Photo: Balinese Dancer
Photo: Sunset over Seminyak
Ahhh – Bali – peace, quiet, simplicity, cultural, relaxation, great food – and the home of the $8 massage….perfect. Bali was going to offer me some new culture again which I was really excited to see. It was also going to offer me some time with my favorite Belgian – no, not a waffle – my girlfriend Veronique! Veronique and I met a few years back through a mutual friend (Angie) while traveling through France (that was a mouthful) and we have remained travel buddies ever since! It’s always great to have a well traveled Belgian who can speak multiple languages to travel with! She’s the only one crazy enough to fly for 20 hrs for a week vacation. Veronique currently lives in Geneva (a stop in my future Europe travels) – so I guess she’s a Swiss Belgian now – but any way you put it – she’s wonderful. We planned all of our Bali activities off the cuff – which made the process even more fun. We agreed to meet in the town of Ubud (the spiritual center of Bali) and figure out the rest from there, we were able to travel around the island from Ubud and then for the remainder of the week we headed to the beach in Seminyak. We had a wonderful time in Bali – and it left us both hungry for more – a good sign that you will visit that country again one day. There are so many things to share about this country and our experiences – every day we would come up with some new ideas around travel slogans for Bali that described our experiences. I’ve used some of them to group together some of our key experiences for the week – enjoy!
Bali – Who wants to be a millionaire?!
When I arrived in Bali I found an ATM in the airport – I did the standard withdrawal choice and my choices were to withdraw $100,000, $500,000 and $1,000,000! I did a double take and looked around for the conversion rates posted somewhere. The conversion rate was 8900 Rupiah to $1 USD. I quickly did the math in my head and decided to withdraw $1,000,000 Rupiah…I was a millionaire!!! I took my wade of 50,000 dollar bills and took a car to our hotel in Ubud – the Oka Wati Hotel – I felt like Donald Trump…yet my car was a beat up old Toyota with a seat belt that didn’t work and was in desparate need of an alignment. I was staying in the Oka Wati hotel in Ubud – it wasn’t Trump Plaza…but it was this adorable little place with an amazing garden, overlooking a rice paddy and a little pool, and some of the most charming employees that I’ve met so far in my travels.
As I awaited Veronique’s arrival the next day – I walked around Ubud and decided to treat myself to a spa treatment there. I had to see if these spa prices were for real. The brochures described 2 hours of various spa treatments for $15…how could I pass this up? For $15 I received one of the most relaxing, spa experiences of my life – massage, exfoliation, yogurt bath, and a big aromatherapy bath filled with fresh flowers. During the massage when I was supposed to be relaxing I kept on doing the math again in my head wondering if I had divided wrong and if this was really costing me $150 instead of $15 – after all – I’m not an expert at currency conversion yet and Bali was the land of multiple zeros. I paid my $115,000 for my 2 hours of bliss and marveled at the fact that for $115,000 in Australia – I could have only gotten one martini. I loved Bali immediately. Throughout the week we bought car service for $350,000, haggled over water prices for $2000, and enjoyed wine for $10,000 a glass. The only hazard to vacationing in the land of millionaires was that we kept on mixing up our bills. Have you ever quickly tried to tell the difference between $10,000 and $100,000 – it’s not easy! A few thousand dollars of wine and soon the zeros all start blending together! Everything about Bali was a bargain…I continued to have more spa appointments during the week for next to nothing. For a mere $850,000 I had 3 one hour long massages, 1 exfoliation/bath treatment, a facial, mani/pedi, and a head massage. I’m sure you have all thought that you could never get tired of massages…however – I have to say…I was on massage overload after a week of pampering!
Bali – Become one with the Ditties!
