After our first night in Bali, it seems cruel we’ve only booked 8 days here. Part of the reason for the short amount of time is past history. Katheryn fled Indonesia during the implosion of 1997, when the odious Suharto regime was in its death-throws, and taking the country down with it. People were rioting for food, atrocities were being committed against the Chinese and Christians (often the same thing; and often the scapegoats when things went bad), the Australian army was air-lifting their nationals out of the country, and the currency was close to being worthless. It was a traumatic time. A similar but bloodier scenario brought Suharto into power in 1965. I was only 4 at the time, but my family, who were living in Java, also had to flee the terrible circumstances. I went back in early 1982. At the time Kuta Beach was a quiet back-packer haunt, Legian was a separate village, and Ubud didn’t have any Italian restaurants. K had warned me it would be a shock to go back, so we have, over the years, left it off of our itinerary.
The added incentive this year is to visit our friend Peter, who after many years of keeping one foot in Canada and one foot in Bali, decided to stay in the tropics for the long term. There is absolutely no one better qualified to guide us through the sprawling warren that is now south Bali. Peter meets us at the airport in a rented jeep, and deftly negotiates the chaotic traffic all the while giving us a running commentary in his inimitable manner. Sure, development has transformed everything beyond recognition from 27 years ago, but the resulting fusion of western cash and Balinese creativity has resulted in a dynamic culture that Peter communicates with enthusiasm. Everywhere there is evidence of an advanced design aesthetic unlike anywhere else in Asia, an attention to detail in houses, hotels and restaurants. At the same time there is a scruffy-dog anarchy that appeals to me. Vendors and markets spill onto the streets, and Peter takes us to a little beach front bar that is just a bamboo shack planted in the sand. With our cold Bintangs we have a clear view all the way along the coast from Legian to Kuta, to the airport and beyond. This little bar is a hold-out from another era, as virtually the entire stretch is high-end (and beautifully-designed hotels), with their orchid gardens and water features. The good news is that the hotels, while high-end, aren’t high rise. Balinese cultural integrity has been the saving grace, preventing this from looking like Waikiki beach. When development began in the ’50’s, the Balinese declared that no building was to exceed the hieght of the palm trees. True, some builders have taken a poetic interpretation of how tall a palm tree grows, but there are only two glaring blights; a shopping mall and a hotel. Both, of course, are the projects of corruption at the highest level, and are unintentional statements of how ugly the mind behind that kind of power is.
Peter arranges a motorbike rental for us, which is essential since his place is out on the edge where urban sprawl meets rice fields. For the next couple of days we are given the insiders tour of the restaurants and shops of Bali. Whether it’s a warung meal for .70 cents or splashing out on tuna fettuccine for $3, the food is outstanding. Although our budget for commercial goods is used up, we wanted to scout out Bali for future possibilities. The sheer number of handicraft stores is mind boggling. There are literally miles of storefront selling carvings, antiques, furniture, jewellry and W.H.Y. Apart from the tourists, dealers have been coming here for decades, although according to Peter virtually everything is made on Java. This is certainly true with the textiles, although we find many pieces from Sumba and Flores as well. We spend half a day in the cloth market in Denpasar, and are fortunate enough to meet Supriadi and his daughter Farhana. They are from Malang, in east Java, where I spent my childhood, and this connection is maybe why they give us the straight goods and the “harga bihasa’, the ‘real price’. We end up buying as many sarongs from them as we can carry on our bikes. Batik, of course, is an Indonesian word for the famous resist-dye process of applying wax to cloth. Although not a dead art, hand made batik is now mostly a high-end artisan-produced specialty. Most merchants will try to con you with either the very cheap “batik prints”- easily detectable because only one side has vibrant colour – or “machine batik”. These are actually true batik, except that the wax pattern application is done mechanically, and are impossible to distinguish from the hand made article- for me, anyway- except that each pattern is identical in every detail. In the end, the sourcing experience in Bali has made me appreciate even more the quality and the diversity of the hand-made culture in India.
Even though the bike is only a little 110 cc step-through Honda, it has enough power to carry K. and me and our pared-down pack – which sits between my knees – on a short tour of the island. In fact everything is so beautiful we don’t end up going very far. The first stop is Ubud – a short jaunt inland – which has been a magnet for ex-pat artists since the ’30’s. Many foreigners have continued to settle here, and it is easy to see why. Ubud is built around a number of steep ravines and river valleys. Some of the most stylish boutique hotels in Asia are built into the lush green slopes and we voyeuristically wander into some just to look around. The staff see through our grubby gear right away, but are always smiling and gracious. The great thing about Ubud is we can get a chi-chi room for economy rates. Peter shows us to a real gem: lovely gardens, a swimming pool, lotus pond, with our room individually set into the jungle above one of the rushing water courses – for $14! Again we curse ourselves for not budgeting more time here. It’s almost a blessing that for much of the next two days it rains torrentially in Ubud; we have to cosy up in our lovely room as the rain thunders and the thunder rolls.
