Well, most of the streets have names, but there are no street signs.
After racing around all hectic-like in Australia and New Zealand, we were really looking forward to sllooowwwwing down in Indonesia and having some time to relax by a body of water. Pool, ocean, pond – we wouldn't discriminate. Since we decided to stay a little longer in NZ, we had to cut time from somewhere, so rather than change ALL our flights, we just changed a few near term ones, including Indonesia. Therefore, we didn't have as much time to dedicate to transit between the various Indonesian islands, so we decided to focus all our time on one island – Bali.
Bali is a very curious island. Indonesia as a whole is a Muslim country, but little Bali is Hindu, an anomaly among the giant nation of many islands. This, by itself, is a fascinating part of visiting Bali; and were excited for immersion into temples, ritual offerings, and prayer that the island offers. And the beaches, don't forget about the beaches.
The first thing we noticed as soon as we walked off the plane was the humidity. Oh the humidity! It was certainly hot in Australia, but Bali is different. 85 degrees and 100% humidity – it felt like summertime in NYC! Then the second thing we noticed... the amazing architecture in the airport. Soaring stone arches weaving in and out of the more modern facade, which seemed to link old and new. Intricate stonework detailing scary soldiers, animals, dragons, and deities. Beautiful gardens with a rainbow of flowers and straight-as-an-arrow palm trees. The international airport certainly puts to shame the sorry excuse for an airport we call JFK. We hopped in a taxi and headed to our first stop, Ubud.
Ubud is the “heart” of Balinese culture. (Many are now familiar with Ubud thanks to a little book and movie called Eat, Pray, Love). This city in the mountains of Bali is known for a few things, including deep religious faith, Balinese dancing, temples, and art. We intended to see all of the above!
Although the traffic getting out of the airport was bad, we were in no way prepared for what we were about to see in Ubud. There's one main road going into the center of town, and it can juuuuust barely fit two cars going in either direction. But that doesn't stop drivers from squeezing jumbo-size tour buses past each other while motor scooters whip between the tiny sidewalk and the side of a bus or taxi. Sometimes even playing chicken with other cars, ducking into the correct lane of traffic at the last moment. It was mad! So much for a quiet little respite from the big cities we left in Australia. We turned into one of the two parking spots at our hotel (located on this crazy main street) and immediately were very worried about having to listen to scooter honking and bus engines all day. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the hotel rooms were FAR removed from the street. It was later that we realized that almost all hotels, restaurants and resident properties in Ubud are like teeth – the business end is really small but there's so much hiding underneath the surface. Most have small, unimpressive street-front facades hiding giant and beautiful grounds behind them. Our hotel was exquisite – rice fields surrounding two infinity pools, beautiful foliage, local artwork & sculpture, and a constantly playing stream of soothing Balinese music all over the grounds. Yeah, we could get used to this.
One of the most striking things about Bali is the omnipresence of the daily offerings. All religious Balinese believe that making offerings to the Gods is a critical part of daily life. Offerings are at the heart of their religious practices. For larger ceremonies, the offerings are elaborate spreads of fruits, flowers, even whole pigs! But on a daily basis, the offerings are small and lovely little trays made from palm leaves, and filled with flower petals or blooms, small bits of candy or food, coins, and incense. Always incense. The incense is critical because (if we're getting this all right) they believe that the smoke is what allows the Gods to “taste” the offerings. But what we liked about this brand of devotion is that the Balinese are totally allowed to eat the food after the Gods have had their taste. So the offerings are not wasteful, and when they are so elaborate as to involve whole pigs and a week's worth of produce, that's just practical. The Balinese make their smaller daily offerings at the start of each day, after dawn and morning cooking, but before work. The offering go everywhere. Outside the homes, one in each room, one in your car or on your motorbike, outside your business, and of course at your home's temple. Every Balinese home has a temple. This kind of devotion is so intriguing and commands a lot of respect. Balinese women fabricate these offerings every.single.day of their entire lives, and all family members leave their own offerings. The trays are made by hand (It's hard! We learned how...) and they pump them out like it's second-nature. If you wake early enough in Ubud, you see everyone making their daily offerings. It seems like both a very private ritual, and one that deeply connects the community. Plus, they're pretty and sometimes quirky. To see a lone cheddar cheese goldfish sit among petals and incense is just a fun thing to see. Of course the Gods would like a cheddar cheese goldfish. Who doesn't like goldfish?
