Balinese flavours

Still on a different time zone, early morning we returned to the airport for our departure to Bali, a place I had longed to visit for years.  The unorganized airport in Bali already had us feeling we had arrived on an island, and we were on “Island Time”.  One can recognize island time instantly upon arrival as the officials are always slow to process people, unorganized and the whole immigration process rather chaotic.  Once outside, the warmth of the Balinese April sun hit our half- awake bodies on impact.  To feel this warmth after a long cold Canadian winter was pure bliss.   
 
Our private shuttle took us directly to Ubud, the Balinese center of culture and now world famous, as a result of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love novel.  The very poor driving skills and conglomerate of scooters on our way could not take away from what was love at first sight with Bali.  I instantly understood why people go there and never leave.  The green of nature, the Gods, the architecture that blends in nature, the rituals, the smiling faces; it is contagious.  Bali has its own spirit and an array of smiles to sweep you off your feet. The warmth of the sun cannot be compared to the kindness of the people, a kindness experienced solely in Thailand thus far.   
 
We were awakened early morning by the brilliance of the morning sun.  Outside, the world awaited in peace.  Our hotel was surrounded by lush green palm trees, banana trees and all sorts of tropical flowers which smelled as fragrant as the island itself. I gazed at the sun peeking through the leaves of the palm tree adjacent to our room.  We were eager to feel this place and indulge in its culture.  Down by the hotel restaurant, there were three cliff hanging infinity pools with views of the river down bellow; around us, green and silence.  As we indulged in fresh watermelon juice, we observed the admirable Balinese ritual which involves offering flowers, incense and food to the Gods; every few hours, a return to the Gods.  Small bits of rice were placed in the intricately decorated flower baskets found everywhere along the streets, in front of each room and in every house and restaurant.   
 
On our first day, I indulged in an all alone spa day.  As I was getting massaged by four hands, I understood why Balinese therapists are the best. Heavenly is the only way to describe this day as I was pampered from head to toe. I felt like Cleopatra while smelling the fragrant red roses caressing my body in a marble bathtub typical to the Balinese.   
 
Ubud truly is the cultural center of Bali and we were reminded of that with every step we took. My gaze wandered and lost itself in the colours of the thousands of street paintings coming to life.  There were more paintings here than there were people; this created a fantasy world to the mind and a constant distraction into another sphere.  There were ancient temples and Balinese dance ceremonies all around. For us, the greatest wonder was the ability of it all to come together in a magical masterpiece.  Perhaps the serenity of the landscape, or the savory smell of fresh herbs, the scrumptious Balinese dishes or maybe the lovely smiles were all reasons that made us know instantly we would return to Ubud.  Whether we want to return to a place or not is how we measure how much we love that particular place. 
 
Our next day in Bali, we were off to visit the Elephant Park where Alessia had a chance to feed a mommy and a baby elephant. We then drove through the villages surrounding Ubud, where we admired rice fields and locals going about their daily lives in a very relaxed atmosphere.  People appeared happy around Bali, even if there are days when all they eat is rice. This happiness is a happiness that the Westerner looking to purchase his eighty inch TV because his sixty inch is too small sometimes forgets.  A happiness of being content with only what you have is not something most of us can understand. And this is likely the reason that the West thrived for so many centuries; we are consumer societies.   
 
Tegalalang is a mandatory stop in the area. The most magnificent rice terraces took our breath away with a spring green that could not be brighter even on a 3D colour enhanced TV.  Rows and rows of blooming rice fields slope down on a valley to form a maze of marvels.  I stood in wonder for five minutes as I observed a small hut at the bottom of the valley, and beside it, a person working on the new crop.  Did this person experience this place in the same way that I was taking it in or was this just another day of routine for him?  Do we take for granted what we already have? Would something so majestic ever become routine for me? Chances are that is very likely… Yet I still gaze at Niagara Falls in wonder even after seeing it hundreds of times.   
 
