Saturday, October 3, 2015

Beach Bums in Bali

The name 'Bali' usually brings visions of tropical landscapes and long beaches stretching into the distance. I didn't have much of a concept in mind when we decided to go there, but I think something like this was what I expected, along with some temples, and some rice paddies. We decided to split our time between Ubud, in the central part of Bali, and Uluwatu, in the southern tip of the island.

Our accommodations: The Studios Ubud,
looking toward rice paddies
When writing about our up-coming trip, I had a few objectives for each place we were visiting. For Bali, I said that I wanted to:
- check out some art and Balinese theatre
- see the monkey temple, and not get bitten
- visit the cliffside temple at Uluwatu
- learn to surf
- appreciate paradise

Things went well, goal-wise, in Ubud. We stayed in a gorgeous compound with a stunning view and a pool that was always the perfect temperature for swimming.

We went to see a 'kecak' dance one night, which had 100 men sitting in a circle and providing rhythm with their voices, while a story unfolded in front of us with different characters. The story was told by one man, and the dancers set the mood with their facial expressions and movements. I had no idea what the man was saying, since he told the story in Indonesian, but I could tell what was happening by watching the dancers (love! betrayal! anger! battle!). We also watched a man dance in a 'fire trance' and he actually walked through and around and over a pile of hot coals, that were smoking and sparking and flying around, and we could feel the heat from our seats. That, my friends, was one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

The next night, we went to a restaurant that also had Balinese dancing, but of a different kind. This time, we listened to 'gamelan' music, which is played on wooden or bronze xylophone-type instruments that are struck with little hammers, while women danced. The outfits they wore were so beautiful, and their movements were absolutely precise and sometimes subtle - like moving the eyes and chin only, or wiggling two fingers. I was enthralled.

This one wanted to hold my hand,
so I went with it.
We checked out the monkey forest in Ubud, and yes, there were many monkeys. The monkeys were very accustomed to people, so there wasn't really any worry about them biting or doing aggressive things to humans. They were more focused on the others of their own kind, having mum-and-baby parties or fighting over territory. People, to their credit, also weren't trying to take weird photos with the monkeys, or to pick them up or pat them. We checked out an exhibit of paintings by Ubud artists that was inside the monkey forest, and that was also very interesting. The paintings were often on a similar theme - gods fighting humans/monkeys, gods being nice to humans, humans and monkeys making offerings to gods, humans going about their business while gods sneakily watched. That sort of thing.

One of many temples, this one
behind Cafe Lotus
Ubud was quite busy, but is a small town, so it felt like the busyness was really concentrated in a two-block radius right in the centre, and once you got away from that it was far less busy. Walking on the sidewalks was difficult because they were narrow, broken in places, criss-crossed by tree roots, uneven (sometimes by a foot or two), and just generally treacherous, so it was much easier to walk around in areas that weren't very busy. Bali is not a very accessible place for people with impairments to walking.

Looking north-west from a cafe in Uluwatu. There are shops
above us and below us on the cliff.

Goal-wise, things went less well in Uluwatu. I think I focused too much on the last goal - enjoy paradise - and forgot about the other things I wanted to do. Drew and I rented a scooter for our time in Uluwatu, which was the most fun thing ever. We just scooted around wherever we wanted to go, and didn't have to worry about getting taxis (or being asked, constantly, if we wanted a taxi when we were quite happy to walk). Uluwatu is extremely small, and at first glance it felt a bit like the middle of nowhere. From the road, only a few buildings are visible. The wily adventurer, however, quickly discovers that there are restaurants, shops, and cafes built on top of each other all the way down the west-facing cliff, connected by ramshackle stairways and sloping sidewalks.

Our hotel in Uluwatu was between this pile of spots, at Uluwatu beach (or break, or point), and a beach called Padang-Padang. Uluwatu beach is not the place to learn to surf. It is for intermediate to expert surfers. It is also accessed by a staircase through a cave! Padang-Padang, however, is a place where first-timers can get lessons. September is also toward the end of the surf season, so that makes it a good time of year to go and try it out.

That said, we did not end up surfing at all. We went to Padang-Padang and saw the lessons happening, but just never got it together to go and ask about them and get signed up. We observed from our beach-towels, Bintang beers in hand, as people went out on boards and learned the ropes, and yet just didn't budge. We went swimming a bunch there, floating in the warm salt water like manatees. I think that's the right way to think of us on that beach: chilled-out slow-moving water mammals. I can't explain why we didn't surf - I still really want to do it. It just didn't happen.

Bintang and a frosty glass
Likewise, visiting Uluwatu temple on the cliff didn't happen, but this time I know why. There is one road that takes one between Uluwatu beach and Uluwatu temple. It is 2.5 km, or a 10 minute scoot. This road was closed. The bridge in one part of the road was being repaired, and so the road was impassible. That meant having to hire a taxi to drive for one hour each way to see the temple (Google maps says 25 minutes, because it's actually only 11 km, but once you're in Indonesia you quickly learn to double all estimates of time, even from locals). I'm sure that the temple is beautiful, and the scenery looks breath-taking, but by this time in the trip we had seen many, many temples. We opted for Bintangs, manatee-ism, and inertia. I don't regret it.

The weather in Bali was *amazing*. We were prepared for some rain in all of our stops, but it never came. Bali was blazing hot, but not too humid. We could comfortably sit in the shade of a cafe without feeling sweat trickle down our backs. Most Balinese buildings we saw do not have full walls or windows - they're mostly open-air and breezy. The exception is a few newer hotels where tourists go to stay, and which would have air conditioning (which is definitely a comfort at night).

A perfect Bali sunset
Tourism is a big industry (perhaps the main industry?) in Bali, and many people have their own businesses that operate in the 'informal' economy - that is, we paid cash to most people, and haggled over prices, and it seems clear that the folks who have shops and restaurants are just trying to make a living and avoid the tax man (for better or worse). Some bigger restaurants, chain stores (e.g. Quicksilver) and the hotels have credit card machines, but everywhere else is cash-only, including our scooter-rental place ($10 CAD for two days) and side-of-the-road scooter-gas purchases (a man with a cart, selling gasoline in old Absolut vodka bottles).

I would recommend Bali to anyone looking for an awesome and varied tropical vacation, with a definite local presence. The Balinese people we met were very friendly, and seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors on the island. We were thanked many times for coming to Bali, and asked if we would come back in the hopes that we would say yes, and indeed, we would.

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