Paradise Lost (but not forgotten)
island of Bali is separated from the rest of Indonesia by
water, but even more so by religion. While most Indonesians
are Muslims, the dominant faith in Bali is a unique brand of
Hinduism and the Balinese practice it daily. Temples and
shrines are everywhere, ceremonies and rituals are common
sights, and hardly a week goes by without the observance of
some significant Hindu holiday. I unwittingly arrived in the
middle of one of these and it delayed my island tour for
had decided to begin my month in Bali by renting a car and
driving around for a week, to get the lay of the land and
see if I could find a town I liked enough to use as a base
for the rest of my stay. The plan was to spend my first
night in the overdeveloped tourist beach town of Kuta only
because it's in between the airport and Bali's main city,
Denpasar. I needed to go to the Denpasar police station to
get a temporary Bali driver's license before I could take
off on my road tour.
was a simple, sensible plan and I should have been on my way
within 24 hours, but I had not counted on Nyepi, one of
Bali's biggest religious holidays, which just happened to
start the day after I arrived. Not only did it close the
license division at the police station for the next four
days, but it even required everyone on the island, tourists
included, to remain indoors (or at least within your
dwelling's compound) for one entire 24-hour stretch. I
gathered it had something to do with taking time for
religious introspection and contemplation. Whatever the
intent, it wasn't voluntary. It was the law.
Nyepi turned out to have a silver lining, a wild opening
parade that I discovered while exploring Kuta the day before
the lockdown. Local artist/craftsmen had fabricated
enormous, colorful floats for the parade representing
characters from Hindu mythology, and by luck I happened upon
the street where these were being assembled for that night's
festivities. Here is some of what I saw (click on any
thumbnail photo to enlarge it).
floats were lined up along the road in a predetermined
order, and as evening arrived each was joined by its own
troop of performers.
troop was preceded by a band, 15 or 20 musicians playing
traditional instruments. Their music was unlike
anything I'd ever heard before, a grating, percussive
cacophony punctuated with repetitious 3- and 4-note bongs
hammered from traditional instruments called gamelans. This
racket followed carefully orchestrated patterns and tempos,
with crescendos that could give a minor deity a major
migraine. Behind each band marched the performers,
lavishly costumed and masked. The group's huge float brought
up the rear, borne on a dozen or more strong shoulders.
extravaganza unfolded at a large intersection, where stands
had been erected for VIP's. By the time I got there the
pavement was packed with hundreds of people vying for
position, craning their necks to see the parade. I
eventually climbed up onto a shrine that afforded a pretty
good view, sharing it with a dozen or so locals, and I was
able to see much of the spectacle over the heads of the
the next couple of hours, each group took a turn performing
in the center of the intersection before the VIP bleachers.
First the band would quick-step into the arena, snaking
through complex marching formations while varying the tempo
of their banging and clanging. Then, keeping the music
going, they'd move off to the side and the performers would
take center stage. These were mostly dancers, some of them
extraordinarily practiced in the traditional Balinese
styles, all of them dressed in elaborate costumes and face
masks representing the characters of a particular story,
which they proceeded to act out while a disembodied
announcer chattered, whined and screeched the vocal parts
over a loud, tinny PA system.
gathered these mythical tales were all familiar to the
Balinese, depicting legendary clashes between ancient kings
and warlords, or gods and demons, the outcome anticipated
and relished by the audience. Finally, as the epic reached
its climax, the float bearers scurried into the foreground
with their great, gaudy statue towering above them. They'd
move around the arena, sometimes tilting the statue
precariously this way or that for effect, while the band
banged and bonged and the over-amplified announcer screeched
and howled and I jammed my fingers into my ears and still
then it was over. The racket abruptly ceased, the crowd
cheered, and the group formed up and marched on down the
road for another performance elsewhere in town while the
next troop was heralded by the clanging of their approaching
band. I stayed through about half the shows before heading
back to my hotel.
the Nyepi parade ended sometime late that night,
all those spectacular, mostly Styrofoam floats
were lined up along the beach. A couple of days
later they were burned as an offering to the gods.
