Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Two Faces of Bali


Before discussing our trip to Bali, I need to issue sincere congratulations to our daughter Carol, and her intrepid friend, Brian, for their fearless search to locate the beast referred to in our last article "The Carnivorous Toilet." At great personal risk, they managed to track down the beast in its lair and were able to obtain photographs, which I am now able to share with you. Notice too that they were actually able to photograph the mysterious “probe.” Kudos to Carol and Brian!

Our two day cruise from Singapore to our next port, the Indonesian Island of Bali, was a surreal experience after what we had incurred on our last cruise. Those of you, who have been following our travels, know that on the last cruise every time our ship stuck its nose out of harbor, we encountered rough water and one storm after another. On the other hand, our two day journey south southeast of Singapore crossing the Java Sea was so smooth, that the water was like glass, and this guy was clearly reflected. Our ship seemed to glide as if across a sheet of ice, and the only feeling was a slight vibration in our feet.

Our eight hour stop today at the Indonesian Island of Bali was an interesting and for me personal adventure since it marked a return to the island after 40 years. When I visited Bali in the early 70s, it left a very strong impression in my mind. Part of it was the fact that our airliner had been oversold and “sadly” I was forced to sit up front for the KLM flight, and I will never forget the experience of landing on what appeared to be a deserted island. As we approached the island, all you could see were plumes of smoke rising across the landscape. Since these islands lie near the equator, people were not using this to heat their homes, rather it appears that they gather their leaves and trash and burn it in the backyard. Amazingly, as we approached the island this morning, when I opened our sliding door, the first thing to strike me was the strong smell of smoke in the air; what memories that evoked.

In the early 70’s the island had only one hotel, and I remember quite clearly that the island was virtually barren and that the roads were all dirt. What a difference 40 years makes. Today the island is a bustling center of commerce, although it clearly has two faces. It is an island in transition.Bali, Indonesia

Let's back up for just a moment. Indonesia is comprised of 17,000 islands of which Bali is but one. Bali is unique from the other islands in Indonesia in that it has retained its heritage and customs in spite of a strong influx of Muslim influence that is sweeping Jakarta and the other islands. For Bali religion there is deeply embedded within the populace. Their religion is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. Communities are comprised of homes, which then make up a hamlet. Within each home is there a Temple, and within each hamlet there is a community Temple.

Bali, Indonesia

As we prepared to depart our ship, over the PA system we were told that the temperature outside was hovering around 100°, and that the humidity was around 90%. Walking out the door, it felt as if we had quite literally entered an oven. Fortunately we had a private van, and at least the interior was air conditioned-to some degree. Our first stop was the Bali Orchid Garden. Bali, IndonesiaI was having difficulty learning to take pictures of flowers with my new camera, but despite that little setback it was a beautiful enclave that both Lisa and I greatly enjoyed.

From there Lisa asked to go to the Batik Center because she had heard that on the Island they had beautiful fabric, and she was interested in perhaps purchasing some to take home. Well, the batik factory turned out to be somewhat of a joke. They had three women sitting to demonstrate how the process of batik works, but that was the extent of their “factory,” From what I saw, I would be surprised if what they were doing would ever be turned into a useful output. The "factory" was basically a show room, and we were so hustled to buy, that the experience was a negative from start to finish.

Leaving there things started to get interesting; we drove into Bali’s countryside where we saw miles upon miles of beautifully terraced rice paddies. Bali, IndonesiaOn this island, their main crop is rice, and it is still tended today, as it has been for centuries, by hand. During our drive, our guide took us to a traditional hamlet, and driving down the street we were able to see the individual family compounds. I say "family compound" because families live together behind closed walls in a strictly patterned compound that includes dwellings for all family members, and of course a family Temple. These compounds lie right next to the rice fields which provide the primary source of income for people. We were invited into one such compound and allowed to wander freely.

One of the main attractions on the island of Bali is the Taman Ayun Royal Temple, which was built in 1634. Bali, IndonesiaThis was a magnificent temple complex, and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. As foreigners, we were allowed only so far as the outer compound, but were not allowed to enter the Temple complex itself, although it was readily visible. Forty years ago I took a picture of the sign outside a Temple that said "women who are in menstruation are not allowed to enter the Temple." I remember the lady with whom we were traveling joked "and who's going to check!" Believe it or not this Temple still had the same sign out front, and in my mind flashed her question!

Bali, Indonesia

Our walk around the Temple probably took an hour, and both Lisa and I were completely done in by the heat at that point. So on our next visit to the Tonah Lot Temple, which was built in the 15th century, Lisa decided, quite rightly, to stay in the car.

Tonah Lot is probably one of the most photographed temples in Bali, and many compare it to Mont St. Michel in France. Actually in my opinion, there is no comparison, other than the fact that the Temple is offshore, and at certain times of day it is completely surrounded by water. DSCN0243(3)The Temple was in a very bad state of disrepair, and several years ago a consortium of Asian nations spent over $130 million in an attempt to restore and stabilize the Temple. Many of the rocks around the Temple, which looked like coral are, in fact, cleverly disguised concrete pads that were sculpted to have a natural look.

Had our tour ended at this point, I think that Lisa and I would have had an impression of an idyllic Asian country that was in the process of enjoying some growth, but which still clung in many ways to its old traditions. Far from the days when there was only one hotel on the island, today it appeared to be full of hotels. The roads were very rough, but they were paved; however, after eight hours bouncing around in a van, it was virtually all we could do to stand up. Traffic was terrible, and there were little shops and stalls that lined the roads everywhere. Early on, we had asked our driver if he could take us to the Hard Rock Cafe, because we have a friend who loves to collect Hard Rock caps from different locations around the world. We had no idea what that request would ultimately entail.

At the end of our long day, we set out to drive to the Hard Rock, purchase a hat, and then proceed on to our ship. That short journey, took almost 2 hours. We entered a very densely populated portion of the island in the City of Benoa. Here we entered another world, totally unlike anything else on the Island of Bali. The streets were crammed with young people, tattoo parlors, surfboard shops, and virtually every sleazy type of business that you could imagine. They also had McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, upscale shops, and in general, as hedonistic an environment one would see anyplace else in the world. The difference between what we saw here, and what existed only a few miles away in the gentle countryside of the rice farmer was striking.

It was in this area, that Bali has been attacked several times by Muslim terrorists. The most famous bombings to occur happened in 2002, and again in 2005. The Nation of Indonesia has traditionally been Hindu, but over the last decades Islam has slowly begun to take control of the Indonesian chain. The one bulwark to this incursion has been the Island of Bali. The people there have clung to their traditions; thus, creating a source of tension within the country. These attacks were clearly designed to strike at the heart of Bali’s tourism industry, and according to our guide after each attack, it took years for the tourist economy to slowly rebuild.

We have now departed the paradise of Bali, and are in route across the Java Sea to the nearby island of Komodo.

We hope that everyone is doing well.


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