Finding The "Real" Bali

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April 26th 2012
Published: April 26th 2012
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I wasn't planning on even coming to Indonesia, as stunning as it sounded. My original plan for Asia packed into 3 months was already a bit of a stretch. But then original plans seem to go out the window as soon as you start travelling and I've lost count of how many flights I've booked and not taken or re-scheduled, put back or changed dates.

I had already toyed with the idea of Bali so it didn't take much twisting of my rubber arm when my best friend Fi announced she was thinking of going there for a 10 day holiday and did I fancy it..? Hell yeah, get me on that plane! So after saying goodbye to mum & dad in Singapore, I hop straight over to Bali for a good old girly holiday!

Our first night we arrive quite late so opt to stay in the nearby & also major tourist resort of Legian, where we meet Amy, one of Fi's close friends. This is part of the main Kuta area which is by far the busiest tourist destination in Bali. Wide sand beaches, good surf, bars & restaurants all line this coastal town which makes it a popular lively holiday destination. However it's not exactly what we're looking for right now, and keen to find a piece of the "real" Bali we head out of town the next morning and South to Padang Padang bay, a small beach set amongst stunning cliffs with turquoise water - it's an idyllic cove in which we spend the day swimming, sun bathing & eyeing up the odd surfer (rude not to!)

Not too far from the famous temple Ulu Watu, we head there for sunset and arrive just in time to see a traditional Balinese Barong Dance. Fully dressed in ornate costumes, the characters make subtle snake-like movements with their arms and hands, their faces so full of dramatic expression, while the music is made solely by a dozen men encircling the main performers, chanting in chorus. It's an entertaining & hypnotic experience.

Afterwards we have a little time to explore the temple at Ulu Watu which overlooks the stunning sheer cliff drop into the sea below. There are monkeys everywhere and we're told to put all our "loose" possesions in our bags rather than to carry anything as it's common for the monkeys to pinch things. We do as we're told but as we climb the steps up to the temple I feel a tugging on my foot and there's a monkey there trying to pinch my flip flop! I have the natural reaction to shout "Argh!!!!! Get off!!!" at the monkey while franticly waving my foot around, much to the amusement of the crowd of people nearby. Thankfully the monkey, clearly noticing my flip flops aren't Havainas and just a cheap pair I bought in Laos, decides to give up on me and goes and pinches another lady's reading glasses from the top of her head. We make a run for it while we can, suddenly not so bothered about the temple and just keen to get away from the pesky animals!

Our next stop, we head to Sanur on the South East coast, a quiet little beach town which we take the boat from to the island of Nusa Lembongan. A beautiful island, with pure white beaches, hardly any cars and a nice chilled vibe. After another day's chilling on a beautiful part of the island called "Mushroom Bay" we take a slow walk back along the coast, through the woods & hilly landscape back down to the town. We pass temple after temple, all beautifully carved with ornate pillars & pagodas - I've never seen so many in one place! I'm also struck by how beautiful every house is, every door, every window, all carved out intricately in wood finish, or some with striking colours, the odd ones even painted in gold. We pass one temple that is being prepared for a ceremony. Bright yellow ribbons are being wrapped around the pillars at the front, along with the signature black & white checked sarong being wrapped around the waist of each god, which I've seen many throughout Bali so far.

After Nusa Lembongan we get the speedboat to the Gili Isles. Now THIS is paradise! Whiter than white beaches, clear turquoise waters, no cars on the island - it's perfect! I leave Fi & Amy to go and find myself a guesthouse, as they await their pick up to take them to the luxury hotel they've booked for the next 5 days, along with two other friends of theirs Alex & Erin who're flying in from Sydney later in the day. Of course the luxury hotel is more than tempting, but if I'm gonna last the extra 2 months I'm stretching to in Asia, then it's hostels all the way for me! However I'm pleasantly surprised when I find a little gem of a place called Gili Hideaway. Tucked away one road back from the beach and about a 5 minute walk from the girl's hotel, this collection of little wooden bungalows, all newly built are set in a beautiful garden of hibiscus & frangipane flowers. The room is clean & simple and opens out onto an outdoor bathroom that is paved with pretty stones, a bamboo pipe for a shower and yet more flowers grow from the view of the toilet seat! It's a quaint little place and the owners are so friendly, offering free tea & coffee all day and the most amazing banana & cinammon pancakes for breakfast! They even bring you free water bottles and light a mosquito coil outside your room every night - now for £8 a night these are things you just don't normally get in your average backpacker joint!

