I went back to Bali last week. Of course, if you know me or read this you know that already. I chose to return to Bali in spite of their being a few places I have thus far left unexplored in this little corner of the world [the Philippines, Hainan, KL, not to mention Sumatra, Java… etcetera] because I wanted to be somewhere I knew was warm, beachy, and easy. When you go back to a place it is just so much easier. You know what to expect. You are free to pay attention to the micro rather than required to deal with the macro. Plus, Bali more effectively engenders friend envy than say, Manila or Jakarta (not necessarily fair, but true.) Add to this, I was traveling with someone (yeah, again… perhaps there is hope for us soloists after all) who had not really spent time in Asia, so Bali seemed the perfect place.
And it was.
Still, it remains that one can never step in that same old river twice, so the experience could not have been more distinct from my trip to the island in the fall of 2007. And this is why we keep on living, I imagine. In 2007 I decided to cram as much travel as I could into a relatively short time because I was planning on going “home” at the end of summer 2008. I had limited time (work) and sort of limited money (the junkie) so I had to be kind of creative. I managed to hit Bali, Borneo, Cambodia and China in relatively short order. [Do not think for one moment the alpha-chrono order is lost on me.] These trips were my escape from things that were pissing me off in places more permanent in my daily existence, and if you have never felt like you just needed to “Get the fuck out” of somewhere, let me assure you it gives a trip an entirely unique flavor. 2007 and 2008 were excellent travel years for me regardless of the motivations, though truth be told, I have yet to meet any sort of travel or vacation I don’t like, so the context of the trips mentioned is only relevant in terms of the contrast it provides for this one.
Another Bali bonus is that I have also become more interested in, and consequently well-read on, Hinduism recently. Bearing in mind that I take a very academic approach to religion (I appreciate so much of it for the ritual, the writing, the art, and my ability to look at it like an elective rather than a core class), I think that the Hindu faith has a tremendous amount of beauty to it. Seeing the role of religion in Bali is truly fascinating. Indonesia requires all citizens to be a member of a registered religious community and the country as a whole is 86% Muslim, 6% Protestant, 3% Catholic, 2% Hindu with 3% like me [“Other/Unspecified.”] But little, tiny Bali, (just over 2,000 square miles and home to 3.5 million people, less than 2% of the Indo population) is 93% Hindu, 4% Muslim, 2% Christian and around 1% Buddhist. Regardless of your take on religion, this creates a very unique situation.
Another thing that is happening in Bali in much the same way it is happening all over the world, in what we politically correctly now call “lesser economically developed countries,” is that development is rampant, but often quick, cheap, and poorly panned. I liken it to a bad paint job; inevitably some places come out looking great, but in reality, it is splotchy, uneven and bound to need to be done over far too soon. It is no great surprise to walk down a street and see the outrageously upscale juxtaposed against any imaginable sort of detritus. A sign surrounding a partially completed and seemingly abandoned (though who can really tell sometimes) villa complex in Seminyak had been ‘edited’ thusly: “The Future of Bali ? Now!!!” My traveling companion kept saying how it reminded him of Baja (but my favorite part was how, as an attorney, he was so acutely aware of the insane liability that pretty much pervades and defines Asia, which is easy to start overlooking after a while – like oops, yeah, that is a gigantic hole in the sidewalk, I hope no one falls in… ), and while I do not see the Baja part and have become accustomed to “minding” my head or my step to avoid liability-laden calamity – it is fun to recall when I did see it that way, which takes me right to the most important point of travel – and perhaps of non-solo travel – Perspective and the Shifts. Could be a band name. Maybe it will be.
What I noticed traveling “with” rather than my more typical “without” was a dramatic shift in perspective. Mine, but frankly, everyone around me too. I know that I write less in [good] company. This perplexes me, but also is semi-reassuring that I might not be some sort of anti-social weirdo misanthrope. I also know that people are more comfortable when they see two people come into a restaurant than one; they don’t have to do that mystified, “Ummm… only ONE?!?!” thing they might otherwise. It is often said, even by me, that when you are “with” you are less likely to meet people, but it is really more accurate to say that there is a kind of people you are less likely to meet, the hook up kind if you are traveling with a person of the opposite sex for example, or adventure travelers if you have a posse in tow. Of course I am speaking in general terms, but there are some patterns. Traveling with someone who has not been where you are is also quite cool – a reminder of how things might have looked the first time you saw them. While in Bali, my friend apologized at one point for his amazement of the South East Asian motorbike culture, suggesting that I must be so unimpressed. And I must admit after Vietnam, it is hard to be impressed by motorbikage, but at the suggestion that I might be jaded, I had to say, “I am not jaded about anything. Part of this is because through familiarity you simply get to see other things you may have missed the first time, and partly because the majority of things (and people) I observe in the world simply defy all logical explanation in my mind so I am perpetually fascinated.”
At the very least it keeps things interesting.
