Submitted by Tanja Hill March 2004
If you have been here, you have seen the beautiful beaches with surfers balancing on the waves; the numerous Balinese temples; the odd scarecrow wearing a baseball cap and a jacket with some human hair on its head guarding the rice paddy from birds; the dogs that wander around the busy streets and yet somehow, against the odds, seem to live to see another day of traffic; all those chickens that are just about everywhere; the little warungs (cheap eating places) serving fantastic food and yummy cakes (some of which are fluorescent green!); and all those shops selling things to us, the Tourists, who want to experience the magic of Bali.
Talking about the shops, ladies, if you like jewellery, shoes and handbags, this is your paradise! As for clothes, knitted bikinis with matching knitted hats (????) seem to be readily available, but I would love to see if these stay on in the water! If interior design is your thing, again, Bali won't disappoint: you get the most amazing lamp shades, furniture with a difference, funky toilet seats and stunning wooden sculptures to jazz up your home. Sure you can buy junk here too - we Tourists love the stuff, so why not? You can buy some plastic jewellery or a rude ashtray very cheap indeed. The difference with the tourist junk here compared to many other places is that at least some of it here in Bali doesn't look like junk.
The local people are incredibly artistic in so many ways, and if something can be made by hand, they won't just give it a go - they become masters at it. They are also very innovative, a gift that we in the west are rapidly losing through sheer laziness. If you need a tambourine for your late night guitar jamming sessions in Bali, you take a stick, a couple of nails and some flattened bottle tops. Voila!
Balinese new year, Nyepi, and the Hindu Day of Silence.:
I have been in Bali for a couple of weeks now. This weekend (20th March) is the Balinese new year, Nyepi, and the Hindu Day of Silence. The ceremonies for Nyepi started a couple of days earlier. Hundreds of people from the surrounding areas gathered up on the beach to pray at the temporarily constructed temples, all dressed up in the traditional clothes (white shirt, head piece and sarong for men, and a blouse called kebaya and sarong for ladies). I borrowed some Balinese clothes too and enjoyed the baking hot afternoon on the beach watching this extraordinary event. It really was hot, and as I sat sidesaddle at the back of a motorbike carrying offerings to the gods on my way to the temple, sweat was quite literally dripping off the tip of my nose!
Both at the temple and on the beach, the gamelan bands were playing the traditional instruments creating a rather haunting atmosphere. There were colourful flags, decorations made from bamboo poles and coconut leaves, and little boxes made from coconut for flowers and insence sticks used for praying everywhere. Beautiful Balinese women in their colourful costumes were carrying fruit and baskets to the temple on top of their heads. Children were also dressed up and whole families joined together for the big ceremony on the beach. There was so much to see whichever way you looked!
At the end, men and women were dancing almost as if in a trance, including one man carrying a live chicken and a duck tied up to a stick, also to be used as offerings to the bad spirits (I have no idea whether these birds survived - sometimes they are sacrificed, but I didn't see this happen). Some people also received messages from gods and were in trance and had to be half-carried away from the area.
With flowers behind my ears and some rice grains stuck on my face, I felt very privileged to be part of such an event. It certainly was an experience!
[I'm now writing this a few days later, after Nyepi]. Following the ceremony on the beach, three days later is the Nyepi. You have to stay indoors for 24 hours. Lights or fire are not allowed, so cooking has to be done the day before. Heavy smokers may find Nyepi a bit of a challenge, as smoking is also forbidden. There are special security people on the streets making sure lights are not switched on and sending any ignorant tourists back to their hotels. Anyone caught breaking the rules will have to pay a fine. I stayed with friends and we did break the rules a little and had a candle for a while when it got dark. We were also able to cook, as one of the girls is muslim. Apart from some lightning in the sky, the odd firefly and the occasional flash of torch light or flicker of a candle, the whole island was pitch black. The bad spirits that were circling around Bali would have thought the island was empty and left it alone, at least for now.
It would have been nice to see the ogoh-ogoh as well. These are big monsters constructed from papier mache and bamboo. Each village builds their own monster and they are carried on the streets and even made to dance. However, this year the monsters have been banned in Bali, for security reasons due to the presidential elections taking place at the beginning of April.