Bali was simple…it was about family, faith, and tourism. Our lovely hotel in Ubud was not a typical 100 room hotel, this was a 20 room lodge, with no frills but it was oozing with Bali art and culture. The Oka Wati room came with breakfast served on your little personal veranda each morning which included fruit, yogurt, eggs, and the thickest, best coffee I’ve had so far in my travels. The smell of Gusti bringing it to my veranda in the morning woke me up! Gusti was one of the guys who worked at the hotel and the favorite part of my day was to see him bringing me coffee every morning. He was the happiest person in the morning and would show up on my veranda with a big smile and a pot of thick sludge they called Balinese coffee. He would wish me a good morning and ask what I wanted for breakfast, then a few minutes later he would come back with the best breakfast I had ever tasted, full of spices and garlic and freshness. He made these amazing pancakes that were green from some leaf that Gusti brought from his compound. He showed us how he crushed it and added water to get the flavor and color that was added to the pancakes. He would sit on the veranda and I would pepper him with questions about Bali, the culture, Hinduism, traditions, marriage, family, food, and dance. It was my favorite part of my day – just sitting and talking to him in such a relaxing environment. The Oka Wati had a little marketing brochure that Veronique and I picked up one day. The front read “Welcome to Bali. The magical island paradise blessed with superb natural beauty and a dynamic culture dedicated to the ditties” We both scratched our heads in confusion as to what this word ditties meant. It was like a game to try to make sense of it. Eventually we realized that they were trying to translate the word deities – which somehow turned into ditties…priceless. The rest of our trip we were in constant search of the ditties.
Come visit Bali – Enter at your own Risk!
Ubud has a variety of traditional Balinese dances going on every night at various palaces and temples in the village. The costumes are ornate, the music is delicate and the stories are as complicated and confusing as opera.
I gave up on trying to understand the story of who was who, who wronged who, and who was good and who was evil – and simply watched the dancing. The Balinese dance with their hands, fingers, toes, and eyes…all choreographed together to form this beautiful show. We went to a number of dance performances – The Legong and Barong (classic dance of good and evil) performance was mesmerizing. The hand movements were so intricate and well choreographed. The costumes were ornate and the dedication was unbelievable. These talented performers were performing in order to raise money for their various temples – not for fame or fortune. We also went to the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance. It consisted of about 50 men all chanting this tune with no accompaniment while the story of the dancers played out in front of us. At the end they lit a big pile of coconut husks on fire and let them burn high like a bon fire.
They burned out and a couple of men with big brooms came out and started to sweep at the hot coals…I personally was ready for them to pass out marshmallows. Another man came out decorated in a horse outfit and proceeded to walk/run/skip through the coals. The story goes that the man is put in a trance by the 50 men choir of chanting. He then can walk through burning coals. It was quite a site to see – I thought he would just do it once and be done. But he actually continued to walk through the coals for about 10 minutes. At times he kicked the burning coals into the audience ( I guess he had no sense of direction while in a trance!) and you would hear the screams of the audience members as hot coals landed on them. The little men with the brooms would quickly try to come over and sweep it away and back into the pile. Veronique is a lawyer – and commented that in Bali they must have no fear of lawsuit! Maybe this is why the ticket only cost $5 – it should have read enter at your own risk! The fire walker/kicker actually got tripped up once in his own horse outfit and fell down in the coals…the audience now switched from screams of terror of hot coals flying at them to a concerned hush. However, no firemen had to hose him off – he seemed to be fine and continued on his coal walk of terror…that was some trance!
Bali – it’s like Easter every day!
In the Balinese religion it is customary for women to make daily spiritual offerings in front of every entrance (I believe it somehow wards off evil spirits – I could have used this in front of my office door in NY!). The spiritual offering normally consisted of some type of flowers, incense and holy water. These three items form the trinity and represent the 3 manifestations of their supreme God. I’m not really sure why this was a woman’s job…but suffice it to say – the Balinese women seemed to spend most of their days dropping off offerings.
Photo: Offering of Chocolate Cake
Every morning we would wake up and go out on our veranda and there would be a new little offering made out of palm leaves containing rice, incense, and some flowers in front of our door. It was like the Easter Bunny left a little basket for us – yet there were no jelly beans. The little offerings/blessings were left everywhere on the sidewalks in front of stores and homes. It was impossible to not step on them! Plus – I think they fed the local stray dog population! They would leave anything in the little leaf offering baskets. My favorite offerings were the ones that contained loads of fruit and I saw one that even had a large piece of chocolate cake with sprinkles! The really great thing is that we were in Bali during one of their biggest ceremonies – Galungan. Galungan was on November 29th and on this day the Balinese Hindu people make large offerings and bring them to the temple in the morning. They also decorate their house-gate with a penjor as a symbol of victory against the evil spirits. A Penjor is also a symbol of thankfulness for the grace of God. The men are in charge of making the Penjor which is a tall bamboo tree of sorts (think of it like a Christmas Tree that everyone puts up and decorates in their house in December – the men cut it down and the women decorate it).
