Having returned from a highly anticipated and hugely appreciated company trip to Bali, one of the things I am grateful for, in retrospect, is that I speak Bahasa Indonesia fairly well. This is thanks to years of conversing with office cleaning ladies and from reading the backs of multilingual food packaging (i.e. “Gratis. Permen Perwitan. Rasa jeruk. Barangan berkualitas. Usah dibanting.”). This not only eliminated frantic hunts for washrooms and cabs, but also gave me an advantage when bargaining with street traders.
The second thing I am grateful for is that my boss had the foresight to schedule the trip for the weekend of 2nd – 4th of March, and not on March 19th, which would be the Balinese New Year of Nyepi, which is not observed with the revelry one would expect. Nyepi, determined by the Lunar calendar, is a day to make and keep the balance of nature. Nyepi is observed in absolute silence. No traffic is allowed, and everyone, tourists included, are compelled to stay indoors. The Pecalang, or security officers, will ensure that there will be no activities to disrupt Nyepi. Prohibitions are taken seriously and tourists will have to fritter the entire day away in their hotel rooms with the lights dimmed.
Both the above factors, among others, played a vital role in making my weekend jaunt to Bali an immensely enjoyable and unforgettable one.
Friday, 2nd March 2007:
All my vacation preparations are remarkable only in the degree of stress they entailed. Having survived on only 3 hours’ of sleep each night for the past week left me exhausted and curmudgeonly on the day of the trip. Thankfully, AirAsia did not disappoint and we boarded the flight and departed on schedule.
We were met at the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar by our guide, Sumer, who led the weary troopers to the bus that was to take us to our hotel. I took in the sights with a mixture of reverence and excitement. The juxtaposition of the old and new, and East and West, in Kuta fascinated me. Pony carts wound in and out of traffic, ferrying tourists. Nightclubs stood next to buildings with facades carved in volcanic rock. There were shrines and altars everywhere, including outside shopping malls and Starbucks. Many times I mistook inns, private homes and even banks for temples. The ornate carvings, altars, griffin-like lions, or Barong, guarding the gates, walled courtyards, tiered ceremonial umbrellas and pitched roofs all created the impression that the buildings I passed by were places of worship.
One of the first things I noticed about Bali is that Balinese Hinduism is as much an insular endemic as the Bali Starling: you can’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world. Outside the doorway of each home and shop in Bali, you will find ‘canang‘ (offerings) — little biodegradable trays of woven palm or banana leaves filled with rice, fruit, fresh blossoms, lit incense or joss and the occasional coin or biscuit. The only South Indian equivalent I can think of to this is the ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’: patterns of mandalas and flowers made of rice flour or some other grain, made in front of the doorway of Hindu homes, as an offering to the divine and also to provide food for birds, ants and other small beings. However, nowhere else in the Hindu world is there an equivalent of Nyepi. There is also a shamanistic slant to Balinese Hinduism that I don’t see practiced in other jurisdictions.
Even the images and statues of Lord Ganesha I saw in Bali were not our usual ones of an avuncular, benign Lord Ganesha with a goad or modaka sweets in hand. The Balinese Lord Ganesha is pugnacious and overtly masculine, with a bristly moustache, menacing tusks and Leonid Brezhnev eyebrows. Even the images of other deities such as Hanuman also bear distinctively Balinese rather than Indian features, with oriental cheekbones and sloe eyes.
The other thing one could not help but notice is that the Balinese are a warm, kind, sincere, friendly and helpful people; not because they hope it would attract tourist dollars, but because that is just the way they are. Even the animals are friendly. Street dogs and cats came when called. Most of these companion animals are well-looked after, and although the Bali locals may not have much money to spare for vaccinations and neutering, their animals are, on the whole, well-fed and cared for. The dogs wear not licence or address tags on their collars, but round sleigh bells.
I walked around and explored the streets with my friends after dinner, and retired to my hotel room in high spirits that night, knowing full well that I am in for a memorable time.
