Bali: Land of Culture, Contrast and Conflict
Travelworld International Magazine


A pair of stunning, black, almond-shaped eyes glanced at me demurely under a golden headdress that shone in the sunlight. Banked by a bevy of beauties in similar attire, the young Balinese girl depicted a stature and wisdom that belied her age. Her stately carriage and stillness appeared almost hypnotic, as she waited patiently in preparation for her dance performance.


Legong Dancers - Photo by Beverly Mann
  In contrast, to my left, three older women sat simply clad in white lace tops and batik sarongs. After being sprinkled with holy water, they offered me a burning incense stick as we listened to the blend of chants and gamelan sounds. From every direction were clusters of colorful costumes and flower offerings — all in celebration of a 50th temple anniversary in Ubud, Bali's bustling village of arts and artisans.

Every day is a celebration in Bali, whether an anniversary or a funeral. It is not unusual to witness throngs of locals (young, old, dancers and musicians) parade along massive decorative floats in elaborate garb, balancing flower offerings and fruits upon their heads en route to their temple or home shrine. One of Indonesia's thousands of islands, Bali has a unique personality of its own, managing to preserve strong Hindu beliefs within a predominately Moslem country.

Bathed by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, with its temperate climate, this sacred isle takes pride in its lush landscape enhanced by vivid sunsets, sculptured hillsides riddled with rice paddies, and villages bedecked with hand-carved temples.
 
 

Temple of Tanahlot - Photo by Beverly Mann
Despite the recent terrorist bombings and political unrest, I ventured forth to Bali in late July, only to discover a sense of peace and a cultural jewel shimmering with sensuality and natural beauty. For me, Bali was a place, as locals say, "Where things just happen!" The mystery of this enchanting destination unraveled during my two-week journey, as I immersed myself in the wealth of spices, spas and spirituality.  
  Upon arrival at Denpasar Airport, I was greeted by my tour guide Yuda and his driver who took me for an hour drive to the magnificent Meridien Hotel, a luxurious golf and spa resort on the eastern coastline in the village of Tanah Lot. The late night ride, passed a mass of motorbikes in heavy traffic, didn't prepare me for the dramatic scenery ahead.

I awoke the following morning to a Shangri-La setting. In full view was an ancient sea-temple built within a giant rock surrounded by tropical terrain and the vast blueness of the water. Since I am not a golfer, I opted to take a 20-minute stroll along the grounds to the adjacent village, all the while inhaling the delightful ocean air. I weaved through an endless array of friendly but aggressive villagers hustling their wares of sandals, shirts, sarongs and wood carvings for just few thousand rupiahs (or two to five US dollars). One woman even grabbed my hand to insist that I see her goods.

Unfortunately, amid the physical and inner beauty of the people and terrain, appeared an abject poverty and desperation in the eyes of many women and children. This was a part of the journey which I found most disconcerting.

With a bag full of souvenirs, I escaped the intense, mid-day sun by relaxing with a cool Bintang (beer) under the hotel's bale (tent-like structure with white tufted pillows and bedding) overlooking the ocean. Here, I found quietude and a connection with nature and myself, as I snuggled with a book and felt the tropical breeze trickle through my hair and caress my skin. I was soon lulled to sleep by a combination of ocean waves, gamelan drums and chanting in the distance.

Early that evening, I befriended a group of American engineers from Texas living in Jakarta I decided to join them for dinner at Ku de Ta, a swanky spot just south of Tanah Lot in the town of Seminyak.
 
  I felt a bit uneasy being in such a crowded touristy place with Aussies, Kiwis, and several Americans, after the recent bombing of a popular club in nearby Kuta. Ironically, the very next day, I observed a news alert on CNN and News Asia of the horrific explosion at the American hotel in Jarkarta. This was a place where several of these expatriates who I dined with the night before usually have their business lunch.

Temple Ceremony - Photo by Beverly Mann
  Since the remainder of my journey would be in small villages, away from heavily commercial places and residing in cottages, I felt relatively safe.

The best way to see Bali was by car with a private driver, for approximately $40 US, to visit the inland villages and holy temples, volcanoes and countryside. On my second day, my guide Yuda, gave me a brief overview of my day. This included a visit to a traditional Balinese dance performance, the villages of batik making and woodcarving, and Mount Batar Volcano.

As we started out on our day's trek, our van passed rows of vendor stands neatly stacked with pyramids of fruits, glistening green rice paddies, and uniformed children walking to school.

Our first stop was in Denpasar to view Balinese dancing. The Barong Dance presented a power struggle between good and evil—the Barong, a mythological creature and Rangda, the monster. I preferred the more lyrical, 13th-century Legong Dance performed by women and children in shimmering gold costumes.

Soon after, we entered Batubulan, a village known for its batik making. I was in awe of the patience it took to draw intricate designs with hot wax on both sides of the fabric.
 
