I had heard many good things about the people of Bali. They were kind-hearted, spiritual and gentle. So, when a coworker and I flew to this tropical, Indonesian island (just as Winter's cold descended on Ohio), I warmed to the idea of a trip that was more than just sun and fun. I hoped to connect with a culture said tobe welcoming and different.
In the end, it finally happened. The journey to connect was long and at times unpleasant, much like my 24-plus of flight time to get there.
The unpleasantness in Bali began in Denpassar airport, when porters snatched our bags unasked, and then tried to milk us for more than a fair tip. They knew we'd just withdrawn cash from the ATM and would have large denominations only. However, I had ignored their urgent pointing and marched straight from the ATM to the moneychangers to get smaller notes. Thus, I was only moderately conned.
Scott and I had booked our first four nights on the internet, so a driver was there to whisk us to our hotel about one hour north in the hills of central Bali. Exotic views of rice fields and elaborately carved stone temples flashed by. I saw farmers, calf deep in flooded rice paddies, working on terrace walls or tossing grains of rice into the air with a bowl-like sieve. Women placed offerings of colorful flowers atop roadside shrines. Sputtering past us on the road were squadrons of motorbikes, each carrying from one to four people each. Colorfully dressed women often clung to the driver, riding "side-saddle." And, seemingly oblivious to it all, scruffy dogs only grudgingly moved out of our way as we sped past. Some even slept nonchalantly on the asphalt.
Speaking of dogs, we'd chosen the Pringga Juwita Water Garden Hotel in Ubud, Bali, because of its enticing description in the guidebooks and websites. With its traditional Balinese architecture, all but the sleeping room were open to the outside. That, and the moat and trees and plants that encircled the complex, made the hotel unique looking. Perhaps, years ago, it was charming and worth the $75 a night we were paying. We'd splurged because Bali was reputed to be a bargain, otherwise. Hard times had struck this hotel, though. What remained was a dirty, unkempt shell of its former self.
Since we'd already paid an internet company for it, we figured it'd be an incredible hassle to demand a refund and move elsewhere. Scott was more taken by the "charm" of our outdoor experience than I. Architecture had nothing to do with the dirt and dinginess, I argued. The same cobwebs and grime in our two-storey cottage stood untouched during our four-day stay -- despite the fact that we were pretty much the only guests. Later, Scott admitted the Pringga Juwita was "a hole."
After unpacking, we strolled into town. Ubud's streets are crammed with restaurants, hotels, tour services and shops selling locally made crafts. It was impossible to walk far without a hawker offering his wares. If I had the proverbial dollar for every time we were offered transport alone in Bali, my proverbial butt could have been sitting in first class sipping proverbial champagne! The spiritual Balinese were proving quite mercenary.
We ate a tasty dinner at the Restaurant Dian (yes, normally unadventurous eater me ate Balinese food most of the trip). We then grabbed a couple beers and retired to our second floor deck to listen to the geckos and frogs. It wasn't long before we dozed off. Sleep came easily after flying for two days.
After a cold shower in the morning (the hotel advertised HOT ones), we set out for a hike to explore the neighboring villages and their temples. Either my map failed me or my sense of direction took its own hike, because locals had to steer us back on course a couple times before we arrived in Pejeng. Our first temple was Pura Penataran Sasih, the "Moon Temple," known for its 1000-year old bronze kettledrum.
We signed the Visitors Book (which seemed to be a Pejeng innovation), duly noting the spot to write down our "donation." We each tossed in 20,000 rupiah (about $2), which seemed to be the going rate with other travelers. The attendents handed us sashes to tie around our waist (separates the Bad lower half of your body from the Good upper half). One of the attendents attached himself to us and began a detailed explanation of the temple. His account was fascinating and I was thinking, "Hey, we should really tip this guy --he's great!" After much more time and detail than I'd expected, we thanked him, returned the sashes, and tried to hand him a tip. I'd pulled out a 50,000 note -- his talk was worth the five bucks. He shook his head and demanded 100,000. Each. I was still thinking warm, mushy thoughts about the Balinese, so after a weak dispute, we gave in.
Walking to the next temple on Mike's Excursion List, we resolved to clarify guide issues beforehand in the future. At Pura Pusering Jagat, "Navel of the World, "we were presented with another Visitors Book to sign and not our respective, individual donation. I rolled my eyes and wrapped the "complimentary" sash around me. Since we refused a guide this time, we were left to wander through the semi-ruined temple on our own. Balinese temples are quite interesting with their walls, intricate stone carvings, statues, altars and bas reliefs encrusting every surface. Afterwards, we stopped at a roadside warung (cafe) and cooled off with a drink. Hiking in the humid, near 90-degree heat was definitely taking its toll.