I settle in and then walk down the sandy country path to the girl's hotel, and doing so pass many a local going about their daily chores, balancing baskets on their heads, buying fruit from fruitsellers while the occasional horse drawn cart clip clops past carrying wood or breeze blocks probably for another small house or settlement to be built. A man carrying two large sacks appears out of a side road and walks alongside me in the same direction.. We say hello to each other, but I feel I should carry on a bit of conversation since we are headed the same way..."Where you go?" I say, suddenly aware of the irony... He points to a field.. " What is your name?" I ask. "Dilrum" he replies and as I introduce myself, we have reached the field already and he waves me goodbye. I have to laugh at the irony of the situation.. How many times each day when you're travelling do you hear these words from locals - too many I can't even begin to tell you! And here I am doing exactly the same thing! It does make one think, that I was only making a polite conversation and no matter how annoying it can get when it's the 28th time you've been asked these questions in the space of five minutes, maybe that's all anyone is doing... Making conversation...

I reach the luxury "Luce D'Alma" hotel and am in awe when I step into the girl's room! It's a stunning huge suite with high ceilings, kingsize bed, marble bathroom & huge living area - not only that but right on their terrace is the 80m swimming pool (yes 80metres!) which runs the length of the boutique hotel. Needless to say the next few days are spent relaxing, swimming & sunbathing between here and the beautiful white beaches, and of course one of my favourite pastimes - eating & drinking. Fi treats me to a slap up meal for my birthday and we celebrate with champagne, before heading to liveliest (& cheesiest) bar on the island "Rudy's" (says it all really!) for a few vodka tonics in paper cups & a good old boogie.

Although pretty content with our beach - pool - bar - pool - eat - drink - sleep itinery of these blissful few days, we decide to venture a bit further and hire a man to take us out in his boat for a spot of snorkelling. The first spot we come to is pretty quiet for fish but we spy a few shoals of electric blue little tiddlers (I won't pretend to know their names) and a few, what I call "rainbow fish.". However, just before we get back in the boat, our boat man (who is also snorkelling with us) says "come, come, turtle, turtle!" So we swim over to him to where a turtle about the size of a small rucksack is merrily swimming around, loving the attention from us all. We give his belly a rub and then he swims off happy (I think!)... Then shortly after the guide points out another one! This one is much bigger, more like a full on backpacking rucksack size! The guide swims down through the water to meet the turtle and then they both emerge at the surface together - it's amazing! However this one doesn't seem keen on sticking around too long and soon swims back deep into the blue abyss.

Later we arrive at another spot and our boat man gives us bread to feed the fish with. I hold a wedge in my hand and literally hundreds of bright coloured tropical fish are suddenly surrounding me all keen to get a peck of food - it's amazing, I've never seen so many fish! After all the excitement we head back to shore and spend the rest of the day back in our swim/bathe/eat/rest routine. It isn't until later that evening that I notice not only my sunburnt back from the snorkelling (yes mum I did have cream on!) but also my very very sunburnt bum! I hadn't noticed it was sticking up out of the water so much until I saw the photos later on (which I will of course spare the reader.) I'm actually in agony!

After 5 chilled out days we make the journey back to Bali, myself & Fi opting for the slow boat & shuttle bus over the more expensive speedboat, which Alex & Erin choose. The journey begins fine, hopping on a small boat over to Lombok, to then wait around for about an hour in a small cafe that is actually meant to be the bus terminal, while random men with tickets in their hands decide which clapped out shuttle bus to put you on. Eventually we get going, though stop once to change buses, only to be put back on the same bus again!

We pull up in Mataram, the capital of Lombok about two hours later, only to discover we have a flat tyre! Great! So off the bus we get, to sit at the side of the road while our driver figures out what to do. Unsuprisingly, he's not very forthcoming with information and rather than fixing the problem, he decides to stand there with his t-shirt tucked up around his armpits with his fat belly out for all to see (a typical pose for Indonesian men when they're hot - though strangely only fat men do this!). So naturally, the feisty imp inside me starts to twitch and I confront him about how long we are going to wait for, make up some story about how we NEED to be in Ubud by 5pm and order him to sort out a lift for us to the ferry boat pronto! "You must have a friend that can drive!" I say "Call him! We need to go now!". And low and behold within 5 minutes his "friend" turns up so we jump in and are swiftly (if scarily) driven to the port.

