1. NEW YEAR IN UBUD
Bali, Indonesia. March/April 2003.
Bali's airport is well away from the island's only city, Denpasar - located next to the water on the narrow isthmus connecting the mainland with Jimbaran and Nusa Dua. Thus the cloudless morning air was fresh and bright as our plane skimmed low over the glistening ocean. Parallel lines of white surf appeared below us, rolling relentlessly landward and visible in foamy detail during the final approach. We were arriving from the city of Yogyakarta in south-central Java, ready to begin the final phase of our three-month Asian odyssey.
The map above is placed large in this report because it provides an excellent, uncluttered representation of Bali's topography.
Bali is an anomaly in Muslim Indonesia; about 93% of the island's inhabitants are devotees of Balinese Hinduism - holdovers from the time of the Majapahit empire, a kingdom that stretched from the Malay peninsula across Indonesia's archipelago from 1293 to around 1500. Religion permeates the island's culture, seemingly holding a place far above life's more mundane considerations. Bali may be thought of as a select destination for gorgeous beaches, epic surf and stunning tropical scenery, but it was the art, history and pageantry of the ancient faith on such heartfelt display here that gave our island visit a special resonance.
We were grabbed outside the airport by the driver of a Toyota 4x4, who was happy to take us to the upland artistic haven, Ubud, for the usual Indonesian fair price. This was where we stayed first; an attractive central location from which to take various side trips, before spending our last travel days enjoying the ocean at Kuta Beach. Like all good taxi drivers he acted as both tour guide and expounder on world affairs as we drove through the green and tidy Balinese countryside. (He chose a route that skirted Denpasar, which was to remain a blank spot in our itinerary.)
In Bali, a villa can be a stone-and-glass marvel bolted onto a ravine wall with a cantilevered swimming pool floating above the jungle foliage. Ours was more modest. Up a hill, just west of town, it was one of a grouping of well-constructed, two-storey cottages; dark woodwork inside and a red-tiled deck cut inward under the top floor that served as the living room. The front yard rolled downward and outward, sheltered by tropical flora. Beyond that was a watery rice patty. We even had a small kitchen, although it was oddly located at the back of the house, only accessible from a separate outside entrance.
Ubud is at the latitude where the island begins to rise at a gentle but steady increase toward the northern mountains. Water that would flow swiftly back in deep ravines is attenuated and diverted by an ingenious system of ancient canals and earthen pathways criss-crossing the lower slopes, spreading the constant supply of tropical rain more usefully among the farms and fields before it reaches the ocean.
Fortunately, Bali is blessed with sharp sea breezes. All this slow-moving water exacerbates the usual tropical humidity, but it doesn't weigh as heavily in these green hills. The air is further freshened by tumultuous rainstorms that reliably cool things down every afternoon. So when it's not damp, it's very wet.
The picture to the left is evidence of a morning I spent with a fogged-up camera - not actual steam in the air, only a representation caused by moisture finding its way on to the lens elements. A nice effect, sometimes, but I was sure glad it wasn't permanent. Those are prize roosters inside the bamboo baskets. Their crowing seemed to begin long before daybreak; perhaps they were protesting captivity.
Above: the neighbor's cow. From Kinaya Tours and Travel:
These amiable, beautiful creatures with long eyelashes, delicate features, dew eyes, manicured velvet coats, slender necks, trim bodies, slim legs, and short tails look more like fawns than cattle. Like most cows in the tropics, they give no milk. Unlike the Hindus of India the Balinese don’t consider cattle as sacred; they are bred for their meat and exported to other islands. Nevertheless, cows live a privileged life on Bali, lovingly bathed in village streams, billeted in cozy hay-strewn mangers, let loose on village lawns to feed.
Below: more animal news. We see evidence of a vexing crime problem; marauding gangs of ducks taking over the roads and devouring rice in a locust-like frenzy.
The ducks' road was the same we walked to town, an easy trek beginning in farmland fronted by discrete dwellings and occasional shops, down a curving hill to the stone walls and leafy abundance of Ubud. This is recommended as a daylight walk only. The lack of streetlights and sidewalks make the sharp curves dangerous at night.
Ubud's lively commercial district is easy to navigate with a dominant east-west thoroughfare and three running north-south, with many smaller connecting roads forming a rough grid pattern. You'll find banks, supermarkets and internet cafes, an outdoor market at the town center plus numerous galleries and shops selling local arts and crafts.
