Friday, September 07, 2007

Billabong in Bali

September 23 - 28, 2007

We were one of the last boats to arrive in Lovina on the north coast of Bali. We knew the anchorage would be almost full of boats because Bali is one of the traditional favorite stops in the rally, for no other reason than it is a beautiful touristy spot. Bali attracts over one million visitors a year and the local culture is dominated by tourist related activities. Once again a great local stage was created on the beach, complete with seating in the shade and water to wash the black volcanic beach sand off your feet. We spent the day enjoying the more upscale side of life including our first Internet in over two months (even had wireless to the boat), and a nice lunch with friends we hadn't caught up with in a while. We got the skinny on some good places to eat, fun things to do; ah the joys of having someone to do the "hard part" of scoping out the place out for us.

As we walked around we immediately noticed the aggressive nature of the people selling things here (ah the joys of tourism). They would literally run out and practically beg you to visit their shop or stand. "Hey mister needed transport, need t-shirt". They have an amazing memory and the rest of our stay we were greeted by "hey Chris come have a look", "special happy price for you Chris". Kt was forever known as "Mrs Chris" but we found that the only way we could avoid the onslaught of attention was to be on the cell phone. They would quickly interrupt a regular conversation but for some reason they had infinite respect for someone talking on the phone. We regularly walked by "fake chatting" and talking to each other because it worked so well.

The Balinese religion is called Agama Hindu Dharma, and is a unique blend of Hindu, Buddhist, Javanese and indigenous beliefs. The first thing you notice is all the offerings. Fire, water and flowers are all the basic components of an offering and once you know what to look for you will see them everywhere. The most common are small offerings placed in front of shops, driveways, and even on the motor scooters. They are made with small woven baskets of palm leaf, and are usually filled with flowers and a small piece of food (rice or Ritz cracker). Other small offerings are presented after cooking or before eating. It is hard to walk more than a couple of minutes without noticing some sort of offering or small temple. The most noticeable offering is called a penjor and is a large decorated bamboo pole. They are intricately decorated along the entire length of the pole, which gentle curves down at the top end and is finished with a beautiful palm leaf creation that hangs off the top. On the side streets of Lovina they covered ever inch of the edges of the street. I felt rather strange when I first noticed the Swastika in a couple of very religious places. Little did I know it was the original Hindu swastika, which has been their symbol for safety, peace, happiness, and blessings for thousands of years. It was NOT the Nazi swastika, which is a rotated version of the same symbol.

The first event was the welcome gala dinner, which started with some fantastic dancing. I can't even begin to describe the beauty and intricacy of the dances. The costumes are so colorful and bright and every piece of the costume was used in the dance. Extra scarves or shawls quickly become the highlight of one dance while some of the male dancers used masks, weapons and finger extensions as their extras. The women even used their eyes to accentuate a dance move. They would open their eyes so big and then shift their eyeballs quickly to complete the expression. It was truly amazing and sometimes rather freaky. The music is very upbeat and perfectly in sync with the dancers every move, which might just be a quick flick of the finger and an eye movement. I don't know how they choreographed the dance and the music so well. It was explained to us that they spend years learning the dances, as everything from their facial expressions (smiles, frowns, wide-eyes, eyebrow movement, etc) to the slightest finger moments are considered part of the dance. The dancing was followed by a fantastic dinner, where separate tables highlighted traditional dishes of various main ingredients. There were tables for everything; seafood, vegetarian, pork, chicken and even a dessert table. It was funny trying to watch the other tourists sneak in for the free food.. "Which boat are you on?" someone would ask.. "Um,ah, we are friends with THAT boat," they would point. There was plenty of food to go around and everyone had a great evening.

The next day KT REALLY got into the decadent offerings of Bali and had a four-hour "spa day" complete with massage, body scrub, facial and pedicure; all for $25. John and I went to the neighboring town to hunt down some Gado-gado sauce (a great local peanut sauce mix) and some light bulbs. It was a very busy town and market, complete with a full-blown grocery store. After a couple hours of searching John finally found the light bulbs and I bought some highly sought after streaky bacon (last seen in Australia). We headed back to check on the girls, they couldn't have been more relaxed and loose if they were Jell-O.. "We are never going to get them back on the boat again" I said to John. We had another amazing display of dancing on the beach before we joined some friends for dinner and drinks at a back alley restaurant. The food was ok but half the staff was missing so Warren (from Mico Verde) became the bar tender after the waitress unlocked the booze and I had to restock the tonic water after we drank them out of it with Warren's heavy handed Gin and Tonics.