Finally we board our slow boat, which takes 4 long hours to Padangbai in Bali to where we're to get our shuttle bus - the final leg to Ubud. However, there is no shuttle bus, a man tells us, "last shuttle at 5pm, fifteen minutes ago. Next one tomorrow morning...". NOT good enough! The feisty imp is doing a tango now "No way!" I say "we've paid to get to Ubud tonight and that's where we're going, I don't care if the last shuttle's gone, send another shuttle!"... I scream & shout & stamp my feet a bit, suggest someone's friend drive us again but we're not getting anywhere fast. I'm starting to think let's just give up and get in a taxi, when the man I've been screaming at suggests I go talk to his boss, so I jump on the back of his bike, leave Fi with the bags and we ride around the corner to his office. "Why you so late?!" a fat chubby balding Indonesian man asks accusingly, "20 people arrive on last boat, they take the shuttle...where were you?" With this the feisty imp is out of the cage and doing full on backflips of rage..."what do you mean - where have I been??" I shout "on your F**king transport all day since 8am!... It's not my fault your bus got a flat tyre! It's not like I stopped for lunch for an hour or went fishing! All I've been doing all f**king day is trying to get to Ubud! And now you tell me the last bus has gone! It's not good enough!". I slam my hand down on his glass desk in anger, as people start gathering outside wondering what the commotion is. "Ok!! Ok!! You win!! I pay taxi for you" he says, and thrust 200,000 rupiah into his colleagues hand..."thankyou" I say and return to the bike, pretty chuffed with myself. Normally in these situations I get mad and then walk away bright red with frustration having achieved nothing but for once my little outburst worked!

Then just as we are about to ride off back to meet Fi, a bystander comes up to me and says "Oh... You take shower"... I think, I know I'm sweating a lot but you're not exactly clean yourself mate!... But he continues "When you visit temple, you take shower in holy water" obviously to cleanse me of all my cursing! Me & my bad language... Oops!

We finally arrive in Ubud and meet Yanik, a young chatty taxi driver who offers to drop us at the right side of town where we want to be, and who after we've already negotiated the price, then drops it by another 10,000 rupiah - maybe he can tell we had a long day! We take his card and decide to book him the next day for a tour.

After wandering in an out of a few guesthouses & homestays we opt to stay at Sania's House - a beautiful group of buildings, again all with the signature ornate carved wooden doors, temple inside and also a lovely pool in the courtyard. Everywhere you look is some amazing decoration, including tiny mosaic tiles which form the winding paths to each little bungalow.

We're shattered by the time we get there, but meet Alex & Erin for dinner, who wisely got the fast boat and have had most of the day to enjoy Ubud.

The next day, we hire Yanik to take us on a day tour to visit the rice paddies, the Royal Temple and the Ulu Danu temple at Lake Beteran. There's a ceremony going on here and Yanik informs us it's a cremation ceremony, whereby all the families who have had a recent death, join together to make offerings & say prayers - each of the deceased being represented by one family member. It's a solemn yet orderly ceremony but stunning in colour & costume. We observe respectfully from afar before enjoying the stunning temple views over the lake.

I ask Yanik how many ceremonies they have in one year. "Two". He says "once approximately every 6 months...". Hmmm, I thought they had more than two, but he carries on..."But then we also have one every 15 days, one for every full moon, one for every new moon, and one every day..." That's more as I'd imagined. However, he continues further... "Of course we have ceremony for marriage, for new baby, for tooth cutting of children, for cremation... If you want to buy land we have ceremony, if you want to build house we have ceremony..." and there it continues because the Balinese believe that to do anything of the slightest importance, you must perform a ceremony to pray to the gods for luck, then, say you are building a wall, this makes it a "holy" wall, or you are buying land, this makes it "holy" land, otherwise there is just no point as without a ceremony it would just be any old wall, or any old piece of land.

Another part of Balinese culture is to make up small offerings to the gods every day. These consist of small parcels of banana leaves filled with colourful flowers and often a candy, biscuit and stick of inscense. These aren't just placed in and around temples, but also outside peoples homes and shops - there are so many they're literally everywhere and I have to be careful not to step on them when walking down the street! I also see tiny ones rested on the front of Vespas! A few offerings I saw also contained the odd cigarette so I asked Yanik about this; "People offer the gods cigarettes?" I ask bemused. "People offer whatever they have" he replies seriously "sometimes flowers, sometimes fruit, sometimes candy, sometimes cigarette"... Fair enough. Then at the end of everyday, after they've been dried out by the sun, the offerings are swept up and into the bin, only for the whole rigmarole to take place again the next morning. Everywhere in Bali you see this. It starts off in the morning, in the local markets, ladies selling flowers & tiny biscuits etc which people come and buy in their droves for making their offerings which they do throughout the day - women often sat round together on their porches, or stalls, chatting & gossiping away as they make hundreds of these things - a social way to pass the time.
Later we pass by a coffee plantation where we see the coffee being grown & roasted, together with the process of the famous Lawak coffee, whereby ferret like animals eat the coffee beans, then the beans are extracted from the animals excrement before being roasted & made into coffee. This, being a delicacy is 50,000 rupiah a cup so, because we feel it's slightly cruel, slightly gross, and at 5 dollars a cup slightly bloody expensive for something that's come out of a ferret's arse we decide to give it a miss... I mean, who thinks up these ideas in the first place?? Who actually thinks "oh I know, why don't we feed coffee beans to a ferret, collect them from it's shit and then make coffee! It's bound to taste nice!"... I wonder if they tried it with other animals too but came to the conclusion that only ferrets will do?!

