A whole lot of eating, praying, and loving
as we explored the island of Bali
I was really excited to go to Bali because I've had so many people tell me how incredible it is. After a few days nursing our head colds in a hotel room in touristy Kuta, we were ready to experience more of the cultural side of Bali in Ubud. I thought Ubud would this relaxed, spiritual haven and in some ways it is, but to us it seemed just as touristy as Kuta. Yes, it was wonderful to have my pick of dozens of vegan/organic/juice-cleanse restaurants and to choose between brunch and yoga as activities to take up the day. But this culture isn't real, and it's certainly not Balinese. This manufactured ethos was brought here as a more familiar alternative to Westerners coming to the island in search of inner peace, which translates into massages and resorts instead of immersion into their spiritual culture. Hey, I'm all for yoga and wheatgrass shots, but I'm not fooling myself into believing this is how the locals spend their days.
That being said, Bali is a very nice place to spend your time. If you're looking for it, there's rich heritage and customs to learn about and experience. Dain went to a small bookstore and bought this cool hand-printed book that skims the religion, traditions, and popular stories in Bali. Over a pot of tea and a beer, we poured over the book and tried to commit each god and goddesses' names to memory. The Balinese practice a unique mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, both brought over by merchants hundreds of years ago, and differ from the rest of majority Muslim Indonesia. I love this picture of Dain because it encapsulates why I love him so much: he's curious and genuine interested in learning more about the world, but he'll do it with a lager in hand!
Dain's book came in especially handy for our night at the shadow puppet theater. If you don't know much about Balinese shadow puppetry, I highly encourage you to find a video on Youtube. Between the little puppets bouncing across the screen, the Indonesian songs we couldn't follow, and the bizarre interspersed English, it was an interesting experience to say the least! Puppetry has been historically used to tell important and religiously significant stories, mainly those with Hindu origin, and usually last for hours. The puppets are expertly crafted and intricate in detail, and have little levers for the mouth and arms that the puppet master controls behind a screen lit by a coconut oil candle. Four gamelan, kind of a xylophone, play a beautiful sing-songy melody in the background. After the performance, we got a chance to go behind the screen and see the puppets and instruments.
We also saw a traditional dance, which also conveyed several stories with a group of four or less dancers against an amazing 16-piece orchestra comprised of gamelans, drums, a lute, and gongs. The dancers wore traditional clothes and costumes and most of the movement was subtle; for example there was a lot of dramatic head tilts and eye motions back and forth keeping time with the gamelan.
You definitely don't need to go far to see Balinese culture firsthand. Our guesthouse was in a traditional Balinese home, which included a temple at the center and our hosts spent most of their day making offerings like the two examples below. One is offered at the entrance of every home and business, and the other hangs outside on the street. On a motorbike trip the day before a religious holiday, we got stuck behind a processional that took up the entire road and delayed us for about thirty minutes. The whole town was out carrying ceremonial items, playing instruments and singing and it was wonderful to be right there with them.
Ubud town is pretty densely populated but it's small, and just a kilometer or two away you'll find really peaceful farms and nature to explore. There are many rice terraces around but the closest and most famous are the Tegalang Rice Terraces. Once you park your bike, you can take any number of staircases down into the valley and up the rice terraces on the other side. It's a stunning view from the top and an even better trek to have a look around. The main area visible from the road is pretty packed with tourists but there are other hikes to the natural springs or parts of the terraces further from the main drag. There is no official entrance or fee but sometimes locals camp out along the path and demand payment. You just have to show that you know you don't need to pay and they'll more or less leave you alone, although you may get a dirty look.
In the evening when the weather had cooled a little and the breeze blew in, Dain and I traversed the ridge walk, a trail in the center of town that takes you alongside a canyon and to another more remote part of the village. It's a short and easy walk but it was so nice to be out of the hustle and traffic of Ubud for a bit. On one side of us, we had the sun setting against the tall grass; on the other, a forested canyon speckled with palm trees and a mosaic of different textures of green; ahead of us, small farms and quiet homestays.
You definitely don't need anything but your own two feet to explore Ubud, but Dain and I wanted to see more of the island. We took a few day trips, only about an hour away each, to see the surrounding areas. Through a bamboo forest into one of the small traditional villages, we got a look into traditional Balinese homes that are laid out with separate areas for the family burial ground, a special area for ceremonies, a rudimentary kitchen with a wood-burning fire, and then the sleeping area. It's a lovely compound and I think Dain was inspired by the central courtyard and detailed craftsmanship of each specialized space.
Another amazing day trip on the island is to Mount Batur, Bali's second-highest peak. There's supposedly an awesome trek to the top that we didn't do for two reasons. For starters, we couldn't find the trail! I'd also read that a kind of mafia stands at the base of the mountain trying to sell you a guide, which you do not need in order to hike. If you refuse to pay for their services, they'll slash your tires. We were willing to chance it but after trying unpaved road after unpaved road, we decided to admire the landscape from afar. There's a beautiful crescent-shaped lake around the mountain and lots of volcanic fields, which are plains littered with black porous rocks marking each time the volcano erupted in the last hundred years. It's a really interesting landscape and the dark clouds (which meant cooler temperatures for us- yay!) gave this place a kind of ominous feel.
Overall, we had a very relaxing and fulfilling time in Bali. There's so much to experience here and will satisfy any kind of traveler, whether you're looking for a spiritual and cultural experience, or if you just want some R&R. It's a great introduction to one of the many, many islands comprising Indonesia.