My sense of direction had returned and I navigated us to Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave. First, we had to run a gauntlet of souvenir shops and hawkers, though. Once inside, it took a half dozen increasingly forceful refusals to free ourselves of prospective guides. The leering, elephant-like demon head carved around the cave entrance WAS cool, but the stuffy passages inside were a let down. I wanted to go further south to Yeh Pelu to see its carved rock reliefs, but our map had proven useless and I knew we'd never find it. This set us up for our next scam artist.
In my 22 years and 50-plus countries, I'd found I could usually trust adolescent local girls. They seemed more honest and less aggressive than the young men, more apt to use their charm rather than trickery. So, when a young girl offered to show us the way, I was ready to accept a guide, again. We grilled her on a price, but she said it would be free (even insisting SHE should pay us the chance to practice her English). She said we could tip her at the end, but only if we wanted. "See?" I thought. "You have to love those girls!"
Chatting away merrily, she led us down slippery forest paths and through a gate where an old man demanded a 1,000 rupiah toll. Then it was out of the trees onto the streets of her home village, our young guide pointing out her house. At last, we came to the reliefs. They were less impressive than I'd hoped, but I took some photos. We headed back to the main road, and Scott handed our young guide a 50,000 rupiah note. She refused, and insisted we pay her 100,000. It was that or nothing at all, she said. We argued, but she acted insulted by our offer, saying she was "usually" paid 100,000. I know, I know. We should have told her to suit herself and let her stomp off. Instead, we paid her, knowing full well we'd been scammed, again. Walking back to the road, she could read my expression. "Are you unhappy?" she asked. I said I was. I told her I'd read that the Balinese were good people. Today, we had met little but liars and tricksters. I told her that, so far, I was deeply disappointed in the people of Bali. "Let her chew on that," I thought!
After 15 minutes of hiking along the road in the rising afternoon heat, I flagged down a bemo (shared taxi), and we paid the equivalent of 50 cents for a ride back to Ubud. There, we cooled off our heads and bodies in a cafe with lunch and a couple beers. We nixed the last sight on my list in favor of a swim in the hotel pool.
Our first day of sightseeing had been an experiment to see whether hiking was a viable way to get around. We agreed walking or bicycling in the heat on these hills was out. Scott felt a motorbike was too risky, so we decided to hire a car and driver. The next day's plan was to visit the neighboring craft villages (each specialized in one skill, like wood or stone carving, silver jewelry, painting, etc.).
Our hotel receptionist had a buddy who could do it, he said. We negotiated a fair price and set out for a day of shopping. Our driver, Made, was patient and even turned into an impromptu guide when I twisted his arm into adding a temple I wanted to see onto our itinerary. Scott found the wooden Ganesh (elephant-headed Hindu god) he was looking for, and I found the silver jewelry on my Christmas list. The day was a success. Made was appreciative when we tipped him, so we contracted him for our sightseeing the next day. That night, we once again attended a traditional Balinese dance performance (a half dozen are held nightly in Ubud).
The next day Made drove us east to the highest mountain in Bali -- Gunung Agung. Partway up the slopes of this semi-active volcano is Pura Besakih, Bali's holiest temple complex. Made warned us the guides were known to screw people over ("Oh, really?" I thought). Refusing a guide, though, proved to be a daunting task. We were continually badgered for the quarter mile walk uphill. At the entrance, the pissed off guides wouldn't let us enter the approved walkway. Tourists are not allowed actually inside the various temples, but may walk on a paved pathway that winds among them up the hillside. They directed us instead to an access road, which luckily joined up with the walkway, eventually. So, we did get to see Besakih. However, the experience of the island's holiest sight was spoiled by more of its despicable predators.
Finished, we drove north through forest and intermittent rain showers to Gunung Batur. This volcanic caldera holds some of Bali's loveliest views from the road that runs along the rim. It was striking looking at Lake Batur glistening far below, while two volcanic cones towered overhead.
I'd urged Made to stop at Pura Ulun Danu Batur, a temple on the rim of the caldera. As we stepped out of his van, we were swarmed by hawkers and beggars. Postcards, souvenirs and various items of temple clothing were shoved in our faces. I looked to Made for help, but he wimped out and just watched. To his credit, he had brought along a sarong for me to wear inside the temple precints (Scott had bought his own in Ubud). Made said nothing as a particularly unpleasant old woman tried to fleece me for a sash (this temple had complimentary ones only for guides, I was told). I paid a fraction of what she first wanted and slowly made my way through crowd like a bear encircled by hunting dogs. When the old woman then tried to place a temple headband on my head -- lying, and saying renting it was mandatory -- I'd had enough. "Go AWAY!" I yelled into her face, and broke away from the swarm. I stalked into the temple, not in the mood to appreciate anything.
