My memories of Bali are full of total bliss. I remember the warmth of the early morning, when I would walk barefoot to the pool and float on my back, surrounded by beautiful Balinese gardens with the sun shining overhead. All alone, I’d close my eyes and listen to the roosters squawk and the tropical birds sing.
I remember walking through town and carefully maneuvering around small palm basket offerings, which were placed on the sidewalk outside shops, perched on railings, set in doorways and balanced on statues… the small palm baskets are called Canang Sari, and they are everywhere. They are filled with items like flowers, food, oil, and money. There is a small stick of incense perched in the middle of the basket. A single stream of smoke rises from each of the offerings, carrying the essence of the prayers to the Gods. When I wasn’t watching my feet for Canang Sari, I was careful not to step on too many of the Plumeria flowers scattered along the walkways from the trees above. There were so many flowers that the ground was colored in beautiful yellow and pink patterns. Each morning, I would pick up a few of the Plumeria flowers off the street and pin them in my hair. My allergies went bat shit crazy. I was so happy that I didn’t even care.
I remember the smile on Luke’s face the whole time we were there.
I remember the smile on MY face the whole time we were there.
Wonder is a beautiful thing. While we may become complacent to the beauty that surrounds us in our daily lives, travel will ignite your sense of wonder so quickly that you barely have time to catch your breath.
For a very long time after returning home from Bali, when I heard the saying “go to your happy place,” I’d find myself with eyes closed, mentally zooming the 9,500-plus miles across the world back to the town of Ubud.
Quick geography lesson here if you aren’t familiar with Bali. Bali is an island in the archipelago of Indonesia, which is just north of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The town of Ubud sits in the south central portion of the island, surrounded by rice paddies and rainforests. It is a location on this Earth that Luke and I experienced at the exact right time in our lives. After trips to Europe and South America, Indonesia felt just accessible enough for us to pursue. The English language was fairly common, but the culture would be unlike anything we had ever experienced. The most obvious difference would be religious traditions. We would be traveling on three of the islands: Bali, which is Hindu, and the islands of Java and Lombok which are Muslim. On top of that, they are 12-hours ahead of the Eastern time zone we call home, the constellations in the night sky are upside down, and instead of mountain ranges they have belts of volcanos, both active and inactive. (Just that sentence ignites my sense of wonder!)
When we landed in Denpasar, the capital city of Bali, it was about 1:30a.m. local time and we had been traveling a little over 30-hours. I think it helped to land in the middle of the night after such extensive travel. Even though it was 1:30pm at home, I had not slept on the plane and I was a strange combination of adrenaline-driven excitement and total physical body burnout.
Ubud is about an hour north of Denpasar, so for our first night in Indonesia we stayed in a small hotel just 10-minutes from the airport. It was a total of $35 (USD) and included transport from the airport and breakfast the next day. I remember waking up in that small, musty hotel room to bright sunbeams shining through the gaps in the curtains. It was early and we hadn’t slept long, but excitement pretty much always overrides exhaustion. We rose to greet the day.
As we climbed into the car that would transport us to Ubud, we pumped ourselves up to finally receive our first glimpse of Balinese living. We passed through the city center of Denpasar and we experienced the famously chaotic Indonesian traffic. For the record, it is just as crazy as everyone says it is. I was pretty impressed that everyone wasn’t running into each other. There were lines on the road, painted on by some hopeful Indonesian transportation engineers, but they didn’t matter. There were generally three lanes of traffic, maybe four if the drivers could manage it. There were dozens of motorized scooters taking any route possible to get to their destination faster, zooming between standstill lanes of traffic with apparent ease. I remember thinking there was no way In hell they were going to fit through without knocking off a side mirror, but I never saw anybody take one out. Mad skills! My first tip if you will be traveling in Bali – hire a driver. You will be glad you did.
Driving into the countryside we could see the slopes of the volcano Mt. Agung looming in the distance. Aside from airplane views, Agung was the first volcano I’d ever seen. It was pretty mesmerizing, even from far away. We passed a number of tobacco farms and rice paddies, where Balinese farmers in conical hats tended to their fields. As we drew closer to Ubud, shops selling impressive stone sculptures, woodcarvings, and paintings lined the streets. Bali is home to an incredible number of talented artists, and Ubud is the cultural center of it all.
The busyness of Ubud met us like a wave. The streets were crowded with Balinese woman in traditional kebaya and sarongs, many balancing baskets of food, flowers or laundry on their heads as they walked. Almost in equal measure, expats and tourists moved with slightly less certainty as they tried to cross streets without getting hit by a scooter. We followed Monkey Forest Road and passed by the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana, otherwise known as the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. A sign on the road warned pedestrians “Caution- Monkey Crossing. Take care of your stuff.” (This may be my favorite sign I have ever seen, though the sign that warned of avalanches in the Spanish Pyrenees is a contender.)
We had booked ahead to stay in a small gatehouse north of town called Ketut’s Place. The gatehouse was run by a Balinese family on the back of their family compound, about a ten minute walk from the crowded streets of town center. Three or four dogs barked at us as opened the gates and wandered in, unsure where to go. The property was compact but stunning. We passed a few intricately carved and elaborate buildings before arriving at the desk to check in. Unlike the States where we just have one (unnecessarily large) house, family compounds in Bali consist of a number of buildings – the family quarters, living spaces and a family temple.