The Penjor starts with a long 30 ft. bamboo stick that the men transport on their mopeds…quite a site to see a man on a moped carrying a 30 foot pole speeding down the street and trying to turn corners. Once the men decorate the base of the Penjor, the women are in charge of adding the intricate design details and the alter of offerings. I kept wondering if putting up the Penjor was as stress filled as my family putting up the Christmas tree when I was a kid. Did the Balinese families get into huge family arguments about putting up the Penjor just perfectly – was it straight, did all of the lights work? We were lucky to be there during this special holiday – we simply walked around Ubud and watched the hundreds of mopeds pass by with a families on it. They were dressed in their formal ceremony garments and the women were toting a large baskets filled with various offerings (probably lots of chocolate cake with sprinkles!). Little groups of young boys would walk around the village conducting a Barong Ngelawang. This was a dance and song to ward off the evil spirits and get more customers in the future! This was a wonderful holiday demonstrating how important Balinese religion, and family are – they are the cornerstones of their culture.
Bali – where everyone knows your name!
I met at least 5 Wayans, and 4 Made’s in Bali. This seemed a bit odd to me at first – and then I learned that kids are named for their birth order – they aren’t really given a unique name like we in the US are used to. The birth order and names go in order of oldest to youngest:
Wayan (pronounced Why-an), Made (pronounced Mad-dee), Nyoman (pronounced Neoman), and Ketut.
If a family has more than 4 children – then they start over and the 5 child is called Wayan 2. At first I was a bit disturbed by this as it seemed like it removed any individuality from a name – but after a bit – I got used to it. As a benefit – it was super easy to remember everyones name!
Bali – Relax at our Beaches and Temples and Get That Monkey off Your Back
I lived in NYC for 3 1/2 years and never once felt concerned for my safety or concerned about violence or theft. Ok – there was the first time I ran in Central Park when it got dark out…I was a little concerned then – but that was the first week I was living there and I still had a vision that NY was a dangerous place. There was also the time when someone was smoking crack on the subway next to me…but I never was threatened by him…we just did our thing – he on his crack pipe and me on my crackberry – and commuted in peace. Back on subject…I was in Bali for 1 week and I was mugged by a monkey. No joke – the monkey stole my earring. Let me back up – Veronique and I had decided to get up really early one day and get a driver to take us to Pura Luhur Ulu Watu – a temple on the southern tip of the island. We had heard that it was great to get there before the crowds and get pictures with the morning sun. We woke up at 5:30 and took off with our driver – Wayan – at 6AM. Sure enough – we got there before any crowds…in fact – it was deserted. Before we got out of the car, Wayan told us to make sure to be careful of the monkeys as they would take sunglasses and bags – basically anything that wasn’t secure. It seemed rather weird – but I took off my sunglasses and put my camera across my body and took off ready to get some great photos.
Photo: Look closely for the monkees on the fence!
When we walked closer to the temple we notice there were tons of monkeys hanging out on the path – it was more than you see in a zoo…there were about 25 of them hanging out. Little did I know that they were casing us. Veronique and I were a little freaked out by the monkeys – they were large and we weren’t too thrilled that they outnumbered us. We tried to mind our own business and take pictures wandering around the temple. However there was a path that we wanted to go on to get some pictures from a distance. We looked at the path and it was guarded by the monkeys…so we had to stop and re-group a bit. Veronique took off her glasses and put them in her pocket and we took off through the monkey gang. We were a bit freaked out about it – but I sent her first as she couldn’t see anyway without her glasses! We had just about got through the gaggle of monkeys and I relaxed a bit and turned around to look at them and all of a sudden I felt something on my back. At first I though it was Veronique tapping me on the shoulder – but then I quickly realized that a large monkey the size of a medium sized dog had just jumped on my back!! It jumped off as fast as it had jumped on – but it completely freaked me out! I yelled at Veronique and told her that I had just been jumped by a monkey. She of course didn’t see a thing – but couldn’t believe it. We quickly moved out of the monkey gang and I did a little inventory of what I had with me…camera – check, camera case – check, swing pack – check. Yet I still felt like something was missing – sure enough – I did an inventory of my jewelry and discovered that one of my silver earrings was gone…ripped right from my ear. I guess it looked like a shiny, tinfoil wrapped chocolate or something. I took off the remaining earring and left it on a rock – I admitted defeat. After all – the monkeys should be accessorized well.