And now, sitting in a coffee shop in Hong Kong looking out at very grey and rainy skies and streets, contemplating a week in Bali is all the more delicious. We arrived in no time at all, having slept nearly the whole way as one might be prone to do on New Year’s Day. The flight was not so full, and so after New Years cocktails and snacks in the lounge (Cathay Marco Polo, j’adore) we got on a 747 headed to Denpasar. I am curious why such a large aircraft is required for this four and a half hour flight, but it led to each of us having an entire row to recline on and so, I am not that fussed really. Bali is a V.O.A. country for most visitors (rest assured I double checked after the recent drama with the VN visa…) and so after a short wait in a couple of lines and a surprising number of luggage checks, we were on our way with pretty, personalized Indonesian visas in the passports, and a private car for the hour or so drive to Ubud.
Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy I have heard it said.
I chose a place near where I stayed in Ubud the last time (that place was full) and I was pleased with the choice, though next time I think I will try the road by Cafe Artistes closer to town. Variety being life’s spice and all that. The Sri Ratih Cottages are in a good [quiet] location though, and Kutut, the manager of the property is completely lovely. So there we were. Six hours earlier we had been on a ferry crossing Victoria Harbour and now we were cruising the little artsy streets of Ubud, sitting in the Lotus Cafe with big, cold Bintangs. Niiiiice. Lotus Cafe is a chain of sorts, and it is decent, but it is really the setting that is lovely there. While we were talking my co-pilot said something that absolutely sent me over the mental edge. I was thinking that I was going to really run into some problems… or need to really commence serious drinking, but sitting here now, I cannot even remember what it was. Funny, but I suppose that goes to show what an ameliorator Bali can be (or was it the Bintang?) or perhaps it is my subconsious self helping my conscious self to chill the hell out. Either way, we were back in the land of kretek, US$1 DVDs, and Bintang. And this was just the first few hours.
Happy New Year.
Ubud is a lovely little place. But it is actually a lot bigger than one thinks and it would be difficult to see all of it in two or three times the time we had there, so with that knowledge in mind my suggestions are if you like something you see, buy it, eat it, take a photo; don’t think you will come back. Just simplifies things. After breakfast at Sri Ratih we went to the Monkey Forest. I am sure I have mentioned the thing about the monkeys before, so I will try to be brief, but if you have doubts about evolution, you should hang with some simians and give it a little more thought. Sharing 96% of the same DNA makes things pretty freaking obvious when you watch these guys interact with each other and with you. [For the record, we share more than 90% of the same genetic material with all mammals it appears…] I love these monkeys for their curiosity, their expressions and most of all their awesome hairdos. They are used to people and are protected in the Monkey Forest Sanctuary, which is an active temple complex as well as a cool immersion into biology. So these monkeys will check you for food and interact with you as much as you allow. I had a little(ish) one keep trying to get into my purse. We came across one who was chilling out banging a rock on the ground and Sean decided to jam with him. The monkey is clearly a solo artist though and let Sean know with a lunge and some bared teeth. Just one more moment where I wished I would have had my camera more at the ready…
The days in Ubud were filled with sunshine, rice paddies, shopping, cold beer, fantastic food, massages, swimming and chilling on the patio in front of our room.
Oh, and bike riding.
Now here is an example of why it is awesome to travel with someone else, they might just motivate you to do something you would have never done otherwise. I sometimes cringe at the idea of these “tours” in South East Asia of local villages and stuff. Like in northern Thailand you walk into these Keren villages and it feels, frankly, like being at the zoo. It is horrible. So when I saw that most of the bike tours out of Ubud included “visiting” villages, I was not enthused. Not to mention, lolling around the pool with a book and beer sounded really like a really great way to prepare for lolling around at the pool with a book and a cocktail later in the day in Seminyak. But we spoke with Kutut about the bike riding option and he recommended his friend’s company (of course) Happy Bike Tours. Okay, so with a name like that, how could we go wrong? We were met by Wayan – a lovely man who was a stellar guide and a wealth of information and generally awesome dude – and we drove for about an hour or so out of town up to a Balinese agricultural preserve. We got to see, touch, pick and eat all sorts of interesting things from coffee to ginger to cinnamon to lemon grass to chili. And meet the civet cats. These guys are pretty interesting creatures. They are nocturnal so they were not overjoyed to be around people in the morning, but they acquiesced. Their job is to eat coffee beans and then poop them out so that you can enjoy delightful cat poop kopi luwak coffee. This is the world’s most expensive coffee. And not just for the cat poop. Apparently the civet is incredibly discerning in its bean preferences, so they naturally select the best coffee beans and then the enzymes in their digestive systems do something to it. As a coffee drinker I was not missing this ‘from the source’ experience. Sean had not heard of kopi luwak I don’t think, but he was impressed by the whole thing anyhow and as a non-coffee drinker he admitted it was pretty damn good stuff. It is incredibly smooth and has a yummy aftertaste, which I generally would consider an oxymoron. After enjoying a variety of Balinese coffee (with ginseng as well as cat poop) and hand rolled Balinese tobacco cigarettes we headed up towards Mount Batur, an active volcano north of Ubud. Breakfast is served over looking the volcano and the lake of the same name. Following this we headed to the bike riding part of the trip.
