Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bali: Part One

Tara, Caitlyn, and me in Bali, near Lovina

I saw Eat, Pray, Love last night, and during the Bali parts I sat back in my seat with a wide, idiotic grin plastered across my face. Even on film Bali is irrepressible. It seemed too big for the movie theater, like it would suddenly explode and cover everything and everyone in green and gold, soak the seats with incense smoke. Yet as I watched Julia Roberts bike across rice paddies, I couldn't help but feel that my own memories of Bali, nearly a year after I was there, are starting to fade. They're not as vivid or as sharp as they first were. And I know the more time passes, the blurrier they'll get, until one day they'll just be pixels, fragments of color and sound that have lost their connective thread. And so I want to continue where I left off many months ago, with my traveler tales about the five weeks I spent backpacking around SE Asia after my ESL stint ended. I last wrote about Railay, the first stop on our trip, and I should really be writing about Ko Phi Phi or Malaysia, since those came first. But because Eat, Pray, Love brought Bali right back to the forefront of my mind, I'm going to skip ahead a little. I want to put everything down I can about Bali, because even if my memory is shot I want to have a way of going back there, back to a place that has refused to let go of me more than anywhere else I visited. I want to be able to see the terraced rows of green rice paddies, the gray volcano on the horizon, packs of dolphin breaking through a sea surface streaked with orange from the rising sun. I'm ready now to go back there.

It started in the airport in Kuala Lumpur, this thing that continued to happen over the course of the next ten days. I would think one thing, presume something, and then be proven completely wrong. My flight was delayed by several hours, and I was alone, because my two friends had booked their tickets separately on an earlier flight to Denpasar (the capital of Bali). So I did the best thing you can do for a few hours in an airport, made myself comfortable in a bar. The bar was full but I found the last open table. I ordered a ridiculously expensive glass of wine and opened a ridiculously expensive American magazine. A few feet away a table full of drunken Australians laughed and talked and generally made more noise than all of the other patrons combined. As I went back to my magazine, a man showed up at my table. He was in his late 20s or early 30s, very handsome, and wearing an apologetic smile. He asked if I minded if he sat down, since there was nowhere else free in the bar. I told him it was fine, asked him a few cursory small talk questions like where he was heading (Singapore, where he lived and worked), where he was from (Perth, Australia) etc. Then as he ordered a beer I went back to my magazine. Now if this was a romantic comedy the sudden arrival of a handsome stranger at my table would be the best possible thing to happen. But in real life I was a little unnerved. Maybe it's because I'm shy and have a hard time coming up with small talk with strangers.  Maybe it's because after five months in Asia I had learned to mistrust foreign men (don't get me started on the hordes of gross, old men in Thailand who come to Asia for the sole purpose of purchasing young Asian prostitutes). Maybe I just really wanted to read my magazine. But I was a little uncertain. Maybe we'd just sit in silence and share the table. But then he asked me another question, what I have no idea, and I answered. And suddenly we weren't just making small talk. We were talking to one another. We were having a conversation, a really great one, and maybe I was in a romantic comedy after all, maybe it really did work this way in real life!

My flight got delayed again. His flight was also delayed. He ordered me another glass of wine. And we proceeded to have one of the best conversations of my life, about travel, about drunk Australians (as an Australian himself he was very familiar with the type), about our families and histories. When it finally came time for my flight to leave, I said goodbye and took his business card. His name was Liam, and I wish we could say we're married and have two kids now. But it wasn't that romantic comedy, more the wistful, brief but beautiful connection only to never see each other again kind. But I will always remember the two hours I spent in an airport bar in Kuala Lumpur talking with Liam. It would have been easier for me to keep reading that magazine in silence, but instead I chose to open myself up and talk with a stranger. And all of my worst suspicions and fears were proven wrong. Like I said this was only to be the first of many times this happened over the course of the next ten days.

In the pouring rain our plane left Malaysia and landed in Bali two hours later. When I walked out of the airport in Denpasar it was hot and humid, even though it was past midnight. My friends were waiting for me on the sidewalk (the whole time I was drinking and chatting up handsome Australian businessmen, they were hanging out at the Bali airport waiting for my flight to get in, sorry guys!). But they weren't alone. Without leaving the airport they had already befriended two Balinese men, one of whom was a driver (I would say taxi driver, but 1) that is such an understatement as to what he does and 2) he drives a minivan). I was greeted warmly and by name by the Balinese men. They had already apparently heard a lot about me. "And now we go to the guest house?" one said, who had introduced himself as Guspur. I looked at my friends with a wary eye. If there was one thing I had learned from my travels was to never trust a driver who approaches you at an airport, bus station, train station, helipad, etc. More than likely they are on commission and will take you directly to some roach infested hell hole that's not even that cheap. But there was no official looking taxi stand and it was late so I agreed. We climbed into the van, and Guspur told us that since he was from Denpasar he knew of lots of good guest houses.

