On the surface Bali seems to be simple. It’s not. It is spiritually and socially complex.
Is it an island paradise? Well, yes and no. Balinese are super friendly and very engaging people. I found that if you are within speaking distance and make eye contact with someone virtually everybody says hello. Originally I thought they were being friendly because they had a hidden agenda and wanted to sell me something.
The reality is that Balinese are respectful of all people because if they make you angry or you don’t like them they believe that you may cast a spell on them. Heaven forbid it’s a really nasty one that can’t be shaken off with incense, chanting and fruit offerings to a stone god statue at the local temple.
In the larger urban areas you will be hounded unmercifully by street hawkers wanting to sell you anything from watches to crocodile penises. I was assured that if I boiled a croc penis and drank the “tea” my member would be as powerful as a crocodile.
I must differentiate the greedy street hawkers from Balinese that will approach you simply out of curiosity. Generally I found there were 3 basic types you may encounter on the street. There is the friendly curious type that is genuinely interested in why you are there, the devious “tour guide” and the belligerent street vendor. Of course there are others but these are the main ones you will come across.
Kuta is the major tourist area that most people are drawn to when they first get to Bali because it is close to the airport. It has a long sandy beach that is inhabited by surfers, old women that will give you a massage cheaply and mostly locals with nothing else to do. This beach appears nice but in reality it is down drift from Java, the most densely populated piece of real estate on earth and all of its dumpings. There’s no telling what might float by. The water is foul, though it doesn’t smell bad. Most Balinese have no concept of micro biology, and this goes especially for the restaurants. You will see plenty of surfers and waders who don’t know or care if they are in the waste of 120 million people. I feel sure if you looked at this water under a microscope you would see happy bacteria doing synchronized swimming routines.
If you go for a walk you will most likely be approached by young ladies or guys wanting to be a tour guide or whatever. They are charming and many travelers have been left wondering what happened after they wake up and have been robbed after something had been slipped into their drink. Some have been robbed in broad daylight with the charm gun. For example, you meet a nice person on the beach and they speak a little English, enough to have a decent conversation. You agree to let them be your tour guide for a paltry sum. They show you a good time and you begin to trust them. The next thing is they start with a heartache story about a favorite uncle that needs a liver transplant or similar tall tale of woe and they need money for his surgery. Before they get to asking for the big money they will feel you out by asking you to pay for a phone bill or something small. If you refuse your newly found friend is likely to depart shortly thereafter. If you do pony up they will be happy and it is game on for the next way to separate you from your money.
The nightlife in Kuta is pretty much bars full of drunken Australians. If you walk down one of the main drags in Kuta you will be accosted by the usual ubiquitous sellers of useless stuff. Each block has its resident unlicensed recreational pharmaceutical salesman and ladies of the night. The cop that pimps them watches their every move. Every once in a while a guy from the Army comes around and shakes down the cop that he controls. Naturally it is wise to avoid these avaricious entrepreneurs. If you do decide to sample some Bali dope you will most likely be “processed”. First, the cop arrests you, gives the dope back to the dealer and keeps the buy money. Next you go to jail and a judge tells you that you will stay in jail for a long time unless you can pay up. They give you a figure you have to pay depending on how well you are dressed and what they think you can afford. If you plead poverty and offer half they will probably accept and let you go. The judge pays the cop and they chalk up another one. Indonesia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. However, if you are caught with large amounts of dope you WILL go to jail for a long time.
In Kuta you may be approached by a friendly stranger who compliments you and strikes up a conversation. He may tell you he knows of a great party and can take you there. If you agree he will phone someone to pick you both up. If you are lucky they will only rob you. Only use valid taxis with a meter and visible registration. Like in any city be on your guard for pick pockets and scammers. If you use a little common sense you will be fine.