Saturday, 3rd March:
Our driver, Miko Saputra, arrived at 8.30 a.m. to pick us up on Saturday morning. Our first stop was a walled courtyard within which a Barong Dance was staged. I sat on the right, away from the group, so as to be closer to the ‘gamelan’ musicians. My seating position gave me an unexpected advantage. I was at an angle to witness how each performer walked up to an altar backstage to light incense, make an offering or ask for blessings before donning their masks and entering the courtyard to perform this sacred, ancient story of the battle between good (Barong) and evil (Rangda). The masks are treated with utmost respect and I sense that these have been imbued with divinity and must therefore never be treated as mere props. At the end of the play, good does not defeat evil, but accepts evil as a part of nature, and thus harmony is restored. This idea, I believe, is central to the Balinese way of life. Life is not an eternal struggle between darkness and light, but rather, a balance of both.
From the Barong performance grounds, we adjourned to Ubud, the town of artisans and craftsmen. On the way there I saw dozens of temples and lesser shrines, and even an animal shelter (the Bali Dogs Home). The roads were narrow and flanked by shops offering the most beautiful samples of folk art I have ever seen.
Ancient Land Cruisers, gleaming Daihatsu Ferozas, Rockies and even Tafts, innumerable Suzuki Jimneys and Jeep Wranglers purred their way through towns, coastal roads and marketplaces. This to me was a testimony of the Balinese culture of maintenance and conservation. When you consider the above, together with the inherently gentle, courteous and peace-loving nature of the Bali Islanders, you can’t help but condemn the Bali bomb blasts with the vehemence I did.
We arrived at the Ubud marketplace and were given an hour to shop. I fell upon this assignment with uncharacteristic vigour, bargaining mightily and buying woodcarvings, musical instruments, decorative mirrors, batik sarongs and carved boxes.
The drive to Kintamani from Ubud brought to view more temples, villas, rice fields and fruit orchards. Bali was primarily an agrarian region before tourists discovered it for the paradise that it is. After a long uphill climb past orange orchards, we pulled up at a restaurant which offered a breathtaking view of Mount Batur, an active volcano. It was cool and misty, and I couldn’t tell the mist from volcano smoke. The soil down in the valley was black with basaltic lava and trucks could be seen transporting farm produce out of the area. I learned later that the restaurant we dined at was built on the rim of the outside crater of the volcano, and what I took for Mount Batur was in fact the inner cone of the strato-volcano. We were, technically, inside the volcano itself, and what I took for a valley was in fact the outer caldera of the volcano.
It was drizzling when we left Kintamani and my fellow passengers mostly dozed all the way back to Kuta. We were to meet up with the rest of our colleagues for dinner in the fishing village of Jimbaran. I think the noise level in Jimbaran went up by several thousand decibels as soon as we disembarked from our bus.
I explored Kuta Town on foot after dinner and returned to my hotel room after midnight, gratified that I got so much sightseeing done in just one day.
Sunday, 4th March:
Woke up even earlier on Sunday because our firm had arranged for poolside games at the Hotel after breakfast. After the obligatory teambuilding games, 6 friends and I made arrangements with Miko to take us to Pura Tanah Lot, a sea temple at Bali’s southern coast. The temple is surrounded by the sea, but visitors are able to walk to the temple during low tide. It wasn’t low tide yet when we arrived, and we had to leave for the airport before low tide began at 5 p.m., but we made the most of our time at Tanah Lot all the same. The volcanic sand and rocks made the beach look black and the ferocious waves made the temple look inaccessible. I could see the ceremonial umbrellas and offerings at the entrance of the temple and wished I could just throw caution to the wind and swim across to the temple.
My friends and I stopped for coconut water at one of the beach stalls, and then I wandered off on my own to explore the stalls and shops.Outside one of the shops, I saw a fruit bat kept by the family as a companion animal. They left some papaya out for the bat in case he was hungry, and so I had a grand time feeding the bat with papaya cubes. Once the papaya was gone, I went to a fruit vendor to purchase two tangerines. The shopkeeper, with typical Balinese love of animals, declined payment when she learned that they were for an animal, but I left her a 1,000 Rp note anyway.
Miko came to pick us up from Tanah Lot at 3 p.m. to ensure that we could get back to the Hotel in time to catch our flight. AirAsia was punctual and competent as usual, and we felt safe travelling with them. We arrived at the LCCT in Sepang before dark, and I was pleased to be reunited with my cats. At the same time, I felt a pang of longing for beautiful Bali. During my stay in Bali, I was often asked by my newfound friends, “Kapan datang Bali lagi?” (“When will you come to Bali again?”). “Soon”, I would reply in the vernacular, with a smile. “Soon”.
And that is a promise I intend to keep.