Bali, 9th January
The variety of day trips around Bali are endless. Last night we were deep in leaflets and online adverts to choose one. Which one will show us Bali to the fullest? Which has the most stops? Are they culturally rich enough? Will we tick off enough views? There are some nearer to us and some further away. There are others more cultural or more suitable for Instagram with endless views. In the end, we choose one, signed up for it and go to bed happily. We have three more days in Bali. Even if this one doesn’t show us enough, we have plenty of opportunities to see the rest.
In the morning, we receive a message that the driver has arrived and is waiting in the lobby. But there are still fifteen minutes until the arranged time and he is catching us spoons-deep into a Pitaya - an exotic fruit with a weird fuchsia skin and just as vividly coloured flesh with black seeds. You might have seen it in a white version or have heard of it as dragon fruit. So we are trying this local fruit and it dyes everything it touches pink while we rush to get down for the drip. After all, there are people waiting for us.
Well, there aren’t. Bali is such a cheap destination that without knowing it, we have paid for a private tour. Nic and I - on the back seat of a big car and a private driver to take us from place to place, to tell us everything we are asking him and to take pictures so our memories aren’t preserved in selfies only. I’d say this is a good deal. Our driver is called Adhi and he will be showing us the area of Ubud or the main city part of the island.
From the get-go, we start asking questions. Anything that we can think about regarding Bali - culture, history, religion, economy … Adhi quickly realised that we are not the typical tourists that have come for beaches and Instagram. We just want to learn more about this new place. He quickly starts adding stops to the schedule (but don’t tell the bosses as they’ll make us pay for this extra luxury).
The diversions start before the official programme has even begun, with a visit to a textile workshop. It has obviously been set up for the tourists but even so, it shows the authentic production of one of Bali’s most beloved crafts. Every stage from the idea to the weaving is represented by the different people on the tables and next to them are arranged exhibits so you can understand how much work goes into these beauties. I would argue that the scarfs and tablecloths sold in the shop weren’t close to authentic and were probably mass-produced, but no one is making me buy them.
Before the first planned stop, we visit a silversmith workshop from where Adhi recently got a present for his mum. A few skilled jewellers are sitting in a small room where you can once again see the craftsmanship after which you are taken to the big shop. And this time someone is with us every step of the way and expecting us to shop till we drop. And … I fall in love with a bangle in the first window. We circle slowly and look carefully, but the time comes to haggle. For the bracelet. Not that I can prove it was made here, but I can see it is silver and the price is great for silver. And it will be a lifelong memory of Bali - I might not be getting a flimsy straw bag like all other girls on the island.
Okay, now we can get back to the planned programme. We head to the first temple for the day. I don’t know its name and not even Google can help me, because the temples in the region are countless. If it is not one of the big tourist destinations, there is no chance for you to find it. Adhi comes with us to tell us about Balinese Hinduism. I have mentioned before that Hinduism is the main religion on the island unlike the rest of the Muslim lands of Indonesia. It was brought here from India but with time and the distance, it has changed and now it follows its own traditions, the design of the temples and the main gods. But as in Christianity, the main altar is to the East and the rising sun.
Adhi talks passionately … The Hindu temples in Bali are of three kinds. The public ones are open to everyone who wants to visit them. The village ones are only for the locals that live in that specific area. And, of course, the family ones are in each home and are accessible only to those who belong to it and their relatives. That is why the straw roofs can be seen everywhere. The temples are in every garden. The reach to the Almighty is easy for everyone at any time.
With the first steps on the Balinese streets, we noticed a very visible tradition. Banana leaves folded like a bowl and filled with flowers and wheat can be seen everywhere. On the dashboard of every car. At the entrance to each shop or restaurant. In the heart of every altar. Now is our chance to ask. Adhi explains that these are offerings that are made according to the three pillars of Hinduism which are based on the main human interactions. In the temples, we can see the gifts from Man to God. On the cars and workplaces, they are the symbol of respect and love from Man to Man. And on the sidewalks or under big trees, they are gifts left from Man to Nature. Every offering is a gesture of worship and gratitude.
At the entrance to the temple, we are given colourful sarongs and enter the complex together. We are surrounded by stone gates and fences; tall altars and gorgeous ornaments; dark straw roofs and golden columns here and there. The temple is rich in a simple but masterful way. Nothing is imposing, in the way, or overtaking. Maybe this is the reason for so many westerners to find their salvation in these holy courtyards. Only one phrase is stuck in our heads “thank you”. We quickly ask Adhi how to say it in Balinese. “Suksma”, he answers excitedly. And “Suksma Mewali” or just “Mewali” is “you are welcome”. Well, the word is easy enough to remember.
After the gorgeous temple, we move to the Tegenungan Waterfalls and quickly learn what the tourism in Bali is all about - travelling Instagrammers. Everybody on a hunt for the perfect picture. That in which you appear to be in the wild and seemingly casual. In which it is not visible how long you’ve waited in line for there to not be other people in the shot. As if you were trekking through the virgin rainforest and somehow stumbled upon this crown jewel of a view. To not be obvious that you just paid an entrance fee for a waterfall in the middle of touristic Bali.