Talking of the elections, the roads are even more colourful than usual. Apart from the "benjor", the bamboo poles with elaborate coconut decorations hanging from the tip, so elegantly arcing over the roads like some decorative lamp posts, there are also flags flying everywhere. Each party represented in the elections, has its own flag. You can choose one to suit your mood! They come in different sizes: small to massive; and various colours with red, white and yellow dominating the streets. A couple of flags have a picture of a very mean-looking black bull on them, more suited for Spain, I would have thought. As far as I understand, there are well over 30 candidates, one of whom is a former president, but he is blind (not such a great thing in a very corrupt country).
This is the tropics and you find all the things here you would expect in the tropics: strange fruit, sudden torrential rain, huge flowers, cute little "caca" (small lizzards) catching insects on the walls, geckos that sound like dogs' rubber toys doing the same, and any other "jungle creatures" that you may come across. These also often come in various sizes from XS to XL with the occasional spider coming also in XXL, but I've only seen one!
You may see a few frogs in the bathroom (having remembered to step over the gekko poo in the bedroom), a cat playing with a snake (I tried to pick up the cat and got scratched... used aloe vera from the garden, of course) or a large lizzard taking a dip in the pool in the afternoon's heat. The guest house where I'm staying at the moment (for GBP 4.00/day) is creature-free, apart from a few miniature ants and a lone cockroach I've called Colin that only shows up once in a blue moon. There is one animal I do have a bit of an issue with: the resident rooster that lives outside of my window! Chickens should definitely be given alarm clocks to tell them when dawn is. This bird is convinced it starts at 3am.... now, 5am is fair enough, but 3am is not.
I joined the local spa & gym. This place is part of a hotel right next door to Mesari, and has a nice little airconditioned gym (with a personal trainer to help you), a proper Finnish sauna, hot and cold jacuzzis carved in stone where you can relax watching the water running down the opposite wall, massage and treatment rooms etc. Everything is provided for you, even perfumed towels! There is also a beautiful swimming pool with a sea view, so you can watch the big waves breaking near the beach, but swim in the comfort of the pool where the water runs over the edge, making it look like it is blending together with the sea...... Membership for one month cost only GBP 10!! (So, how many memberships have I sold? - If only I was on commission!).
What else have I done? I've fulfilled one of my childhood dreams, by riding a grey Arab stallion on the beach (although the end of the ride was a little faster than I had planned). I've also had a few massage treatments with a guy called Putu. He has hands like dinner plates, and gives a fabulous full body massage, mixed with osteopathy, reflexology and head massage for GBP 2-3/hour!!.
I've also visited a couple of my favourite places in Bali: Lake Bratan and the Gitgit waterfalls. Eight people squeezed into a small Suzuki jeep (god knows how!) and off we went up the volcano. If you want to go, choose a sunny day. We didn't. We went on a rainy day. The views are spectacular, but so much better when you can see across the beautifully terraced rice fields, lakes and villages. The trip was fun nevertheless, despite the torrential rain and flooded roads. A little tip for anyone prone to motion sickness: take some ginger before you go as the roads are very twisty - we were not prepared, and suffered the consequences.... At Lake Bratan, I met my favourite fruit bats again: Maria, Marina and Raul - they are massive. I also finally had my picture taken with the pythons that weigh 24kg and 30kg respectively, so I'm happy!
I spent some time in the cultural centre of Ubud, which is a home to countless artists, dancers and musicians. Ubud is beautiful. I went for a couple of long walks around the picturesque terraced rice paddies, took a chance to practice my Indonesian with local rice farmers, and visited a few of the many art galleries and museums near the area. Some Balinese art is quite humorous, and many paintings and woodcarvings are based on stories from the Hindu Ramayana. Some styles are so detailed, you have to spend a long time examining each picture, and even then you will surely miss out on some hidden stories in them! (I love the way many paintings feature tourists ogling over the local ways of life wearing checked pants, sunglasses, and with big camera lenses ready - nothing has changed really!). If you go to Ubud, don't miss the galleries!
