many more hotels, restaurants, and shops but one can easily slip away from the bustle by leaving the main roads on any alley – soon you are wandering through rice fields of climbing down steep, secluded feeling river valleys. It is quite remarkable really.
Ubud was full of memories: finding hot tea in a vacuum pot on your porch each morning, banana pancakes and fresh fruit for breakfast, misspelled signs like “taksi”, and the sounds of performances every night. Lots of great, creative restaurant options, the well-organized tourist information office, and plenty of activities to engage in. At the Circle K I found Birdy canned coffee, a delight I discovered in Thailand last year. In a country where coffee is less than stellar, this was a welcome find. We had nasi goring and mie goring in the market like old times and roasted suckling pig at a famous warung near the main temple. Maia and Julie attended a performance of Barong/Legong and reported it is still as visually stunning and authentic as we remembered. Ubud is just high enough for it to be cooler than the coasts: still hot during the day but pleasant evenings. Maia and Julie shopped in the market while I nursed a sore back one day and we all spent lots of time in the pool. I also indulged in a beijing massage 3 of the 4 days here. It cost about $8 and the girl came to the hotel and worked by the pool – heavenly!
We met with Dewa, a transport contact from Intrepid who turned out to be a great resource. He took me around to hotels and restaurants and introduced me to local guides. When I turned up lame (back) the second day he volunteered to take me to a traditional healer. I went willingly. I had quite the experience. The man’s name was Kokrai and thereafter, when I told any locals of my experience they all knew of him. Dewa arranged everything, which included driving me 15 minutes or so to another village and arranging an offering (which contained about $10). Kokrai was very old, maybe late 70s. He examined me more by touch than by question, using his hands and fingers. He had me lie on my back and he pinched my little toe with a stick – it really hurt and I squeaked more than once. He than had me twist my torso while he poked the heal of my other foot with his stick. Then back to the toe (ouch!). Then he had me sit up and stretch forward. While I sat he kneaded my neck, back, and shoulders. Then he asked me if I wished him to make me some medicine. He spoke English but also pantomimed how the medicine would be applied (although I didn’t understand at the time). I said yes so he made up the medicine. He chopped up several different herbs on a little chopping block on a table, put them in his mouth and chewed them up for a while, and then spewed them out on my lower back. The rest of the herbs he added to some oil and told me to apply it to my back each morning. I thanked him and we returned to Ubud. It was a fascinating experience and I must admit my back loosened up considerably as the day wore on and I recovered, day by day, much quicker than usual.
As was the case on our first visit 15 years ago, one of the most pleasant aspects of Bali is its people. They seem to be irrepressibly smiling, engaging, and friendly. At our first hotel in Kuta we met a family of wife, husband, and young daughter who was enamored of Maia. They spoke little English but were still able to communicate their genuine interest in us, our reason for being in Bali, and their wishes for us to enjoy their island. And once the “conversation” turned to newly elected President Obama, they beamed with pride and expressed their excitement and optimism for all or our futures. Mr. Obama is held to be one of theirs in Indonesia, having lived in Jakarta in his youth. We found the name Obama to be the ultimate language barrier buster as its mere utterance elicited handshakes, smiles, and enthusiastic thumbs-ups. It is quite clear that the new president holds near messiah status here. We were already happy about his election but the special enthusiasm we encountered on Bali added to our excitement and expectation of a promising future. The globe is truly shrinking.
We concluded our R&D excursion excited about the prospects of introducing groups of our American clients to the wonders and beauty of this tropical paradise.