Road to Bali

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There used to be a time when Bali was as esoteric as its terrain. Down south by its beaches, the masses floated in search of that perfect wave near Kuta, Seminyak and now Padang Padang. Ubud in its central mountains filled with rice paddies and its mystical air of spirituality and art was relatively unknown, until “that darn book/movie”(the wonderful phrase created on the island to represent everything that the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ represented and brought with it), happened. Now Ubud too has its own Starbucks and soul-searching single women. Streets with signboards pointing towards locations where the movie was shot and where the real wayan and Ketut Liyer live, except for signboards that lead you to your own Filipe’, Ubud has been suitably rearranged for modern day Ms.Gilberts. There is no off season, at least not as far as I could see…..there are still tons of tourist buses pouring into every tourist attraction on the island. Hmmm, its unfortunate isn’t it, that even I have managed to rope in Ms.Gilbert, darn!

But a traveler is resolute! I made up my mind not to tread in the path of others as far as I could by reserving the touristy must-see itinerary to just two days of my 5 day trip, so I could satiate all my photographic needs! We steered clear of the beaches, because we weren’t looking to surf, snorkel or dive on this holiday. Right off the bat, I have to mention that this trip has been in the making for over 8 years. This trip was to be my original honeymoon that never happened. So I have had the privilege of researching Bali for 8 years. Over 8 years Bali has ebbed and flowed through throngs of tourism, a bombing and an earthquake. My research and my itinerary have also changed in line with all those changes. My objectives of the trip have also been redefined a lot. 8 years ago, I had a long string of places I had to go see. But now it was defined by driving distance and what could be achieved in two days so that I am left with enough time to unwind. There really is no point in taking a holiday if all you do is run from pillar to post to see everything! The main objective was to relax and enjoy a new culture and to go as local as possible. There was to be no searching for familiar cuisine, no trying to photograph absolutely everything, no cellphones, no laptops, no Facebook!

Disconnecting from the world of iphones, laptops etc., was the best decision we ever made on this trip, albeit the Japanese earthquake/tsunami which sent our family back in India into a tizzy, looking for us. Apart from that lapse, we got a chance to eat with a local, watch a cremation(which is a celebration for them as well), relax by the pool, get massages, bike a ridge and drink beer at 11am! On day one we hit the road – running, hoping to cover the touristy part right at the beginning and out of the way of undisturbed relaxation, we were out the whole day covering everything from a volcano to a sea side temple.

The temples and homes of Bali are just as amazing as the ones back home in India. The workmanship on every structure that adorns any wall is intricate and painstakingly done. What amazed me about the temples in Bali was the lack of a dedicated sanctum sanctorum for each deity, in fact there are no deities, just thrones for each deity and a huge courtyard where people pray towards different directions and place offerings. There is a definite muslim influence from the nation to which Bali belongs, because even hindus have prayer calls three times a day. If you are wondering if the average balinese are sitting at these temples and finding their inner peace and spirituality,by visiting these temples 3-5 times a day, no they are not. They are more likely to do that within the confines of their own home. They have a temple built into their homes – each family has its own temple and like India they live in a joint family system. Their homes are huge compounds with several structures guarded by a ubiquitous street dog and several fowl. This is where they pray everyday, 3-5 times a day. They don’t sit down to meditate and there are no priests at their temple, just thrones for deities, incense and offerings. The village elder will  often read out a sermon with snippets from the ramayana or the mahabharatha and they pray silently, rain or shine. They have an amazing dedication to this very act of praying and whether it is communal or just one solitary person, whether they are young or old, whether they are happy or in mourning, there is absolute focus. Maybe, the silence helps – I don’t know! The only way to enter the inner sanctum is if you are wearing a sarong and sash, which in India is not required. Footwear is allowed inside the temple, again very unlike Indian temples. They are Hindus like me, yet their practice of the religion differs from mine.

