Travels In Bali

I first visited the island of Bali, Indonesia in the early 1990s. At the time, I was newly married and traveling with my new bride. Simone was the best traveling companion I have ever had. She was, like me, open to new and unexpected experiences. We had flown to Bali with only a reservation for the first two nights. Our intent was to wing it the rest of the trip.

This, in fact, turned out to be a prescient plan, as we encountered several rewarding places of accommodation through references we picked up from locals as well as more than a few obliging hotel clerks. At each evening’s hotel, we would inquire of the clerk as to a recommendation somewhere near the following day’s destination. The clerk would call ahead and arrange for us. This resulted in our staying at one or two of the most impressive (and relatively inexpensive) lodgings in our mutual experiences.

We had flown twenty-plus hours from San Francisco to Bali via Hawaii with a stopover in Borneo/New Guinea. This proved quite educational, as the government of Borneo had hired a small band of aborigines to dance about in native dress for the edification of passers-through. Interestingly enough, we spotted these same natives dining in an airport fast food eatery, which shall remain nameless. Suffice to say, the sight of this band of indigenes scarfing down corporate burgers put the lie to any intended purpose of their culture-promoting sponsors.

After the long flight, we landed in Nusa Dua on the southern tip of the island. From there, we went immediately to our pre-arranged accommodations in Sanur, a beach town, also on the southern end of the island. These towns, Nusa Dua, Sanur and nearby Kuta are tourist-centric beach communities, providing all the accoutrements that visiting party-seeking travelers could want. That was exactly what we were trying to avoid. Sanur was nice enough but after the first couple of nights, we were eager to get down to the business of exploration.

To that end, with guidebooks in hand, we set out for Candi Dasa another beach town up the eastern coast of Bali. On a hotel clerk’s recommendation, we had secured lodging for the evening and upon our arrival, our beachfront digs pleasantly surprised us. The exchange rate being decidedly in our favor, I quickly adapted to the practice of requesting the best room available without giving a thought to cost.

Driving in Bali was an adventure not for the faint at heart. Not being very adept at stick shift driving, I am sorry to say, my wife did the driving. The reality that driving in Bali proceeds on the opposite side of the road (as compared to the United States) was daunting enough, to say nothing of the local scooter driver’s propensity for passing three abreast. This practice provided unending thrills for Simone as well as for these errant cyclists I am sure.

After relaxing on the beach for another day, we turned our attention to the inland areas of the island, which held several active volcanoes we wanted to see. One of these was Gunung Batur, which was located in the north-central area of the island. The clerk at our hotel graciously arranged our lodging at somewhere called Lakeview, which sounded pleasant enough. Little did we know.

After driving some distance into the central highlands, we came upon the little town of Kintamani. Poised on the ridge of an extinct volcano, sat the Lakeview hotel. This place had inexpensive bungalows seemingly ripped from the pages of a guidebook for perfect locales. The hand-carved doors, appliquéd with gold leaf opened on a spectacular vista of the lake that filled the ancient crater and the current volcano that had supplanted the elder.

The proprietors of this wonderland apprised us of a pre-dawn trek up the side of the peak that culminated in a sunrise ceremony at the mouth of the existing volcano’s steaming cauldron. This sounded particularly intriguing, as we had seen evidence of some sort of religious festival at the base of the volcano earlier in the day. The festival was not surprising, as Bali is abounding with religious festivals. Religion, in fact, is at the center of Balinese life.

Sometime around 3AM, our intrepid guides awakened us. We climbed aboard an ancient Jeep and were transported to the base of the volcano, there to begin our middle-of-the-night ascent. As we clambered ever higher, we could still hear the natives in the valley below us carrying on with their festivities. This gradually became somewhat unnerving as we ascended higher and higher up the side of this semi-active volcano.

Earlier in the day, I had purchased a t-shirt emblazoned with an image of one of Bali’s innumerable fertility gods and the irony of the thought of this western tourist mounting a volcano while a gathering of locals chanting far below him with increasing fervor was not lost on me. Eventually we gained the summit and there we watched our guides fill plastic bottles with holy water garnered from the condensing steam emanating from the heated rocks at the lip of the volcano’s crater. After staring down into the molten abyss for a bit, we turned our attention to the main event.

As if on cue, the sun broke the far horizon and gloriously rose in a splash of pink and gold to a chorus of oohs and ahhs emanating from the gathered adherents. This was the Bali we came to see. Unadorned, unplanned and unfettered activities carried out in a manner somewhat akin to the locals’ customary pursuits. The only thing untoward we witnessed was a young lad climbing up the trail and then back down again, wearing only the slimmest of shower thongs and carrying a backpack chock-a-block with cold cokes for resale to thirsty mountaineers, somehow managing to keep his feet on the rocky path.

