Bali, Indonesia: Newsflash, it’s beautiful.
To state the obvious so we can move on: Yes, Bali is unquestionably beautiful. Yes, yes, hells yes. Stunningly so. Bali is kilometers of coral reefs, white- and black-sand beaches, surrounding epic volcanoes that pierce through perfect cumulus clouds. What did you expect me to say? I mean, come on. It’s freaking Bali. EVERYBODY knows it’s paradise. And it completely lived up to its billing. Or did it?
Ideally situated a paltry 8-degrees south of the Equator, Bali is incessantly warm and humid — in a word, tropical. Its average daily temperature graph is a ruler-straight line at 80-degrees year-round (plus or minus .005 degrees). And the instant we got off the air-conditioned airplane, we began sweating more than Karl Rove at a congressional hearing on Ethics.
To be coarse about it, by the time our driver dropped us off at the Peninsula Beach Resort on Tanjung Benoa, we were marinating in our own juices. We quickly stripped down to our swimsuits intent on heading out to the pool. The front desk clerk asked that we remain clothed until after we’d checked in. Grudgingly, we humored him.
The resort itself—while not exactly the top tier of accommodations on the island (the Conrad, Four Seasons and Intercontinental get that distinction) — was nothing to sneeze at. There were a number of on-site amenities including restaurants, water-sports and Balinese massage, but none had the tractor-beam attraction of the resort’s infinity pool overlooking the beach. Fragrant, plumeria trees arched over the water providing cool shade from the almost superfluous Equatorial sun (amazingly, I was able to get a tan exclusively from reflected light).
A typical day at the resort involved waking up at 10am and reading by the pool until we were asleep, sunburned, drunk, or all three. Truly, the best way to endure Bali’s heat is flat on your back. When we couldn’t stand it anymore, we’d ooze into the pool for awhile, then flop back onto our deck chair and order another fruity drink on our room tab. This brutal regime repeated itself for days on end — positively grueling.
Infested with astonishing tropical flowers, and lush vegetation, Bali’s volcanic topography makes for impressive photo-ops. Its most striking feature, and highest point, is Mount Agung, a 10,308 ft active volcano. We drove to the top of its outer ridge; a huge, gaping cavity resulting from a 1840s eruption. Atop the ridge, we could see a smaller active volcano inside that had erupted more recently in 1963. Around the base of the smaller interior volcano was a beautiful lake (see photo). And alongside the lake were…homes and a hotel. That’s right, I said homes and a hotel! Now, I know there’s not a lot of extra land on islands, but surely living on a raft at sea is preferable to living within burping distance of a scalding hot lava propulsion device that last blew chunks (of earth) a mere 40 years ago. And people think living near an earthquake fault is nuts.
RICE 101: An introduction
I’ll be honest, I’d never really thought twice about rice before going to Bali. To me, rice was like toilet paper at work, or napkins at a McDonald’s; something you took too much of and then threw the rest out. Honestly, I had no idea how much work went into growing and harvesting those little buggers.
Rice cultivation is well suited to places like Bali which have low labour costs and high rainfall as it is extremely labor-intensive and requires plenty of irrigation.
Rice farmers plant the rice seeds in little seedbeds, then hand transfer each of them into flooded fields. Rice can be harvested in about 3-to-6 months using a knife to cut each plant. Workers then gather and tie the stalks in bundles and leave them in the field for drying. A process called threshing follows where animals walk over the rice to take out its grain. The grains are then dried in the sun. After drying, removal of the grain’s husk follows (Yes, each grain of rice has its own freaking husk!)
Finally, the rice is packaged, sold to wholesalers, shipped, sold to distributors, trained, sold to retailers, trucked (lovingly marked up at each point, of course!) and sold to you in a 5lb. bag for a lousy US$6.00. Think about that the next time you’re standing over the disposal with a half-eaten plate of Tikka Masala, you wasteful pig.
Bali high? Well, that would explain it.
Clearly, the Balinese are crazy. All 3.5 million of them. While most of Indonesians are Muslim, the Balinese stand alone in defiance. Instead, fully 90% of Bali’s people are Hindu, many of whom harbor the added belief that mythical spirits live inside large objects: including trees, rocks and bridges. (The remaining 10% of Balinese believe myths just like Islam or Christianity.)
