Life in Harmony
Bali, 10th - 11th January
We start the day with a breakfast hunt and on the way pick up our laundry - washed, ironed and carefully folded in a tidy pile. Isn’t it weird to always have somebody else take care of cooking, washing and cleaning? The worst thing is that one can easily get used to such comforts - we should be careful.
Before we complete all morning tasks, Adhi’s uncle is already waiting for us in the hotel lobby. You already know that he is called Ketut Arya and he will be our driver today. As recommended by Adhi, we decided to go further into the island towards the mountain region. We are hoping to see a more authentic Bali. Arya will start our tour with the furthest stop so we will have to spend some time on the roads. We are glad we talked so much with Adhi yesterday because his uncle isn’t as chatty. We travel quietly but the excitement is growing.
One specific element to the Balinese architecture is the gates in the stone fences. From the smallest, let’s call them “day-to-day” sizes, to parade heights of many meters. But the design is unique for the largest and the smallest alike. Like a tiered temple tower with rich ornaments has been cut vertically. And those two parts have been pushed away from each other to create a portal. I see something magical in their flat plain inside. In full contrast to the decorated surfaces on the outside.
And as we see the small gates everywhere, today we have come up the mountain to see a special one. On the tourist routes, there are two gates that attract many travellers. The Handara Gate and the Gate of Heaven. Although the Handara Gate is the less impressive one, we have chosen to see it. Mainly because of the distances. The views around the Gate of Heaven and the surrounding temple complex seem incredible, but Adhi did not recommend that we travel that far for it. Perhaps next time we visit Bali, we will get a nice villa, nested nearby. Also great to be further from the loud tourist areas.
It also turns out that the Gate of Heaven hides a great secret. From the pictures, right in the perfect place, there is a pond that acts as the perfect mirror and reflects the gates, the Batur volcano and the posing tourists. Apparently, there is no water mirror there. There is only Photoshop. A tourist had the idea to edit their picture in this way and so since then, everyone repeats that like a parrot. It is almost impossible to find an image online without this effect. Well, what a society we live in - everybody edits their pictures just so they can be like someone else’s and to keep up the collective illusion.
Although, the Hundura Gate proves to be just as obsessed by the idea of a perfect picture. Arya stops at a grotty parking area and the gate is in front of us on a turn from the main road. Beyond it, we see a tidy garden which develops into a steep and thick forest. We are in the mountains, after all. There is no temple in sight. There is, however, a ticket desk and a long queue that waits for its turn in front of the “location”. We pay a symbolic amount to take a photo and join the line. Why? … we don’t know. The queue progresses slowly while we observe the poses of every following group.
Finally, it’s our turn. Arya takes the camera, though the little machine has decided to sulk today and refuses to focus. We end with blurry photos after this whole wait. But not before we pay special attention to the gate itself. We are already here, having paid and waited, at least we can admire the mastery of the ornaments. We also, just now, remember to ask what the gate leads to; A golf course, shares Arya. Not long ago, a celebrity took a picture here on their way to a round of golf and since then it has become a photo spot …
I can’t fully understand everything that we are experiencing in the last few days. I’ve been to plenty of modern destinations but this level of organised vanity and exploitation at every opportunity is new to me. And as we’ve come unprepared, without realising, we too are sucked into it. As if we care about taking pictures in front of a gate that leads to a golf course. I think these days have taught us to read between the lines and not make gullible decisions. There will always be vain tendencies, but I hope we’ve learned our lesson.
Tonight will be a full moon which is an important day for the Balinese Hindus. There was a small ceremony in the hotel altar this morning and a big feast was in preparation next door. We aren’t surprised when we step into Ulun Danu Beratan to see so many people gathered for a service. All men dressed in white and the women in yellow shirts, purple sarongs and green belts. Everyone placed in their spot.
The temple has been built on the shores of the Danau Beratan lake - a holy body of water in the area’s legends. It is clear why so much effort has been put in for the temple to be here. The open altars and temple complexes are lovely against the natural colours of the surroundings - the lake, the forests, the sky. In the water, there are the two altars that called us here from every picture. Two islands. One small temple and another very tall. Surrounded by colourful gardens and water.
Despite the holiday, the courtyards aren’t full of people and the walk is free and calm. In this way, we can see everything and observe the rituals of the full moon service. Filled by every corner of this beautiful temple, we move on next door for a quick lunch. We sit on the edge of the terrace with a view of the mountain, the lake and the colourful boats meandering in it. We are happy.