The ride is not hard but it is really, really pretty and I got a nice tan burn so I was pleased. Probably the best part was talking with Wayan who knows the area so well and could tell us all about the village politics and community practices, all of which were totally interesting to hear about. And the whole day it was just the three of us which made it even more cool. After a couple of hours of riding we end up in the owner’s home for lunch. Seriously. Made’s wife prepared a fantastic feast and we had our own little table in the heart of the family compound. (By the way, in Bali you will meet a ton of men named Made, Wayan, Komang and Kutut because all the boys in every family get these names. Made [mah-day] is #1, Wayan [why-ahn] is #2, Komang [like it looks] is #3 and Kutut [kuh-toot] is #4. In fact, as Sean pointed out after Wayan told us about the Indo family planning policy, you can pretty much bet that every guy will be a Made or a Wayan since natalist policy has come into play.) Made came out to meet us and told us about all the buildings and people on the compound and basically just let us hang out there. It was really nice and epitomized what I love about the Balinese people. After a ride back to the hotel we had a swim and a beer and we were off to the beach.
What a life.
My first trip to Bali I was underwhelmed with the beaches. Really. This is the part that reminded me of Mexico. Kuta was like Cabo just selling sarongs instead of serapes. And I have to sort of snobbishly admit, I still think there are far better beaches… but I am certainly not complaining about four days on the Indian Ocean, so stop me now. We stayed right on the beach at the Sofitel. Okay, now I know I swore after the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi that I would never stay in one of their hotels again, but this was such a great deal and… well, I figured I would give it another go. YAY for that decision. Beautiful hotel, great people and generally total satisfaction. And what did we do there? What you do: beach, pool, swimming, shopping, eating, foot massages… yeah, it was rough. Our first evening there I took Sean down on the beach and wanted to hear what he had to say, as a surfer mostly from California. He had the same opinion of the beach as I did and noted the unfortunate, but typical, trash on Asian beaches… Until he stepped in the water. A picture of his face would have been more effective than any description I can put forth here, but he was amazed at the water temperature. “People aren’t coming here for the waves!” he exclaimed, “They are coming here because of this water – Oh my god!”
It is pretty sweet.
The likelihood of totally becoming vacation sludge is always a possibility when you are at a luxury hotel in tropical climates. Or at least it is for me. Not so much for my traveling companion. We kept it going the whole time. Again I am glad. We almost skipped out on Ulu Watu, but I am glad I stayed the course on that one because it is one of the most beautiful sunsets anywhere on earth. And the temple grounds are lovely and full of monkeys (and also Eastern Europeans the evening we were there…) The day we went the locals were worried, “No good luck sun today,” they said. And truth be told, it was a little bit overcast, but hey, ‘beggars’ can’t be so choosy and we didn’t have days and days to choose from. So we went. You be the judge of the quality of the sunset.
Whatever kind of luck that portends, I’ll take it.
Our last day in Bali I again had visions of poolside silliness. And there was a little of that… but we stepped out again as well. We were allowed to check out late and arranged transport to the airport for our 4pm flight around 2pm. There was some concern (not mine) about if this was enough time, but I had been being all smug about my traveler expertise and efficiency and I was going to ride that right onto the plane. There was some traffic, but we were at the airport by 2:40 or so. To get in, they wanted to see our itineraries. I did not have a hard copy of my e-ticket except on email (yay iPhone and wifi) but that ended up being okay in conjunction with Sean’s itinerary. Sometimes it is good to have back up, no matter how fly you think you are. We did not have to wait in line because of Marco Polo (yay Cathay Pacific) and as we were getting our bags checked I inquired as to whether or not the plane was full. “Very,” was the precise reply. Hm. Did she think we would be able to sit together? “Probably.” Okay then. We chit chatted and I saw Business Class bag tags going on all the luggage, not just mine. Hmmmm. And there we were, the upgrade for both of us, upstairs on the 747 (yay yay yay yay.) And then it was up to pay the exit tax (it costs more to leave Bali than to get in…) and through immigration. “Do you have your departure card?” Shit. Shitshitshitshit. “Oh.My.God. It is in my luggage that just got checked. F*CK!” Expert traveler me exclaimed. “What do I do?” I was told I would need to go back downstairs and get another one and then come back up. Okay, well that was not so bad except for the being an idiot part. I told Sean I would just go down and meet him at the gate.
“Oh, he has his?” The immigration official asked.
“Yeah, it is just me that forgot about it…”
“Oh, well, okay then, here just fill this one in, no worries – didi apa apa.”
They call Thailand the land of smiles, but I gotta say Bali has got their number. Thank you Mr. Immigration Man, you rock. After four and a half hours of champagne and movies and gourmet (for an airplane) food we were back in [freaking COLD] Hong Kong.
Would I go back to Bali? Hell yeah.
Except for that whole wide world out there waiting for me….