Very appropriately positioned beside the rice terraces was a Kopi Luwak plantation for tourists.  Kopi Luwak is the famous civet poop coffee, also known as the world’s most expensive coffee.  Of course, I do not drink coffee, but having heard about this coffee numerous times, I had to try it, just to be able to say I’ve tried it.  I did try it and it tasted like sour coffee. I know you are probably thinking yuck for trying it, but the process is pretty intriguing, the actual bean never touches anything in the civet’s digestive system….really.   
 
Feeding the elephants and civets was great fun yet I was more excited about going to meet Ketut Lyier, the famous Ketut from Elizabeth Gilbert’s number one Bestseller and one of my favourite books.  I think everyone who makes it to Bali and who has read the book feels compelled to meet Ketut; he sounds so fascinating, and maybe he was, back when Liz met him, because when I met him, I felt like he was overworked and had become more of an entrepreneur rather than the genuine Ketut she met.  Before getting to meet him, I waited in line behind a busload of Asian tourists.  I was observing him and was rather nervous to meet him; what if he would tell me something I did not want to hear? Instead, he told me what he likely had told all other tourists before me: “You will live a long life; you will live to one hundred; you are beautiful; you will have good health and a lot of money”. He went on to examine various areas of my body, we took a picture together and I paid my twenty five dollars for my five minutes of fame. Although I am aware that he likely has the same story for everyone, he is a good morale booster.  I also have my doubts that Ketut really was in his nineties because he looked to me like he was in his seventies. This was my own personal experience, and no doubt people have different experiences when they meet him. 
 
Our Bali exploration continued with Nusa Dua, Kuta, Semyniak, Legian and Jimbaran though our hearts remained in Ubud.  Nusa Dua was like the Beverly Hills of Los Angeles; a manicured five star hotel area with three security check points to reach it.  This is where the wealthy stay when they go to Bali and have the same experience as when they are in Dubai or Las Vegas.  This is a made up paradise of a small enclave of hotels as far away from the reality of Bali as one can possibly get.  There are no restaurants in Nusa Dua, other than the ones belonging to the hotels. There are no leaves that stay on the ground for longer than five minutes because someone is there to ensure they are cleaned up. Nusa Dua was extremely clean and well kept but it was not Bali.  We stayed here two days and were happy to move on to Jimbaran when the time came.  This place felt a tad more real, yet still very touristy.  In Jimbaran I spotted my third mouse right in our gorgeous hotel room. People in Bali have a different relationship with mice, but I hate mice more than anything. After a fun 2 AM call to reception and them sending two security guards with a broom to chase the mouse away, we changed rooms.   
 
The splendour of Jimbaran Bay lies in the sunsets that adorn the shores.  We had front row center tickets for that night’s event; the hotel beach club was slightly raised from the beach to allow for great views of both life as it happened and the sun as it dissipated.  Jimbaran was beaming with life on that peaceful evening.  There were families running on the beach, groups of boys playing soccer, young ladies splashing in the ocean, vendors selling colourful balloons and rice wrapped in banana leaves; there were lights and there was laughter.  There were restaurants packed with people indulging on fresh fish, there were lanterns, there were lovers, there were rich and poor breathing the same sunset and living the same moment.  To our left, a five star hotel with its cottages hanging on the cliff, to our right, Balinese people hoping to make a few rupiahs to feed their hungry children.  The sun was the witness.  The sun shines its rays both left and right.  When the sun was down, it was down for everyone on the beach that day.  Money cannot buy these moments.  The best things in life are not thingsi[i] and the most beautiful places on Earth are actually free… if you can get to them.  The smiles, the laughter, the tears, the rituals, the everyday of a place, this is why I travel. I travel for the everyday of a place.  I want to see how you live and how I live, what unites us in our humanity and what makes us so unique.  I want to understand what your dreams are and how you are living your reality.  I want to understand you so I can avoid misjudging you.   
 
[i] The best things in life aren’t things – Art Buchwald 

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