On our way to Bali, in one series of flights, we discovered the polar opposites of airports: Worst airport ever - Delhi, India, and best airport visited - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We flew from Katmandu, on Cosmic Air (not recommended), to Delhi, where we had to stay in the transit area for 6 hours. There was a restaurant and a book shop, but no ATMs or money exchange in the area, and we were not allowed to go into the rest of the airport without a visa to India, everyone there was coming from another country (so didn’t have local currency)! And that cluster was just the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg. From there we flew overnight to Kuala Lumpur, and into the ultimate juxtaposition. A very well organized, beautiful, clean airport, many coffee shops, restaurants, and shops (several well placed ATMs), and with a nice hotel inside the terminal, so transiting travelers did not have to go through customs or anything. We got a room, slept until 1:00pm, and caught our flight into Denpasar, Bali, without leaving the airport.
OK, now in Bali:
From the Denpasar we get a taxi to the quiet beach town of Sanur. What a pleasure! Our hotel is beautiful; fresh flowers, clean white linen, geckos on the wall, the sweet fragrances of Plumeria and ocean, the staff is very friendly and welcoming. What a pleasant shock after our time in China, Tibet and Nepal! We get settled in and walk out into the humid heat looking for dinner.
Oh my, the Bali food! Raw chilies, shrimp paste, palm sugar and tamarind. Turmeric, ginger, roasted coconut, peanuts, musk limes. Anchovies, fresh sambal (spicy chopped chili in sweet soy sauce), goat meat and pounded fish. Yum!!! And some local arak (alcohol from fermented palm fruits) to top it all off! Yippee!
We decide to give ourselves a beach-lounging day before heading up to Mt. Agung. After a sweaty morning run, then a sweaty breakfast, we get into our bathing suits and plop our white asses under an umbrella on the beach. We spend the day reading, napping, having banana milks,
getting pedicures, swimming… basking, basically. It was excellent.
We do not head up into the interior of the island the next morning because our run and strenuous basking the day before have given rod a pulled calf muscle. We happily stay in Sanur at our great hotel and bask some more. In the afternoon, we take a boat out to the reef for some snorkeling. On the way home from dinner that night, we pass a temple with the strangest melodic jangly sounds of bells and drums bursting through its gates. We stop and listen to the traditional music played by an all women gamelan (orchestra of 35 to 40 musicians) sitting on the floor. It is an odd, clangy, mystic, and sometimes haunting sound.
The next morning, after breakfast, internet, and hair cuts for both of us (it was so hot, I cut most of my hair off), we rent a car to drive to Agung. It is a little heap of junk, but we think it will be OK… time will tell. Driving is scary! It is hard to explain the chaos of narrow roads, no agreed upon driving rules or etiquette, and getting used to being on the left side instead of the right. On top of that, so many things to look at! Wood workshops building furniture and doors, rock sculptures, temples everywhere. And every business, home, or building had a high place where offerings are made daily. Most people also put little palm woven bowls with rice and flowers and such, as offerings, on the doorstep or entry way. We drive to the town of Candidasa, and find a beautiful hotel to stay in. We play drums on our porch overlooking the sea while watching the sun set.
We spend the next morning swimming and drinking tea on the porch, then set out to see the Temple (Pura) Besakih on the South West side of Gunung Agung. This temple complex is Bali’s most important. It is really 23 separate but related temples, built at various times, but thought to have originated about 2000 years ago. Usually each temple is devoted to a specific God or group of Gods. Balinese religion is an interesting combination of Hinduism, Buddhism, Malay ancestor cults, and animistic and magical beliefs and practices. The island is the only remaining stronghold of Hinduism in the Indonesia archipelago (which is mostly Muslim). The crater edge of Agung’s summit looms over the complex when the clouds decide to reveal it, and many annual festivals are devoted to the Gods descending from the mountain. Gunung Agung is the abode of Batara Gunung Agung, also known as Mahadewa, the supreme manifestation of Shiva. We walk through the temples and are stunned by the unique rock work, strange lines of split gates, and grass roofed meru towers. The afternoon light fades as we decide to return to the car. As we walk down we turn, look up, and get a rare and lucky view of the mountain through the clouds.
We decide to drive to the town of Sideman to stay that night and arrange a guide to climb the mountain. It is now dark and we get lost on the wrong road. We attempt asking directions periodically, do a lot of U-turns, get cranky, but finally get onto a road that should take us into the town. The little heap of junk we rented is smoking. We follow the steep road down into a valley full of rice paddies, and then up the windy other side. Just when we see the soft lights of Sideman, the car dies. So here we are, on a steep windy road, in the middle of rice paddies, alone, in the dark with a smoking heap. Should we sleep here? How far is the town exactly? Can we fix the car and get there? Pretty soon a motorcyclist turns the corner and stops, and then his friend comes by and stops. One of the guys works at a hotel up the road and calls the owner to come and get us in his car. But before the owner can get there, we get the car started again, and drive it the short distance to the hotel, which turns out to be another great place. We have dinner served to us on our porch, and eat overlooking the river valley.
The next day we hang out at the hotel, do yoga, and arrange for a guide and driver to pick us up at 3 am the next morning (11/15/07). He is on time, and we drive an hour to another temple complex on the south side of Agung, Pura Sambu. There, we climb the steep stairs up to the first level of the temple, then around (clockwise) to the trail up the mountain in the back. The path up is slippery, with vines and roots winding through the slick earth. Our guide, a nice 34 year old father and high school student (very proud of going to school), stops two times to make offerings to the mountain. We emerge above tree line as the sun rises, and make it to the rocky, very windy summit (3142m) before the usual clouds form. We make offerings of bananas and arak by throwing them over the steep edge of the summit crater (during some festivals, they also throw goats and flowers in as offerings). It is beautiful up there, and surprisingly cold for being at latitude 8. We eat a snack and enjoy the cloudless view before heading back down. We visit the temple at the bottom, then drive back to the hotel, arriving after dark.
After one last breakfast overlooking the brilliant green valley, and getting a special morning view of the mountain, we get back into our car hoping to make it back to Sanur without breaking down. Of course we don’t. The first time the car dies, a policeman helps us push it off the road and get it started again, the second time we are fed up and walk to a roadside café to call the guy we rented from to bring us a new car. After much mixed English and Bahasa Balinese on both sides, we manage to borrow a cell phone and get a hold of another car. Back in Sanur that afternoon, free of car responsibilities, we swim and bask until sunset.
That night, our last night in Bali, we walk past the temple where we saw/heard the music before, and luck out again! This time there is a smaller orchestra, a gong kebyar, playing the strange music. We sit down on the edge of the raised floor to listen. After a song or two, a woman gets up and begins to dance. The dance is amazing; the woman has such precise control over everything from her finger tips to her neck to the arches of her feet. The next song, two more women get up and join her. What a treat to come across this! The best part is that this is a local, informal, gathering at the temple, not a show for tourists, they are just practicing and laughing, the whole family is there… we just luck out to be walking by.
For me, the meaningful part is to see the young girls, maybe 8 or 9 years old, watching the women dance and trying to emulate them, trying to remember all the moves in admiration. This is a culture that, despite the influence of extensive tourism, religious tension with its government, and exposure to modern global culture, holds its traditions and beliefs out in celebration. The young are eager to learn and be a part of their history and customs, enabling its enduring richness.
Bali is a true gem.