Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ballin' Bali

Monday, July 6, 2009
Ubud, Bali

Ballin’ Bali

After a long night in transit from Hanoi to Bangkok and then onwards to Bali, we've finally arrived our island paradise destination. It does not take long to obtain our 30-day Indonesian visas, and within fifteen minutes of landing, we find ourselves standing on the airport sidewalk flipping through Rough Guides and debating whether to travel south to the touristy beach or north to continue on our cultural and spiritual adventure. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that we chose the latter, because after only six weeks of budget backpacking, Ari and I find ourselves in a blue-taxi speeding towards Kuta (and as western and touristy a hubbub as exists on Bali). The main lure - besides the beach itself whose golden sands stretch for 8km - is the gigantic, utterly delicious and much missed "Cobb Salad" served at the Hard Rock Cafe. Now, as two salad-afficionadas, the most difficult part of this trip has been avoiding uncooked vegetables for they say the dirty water used to wash them can lead to some fun-filled days (and nights) hung over the toiletbowl, ick. I could write a full-page describing how wondrous our salad was after six weeks on the road of vegetable stir-fries and curries, but I'll spare you the details...Let's just say that Kuta was a welcome stopover, but that we were happy to leave the brash, beach resort-town after only one day; there were so many western food chains (including tons of overpriced Starbucks) and clothing stores, avid shoppers and young (but experienced) partiers, that Kuta could almost pass for South Beach, Florida.

Early Tuesday morning, we board the Perama shuttle to Ubud, a small inland town known for its arts and crafts, and an upcoming hub for spiritual tourism. After taking a short, shuttle-ride amid the terraced rice-paddies into the center of town, we load-up our backpacks and set-out on a quest for a decently-priced guesthouse. We walk past dozens of art galleries displaying works as varied as oil painting, intricate wood carving, silver jewelry and dyed clothings. As experience has taught us, we wander off the main thoroughfare onto the less-frequented Arjuna Road to find the best deal accommodation...and within five minutes, are checking into the Suarsena Guesthouse for a record breaking (for us anyway) $7 a night including a wondrous breakfast right on our own private balcony. Come evening, we wander through the cobbled streets to the Royal Palace, where there is a performance of the traditional Legong Dance - considered to be the most beautiful of the Balinese dances. Set against the temple backdrop, the combination of the dancers' movements and the trance-like music coming from the musicians on either side of the stage is unlike anything we've ever seen or experienced...The dancers' large, boggly eyes that move left-to-right with the music, their crisp hand-movements, and full-body twists up-and-down are mesmerizing. We'll have to post pictures as soon as we can find an internet connection that is fast enough...ya right.

We're beginning to run low on the "extras" fund, which includes activities such as organized tours and excursions, and so we've taken up the motto "do it yourself" more than ever. Our first full-day in Ubud, we rent bicycles to tour the sites: the ruins of Goa Gajeh (elephant cave), Monkey Forrest, and the home of Mr. Ketut Liyer (the very same medicine man Elizabeth Gilbert writes of in "Eat Pray Love"). Slightly frazzled after our run-in with the monkeys, who've become rather naughty clamoring up onto visitors in search of bananas and stealing guests' personals such as cameras, we decide its time to visit a traditional, Balinese healer. As we pedal down the dirt lane towards Mr. Liyer's home, it occurs to me that I was so interested in meeting this person face-to-face, I haven't spent much time pondering exactly what I want to say to him (or whether there is a pressing issue/question I might need his help answering). After a short attempt to make ourselves presentable after all our huffing-and-puffing up and down the hills around Ubud, Ari and I walk under a plain, stone archway into Mr. Liyer's courtyard. There are chickens running around (as there are everywhere in Bali) and Mr. Liyer is sitting cross-legged on his porch, smiling at us with his wide, toothless grin. With one wrinkled hand, he beckons us over and proceeds to read our palms, face, neck and legs (who knew?).

Our second day in Ubud, we decide to head west to Campuhan – famous as the home of several expatriate painters including Antonio Blanco. Known as the "Bali Dali" because of his surrealist style, Blanco's home and studio have been transformed into a museum encompassing lush gardens and fountains, a wealth of exotic birds, and a gigantic mansion, elaborate and gaudy in its multicolored décor. As we make our way towards the entrance, a small boy emerges from the bushes with two, large parrots and places them on our shoulders where they proceed to eat the flowers right out of our hair…nasty things. The museum was lovely albeit we found some of Blanco’s “pieces” – the frame becomes a 3D-extension of the painting – rather crude, especially his poetry on the exotic. However serious the art gallery, we were given a pretty good laugh by Blanco’s granddaughter whom we encountered in the late artist’s studio space:

“May I show you a painting my grand-daddy made and ask you a question,” she looked right at us.

“Sure,” we reply (although now, in lieu of recent events, the joke isn’t so funny…)

She explains, “Michael Jackson used to be black, now he’s white.”

(Holding up a sign) “What color is MJ’s penis?”

I don’t know what to say, especially since I’m having this conversation with a young child. After a minute, she laughs and removes the top hat that covers part of the painting’s frame…

“Orange...because he was a veggie.”

We’ve been in Indonesia a little over a week now and we’re starting to feel comfortable in our environment; comfortable enough to rent motorbikes for an adventure into the countryside. As neither of us actually has an International Driver’s License (or a regular driver’s license with us, opps), finding a place to rent motorbikes was a bit awkward. Nonetheless, we’re driving north out of Ubud in no time, cruising up the southern slope of Mount Batur, through rice terraces and small towns overflowing with Hindu temples (we’ve yet to understand the reasoning why it’s essential to have these temples literally every other block). It’s Ari’s first time driving her own motorbike and although the mechanics of the bike are simple, getting used to the honking and wild-passing that constitutes Indonesian driving takes time. After an hour of motoring along, we are slowed down and motioned to the side of the road by the police, who are fairly corrupt around these parts. In other words, even if nothing is wrong with your bike and/or driving and you have the correct documentation, they’ll find a charge to stick you with just so that you’ll pay them off with a couple of greenbacks. I’ve never been a “cool cat” in the face of authority (we’re both pretty much peeing our pants while trying to maintain innocent smiles) while Mr. Bad Cop gives us the standard tourist lecture. He concludes with, “So, what are you going to pay me to not write you a ticket?” Right to the point – we were wondering how this whole bribery thing worked. We ended up paying him $5 US each, which we were told later was way too much! Hopefully we won’t have the opportunity to practice bribery again.

When we finally did make it to the mountain, all of our police-dodging became well worth it (it almost became a sort of game for us, turning down side roads and quickly parking our motorbikes on the shoulder to avoid getting another license lecture) for the spectacular view of the Gunung Batur (volcano) with Danau Batur lake nestled beside it. Danau Batur is the largest lake in Bali, home of Dewi Danu (goddess of the Crater Lake) and is sacred to the Balinese people. We somehow manage to avoid the plethora of street vendors and hagglers selling sarongs, sunglasses and cheap paintings and arrive safely back in Ubud late afternoon. Walking home (we’ve ditched the bikes at this point, too many police to dodge) from dinner through the raucous market, we are asked every two steps whether we need “transport” (aka, hopping on the back of a motorbike to get back to our hotel). After all this time in Asia, we’ve nearly perfected our stone “no faces” and when our two Dutchie friends pull-up beside us on their motorbikes, we answer “no thanks” without even glancing up. They have to drive directly in front of us before we realize our mistake hopping on the backs of their motorbikes en route to the Jazz Club, the only live music joint in town. And so…we passed on our last night in Ubud. On to the northern coast of Bali and lovely Lovina.

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