I was to find Bali something less than the paradise its
reputation promises, there's no denying its culture is
unique and wonderfully colorful.
finally made it to the Denpasar police station Monday
morning, paid about $15, and got a temporary Bali driver's
license, good for 30 days. Then I picked up the "Jimmy
Jeep" I had reserved. I was pretty proud of the price
I'd negotiated for this vehicle, about $8 a day plus another
dollar for full insurance coverage. This must be one of the
least expensive places in the world to rent a car!
recently spent three months driving in New Zealand, I had no
trouble remembering to keep to the left in Bali. During my
week on the road I saw many strange and wonderful sights.
Here are a few of them. As usual, you can click any photo to
see the enlargement:
frieze on the wall of an ancient Hindu temple, depicting the
artist's x-rated concept of Hell.
procession in a mountain town. I never did figure out what
it was for.
one-kettle roadside eatery in the mountains
(that's my Jeep parked out front). They featured
only one dish and I ordered a big bowl of it. It
was delicious! Halfway through I thought to ask
what it was. As near as I could tell the answer
was "goat brain soup." Yummy!
troop was preceded by a half dozen gyrating, shaman-like
dancers brandishing pointed sticks and ghostly effigies,
presumably to ward off any evil spirits that might be
per rule #1, men are required to wear sarongs, preferably
with a sash, to enter Hindu temples in Bali (men libbers
unite!). Not one to stand on pride or politics, I'd picked
up a set early on so I was prepared when I visited the
famous Pura Besakih, one of the island's oldest, most
revered and most impressive temples. It's an awe-inspiring
place, built 1200 years ago high on the slopes of an active
volcano. While still a holy place for Hindus, today Pura
Besakih is also a major tourist attraction, a must-stop for
every tour bus in Bali. So that I could experience it
without the distraction of hundreds of fat, noisy tourists,
I rose early that day and arrived hours before the first bus
- or practically anyone else, for that matter. I was the
only foreigner (and one of the only people) there during my
visit, which made it even more special.
met a temple guide at the entrance, another early
bird, and hired him to show me around for an hour.
We hit it off and after a while he took me into an
inner courtyard normally off limits to foreigners.
There we meditated and prayed together, and
received a blessing from a priest, which included
sticking a few grains of rice on our foreheads.
This wasn't the typical tour bus itinerary. (Ha,
how's that for alliteration!) My guide had
a sense of humor, too. It was he who later
suggested I put on his head wrap, just for fun, to
complete my outfit for this photo. Tor Pinney,
Patrick's Day isn't celebrated in this part of the world,
but I did meet one very lucky individual in Bali that
had hiked to a stunning waterfall in the rain
forest. As I arrived I passed a couple, an Anglo man
and an Indonesian woman, on their way out. A little
later as I was leaving myself, I saw the guy
climbing around on a rocky outcrop over which the
watercourse spilled into another tall fall. His girl
friend was standing on a small wooden bridge
as I turned away to start hiking back out to my
car, I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye of
the man slipping and falling into the water, one
arm flailing. Immediately the woman screamed. By
the time I looked he was gone, swept over the
precipice by the torrent.
woman continued to scream hysterically, her shrill voice
audible even over the reverberating roar of the cascade. A
wide eyed Balinese child appeared on the trail and then ran
off (to fetch help, as it turned out). I stood there
thinking, "That guy is dead. There's no way he survived
that fall." The waterfall over which he had tumbled was
at least 70 or 80 feet down a solid rock cliff face, with a
protruding hump about a third of the way down.
is a photo of where he fell in, followed by a shot
of the waterfall taken later from the far side of
I saw movement far below. Incredibly, the man was
dragging himself onto the bank of the pool down
there, desperately trying to avoid being swept
into yet another thundering cascade immediately
downstream. Then he raised his arm. It took a
moment for me to realize he was giving us a
thumbs-up signal. He was not only alive, but he
was telling us he was all right.
scrambled around the side of the gorge and eventually met
him plodding up the steep slope. I gave him a hand over a
couple of rough spots, but he was walking pretty well. A few
minutes later I snapped a photo of his reunion with his
distraught girl friend as a couple of locals and a newly
arrived hiker looked on.
man had a few scrapes and bruises and he was badly
shaken, but he seemed whole. As far as I'm
concerned he's just plain lucky to be alive.
Happy St. Patrick's Day, O'Bali!
more Bali sights & scenes...