The following day KT took a Balinese cooking class with Steph on Mico Verde and learned how to make nine tasty Indonesian dishes. I bumped into the rest of the gang at a fantastic hotel called Chonos. Irena from Moose raved about the Dutch French fries and said they we almost better than at home. The best part was the wet cool scented towels they gave you when you first sat down. Nothing felt better then a cold towel on your neck and a good wipe down. I liked it so much I took KT back for dinner, where they added a welcome drink to the towels as we indulged in a romantic dinner all by ourselves at the pool. I had smoked salmon and cream cheese linguini that was as good if not better than any meal in the states. Yummm!!

We planned a road trip to the tourist center on the southern side of the island with stops at some of the more famous Balinese spots on the way. We hired an air-conditioned van complete with a driver for $75 for two days, and discovered it is not a bad way to travel. We stopped at some places like the Gitgit waterfall, Ulun Danu (temple by the lake), and the botanical gardens. We rose up into the volcanic mountains and into the fertile growing plains which had every crop available. It was amazing to see ever surface covered in crop, they even terraced the land that I thought was unreachably steep. The main produce is coffee, copra (dried coconut), spices, vegetables, and of course rice. We arrived at one temple and bought fresh strawberries, a very unexpected treat. The mountain air was cool and refreshing, a treat compared the humid hot air of the northern side's beaches. We traveled on to the Tanah Lot temple (pictured left), which is beautifully built temple built into the rocks over the ocean. KT and I had seen it on a video and promised ourselves we would visit it if we ever got the chance. It was a very beautiful spot and the southern ocean surf was pounding. I was glad we didn't try and anchor here!! But like all famous spots in Bali the path leading up to the temple was completely covered in souvenir and craft shops. It was amazing. Some people even got harassed inside of temples that they went to. It was a little much. One vendor had a flying fox (fruit bat) on display that you could feed for a small donation. It was amazing to see one of these creatures up close after we have seen so many flying in the wild. Their face definitely looks like a small furry fox, complete with big teeth.

We continued onto the Tourist center Kuta. When you arrive, you realize that you might as well be in a large beach city in the states, with some slight subtle differences. Sure they have all the nice shops, Versace, D&G, and on and on. The prices are even straight from the states as well, no special "happy price" here. We "splurged" by staying the night at the Hard Rock hotel, making it more affordable by getting a three-bed loft room and splitting it three ways (with Mico Verde and Island Sonata). The pool was huge and overlooked the main surf beach in Kuta that was filled with tourists. Warren and I really wanted to take some surf lessons so we strolled down the beach trying to find a way to squeeze in a surf lesson before sunset or in the early morning. The surf was huge (at least 6 feet) and quickly breaking, just getting ready to dump us in the shallow sand; and that was the inner break. The outer break, which was about 1/2 mile out, was even bigger. Warren got this crazy look in his eye as he ran down the beach, out to try and body surf the inner wave. I got ready by searching for the nearest lifeguard tower, and had my cell phone ready for the inevitable emergency phone call to his wife. He emerged about five minutes later looking like a drowned rat and said "holy crap that's big!!"

I don't know what it is about cruisers but we start to obsess about food we haven't had in a while. We all had the typical Pavlovian drooling response when we saw the McDonalds, KFC and Dunkin Donut shops. We had the evening and morning planned out, and it mostly revolved around junk food. We started out with a double cheeseburger and fries appetizer at McDonalds. Then we stopped at Dunkin Donuts only to find out they didn't have any Munchkins, which was highly disappointing for KT. We completed the night by having dinner at KFC and dessert at New Zealand Naturals, a great ice cream shop we discovered in Australia of all places. We bought some pirated $1 movies and then returned to the room for a night of air-conditioned TV watching.. Ah heaven!! The others returned with strange stories of a Krispy Kreme donuts bag they had seen in another tourist hands before they attacked them for specifics of the shop's location (Krispy Kreme was now on our morning agenda). Ok a full belly of junk food and three couples crammed into one room didn't make for the best nights sleep but we survived.