“Instagram” is literally a word used in the advertising campaign for every new location. And so the locals are certain to offer the most photogenic spots, they have placed everywhere nests, wings, hearts or swings. In most places, you have to pay to climb onto one for just a simple picture. Fortunately for us, we are not ones to support the travel illusion with more money (ask me again when we reach the swings) but that is not to say I would not climb into a nest if it is free. I will definitely do it!
The region truly is beautiful and the waterfalls are worth the endless descend from the parking. Naturally, the amount of posing tourists ruin the environment but what could be done? We are just as much part of the cacophony as anyone else around us. Girls are climbing high up in bikinis, floaty dresses or very short shorts. And the corresponding boyfriends are in the most awkward positions to create an unforgettable photoshoot. Some with a phone, others with expensive professional equipment. The circus is complete! We are quickly ready to leave it.
We meander along the narrow Balinese roads to the next destination and the island continues to show its beauties. We see how actively the lands on the islands are farmed. Only the locals know where one village finishes and the next one begins. For me, Bali is like one large village made out of many neighbourhoods that seamlessly merge into one another. I can’t separate Ubud, Denpasar or Seminyak as separate towns. Physically there are no empty spaces between them.
While we’re in the heart of the crazy Balinese traffic with a native Balinese driver, we don’t miss the opportunity to ask about one of the unanswered questions so far - what’s with the constant beeping? Adhi has an answer. Of course, it can be connected to the traffic in which we’re travelling. Who came in the way of whom or who wants to get in which spot improperly. However, in most cases, the sound of the horn is a sign of reverence to a place of importance to the driver. This can be the street he was born on; the temple his family visits the store where his mum works in. Or it can be a bridge or a century-old tree that he wants to show gratitude to. It is a question of their personal connection to the upcoming object. There is no rulebook! Yes … in some places we consider this noise a polluter, in others - it’s a symbol of respect and honour.
We are driving along these narrow and loud streets - trade is happening everywhere on a very individual level. We have not seen big stores anywhere - maybe that’s why the shopping centre in Denpasar is a tourist attraction. Shops, shops and more shops - handmade and masterful crafts as far as your eye can see. Wood, glass, woven baskets, textile, silver … One day I will return to furnish my summer house with Balinese furniture, lamps and cushions.
One of Bali’s most popular products is a type of special coffee - they call it Luwak. Keeping to the programme, we visit a small plantation to understand what this is all about. Surely you’ve heard of that coffee which is collected from the excrements of animals. Some people think of it as a fox, other as a type of monkey. In reality, it is an Asian palm civet or as the locals have named it - Luwak.
Actually, the animal is similar to a racoon - a tropical carnivore that often eats coffee beans. But their food system can’t quite process them, so they come out of the other end whole. Covered in … you know what. The locals collect the piles left by the wild animals, clean them up, and from there, the preparations are the same as the traditional coffee. The Balinese that have a Luwak family in their gardens are rich. The coffee is extremely expensive as the collection process is difficult. According to Adhi’s comments, you can earn more money from this than from sitting on a desk in England. Should Nic and I consider new qualifications? …
In the entrance to the plantation, we are welcomed by an older guy who almost clutches our arms to take us around. He first shows us different types of plants - coffee, cocoa, bananas, cinnamon, taro … Then the process of preparing this weird coffee. Of course, on the way they show us the poor Luwak animal, closed off in a small cage. The tourists have to see something, right? I pity the poor thing. This coffee is definitely not vegan. Officially it is only collected from the wild groups, but if you can truly make this much money from it, I doubt that everyone keeps to these regulations. How much easier would it be to “adopt” a few, close them in a cage and feed them coffee a few times a day.
The walkthrough stops under a straw shelter and Nic and I sit down on a long table. The guy puts in front of us a large wooden tray with small glasses on it. Each looks different and has a little name sign - coconut tea, avocado coffee, spiced hot chocolate, ginger coffee and twelve more varieties. This tasting is free but I can’t say it was nice. The teas were extremely sweetened and their specific aromas were totally lost and all coffees were mixed with dairy milk. Not for us.
But not one of those little glasses has Luwak coffee in it. We need to pay for that one. We think long and hard and decide against our vegan beliefs to see what’s so special about it. A set of alchemical equipment is placed next to us and the coffee is brewed - slowly and impressively. But not the first, nor the tenth sips taste any different to normal coffee. As they say in a Bulgarian advert - “a coffee like any coffee”.
We thank for the degustation and get up to leave. But not before the guy takes us to the shop. He is hoping that we’ll buy something but we just pay for the coffee we drank and say goodbye. His friendly expression immediately drops off his face when he realises we’re “unworthy” tourists. But when I can drink coffee that doesn’t exploit animals, why would I buy it? … and three times more expensive. Goodbye!
The next stop is Monkey Forest. I am not convinced we should be going. It is worrying that this will be just the next animal exploitation zoo. But it only takes a few steps into the park to convince me otherwise. The forest is the most suitable place for film Indiana Jones. An antique temple complex, submerged within a century-old jungle. Countless natural terraces, unique bridges, uneven long stairways. Everything wrapped in stone ornaments and cocooned in lianas. Animal sculptures are hiding betwixt branches, roots and moss. Even without the monkeys, this place is magical.