An upscale component, aimed at the gilded classes with attendant stratospheric pricing, thrives in the local economy - opulent restaurants, posh galleries, exclusive hotels. It can seem a little forbidding, but one can find plenty of places here that cater to more down-to-earth budgets.
South of the main business zone we found the famous Monkey Forest, a park-like enclosure so named for the creatures who live in great clans among the old stone ruins and enjoy the run of the place. Ubud central is relatively flat, but here the land folds up again into parallel ravines. A system of pathways and bridges guides visitors around the leafy terrain.
Can you guess which picture in this report wasn't taken by the author?
The main road going west crosses a bridge and then curves northward past public art galleries and design-intensive furnishing stores. We scored a couple of crazy, colorful lamps at The Design Unit and were then driven back to our villa in the shop's mahogany-appointed, open-air V-dub as part of the service.
One can spend hours or days wandering the museums and galleries in Ubud and become fully immersed in Bali's cultural history. I stumbled across a haunting installation at one recently-built gallery space. A memorial to the 2002 Kuta bombing, one entered a large blacked-out chamber, given only a flashlight to navigate between piles of sand and dirt, the torch beam inevitably falling across huge text-scrawled aftermath photographs and bits of wreckage taken from the terrorist tragedy.
Back in the town center, we could feel the gathering energy as the island prepared to cleanse itself from this most terrible year.
We had arrived in Ubud a few days before the Balinese New Year or Nyepi. This falls on the day following the first new moon after spring equinox - April 2 in 2003. The last day of the old year is called Tawur Kesanga and brings with it a wild evening celebration meant to chase away demons and renew one's place with God.
Exactly one day before Nyepi, all villages in Bali hold a large exorcism ceremony at the main village cross road, the meeting place of demons. They usually make Ogoh-ogoh (the fantastic monsters or evil spirits or the Butha Kala made of bamboo) for carnival purposes. The Ogoh-ogoh monsters symbolize the evil spirits surrounding our environment which have to be got rid of from our lives . The carnivals themselves are held all over Bali following sunset. Bleganjur, a Balinese gamelan music, accompanies the procession.
Ceremonial activity on the day of Tawur Kesanga includes the construction of out-sized papier-mache monsters, sacrificial offerings, musical processions and prayer meetings. We couldn't help but notice the proud bearing and perfect posture of the Balinese - long-limbed women and broad-shouldered men, this day dressed in traditional finery for the crucial festival.
As we walked back into town that evening we passed this stone stairway carefully adorned with fragrant frangipani flowers. This understated gesture seemed a symbolic counterpoint to the riotous spirituality that lay ahead.
The children marched first, gathering on the football field with torches and a monster they helped to build for themselves.
As night drew in, the main parades got underway. Whole clans marched together, their village monster held aloft, percussive Gamelan music reaching a fever pitch. The various village groups converged finally on Ubud's main intersection, filling the street space with a crush of revelers as outsiders like us watched in wonder from the periphery.
Balinese Hindus hold processions year-round, both in the day (see top picture) and at night, to observe the complexities of their faith. This was the culminating spectacle. We were lucky in the timing of our visit to Ubud.
This frog is a
metaphor simile. That was us the next day, stuck to our house and keeping perfectly still for Nyepi, the day of quietude marking the new year. In traditional Bali, the first day is for profound stillness and even non-worshippers are strongly discouraged from engaging in outdoor activity.
On day two, action restored, we set out to find a scooter.
2. THE HILLS OF EASTERN BALI
Bali, Indonesia. April, 2003.
After a week spent in cultural Ubud, witnessing the spirited Tawur Kesanga festival and the following day of silence and inactivity marking Nyepi, the Balinese new year's day, we arranged a long-term scooter rental and set off to see the eastern part of this fabled island.
My memory of these excursions is disjointed and unreliable, so for this report I'll confine my narrative to providing brief captions for the photos. They will refer to the photo(s) directly above.
Here's that map again. The routes marked in yellow above are an approximation of two outings. The loop along the southern coast circling the eastern headlands lasted three days; one night in Candidasa, near Padang Bai and one in Amed, on the northeast coast. The run going north to the great crater lake, I did alone in one day.
Close to Candidasa, is the village of Tenganan, a walled compound where only Bali Aga (original Balinese) may live. A craftsman displays an illustrated history of ancient Bali, meticulously drawn on thin slats of bamboo, joined with string.
