Bali remains a great place to be visited.
One Week in Bali
Should I visit Bali? An island located within an unstable country (Indonesia) full of earthquakes, terror, volcanic explosions and corruption on all levels? Should I bring my family to a place torn apart by bombs not long ago?
These thoughts lay far behind when our friendly driver negotiated space between the countless motorcycles, cars and horning trucks as dusk fell. Offerings for the spirits, flowers, rice loomed from every bamboo shrine in front of every house, and incense sticks burning on the many family shrines and temples filled the air with a sweet sandalwood smell.
After a journey of forty minutes we arrived at our hotel that was built into an ancient village complex, with the layout of a Hindu temple mandala. In every corner of the vast complex appeared a flower, incense sticks, and candlelight, which produced an atmosphere of magic short of sacredness. We were received by the hotel staff with great friendliness and politeness, and guided to our pavilion-style suite that overlooked the swimming pool and the valley behind. Everything in the room was from the finest- hand-made wooden furniture in Bali style combined with a bamboo-and-reed ceiling and white marble floors. In every corner of the room a Hindu statue, a hibiscus blossom caught the eye.
Actually, the entire country seems to be permeated by Hindu culture. The main deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are worshipped in single temples, and the split of service and preference for the God Shiva (as it can be seen in India) is not seen here. Here and there, we witnessed offering ceremonies, and on such occasions the whole charm and elegance of the Balinese culture comes to surface. Sometimes, whoever, I couldn’t help feeling that some offering rituals have become a rather superficial or symbolical gesture. Words, attributed to the Mogul Emperor Babur, came to my mind.
“This land (Hinduist India),” he said, “ is full of dazzling appearances, beauty, and charms, yet something essential and focal seems to be missing.”
Classic Bali Hindu architecture is, similar to Nepal and India, obsessed with rectangular design, stairs and steps. This however strangely harmonizes with the sinuous outlines of the rice-field terraces following the winding rivers, deeply incised in volcanic plateau rock. The devotion to detail, as well as spiritual offerings, and a striking awareness of the invisible world can be found everywhere, and I believe it creates a sense of something one might call ‘spatial consciousness,’ and, on a large scale, harmony.
“The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ cannot be separated,” explained my driver.
“Through our offerings we appease the bad spirits.”
I argued with him, saying:
“ Perhaps it works in most cases. But let’s take the case of the Islamist bombing in Kuta. I don’t think that these kinds of bad spirits can be appeased in traditional ways. That kind of enemy needs to be fought, and exterminated.” We discussed the matter up and down for a while; finally agreeing that ninety-five percent of all evil energies can be negotiated and finally appeased. What to do with the unusual five % remained a question to be answered.
During the course of our holiday week we visited handcraft sales centers, drove to the crater-lake, and haggled ourselves through tourist’s universe, and rode elephants. Frankly speaking, I hate to be and to be treated as a tourist. I felt tired of all the Teflon smiles and empty sales talk. I almost gave up on Bali. But on that day we made serious, good friends among the locals, and we were invited to their modest house in Denpasar. We felt their genuine friendliness, love and generosity. It was a wonderful experience, and it was like we had discovered a lost branch of our family.
With morale boosted, I opened up again for Bali, and I would like to share a bit of understanding a few practical tips:
· Money. Prices are quoted in Indo Rupees, and USD in wealthier shops targeting tourists. A rampant Rupees inflation makes calculations somewhat difficult.
· Shopping. Bali offers a treasure of handcraft. Highlights are furniture (bamboo, rattan, teak), silver jewelry, woodcarving, and stone sculpture. Prices are better in the villages, where the goods are produced, compared to the tourist centers, where prices can be a three-fold higher. Every purchase needs to be negotiated. Generally, Gold quality is low (18 karat) and the price for it is far too high. Silver quality is great (mostly 900) and also very arty and well crafted. Another highlight is batik and many other forms of textile. In the poorer districts up on the mountain range, quality of all handcraft tends to be poor (local lightwood only), and bargaining can be rather aggressive if not unpleasant. Watch the exchange rate. Often, prices are quote in USD, and grossed up with an unrealistic exchange rate.
· Food. It’s not cheap, but fairly clean and delicious. Within the tourist realm, the price range is comparable to the US (Florida). On village markets, a full simple meal only costs in the order of 1 US $/ person, but one should watch hygiene and the color of the pan oil. Bali offers good-quality sticky rice, tasty salads, fresh fruit, nice grilled fish, and a (fairly dry) local wine (called Hattan, growing on the flanks of the volcano areas). Several brands of spirit (arrak, rice brandy) are traded, too. The locally produced coffee (Arabica and Robusta) tastes nice.
· Roads. They are by far too narrow, overcrowded and often bordered by open drains. Traffic follows a tacit code of conduct rather than the official laws of traffic. Accidents are only avoided by telepathic consciousness, mysterious foresight, and divine intervention. Not surprisingly, walking along the road can be a dangerous business,
· Black magic. It’s all around, and seduction is part of it. Black magic is nothing but a form of manipulation with the goal of extracting the maximum of money from ‘innocent’ strangers, such as through illicit services. Possession of illegal drugs is fought with capital punishment, yet drugs seem to be fairly common in places such as Kuta. My advice is to stay friendly, and polite whilst keeping a healthy level of natural distance and watching one’s own good mind.
On the last day in our wonderful country hotel we spent the day only watching and listening- little birds were building nests in the reed grass roof of our pavilion. Farther away, weaverbirds serviced their new hanging abodes under gently swaying coconut trees under a blue sky, whilst kites rose in a mild breeze in the distance. Smoke rose from a little village near-by where silversmiths were busy melting metal for jewelry. Simple wind-propelled noise wheels located above the rice-field terraces beyond the little river blended seamlessly with the gamelan music at the restaurant.
Yes, Bali may be located in a tectonically active and often violent part of the world, but it expresses perhaps the most peaceful atmosphere I ever witnessed. What produces its charm? I wondered about this and here comes the answer: Bali is not about holiday or doing something. Bali is about being.