Bali – Where Safety is First!
Veronique and I stayed at a lovely beach resort for next to nothing in Seminyak for the remainder of our week. After haggling with the staff to get the ‘best price’ – we decided to stay in the hotel cottages as no one could really tell us the difference between the hotel rooms and the hotel cottages except that the cottages were cheaper and across the street from the main hotel. Little did we know that the cottages came with our own personal crossing guard. Since we had to cross the road to get there (this was a very small, very docile road), they had a little security guard there at the cross walk 24/7. We would come out of our cottage room and the little guard would perk up and come out of his hut, blow his whistle, and use his electronic crossing wand (that flashed green or red) and would help us across the crosswalk. Seriously…there was little to no traffic – but damn did we feel safe! Even though the Balinese were extremely safe when it came to crossing the street, they were the other extreme when it came to personal transportation. I bet you never would have guessed that a family of 4 could all fit on a moped/motorcycle…well – they can.
It normally went something like this, Dad drove with a child in front of him hanging on to the handles, the Mom was on the back holding on to the Dad around the waist and the youngest child was sandwiched between the Mom and Dad like a sardine. Normally at least 3 of them would have helmets…the smallest child was too small for a helmet. I was taken back to the times when my family (of five) would go on family trips in our little Honda Civic hatchback car. We would pack in garbage bags because they were more ‘mold-able’ and could we could fit more in the hatchback that way. It was always fun carrying our paper bag/suitcase into hotels…very classy. However – as much as my sister, brother, and I hated sharing a very small space in the back seat…it now seemed like paradise compared to the average Balinese family of four all crammed onto a little motorcycle! I honestly have never seen so many motorcycles in my life…not even in Rome. Everyone had a motorcycle and the day after Galungan everyone on the island was on them traveling somewhere…the traffic was crazy! Luckily Made, our driver, was well versed in dodging motorcycles!
Bali – The Land of 20 Questions
I was a bit disarmed when I got to Ubud and everyone I met would immediately ask “Where are you staying?” followed by “Where are you from?” followed by “How long are you in Bali?” followed by “What is your name?” followed by “Where did you go for dinner?”…this personal interrogation would go on endlessly if you would let it.
At first this line of questioning was way too intrusive for me. A stranger coming up and asking me where I’m staying normally sets off my ‘warning signal’. I put on my New Yorker face and gave them the best brush off I could. It felt as if they were robots taking a survey and reporting their findings back to a Balinese Supreme Being…maybe a ditty…who liked chocolate cake, and rode a motorcycle. However I came to learn that this was their way of practicing English. In addition – this line of questioning seemed completely normal to them – this is how they learned about others, and as a side benefit they determined what the popular hotels were too! By day 3 I was freely giving up all of this information to anyone that would ask. I would then start to follow it up with a few questions of my own such as – “Have you ever been to America?” followed by “If you could go anywhere in the world – where would you go?” followed by “What’s your favorite music” followed by “What’s your favorite thing to eat for breakfast” followed by “Who’s your favorite actor?”. This actually spawned into a new idea for my website…interview the locals…which is exactly what I started doing so check out my new Interview posts on the site!
Bali – Come and Live an Ulcer-free Lifestyle!
Veronique and I had a wonderful time exploring this enchanting island. I think we ended the week lighter than we started the week. Between the excessive sweating and the hours of spa exfoliation treatments that we underwent – we must have lost weight! We both basked in the peacefulness of Bali. The people were so patient and kind. Nothing really wound them up. It was true tranquility. In fact – upon interviewing one woman for my new web posts – I asked her if her job was ever stressful. She looked at me with a confused look on her face and said “stressful?”. She didn’t even know what the word meant. I quickly moved on to the next question as I wasn’t going to be the one to burst her bubble and describe what stressful meant! On the last night there, we laid in our big king size bed in our cottage and laughed about how we had spent millions of dollars on our spa treatments and this was the smoothest our skin had ever been…unfortunately I was laying next to my Belgian girlfriend – poor planning on our parts! The men of Bali didn’t know what they were missing! However – they were probably just as happy sitting around their home with their families eating chocolate cake.
Photo: Veronique and I living our luxurious ulcer-free lifestyle…I don’t even remember what stress is…