The front yard of a temple is enclosed by a Starbucks and a restaurant – a view of what it looks like for the resident deity……

Culinarily too there are as many similarities as there are dissimilarities. Like South Indians they have the concept of rice with a gravy curry and a vegetable dish, accompanied by a Papad like crunchy rice flour crisp with distinct Balinese spices. The dry curries are exceedingly similar to south Indian poriyals minus the coconut and with a sweet & sour element to it, that is rather unique and delicious. I regret that I never got to eat their version of the congee but the nasi campurs,nasi lemaks, taliwangs, babi gulings, gorengs and rendangs more than made up for it! As for all the hype that entails a babi guling (suckling pig), I assure you they are true! Succulent and absolutely delicious – if there are vegetarians or staunch hindus out there reading this – you don’t know what you are missing !! The entrance that the spit roasted pig has is akin to a red carpet moment, there is a blitz of flashes going off in a very paparazzi like fashion with people clamoring over tables and chairs and other diners to get a picture of it – and the pig itself is carried over the head by waiters like a princess seated in a palanquin. The tender love and care that goes into cooking the pig for hours shows in the seconds it takes to melt in your mouth. As much fun as it is to pore through the Lonely Planet guide to Bali to pick places to eat that come highly recommended, we wished to stick to Indonesian food, more specifically Balinese food. Though ‘Naughty Nuris’ was just outside the gate of our resort, we stayed clear of their famed Australian chops cooked by a suitably ‘Jerseyfied’ (he was brought up in New Jersey) chef. Even if this meant having to go to different places to eat one meal to satisfy the vegetarian half of the happy couple.

We spent a good part of this vacation pool side and/or fraternizing with local people or dogs. Street dogs rule in Ubud, but they are highly harmless and are usually pets that walk around the streets surrounding the store they belong to. Even our poolside drink of choice was Indonesian – Bintang Beer! For the adrenalin junkie in us, we biked the Campuan ridge. This ridge is something that people usually hike, not bike! So to be different from everyone else we biked it! Boy, were we wrong! There were parts of the ridge where we could do nothing but carry the darn bike! Add to that the fact that we aren’t so physically fit, plus a camera bag with equipment and a backpack with some essentials when one goes on a hike, but for all you naysayers we made it all the way and back! We didn’t get pictures from all across the ridge because it was a choice of either carrying the bike or dropping it entirely and taking pictures! The experience however was entirely worth it and the views were simply gorgeous.

We followed this up with a drive through the gorgeous Sidemen road to Kintamani and Lake Batur. Dotted with terraced fields and tiny villages, some of which seem to be celebrating something, the drive was far more interesting than the volcano itself and the only reason for me to say that is because one is constantly fending off another tourist or his car/bus at this place. However, it is a majestic sight once you brave the crowd. An active volcano ,whose last eruption was in 1963, sleeping gently against the silvery Lake Batur. We were there on a rainy, cloudy day and some of the photographs seem to paint a picture of an actively smoking volcano – I assure you, they are just clouds – shot to look like that!

The photographer in me wanted to visit one of the sea shore temples of Bali for a sunset shot. I had already set myself up for failure by booking this entire trip during the rainy season, but I figured rains might bring with it some dramatic clouds which make fantastic black and whites especially when shot through a neutral density filter. My luck though had other plans, it was sunny with just a few drab clouds without drama. Did I mention that this attempt was made at the famed Tanah Lot temple? While the tourists stayed on and kept clicking you could see a throng of professional photographers armed with 5d’s, d3s and 1ds mark III, packing up for the day – dejection written all over their face. The dramatic light that a sunset shines on the temple is quite magical and none of us were lucky enough to witness it that day. Don’t know about the others, I had but one chance!

In Sepia above and color below

Another sepia above and color below

We rounded off our sightseeing run in Bali,  with a rousing gamelan orchestra performance accompanied by a Legong, a mask dance and a terompong. For someone from India these art forms are a little easy to understand – that is if you know Hindu mythology and are used to the various dance forms in India. They pick stories such as the story of Karna and Gadorgacha, Siva and Kama. There is a little bit of their own folklore mixed in as well. They have colorful costumes that are as ornate as their head dress. Each piece is as elaborate as a stone carving in Bali. The Japanese influence to their culture seemed apparent in the Noh Mai type masks used in the dance. Deterred by rain the performance lasted just an hour but with plenty of shots, color and plenty of happy photographers!