Ubud is also the centre for Balinese dance performances. I had been fortunate enough to see a Barong dance, Barong being a mythical creature that looks a bit like the Chinese lions. There are usually two people inside. Barong is a good guy and will get rid of any evil spirits. I'm definitely a big fan - I think he's lovely! In Ubud I enjoyed watching Legong dance. This is what most people understand as "Balinese dancing", and it is gracefully performed by men and women in spectacular costumes telling stories from Ramayana or Mahabharata. The powerful gamelan music is played by a group of musicians using various percussion instruments, and perhaps a flute and other bits and pieces - it first sounds somewhat cacophonic, but there is always perfect harmony and you soon start quite liking the gamelan! It is incredible to think that most of these talented performers lead a completely different life during the day - and the lady who serves your lunch in a restaurant could be a dancer in the evening! If you go to Ubud, don't miss Legong dancing!
I also went to see a totally different performance of Kecak dance. There are 100 dancers in Kecak, mostly men sitting in circle four or five deep, and the dancing and story-telling takes place in the middle. No musical instruments are used in this, just human voices and occasionally clapping of the hands. There are fires burning around, and the monsters that appear from the darkness to perform their part in the story, can look rather realistic! There was also some trance dancing as part of this performance; in the first part, two girls danced in unison with their eyes closed, and in the second, an old man, dressed up as a horse, danced on burning coconut husks without getting hurt, sending sparks into the air! This was certainly something I won't forget in a hurry..... If you go to Ubud, don't miss the Kecak!
Another performance, and one that was the most entertaining, was the Wayang Kulit, a Shadow Puppet Play. This one-man show was as dramatic as it was funny, despite being in the Balinese language. However, having been told the story, it was very easy to follow. The puppet master was also a puppet maker, a wood carver and a masked dancer - a true multi-skilled artist! And he was also a comedian! He had us laughing our heads off when the monster rolled his eyes, muttered stupid things to himself, coughed, and even farted (I didn't know that the monsters do that too....). He used just enough English or Indonesian, like "Why don't you speak English?", “Because, I can‘t!”, "Where are you going - kamu, mau ke mana?" etc. in between the Balinese dialogues, most of which was sung rather than spoken, that we were well and truly entertained. If you go to Ubud, don't miss the Shadow Puppets either!
I also visited the village of Putulu, just north of Ubud. This village is known for its white heron birds. In 1966, a lot of people, who had lost their lives in the civil war, were buried here. Only a few weeks later, the herons arrived - nobody knows from where - and have been there ever since. Understandably, the locals respect these birds and they are protected. If you want to see a lot of them, you have to go either in the morning or in the afternoon, as during the heat of the day, they are busy hunting around the rice fields. You often see them wandering on the fields next to the cows looking for frogs and other tasty morsels.
The elections, by the way, came and went peacefully. It was all very quiet, with everyone getting a holiday in order to be able to vote (well, those who had managed to register anyway). There are so many people in Indonesia that they are probably still counting! The actual presidential election will take place this summer. Then the campaigning will get really interesting.
I also spent a some time in Candidasa on the east coast. I had a fantastic time staying in a very friendly home stay (Ari's) and meeting some great people (if you're going to Bali, I'll give the details).
One afternoon I hopped on a bicycle with an Italian friend from the home stay and cycled to a nearby Bali Aga village called Tenganan. This is a traditional old Balinese village, where you will find the most amazing handicraft and textiles. Whether you looked at a piece of cloth, a table mat or a calendar made from strips of bamboo with stunning artwork (and the writing even in Finnish if you wanted, to explain the characters from the Ramayana stories), it all had that "Wow! I'd quite like that!"-factor about it. There were some very friendly water buffalos as well - you scratch their ear, they probably will lick your legs! Like everywhere in Bali, the roosters used for cockfighting are looked after like kings. In this village, they even dye some birds in different colours; it was certainly the first time I saw a fluorescent green or a pink cockerel! [By the way, cockfighting has just been made illegal in Bali, but will, of course, continue underground. Whilst I don't like it at all, these birds have a lot better life than those growing in poultry farms in Europe, so there are two sides to the story....].
