9/21/15 – As we sat propped on pillows at a low table on the beach in Sanur, lanterns glowing in the trees and colorful fishing boats bobbing along the shore, I could already feel my attitude softening. Still, when Gonzalo asked, I confessed — “I didn’t want to come to Bali.” With over 17,000 islands to choose from, it just seemed silly to visit the one that was already so thoroughly discovered — that had caught on thanks to a bevy of ex-pats eager to live out their post-colonial fantasies of oriental exoticism and persisted thanks to a Julia Robert’s movie and cheap holiday packages for Australians looking to get drunk in a different locale. Yeah, I’m jaded, I know.
Arriving into Denpasar did nothing to dissuade my apprehension. The immigration queues were swarmed with pasty European, American and Australian tourists obviously in search of their postcard, tropical holiday. To exit the airport you had to wind your way through a duty-free shop pushing “Fashion” brand vodka (I strongly suspect they are in cahoots with whoever was responsible for erected the large sign advocating avoiding liquor from unopened bottles on account of methanol poisoning) and $15 tubes of sunscreen. We could have been in Cancun.
But then we we were met by Komang, our local guide with a personality twice his size, and whisked away from the airport into a different world. Bali is dryer than I expected (albeit it’s the dry season right now) and poorer, and more crowded. Yes, luxury hotels dot the island, but just outside the range of the glossy photos on their websites, ramshackle farms and simple family compounds cling to the hillsides. In contrast to Singapore, there is life here–everywhere. Every square meter of the island, save a few obscure mountainous outposts seems to be occupied by something–shops, restaurants, homes, hotels and oddly shaped rice fields squeezed into the empty spaces between everything else. The roads were no exception to this liveliness with supply trucks, school kids on motorbikes twice their size, old men on steel bicycles and mats of drying cloves all vying for space on the asphalt. Despite all of this, and with the exception of a few traffic jams in Ubud and Denpasar, Bali didn’t feel crowded, just quirkily full, like an abstract painting that occupied every last inch of its canvas with splashes of vibrant color.
Our first couple of days on the island, James and I joked that we were on the “luxury hotel tour of Bali” — zipping from Sanur to Lovina to Ubud via a string of private villas, infinity pools and exotic welcome drinks. After traveling for days to reach Bali, we were more than ready to embrace that. And coupled with the slightly disjointed jumble of sensory delights–air perfumed by clove trees, preternaturally green rice patties, the unmistakably tropical taste of snakeskin fruit, $3 Bintangs–I felt myself beginning to understand the allure all those ex-pats must have felt.
Then we went deeper–Komang took us home with him. His village was formerly cursed on account of the village elders using a mischievous child from the village as a human sacrifice (there are some salient points about a virgin birth and possession and tribal government that I’m a little fuzzy on) and as a result, for seven generations, his village was destined to suffer poverty and neglect until the curse was lifted. Coincidentally, or perhaps not at all, the lifting of the curse coincided with Jarrod’s first visit to the village. Jarrod, an ATJ colleague, was visiting Bali with a group of friends with Komang as his guide. As the trip neared its end, Komang was struggling keep the adventuresome group occupied and, as much out of panic as anything else, suggested they visit his home village, meet his family and neighbors, visit their local temples and enjoy a traditional Balinese feast. Of course Jarrod agreed and was so moved by the experience he initiated a foundation designed to support traditional music and dance education for the local children from the income generated by arranging visits for other travelers.
We arrived at Komang’s village not quite sure what to expect. But before we could give it much thought, we opened the car doors directly into a mass of enthusiastic elementary students. Swept up in their games and songs and dance and gamelan lessons, we hardly realized that the sun had set and it was time to see what sort of feast Komang’s wife had prepared for us. As I showed him my collection of selfies with the local kids in the car, he laughed and recounted how on Jarrod’s first visit they would shly run up to touch his strange white skin and then bolt away again.
At Komang’s house, next to the al fresco dinner table, a holyman was seated on the ground performing some sort of ritual, incense and offerings laid methodically on a blanket before him. One of his little nephews had fallen off a garden wall earlier that day, Komang explained, and, as falls do, it had jarred lose his spirit from his body. The holyman was there to ensure it reattached properly. He explained this as if it were simple common sense–because, of course, it was.
After we’d finished the incredible spread prepared in our honor–warm, fried peanuts; mountains of rice; chicken curry; fried noodles; vegetables in coconut sauce; succulent chicken satay; a twice-cooked whole chicken, falling off the bone and incendiary sliced chilies marinated in sweet soy sauce–Komang ushered us into the main courtyard where, to our surprise, a 17-piece gamelan orchestra had assembled as we ate. As they played, a member at a time stood in the center and danced, ending by passing a cup of sour palm wine to the next dancer to signal his turn. Fortified with Bintang, James and I each gamely took our turns, whirling gracelessly to the unfamiliar tune as the neighborhood kids lining the driveway laughed and danced along. As I drifted off the sleep on the car ride back to the hotel that night, I felt my attitude to the island soften a bit more.
The death rattle of my suspicion about Bali came wrapped in a banana leaf. Embarking before dawn, as all the other tourists slept in, nursing their hangovers, we walked the backstreets of Ubud, wandering past schools and homes and an empty tour-bus carpark until the roads turned into country lanes, weaving their way through emerald rice fields, rolling green for as far as the eye could see. Just after sunrise, we sat down in the midst of one of the verdant fields and Kadek passed around a picnic breakfast–soft-cooked rice and perfectly-spicy stewed vegetables wrapped in banana-leaf cones, snakeskin fruit and fresh-picked tangerines, little steamed banana cakes wrapped in more banana leaves and tied up like little Christmas gifts and sweet, fresh mint tea. The beauty of the moment was overwhelming — I drank it all in and realized that Bali’s charms were more far powerful than my cynicism. When I mentioned I couldn’t wait for our second visit at the end of our trip, Kadek said “No one ever visits Bali twice. You visit only once, after that, you are just returning home.”