Tuesday, March 29, 2016


After my travels through Australia, I flew up to Bali for a few days.  This trip to Indonesia was my first time in an Asian country, even if it was just the fringe. My hotel was in Seminyak, and I got my first lesson about Bali right away when the hotel way overcharged me for an airport shuttle.  Not knowing the currency very well yet or what things should cost, I agreed to the price they quoted, but in Bali, you're supposed to haggle.  So I paid 350,000 Rupiah for a 30 minute ride that should have only cost me around 125,000. What I really learned is that I should have done more research before going, but as it was a short trip I tacked on to the end of my months of exploring Oceania, that didn't happen.  
While I couldn't even trust the hotel in terms of pricing, at least everyone in Bali speaks English, so I wasn't totally at a loss. In fact, they are pretty much all tri-lingual, speaking Balinese (the local language of the island), Indonesian (the wider language of the archipelago), and English.  It really does make me feel lazy as an American who only knows English and Spanglish. 
The hotel Vasanti was a nice place, with a good sized room, including both shower and bath tub, and complimentary items in the minibar at check-in.  I also had a package that included a free 1 hour massage and breakfast every morning. I got in around 11pm local time, so went pretty much straight to bed.

The next morning, I got up and went down for an extensive breakfast selection, a combination of western and local cuisines. From there I decided to explore area the way I like to introduce myself to any new place, on foot. As it happens, Seminyak is not a pedestrian friendly place, with only occasional side walks beside narrow streets crowded with some cars and lots of motorbikes.  In Bali, it's a law that your horn has to work for safety, between the narrow streets, blind corners, and variety of vehicles on the road. But mostly I had taxis honking at me, because I couldn't possibly be walking around on purpose, who would do something so stupid?  (Answer: this guy!)  I passed by many small stores and mini-marts and tourist stands selling excursions, and along the sidewalk (when on a sidewalk) as I went I kept stepping over small paper boxes filled with flowers, a cracker or small food item, and sometimes incense.  These are offerings put out to thank the gods, and every town displays theirs slightly differently (what kind of plate or box, what is included inside).  Apparently there's no hard feelings if you step on one, since they are on the ground all over the place, but I made a point to tread carefully. The other thing I kept seeing around were bamboo poles decorated with coconut leaves in intricate braids hanging down from the front of buildings.These are called Penjors and symbolize the island's biggest mountain in the north, where pilgrimages for prayer are made; but to avoid having to go all that way to pray, Penjors are created and hung outside of each house, and remain there for the whole of Galungan, a Balinese holiday (around 35 days in total,  about every 7 months). 

Wandering without a map, I guessed at where I was going, but there are very few side streets, so not a lot of options for making a wrong turn (other than driveways).  So I found my way to Seminyak Square, the downtown area and main shopping center. Though I never really did master the art of haggling, I found a few souvenirs to buy at prices I deemed reasonable. 
From there I thought that I'd try to find the beach, which ought to be really easy in a coastal town on an island, but if I hadn't made a turn right when I did, I could have easily missed it.  The coast is dominated by hotels and beach clubs, leaving very few public entrances.  When I emerged to the beach, I was surprised to see no one laying out on the sand or swimming/surfing in the water.  There were signs everywhere warning of the dangers of the strong current, which was pretty evident in the big waves and visible rip tides, and amazingly people seemed to be taking these warnings seriously, despite the heat and humidity of the day. As for the lack of people lying on the beach, most were on lounge chairs with or without umbrellas set up at each of the many hotels and beach clubs I mentioned.  The thing about the lack of public entrances to the beach is that I walked a mile or so up the beach looking for a way to exit back to the main road, and couldn't find one.  I tried a couple of driveways that dead ended at houses (making me wonder how they got out to the road, and was shooed away from a beach resort. But it took a long time to find a way off of the beach, and I was absolutely pouring sweat by that time (sexy, I know). The road I finally found was not the same one I'd come from, and even with a map I'd picked up from the Square, I didn't know where I was. But like an oasis, I found a frozen yogurt shop, and stopped in to cool off and miraculously tap into their wifi.  From there I was able to map my way back to the hotel (another 40 minutes away, as I'd overshot it, and there weren't any side streets to cut the corners back).  I was elated to make it back to the hotel, rinse off, and after my 3+ hour exploration, spend some time in air conditioning.  

My second day, I woke up early to take advantage of a free yoga class offered on the grass by the pool.  Only two of us showed up, but that was fine, it was a very relaxing practice, Hatha, with a focus on breathing and stretching (not my usual form of yoga, but when in a Hindu country, how can you not take a yoga class from an old zen guy who was raised in the tenets of the practice?).  