Snorkelling in Tulamben:
Always eager to learn about life underwater, I couldn't wait to go and do some snorkelling in Tulamben. Having already had a dip in the water near Lembongan island, I had already seen some coral and fish. However, Tulamben is different - very different! There is a shipwreck called USAT Liberty lying just 30 metres off the beach within easy reach for even snorkellers. It is also only between 3 and 28 metres deep, so you don't even have to dive to see the wreck clearly. You might wonder how someone managed to sink a ship so close to the beach.... The story is quite remarkable: On 11th January 1942, this World War I cargo ship was torpedoed by the Japanese. It was badly damaged and it was intended that the ship would be towed to Singaraja in northern Bali. However, once she started taking in too much water, Liberty was run on the beach at Tulamben. The locals, delighted about this unexpected opportunity, and always ready to spot new business, stripped the contents of the abandoned ship pretty quickly, but it took some time before they started taking the actual ship apart, to be used as spare parts. However, in 1963, this activity came to a sudden end, when the largest volcano on Bali, Gunung Agung, which is over 3100 metres high, decided to blow its top in the middle of a major Balinese ceremony. Over a thousand people died in this tragic event. However, another bizarre thing happened: Liberty, that had been resting on the shore, was pushed back into the sea! This strange sequence of events has probably made it the most accessible shipwreck in the world!
And what a shipwreck it is! There are some 400 species of marine life living on it - and another 100 visit it frequently. It is covered in different types of coral, and absolutely swarming with fish. The place is so fantastic, I decided to go there twice.... It is literally like swimming in an aquarium, with many fish well used to the divers and being fed bread or banana from a bottle. The variety is also astonishing: near the stony beach with just a bit of black sand to give contrast to the dazzling colours of the fish, you will find electric blue damselfish in their thousands, striking moorish idols (the big grumpy black, yellow and white stripy fish with scars in “Finding Nemo“), similar-looking long fin bannerfish, different types of butterfly fish, funny-looking nearly translucent needle-shaped trumpet fish that float on the surface, and plenty of stripy sergeant majors - always ready to investigate if you have food. The beach area is like a fish nursery with small babies able to hide from the larger fish in the shallow waters. There are much bigger fish too: I saw several types of parrot fish (I wrote about these last year - they sleep in mucous at night in order not to get detected by other fish); groupers, rabbit fish and clown triggerfish (they look really weird!). Near the wreck, there is normally a school of tens of thousands of silvery fish that look a bit like tuna. These are jacks or more appropriately, big-eyed trevallies. They always swim in a cylinder shape (again like in “Finding Nemo“), which makes the sight truly awesome. I cannot even imagine what the divers can see viewing it from below against the light! I also saw one of my favourites: a Napoleon wrasse - this fish is around a metre in length and perhaps about half that in height. It is a rather comical fish, and often friendly to divers. I couldn't quite believe it when one was chasing a smaller fish only about a metre away from me. Divers, of course, will be able to see a lot more: scary-looking moray eels, garden eels that sway in the sand, huge barracuda (some even 1.5 metres long!), and they can explore the wreck from the inside as well. I could have stayed there for a lot longer myself, but started feeling sorry for the guys who were waiting for me. As I was just about to get back on the shore, I spotted a peculiar large blue fish with funny whiskers which it used to search for food under the stones. It was closely followed by a very skinny and long bright yellow fish. They went everywhere together. A guide told me later that the fish with whiskers was a goatfish, but I'm still trying to find the name for the strange yellow partner. They looked so funny together, a bit like Laurel and Hardy underwater!
I think I missed the Royal cremation by one day! Mesari Beach Inn, where I spent a lot of time, is owned by the former king of Indonesia and his family. He has 12 wives and lots and lots of children!! One of the wives passed away just before Nyepi. The guys from Mesari often go to the Palace in Denpasar to work, and they would also have been preparing for the big royal cremation ceremony. (Indonesia has a president now, but the king is still respected here). I heard of another big cremation taking place in a village, where they decided to dig up the bones of all the people buried there and cremate them all at the same time. People are only buried if the family cannot afford the cremation, which can be very expensive, or if the priest decides there is no suitable date available. It is possible to exhume the body later for cremation, when the funds finally become available. This village will have quite a bonfire with over 170 bodies (if I remember the figure right….).
I enjoyed my last evenings in Bali watching sunsets on the beach, tummy full of Gado-Gado (one of my Indonesian favourite foods), and meeting all the people I was going to miss, who have so little, yet give so much. A big thank you to everyone in Bali - you all made me feel so welcome again! Terima kasih!