We just returned from a week-long vacation in Bali, now my second favorite spot on earth after New Zealand. While most of Indonesia is Muslim (and the island of Flores is Catholic, due to Portuguese influence), Bali is primarily Hindu, with gorgeous temples scattered throughout the island. The Balinese are a gentle, friendly people, and I admire them because although they’ve welcomed tourism, at the same time they’ve maintained their village traditions and unique culture, making it part of the tourist experience. While you can find 5-star resorts like those elsewhere with perfect beaches and golf courses, that blare modern music from pool-side sound systems and keep guests isolated from their surroundings, there are lots of opportunities for home stays and hotels that allow you to live side by side with local people and nature.
We started off in Sanur, a beach town on the east coast of southern Bali which is quiet and family friendly. We stayed at a hotel which was a five minute walk from the beach. On the way to the beach in the morning, we saw numerous offerings on the pavement outside of business establishments: nuts, flowers and spices placed in six-inch square boxes made from bamboo or palm strips. The offerings outside are meant to ward off demons; ones inside are intended to please the gods. The people believe the island of Bali is blessed by the gods, and we certainly couldn’t argue with that.
We strolled along Sanur’s beachfront walk, shopping at stands selling handicrafts. We found an open-air restaurant that faced the beach, and ate there two evenings in a row, looking out at the rolling waves and dining on inexpensive local dishes: nasi goreng (fried rice with an egg on top), mie goreng (a noodle dish), gado gado (mixed fresh vegetables), and satay (grilled chicken served on skewers with peanut sauce), washed down with Bintang beer. Bali has a lush, tropical climate which supports the cultivation of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including peanuts. Pile peanut sauce on top of our food, then sell us bags of roasted peanuts, and Tom and I are happy.
Drivers who take you sightseeing in air-conditioned cars cost $50 for eight hours, so we lined up private drivers for two days. We visited Pura Luhur Uluwatu (“pura” means “temple”), a temple perched high atop a cliff with a great view of the Indian Ocean below. A sarong was included in the admission fee, which you wore while on temple grounds, then returned upon exit. We were warned to take our glasses off as we entered the nearby woods, and we saw a monkey gnawing on a pair of sunglasses he’d pilfered. We then went to Pura Tanah Lot, another oceanside temple. It was high tide and the waves crashed in one after another (Bali is a prime location for surfers). The third temple we visited, Pura Taman Ayun, is inland, with thatched pagodas surrounded by lush gardens.
Another day we visited Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, dating from the 9th century. Its rock carvings of menacing creatures and demons before the entrance to the cave were thought to ward off evil spirits. Outside are water-filled bathing areas quarried out of rock with welcoming female stone figures. A second stop, Gunung Kawi, is a temple complex with ten 23-foot high shrines carved into the rock face, about 1000 years old. Quite impressive! It is located on the valley floor, and it’s 270 steps down to get there. That means 270 steps back up, and tourist stands are strategically located on landings where you pause to catch your breath. Lastly, we visited Tirta Empul, a temple with holy springs where again, you needed to wear a sarong to enter. The grounds were lovely, and there was a pool filled with crystal clear water, coming from a series of water spouts that were evenly spaced along a wall. Some people entered the pool and ritualistically poured water on themselves from each and every spout.
We moved north to the inland city of Ubud, and a beautiful, old hotel situated next to the monkey forest. The long-tailed macaques were frequent visitors. Once when I swam early one morning, a group of monkeys came down to the pool, but didn’t enter the water. Little babies clung upside down to their mothers as the moms walked and climbed trees. Another time we were at the breakfast buffet when one monkey swiped a piece of toast from one of the hotel guests, and another, a banana. They have to be quick before they’re shooed away by bemused employees with brooms. It’s as if this food, too, is an offering.
Ubud is surrounded by villages that cultivate food and also specialize in creating handicrafts. One village is known for its painted eggs, and another for batik cloth. There are silver workers, stone carvers, and wood carvers. We took part in a cooking class where first, we went to the market to learn about local fruits and vegetables, including the small, sweet white salak, a.k.a. snake-skin fruit, because of its reddish brown, scaly skin; and the starchy orange jackfruit, which you can easily spot hanging from trees: big, green ovals, larger than basketballs.
Then we went to a rice field and learned about rice culture. The farmer usually doesn’t own his rice field, and gives much of the white rice to his landlord as payment. The farmer makes more money from the rice husk, used as livestock feed, and from the ducks he brings into the field after harvest to glean the rice and fertilize the field. The farmers grow two to three rice crops per year, depending on the type of rice, and plant rice seedlings in the paddy rather than grains of rice because they need to ensure the rice is hardy. They pull up the seedlings in the nursery the night before planting. If they survive the night, that means they’re hardy and suitable for planting.
We cooked at the family compound. Both the husband and wife hosted us. The husband introduced his wife as "my former girlfriend," and joked that she was an MBA (Married Because of Accident; apparently a common cause of marriage in Bali). To grind food we used a “Balinese blender,” which is a mortar and pestle. Everyone pitched in to chop, stir and steam, and the results were delicious. The majority of tourists who helped us cook and that we saw in Indonesian were European, especially Dutch (Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony), with a few Asians and Americans.
We also went on a day-long bicycling trip. Our guide drove us in a van uphill, and we had breakfast overlooking the Gunung Batur volcano; actually it and we were situated in a much larger volcano crater. Then we saw a picturesque terraced rice field, and went to a coffee plantation, where we had the opportunity to try various teas and coffees, including the world famous Luwak coffee. I didn’t know I had a bucket list until I saw the movie “The Bucket List,” and one item on Morgan Freeman’s was to drink a particular type of rare, extremely expensive coffee. In Indonesia, the civet cat (luwak) chooses the best coffee beans to eat. They pass through his digestive tract and “come out from the wrong place” as our tour guide delicately put it. They still look like beans when people collect the poop, separate out and wash the beans, and grind them into Luwak coffee. So yes, we tried it. We are not coffee connoisseurs, but to us it tasted strong, smooth, and rather earthy. It’s nickname is “catpooccino”…
Then we hopped on bicycles, which we rode mostly downhill, stopping along the way in small villages to see a family’s compound, and to try threshing rice by whacking it against a rock. We passed many temples which we weren’t allowed to enter. Each extended family has its own family temple. The aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. all get together at this temple every 212 days. This tradition keeps families on or close to the island of Bali.
Our bicycle tour guide's name was Ketut. This means he is the fourth child in his family. First-born children are generally named Wayan; second, Made; and third, Nyoman. With the fifth child, they start the cycle of four over again, so he is also named Wayan. Ketut bragged that since Balinese are now encouraged to practice family planning, we were lucky to meet someone named Ketut.
We arrived in Bali at 12:05 a.m., and took the same flight out a week later at 2:20 a.m., getting us back to Seoul at 10:20 a.m., with only a one hour time difference. It already seems like a dream…a lovely dream.