 

Bali Fruit Stand- Photo by Beverly Mann
At the next village of Celuk, I got some great deals on handmade silver bracelets. We continued on to Mas, where we stopped at the Ida B. Markas woodcarving complex, a cooperative of local artists. The works ranged from larger-than-life statues to small, delicately carved animals and figurines—tempting but pricey.  
  The challenging, 25-minute climb up a steep hill to the grand Mother Temple of Besakih was the most memorable way to end the day's journey.

Passing a slew of shops and peddlers enveloping me, I finally reached the vantage point from atop the temple overlooking the city below. The view was well worth the effort. I arrived back at the hotel for my final night's stay just in time to view a crimson and violet sunset illuminating the Temple Tanah Lot, and to be serenaded by sounds of cicadas hidden in the tropical darkness.

The next morning, a taxi drove me to Puri Saraswati, a cozy cottage adjacent to a temple with the same name located in downtown Ubud, Bali's cultural hub. For just $37 US a night, I had a comfortable room with a private shower facing the cottage's own carved temple where dance performances were held nightly.

Above my elaborately carved door, instead of a room number, was the name Sita, after one of the Balinese goddesses. This was apropos, after the royal hour-massage in my room, where I was oiled from head to toe with barely a spot untouched for a mere $5 US. Here, I could well afford to be treated like a goddess.
 
  My first morning in Ubud, I meandered among the myriad of shops and marketplace. I discovered that before 8:00 a.m. was the opportune time to experience the essence of Bali's tastes and aromas. An older woman pummeled a mixture of spices, steamed rice and veggies with a mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock, while a younger woman lined hand-woven baskets with a colorful array of flowers for the day's temple offerings.

Photo by Beverly Mann
  The underground market was most intriguing. I had to wind my way past piles of bags filled with rice, beans and every spice imaginable, as I watched women prepare the Balinese dishes of the day. I thought California had a long list of fruits and vegetables, but not compared to Bali.

Passion, snake, and Nangka fruit, which looks like a pineapple with a chewy consistency, are just a few of the daily staples. There were three or four types of ginger alone, including the spice's fine flower used in cooking. Appearances can really be deceiving. I was reluctant to taste a green, slimy jelly substance made from a plant, which I was told was loaded with iron and other minerals and had a calming effect. When I intrepidly swallowed this, I was quite surprised with its soothing, sweet taste.

For more appealing cuisine, I frequented Casa Luna, the most popular restaurant in town, nightly. Chef and owner Janet De Neefe is an Australian who arrived in Ubud 11 years ago and married an Indonesian businessman. Since, they have built several thriving businesses including a second restaurant, Indus, perched atop a hillside, accessible by a daily shuttle from Casa Luna.

I took Janet's cooking class at her lovely home, located just a five-minute walk from Casa Luna. Throughout the lesson, I realized how much she looked and sounded like the actress/singer Julie Andrews. She admitted that her young children have referred to her as Mary Poppins.

The class comprised quite an eclectic crew, including an Australian couple who owned a 400 acre farm, two young biotech students from Geneva, and a Dutch woman engineer.

Part of the fun was tasting the gado gado salad and rice mixture that we prepared with our hands. Janet summed up our culinary experience when she said that it was difficult to distinguish the various tastes because the spices just "Jump around on your palate." as Janet says.

The senses flourish in Bali - not just with the food but with the sensual massages. My favorite spa treatment was at Bodyworks Centre, off of the main Monkey Forest Road. Here, I was rubbed down with cool yogurt, bathed in flower petals, and creamed with lotion—for an hour and a half of pure ecstasy. How could this have gotten better? I was then seated near a soothing fountain listening to classical Indonesian sounds in a Pagoda-like room of carvings and oversized pillows, while served a skewer of fresh fruit and hot ginger tea.

The Centre was only a 20-minute walk back to my cottage and not far from the Sacred Monkey Forest, an amusing diversion where approximately 140 long-tailed macaques romp around in their natural habitat. The visitor wonders who is being observed. I avoided buying the bananas at the entrance because I had heard how aggressive the monkeys can get when they see their treat. Beware. These playful creatures will literally grab the bananas right out of your bag or hand.

Amusement can come from the most unexpected places, whether it involves animals or children. Upon passing the myriad of shops on the main road to the center of town, I encountered a two-year-old child practicing a Legong Dance, while her Mom played notes on a miniature gamelan. The child's tiny hands were cupped upward above her head in a pray position, as her head tilted and dark eyes moved side to side coquettishly. I admired her focus and precision and realized that the arts held precedence in the fabric of a Balinese child's life.
 
 

Photo by Beverly Mann
As I watched, totally amazed at her ability to grasp some of these intricate hand and feet movements, an old Balinese proverb came to mind: "We have no art. We do everything as well as we can."

It was the attention to detail, care and timeless sense of completing a task during a day (so un-Western) which was my remembrance to carry back home.
 
  After more than 20 hours on planes to San Francisco, I looked forward to relaxing with a cup of fresh ginger tea. As I closed my eyes and got lost in the aroma of the spice, I tried desperately to recapture the vibrant colors and soothing, serene world of Bali, which manages to maintain its beauty and peace in the throes of the world's darkness and unrest.

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