The next stop is special. Although they have reached far corners of the world, we know that it is not that easy for a region or a location to be chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage. Stepping onto the high rice terraces of Jatiluwih, we quickly understand why they have been given this honour. Endless, gorgeous views. We are familiar enough with the principals of UNESCO and know to expect more than just the physical beauty if they carry this title.
Do you remember that in the last text we talked about the three pillars of Hinduism - God, Man and Nature? Well, they have a name - Tri Hita Karana. Precisely the harmony between them is the reason for the rice fields to be under the patronage of the international organisation. The processes that occur here daily are the real value. Because what we see as innate Nature are actually terraces formed by Man. Because daily work depends on the grace of the Almighty. When such a strong dependence is worshipped until today despite all new technologies, how could it not be paid special attention to be preserved in their natural ways?
But these deeper and philosophical reasonings weren’t made when we visited, on the day, we only roamed the paths and took pictures in disbelief of every corner. The overlay of types of plants and the nuances of green - unreal. Fine stalks of rice stick out of the water terraces. Coconuts and giant jackfruits hang from the tall trees. Cows hiding in the shade.
Under a bamboo canopy, a Balinese man is sitting behind a rindik. That is a local instrument - something like a large xylophone made out of bamboo. It is placed on the ground and the crossed-legged musician sits behind it. One of the unique aspects of this instrument is that it is always used in a duet. The two rindiks are tuned in different keys which gives the typical sound of the Balinese music. But under this shelter, behind the two rindiks, there is only one local. He is waiting to find his musical partner amongst the tourists. Nic is already sitting down. A quick lesson on the easier part and they are ready for concerts. The student makes mistakes but doesn’t give up and the teacher is genuinely amused. What can be better?
We close the loop around the terraces and look for Arya to take us to the next stop. But with a few words, even with silence, he makes it clear that the time to leave hasn’t come. To soak up more of the atmosphere he sends us in the cafe on the panorama terrace. Well, I shall finally try a young coconut. I’ve been looking at people for three days now with the huge fruits and straws in hands - it is time to join them. It arrives on a plate with a lid cut off by machete, a straw and a spoon. First, you drink the liquid - perfect for hydration in the hot days, and then you start to slowly carve the insides to take out the sweet white flesh. I can’t say I particularly liked this new taste. (But I can definitely say that this was an unripe fruit and I have many wonderful coconuts to come in our Asian future.)
With a handful of bamboo straws, we get back to the car. This time Arya is satisfied with the time spent here. We are happy too. And before he leaves us at the hotel, we first stop at one more temple - Taman Ayun. I am starting to run out of words to describe these places and their beauty. Even from the outside, you can feel how much love and work have been put into their creation.
In the closed inside courtyard, many altars rise up with their straw roofs competing ‘who can be tallest’. Arranged accordingly. The sun is low and around its golden hour. Nic’s green sarong matches the gardens, mine - the sky. More gates. More masonry. More mastery. And there are hardly any people around (just for our only picture together, we managed to capture a whole group of tourists standing behind us). I don’t think I want to go back to the loud part of Bali. But there’s no alternative.
Arya parks in front of the hotel and once again we say goodbye with many thanks. It was a great trip. Even with a few misses, this day was truly devoted to Bali in a much more authentic and natural light. But even here, in the noise and busyness of the evening, I realise that I truly am in love with Bali. In continuation to the harmony of the Tri Hita Karana (the three pillars), it’s as if Bali flourishes in the harmony between chaos and serenity. They are both elements of Bali in its true form, you need to understand and love both sides to know the island. I am sure we will return again. More than once.
And tonight, the plan is simple - dinner in a vegan restaurant, a walk amongst the noise and vividness of the evening and cuddles in our hotel bed. Only one more day in Bali.
Happy Birthday, Nic! Happy, happy, happy!
Today we are in no rush. Yes, it might be our last day on the island but on such special days, one needs some time to stay in the hotel bed before one dives into the sticky heat of Bali. Today, there will be no car or air-conditioning for us.
