Bali — an exotic study in contrasts 20 September 2008

bungalowsOn our arrival in Indonesia (nearly 4 weeks ago!), we had 2 nights and one whole day in Bali, then we had 4 more days at the end of our dive trip. Our delightful lodging for both stays, Puri Saraswati Bungalows (found by Mel), is in the town of Ubud in the low volcanic foothills about 1.5 hours from Denpasar where the airport is located. Right in the center of Ubud, a town that is the traditional art center of the island, this place with its ornate carved and marble rooms used to be guest bungalows for the royal family, built in the 70s. Part of the compound includes a royal family temple and lotus pond, which is now also the exquisite view from the Lotus Café next door – all in all a really lovely, lush area. Here is a link to Map of Bali

But first, a few first impressions of Bali: Motor scooters – it looks to me like 99% of the entire island population, of all ages, drives or rides scooters – sometimes 3 and 4 persons at a time, including small children sandwiched in between teens or elders. And other things on the scooters too, like 5 or 6 5-gallon water bottles, or baskets with produce or chickens. This is a very religious (Hindu) culture with temples everywhere, in villages and even in *every* house, and we saw many many people going or coming from celebrations at their main village temple, the women all with colorful and intricately woven baskets of rice on their heads. sarongsThe men were usually wearing sarongs covered with a more decorative shorter ‘skirt’, a short-sleeved overshirt, and a headscarf; the ladies wear colorful sarong skirts, white (or sometimes colored) and very sheer lacy long blouses (with undergarments of course), and a colorful sash/scarf tied at the waist, sometimes matching the sarong. Most buildings are made of unpainted concrete, with steeply slanted roofs of red tiles decorated with dark oriental shapes at the peak, along the ridge lines and at all the corners; the outside walls are often decorated near the top with red ceramic tiles in oriental designs, and often walls are all around the compound. The ceilings/roofs of most of the restaurants we visited were bamboo and grass/leaf – beautiful from underneath. And penjurs are everywhere too!…more on these below. We discovered while walking around this weekend that even in towns (outside the huge city of Denpasar), if you peek through the houses or compounds lining the streets and roads, there are invariably rice fields just behind, or sometimes other large garden plots neatly laid out.

Before we left on this trip, I had lunch with a friend and told her of our itinerary, and she then forwarded an email from a friend of hers, who had met a guide in Bali a few years ago, Rucina Ballinger. penjursSo, after many email conversations with Rucina (who is an expat married to an Indonesian prince for 34 years) we agreed on a plan and price for her guiding us for our one day here prior to diving. What a find! She was wonderful, arriving with van and driver, and taking us on a whirlwind tour of Bali. We first worked our way toward one of the highest of many volcanos on Bali to their most sacred temple, Mount Bator. Along the way we stopped several times to look at and learn about the penjurs (right) – the symbolic dragons’ tails with coconuts for the dragon’s eye and complex altars at the base – hanging high above in front of every house on the island that are constructed for the 10-day Galungan festival (high holy days, every 210 days) which had just started. Mel was interested in how coffee was grown, so we also wandered around an experimental coffee plantation run by the government and checked out the leaves and unripe beans.

Rucina's sarongsJust as we arrived at the Mount Bator temple, Rucina began instructing us in how to act, and we stopped in a parking lot and got out so she could personally, carefully wrap us all in sarongs (left, with Rucina in the back) and sashes that she brought along for us to wear – the only proper garb for entering the temple. We spent about an hour there exploring the huge place, and taking in the scenery of Hindu art, gold-etched doors and canopies, dragons, creatures, and worshippers. We ended up with sweeping views of the volcanos and of crater Lake Bator, and of the former location of the temple before Bator erupted in 1962.

rice paddyWinding back down the mountain, we made a brief stop at a fruit stand where Rucina introduced us to various local fruits, and then we weaved along a curvy road into rice terrain, happening upon a ‘National Geographic’ scene of a woman praying on the edge of a rice terrace in front of her alter. We then had our first Indonesian meal of the trip – lunch at charming Kampung Café. After lunch we headed back toward Ubud, where we visited a traditional Bali shadow puppeteer, and then a traditional Bali mask maker/dancer and his son. These gentlemen both welcomed us into their beautiful, intricately decorated homes and then gave us wonderful demonstrations of their ancient art.

That evening, after thanking Rucina profusely for her expert guidance, we went walking and window shopping, toward the Sacred Monkey Forest, then finished with an Indonesian dinner at the lovely Café Waring restaurant on Monkey Forest Road.

Eyeglass-Eating Monkeys

On our return from Wakatobi, we arrived back in Bali at about 10am, and Mel, Ellie, Lyn and Spencer had midnight flights home. So Wakatobi arranged another guided tour for us, this time including lunch at Bombu Bali, then a little shopping (ceramics, Bali coffee, souvenirs) and the sunset Kecak Fire dance at [the seaside cliffs of] Uluwatu, the southwestern-most point of the small southern peninsula of Bali.

spencer on cliffThe Uluwatu temple grounds were fascinating. Again we had to be sure we were in proper attire, though this time we were more prepared, and only the guys in shorts had to put on sarongs, which came with our entrance fee of about 25 cents. We walked down many steps to the cliffs, and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the ocean, several hundred feet below us. When Mel saw this photo I took of Spencer (left), he said “Wow! If’d I had realized there was such a cutaway, I wouldn’t have walked out there!”