"Well," I said, as politely as I could. "We'd really like to go to this one." I read out the name of the guest house from the Lonely Planet. Guspur hadn't heard of it. He shook his head in concern. But using my best authoritative voice, I asked if we could please be taken to that one. I'm not a cynical person. I like to believe the best in people. But sometimes when traveling I can be somewhat guarded. Maybe it's because at that point in Asia I had already had my wallet, camera, cell phone, i-pod, credit cards, passport, and flip flops stolen, but I wasn't going to just trust anybody. Guspur dutifully took us to the guest house, not without lots of concerned murmuring and suggestions that it might be closed. We arrived to a modest looking compound with a locked front gate, but we buzzed as instructed in the Bible (aka Lonely Planet), and were ushered in by an older Balinese couple. All of our bags were still in Guspur's car. I suggested that one of my friends stay with the bags (oh how I cringe when I recall these things now, but in my defense at that point in my trip I really couldn't afford to have more of my personal belongings stolen), while we checked out the room. The guest house was a compound of smaller buildings with a small shrine decorated with red and yellow flowers(as was per usual) and a covered area with low tables and mats for eating. The room was clean and big and had running water and AC. That was all it took for us to be sold. We got our bag from Guspur who told my friend, Caitlyn. that he would see us the next day.

At the look on my face she explained that Guspur had offered to drive us up to Lovina (a town on the north coast of the island of Bali) and stop along the way at various sites. Once again my scam red flag went off, but after some cranky bickering we agreed on a modified version of the plan. I fully admit now that Caitlyn was completely right. I was the cynical, jaded traveler convinced everyone was out to get us and that CONSTANT VIGILANCE was the only solution. As we settled into the room there was a knock on the door. Even though it was now past 1 in the morning, the wife and co-owner of the guest house was there with towels, blankets and bottled water. She also asked if we'd like any food, which I can only assume she would have had to cook herself. We told her we were fine, and with a smile she left us. As I fell asleep that night I remember thinking to myself that I already really liked Bali.

Guspur picked us up as promised the next day. He arrived in his white minivan wearing a colorful sarong, a white Western style shirt, and a scarf tied around his head. The night before I thought he was in his 40s, but on closer inspection he looked to be younger. That was one of the continual mysteries of the trip, the true age of Guspur. He loaded all of our gear into his van, ushered us inside and then handed us packages of jack fruit chips, for the drive he explained as if he were the indulgent parent and we were his children. As we drove, Guspur alternated between official tour guide type speeches (that monument is for that, this town is such and such), questions about our lives and personal details about his own. He talked at length about other tourists he had driven around. He loved Americans, but as we soon found out he loved all of his charges. Guspur it turned out was not simply a tour driver but a musician, music produce, radio dj, and soccer coach. He had an unabashed love of American music and he played us mixed CDs throughout the drive which alternated between ACDC and Kenny Loggins. At one point he slipped in a music video he had made for his soccer team. There was a video screen at the front of the van that we all craned our necks to see. Intercut with footage of the team were shots of Guspur dancing and singing. After a few minutes we also realized that he was the one singing on the track. To put it mildly he was something of a Balinese renaissance man.

Guspur also knew his Balinese history and geography. On the way to Lovina he took us to the water temple, a beautiful, misty Hindu temple set on a lake up at a higher altitude. We got out of the car to a temperature a good twenty degrees cooler than in Denpasar (only about an hour away, Bali is about the size of Delaware). The temple was centuries old and one of the most peaceful places you can imagine, stone statues of various gods rising straight from the water, fog surrounding all of it, while gentle waves lap against the shore.