After yoga and breakfast, I secured a lounge chair and umbrella by the pool before they were all snatched up and finished reading my beach book, The Girl in the Spider's Web, and then started on my iPad reading Station Eleven (I prefer not to read on my iPad on beaches or by pools, but with my paperback finished, I had to). After a few hours of laying out and swimming, and I surrendered the seat to one of the people circling in wait. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the phone with my airline and Orbitz dealing with a flight snafu I won't go into, but that necessitated me getting my complimentary massage that night. That was a wonderful hour of being rubbed with lavender oil and forgetting everything else.  From there I went upstairs to visit the rooftop restaurant for dinner and a Pina Colada, while watching a thunderstorm roll in from the ocean, lightening visible a long way off.  The result of my travel trouble was that I had to leave Bali a day earlier than originally planned, and spend an extra day and night in Sydney before flying back to LA.  That means my third day in Bali was also my last day, and I hadn't yet seen any of the sights I'd discovered in my belated travel research (done on wifi in my air conditioned room). Knowing the hotel would likely rip me off on transportation I tried to download Uber onto my phone, but the wifi wouldn't let me (and yes, I know I'm about the last person who doesn't have an Uber account, but I live in NYC, there's always a cab when I want one). I relented and went to reception and requested a car to Ubud center (the cost was about the same as my ride from the airport, though the drive is at least an hour). They got me a driver, a really friendly and knowledgeable guy named Agung who arranged with me to take me around to everywhere I wanted to see around Ubud and back to the hotel after (if you visit Bali and need a driver, I highly recommend him). 
It was a rainy morning, the storm I'd seen at sea the night before still passing through, but it was my last day.  I learned that the rainy season used to be earlier, but in the past few years, it has moved out about three months, which is why the rain was coming now, a side effect of climate change that has been really hard on the farmers.  
The first place we went I never would have known to go myself. It was a plantation that grows coffee, tea, and cocoa beans (chocolate). A woman there took me on a brief tour, introducing me to one of their luwaks, a small catlike creature instrumental to the production of their most exclusive coffee. Kopi luwak is made from coffee beans eaten, digested, and excreted by the luwak.  The beans are then extensively washed and roasted and brewed into one of the world's most expensive coffees. 

After the tour, they gave me free samples of 7 coffees and 8 teas (I did not try the luwak coffee), and 3 flavored chocolates. It was all delicious, and after this generosity, when she lead me to the gift shop, I was compelled to buy something. My mom has already dug in to the 100% dark chocolate I brought back.

The next stop was the Sacred Monkey Forest, per my request. This is a sanctuary for macaque monkeys amid old temples and ruins. Because the monkeys are protected, they walk freely around with no fear of visitors, even eat from people when they can. Watching them up close, it's incredible how their dexterous little hands eating and climbing and nit picking are so much like our own. I spent a nice hour or so wandering around there, the rain having tapered off by this point.

From there we went on to the place I was most excited to see, the Tegallalang Rice Terraces.  I know this doesn't sound very thrilling, but they are incredible to see.  I'd seen pictures online before, and you can see my pictures here, but it doesn't compare to the real place.  Tiers and tiers of rice patties up and down the hillside. 
Every so often, there are people who will stop you and ask for a "donation" to continue the climb.  I only went through 2 such tolls before deciding I'd seen enough angles of the terraces. There were also young children around with books of postcards asking you to buy them "for school."  I have no doubt they were being educated in the importance of tourism and the skill of haggling, and I admired that even at that age they had a strong grasp of English.  I had lunch at one of the cafes at the top of the hill, with a nice view across.

 After that, Agung took me to the Tegenungan waterfalls. You can swim there, but I didn't bring a suit, so I had to satisfy myself with wading through the waters, trying to cool off that way. It's a beautiful little hideaway, and if I had been there to swim I would have lingered quite a while.  I did take a little jungle path up to the top of the waterfall for the above view as well. The base of the falls are many steep steps down from the parking area, meaning it was a long climb back up after, and I was happy to climb into an air conditioned car at the end (once again soaked with sweat, a frequent occurrence in that climate, potential honeymooners be warned). 

The final stop on my tour for the day was the Pura Samuan Tiga temple. Here you are given a long wrap skirt to put on (women and men) in order to respectfully enter the temple grounds.  Rather than one large building, there are several courtyards filled with smaller shrines. The temple was originally built over a thousand years ago, but after an earthquake leveled the area about a hundred years ago, it all had to be rebuilt. There are intricately carved stone creatures outside each of the structures, to scare away evil spirits. 

While Bali is predominantly a Hindu island and they pay tribute to the gods, ancestor worship is a large part of their belief system as well. Known as the island of a thousand temples (and this doesn't include the family temples that exist in each household), religion is an important aspect of everyday life in Bali, and there are ceremonies and rituals for almost everything. I didn't have a chance to really experience any of this beyond my observation of the daily offerings and the penjors. 

On the way back to the hotel, Agung and I discussed the economy some, how little workers make an hour, which is why so many people drive motorbikes rather than cars (much cheaper). I kept seeing shelves of Absolut bottles filled with a yellow liquid at roadside shops and asked about them, and after teasing me that it was vodka that had been in the sun too long, he told me it's gasoline. With gas station few and far between, and the small tanks on motorbikes, some people will go to the gas stations and get enough to bring back to smaller towns and sell in bottles of under a litre at a large mark up.  I never did find out why they use Absolut bottles though. 
Back at the hotel, I cleaned up, packed up, and got ready to catch my midnight flight back to Sydney.  The first of my 3 red-eye flights in under a week on the way back across the globe home.

 I leave you with a little street art I found in Seminyak. Cheers!

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