Maybe it was jet lag or maybe it was just the excitement of finally being in Bali once again, but I woke up early and decided to walk down to the beach. The sun was just starting to rise and everything was serenely quiet with only a couple locals wading out to pick up sea urchins for Japanese export and a lady silently meditating beneath the prow of a boat.
As the sky lightened, I began to see clearly some of the Balinese beauty which I admire so much. I saw the carefully folded palm decorations hanging from a palapa and one lady already busy creating leis and decorations of fresh flowers.
Soon, everyone was up and ready to go. Leisurely walks along the beach and the main road of Sanur could fill lots of time. I had to show them the ritzy mega-hotel area of Nusa Dua, which is beautiful but not the Bali that I love. We stopped for a drink at the Hilton so that they could see the carefully manicured grounds in this area of large, major chain hotels. It gave me an opportunity to enjoy my favorite Balinese drink - blended pineapple, fresh, thick and naturally sweet. Although this is a beautiful spot, you could find a similarly beautiful room at any number of other Hiltons worldwide. The outdoor dining is harder to find everywhere, but that is found absolutely everywhere in Bali. Because of the tropical location, dining is almost always enjoyed in the open air. There are indeed air-conditioned restaurants (and most hotel rooms now), but dining in the fresh air amongst lush greenery has always been our preference and fans are always present where needed.
Unfortunately, driving from this area of high-end hotels to our next destination proved very depressing to me. I had never seen such evidence of poverty and dirt in Bali when we were there in 2000. However, I now saw an area littered with paper and plastic trash over dry and dusty land sprinkled with shacks and poor housing. All of the tourist areas in Bali suffered after the bombing that happened in 2002. When they experienced yet another bombing in 2004, tourism fell off even more. Many, many Balinese who had moved from farmland to this southern area seeking jobs at those mega-hotels lost their jobs. There was even a nice shopping mall in Nusa Dua and it has since gone bankrupt and all the stores have closed. I imagine that many of these transplanted Balinese kept hoping that things would get better in this area, but jobs for the locals are now rare. Thankfully, we did not see evidence of such poverty anywhere else during the rest of our trip, even though we traveled through many areas, including much countryside. Kuta, which is another high-density tourist area, was the least clean and charming area that we experienced. But I didn't like that area much when we were here before, either. It is the busy, commercial area where all the young Australians congregate to drink and party and surf. It is also the location of the 2002 bombing.
Our destination for the evening was the Kecak Dance performed at the Uluwatu (I love saying that four-syllable name with all its short u's) temple perched high atop a cliff.
The monkeys hold dominion over this area. The story performed at this spot highlights the prowess of the White Monkey God in saving Princess Sita from the evil hold of the demon King Rahwana. This is not one of the truly traditional Balinese legends, but it is very unique and well performed by a chorus of 40 to 100 men who create all the accompanying "music" by chanting in unison. It also gave my companions a first look at some of the Balinese dancers and their fantastic movements and costumes. The performance, which is started at sunset, ends in an exciting flurry of fire.
The performance at Uluwatu was great, even with the mishap of Peter getting his glasses temporarily stolen by a monkey. Everyone warns visitors to take off all their shiny jewelry and hang onto any eyeglasses. They even have guides for hire at the entrance. The main purpose of a guide is to chase the monkeys away. Although the monkeys are cute and tremendously appealing to any photographer or animal lover, they are renown for swooping down to grab glasses or other shiny items you might be carrying. Larry had always been skeptical of that warning, asserting that it was probably just a way to encourage paying someone to accompany you. Well, while Peter was intent on photographing a certain monkey, another monkey instantly swooped past him, capturing his eyeglasses in the process. Fortunately, several nearby "guides" chased the monkey down, bribed him with something to eat, and the monkey gave up his booty. So now we wonder if the monkeys are truly mischievous or if they have just figured out a way to get snacks while having fun with the visitors.