Bali is the only Hindu island in all of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country on Earth. It has a similar topography to Hawaii (judging from pictures I've seen and episodes of Lost), flat near the coast but rising sharply into jagged mountains and volcanoes inland. To get to Lovina we had to go to the highest possible altitude in Bali then back down. While half listening to Guspur's various tales and stories, I watched out the window as the island went by. I couldn't, still can't, believe how beautiful it all was. Green wasn't supposed to be that green. It was the lushest land you can imagine, every shade of emerald, in the rice paddies, in the palm trees and bushes. But then against all of this deep green was every possible color, colors you've only dreamed of. I saw flowers so delicate and patterned it looked like they were made of silk. I saw every possible fruit and vegetable, ones you usually only find imported from miles away, just growing by the side of the road, cocoa and vanilla bean, avocado and mango, chilis and bananas and durian fruit and rambutan. The only word for it is bounty, this mythical idea of an endlessly fertile Eden come to life in front of my eyes. Dark crags of mountains and volcanoes ranged in the distance, and once we were up in those mountains a shimmering blue sea came into view. It seemed impossible that there was so much beauty on this tiny island. I kept waiting for something ugly to even it out, some hideous scar in the scenery, but instead I only saw more beauty, waterfalls and quiet lakes in the craters of dead volcanoes.

We passed hundreds of temples, ranging from tiny stone structures to massive, ancient buildings draped in colorful silk and long garlands of bright yellow flowers. Women lit incense offerings and placed them on shrines decorated with palm fronds and pink and yellow rice. Children in school uniforms waved as we drove by. We drove past cows and massive black pigs (either alive or roasting on spits). In one area we drove past dozens of monkeys, sitting idly by the road, completely bored by cars and people. And then finally after driving through the town of Singaraja (translation: Lion King! also as Guspur solemnly informed us the hottest spot in all of Bali, and that's saying something) we reached Lovina. The happening beach scene in Bali is in the south. That's where the fabulous expats stay in the fabulous five star hotels and go to fabulous restaurants. But Lovina is a little less fabulous. If you know Charleston, I'd say Lovina is the off season Folly Beach of Bali, a little grungy, a little quirky, but on closer inspection, quiet and laid back, pretty and full of charm. We had decided to stay three nights there, because we were all exhausted and burnt out from a hectic five days of non-stop travel in Malaysia. And to facilitate our relaxation, we decided to find a quiet, comfortable, guest house by the beach. And oh did we ever. This may be my absolute favorite place I stayed during my time in Asia.

Guspur, once again murmuring in worry and uncertainty (wouldn't we rather stay where his good friends stayed the time they were in Lovina?), turned down a dirt road littered with holes and rocks. There were a couple of driveways for other guest houses, but mostly the area seemed rural and quiet. After a bumpy couple of minutes we arrived at the guest house. We hadn't pre-booked, but within seconds our bags were out of the van and into a stunning room on the first floor, a couple of feet away from the pool. The entire guest house was comprised of only six rooms, and only two of them were in use during our stay. As the men at the guest house unloaded our bags, Guspur stood in the doorway, clucking and muttering. Were we sure we were okay? Did we need him to stick around? Were we being over-charged? After assuring him we were okay and making plans for him to pick us up in three days, we did the only logical thing to do in this situation, took a seat at the small open air restaurant by the pool and ordered a very large beer and some food. There was a tiny kitchen right off the kitchen with only one or two people in it at any time. If we ordered mangoes or bananas they simply walked to a tree and picked some. Even in the late afternoon the heat was incredible. If Singraja was the hottest town in Bali, then Lovina might have been a close second.

But I didn't care. Surrounding the pool and guest house was lush greenery and explosions of purple or blue flowers. I could see cows a little farther off, and beyond them was the ocean. Everything was quiet and soft. No cars drove by. We ventured out a little later to the beach and had to basically walk through a tiny Balinese village to get to it. The beaches in Lovina are black sand, the result of volcanic ash accumulated over centuries, and while it was nowhere near as spectacular as Railay, it was still pretty gorgeous, relaxed in a remote, rural kind of way. How many other beaches do you go to next to an active farming community?

On our first night we found a restaurant on the water, the kind I had become so used to in Thailand where you can eat with your toes in the sand. There were a good number of foreigners but also a few Balinese people. We chatted with a table full of Balinese guys who made us promise to come out to a club on the outskirts of town (we didn't). We ordered some really good seafood as well as some incredibly bland variations on Western food including a very sad plate of nachos. But the food was kind of besides the point. The insane heat of the day had softened, but the night was still warm and pleasant. Waves softly crashed a few yards away. I slid off my flip flops and let my feet rest in the sand. And next to us a band played Western standards that were so heavily accented the lyrics were unrecognizable. There's something downright poetic about listening to a Jason Mraz song when even though the lyrics are sung in English they might as well be in Balinese. But that's the great thing about Bali, at least if you're not staying in one of the five star hotels. It's not Disney World or Times Square where everything is rehearsed and shiny and perfect. Instead Bali, even with its physical beauty, is perfectly imperfect, full of mangled lyrics and missing teeth and cows on the beach.

