Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bali Highlights

Written September 22, 2010

Davo and I ended up staying two weeks on the island of Bali.  We considered leaving for another destination in Indonesia, talked about it, even made some tentative plans, but it never happened.  We ran into several ex-pats who were in a similar situation, except they ended up staying 5, 12, or 20 years.  We did escape, eventually.

Before this trip, when I thought of Bali, I thought of night clubs and bikinis.  Sure, you can go to Kuta, get shit-faced, and stay that way for a week.  It's Australian version of the Cancun spring break, and if that's what you're looking for, you'll be happy.  Unsurprisingly, we didn't go to Kuta at all.

We based ourselves in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, a place that seems to attract romantics, soul-searchers, and a lot of tourists.  If you've read Eat, Pray, Love, or seen the movie (which I haven't), Ubud is the place where the love part of the story happens.  It is a romantic place, the type of place that's made for honeymoons.  Or you can wear white linen shirts, open at the neck, and sip an organic latte while you wait for your yoga class.  It's the perfect place to write that novel you've been meaning to start, an ideal place to take a sabbatical, to sit around with a good book or to browse the myriad number of chic boutiques selling anything and everything with an "ethnic" flair, from stylish sundresses to faux antiques.

For me, Ubud was a great place to reflect on a lot of things.  It was quiet, yes, and touristy, yes, but it was a place where I could relax without spending physical and mental energy on being overheated, dirty, and stressed out, which pretty much sums up travel in the developing world.  Accommodation is cheap and plentiful.  Staying in a family compound is a great way to see the same faces again and again.  We stayed at Suartha's and Gusti's, and both were lovely.  There are plenty of people that speak English.  There are plenty of very nice places to eat, and even a few cheap and delicious mom n' pop places serving Balinese food.  This is a traveler/ tourist haven; you only need to show up.

The only tourist attraction in Ubud (actually, in Bali) that we visited is the Monkey Sanctuary in Ubud.  It's a nice walk in a green, shady part of the city.  Oh yeah, and there are tons of naughty, cheeky monkeys who will steal any food on your person/ in your bag and will do the freak-nasty in front of your ten year old daughter.  Very naughty, indeed.

The best parts of Bali, though, are outside the tourist centers.  Davo and I rented the crappiest car I've ever seen--seriously, the doors must have been made from aluminum foil, they were so thin--for three days in order to explore the countryside.  We drove up the east coast, across the northern coast, then came back through the mountains.  We passed little villages and rice paddies.  Everyone smiled at us.  It was very nice.

We also rented bicycles to explore the areas closer to Ubud.  While you can't see the lovely mountains, nor the beautiful beaches, it was a great way to see where the people who wash my clothes and serve my meals spend their lives.

We also rented motorbikes.  It was my first time riding a scooter, and it was AWESOME!  It was an automatic, so all I needed to do was ride.  I would definitely consider having a scooter (instead of a car?) in the United States, should I need a motor vehicle.  Seriously, who allowed this kook onto the roads?

The Balinese people are nice, as all people are.  Coming from Java, my impression is that the Balinese people aren't quite as outgoing and warm as the Javanese, who (unless they work in the tourist industry) immediately want to befriend you.

This island is predominantly Hindu, in contrast to the rest of Muslim Indonesia.  Religion is a part of everyday life here.  Balinese women make offerings every morning and again around 4 p.m.  On the sidewalk or at a doorway, they put out these little banana leaf and bamboo trays with flowers, bits of rice, and maybe a cracker.

I saw a really beautiful parade down the main street of Ubud, which was random and quite memorable.

There are dozens upon dozens of temples that permit visitors.  Unsurprisingly, the ones I enjoyed the most were the quietest ones that saw the fewest tourists.  They still felt like places of worship instead of roadside attractions.  Besides the formal temples, every family compound has a little shrine.

In my previous life in the United States, many people are religious, but I don't know many for whom religion is a daily or hourly fact of life.  I felt really privileged to observe these traditions in Bali, since they clearly mean something to the people here.

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