As you can see from the map above, the headlands of far eastern Bali are formed by an extinct volcano. The coastal road is an incredibly twisted affair with roller-coaster dips and numerous small bridges in various states of repair. At times it was necessary to dismount and walk our underpowered scooter up treacherous inclines.
Just west of the Amed coastal area is relatively flat agricultural land. These pictures and the one of the cow below were taken from the road leading back to central Bali.
The eastern slope of Mount Agung, Bali's most sacred mountain. This was the site of violent explosions in 1963 that took the lives of up to 2,000 Balinese villagers. The classically shaped volcano can also be seen in the distance from Kuta's main beach.
I took a rest stop at this mountainside tropical forest during my long uphill ride to Gunung Batur, a massive defunct crater containing a large lake and a few scattered villages.
Once over the lip of the main crater, I was treated to this surreal vista; two smaller volcanos poking up from the sparcely-grown cinder floor.
There were a few villages and settlements inside the main crater. Although Bali seems in general a prosperous, happy place, this area was marked by brutal poverty, perhaps due to the collapse of Bali's tourist trade following the 2002 Kuta bombing.
Almost half the crater's area is submerged by a large scenic lake, also named Batur, which supports a local fishing industry. Swimming is offered at some resorts near Kintamani. On October 16, 2006, Bali-based world-record ocean swimmer Monte Monfore made the first-ever-recorded swim across the holy lake as part of a UN-sponsored anti-poverty initiative.
I'm drawing a serious blank over the location and significance of the monuments pictured above. Wish I could tell you more.
Bali, Indonesia. April, 2003.
We were well-travelled by now. About nine weeks for me and thirteen for my partner, collectively through Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and finally to Bali, where we had just left our "villa" in Ubud to spend the final ten days by the lengthy stretch of sand lining the west coast of the island's southern tip. This was Kuta Beach.
Kuta's probably not Bali's prettiest beach and it doesn't have the most awesome surf, but it's long curve is nicely situated between Denpasar city and the international airport. Meter-high waves roll in reliably and the tightly-packed sand is clean and safe for strolling, if not gleaming white as we heard it once was.
There's Mt. Agung, Bali's sacred volcano, looming over the daily sunset gathering.
Kuta's other great attraction is it's tourist scene: lodgings, bars, restaurants, night clubs are jammed into a highly concentrated urban grid just back from the shoreline. Surf shops, souvenir stands and crafts stores add to the mix. Out on the main boulevard, half a km. away, you'll find the same high-end brand boutiques as in Switzerland or Shanghai. Ho hum, right? The savvy shopper looks for knockoffs. (Hint: go south.)
The red flags warned of strong currents and undertows, and seemed to be universally ignored. One walks out for about a hundred meters into the shallow sea to find a very predictable surf rolling in at a 90 degree angle to the shore. The signs had more meaning to the surfers who ventured beyond the boogie-boarders.
Teams of nail and hair stylists patrol among the sunbathers, ready to swoop. Fresh pineapple, brought to your personal sun spot and chopped while you wait, had a booming trade along the beach.
Removed from the commerce, the flat tidal zone has an elemental appeal. Time slows down for weekenders from other Indonesian islands who come to join the afternoon throngs waiting for a dramatic sky.
Hinduism is Bali's majority religion and its devotees hold processions and celebrations along the beach, marking important occasions on the religious calendar.
To placate the deities, offerings of incense, flowers and even Indonesian paper currency are left on the sand just below the high tide mark. Gamelan musicians and dancers in gold finery gather under the palms between the road and the sand, awaiting their part in the carefully-rehearsed proceedings.
The low-rise commercial district back of the beach is divided by narrow passageways called gangs. These are fine for pedestrians, even those pulling hand carts. Here there is a pleasantly chaotic atmosphere of ready commerce.
Your sense of order and courtesy may be offended when you see taxis and SUVs attempting to negotiate the same thoroughfares. Be vigilant and prepare to be bumped on the the hip or the elbow by a passing side-mirror. The drivers seem to be impervious to pedestrian outrage.
At the time, we were only six months past the horrific bombing of October 12, 2002, that slaughtered 202 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed several buildings in Kuta`s core. The fenced-off wreckage zone became a memorial site for those wishing to leave condolences and offer messages of hope at the tragedy site.
And so concludes the recounting of our six-and-a-half year old Asian adventure. Happy traveling to all and if circumstances keep you close to home, take the time to enjoy your surroundings. Your neighborhood just may be someone else's exotic destination.