The skies are clear on the day we leave. We head east, more or less along the coast and end up in a spot called Tirta Gangga between the massive cloud-covered volcano ,Gunung Agung, and it’s smaller cousin, Gunung Seraya. A prince had built a water garden here which draws a small and steady flow of visitors, but what is really stunning is the landscape. Every shade of green in the spectrum has been used in the view from our guest house. Palm trees pose dramatically above a ridge of wild grass, patches of jungle foliage explode like green bombs frozen in time, and thick creepers try to blanket everything. The real eye-catcher though, is the elaborate rice terracing. The terraces transcribe every surface with an anarchic geometry, each patch a perfect shade of spring green. As if this wasn’t enough, people and nature have thrown extravagant colour into the mix. Frangipani and hibiscus and bougainvillea tumble from the garden in front of us; the butterflies are almost too much of a hyperbole to mention. A hummingbird with a long curved bill hovers for a second and nearly breaks my heart. Once you get over that there are the towers of clouds sailing through the skies. They can be real drama queens, flouncing up their skirts, pouting black, giving mischievous glimpses of a huge volcano, and glamming it up for the carnival of sunset.
Our room in Tirta Gangga is an impossible $8, and this includes a shower with white stones on the floor and ferns, flowers and a banana tree growing in the corner, open to the sky. Again, we curse the plan to not spend more time in Bali. One morning our host tells us it is ceremony day at one of the local temples, and we would be welcome to attend. We get directions and head into the rice fields. Actually the directions were: you will see lots of people, follow them. The ones we start to follow are too quick for us. We have dressed respectively in long sarongs, and hopping through the thin, often muddy terraces, isn’t easy. As we get closer we see that, of course, there is an easier way, and on it are many men in traditional costumes and women carrying baskets of fruit and offerings on their heads. The Balinese love ceremonies, as one young man explained to us, not because they are necessarily deeply religious, but as much for the art and tradition. You could, in my opinion, make an arguement that there is very little difference.
Another day we head off in a different direction, and after a while it seems to me that a distant-looking temple on a hill should be our destination. We meander through the manicured landscape. The going is relatively easy, if a little indirect, and the worst thing is the over-protective dogs who always have to bark, and tell the next dog along the line that we are coming through. Eventually we reach the hill. For the first time that day, within sight of the temple, the paths vanish. The air is stagnant and the humidity is oppressive. For a couple hundred meters we are the suspicious focus of every dog in the valley, as we pull ourselves up the steep slope through thick elephant grass. The reward is a spectacular view – and of course, an obvious and easy way down. K. is enjoying dredging up some of her language skills unused for a decade, and jokes with locals that we pass.
The road back to Denpasar is like a mixed blessing: it gives us a spectacular winding route skirting the south slope of Gunung Agung, through beautiful little villages and more tumbling rice terraces around Sideman: but it is taking us away from here too soon.
We make our goodbyes to Peter and pay our 150,000 rupiah each exit tax. He has helped us out, once again, getting the last minute things done, including getting our last delicious and cheap take away dinner as our no-frills airline offers nothing you’d want to pay for. We leave the country with the equivalent of $1 in local currency.
From Bali we fly to Johor Bahru as no cheap fares are available to Singapore directly. We negotiate the trip from J.B., Malaysia, into our friends’ place by three local buses, the subway and finally a taxi for the last leg. As perfect hosts, they greet us with gin and tonics, followed by what any westerner after a long tour through Asia really wants: gorgonzola, camembert, old cheddar and red wine. Kerry and Frank have moved into a six bedroom house as their rented condo had doubled in price. As part of the financial melt down, cost cutting measures have moved the office into one of the bedrooms. When his official work week is over Frank springs into weekend mode and basically for the next two and a half days the only activity is cooking, eating, drinking wine and acquiring more groceries. We eat like kings and enjoy great times together, without doing too much in the city at all. Too soon we are back at an airport, flying as we always seem to be, back to Bangkok.
Selamat Jalan, Your Foreign Devil Corespondents
Don’t stop here! See more Bali pics at: http://www.kebeandfast.com and click EXPLORE!