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This was another stop on our 25th anniversary round the world trip. We spent four days on the Island of the Gods Bali. Over here we pronounce it Bal-lee" kind of like Ballys casino out in Vegas. In Bali, though, the locals say it like this: Bah-lee with a short a.
Bali is quite a place. Its a beautiful island thats full of active volcanoes and it lies south of the equator on the Indian Ocean. It was a real hoot snorkeling in the Indian Ocean. I never dreamed Id ever see the Indian Ocean!
As our Singapore Airlines A-310-300 taxied to the terminal after landing we could immediately see that this was a special place. They had a Hindu Temple right at the airport terminal. We would soon learn that there were thousands upon thousands of these temples scattered throughout the island. Some were grand, some were very small.
Balis main religion is a form of Hindu. EVERY place of business from hotels down to small bars have their OWN temples and each morning workers bring an offering to the gods. A little palm thatch basket is usually placed in these temples (most are small with a big Buddha like fellow sitting there carved in stone). The offering contains flowers, holy water blessed by the local village chief and incense. You smell this burning throughout the entire island. This is for the good gods. The Balinese believe in keeping ALL the bases covered so they make a similar but less elaborate and smaller offering to the bad gods and this is placed on the ground outside their place of work. This offering is designed to keep the bad gods from messing up that days activity! Even taxis come with offerings---sitting right up on the dashboard!
There are a number of very large temples on the island. These are huge with elaborate stone carved walls around them. Each of these large temples has a big banyon tree in the center of them. One of the most interesting temples is located at the edge of a forest or jungle and its absolutely crawling with monkeys and aggressive monkeys at that!
We visited this temple and upon entering the grounds purchased a few bananas to feed the monkeys. They jumped all over us and my wife got a scolding from the local priest who said sternly to Cindy: No touch monkeys...no touch. They are sacred. Well Cindy didnt exactly reach down and try to grab em...they were literally climbing up her legs. Im not sure exactly what kind of monkeys these fellas were (locals called 'em "ma-cakes") but they were big---the King Kong males probably weighed 15 or 20 pounds. They were used to being around people and its a good thing. They had VERY impressive choppers and could have given folks one nasty bite.
Our guide Chika told us that they were always pulling stunts. One unsuspecting tourist entered the jungle temple grounds with a freshly opened Pepsi and a monkey hijacked it. Another tourist was victimized by a monkey that grabbed his sunglasses and then scaled up a tree to play with them! One thing you are told immediately in a nice way is that women who are on their period are not allowed in temples because they believe this defiles the temple.
In addition to the daily offerings to the temples, the people of Bali take elaborate offerings to the big temples on special occasions. We saw several women entering big temples with a stack of beautifully arranged fruit balanced on their heads. Some of the stacks must have been four or five feet high. I asked our guide if the fruit just rotted in the temple or what and he said they go back the next day and get it. In other words the gods enjoy it for a day and then the people go back and get and enjoy it! Now that makes good sense!
The Balinese are nice people with---to us anyway---very curious traditions and beliefs. For instance, they fear the ocean and worship the volcanoes. The ocean is pretty tame there but the volcanoes go off all the time killing hundreds and thousands of people so go figure!!!
The Balinese always sleep in their dwellings with their heads pointing to the biggest volcano on the island--Gunung Agung-- and their feet pointing toward the Indian ocean. I.E.--the volcano gets the super star status and the sea is shunned.
Nearly all Balinese celebrate the tooth filing ceremony when they reach the age of 16 or so. Im cringing just writing this but heres how the ceremony goes. The person whos about to have his/her teeth filed reclines and the local village priest arrives with a file that looks like a metal file. Then the persons K-9 teeth are filed down so theyre smooth! Tooth fragments fly all over the place. Imagine having your teeth filed down with a metal file!!! OUCH!!! The reason they do this is that they think animals harbor evil spirits and those K-9 or eyeteeth need to be filed down so they wont look like an animal teeth.
Death is even interesting in Bali. When a loved one dies, he or she is planted....but thats only the beginning of it. The family starts saving their dough like crazy for the REAL send-off which can come years later when they dig up the bones, place them in an elaborate float like deal and then light it on fire. That releases the spirit to the gods upstairs and only then is the death process done.
Marriage is interesting in Bali. One tradition is the kidnapping ceremony! The groom symbolically kidnaps the bride and they disappear to consummate the marriage and make it official. The parents of the couple get loaded on local spirits and organize a symbolic search party. Finally the couple shows back up in a day or so and the marriage is a done deal. Kidnapping is done especially when one of the soon to be married couple is from a different society status than the other one.
Bali has an incredible array of exotic fruit. We sampled (and please forgive my spelling here) such odd fruit as ramadans, snake-skin fruit and the notorious durian. The durian is perhaps the most exotic fruit in that part of the world. Theyre big--some nearly the size of a football--and they have funny spikes sticking out from them. The strangest part is that once you crack em open they stink to high heaven! They SMELL like a sewage treatment plant but once you bite into the seed pods (thats the part you eat) its really quite good but very hard to describe. Our guide was absolutely DELIGHTED that a couple of westerners would actually like to try one. We asked him to pull over at a fruit hut and we made our selection. Chika, our guide, picked out a nice one and we agreed on the price---20 US dollars! They cracked it open and Chika was first to dive right in. He loves durians! We cautiously tried it and we really did like it. How to describe it? The flesh of the fruit pod was creamy white and tasted like----well it had kind of a mild vanilla flavor with a touch of sesame seed oil flavor and perhaps essence of peach. Everybody describes it differently but its well worth a try if you ever make it over there. But dont try to smuggle your durian into a hotel or onto an airplane. Theyre strictly taboo in confined places because of the stinky smell they give off when you open them. To learn much more about the notorious durian, click here.