But there are monkeys too! Around 600 macaques or Balinese long-tailed monkeys live here. This is a sacred area for the locals and the animals are protected and free in it. For us, the visitors to these lands, it is forbidden to feed, touch or even look the monkeys in the eye. (?!?) This is their kingdom and we are only short-term visitors. We watch from afar and take a few pictures. That’s it! Everything else results in a shout from the park keepers. We stumble across a few temples in the complex. They are all locked for non-Balinese but are open enough so we can see them from the outside. Just as beautiful and authentic as any other Balinese temples but full of monkeys and their babies. They chase each other, fight and cuddle.
After these sublime spiritual steps, Adhi takes us deep into the heart of the narcissistic social media culture. We arrive at the swings and my dreams are shattered. Instagram truly is full of pictures of girls in seemingly isolated areas, having accidentally found a swing on their way. I imagine they walked for hours through the rainforests on a cultural and spiritual journey and have reached such a wonderful place. Where the locals have put a swing for their children or built a bridge for their village. And how could you not take a picture in such a wonderful coincidence? But unfortunately, these images in my head are far from reality.
We find ourselves in a huge park of 16 swings in different sizes, shapes and decorations, more nests and rocks to fuel the vanity. All with a view to the rice terraces and palms in the distance. You pay to get on them. You pay more for a professional photographer. You pay to rent a colourful dress with a huge train to fly in the wind under the swing. And after that you get from swing to swing, turn back and forth, call your boyfriends or leave him to watch … for hours until at least one picture can go on Instagram.
We should have left immediately but even we were taken into this insanity. Like a centrifuge for superficial and self-obsessed decisions. In the end, we decide not to pay for the full package and to only go on one swing. Just to say we’ve done it. We chose the tallest one and the only one that requires safety belts so my floaty top didn’t have the opportunity to fly. But I like it better this way. I won’t be remembering how “pretty” we were but instead how much fun we had in this odd situation.
After the Balinese heights and a late lunch, we go to a rice terrace plantation. Adhi warns us most of the fields have been harvested so it will not be as green as we might be expecting. The complex is once again filled with swings and nests but this time there is a more valuable reason to be here. The view is complete. I wish we had come straight here and had skipped the swings but we weren’t meant to be as thoughtful. We spend, however, enough time here to walk on every path and look from every angle. After all, we haven’t seen any rice fields before. Plus this is our last stop for the day.
The road back is long so we start a conversation with Adhi about the options to go deeper into the island tomorrow. Together we make a plan to ensure he can be our driver again and quickly implement it hoping it would work. Meanwhile, he continues to tell us interesting facts about Bali. My favourite oddity on the islands is the traditions of naming the children. Have you heard about that?
Here, the names of the children are given according to the order they are born in the family regardless of the gender of the child. Traditionally, the names are four and when you reach the fifth child, which often happens in Bali, the naming starts from the beginning. There are some differences between the regions of the island, but Adhi arranged them like so: Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut. The names themselves have no specific meaning other than they signify the order of birth.
And to ease this inevitable confusion of same names, the child is given a second name to be used as a nickname. Did I confuse you? Here are some practical examples. As the firstborn child, my name would be Wayan Vasilena and Nic’s would be Nyoman Nicholas as the third sibling. Adhi is the second child so his name is Made Adhi and his uncle who we’ll meet tomorrow is Ketut Arya. You can guess which number child he is and what people call him. Adhi also mentioned that his dad was one of seven boys in the family which means he had two brothers called Wayan, Made and Nyoman. Weird, right?
Back in Seminyak, we say goodbye with thanks and Adhi promises to call us about the plans for tomorrow as soon as possible. We quickly change and go on the main street to walk through the crazy consumerism of Bali and look for dinner. On the loud streets, Nic is saying something but I can’t quite hear him. He sees I’m distracted from the vividness around me and I’m not listening so he grabs my arm to stop and listen.
We got a message from England. Ed is awake! Hurraaaaaaaay! Uncontrollable happiness pushes through. They say, he is still confused and tired, but he’s awake nevertheless! We don’t yet know what happened five days ago so we’re still awaiting information, but we can now breathe a little deeper. Well done, Ed!
We order dinner and feel as if we should be celebrating. Isn’t that right? We eat delicious local food, have a few cocktails and have a relaxing talk about the next few days and weeks. Adhi also messages us. He is busy tomorrow, but his uncle Ketut Arya can take over our trip. Well, we won’t think about it too much! On the way back to the hotel we also allow ourselves to walk into one of the countless massage places in the area. We’ll have only a quick foot one but will take advantage of it fully. We maybe deserve it.
We have to be thankful for this day. The opportunity to spend the entire day with a native Balinese and for him to tell us so much about his culture! To this today, Nic and I talk about Adhi as a close friend. Regardless that we were only together for ten hours and will probably never see him again. Nevertheless, we have some hopes to be invited to a Balinese wedding one day. And the island has two more days to be our host just in time for Nic’s birthday too. We can’t wait!
Vassya (and Nic)