And while we sleep in, I can tell you a bit more about Bali - recorded from our conversations with Adhi. Nearing Nic’s day, we were really interested to know how Balinese people celebrate their birthdays. And we got our answer - they don’t. In the life of a local, there are only two moments that are marked and honoured as a personal celebration. Or actually, there are three - the coming of age, a wedding and death. In all other years, they don’t receive special attention on the days of their birth. There are no presents, parties or candles. So instead, we start asking questions about the other events.
Reaching their seventeenth year, every Balinese celebrates their coming of age with a tooth cutting ceremony. Sounds scary. Adhi is quick to calm us that it is only a small shave off the front teeth. Most often, this ceremony is combined with another big family occasion, like a wedding. Adhi’s tooth was shaved during his grandfather’s funeral. He isn’t sure why they wouldn’t celebrate it separately, but he imagines it has something to do with saving on the food. One less gathering.
We also discussed weddings at length. It all happens in one day on the island but in three different events. One ceremony just for the bride in her house and another just for the groom in his. After that - a joint one in the groom’s house. As one of the few holidays in a person’s life, the presents are set. Adhi couldn’t say whether they get money or material presents, but he was certain that every guest brings a kilogram of sugar, a kilogram of rice and two eggs. He wasn’t sure whether these foods symbolise anything but I quickly saw an equivalent to the Bulgarian treats. Rice instead of wheat for the couple’s lifelong nourishment; sugar or candy for sweetness. However, while we also give a coin for riches, they receive eggs. That has to be for fertility. But these are only my conclusions. I haven’t even consulted with Google about their authenticity.
The talks of family celebrations also bring us to the greatest Balinese holiday - Nyepi. The Day of Silence is marked in march. The day before is full of feasts and the streets are covered in colourful rituals. But on Nyepi, any kind of activity is forbidden. There is no traffic on the roads, the shops are closed and even the airport doesn’t welcome guests. After sundown, electricity should also not be used - in order for the modern Balinese to stick to the archaic rituals, but also to lower the light pollution so the stars can be freely observed. I can’t picture it - how could a day like this happen in reality. Can Bali be quiet and empty? Can something like this exist? Sounds like an oxymoron.
Let’s return to our day after this educational lyrical deviation. The birthday boy’s first wish is to find a delicious breakfast. I don’t think that will be hard to do. Plus, we’ll be doing it on a moped. At first, the experiences on two wheels from a couple of days ago left us slightly traumatised by the uncontrollable traffic of Bali, but we realised that this fear had awoken a thirst for adrenaline. For the wind in our hair and trust in our sixth sense. As it is the last day, we will rent a moped again. We head to a vegan restaurant nearby. There, we happily tuck into pancakes, fruity yoghurts and whatever else the menu is offering us for breakfast, while we have fun with the cats jumping on the altars outside.
Our first visit for the day is one of Bali’s most famous temples; Tanah Lot attracts tourists with its unique location. A perfect example of the Harmony between Man and Nature. The tourist complex is large with shops, stalls, restaurants, a tied-up luwak and more temples. But we are here for the water temple. Perched on top of an island in the water. As if only the ocean can allow you to reach it. The tide is still low and the access to it is already cut off. We, the commoners, won’t be allowed up there anyway. But I can picture how the deserving can go up there early in the morning and only return to the land in the evening. A day spent in prayers and meditation within the embrace of Nature.
For us, this complex offers lookout points to the unique temple, panoramic pictures and more accessible temples, and also stalls with exotic fruit. Dragon fruit and papaya are already well known to us, while we don’t yet have the courage to try durian (just wait for the last night in Kuala Lumpur). We will, however, dare to dry two other types of fruit - how could we not. We buy a bit just to taste them and head towards the views.
We open up the mangosteens immediately. In their shape and distribution of the fruit, they are something like clementines, but their peel is very thick and purple and the inside is in white segments without the thin skin. Sceptically, I bite one end and my taste buds hurry to push away any negative thoughts. The fruit is sweet but also has a slight sourness to it; soft but crunchy. I look up to Nic and see in his eyes the same approval. Okay, this fruit is lovely!
The name of the other one is salak or snake fruit. I am not surprised by the second name. With the shape of something like a long fig, the white fruit has a brown skin reminiscent of snakeskin, like short pinecone flakes. However, tasting this fruit is immediately considered a mistake on a conscious and subconscious level. I don’t know what the taste should be, but the seemingly juicy part sticks to every surface of my mouth and dries it up like eating fruity flavoured chalk. No, thank you, we’ll stick to the mangosteens.