At a magical temple on the banks of a crater lake in the
central mountains, one enterprising young man hangs around
with this huge pet python. He earns his living renting it
out to tourists for photo ops. He told me he caught it years
ago when it was just a little tyke. Now it consumes several
chickens a day, so his first few customers each morning
barely cover his overhead.
famous terraced rice paddies of Bali...
of my many temporary residences...
one of Bali's stunning crater lakes.
friend of mine had asked me to let him know if I found
paradise in Bali. I wrote him saying, "I've been
driving around Bali for the past week in a rented Jeep. It's
a pretty, tropical island with mostly friendly people, but
paradise it ain't. Maybe it was back in the '60's &
'70's when the hippies first discovered it, but not anymore.
Way too touristy for my taste and sadly desperate for more
tourists than they're getting.
everyone here that deals with tourist/traveler-type
foreigners like us is doing their level best, 24/7, to rip
us off by overcharging, skimming, scamming, cheating and
generally taking you for as much money as they can in every
situation. It's the #1 national pastime and passion, not
only socially acceptable to them, but expected. Even the
traffic cops get in on the act. To their credit, more often
than not they rip you off with a smile, or at least without
belligerence - most Balinese really are nice people at heart
- and it is presumed that, for your part, you will be on
your guard constantly, and that you will negotiate the price
of everything you do or buy, aggressively and in advance. Everything!
Even so, they usually win by a long shot so that you almost
always wind up feeling like you've been suckered yet again.
It gets really old after a while, but there is no escape.
Nearly every traveler I met was feeling this to some degree.
And the touts! At every road stop and tourist attraction
hawkers converge like flies on raw meat, a dozen of them to
every one of us. Add to that the climate - it's hot as hell
here, and humid - and you can see why 'paradise' might not
be quite the right word for Bali as I find it today."
next week, after I'd returned the Jeep, I was obviously
feeling better about things when I wrote, "Some places
are nicer than others. Now I'm in Ubud, Bali's arts &
crafts capital. It's a shopper's paradise for some, but I'm
not an acquisitive person. For me it's just fun to look at
all this amazing stuff these people make. They're incredibly
addition to the typical, bread-&-butter tourists, Ubud
also attracts more bohemian, artsy type travelers. I'm
meeting some interesting people with whom I actually enjoy
hanging out and talking. Been making a little music with
some musicians and hitting on some Caucasian girls for a
change, though sometimes I wonder why I'd bother. Asian
women are so much nicer.
plan to see a performance of traditional Balinese dancing
while I'm here. Then, whenever I've had enough culture, I'm
thinking I might ferry out to Gili Air, a tiny,
ultra-laid-back island I've been hearing about, east of Bali
and just west of Lombok Island. Sounds like a place you can
get high, sit on the beach and stare off across the warm,
blue Java Sea without being hassled by the incessant
turned out to be a favorite place and I stayed there an
entire week. My cottage was nearly perfect, light and airy,
quiet (except when the local chicken population awoke at the
crack of dawn), centrally located yet tucked well away from
the road, overlooking green foliage and red tiled roofs. A
small stream trickled outside one set of windows and a
pretty courtyard opened beneath another. Songbirds and mynas
whistled and chirped back and forth. Each morning when I
awoke there would already be a thermos of hot tea waiting
for me on the patio table. Then, on my signal, a young man
would bring a plate of fresh fruit for breakfast. I paid
about $10 a day for this place because I really liked it,
but there were plenty of cottages available in Ubud for half
that. You know, a guy could learn to live in a place
Balinese dancing is something to see. Exotic,
graceful and intricately precise, it weaves a
dreamlike spell. For the performance I attended,
the "musical accompaniment" came from
several dozen men seated in a wide circle in the
temple courtyard that served as the stage. For two
hours they kept up a succession of chants, mostly
in unison, sometimes in clever counterpoint. Their
tempo varied to accentuate the ancient story being
portrayed by the dancers, at times slow, low,
mournful and eerie; at other times fast,
boisterous, staccato and thrilling.
Ubud I made my way to Padang Bai, a harbor and
beach town in southeastern Bali. I was on my way
to the Gili's, a world away from everything.