Shiny happy people
We very quickly discovered that the rumors about the Balinese people are 100% true. Everyone (I literally mean EVERYONE) is incredibly friendly, welcoming, and willing to help. From the front desk at the hotel, to the taxi drivers sitting on the side of the road, to all the store owners – they all present themselves as extremely happy people who love their jobs, their place in life, and meeting new people.
We were very lucky to have spent a considerable amount of time with one of these super friendly people, Lionk. Our meeting Lionk was an orchestrated happy accident. We asked the hotel to book us a car and driver for a day of temple-touring. Originally they booked the hotel driver, but shortly thereafter realized the driver backed out because he had to attend a ceremony at his temple. They found a last-minute replacement – Lionk.
Lionk showed up in traditional Balinese dress – headscarf, crisp white button-down shirt, and a fanciful sarong. He was young and energetic, and so warm and friendly, he felt like a friend almost immediately. Since we were going to temples, men and women both needed to have shoulder and legs covered, so sarongs were necessary (he brought extras for us). First stop – the holy water temple Tirta Empul.
The water temple is a very holy site for Balinese. The temple, which dates back to 962 AD is one of the older temples in Bali, and was built around the natural phenomena of a ground spring, which the Balinese consider absolutely holy water. This ancient temple provides an important ritual for the modern Balinese. Once a “year” (which is a whole different calendar), the Balinese come here to bathe in the waters, washing away sins and cleansing themselves with the sacred water spouts of the temple.
Lionk explained to us that he hadn't been to the water temple this year yet, so it was very lucky for him that we wanted to go and actually bathe as well (most tourists don't, he said), so he could join us. Killing two birds with one stone for him. He said he would explain the meaning of each water spout as well as help us with the offerings. Sweet, we probably won't look like morons now! We arrived at the temple, and quickly realized we were the only non-Balinese people there. We changed into our bathing suits in crowded co-ed locker areas, and then covered up with sarongs, and got ready for the temple. The ritual itself is a pretty simple process – step into the waist high water and wait your turn to dunk your head under each of roughly a dozen water spouts (in succession). With each of the first set you clean yourself, and with the last 3 you say a prayer and are blessed by the holiest water. And at each spout we presented an offering, which consisted of offering trays filled with flowers, incense, and a cracker. Lionk helped us get the makings of our offerings before we arrived at the temple. One at a time the three of us moved through the spouts, trading off who held our common bag off offerings to keep them dry, until we finally made it through them all and hopped out of the water feeling very refreshed and fulfilled. Lionk then told us he'd take us into the temple so we can pray, a capstone to the ritual, it seemed. We knelt down, placed an offering, and followed Lionk's lead as he walked us through the proper steps. The holy men presiding over the group prayer then splashed everyone with more holy water, gave us “sips” of the water from our own hands, and we each pinched grains of rice and pressed them to our foreheads—a ritual the Balinese do every time they pray. This was definitely something we hadn't expected to be able to participate in, but were very grateful Lionk guided us through. By the time we finished, the temple was getting extremely crowded, mostly with Balinese but a few tourists as well. We were the only tourists who had bathed though, and got some funny looks from other foreigners as we walked out in dripping wet sarongs.
After our experience at the water temple, we dried off and hopped into the car to see more. We went to the Elephant Cave temple (also known as Goa Gajah), which has a giant maw of a demon that you walk through to get to a cave where you see statues of Ganesh (the Hindu god of knowledge) as well as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. This temple was a little less inspiring than the water temple, but still very spiritual nonetheless.
