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From the beaches of Nusa Dua, Kuta, and Sanur, to the inner villages, and artsy hillside town of Ubud, I have had the pleasure of viewing the Indonesian island of Bali from the back of a motorbike as well as a privately driven vehicle. The following are some reflections after my first visit to this lovely and interesting island.

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BALI, INDONESIA … an unusual Paradise

Soft sea breezes, gently swaying palms, beautiful beaches and warm, multi-hued waters … an island, is an island, is an island. Yet while most islands boast the same general aesthetics each possesses its own characteristics, and I found that to be no exception in my travels to the Indonesian island of Bali.

Upon alighting from a very long plane ride, and wending  my way through customs, I exited the terminal to encounter an intense tropical heat that engulfed me like the steam from a heated Jacuzzi. Indonesian drivers lined the sidewalk outside the terminal holding cards scribed with travelers’ names, all juggling for position alongside taxi operators enthusiastically beckoning those who had arrived. All the while these eager chauffeurs called out in unison, gesturing and summoning to gain the arrivals’ attention.

Finally locating me in the crowd, my pre-arranged driver pleasantly surprised me with a very welcomed iced towel, cold bottle of water, a huge grin and respectful bow, setting the tone for a vacation not soon forgotten.

Used to the orderly motoring practiced in the U.S., on the way to my accommodations I found the driving in Bali aggressively chaotic, and while making our way through over-crowded, vehicle-filled streets, one incredible sight caught my eye. Entire families seated on motorbikes were weaving in and out between the autos on tiny motor scooters. On one bike I saw what I assumed to be the eldest child standing at the front of the scooter gripping the handlebars, while a seated father steered and another child sat behind him clutching his waist. But the most disturbing of all was the fact that the mother perched precariously side-saddle (straddling considered immodest for women) at the rear, cuddling the youngest child in her lap. Five people … one scooter … a fascinating, but very scary spectacle.

While a helmet law is definitely in place on the island, it seems that few locals honor it. And in the extreme heat of the day I saw women riding alone, covered head-to-toe, gloves included. I was told that these Balinese woman desire lighter skin as the mark of a higher social class, thus they go to extremes to protect themself from the intense sunlight prevalent in Bali.

Except for the four-lane main highways found mostly in the coastal and more populated regions, the streets there are extremely narrow, with two-lane roadways winding through colorful villages, terraced rice fields and lush, tropical mountain forests.

scan0004Ubud Business district.

Open-air shops, and restaurants line most business districts, bearing tropical vegetation, ponds – complete with Koi fish – and waterfalls, while the many villages hold open markets and accommodate islanders with roadside stands and sidewalk vendors.

As is custom in many third world countries, bargaining for goods is a way of life on the island, even a game, which the childlike Indonesians indulge in with humor and enjoyment. The village market places, roadway merchant’s stalls and sidewalk vendors offer travelers the greatest deals, while the more upscale air-conditioned shops bargain less, standing their ground at limited discount prices.

Religion, a unique blend of Hindu, Buddhist, Javanese, Christian and indigenous beliefs is an integral part of daily Balinese life, and beautifully hand-crafted offerings (canang) are placed outside homes and businesses three times each day to appease their gods.  When encountering the small, laboriously cut and planted palm boxes (jejaitan), filled with flowers, betel (an east Indian pepper plant) tiny sculptured rice flour cookies (jajan) and burning incense, it is expected that tourists will respectfully meander around them.

scan0002Handmade festival decorations adorn entrances to village homes.

Another way the Balinese appease their gods is by holding festivals and ceremonies, conducted regularly in over 100,000 temples found on the island. During these celebratory times, villagers construct elaborate palm decorations to adorn their homes. The women don ceremonial dress (elegant, multi-colored lace blouses and colorful sarongs),  place beautifully arranged pyramids of food, fruit and flowers atop their heads, and set them upon the temples’ high altars. The men wear ceremonial sarongs, and perform traditional dances and music, inviting the gods to come down and join the festivities.

scan0003 Bearing an offering for the Temple

Dining on this colorful island is a treat. While there are many fine dining options available, the majority of eateries are simple and relaxed, offering open-air seating in a tropical setting. Even simpler and more rustic are the outdoor cafes called warungs, found mostly along the beaches in popular surf spots. These, as well as snack shacks, roadside stands and mobile carts, cater mostly to the locals, the surfers and those adventuresome travelers who have discovered that low-cost meals can be safe to eat.

Almost every eatery on the island will serve Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice with a fried egg on top) and Mie Goreng (fried noodles with egg). These basic dishes are generally the favorites among tourists. But another Indonesian delight is satay (spicy, marinated, thinly sliced meat threaded onto a skewer, barbecued and served with a spicy peanut sauce). Satay Ayam is chicken served in this way, and Gado Gado is an Indonesian salad served also with a spicy peanut sauce. A no-strings-attached service is graciously provided in all establishments with tipping being uncommon and unexpected, and at the end of a meal female patrons may find themselves pleasantly surprised with a handmade paper flower.

Spa-ing in Bali is a delightful experience both physically and monetarily. Whether provided in hotels, private facilities or on the beach, each treatment offers age-old methods using recipes handed down through generations of beauty therapists. Many of the plant extracts available in these treatments come from locally sourced flowers, roots and barks such as Jepun (frangipani), Jabe (ginger), Cendana (sandalwood), Kelapa (coconut), and even Bali Kopi (Balinese coffee grains). Thermal/marine water therapy, aroma therapy and herbal therapy are immense there, and known to reduce stress and offer relief from muscular tension. These practices are also said to cure joint disorders, assist in detoxifying and exfoliating the skin and even re-mineralizing deficient skin cells. At the end of each treatment refreshments await, and the most painless part of the encounter is paying a bill at least 1/5th the cost one might expect to pay elsewhere in the world.

But perhaps the most charming thing about Bail is the people themselves. In spite of the country’s obvious poverty, the Balinese wear happy grins, and are consistently courteous and gracious. Their curiosity of travelers is boundless, and although their personal questions can sometimes be annoying, their genuine childlike interest has its charm. Theft is almost unheard of on the island, and tourists have little fear of being cheated, or harmed while visiting there.

Like the lion and the lamb, east and west bed down together in Bali. Western giants like Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King, Mercedes-Benz, Fed-Ex and other major first-world  businesses and hotel chains have planted roots there. Foreigners from many countries are leasing and buying up land to build huge housing complexes, and Gallerias featuring the latest in worldwide fashions and goods are sprouting up in the more populated areas. In contrast Balinese natives can still be found fishing the seas in the ancient ways, tilling rice fields using rustic, handmade implements and antiquated methods, and transporting themselves and their goods barefoot, on bicycles, via oxen and horse-drawn carts.

scan0006Workers in rice field in Ubud.

While this far-away island presently remains an affordable paradise, it is the consensus among the many expats living there that it won’t be long before development and western ways completely engulf the island, changing the mode and cost of living and vacationing there. In the meantime the beauty and ambiance of Bali still beckons. And I for one plan to return.

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