Sunday, July 24, 2016

EER R&R: Bali Part One

Monday morning came quickly, and I was at the airport and checked in (no luggage fees this time!) and through security/immigration with 40 minutes to spare before boarding. I had a bowl of noodle soup and meandered to the gate. Boarding was delayed, and we took off almost 45 minutes late. I had a two seat row to myself so stretched out and watched August: Osage County (didn't love) and The Imitation Game (interesting). Even with the takeoff delay we only landed about ten minutes late, and immigration was a breeze. I had expected to have to pay $35 for a visa on arrival, but they just waved me through to the normal line and stamped me visa exempt. Nice. Baggage took a while (I think the belt broke since no bags emerged and it emitted a high-pitched squeal for ~15 minutes), but once my bag came it was quick to find an ATM and book a taxi.

The drive from Denpasar to Ubud takes about 90 minutes, and it was late afternoon and full sun, and I had a blast just watching the scenery and people go by. I think I was last on a tropical island (Zanzibar) in late 2013, and I missed the island life. The lush palm groves and beachy-themed shops gave way to rice paddies and artisan shops as we neared Ubud. My lovely hotel fronts a busy street near the center of town, but it extends quite a ways back from the street, and my room is peaceful and quiet. After I finished afternoon tea in the lobby and took a quick shower I settled in and then went downstairs to the spa for a head/neck/shoulders massage and a foot massage. Both were superlative. This spa gets rave reviews, and I can see why. Comfortable room, lovely chair for lounging rather than a bed, nice pillows, cooling peppermint lotion, and great technique. How lovely. I had room service before turning in for a good night's sleep.

I slept extremely well on the hotel bed last night (score!) and woke up wanting more sleep. It won't happen tonight, sadly. I breakfasted in the hotel restaurant and then met my driver for the day - Danny. The car was clean, comfortable, and he was a safe driver, so we were off to a good start!

The first stop was supposed to be a dance, but since we were early he took me to a village temple for an orientation and walk through. It would be the first of many temples for the day. I donned the required sarong* and took in the early-morning sights, including women preparing offerings for the day.

*I usually am not a fan of having to don specific clothing to enter a place, believing modest dress should be enough. But that is caveated with the fact that most of the time it's women who are considered inappropriately dressed, while men sail through. In Bali's temples, all entrants must wear a sarong and sash. I like gender equity.

The dance was in a large hall that was empty when I arrived. But then the five coach buses full of school children from Java poured in. Wow. It filled up quickly! It was a Barong and Kris dance, a classic tale of good vs. evil including masked and costumed characters. There was a fair amount of dialogue in Bahasa, but between the paper explanation and the characters themselves I figured much of it out. The physical humor was loud and clear (and bawdy) but the spoken humor was lost on me. I'm told it's open to improvisation and is often in the style of a British pantomime.

After that it was time for shopping! I won't go into much detail since I bought presents for people who (are supposed to) read this blog. But we visited a silver factory/showroom, a painting gallery, and a woodcarver's shop. Lots of lovely things to admire and buy, and this is just the tip of the Balinese art/craft market.

Next we drove to Tirta Empul, the Holy Spring Temple, which I was kind of ambivalent about. But it was gorgeous and more enjoyable than I imagined. The springs were mostly filled with tourists, but there were lots of people praying and presenting offerings throughout the complex. I was a little perturbed by the labyrinthine market set up at the exit - lots of cheap kitsch and sales pushes. Oh well.

Clouds were starting to darken as we drove up a caldera in order to better see Lake Batur and Gunung Batur volcano. The sun was trying to shine through, but the photos are not fantastic. After that it was a decent buffet lunch and a drive back down the volcano. I should mention that on the way to Kintamani, the village where we lunched, the police had set up a routine traffic stop (good) but with an expectation of more than just checking papers. That's all I'll say on that here, but it was quite disheartening. We took a different route coming back.

The road back towards Ubud was full of excitement: a truck carrying five of the largest pigs I've ever seen destined for (I'm sure) a lovely farm where they'll happily live out the rest of their days, lots of activity around various temples (cremations, ceremonies, celebrations), neighborhood soccer games, and then something new. We were in a very rural area, and all of a sudden there were dozens upon dozens of vehicles parked on the sides of the road and not a person to be seen. I had read about this phenomenon in Lonely Planet but didn't immediately connect the dots until Danny told me it was a cockfight. *sigh*. Apparently they're still a very big thing here.