As we walked the cliff sidewalk, next to a concrete railing with tall decorative posts, macaque monkeys were everywhere. Suka, our guide, had warned us before entering the grounds to remove our earrings, *eyeglasses*, watches, even rings! – anything loose and dangly, because the monkeys are very aggressive and love to take them. monkeysSuka was watchful and stuck close to us, carrying a 3’ bamboo stick he picked up to protect keep them away. As we worked our way higher along the cliff approaching the temple, Lester noticed a group of Japanese tourists in front of us which the monkeys were giving a particularly hard time, grabbing stuff. Then he noticed another scene involving a western couple – a monkey seemed to have grabbed the woman’s glasses – and nearby, a young Indonesian man, nicely dressed with dark glasses. As he watched, the young man walked over to a small boy selling bananas and bought one, and went over to the monkeys who had taken her glasses, offering the banana, then pulling it back repeatedly, motioning for a trade, until he was successful – he then got a big tip from the couple! Back to the first group – I missed the ‘actual’ event, but one of the young Japanese women had had her glasses taken, broken, and then left behind useless, and as I watched her retrieve them, she was quite distressed, unable to see clearly any more. kecak danceSo we were quite thankful to Suka, and were amusingly walking around holding our glasses firmly on our faces, or even taking them off and putting them in our pockets from time to time!

We wandered around the temple grounds, and then down the other side of the cliffs to the open-air theatre to watch the Kecak Fire Dance (left), which tells part of the story of the Ramayana. It was quite a mesmerizing spectacle, and even included clowns. After a beachfront seafood dinner, Lester and I said goodbye to everyone at the airport and we headed back Ubud, tired- and completely toured-out.

Linda-Style Adventuring

So, Saturday we slept in and spent ALL day relaxing, HOURS looking at and weeding photos, taking more photos, and eating more great Indonesian food. Sunday we took an adventure hike. Actually, Lester suggested this ‘walking tour of Ubud’, but couldn’t remember what he read. 🙂 It ended up being about a very hot, 4 hour, 5-mile hike across the varied landscape of the city…from busy roads cut under hanging banyan roots to river ravines with temples, steep steep steps, quiet stone-paved paths between rice fields and lovely houses – so picturesque! signIn the 2nd ravine along a small winding road we came upon signs indicating this was at the north end of a village project – it reminded us so much of Sudtonggan! Per the directions, from another busy road we turned into a upscale hotel driveway, then down a **very** steep path past Colin McPhee’s “House in Bali” – a tiny cottage clinging to the nearly vertical hillside with a bedroom hanging out over the palm trees. There the paving stopped and we were on a narrow muddy path with little or nothing to hold onto (I sure missed my trekking poles), also clinging to the side of the hill, with breathtaking views across to rice terraces in a small gorge, peeks of a tiny corner of the Four Seasons Resort, and to Sungai Ayung, Bali’s most famous white-water rafting river below. gorgeAt that point, a young man came along behind us carrying a large concrete brick on his shoulder (left). We let him pass and we (I) chatted him up, finding that he lives and rice farms in the valley. It was slightly tricky going…often muddy, slippery, narrow track on the still steep hillside. About halfway down an elderly man carrying bamboo uphill passed and pointed, warning us of mud washing away the trail. Ugong (I think that was his name) put the concrete brick down in the mud there for more secure footing; the brick was brought down for just that purpose. At another point Ugong and Lester climbed down over a concrete spring reinforcement, but it was too high for me and with nothing to hold onto I feared falling (I probably could have safely sat down in the mud, in my white pants…), so they came back up and he led us around another route. It turned out to be a great hike, across his family’s harvested rice paddies ready for flooding. We left Ugong at a sacred spring and climbed back out of the gorge, about 300+ steps straight up – WHEW!! Looking back, we agreed we probably would not have continued down the dirt/mud trail if he had not come along behind. Back out on the busy road with no sidewalks, it was quite hot by then and I was getting dehydrated, so we retraced our route and stopped for about 45” at a quiet café for cold drinks.

arjunaThat evening we went next door to the Lotus [pond and temple] Café to watch another traditional dance performance, this one part of the story of the Mahabarata, where Arjuna (the actor on the right) is tested while meditating by being tempted by one of the gods – it was fascinating! The tiny, tightly controlled movements of the dancers bodies, especially their hands, shoulders, head, and even their eyes, were amazing, as was the sing-song speaking style of the main character, Arjuna. We got a big smile and chuckle later that evening as we were sitting on our porch around 10pm in the semi-dark…a large gecko starting ‘talking’ close by (“ruh-roh”), and we heard one of the hotel staff (who didn’t notice us) ‘talk’ back to it for several minutes!

volcanosI think Bali Hai ‘calls’ to Lester – he says he could easily live here. And check out these volcanos! We think we were over Java on our way to layover in Bangkok.