Bali is not a “Muslim” island like its neighbors Java and Lombok. These 3 islands are only 3 of over 17,000 that make up Indonesia. The prevalent religion in Bali is Balinese Hinduism which is a blending of Hindu, Animism, Buddhism and few others mixed together. You will see women in brightly colored dresses carrying large trays of fruit balanced on their heads to the temple for an offering. Balinese Hindus are a significant part of the population and they are an important part of everyday life on Bali. There are about 11,000 temples on this relatively small island. They come in many sizes and forms. Most have alters for offerings to appease and comfort the many spirits that Balinese believe inhabit these rock structures. You will see people setting out small woven trays of incense and flowers in the morning. This insures that they will have a good day.
Balinese Hindu dancing is part spiritual and part art. It is fascinating and taken very seriously. Girls young as age five are taught the subtle intricacies. Each emotion filled movement of hands, head, body and feet is full of meaning. The dancing is mesmerizing as well as the music. The elaborate costumes and make up are unerringly flawless.
The next logical move is to get out of Kuta and head for the artist colony of Ubud. Getting there you need to jump on one of the overcrowded mini buses that wind through the serpentine roads up the mountain. Ubud is a welcome relief from frenetic Kuta. One of the first things I saw was a flock of very arrogant geese marching down the middle of the main street. People in cars went around them and most ignored this amusing display. If someone got to close the alpha male would hiss, lower his head and run at them with wings spread, very terrifying.
The artist shops were interesting to browse. There are bargains to be had. You can buy great batik sarongs. Everything is negotiable, never pay the first price. If you buy in volume ask for a big discount. Wood carvings are another good buy as well as stone carvings. There are some accomplished painters but you have to look hard to find quality. There are entire villages dedicated to one craft or the other, ask around for the nearest one of interest. There are several good hotels to stay at here. Close by is the monkey forest and is a good side trip. Monkeys are sacred to some Balinese. I’m not sure if they believe that they are reincarnated people or just sacred because some guy a long time ago said they should be and it stuck. I was holding a piece of banana and making a monkey jump to get it and one of the park attendants told me not to “torment” the monkeys. I shouldn’t do that but if one of them snatches my new 8 mega pixel digital camera and runs up a tree that’s ok. There were several monkeys in trees examining stolen hats and cigarette lighters. One of them was pillaging a backpack.
Something I could not understand is that virtually every house and store in Bali has large white ceramic floor tiles that when wet are as slippery as greased ice. These tiles are everywhere, at the entrances to busy stores, bathrooms or seem to be strategically placed where water accumulates and people walk. I seriously considered learning how do the splits so that I could survive the inevitable. In the US these tiles would be a personal injury lawyers dream. Hmmm, maybe I could market a line of shoes with sand paper soles or suction cups.
Most Balinese have an elaborate ritual for funerals. That is, if you can afford one. If someone dies without family or money the body is taken to a designated place and dumped. Yes, no hole in the ground just dumped and left to decompose. Even in Nepal, not the most advanced place in the world, they have the famous Katmandu barbeque where they burn the corpses open air and then push the ashes into the river. What’s more bizarre is that it gets around the village that there is a “new body” at the dump or whatever they call it and the curious and morbid go to look at it like a dead dog or something. Even in India if a derelict dies his skeleton may end up in a Harvard medical school orthopedic lab. I’d say that’s a little more dignified…but not much.
Like most people who come to Bali I was looking for something special. I was fed up with a boring thankless job. I needed a break. I was searching for the ideal island paradise setting with a white sand beach, clear water, cool, balmy breeze blowing through the palm trees while the aroma of fresh grilled fish slipped past my nose. I envisioned myself swinging gently in a hammock in front of a quaint bungalow just feet from the waters edge listening only to the birds and shallow breakers on the beach. This hadn’t happened…yet. I was starting to think I was another sucker for good advertising.
I decided to rent a scooter then took off in the direction of the higher ground away from the ocean and Ubud. I rode for a while past stunning rice terraces and intricate woven bamboo houses on stilts. I was thirsty and stopped for a cold drink at a roadside stand. The usual crowd of curious friendly people greeted me wanting to know what I was up to. Balinese are not shy about asking you personal questions about your age, martial status, job or other more prying things. It’s just their way of being nice. I was finishing my drink and was about to leave when a guy asked me to wait a minute. Reluctantly I agreed expecting some display of goods to appear for sale. He started whistling and looking around up in the air.