The Balinese, to my untrained and inexperienced eyes, seem like an impervious lot. There is a lot of change around them and there is a good deal of exposure to the western culture but their core seems to have remained intact despite the blitz. They are still driven by culture and tradition(which on the flip side is also one of their selling points) and unlike the Filipinos they haven’t migrated out entire generations to the west. The Starbucks in Ubud sits within the courtyard of the Pura Saraswati temple neatly cordoned off to one corner of the outer courtyard, very similar to the Balinese attitude to the western influence. There are the chevys and toyotas on the road, parked outside a Polo Ralph lauren store, but the guy driving it is still wearing a sarong! Yes, these stores don’t see the Balinese as their target audience, its the teeming millions of tourists that throng Bali’s beaches and temples that are. Then again these products are not completely out of reach of a well to do Balinese. The globalization of their economy exists to please their number one source of income – tourism, and they seem to know how to use it to their advantage. They seem to understand that it is just an occupation, not a lifestyle!

Bali seems to be a hugely patriarchal society from first glimpse. Women stay home to do chores for the most part and tend to children, while the men work. Often, as villages gather at temples, a common sight is of women carrying the impossibly large amount of offerings ,that they hand make, on their heads. Very often, these women would also be carrying a child and trekking uphill with absolutely no help from any of the men folk. Are they unhappy because of that? Am I raising a feminist issue? No ! Which is the beauty of it all. Somehow, based on the few conversations with locals, they are happy right where they are and how they are. They seem to be god fearing Hindus who want nothing more than to have a pleasant life so they can have a good after life – not very different from the rest of us and everyone who believes in the after life! They are gentle and polite and know that their largest income source lies in the hands of people like me. As is common in every tourist laden spot, Ubud and in general all of Bali’s larger markets are equipped with tantalizing but overpriced curios with every vendor promising you the best price. I even had one of them promise to give me a good “Indian price” – I am Indian and I have no clue what that means! I was just there to get some photographs and I was hounded by every vendor. Step away from these markets and head to the artists village – and yes there is one for paintings, one for stone carvings and one for wood carvings – and you get a chance to watch the artist in action and get to feast your eyes on genuine work. There are touts in Bali as well and thankfully they are not as aggressive as their Indian counterparts. They take a firm NO, well!

Some shots of our resort – Uma Ubud – absolutely loved staying here and would heartily recommend to anyone wishing to stay in Ubud. Their sister resort COMO Shambala is a wellness retreat with a spa that is shared by both properties – a must do, if you are in the area. Their resident mascot/dog ,Sandy – is such a sweet and welcoming sight, when she is around that is. I usually don’t tom-tom about resorts, but this one was truly an experience! We happened to meet the General Manager as well, who used to be a native New Yorker, but is far more Balinese than Manhattan now.

We had the chance to break bread with our driver Imade Jaya, a wonderfully simple human being who has never in his life stepped out of Bali – because he absolutely has no need for it! He is my polar opposite in that way for I need to travel, I need to see new places, I need to experience a new culture. His NEED is to do his job, provide for his sons’ education and his house and family. Does he want to holiday somewhere? Nope, when where you live looks like a holiday spot why go anywhere else? I always thought that of the Goans – where did they holiday? He paints for recreation and sells them at the artists village when he needs extra cash and eats nasi campur three times a day, because he wants to eat it three times a day. He knows enough english to manage the tourists he schleps around everyday from 8 am to 8pm, everyday. He prays everyday at his family temple and wears a sarong when not in his uniform.

I didn’t have the heart to stuff my camera in everyone’s face, so what you see are candid street photography style shots for a good part of this section.

When it was time to leave, it was difficult to part. Bali was where we learned to cut off, cut back and enjoy a moment. It was the first time, I didn’t regret not getting a shot or not visiting somewhere and still felt like I had satisfied a thirst to absorb as much of Bali as I could. I am left with an urge to revisit and perhaps next time go north to Singaraja and perhaps even west to West Bali National Park. Bali is exceedingly filled with tourists, to the point of rivaling Goa or Jaipur. But, no matter when or to which part of Bali I return to, I want to be able to experience a slice of their very uncomplicated little lives as a local which is far more interesting than is given credit for.

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Road to Bali