But the Bali people — descendants of a prehistoric race from Asia combined with Hindus from India — appear so gentle and polite you just want to slap them. Yet as nice as they were to us, the Balinese are really only nice when they want to be. In 1839, the Dutch tried to conquer Bali. During the following ten-year war, the Balinese — including women and children — fought the Dutch to the death, killing each other on the battlefield rather than be taken captive. The Balinese obviously couldn’t stand the thought of surrender (not to mention the thought of being forced to wear clogs in that heat).
With such a history of violence, why then — years later, after Bali joined Indonesia — are the Balinese so nice to tourists? Simple, money. To understand, imagine if someone came to your home and offered you $15 dollars to go get them a Diet Coke from your fridge and keep the change. You’d do it, right? Hell, even Donald Trump would do it. It’s the direct result of an exchange rate so unfavorable that it makes China look pricey.
Bali is cheap, super cheap.
Aside from the flight over ($$$), everything you buy in Bali is obscenely affordable. Unlike Cabo San Lucas, whose City Council quickly realized they could jack their prices in the touristy areas, Bali barely makes a distinction. As a result, you can get a US$100 meal for US$20 (tip included) while lounging in the pool.
Sure, guidebooks say you can haggle with merchants, but why would you beat down people living at a subsistence level? Don’t be a cheap bastard. Minimum wage in Bali is only US$45 a month (that’s US$1.50 a day). That’s not much to live on no matter where you live. Yet Indonesians from surrounding islands still flock there “for the opportunity” (the opportunity to screw the native Balinese out of tourism money). This causes no small amount of resentment towards these immigrants. A strolling band of Javanese musicians annoyed our driver more by cozying up to us than the musicians annoyed us trying to cozy up to us by playing Country music. And though the band was quite talented, we had to “dance with the one who brung us,” so we stoned the musicians to death. Sad, to be sure, but they knew the risks when they came over to Bali.
To encourage tourism in general, and spending in particular, Balinese banks wisely enclose stand-alone ATMs in air-conditioned, glass boxes much like phone-booths. Standing inside one of these, however, is the equivalent of dangling a collection of cameras hanging around your bright-colored Hawaiian shirt. It calls undue attention to yourself and, had the Balinese had an evil bone in their body, would identify you as a target for Balinese criminals (of which there are none). One particular ATM visit brought out a security guard who informed me that his bank’s was “not for me” and sent me up the road. I took that to mean it was not multi-lingual, and not an indictment of my ethnicity or fashion sense.
Timing is the key to not dying.
International tourism constitutes pretty much the whole of Bali’s GNP. Vibrant since the 1920s, tourism stalled briefly after a cowardly nightclub bombing in Kuta a month before we arrived. The bombing succeeded in killing 20 tourists, the tourist industry (upset local merchants walked around wearing “F—k terrorist”[sic] t-shirts), the entire Bali nightclub scene, and happily, the suicide bombers themselves. To be safe, we avoided all things touristy (especially Disney’s new Terrorists Of The Indonesian flume ride), but still managed to see many of Bali’s sights, shops and artist colonies without tragic or explosive results.
Original art? Not so much.
For such a sweltering place, the Balinese people are nonetheless every bit as industrious as those from more temperate climates. Most Balinese are involved in agriculture; primarily that of rice cultivation (see Sidebar). But they are also famous for their batik, clothing, wood and stone carvings, and silverware. “Art” shops lines the roads like used car dealers minus the inflatable 20’ gorilla. The Balinese seem endlessly capable of cranking out mass quantities of skillfully carved objects du art. But, sadly, their artisitic muse appears to be Pier 1 Imports.
Lacking in unique vision and/or originality, the “art” is mired in very traditional depictions of monkeys, dancing girls, evil spirits, as well as evil dancing monkey spirits. On the plus side, you could decorate every room in your house like a temple for the cost of re-facing your kitchen cabinets at Ikea.
Their local beer, Bintang, lacked originality, too. But that’s not a bad thing in beer. This Heineken-like brew flowed freely into our livers due mainly to its crisp taste, pool-side availability and super-low price: US$0.70 a can (US$1.40 in the pool — I mean sitting in the pool — totally worth it). The Heineken comparison seems apt since, as I mentioned, the Island was once a Dutch colony (but they’re still ticked about it, so don’t bring it up).
The Balinese local rice liquor, Arak, was pretty good if memory serves me (but having had several Araks, it probably doesn’t). Conversely, the local wine, Bali’s own Wine of the Gods, exhibited only one redeeming quality — comical hyperbole.