Religious festivals notwithstanding, Bali is replete with festivals as well as ceremonies, large and small. To see a small parade of people bearing towers of fruit and other delicacies upon their heads is a common sight. The locals say prayers throughout the day for contingencies large and small. Memorials line intersections and bridges, with bridges serving as particular emphasis on the yin and yang of everyday life.

It is customary to see a bridge in Bali adorned with a black and white checkered design signifying the forces of good and evil at play in the everyday interaction of cars jockeying for position and prominence in traffic. Particularly dangerous intersections, moreover, carry statuary depicting characters and personages from Indonesian mythology playing off the contrasts of good and evil. These representations play an important role in everyday Balinese life.

The saying of prayers continues throughout the day. Small shrines are commonplace, typically cropping up in front of homes and businesses. Usually consisting of sticks of incense and other miniscule offerings, such as small bamboo trays constructed for the purpose and filled with portions of sweetened rice, these gifts represent tributes to the numerous gods of the Siva-Hindu sect to which the Balinese aspire. Perhaps a bit of the history of Balinese culture and religion is in order.

During the onslaught of Greater Indonesia by Muslim invaders, priests, artists, philosophers and other thinkers of various stripes loyal to the monarchy escaped with the members of the royal family across the straits to the island of Bali. This pilgrimage of specialization resulted in the present day religious and artistic amalgam that embodies the indigenous islander’s life. Moreover, art as well as religion is a major dynamic in Balinese life.

Artisans, working in media from concrete wall adornments to intricately painted forest scenes are the norm rather than the exception. Being a former Dutch colony, Bali, decades ago, drew European artists to the island for inspiration both spiritual and physical. These émigrés convinced local artists to mass produce small wooden carvings for sale to a burgeoning tourist trade.

These contributed, perhaps unconsciously, to the modernization of the local art milieu, resulting in a decidedly western art influence seen in some local artists work. These influences, both in commerce and in style, reveal themselves today in mass produced carvings sculpted in a decidedly modernist tradition and in paintings owing as much to Impressionism and Abstractionism as to archetypal Asian influences of China and Japan.

After Batur, we visited Gunung Agung, the Divine Mountain, so that we might explore the temples and other ho0ly places resident there. These volcanoes, extinct and otherwise, are holy places to the Balinese. Elaborate temples and shrines constructed beneath them serve as meeting places for priests and commoners alike. Guards at various checkpoints encourage visitors, male and female, to don, out of respect, traditional sarongs before entering the hallowed grounds. These wraps, offered for rent or for sale, are beautiful swathes of locally produced fabric that are well worth the purchase if only for a souvenir of an exotic place and time.

Further exploration of the interior, evinced a few metalworking villages. Prominent among these was the hamlet of Celuk, which specialized in silver jewelry, although a few gold workshops managed to subsist there as well. These shops were a haven for haggling, as were most traders in tourist paraphernalia and accoutrements. Mornings are a particularly advantageous time to shop, as most Balinese are superstitious about mornings (among other things).

One of the first expressions I learned (in addition to Trimakasi, i.e. Thank You, always an indispensable phrase in any language) in Bahia Indonesian (the local language) was “Pagi, Pagi” – a form of Good Morning. Shopkeepers would invariably offer the first customer of the day the customary “morning price”, as Balinese consider the first sale good luck. In celebration of said sale, he or she would parade about the shop daubing the proceeds on the various and sundry merchandise exclaiming “Pagi, Pagi”. I found this practice to be particularly charming as well as instructional – further shopping always commenced before noon.

Beyond the silver shops, there were also Batik shops. Batik is a method of fabrication at which the Balinese are particularly adept. Much of Balinese clothing makes use of this colorful fabric, sometimes interwoven with gold filament. What with art, jewelry and clothing the Balinese are adept at whatever they undertake. Even their farming methods display a considerable artistry.

Being a small island nation, the Balinese have devised ingenious ways to make the most of the limited available space afforded them. Up the sides of the ubiquitous mountains, terraces, chiseled out of the hillsides, mount the grades in picturesque fashion. This also renders Bali a photographer’s paradise. The vistas of farmers in their conical headgear working the rice paddies terraced as they are up the slopes is a sight to capture on film or treasure in the memory cells forever.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Travels In Bali

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

A honeymoon excursion to Bali, Indonesia

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