For this afternoon, we have celebratory plans in the hotel, so we don’t waste more time - we set off again. But this includes travelling on two wheels. Although mopeds are the most convenient transport around Bali, it doesn’t mean they are very fast. At forty kilometres per hour, all distances require time. And on top of that, we decide to veer off to a nearby beach and after that decide to return back to the main road without navigation. It won’t surprise you when I say that we got lost quite a few times before asking Google for support. But we waited as long as we could to ask for that help.
The more cul-de-sacs we got into, and the more wrong turns we took, the more and more we enjoyed every second. Submerged into the life of Bali in its purest form. In some places we are stuck in between tons of other drivers and try to make our way on bad streets, pavements, past Balinese carrying children or egg cartons behind them. In other areas, we are alone on the road in the greenery of Bali. We pass houses and rice fields. Old buildings or modern and eccentric new architecture. Shops for household items, laundries with sheets hung by the road, racks of blue petrol in Absolut vodka bottles, temples - small and big … BALI!
And from the main road, we turn into the neighbourhood to the restaurant in the garden-jungle. At Nic’s request we are returning for lunch in the unique place where we had dinner a few days ago. Would I object? The environment is wonderful, the food is heavenly, the juices are fresh. The perfect preparation for the rest of the day - cocktails by the pool and … two hours of SPA procedures. We are in Bali after all. How could we omit a real massage.
We put on the bathrobes and get to the top floor. We are welcomed in the lobby with orange juice and aromatic wet towels. But the procedures can’t start before a ritual washing of the feet in a bowl with flower petals and essential oils. Washed, we walked on the bridging path with a view towards the open hotel atrium. Balinese massage. Preceded by facials. Followed by full-body exfoliation for me and body wrap for Nic.
If you ask the birthday boy, he would complain about this procedure to this day and I don’t blame him. After the relaxation and softening of every muscle, all of a sudden, we were both covered by cold creams and liquids. But nothing can beat Nic’s procedure - the masseuse covered him in cucumber juice and wrapped him in cellophane. Cold and unpleasant. But that’s what happens when you experiment in a SPA centre. You can’t expect that you’ll go on smelling like cucumber for the next three days.
After warming and cleaning showers, we dress up and go down to the hotel restaurant for one more cocktail - to send off the celebratory day properly. While Nic receives wishes from far away (the most important one from Ed, who is starting to use his phone again), I am wondering how I can sneak off and ask the hotel staff to surprise him somehow. We were together the entire time and I had no opportunity to think of anything interesting. Plus, he’s not getting a specific present either, although a whole day in Bali counts as one. But neither can I think of anything, nor can I go away without causing suspicion. Well, it’s not going to work. We’ll go without a surprise. Tomorrow we’re flying early for Singapore so we get back to the room on time to start packing.
As I’m folding underwear and t-shirts, something starts ringing in our room. It sounds like a phone. However, we didn’t know there’s one in the room and we can’t find it anyway. After some searching, I find it and pick up. It’s a call from the reception desk to check if everything was okay with our stay. “Oh, yes! Of course! We are very happy!” - I explain. “Thank you! Good evening!” - they respond. Well … okay.
Two minutes later there’s a knock on the door and Nic goes off confused. A song starts as soon as he opens the door. They’re singing “Happy Birthday”. A small group of employees have gathered to congratulate him and have brought a celebratory bamboo hat, a tray with cake, a candle and a note with wishes. Nic quickly turns to me to blame me for this public display, but they immediately take responsibility and explain they just have his passport details on the system, and the call just then was to confirm we’re in the room.
What a great end to a beautiful day. The cake is most certainly not vegan, but Nic doesn’t care much. He will enjoy it just as it is. Out of nowhere, today was a perfect experience. I don’t know if you could have planned it better. Happy birthday, Nic! (Remember it because the next one will not be as special, as we all know now.)
In these five days in Bali, we truly went through an awakening. We left behind modern Australia and returned to a real and authentic culture. Loud, slightly dirty, fun, unique, freeing. We confess that we saw it in a very tourist way and didn’t feel the complete soulfulness of the island. But this big dose of vividness and craziness woke us up for similar days to come in South East Asia - Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos (Vietnam, Cambodia) … We fell in love with the island easily, but it will be very hard to fall out of it. Someday, we’ll come back!
Vassya (and Nic)