Here Thar Be Monsters!

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10.3.11

Bali High

OK, I was wrong.  Yes, I admit it.

For three years now, I have assiduously avoided going to Bali for one reason, it's full of tourists.  If you've read some of my back issues, you will know that I am not particularly fond of tourists.  I prefer the company of travelers.  Tourists are the ones who take pictures of famous landmarks while standing in front of them blocking the view.  They generally remain completely unfazed by their surroundings or the people who inhabit the area to which they've come.

I also had to work, which didn't allow me much time to explore.

I spent five days in Denpasar, which is the largest city on Bali.  Though it is the 12th largest city in Indonesia, it has the second largest airport by passenger count.  The city is located roughly center on the eastern coast of the island, which itself is located at the eastern tip of Java.

Coming from Jakarta, there is an immediate sense of relief stepping out of the airport in Denpasar.  The place is very clean and the traffic is relatively non-existent.  One is struck by open spaces, uncluttered sidewalks and broad streets, all in direct contrast to the Big Durian (the Indo version of the Big Apple).

I arrived on the day after Nyepi, which is a rather distinctive holiday celebrated by the Balinese Hindus.  It is also called Seclusion Day, and on that day, no one may leave their house, use electricity or any kind of machinery, and so forth.  The result was the air was amazingly fresh on Sunday, as not a single car was started on the island the previous 24 hours.  It was also notable for all the ogoh-ogoh scattered throughout the city.  The largest one had cost upwards of $10,000 to create.  That one is featured in a parade held the day before Nyepi.

My client put us up at the Sanur Beach hotel.  The rooms were unremarkable, but the grounds were rather stunning.  A large pool was set amongst lush tropical trees and two cabana bars separated it from the private beach, which was meticulously groomed with deck chairs scattered here and there.  The beach is at the head of a cove protected by a reef, so there are no waves, but there is a rather dramatic tide.

My mornings were spent drinking coffee on the private balcony, watching the sunrise and listening to the songs of several varieties of jungle birds.  It was, in a word, idyllic.

My third night in town, I had occasion to meet a reader of both this blog and of George Ure's UrbanSurvival, which is how he found me.  We had a lovely dinner with his girlfriend and my wife in tow, talking grumpy-old-man talk.  It is one of the joys of writing this column that I can correspond with so many interesting folks around the world, and even meet a few when possible.  Thanks Harry!

The following night, my wife and I and two of her employees went down to Legian, which is the famous nightspot near Kuta beach.  If you squint just right and imagine Dixieland jazz, it is quite reminiscent of New Orlean's French Quarter.  Shops, bars and restaurants line the streets with hawkers trying to lure unsuspecting tourists to their economic doom.  Like the Quarter, the area is cut with a handful of main streets, which are joined to a rabbit warren of alleyways where pretty much anything can be found, be it food, fun, drugs, or jablay (prostitutes).

We decided to try a place called Bubba Gump's Shrimp Co., which is one of those rubber-stamped, cloyingly precious places, where the waiters are all entirely too perky (in three languages, by the way).  We took one look at the menu and had sticker shock.  A dinner for four would have set us back an entire month's shopping at our local market.  As it was, we only ordered one Bintang beer, three fruit smoothies and a plate of French fries.  That set us back 25, which would have fed 15 Indonesians at a warteg with left-overs for midnight snacks.  We made our escape and sought out more traveler-suited environments.

We did find a place that offered a decent mozzarella and fresh basil pizza for $3, and 2-for-1 Bintang, which suited us locals much better.

There was the obligatory visit to the rather tasteful and somber monument that was erected on the site of the Bali bombing in 2002.  The location of the second attack in 2005 has since been rebuilt and is still in operation with little clue as to what happened there.

As far as the area goes, it was fun, even though I was suffering from an overwhelming toothache.  I'm sure I would have enjoyed it much more without the Marathon Man scene come to life.  Kuta beach is known for its surf, and throngs of Australians, Japanese and Koreans come there for winter holidays.  I also met a number of Canadians, French, Dutch, and a smattering of Chinese and Russians.

In the course of my work there, I had the opportunity to talk at length about Balinese culture.  It really is a fascinating place.  It is dominated by Hindus, and as such pork is available everywhere, which is the most obvious difference.  The Balinese people have a distinct look that might be characterized as slightly western with Asian eyes and dark brown skin.  The women are strikingly beautiful.  There are three distinct classes, which are noted by certain names that each Balinese carries.

The first name is either I or Ni, denoting male or female respectively.  Then, in descending order of birth within a family, one is Wayan, Made, Nyoman/Komang, or Ketut (at 5 the cycle starts again).  There are other systems, which denote the various classes, though the above are very common.  Other names can include family names, contractions of parental names, etc., with the dead receiving a new name after they die. Some Balinese names can be very long and complex, with a lot of abbreviations in the written form.  Ngerah is a royal name and folks who sport that one claim legitimacy to the throne, which still holds sway over the culture.

The Balinese language is similar to Javanese in some respects.  The grammar follows that of many South Pacific languages, with a number of words being identical to Javanese (such as matur nuwun and matur suksima, which are 'thank you' in Java and Bali respectively).  When speaking, the Balinese have a distinct dialect, even with Indonesian, that is particularly evident with the letter 'u,' though there are a number of other more subtle differences, as well.

The Balinese celebrate a variety of elaborate festivals throughout the year, as well as amazingly expensive weddings and funerals, which are also intricate in form.  Because of the expense, Balinese are often said to be rich in land and poor in cash.  I have been invited to attend some of these events in the coming months out in the villages away from the tourists, so I am making plans to attend those that time and money allow.

If you should find yourself in Bali, there are a number of ways to enjoy the sights without paying the tourist prices.  Taxis are outrageously expensive, by Indonesian standards, with a trip from the airport to the hotel where we stayed running upwards of $10.  However, a private taxi for the same trip is only $6.  If you trust one of the locals, they can negotiate the deal for you, which is done before the ride (no meters).  The private taxis can also be hired by the day with gas and driver for about $50.  There aren't a lot of alternatives, although the ubiquitous ojek (motorcyle taxi) is always available (offer 50% of the quoted price).  I prefer ojek because they are very fast and cheap, but it is a full-contact sport.

In summary, I have changed my mind about Bali.  It is quite a fascinating and beautiful place, even the small part that I saw.  I intend to return and go out into the hinterlands to experience the local culture and escape the tourist haunts.  After speaking at length to Balinese, learning a bit about their culture and history, and experiencing just a small taste of the life there, I am excited to learn more.  It is easy to see why Bali has become the subject of legend and song.  The people are genuine, warm and welcoming, and I could not detect any false smiles.  The Balinese people are truly unique in their hospitality and forbearance.  I can not wait to return and imbibe more of their fine culture and surroundings.

To the good people I met there, matur suksima!  Kita akan mencari sampai ketemu lagi!

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