Balinesian food, on the other hand, suffers from too much originality. Unwilling to steal recipes from other Indonesian countries, Balinese chefs combine spices that are hard to describe, and even harder to stomach. Flavors are mixed in combinations that aren’t particularly hot, nor particularly flavorful. Just different. Ultimately, the mixture has the effect of making fish, chicken and beef taste, frankly, better off without it.
Getting around the island.
As a former Dutch colony, cars in Bali drive on the left. Motorbikes, on the other hand, drive wherever the hell they want. Luckily, Bali’s transportation infrastructure is pretty good for a developing nation; vastly superior to Costa Rica’s. Even at the top of Mt. Agung, we still found paved roads in good repair. Yet even though Bali is a fairly small island— only about 5,700sq. km— we opted for a driver to show us around, and help us avoid suicide bombers. Our driver was named Nyoman. An affable family man, Nyoman piloted his white van around like a native, which he was, showing us all the sights. Unfortunately (for him), our resort was nowhere near his home in Ubud. So he had to drive 90-minutes to pick us up, and 90 minutes back home again. Every. Single. Day. That totally sucked. But it was worth it for him, since he made more in a day off us than most Balinese make in a month.
Explore old and new Bali with a reliable English-speaking tour guide. My special tour: I will drive you to see the real Bali; very nice landscape and rice paddies. I will show you Balinese home and plants. I will explain amazing culture and drive back roads rather than to the well-known places. Come and join with me.
Despite having a language of their own, many Balinese still learn English because a good percentage of the island’s tourists come from English-speaking countries like England, Australia and the US (what the Balinese charmingly know only as “America”). Yet, their grasp of the language was, at times, exhaustingly incomplete. Not that language was a major problem. It wasn’t. Getting along in Bali occasionally involved some fast thinking to piece together their earnest attempts at the English tongue. (If you’re uncomfortable among people who don’t speak English properly, well, then you know how the British feel about us.) Nyoman has a better than average grasp of the lingo (certainly, he did better with our language than we did with his), but there were still moments when we had to resort to sign language and signal flags to get our point across.
As we toured his breath-taking tropical paradise, Nyomen pointed out and explained the island’s many sights. Mesmerized by the beauty, we didn’t always listen that closely. Case in point: The temple monkeys at Uluwatu.
Despite repeated warnings that the monkeys were “grabby,” we still fell prey to their insidious primate paws. Even with sufficient forewarning, a monkey still managed to jump onto Amy’s chest and yank her sunglasses from out of her shirt collar, carrying them away to a nearby rooftop. With suspicious calm, an elderly peanut vendor quickly tossed two bags of peanuts up to the hairy kidnapper causing him to drop Amy’s glasses onto the hard, stone temple floor. Relieved, we thanked the old man and paid him for the peanuts, remarking on how “lucky” we were to have him there to “help.” Clearly, this was a ruse on the part of both the old man and those damn, dirty monkeys.
For the rest of the time we toured the temple grounds, the damn, dirty apes came at us from above and below, both alone and in packs. Sly and conniving, they were out to steal anything they could get their opposable thumbs on. It was like ‘Nam. Or at least a bad movie about ‘Nam. (“You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!”) The Balinese themselves may not be aggressive, but their monkeys certainly made up for it.
We survived the simian onslaught until sunset when they retreated into the surrounding forest. While the monkeys split their day’s take with the old man (no doubt laughing at all the stupid tourists), we attended the Kecak Fire Dance. The dance took place on concrete, around a central iron sculpture which was set ablaze. A group of shirtless Balinese men entered, sat around the sculpture and began percussively chanting “chet, chet, chet” as one guy sang a melody line (I think it was “South Pacific”). Next, out came dancing girls and men in costumes (usually monkey-themed). After much frenzied and confusing activity, the white ape god got trapped in a ring of actual fire and escaped by literally kicking the flaming bails of hay into the chorus of shirtless men who were soon more screaming than chanting. The Kecak dance ended with many of the chanters being given emergency medical treatment. Don’t miss it.
Bali is beautiful. It’s cheaper than dirt. And the people couldn’t be nicer if they tried. The only downside is the flight, which is long and expensive. But you should go to Bali anyway. You really need the vacation (right?). And they really need the business.