It turned out that my only two disappointments during two weeks in Bali occurred on this one night. The first was the sight of such a poor area of Bali, which I explained earlier. The second disappointment involved our tour guide's choice of a restaurant that evening. I wanted everyone to dine on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, a nearby area that is known for fresh seafood dinners. We had enjoyed that during our last trip. Well, times may have changed there or our guide may have chosen the wrong restaurant. In any case, the place was way too crowded. On top of that, when we went up to choose our fresh seafood, we found that they were out of the king prawns that we wanted. What a bummer! When Larry let them know that we were going to find another place, even after we were well into our first beer, there was much scrambling and king prawns were suddenly sent over from a nearby establishment.
Our waiter was cute as can be, but the dinner was disappointing. From then on, we made our own arrangements. Our tour guide had previously been very informative and helpful, but we managed very well without him for the remainder of the trip. There are so many drivers available that it is easy to negotiate an inexpensive price with someone who speaks English and is willing to take you wherever you like. A driver with an air-conditioned car or van can be hired for about twenty or thirty dollars a day.
Rather than American-style hotels, I love to choose the places that are uniquely Balinese. The mosquito nets over four poster beds are not necessary, but totally charming. The gardens are always part of a hotel plat, and the architecture is genuinely decorative. We stayed in several hotels. Limiting yourself to just one spot in Bali lessens your enjoyment of wonderful variety.
There is a wonderful variety of food in Bali also, and we tried to sample a lot of it! Restaurants serve a variety of cuisines but I encouraged everyone to try some Balinese classics. Besides that, we even took a cooking class with Janet DeNeefe, who wrote a memoir/cookbook about conversion from her Australian culture to the Balinese world of her husband. We had previously stayed at her Honeymoon Cottages and then read her book entitled Fragrant Rice. Now we got hands-on instruction for the proper way to grind those aromatic spice mixes of fresh chilies, garlic, ginger, palm sugar and all the other rare spices we had read about.
A performance in Ubud let everyone experience an excellent company performing the traditional Legong dance. The costumes are amazing, but the female dancers' graceful use of their fingers and eyes as well as all their other stylized movements make it an unforgettable experience enhanced by the excellent gamelan instrumental orchestra. These dancers start training at a very early age, for it takes years to perfect these intricate movements.
Batik work is commonly done in Bali, with very detailed work done by many, many artists. Liquid wax delicately applied by hand is the means for original designs while metal molds are used for repetitive designs. We toured a batik factory and Suzanne even got her own personal design. I reminded her that she needs to color dye her shorts and then melt the wax off in order to keep the effect, but that didn't stop Scott from joining in.
Painting, wood carving and stone carving are also crafts that are common in Bali. Certain communities are specifically renown for each of those crafts. We visited several places. It is overwhelming to drive along and see the sides of the road lined with excellent stone carvings or signs to galleries. It makes you want to buy everything in sight, especially since the prices are so reasonable.
Another time that brought us through many rural communities was a bicycle ride that Peter organized. We started out with a trip up to Kintamani where we got a great view of both the Gunung Batur crater and the lake within its midst.
Then the hardy four jumped on bikes for a ride down the mountain and through villages and rice fields. Carol and I followed in the van. With a couple stops along the way to mix with the locals, we all made it back in time for a dip in the pool.
A couple of other natural sights that I would recommend to people would be the riverwalk in Ubud and a trip to the white heron neighborhood just outside Ubud. The small white herons have found a friendly group of people along a specific street and they return every night to sleep and nest in the trees lining the street. The sky is filled with these birds when they return to the trees.
On the night when we visited, our departure was detoured because a procession of the community members took precedence over our vehicle. In fact, any procession to the temple can stop traffic in its track until the pedestrians pass. It's not uncommon to see a large community of people walking quietly through the middle of the street. All will be similarly dressed in their temple dress outfits - even the children.
Everyone wears a sarong when entering a temple, so we also got wrapped when we visited. The women may even be carrying ornately displayed offerings on their heads. These offerings of food are blessed by the priest and then returned to the community to be shared. Offerings of small palm leaf baskets containing bits of rice, flower petals, incense, etc. are a daily part of life in Bali. The Balinese are believers in respecting and maintaining a healthy balance between the good and bad around them.
We ended our trip with a visit to the busy Kuta beach, where the surfers dotted the water and the souvenirs are readily available from the local salespeople. This is that busy area where you can find Starbucks and the Hard Rock Cafe's hotel and huge pool complex.
But I will most remember the rice fields and quiet times in Bali.