We drove on and talked about religion after he learned I live in Lebanon. He speaks Arabic (Saudis are apparently a big market in Bali) and has some really interesting perspectives on religion and life. I want to share one metaphor he gave because I find it extremely logical and simple and close to my own thinking, and I plan to use this in future conversations. He says religion is like transportation. We all need to get from point A to point B, and there are many different ways to get there. No way is better than the other, the rules vary from one type of transport to another, and it's okay to choose different methods - even at different points in your life. We all get there in the end. On a plane you can't open the window, and that's known and expected and respected, while in a car it might be okay to open the window a little or a lot, depending on preference. Boats don't usually have seat belts, but they do have life jackets. And when you're little you need a car seat, but as an adult you probably don't. But nobody should have any reason to deride or persecute anyone else for choosing a different way of getting from A to B. I really like that.

All right, continuing on. Next was Tegallalang for views of gorgeous rice terraces, which benefit from Bali's traditional cooperative irrigation system, the subak. I admired the view from above, too tired and hot to explore the terraces, though many visitors were doing just that. The final stop for the day was the Sacred Monkey Forest, a lovely forest setting for several temples and a semi-wild troop of Balinese macaques. The tree cover made it a lovely, relatively cool place to wander and enjoy monkey- and people-watching. The signs are quite explicit: don't bring in food or water, take off glasses/jewelry, remain calm, don't scream, don't panic. And yet I saw people doing each of these things. The food and water was stolen, the glasses/jewels made handy targets, and the monkeys don't react well to screaming/panic.

I have a mixed-bag history with monkeys dating to my South Africa days, when I was ambushed and mugged by a troop of baboons on the beach at Cape Point. While scary at the time, I was unhurt and got phenomenal photos and stories out of the experience. So I didn't plan on doing much interacting. But curiosity and the excitement of the experience got to me. Of course.

I bought a few bananas near the entrance and fed them to some of the macaques hanging out nearby. The only contact was one tugging at my shirt to get my attention, and he got his banana. I continued on and wandered and marveled and watched some bad (human) behavior. Guides helped deflect potential attacks and chided tourists for breaking rules. I walked to one of the main temples and admired the gorgeous views and then came to another central area with banana vendors. I watched as a large group of college students fed the monkeys and panicked/shrieked every time one climbed on them (which was constant as long as there was a steady banana supply). After about fifteen minutes they moved on, and I bought another bunch of bananas. I sat down on a stone bench and let the monkeys come to me. Before long I had one on my shoulder eagerly munching his banana. He tried to keep the others away and monopolize the bananas, but the vendor shooed him away and allowed for others to come by.

This went on for about 15 minutes as I slowly doled out bananas and experienced various monkeys climbing onto my shoulder. A large monkey was on my left shoulder with his right hand on my forehead, sort of hugging me. I was, by this time, covered in mashed banana that didn't quite make it into their mouths. I don't know what provoked him, but this monkey all of a sudden took umbrage at something and threw a fit. He grabbed my hair with both hands, hit me on the head, and then slapped my face before jumping off. It happened very quickly, and by the time the vendor had taken a step towards me he was gone. I felt some scratches on my forehead, but they didn't bleed. After that it was time to head home. Enough monkey business for the day.

After a thorough shower and many, many hand washings and a layer of Neosporin, I went to a nearby restaurant for crispy duck, a Bali specialty. It was a decent meal, and I walked home very satisfied. Another shower and another layer of Neosporin, and I was ready for bed.

Temple entrance

Statue repository at the temple


Woodcarver's shop

Carved komodo dragon

Entrance to Tirta Empul

Bathers in the holy springs

Temple statues

First, cloudy, views of Gunung Batur

Lake Batur


Such gorgeous terraces!

First monkey sightings.

Momma and baby waiting for some treats from a temple worker.

A stolen treasure

This guy just wanted to sit and watch and meditate

Crazy monkey/tourist interactions.

Just taking the whole scene in...

Monkey heaven

Most people did not read/abide by these guidelines

The road right outside the forest

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