The mood was slow in leaving the rest of the day. I made only feeble attempts to get Made to pull off the road so I could photograph scenic views. I was in the "Don't Give A Shit" stage. I've found when you get to that stage in a foreign country, the best cure is meeting a fellow English speaking traveler. Comparing experiences and hearing about their journey recharges my travel batteries. Vishnu must have smiled as we bumped into Merle, from California, later in Ubud. He was on a three week swing through Asia and I think was desperate for some American company. We drank and ate at a cafe, having a blast. Afterwards, we swung by his $25 a night hotel to compare it to ours. His proved to be a gorgeous, four star resort, which finally torpedoed the Pringga Juwita in Scott's eyes.
For the final three days of our trip, Scott and I headed south to the famous (and touristy) beaches of Kuta. We imitated Merle's walkup strategy and scored a pleasant one for $25 a night, too (I'd insisted: "No traditional Balinese architecture"). We checked out the shops and peeked at the beach the first day, reserving Day Two in Kuta for our sun and sand experience. The waves were incredible. I battered myself silly diving, somersaulting and bodysurfing them. Drying out in the sun on our $1 a day lounge chairs, it was fun just to watch the waves rise up and pound the sand with the sound of a tropical thunderstorm. Most of the other beachgoers were cheerful Aussies. There was only a minimum of the "I'll go naked anywhere I please (no matter what the local custom)" Europeans strutting around.
That night, we met Nick from Baliblog.com, an Englishman whose spent the past year here writing a web page on his experiences. We'd read and enjoyed his daily updates while planning our trip. The tons of pictures and the descriptions he posted prepared us for how Bali would look, feel and smell. I'm a fervent reader of guidebooks to figure out what I want to see, but Nick's site let you experience life in Bali alongside of him.
With Nick, were Sean (from Oregon) and Chris (Australia). Shortly afterwards, Juliana joined us. She is a cute, 19-year-old Balinese girl studying in Australia. The six of us had an incredible time, swapping stories and sharing experiences. I've found some of my most enjoyable evenings overseas are spent in the company of fellow travelers. Their insights on the world are unique and fascinating. For Nick's account of our evening, check out his blog.
During the evening, Juliana insisted we should all come see her village of Baturiti while in Bali. I was the only taker, as the others had plans. And here was where the connection with the kind-hearted and welcoming Balinese occurred. Juliana is a wonderful ambassador for her country. Despite going to school full time, she also squeezes in at least five hours of part-time work each night in various jobs in Australia. A kind heart, she has built a house for her parents, bought them their first refrigerator and other appliances. An only child, she embraces the fact that it will be her duty to support her parent's old age -- accepting it may impair her dreams of seeing the world. She is paying for the schooling of four of her young cousins, and confessed her dream is to build and run an orphanage so that poor Balinese kids have a chance in life.
I had a wonderful day with her and her family. Her mother Loh De fixed a Balinese lunch for us, including...gulp...two bowls of snails. They laughed at my expression as I overcame my reluctance and sucked down a few of the slimy-looking things. Juliana had hired a car for us, which her father Landuh drove. They took me to Mt. Bratan, with its volcanic lake and gorgeous shoreside temple. We picked up her mother on the way south to stunningly sited Tanah Lot temple. Her mother was from the local village and wanted to place offerings at the family temples. At Tanah Lot itself, we ran into the largest crowd of tourists I'd seen yet in Bali. The temple is set on a rocky islet on the coast amidst crashing waves. It was charming to see Juliana's Mom poke about the tidal pools, looking for crabs and reliving her childhood experiences.
Even more heartwarming was Juliana watching the local urchins trying to sell knick-knacks to tourists. That was how she got her start, she said, doing the same thing. She confessed she always buys something from one when she comes here, hoping that it will help that child have the good fortune she has. As she reached for her money, I asked her to let me pay for the little seashell souvenir. She had refused to let me pay for the car or gas. I told her this would be my way of thanking her, in the hopes that it might create a future Juliana.
This day, spent with a fun-loving and kind-hearted Balinese family, is when I finally connected with the true spirit of the island's people. Tourism has brought many changes to Bali over the years -- not all of them not good, I'd seen. I'd begun to doubt the positive things I'd heard about the Balinese. Juliana and her family showed me that the traditional spirit of her people still lives on in Bali.