After dinner we planned on going out for a drink, but the nightlife in Lovina is not exactly what you would call lively. As we admitted defeat and began to walk back to our guest house though, we heard live music. Across the street there was a tiny bar with a band, just one guy on a microphone, one on the drums, and another on the guitar. At the bar stood or sat some Balinese guys. When they saw us craning our necks to see what was going on, they motioned for us to come in. And because who could resist cute Balinese boys playing music, we went inside. For a while we sat at the bar while the band played. Every so often another Balinese guy would drift in, usually someone who worked in a hotel or as a tour guide getting off work. They always greeted us with friendly questions and big smiles. As with the band from the restaurant, this one had a big book of Western songs that we could request. Their repertoire was a little smaller and a few of our requests were met with blank stares, but most were taken up enthusiastically, everything from Bruce Springsteen to Radio Head (they loved Radio Head). And of course Jason Mraz. I heard his song "I'm Yours" every single time I went out anywhere in South East Asia.

When it was close to midnight they told us they had to stop, because of noise laws in the town. But no one really wanted the night to end and so we all moved to a booth at the very back at the bar and continued the concert, unplugged. The beautiful Balinese boys (and they were beautiful, one named Made, pronounced Ma day, had what my mother likes to refer to as bedroom eyes, and all three of us girls were practically drooling by the end of the night) sang and strummed guitar. One grabbed a small, hand held drum. And in soft voices, they kept on singing, blowing through all of the hits of our American childhood and adolescence, Third Eye Blind, Wheezer, James Blunt; I believe there was even some Nickelback in there. They were talented and wonderful. We were tipsy and tone deaf (at least on my part) but we sung along with enthusiasm. At some point some drunk Germans wandered in and joined us. One of them kept requesting Lady Gaga and getting deeply upset when they wouldn't play one of her songs.

If I could have stayed in that booth forever I would have. It was the closest I will ever get in life to an Almost Famous bus moment, where suddenly you're having this group sing along and what starts as silly and ironic turns into earnest and meaningful and you know you should probably be making fun of yourself but it's just too damn lovely. And that was Lovina, absolutely lovely, all of it.

One morning we went dolphin watching at the crack of dawn, and even though the dolphins spent most of their time racing away from all the crazy tourists, they did make some spectacular leaps. And even though we muttered bitterly over the lack of coffee (it was five in the morning, they promised us coffee!) it was hard to be jaded once the sun began to rise over the mountains behind us, soft hints of pale orange at first and then all at once a brilliant gold that glinted off the dark ocean all around us.

Another day one of the men who worked at our guest house took us on a little tour expedition to go to a coffee plantation and see a famous waterfall. He was not quite as chatty as Guspur, but he also knew his way around a minivan. It was the day before an important Hindu festival on the day we went, and so he took us by a temple to see the preparations. He told us that on that day all of the women in the community went to their local temple. They would help use rice flour to bake little cakes that would be part of the next day's festivities. Women of every age went, and mothers even took their babies. At the temple we were given sarongs to cover up our legs and shown around by a toothless man who claimed to have over a dozen children and possibly multiple wives. Interspersed with the legitimate information he gave us about the temple and Balinese history were some very colorful jokes about some of the more suggestive carvings on the temple walls. But he was so exuberant and joyful that it was impossible to get weirded out. We watched the women in the temple as they rolled out white, pink, and yellow rice flour and pounded it into shapes. They smiled at us, but then continued dutifully with their work.

After we left the temple, our guide took us to the coffee farm of a family he knew. Our guide sat down in their house to have a snack and waved at us. One of the family's sons would accompany us to the bottom of the waterfall, which judging from our guide's aversion to continue onwards, was a decent hike. We followed our new mini-guide down a long path, starting in concrete and then becoming dirt. All along the path was a virtual Whole Foods of produce, every possible fruit or vegetable you could think of side by side. We passed the boy's grandmother who was surrounded by a crowd of his younger cousins and siblings. We passed women washing clothes in creeks and chickens strutting around outside of houses. Every so often a Western tourist or two would pass us on the way back up, their faces flushed and breathing hard. It was soon apparent why. We came to an overlook and saw a massive waterfall gushing down a sheer cliff. The bottom of that waterfall and our destination was down several hundred very steep stone steps.