Usually wherever travelers go to another country from the US they are immediately recognized as Americans and Americans are usually a common site. This was not so in Bali. Most people said wow! when they learned that we were from America. Since Bali is much closer to Australia than the US, most western looking visitors hail from the Land Down Under.
The music of Bali is most unusual and exotic. Its hard to describe. Its rather haunting and a world away from anything youve ever heard before. I wish I could describe it but its just very, very different. I can tell you it features a lot of gongs and chimes of some sort.
We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Bali in a resort area called Nusa Dua but toured the island with our guide visiting Sanur (second most posh resort area on the island) and Kuta (the original tourist hot spot now crowded with tourists and locals). Kuta, believe it or not, has its very own Hard Rock Cafe. In fact, since our visit they've expanded to a huge Hard Rock Hotel there, too. I hate to admit it but as weve traveled around the world weve made it a point to hit all the Hard Rocks. We just had a coke at the Bali Hard Rock and bought some tee-shirts and stuff. Even the Hard Rock had its own temple in the corner of the parking lot.
As you travel through the internal portion of the island you pass by a number of villages. Each village specializes in something. One village might specialize in wood carving. The next stone carving, etc. The village of Ubud specializes in art and woodcarving and it was interesting seeing the woodcarvers at work.
The food of Bali is very good and very interesting but you must always remember that Indonesia IS a third world country and sanitation isnt very good away from the hotels. You NEVER drink the tap water even at the hotels.
The Balinese eat lots of rice and noodles. Satay is found everywhere and it just so happens that the chef at our hotel has written the ONLY major cookbook on the foods of Bali. I didnt realize that our chef was so popular until I got back home and saw a book on the foods of Bali and he was the author! Everything is quite heavily seasoned with hot peppers. There are a few fast food type restaurants on the island, mainly in the capital city of Denpasar including a Kentucky Fried Chicken. However, as our guide Chika told us: I dont like it. It has no taste (meaning its not fiery hot with pepper!).
The dinner tradition is strange in Bali. Instead of everybody gathering around the dinner table each person grabs some tid bits off the stove and retreats to a different part of the dwelling and quietly eats alone.
Restaurants in Bali are called Warungs and are usually pretty small. We really wanted to try some restaurant food other than the stuff at the Grand Hyatt but didnt tempt fate because we still had to conquer Hong Kong and China on our trip and didnt want to get sick. Many people who visit Bali come down with what the locals call Bali-belly or Montezumas revenge. We escaped that little problem, fortunately.
One of the most incredible sights in Bali are the terraced rice fields. They are hard to describe but imagine layer after layer of lush green rice paddies balanced up the side of mountains. The only negative is when your car slows down to get a camera shot of these incredible sights, you are absolutely swarmed with locals trying to sell you stuff. They stick their arms right into the car window with their merchandise so you just snap a few hurried pictures and your guide guns the car. We were told that most of the hawkers were not Balinese but rather people from Java. From being in Bali I got the impression that the Javanese were legal residents but rather unwelcome residents on Bali. At least thats the impression I got from the locals. I also got the impression that most of the crime in Bali is committed by people other than native Balinese people.
Even crime is strange in Bali. More often than not if your watch or purse or camera is stolen , the person doing the stealing doesnt look at it as a crime. He or she looks at it like they are borrowing your stuff and sooner or later (usually never) will return it! At one point crimes against tourists got out of hand in Kuta but locals formed vigilante groups to put an end to it and it has worked.
It is considered very rude to point with your index finger in Bali. If youre trying to point something out to somebody you should swing your elbow around and use that as your pointer! And when walking through a village and the village priest is present, you should always walk by him at a lower altitude. For instance, if the village chief is 5 foot 4 and youre 6 foot 2, you should actually crouch down and pass by the chief below his height!
We had heard horror stories about the dogs of Bali before we went over there...stories about drivers mowing them down in the streets and people not caring at all about dogs. While most of the poor dogs we saw were infested with skin diseases they werent kicked around. The Balinese do consider dogs to be possessed by the bad gods, as I recall.
While visiting the temple with the monkeys in the jungle we did see a woman with 5 or 6 white puppies in a tiny wire cage. She was selling the dogs because they had unusually nice white fur which is unusual in Bali. Most Balinese dogs look pretty much the same--just mutts with funny snouts and weird tails.
Balis probably the most exotic place weve ever visited. Its a real learning experience and if you ever have a chance to get over that way.....you otta do it. Ill always remember it and I learned a lot about a very, very different culture.
Currency is the Indonesian Rupiah (some of the smallest bills, the 500R are worth a whopping 23 cents in US money--but theyre neat because they have a picture of an orangutan (spelling?) on them!!!). Driving is on the left (and dont even think about driving yourself unless its an alternative to booking an appointment with Dr. Jack Kevorkian---they drive like wild people over there!). A passport is needed but no visa, at last check.
Note: The terrorist attacks in October of 2002 have driven many tourists away from this attractive island. During our trip we chose to stay in the tourist generated Nusa Dua area and at the time we caught heat from some people. They maintained that we wouldn't get the true feeling of Bali by staying in the posh, isolated area. But if you're thinking about a trip to Bali now and are concerned about possible danger, this might be your best bet. Security is easier to enforce in Nusa Dua and the hotels there have added extra security. And if you plan careful day trips to the many villages nearby, you can still get the true feeling of Bali. I know we did!