I had been in Bali for 3 weeks; at this point Balinese doing odd things was not new. All of a sudden I hear Whoosh, Whoosh, Whoosh from behind me. I turned around to see what it was just as the wing tip of a flying fox fruit bat with a 3 foot wing span just missed the end of my nose. The guy was holding his arm outstretched horizontally and it made an amazing acrobatic landing grabbing his forearm with its feet while elegantly folding its wings at the same time. I have to admit this was the first time I had met a guy with a pet bat.
I was astounded that this big thing could fly that slow and be so agile. He grabbed a bottle of Fanta orange. This made the bat very happy as it lapped it up from a hole punched in the cap. After the visiting aviator, which I quickly named Joker, had finished eating he asked me if I wanted to hold it. “No thanks, I’ll pass”. With a little persuading I grabbed Joker by the wings and held him up for a photo op. He was very docile and even had a colorful personality.
After I got back on the road just a short distance away the tall trees were full of Jokers buddies. Little did I know that this was not to be the last encounter I would have with an exotic beast that day.
A few miles away I saw a sign for a reptile zoo. I thought to myself, gotta stop there. I paid a small entrance fee and was met by Annie, a smiling girl who would be my guide. First thing we went to was a small fenced off pool. I was looking around curiously for what was supposed to live there. Annie grabbed a long pole and gently swished it around in the water. My eye caught a disturbance on the other side of the pond. Suddenly a 13 foot crocodile that easily weighed 1000 pounds broke the surface and lunged in my direction mouth wide open. I learned later that some of the world’s largest crocodiles are found in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo.
As we walked past glass enclosures of King Cobras and various other dangerous and unfriendly creatures we came upon a fenced open area with a moat. Again I scanned the area and could not see anything except a duck with clipped wings running around. This duck did not look comfortable…In the middle of this area was some logs and bushes. Next thing I know a guy jumped into the pen and started poking around these logs with a stick. This prompted 3 huge Komodo dragons to come storming out. They didn’t seem very happy about having their naps interrupted.
These things were huge. They walked like John Wayne to a gun fight. This scenario made me think of that time when Sharon Stones husband decided to get into a Komodo dragon pen at the Los Angeles zoo and “pet” them. I won’t go into detail about his recovery in the hospital but let’s just say it was not one of Phil Bronstein’s better decisions to try to get cozy with the world’s largest carnivorous lizard. Anyway, one of these Komodo dragons spots the duck. At this point I think the duck had wished he had increased his life insurance policy. The agile lizard made a bee line for the hapless duck which ran away as fast as possible. It was a short chase. The speedy reptile in one lightning fast strike grabbed its midsection and bit down. The duck sort of popped like a red paintball. The other two ran to get in on the action but the giant predator threw its head back and swallowed the duck whole in one gulp. I guess they mistakenly blamed the duck for waking them up.
As I rode along I passed village after fascinating village. I got back down to the beach and was amazed to see the settlements of the Bali Aga. These are the last of the original indigenous people of Bali. They live in grass huts, have no electricity or plumbing and pretty much live has they have for thousands of years by fishing and farming small plots. They are a separate sub culture with their own religious traditions and customs. The older women still dress topless. It was like something out of National Geographic magazine.
Even with all I had seen and done I had not found the Bali paradise I had conjured up in my mind when I decided to go.
As the sun was about to set I checked into a small place by the beach and headed for a bite to eat. I ran into an American from Alaska and he began telling me about some islands he had just returned from. As he went on it sounded exactly like what I was looking for.