Somehow I managed to only fall once (and only when we were at the bottom and on slippery rocks). But even with a sizable bruise forming on my butt, I knew it had been worth it. Where we stood at the bottom of the waterfall felt like we were on a different island entirely. It was cool and breezy. A heavy mist hung in the air and the sound of massive amounts of water crashing on rock filled the valley. As soon as we got close the mist turned into a full fledged spray. Even a good twenty feet away we were soaked within seconds. A pool spread out beneath the waterfall, its surface a never ending ripple. I looked up and saw the origin of the fall far above. I cannot describe how incredible this was, how much power and raw force was in that waterfall. Tiny rainbows criss crossed in the air as the sun hit the streams of water pooling down the surface of the rock. I reached down into the cool water and found a smooth, round pebble, probably made that way from years of pressure. I put it in my pocket, because at that moment I knew it wasn't enough just to leave that place. I needed a way to keep a piece of it with me.

Our day ended with a traditional Balinese meal at a quiet restaurant across from the ocean. I sat and watched a man in a cone shaped hat work in the rice paddy next to us. Once again I was struck by how impossibly green it all was, how it looked like someone had fiddled with the color enhancement and over saturated the entire island.

And I ate this, and I did the most annoying thing a tourist can do and took a picture of my food, but it was just so freaking gorgeous:

Coconut rice, fish and pork satays, shrimp, vegetables in coconut milk, crispy skinned chicken. Full and happy we went back to the hotel for the evening in Lovina. I think I spent three hours in the pool, lounging in the shallow end reading a book. And then when our stomachs had stopped expanding, we sat at the restaurant and ate appetizers and sipped beers. We had planned on going out, but there was a city wide blackout, something that is apparently common in Lovina. But the people who worked at the guest house simply brought out candles and told us everything on the menu was still available. The beer was still cold. The food could still keep coming. The birds and bugs chirped in the background. And when the lights finally did come back on, it hardly mattered.

I've written a ridiculous amount, but I still feel like I'm missing things about Lovina. Like the night we went out to an Internet cafe, and a man came up selling necklaces made of cocount shells and shells from the beach. As was my usual inclination, I tried to say no thank you. But like many Balinese, this man was a little more persistent. Would we each like a free necklace, as a gift to our mothers? And how could we really say no to that. So he sat with us and let us pick out our necklace (and of course we all proceeded to buy five more, clever man), but in the space of minutes he went from a tout I would go out of my way to avoid to a new friend. He asked if we would mind if he sat and had a drink with us. And then as it always happened in Bali, our lives simply spilled out, details exchanged, stories told, everything effortless and easy.

I was proven wrong again, proven that it's okay to trust someone when all of your instincts say to do the opposite. And that was just Bali. You go there as an American with your guard up and your scam filter turned to high. And every single day things happen to break that apart. Bali fills you up and gets under your skin and removes every single cynical defense you may have. You want to believe it's smoke and mirrors because you can't understand how anywhere could be so beautiful, how any people could be so kind and open. But the longer you're there the more you realize that maybe it really is that beautiful, maybe the people really are that kind.

That's the very long story of my first three days in Bali, an island which in 72 hours had thoroughly found its way into my heart. To be fair, I never really stood a chance.


Susan Moorhead said...

Big Giant WOW. That is one heckava trip.

BJ said...

Say Hi to Guspur for me... I am an Englishman living in Australia. We often visit Bali and Guspur is a family friend, you are lucky to have him as your friend too! He has a big heart and will not rip you off or scam you. he coming to my wedding in Lovina this year and hopefully singing for us. Say "BJ" says HI.... You can not got wrong with this man he will show you all the best sights and local experiences that you might not get with other drivers. Take care Jamie (BJ)

chefsunnie said...

Hi Liz! Well it is now one year later and I have just finished reading your Blogs on Bali....Fantastic! I am hoping that you are still connected to this blog as I am an American and will be in Bali on November 1st of 2011. I have friends in Singaraga, but am interested in Lovina. I will be there scouting a new location for another restaurant. I was hoping that you could give me the information on the guest house that you stayed at in Lovina. It sounds right up my alley. Would you be able to help me with that info? Thanks for your time and your blogs were a great read! Thanks....Sunnie

Em said...

Great read :) I also had Guspur transport me and my friends around when I travelled in Bali in 2009 - great guy. I'm going back soon - do you remember the name of the Lovina guesthouse?

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