04/23/2014 - 05/08/2014
Bali is a world apart from the rest of Indonesia. A predominantly Hindu island rich in Balinese language, art, clothing, food, architecture, and dance, it has retained its local flavor even amidst the Dutch colonialism, Indonesian nationalism, and infusion of mass tourism that have dominated its recent history. Bali is much wealthier and more developed than its next door neighbor Lombok, and the very visible Hinduism is a stark contrast from the ever present Islam and 5 times daily call to prayer that characterizes the rest of Indonesia. Bali certainly has some distinctly Indonesian features as well, like the stunning natural beauty, the fried rice and ramen noodles, the motorbikes everywhere, the easy smiles, and children eager to use whatever English they know.
The religion here is an animist form of Hinduism, which not only includes belief in the traditional Hindu principles, but also ideas of spirituality and mysticism found nowhere else in the world. Their religious roots come from India, but their architecture is more reminiscent of Chinese constructions (though this is only speculation as we have not yet been to China), with shingled roofs and ornamentation on every corner. Temples and complexes abound, and many households are practically temples in their own right, with statues, shrines, and offerings throughout the home, especially in the inner courtyard. Intricate carvings adorn almost every stone surface, most depicting figures of Barong, Rama, Shita, Sagriwa, Hanuman, and other popular characters of Balinese folklore. Little palm leaf dishes filled with flowers, rice, incense, and other small offerings (cookies, cigarettes, money, soy sauce, whatever) are placed all over public and private places and brighten the sidewalks, doorways, and pillars daily. Along the roads, statues small to enormous protect the travelers and depict traditional stories. Roundabouts in particular have huge dramatic scenes and characters towering over the traffic. We rented motorbikes again, and Abby enjoyed riding together on one because it meant she could sit on the back gawking at the surroundings and waving back to children rather than focus on the road and traffic which require constant, vigilant attention.
Random processionals like this happen all the time
In and around Ubud is a Mecca for all things art. It's where Eat, Pray, Love takes place, so it took some skill to avoid the plethora of middle-aged women trying to "find themselves," but despite the throngs of yoga-loving vegetarians and spa-bound girlfriends on vacation, we really enjoyed it there. Having motorbikes was crucial, and we spent our days driving around the countryside visiting various temples, eating at local side of the road warungs (for less than $1 each for a typical lunch), coasting through hills of rice fields, and shopping for hand carved wood items. Some of the best food we've had so far was at little hole-in-the-wall places like this, which mostly served nasi campur, a plate of rice with a free style assortment of small portions of various dishes, sometimes with babi guling, or suckling pig, the most famous Balinese dish. These were also the only times in Bali where it seemed a novelty for the locals to see tourists, and they were very curious and eager to chat - at one place we were even given a free sample of a specialty called tum, which is ground pork rubbed with coconut and spices, wrapped in banana leaves. The roads leading out of Ubud in all directions are littered with all forms of art in mass quantities. Paintings, wood carvings, stone statues and lawn decoration, ceramics, furniture, glass, birdcages, fountains, baskets, tile, masks, carved cow skulls, you name it. It made us wish we had a shipping container we could fill. Maybe someday. We saw men carving intricate door panels, sculpting amazing works from natural tree forms, and bending over their detailed paintings. We saw a group of young girls practicing to become Legong dancers, a traditional form of Balinese dance that is coordinated down to the eyeball movements. We were lucky enough to catch two dance performances, Legong and Kecak styles. We found the dances to be interesting, but the music was what we really enjoyed. The Legong music was performed by an orchestra of marimba-like and other chimey percussion instruments, played with so much syncopation and tempo changes, it's no wonder the music is memorized - I can't imagine how it would be written out. The Kecak dance uses a chorus of men chanting as its orchestra. "Chaka-da-chaka, Chaka Chaka-da-chaka" repeated beneath other sounds, again very variable and unpredictable.
The rice fields of Jatiluwih
The Bukit peninsula, on the southern end of Bali, is full of ritsy resorts and surfer shacks lined up along white beaches set amongst towering cliffs. Though most places are waaay out of our price range, we found some pretty nice places, including our favorite surfer restaurant on stilts in Balangan, with rooms available upstairs and a balcony looking out to the sea and expansive white sand beach. We slept very comfortably under the mosquito net in our little wooden shack, window and door open to allow the sound of the rising tide to lull us to sleep at night. In the mornings, we lay awake in bed watching the sun come up and the surfers dare to tackle the early morning breaks. We tried surfing, but this is not a beginners beach, and we were tossed around so much that we gave up quickly. At Blue Point beach, near the monkey infested, picturesque Uluwatu temple, we shared a few beers and good conversation with our new German friend, Philip, watching serious world class surfing from our cliffside restaurant. The waves were crashing up against the rocks so violently, it not only made us fear for the lives of surfers trying to come in, but also for the integrity of the building we were in as we felt it tremble under the power of the water. Some other highlights from Bukit were Padang Padang beach, and Jimbaran, where we sat out on the beach for a candlelit dinner of sea bass, lobster, clams, squid, shrimp, and crab - the perfect way to conclude our time in Bukit.
On our way to catch the ferry to Java, we lingered a few days to sample the distinctly Balinese ayam betutu, or spicy smoked chicken. It was great, but they really mean it when they say spicy! We also checked out some eco-projects in Pemuteran, where they have a protected area of coral growing rapidly with the help of electric shocks. There is also a sea turtle hatchery, where tourists can pay $10 to release a sea turtle into the wild. We contented ourselves with watching at feeding time and learning a bit about the project. We also visited a South Sea Pearl farm where they taught us about growing oysters and pearl harvesting, and even demonstrated extracting a pearl from a live oyster. We even got to eat the oyster after - doesn't get fresher than that!
All good things must come to an end though, and our visa only gives us a couple more weeks in Indonesia. We are moving on to Java, where Abby's brother Rudy has family in Mojokerto and Cilacap.
Sun setting behind the volcanoes of east Java
Courtyard of our homestay in Sanur
View from our balcony in Ubud
Just somebody's house
Taman Ayun temple
Main temple in Ubud at night
Woodcarver at work
Jatiluwih rice field
Gunung Kawi temple
Stairs to the beach
Padang Padang beach
You can pick your own seafood fresh from the tank at these beach-side restaurants
Seafood restaurants lining the beach in Jimbaran
Our second floor room at Balangan beach
Uluwatu temple on a cliff edge
Buddha statue along with a... Half lion, half elephant, half eagle??
Morning fish market in Jimbaran
Buying lobster on the beach (these women totally ripped me off, the lobster was spoiled)