After meeting Ketut at the desk and getting all the details squared away, a young Balinese man guided us to our room. We wove our way through a series of gardens, over mosaic tiled pathways, over a coy pond, past the pool (and more gardens), and down one set of stairs to our room. The room was beyond what Luke and I expected, and I can honesty say I don’t expect to ever stay in a nicer place on our travel budget. Along one full side of the room were windows overlooking cascading rainforest down into a river ravine. Outside, we had our own private patio with a beautiful antique chandelier and carved coconut wood table with heavy wood chairs. Along the side of the room opposite the windows, the walls were stone with two inlays where backlit Hindu statues illuminated the room in the evenings. The ceilings were woven wicker, the floor a lovely tile, and a huge carved coconut wood bed sat in the middle of the room, with a mesh net flowing over the sides to keep the bugs out. Our bathroom had a small window overlooking the patio and trees, so you could see the tropical scene outside while you showered.
When the young man who brought us to our room turned to leave, Luke and I looked at each other and broke into huge grins; I think we literally held each other’s hands and jumped up and down giggling.
From that moment on, my default face was a huge smile.
Each morning I practiced my yoga on our patio, surrounded by the jungle, the rising sun, and the sounds of the river below. I practiced in the company of countless tiny red ants that roamed the patio and bit me as I stretched. I was so calm and happy that I honestly didn’t mind, even knowing that later in the day little itchy red bumps would swell up on my legs. The heat started early, so after yoga I changed into my swimsuit and went to float on my back in the pool. By the time I returned to the room Luke would be awake with a cup of coffee and breakfast on our patio. (At Ketut’s, each evening you stopped at the front desk and marked on a small sheet of paper what you would like for breakfast. In the morning they would bring it to your room. Blended fruit juices, banana or pineapple pancakes, a veggie egg scramble with toast… did I mention our stay was about $45 USD a night?)
Our days in Bali were free. We ate meals of rice, noodles, vegetables, and curry in open-air restaurants. We wandered the art market, along Monkey Forest Road, past temples, through temples, and toured the Ubud palace. We practiced yoga in a studio of windows overlooking rice paddies and treetops. We visited the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (which is a story for another time…) and successfully braved the task of renting a scooter to travel north and visit the Tegallalang rice terraces.
A few memories really stand out for me.
The second night of our stay, we ate a traditional Balinese dinner prepared by the family at Ketut’s Place. One of the main showstoppers is traditional duck, which is smoked in a pit in the ground for 8-hours. Following dinner at Ketut’s, we were invited to attend a ceremony at the temple where Ketut’s family worshiped. To enter the temple, we were required to be in traditional dress. We both wore sarongs, I wore a long sleeve shirt to cover my shoulders, and Luke wore a headdress and a sash around his waist. We sat near the back and watched as two men dressed in colorful and elaborate clothing and masks moved about the temple stage, addressing the group in Balinese. A small group of musicians were poised off stage, and in sudden bursts they would play their metal instruments in between the content on stage.
Since the ceremony was in Balinese, my lack of understanding led me to simply observing the people. It was interesting to see the similarities of attending church back home. People wear their finest clothing, the messages appear to be lessons told in stories, and parents struggle to keep their children sitting still. One of my favorite memories of this experience was watching a young boy run around the temple grounds in his light up sneakers, his parents having given up the struggle of getting him to sit still. I smile when I remember how excited the small boy was about his glowing shoes. No matter what country you are in or what the religious tradition, there is always a group of kids who can’t sit still in church and pester their parents to let them go play – maybe with their cool new light up sneakers.
On our third evening, Luke and I purchased tickets to see a traditional dance in the palace in central Ubud. After dinner, we took the short walk over to the palace and found a spot among the crowd to sit and watch. Upon entry, we were handed a piece of white printer paper with the story written out. It was called the Legong and Barong Waksirsa Dance. The plot focused on the theme of the battle of good and evil between the Barong (king of spirits and leader of the good) and Rangda (the demon queen). The dancers wore elaborate and colorful costumes and dramatic, bright, traditional makeup. Some of the young women can’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old, but they moved with grace and precision, mirroring each other’s movements perfectly. The hand and eye movements were unique and mesmerizing and it was hard to look away. The dancers flowed with ease and danced with fans, weaving past each other to traditional music played by a small group of musicians next to the stage on an instrument called a gamelan gong kebyar.
The palace dance was an experience I’ll never forget.
It is interesting to remember that all of the experiences we have in life will one day be a distant memory. I don’t remember much about what was going on in my day to day life at the time we went to Bali. But the reinvigorated sense of wonder I experienced while there – I remember how it felt perfectly.
Our world has such a variety to offer.
This is the imprint I received from our time there. Oh – and how wonderful it is to simply smile. (And how important it is to get your immunizations…. but I’ll save that story for another time.)
If you ever have a chance to travel to Bali, GO.
Adventure on, my friends.