They were called the Gilli Islands. I got directions and set out early the next day. I had to get to Lombok the next island to the east of Bali. I knew little of this island but hopped a ferry and arrived at the port of Sengigi for some adventure. I sauntered around awhile and found a taxi to take me to the place to catch a boat to the Gilli’s. The driver about half way through the trip proudly announced that he was a fanatical Muslim. I looked at the Brazilian guy I was sharing the car with and he looked more uncomfortable than me. I was thinking, ok here we go, 2 more infidels to Muslim justice. We pretty much shut up until we got to our destination and were relieved to know we were not going to be decapitated and posted on You Tube.
I arrived on the other side of Lombok after passing through several groups of macaque monkeys along side the road. I cued up, bought a ticket and stepped aboard a thin outrigger boat with an outboard motor. A smiling kid was at the stick. There were several other people on board but nobody that spoke English. As we chugged through the waves the island became increasingly closer. The tiller man gently docked the boat and everyone got out. As I approached the tide line I was trying to understand where the heck I was. Walking inland the first thing I noticed is that there were no motorized vehicles. I slung my bag over my back and began exploring somehow knowing that this island was going to be very different from Bali. Along the beach is a road paved with interlocking bricks. On the side away from the sand was a strip of restaurants with funky hotels attached. They are mostly configured the same, a concrete pad with thatched roof and kitchen attached. They had a few thatched roof huts in the back with mosquito netted beds and a fan.
It suddenly all came crashing down on me. This is the island paradise I had envisioned that Bali would be like. The water was crystal clear, gentle balmy breeze, palm trees, smiling friendly locals, thatched roof huts with hammocks, and oh yes, the smell grilled fish wafting in the air. This was Gilli Trawangan and I was glad to be there. I checked in and set out on a rented bicycle. Every turn there was another memorable event. I found an old World War ll Japanese gun emplacement bunker that over looked a wide area of beach. I got hungry and stopped by a small hut and got a plate of nasi garang. It’s basically fried rice with a fried egg on top. It was absurdly cheap, tasted great and filled me up as I ate with my feet dangling in the Pacific Ocean.
It rains almost everyday being a tropical climate. It is usually short and intense. For Gilli Trawangan this is perfect. Fresh water has to be brought in from Lombok. Most showers in homes and hotels are salt water. If you have ever let salt water dry on your skin you know it is not a pleasant feeling. I now understood why when it rains the locals make an effort to go out into the rain. So when it rains instead of people running for cover they go out in it and get a cleansing shower from God, I recommend this even if you have a fresh water shower in your room.
As I made my way around the island I got a sense of how rural people developed life on this particular speck on the planet. . What a contrast to the hectic rat race life style of the average American. I had a warm sense joy knowing that spots in the world like this still existed. There was a timeless primordial feel about this place that humbles you and excites at the same time.
I came upon a man sitting by the beach path with a spread of stuff to sell. This time there was not the same garbage like the street hawkers in Kuta. I bought an amazing carved buffalo horn and woven hemp over the shoulder pouch to carry a bottle of water for $5. The smile on his face was priceless.
I circumnavigated the island in about 2 hours and returned to the main drag that was less than a kilometer long. It was getting to be sundown and the restaurants had begun to spread out the catch of the day. You select a fish and they grill it on a driftwood beach fire. It was cheap and fabulous. I discovered later that out of the 3 Gilli islands that Trawangan was known as the party island. Every night there is a designated place that the ‘party’ happens. It’s easy to find out where just ask a local and they will know. Around 11 pm I went to the party du jour. It was a lot of Europeans, locals and various other travelers, mostly backpacker types who were lucky enough to find this place. We all had a good time swapping stories over beers.
There are two other Gillis, Gilli Air and Gilli Menos. These are also fascinating places but less visited than Trawangan. The only thing that was disappointing is the fact that in the 1970’s all the reefs around the islands were destroyed by dynamite fishing. However there are dive operations that will take you to other reefs to dive if you are so inclined.
All in all I had set out to have an exotic adventure in Bali. Bali certainly can be an amazing place to experience there is no doubt about it. But I had no idea that I would find the idealized island paradise I had envisioned just a short distance away.