After a quick stop for lunch overlooking rice terraces we stopped at one of the many coffee plantations around the island. They gave us free tasters of a bunch of different teas and coffees, but there was one thing that most people go there for - the elusive (not so elusive) Luwak coffee. For those of you who don't watch Anthony Bourdain or Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Luwak coffee is coffee made from beans that are first ingested then pooped out by a civet (looks like a cross between a cat and a ferret), and it is rumored to be the most expensive coffee in the world. Supposedly, by passing the beans through their digestive system the civet changes the structure of the bean, making it more flavorful and protein rich. Of course they wash and peel the beans before brewing but it's still a little....weird. But for $4 we were game to give the cat-shit-coffee a shot! It tasted like....delicious coffee. I probably couldn't tell the difference between that and a really good cup of fresh coffee, but knowing that we were drinking coffee made from civet crap was pretty fun.
The second to last temple Lionk took us to was a small village temple where we got to see a more regular, everyday temple. This thing was far from “regular” - soaring stone spires, handcrafted friezes, and beautiful archways – the stone work in this temple (and all over Bali) rivals any kind of work we've seen anywhere else in the world. We wandered around the temple in awe of the detail everywhere, when we noticed people gathering outside. They all had bags that seemed to be....squawking. We asked Lionk to find out what was going on. His response - “they're preparing for a cockfight.” Oh. Well, when in Rome....
Note: Before anyone calls PETA, just know that the losing rooster ends up as someone's dinner that night. And Bali is crawling with roosters everywhere as pets-cum-food, the chickens all have nice “free-range” lives, and for many of the cockfights in the temples, they're sacred acts made as offerings to the Gods. Not sure we buy that entirely because this seemed more secular than religious, but overall, if you're willing to eat your chicken meat out of saran wrap without thinking that it once was a squawking chicken with eyes and feathers, you can't really get too upset about this. If you're a vegan, you can get upset. And in that case, we recommend you skip ahead a few paragraphs...
Little Yerry Seinfeld
We gathered in the temple and vied for position around a roped off area. The cock's pimps/handlers/owners each sized up each others' birds to find two of equal size and disposition. Finally, they settled on two to fight and we were ready! Actually, not quite yet as they needed to affix tiny little knives to the feet of each bird. That's how the birds take each other out. The official cock-masters strung the birds up, held them tight (lest the bird shank one of the pimps) and we waited. This is when the betting commences. Lots of yelling in Bahasa and Balinese, hands waving, betting between the ring guys and the spectators, between spectators, etc. It was an organized mayhem we did not understand one bit. So we stayed out of the betting as we had no idea how it all worked, but it was fun to watch. After the betting was done, it was time to put the birds in the ring and let 'em go! The two birds promptly turned and ran out of the ring into the crowd until a spectator grabbed them, put them back in the center, and let 'em go! And they ran out of the ring again. After a few more repeats of this the referee declared the big white one the winner and money changed hands. For this round, both birds got to live another day. Then the whole process started again. The second fight didn't even happen as nobody bet on one of the birds (betting is a by-product of the cockfighting; it has nothing to do with religion) and with all this inaction, we started getting bored and HOT. It was crowded and we were smashed between all these sweaty Balinese men, everyone standing on tip-toes trying to see over each other. And Carrie was one of only two women there, which felt a little odd but we just rolled with it.
A third fight was set--and this one was good. The two birds went AT each other, and within about 35 seconds, the whole thing was over, with one of the birds bloodied and dead in the center of the ring. Well, almost dead. He was quickly put out of his misery, then later plucked, and prepped to be eaten later that night. So, we saw a real-deal cockfight. It turned out to be a lot like playing rightfield in Little League – lots of standing around doing nothing, kicking dirt, with the occasional action when you least expect it.
