|   Yacht Sales   |   Consulting  |   Articles  |   Books  |   Music  |   Resume  |  Silverheels  |   Travelogues  |   Photos  |   Guestbooks  |   Contact



Travelogue - 04-01-05                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages


Bali                 Paradise Lost (but not forgotten)



The 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 four days.

I 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. 

It 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.

However, 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).


The floats were lined up along the road in a predetermined order, and as evening arrived each was joined by its own troop of performers.

Every 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.

The 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 massed crowd.

During 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. 

I 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 heard everything. 

And 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.

When 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. 

While I was to find Bali something less than the paradise its reputation promises, there's no denying its culture is unique and wonderfully colorful.


I 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!

Having 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:

A frieze on the wall of an ancient Hindu temple, depicting the artist's x-rated concept of Hell.

A procession in a mountain town. I never did figure out what it was for.


A 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!



I passed through a village on the north coast that seemed to be in the midst of a celebration, so I stopped to watch. People were socializing merrily and a band was playing the traditional clang-bang music. Imagine my surprise when they suddenly brought out a corpse all wrapped up like a mummy and hoisted it onto an elaborately decorated palanquin. Then a young boy climbed up and sat straddling the corpse. A procession formed and was soon marching down main street while a smiling policeman held up traffic. 



The 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 lurking about. 


A little farther west along the north shore road, I spied a tribe of monkeys guarding the entrance to a temple. See if you can read temple rule #2 posted on the yellow sign (click on the last photo in the row below). I saw this restriction at other Balinese temples, as well. Can you imagine trying to get away with that in America? The women libbers would burn the place down and lynch the monkeys for good measure!


As 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.

I 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, Bali Lama.

The Bali Lama


St. Patrick's Day isn't celebrated in this part of the world, but I did meet one very lucky individual in Bali that day.

I 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 watching him.

Just 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.

The 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.

Here is a photo of where he fell in, followed by a shot of the waterfall taken later from the far side of the gorge.

Then 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.


I 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.

The 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.

The famous terraced rice paddies of Bali...

One of my many temporary residences...

and one of Bali's stunning crater lakes.

Here's another Hindu temple with a weathered sign at the entrance, admonishing women to stay away during their period.



A 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.

"Virtually 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."

The 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 talented. 

"In 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.

"I 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 Balinese hawkers."

Ubud 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 like this.

Traditional 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.


From 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.

Padang Bai is the jumping-off point for the ferries to the Gili's, but it was too pleasant to hurry through. 


"Gili" 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 Lombok Strait. 

At 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. 

Two 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 over.

Harry 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, tropical paradise.

Early 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. 

I 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. 

And 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.

Here are some snapshots of the island and the happy people I met there...

Gili 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.


I 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.

When 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.

Next Entry: 05/25/05


Please report any web site problems, like missing photos or dead-end links. Click here to email the webmaster.