Where are you from?
Questions I and my friend were mostly greeted with by locals in Bali. It was a deja vu moment bringing memories of my time in Pokhara, Nepal, with a minor exception.
Where are you from?
As dusk settled in, I strolled aimlessly through the streets of Ubud. The narrow lanes were lined with guesthouses, spas, organic café’s and many smaller shops.
As I walked past a doorway, an artist touching up his latest painting invited me in. We talked about a lot of things, mostly about Bali. Of the many things he shared, what caught my interest was the idea of ‘Nyepi’ – a day of self-reflection. Barring emergencies, on this day, people in Bali stay indoors; airport, businesses, schools and so on are closed; fasting is practiced; and any form of entertainment is refrained from. Such importance for reflecting on inner-self seemed admirable, particularly in our age of ‘selfies.’
He asked me a question on Hindu mythology, which seemed less out of curiosity and more so to know about my own beliefs. Religion I realised was a way of life in Bali. The entire Island seemed to work as one unit, meticulously sticking to rituals, prayers, art and holding on to their way of life, even as they are invaded by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
The narrow road heading to Tanah Lot was packed. After spending half hour inching across a 500m stretch, I was almost ready to park the car and walk the remaining distance.
With barely 5 minutes left for sunset, we reached the view point. The reddened sphere of sun seemed to mock as it raced to horizon, leaving behind the remarkable temple over a cliff extending into the ocean.
Feeling slightly dejected for not getting there earlier, I distracted myself by taking random pictures. As I focused my new camera, 5 distinct golden rays emerged out of the horizon carving through the rich copper sulfate sky. Wondering if the camera was playing tricks on me, I took turns looking through the lens and the sky.
At any moment, I expected the rays to disappear and realise that I imagined the whole thing. But, as darkness slowly settled, the golden rays became more and more prominent marking the sky with a riot of colors. My mood changed too, from disappointment to bliss in those few moments. (I would later know that these were ‘crepuscular rays’ formed when sun is not too far below or above the horizon, and shining through clouds.)
The lure of Underwater
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Every diver would vouch for this expression of Jacques Yves Cousteau.
My visit to Bali would have been incomplete if I didn’t dive, and one of the best moments was diving the USS Liberty Shipwreck at Tulamben. Unlike open diving sites, ship wrecks have a lure of their own, despite-or maybe because of-the haunted events associated with it. They tell a story, bringing back time lost in layers of history. This one took us back to World War II when the ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo and beached at Tulamben; and then to 1963 eruption of Mt. Agung which caused the ship to slip into the water.
Descending into the murky blue ocean, the stillness, sound of my breath, and sight of a wreck were all too familiar. The dive took us in and out of various sections of the wreck, an ancient canon lined with coral, an intact wheel on the side, a detached ladder and so on, like the ocean inviting us to a game of puzzle.
An impressive array of colorful anemones, gorgonians and coral filled the wreck. A great barracuda lay in the path saying cheese; a blue spotted stingray tried in vain to hide itself; large number of sand eels peeped out of their holes looking quite eery; leaf scorpion fishes in white and red colors were too beautiful to escape attention. Such abundance of life around the wreck bought to mind another saying, this one by Pablo Picasso ‘every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
Trekking an active Volcano
I had almost sworn to burn my trekking shoes after the last trek. But then, someone mentioned that I couldn’t possibly miss trekking Mt Batur, an active volcano, for its’ sunrise view.
Upon research, I had my reservations about doing this trek; but nonetheless, at 2 am one morning, in pouring rain, we were in a cab heading to the trek site. I hoped that it wasn’t raining at Mt Batur, but unfortunately it was. With serious doubts of any possible view of sunrise, we hiked up the steep and slippery path for 2 hours to be greeted by clouds. Miracles did not happen. The sun in Bali seemed to enjoy mocking us.
Sitting atop in freezing cold, eating banana sandwiches, I was almost dismayed when clouds started lifting in day light. But the view that greeted was that of a serene green lake with a mountain straight ahead.
Clouds hovered at the right distance like the added final touch in a painting. I couldn’t stay disappointed any longer. Besides, descending in daylight, the full beauty of the trek was postcard picture perfect lined with golden grass and green trees.
Rice terraces, Romantic beaches
People that know me well know one thing with absolute certainty – my love of driving. Although the city’s congested traffic was killing it slowly.
Fortunately, hiring a car in Bali is as easy as giving a deposit and getting a key. I wondered if it was because Balinese are immensely trusting people or if they have an awesome car insurance.
Nevertheless, my love of driving revived as I drove past emerald green rice terraces in the middle of nowhere, uninterrupted pristine blue ocean, and a beach straight out of Bollywood that says I love you. Don’t believe it? here’s the proof!
One question travelers tend to ask is, ‘how touristy is Bali?’ I don’t normally research a place enough to know if it is touristy. Every travel in my opinion has its story, touristy or not.
So here’s the flip side of Bali.
I had my inhibitions about Mt Batur trek because I read of local mafia not allowing trekkers without guides, to the point of assaulting those who tried to go ahead. As I reluctantly paid a travel operator, I was aware of inadvertently supporting the mafia with that very act. The trek is not difficult, so forcing trekkers into using a service they did not need seemed like exploitation. Besides, we were told it wasn’t raining at Mt Batur and that the trek would be postponed if it rains, neither of which were true.
We reached Uluwatu temple early one afternoon to see its notorious sunset, this time making sure we were well ahead of time. And the sunset was indeed remarkable. With my attention on the view, I missed noticing the monkey that swiftly pulled my hat. An old lady came in time, handed it a fruit and returned the hat, demanding 10,000 IDR for the favor. It seemed like a scene from a well-rehearsed play, as I recalled hearing about monkeys trained to pickpocket. Over the next couple of hours, several tourists lost their sunglasses, regular glasses, hats, phones or anything else they carried.
Both at Tanah Lot and Uluwatu, there is an entrance fee, but without access to actual temples. The locals at Uluwatu temple informed us that visitors are not allowed inside. So what we paid for was to watch a sunset.
A sign in a cafe in Bali read “You are free to be happy.” Ironically, the delight of natural beauty came at a cost!
A Profound Truth
It is hard to miss the small woven leaf containers filled with flowers, incense, leaves, dates etc. almost everywhere; streets, building entrances, archways, corridors and so on. Called ‘canang sari’, these are daily offerings meticulously prepared by Balinese and placed around house hold, temples or businesses.
While there are many reasons attributed, the one I received from a local was that ‘they are offered to appease Gods and Demons!’
Why Demons? I asked without pause.
What I heard in response was nothing I could have expected, and maybe in some way put my experiences into perspective.
“you cannot eliminate evil, you can only manage it. There is a purpose to evil too. Believe it or not, it creates the balance that sustains the universe.”
So here’s leaving you with that intriguing thought!