Bai is the jumping-off point for the ferries to the Gili's,
but it was too pleasant to hurry through.
is a generic Indonesian word meaning "small
island," but locally it refers to a particular cluster
close to Lombok (which is the next big island east of Bali
in the Indonesian chain). The passenger ferry I boarded in
Padang Bai was an aging work boat with a strong engine and a
cheerful crew. It took 5 or 6 hours to chug across the
last we hove to off the first of the Gili's, the largest of
three. This one has sprouted a bunch of beach bars and
nightclubs that cater to young travelers who want to party
all night long. A couple of small boats drew alongside and
took most of my fellow ferry passengers ashore. But that
wasn't my scene and I climbed aboard a different longboat
along with a few other adventurous souls. Soon we were
skimming across a mile-wide channel to the more laid back
island of Gili Air. There, as night fell, the skipper
beached his narrow craft and we waded onto the sandy shore.
Looking back, Bali was a distant silhouette.
minutes later I was bouncing along in the dark in the back
of a little horse-drawn cart, trotting down a sandy path
between the water and the woods. I was accompanied by a
colorful and three-quarters-drunk, longhaired Australian
bloke named Harry who had also been aboard the ferry from
Bali. Harry knew his way around Gili Air (and seemed to know
practically everyone on it), having stayed there most of the
past half year. He was excited to be back and was proudly
and loudly guiding me towards his favorite beach bungalows a
kilometer or so from the landing. He kept singing, badly, a
parody of the Bob Marley song, "No Woman, No Cry."
Only Harry sang, "No ganja no fly..." over and
didn't let me down, at least not entirely. Before I'd been
on the island a full hour I had acquired hot food, cold
beer, a jolly band of misfits for company and a stout joint
to pass around. On the down side, I wound up in the
seediest, grungiest excuse for a bamboo hut I'd stayed in to
date. I guess I should have realized what was coming when
Harry boasted he only paid $2 a night for his shack just
three palm trees down the beach from mine. This hovel was
right on the beach and flanked by a coconut grove, the kind
of setting that looks great in a postcard. But what a dump!
A prodigious cockroach scampered off the bed when I first
flicked on the light, and there was no breeze to alleviate
the stifling heat. Well, it was too dark and too late, and I
was too damned tired, to go searching for better
accommodations at that point, so I threw my all-purpose
sarong over the sour, mildewed mattress, which was liberally
sprinkled with a gritty powder of pulp that continuously
drifted down from the termite-infested rafters overhead, and
fell asleep to the singsong buzz of a lone mosquito. Ah,
the next morning I rounded up another horse &
cart, piled in with my pack, and moved to a
comparatively upscale, clean and spacious cottage
facing the village beach where I had first come
ashore the evening before. This lovely dwelling
was my happy home for the remainder of my stay,
though I'd still go slumming down at Harry's place
whenever I felt like getting rowdy.
stayed on this laid-back little speck of an island
for a week, nestled between the Indian Ocean and the
Java Sea. Gili Air boasts friendly locals, quiet
beaches and lazy days. There are no police here - if
you want to go off by yourself and smoke a little
pot on the beach no one will bother you about it.
there are no motor vehicles at all. What a
blessing it was to finally escape the ubiquitous,
angry buzzing of motorbikes that plagues most of
Asia. Nowhere on Bali do I recall ever being
completely free of that cursed noise for more than
a minute or two at a time. But on Gili Air if you
want to get somewhere you either walk or flag down
a horse-drawn cart. They'll take you wherever you
want to go for a buck.
some snapshots of the island and the happy people I met
Air was a fine end to my brief month in Indonesia. A little
snorkeling, some beach combing, some magic mushrooms (which
grow wild there) and plenty of good company when I wanted
it. I stayed until it was time to head back to Thailand and
the subsequent gauntlet of return flights to America.
gather it's still possible to find something like the
"old" Bali, but not on Bali. The flagging tourist
invasion and the nearly desperate dependence of the locals
on the tourists' money have all but robbed this beautiful
place of its dignity. In some small villages there is the
occasional possibility of a more respectful and mutually
enriching relationship between traveler and resident, but
overall I felt I'd arrived 30 or 40 years too late. However,
some of the smaller islands in the region have been much
less visited by tourists and, from what I've heard, have
retained more of their cultural authenticity. Of course,
they're inhabited by Indonesian Muslims and won't have the
Balinese Hindu culture that lends Bali its very unique
flavor and color.
all is said and done I suspect the guru's are right.
Paradise is not anyplace on this Earth. It really is inside
each of us. Maybe the name of the game is to find it there,
and then hang out in the most beautiful places you can just
for the fun of it.