Now it was breakfast time. I headed off in search of the Krispy Kreme Donuts store only to bump in to Stephanie who was returning from her failed attempt to find said paradise! I went a different direction and must have walked five miles before I found it!! But it didn't open until 9:00. Same as the Starbucks. How on earth these people can survive until 9 am without coffee is beyond me. I decided to check out McDonalds and was drooling over the thought of a Bacon, egg and cheese biscuit breakfast sandwich. Ok, in reality I know that there is no concept of biscuits, as we know them in the southern hemisphere ... their biscuits are crackers or cookies (they have no idea what they are missing). So I was really ready for a Bacon & Egg McMuffin. I almost cried when I asked for the breakfast menu and the guy pointed to something that looked like fried chicken. They didn't even have a breakfast menu!! On top of that the Dunkin donuts still hadn't made the munchkins.. I felt obliged to tell them that you don't really have to make them they are just a by-product of the donut making process but I held back. uggh!! Warren was on such a McDonalds kick that he gorged himself on a Big Mac and fries for breakfast.. Hey get it while you can. The others checked out of the hotel as I ran to Starbucks to pay an obscene $6.00 for two cups of coffee. Hey that's 1/5 our daily cruising budget. I must say it didn't meet expectations. Our driver was amazed when we told him our first stop of the day would be a donut shop. We ordered two dozen and did the completely dorky thing and had the counter guy take our photo; complete with the Krispy Kreme hats on our heads. Now I must say if you have gone YEARS without a Krispy Kreme Donut the first bite is heaven. Even Warren wolfed down a couple to complete his junk food breakfast. We offered one to the driver who thought we must be crazy to spend $9 on two-dozen donuts. His only comment... "Sweet"!!

We continued onto Mas, a touristy area known for its woodcarvings. They do have some amazing carvings, some of them are so huge I have no idea where you would even put them. I guess a lot of their market must be for export because they had a lot of western looking carvings of bears and salmon. But the top seller seemed to be a Southern California beach girl in her bikini. The guy who sold those wasn't even into bargaining for other items because he exported so many of his girls. The labor must be so cheap here. I had one local offer me the most intricate bone carvings, which must have taken weeks to make. Four dollars for two.. But they weren't my style so I said no. He kept trying and trying before he finally gave up as we drove off. The next stop was Ubud, a very crazy tourist shopping market. It was insane, everyone trying to get you to buy something. By now we were on to the seller's tricks; starting out about 10 times what the item was worth so that you felt good when you only paid twice as much. We were also getting a little sick of being taken advantage of when we asked the price of something (in other spots) only to be told twice the price because we were white. It was actually kind of fun to walk through the market and not care. If someone started out to high we just walked away. KT came up with concept of the "walk away price". KT would name her price that she wanted to pay. They would try to get her negotiate up but she stood firm. Then as she walked away they would call out "okay, okay", and she usually got exactly what she wanted for her price. It was really funny we talked about a "Bali-bong" T-shirt. She asked me twice what my walk away price was before I realized that SHE really wanted it and was willing to pay a little more.

Sometimes when you purchase something, they feel that you have made them lucky and many times they rubbed our money on the rest of the items in the shop. We bought huge sachets of saffron for $1, and even managed to buy a couple of cool pieces of artwork. By now we were shopped out.. Done.. finito!! We headed back over the mountain and stopped at the volcano view only to be accosted by the most aggressive peddlers yet. These women chased us around trying to sell us sarongs and wouldn't take no for an answer. One woman grabbed me and actually wrapped it around me.. Yikes. She kept asking, "What you want". Finally Warren tried to explain in his broken Indonesian that we just wanted her to go away. "But I live here" she replied!!

Turns out we picked one of the best times to spend the night off the boat. It was very rolly when we returned but people said the previous night was even worse. We spent the morning on the boat trying to get some blogs and web updates completed before we decided we could be doing it on land in an air-conditioned building. hmm duhh. We had lunch at Chanos again ... this time a smoke salmon baguette sandwich. Then, we even returned for dinner to show Island Sonata and Mico Verde our little paradise, once again filling myself to the brim with smoked salmon. Hey you never know when you'll come across it again.

We had a great time in Bali, and I think we got the complete experience. Our trip to the "other [touristy] side" was a fun break but I really enjoyed just exploring the neighboring villages and beaches around Lovina. One day I took a camera and headed down the beach. The local boats are colorful and some have the face of a marlin carved into the front. One of the smaller local boats was named "Window to the World" which got me thinking about our trip. I also bumped into a local boat named Billabong. Away from the hustle and the bustle of the tourists these were people trying to make it - anyway they could. It was nice to lose myself in the rice paddies and the fishing boats. Every once in a while you'd walk around the corner and get a strong whiff of cloves. You'd look over the wall past the brightly decorated temple and find a huge patch of cloves drying in the mid-day sun. Bali, A complete sensory experience.

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