The ol' Homestead
Last stop on the Lionk tour was his home. He occasionally will invite his clients over when he likes them, and was willing to show off his house for us. It was a beautiful home situated just outside the hub-bub of downtown Ubud. His village is the painters' village (the villages surround Ubud are organized by craft; there's the silver-making village, the bone-carving village, the weaving village, etc.) He has a small and beautiful temple in the corner for his family to pray, and an open air layout in the back where his whole extended family lives. Balinese families almost always live together in the same home, so his mother, cousins, uncles, and nephews all were there to greet us. We saw stunning artwork created by him and his family, and got a quick peek into the day-to-day life of a Balinese family. I think this was the best part of the day, and we were very grateful to Lionk for inviting us into his home.
After a long day out we were dropped off at the hotel, tired but enriched. We both agreed it was perhaps the best day of the entire trip thus far.
The rest of our time in Ubud was fantastic. We woke up at 2am to hike to the top of the volcanic Mt. Batur, the second highest peak in Bali, to see the sun rise over the island. We went to the Monkey Forest. We lounged by the pool. We explored Ubud's city center on foot. We drank delicious coffee and ate lots of tasty Indonesian meals. If Ubud is the heart of Balinese culture, it certainly was also the heart of our time in Bali.
After Ubud we headed to Nusa Lembongan, a small island 30 minutes off the coast of Bali where life slows down even more. There are no cars, only some group taxi trucks and scooters, so we walked everywhere. We spent a day snorkeling in a bunch of different spots around the coral reefs that line the island, where we saw hundreds of different fish, each more vibrantly colored than the last. It was the best snorkeling we've ever done – like something out of Planet Earth! We whiled away time in hotel pools overlooking the ocean, watched spectacular sunsets on the beach, rode stand-up paddleboards for a few hours, and watched a community showing of There's Something About Mary beachside in lounge chairs with the crashing surf behind us. Nusa Lembongan is (supposedly) what Bali mainland was 20 years ago, and it feels like that could be true. Infrastructure is very basic but improving. Electrical wires hang dangling precariously. PVC piping lays open in the streets carrying their water and wastewater. Internet is there, but pathetic. Road paths are unpaved. Cows roam in open fields, unfenced. Roosters wake you up at 5am. Waves crash in the background all night long. It certainly has the air of a place left behind from the rest of the world.
The only downside to this part of our time in Bali was that it was here that Bali's pollution problem was most exposed to us. Their garbage and litter problem is ENORMOUS. It's not surprising, given that they don't have government sanitation programs on Lembongan; even Ubud just got one 4 years ago. The locals just don't have a way to dispose of common trash. Most have “home dumps” until they burn it all, or they just dump it in the ocean. It's what they've always done. But to snorkel next to stunning tropical fish and have to push aside plastic bags floating in perfect blue waters, or to walk a beach that looks like it belongs in a painting, while constantly kicking the plastic litter... it's just depressing on such a macro level.
We capped off our time in Bali with a few days in Nusa Dua, the “ritzy” part of Bali. We wanted to do some beautiful beachfront hotel time since Ubud is in the mountains, and Lembongan is mostly cliff-side. Nusa Dua certainly has beaches, including one of the “best beaches in the world”, Geger Beach. But it had a bit too much of an elitist vibe for us, and seemed un-authentic. It felt like one could have dropped those hotels anywhere in the world; there wasn't much character. So that's why we called up our good friend Lionk and booked another temple-tour day with him! He picked us up, this time ditching the traditional Balinese garb in favor of his regular clothes... skinny pants and a polo shirt, which felt much more authentic to him. Lionk guided us all over the southern Bali peninsula, and we saw some more amazing temples, including Tanah Lot, the famous island temple in the sea, and Uluwatu, the cliffside temple. He took us to a little road shack cafe where we tried Baba Gulung, or suckling pig, and saw more amazing rice terraces. It felt great to see more of the wonderful Balinese culture, and we were already beginning to get sad in advance of our flight the next day. We loved our time in Bali, and vowed to return in the future to explore more of the islands in Indonesia.
Postscript – for anyone going to Bali (and Ubud especially) if you're looking for the best tour guide and driver, send a note to Lionk on Facebook. He's the man.