At the end of the day we arrive at the Tanah Lot temple for sunset and, despite inevitably being full of tourists, it is still a beautiful sight and I manage to get a couple of really nice photos.

The next day Amy re-joins us after her two day trekking of Mount Rinjani on Lombok - something I'm really keen to do and plan to next week, and as it's our last day together we all decide to do a Balinese cooking class. It lasts all afternoon and after a tour of the market & rice fields we make our own offerings before setting to work in the kitchen, cooking up our feast of a Balinese buffet for the evening. Gado gado (vegetables in peanut sauce), steamed tuna in banana leaf, chicken satay, tempe curry, yellow rice, cucumber soup & bananas in palm sugar & coconut are just some of the delicious dishes on the menu, it tastes lush after our hard work and by the end of the feast we can barely move! A perfect end to our girly holiday.

I say a sad goodbye to Fi & the other girls and typically find myself struck down with the most horrific flu the very same morning. My head is pounding, my body aching and having hot & cold fevers - it's certianly not fun and if I was ever in need of my own bed it's right now! But of course this isn't an option, so I check into a slightly cheaper but very lovely homestay "Darta's" and lay in the shade on the outside terrace to rest my weary head. The owners of the guesthouse are so helpful & kind, fussing round me, bringing me hot tea or cold water. They ask if I want a doctor but I decline, however later I feel that bad that I decide to go to the doctors myself for a malaria test. The symptoms for flu & malaria are the same, and since I've never felt so bad I think it's best to be safe than sorry. They test me for malaria, dengue fever & typhoid and the nurse says to come back in 2 hours for the results...2 hours?!? Bloody hell that's quick! Not wanting to have a pop at the NHS (but I will anyway) when did anything happen so quickly back at home?

The results come back negative for each except they've found Salmonella poisoning from at least 10 days ago apparently, which is news to me as I've not been sick or had so much as an upset stomach. Still I take the antibiotics for my symptoms and sign the hefty bill. But then you can't put a price on your health can you?

I decide to rest up in Ubud for as long as it takes. I really love this town, with it's strong cultural vibe, pretty little lanes dotted with Warung (local cafes), shops & art galleries. I've spotted a Batik class that a lovely Balinese man named Nyoman teaches from his back garden and in a couple of days, when I'm feeling a bit better, I go along. Nyoman is one of a few popular names in Bali, as people are named depending on what order they were born in the family, regardless of being male or female. Wayan is first born, Madu second, Nyoman third & Ketut fourth. I'm not sure what happens by the fifth, but it does mean that in each town there are dozens of "Cafe Wayan" or "Ketut Massage", and I wonder how it doesn't get confusing!

I arrive at Nyomans and meet Cinzia, an Italian girl who is also keenly learning Batik. She's of typical Italian personality, very passionate, dramatic & smokes like a chimmney but we get on well and enjoy the next couple of days, batik painting & eating & drinking in our favourite Warung over the road.

I gradually begin to get my strength back and on my last day in Ubud, find a tiny little street, where the road has been paved with messages from people written in the cement. I follow it right to the top and within 20 minutes I'm surrounded by rice paddies, out of the town and in full on countryside. It's beautiful! I walk for a couple of hours relying solely on the friendly locals, or the odd man working in a rice paddy to guide me in the right direction. I come across a couple of young boys playing in a field and one of them gives me a flower. "I love you" he says cheekily and he runs off giggling with his friend. It makes me smile.

Everywhere in Asia I've encountered friendly people but Bali definitely has the warmest place in my heart so far. Despite the mass tourism that I've thankfully managed to avoid most of in the Kuta region, the people are so warm, so friendly, so genuine. Not always after making a quick buck, they genuinely want you to be happy. Their love of nature and beauty is reflected not only in their smiles, but in their homes, in every dish they cook, in every pretty offering they make.

You don't need to look far to find all this, the "real" Bali, because their culture is so strong & infective it is in fact everywhere to be seen if you just open your eyes to it. This is the first place on my travels that I think I could actually live, 10 days in Ubud - it's the longest I've spent anywhere so far. I think I'm falling a little bit in love with this place and I'm finding it hard to leave...


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