It has been a while since our last entry, but we have been hanging out in Bali—most of the time at our house on the quiet north coast and a few days in Ubud—the town in the center of Bali that is the center for the arts and a quiet town with great restaurants—more about Ubud later.
The question people ask about Bali is "Does the real Bali still exist or has it become just another tourist destination?" The answer is yes and no. There is a section of this much fabled island that has been built up and caters to young surfers, bar hoppers, and party people; there is an area that is just large multinational hotels (many 5 Star)which attracts Asians and Westerners looking for sun and surf; there are, scattered throughout Bali, a number of fabulous 7 Star hotels that are tucked away along rivers and rice fields with incredible views, great dining facilities and private villas. There are also many expats from America, Europe and Australia who live here—some have businesses (many owned by Japanese, Singaporeans and Westerners), some are here to get massages, study yoga and take classes in the arts and some have lots of money, and can afford beautiful designer-homes in secluded areas (there are quite a few publications in English, some very slick, that cater to these expats). Almost all of this activity is in the south and east, but there is much more happening all over the Island—the Balinese are living their lives the way they have for centuries, and it is this, the awesome natural beauty in the countryside and the sparsely inhabited north, central and west that make Bali such a marvelous and fascinating place--and make it a place to return to again and again. One doesn't have to go far to find and meet the wonderfully warm, friendly and sincere Balinese people—they are everywhere--making their daily offerings to the Gods, performing their age-old temple ceremonies (and these go on often because there are so many temples) and going about their daily business. The beauty of Bali is to be found everywhere--the peopel and everything they do is infused with a natural beauty and feel for grace and serenity.
Both Barbara and I have been to Bali a few times in the past and we have both read quite a bit about their rich and complex culture, and complex it is! Their religion which is a nature oriented Hinduism is unique to this small island alone, which is in the middle of the largest Muslim country in the world—how this came about is a story all of it's own. The way this religion is played out in their daily lives and in everything they do is the main factor that makes these peopel so unusual.
There is also a long and rich culture of music, dance, and art including painting, sculpture, batik, silver, etc. which is as strong today as ever mostly because the great percentage of what is produced here now is exported. During our stays in Ubud we went to a different music and dance performance every night and saw a wide range of performances as there are as many as nine different shows going on in the Ubud area nightly. The music is mostly the metallic Gamelan orchestra (sometimes all bamboo) which usually consists of anywhere from 10-40 people and the members of these groups perform for their temple ceremonies (mostly) and some in the larger towns for the public--this music is an integral part of their religion.
Ubud is just about the most traveler-friendly town of anyplace we ever been to and although it has grown, it is still a small town. There are more shops, hotels and restaurants that reach for the more moneyed tourist, but for the most part inexpensive rooms and food are still available and all excellent quality. Bali is almost a self sufficient paradise--rice fields are ubiquitous and can be seen in-between shops and outside the windows of most bungalows in Ubud and everywhere. The year-round, consistently warm climate makes for a rich and fertile soil that supports almost any crop, including great coffee and spices, and there are even a number of organic farms. The high quality of the food and the Balinese way of adapting to the needs, wants and desires of the traveler results in more excellent, exciting restaurants than one could possibly visit. The eateries can be simple shops serving fried rice or noodles, but mostly we have been eating in the better establishments that serve highly creative dishes utilizing all the local produce (lots of ginger, garlic, shallots and lemongrass), spices, tempeh, chicken and seafood. Our breakfasts in Ubud have been marvelous affairs with crunchy granola, sweet & tangy yogurt, pastries and a huge variety of omelets and pancakes to choose from. Lunches have been, for the most part original, inventive salads, and for dinner? Well, don't ask! Last night was fresh sushi, all from local waters, and before that it's been one great meal after another. We have also eaten more than once from the ubiquitous Babi Guleng Warungs (shops)--Babi Guleng consists of a plate of rice topped with the meat from various parts of a freshly roasted suckling pig (with all the juices), and a more succulent plate of pork you cannot imagine! Now all this might sound expensive, but no, all for a fraction of dining at home.
Speaking of rice, the whole rice culture is a truly fascinating aspect of life in Bali as their fields have to be communally operated in order for them to exist. Water must be irrigated and must flow from field to field so cooperatioon is essential amongst the farmers. There are even rice temples, as there are temples for the family, community, for death, nature and large temples for whole areas of the country, plus a few Mother Temples in the most magnificent settings on the island.
Before leaving Ubud and the rest of Bali I want to mention the incredible massages available. This can be a simple, relaxing massage, but why settle for just that when a full two hour deal can be booked for a few dollars? And what a trip these deals are! Rubs with oils, herbs, sea salt, yogurt spices and baths in milk, flowers, herbs, etc.
The options go on and on and all in the simple, beautiful Balinese fashion with all the sounds and smells that surround us and in rooms that are open on one side overlooking rice fields!
We spent a couple of days with car and driver touring various temples, palaces, a cold and a hot spring, the rice fields of central Bali and various other beautiful sites.
Almost two years ago Barbara and I and our friends Steve and Kathy bought a house on the north coast (right on the Bali Sea) in the small farming/fishing village of Tejakula. Our house, which we call Villa Sunrise because it faces east and catches a different, but always gorgeous sunrise every morning, is surrounded by powerful scents from all the flowers on the property and the constant sound of the waves gently lapping the shore. I tell you, Bali is an amazing assault on the senses. We are right next to a small European health spa which is collectively owned and is very quiet and meditative. The spa, Gaia Oasis, has a pool and small restaurant that is available to us and are they make great neighbors. Beside the resort all the people living behind and next to us are Balinese fishermen and farmers. We have learned much about their lives and habits during our past few weeks there and feel very close to their simple, but elegant culture. Since we cooked most of our meals whilst at the house (and what a relief it was after 6 months of eating exclusively in restaurants!) we shopped at the markets and bought fish from the fishermen as they docked their boats in front of our house. The Balinese are the warmest most wonderful people we have ever met and their children (who are revered like children nowhere else in the world) are incredibly open, funny and sweet. We just love these people!
A footnote about the Antonio Blanco Museum in Ubud that we visited. This Spanish (self-named: the Dali of Bali) artist moved to Bali in 1952 (and died in 1998 at the age of 88), married a Balinese woman and had children, all the while making a fortune selling his paintings of mostly bare-breasted island women and erotic subjects. His Italian Renaissance Museum and home are a bit over-the-top but it is definitely interesting and we passed a pleasant few hours there.