Backpacking Bonus 9: Barefoot in Bali

I think I got younger while I was in Bali. Seriously. I didn’t realize how much bumming around barefoot could do for the spirit. I had actually been a little wary of traveling to Bali because of how popular it is as a vacation destination for westerners. (In case you’re not familiar with the term “westerners,” it is used to collectively describe people from developed “western” countries such as the Americas, Europe, and Australia–as opposed to the “eastern” Asian countries and parts of Africa.) After enjoying my time in parts of the Southeast Asia mainland that are considered off the beaten path as they are still underdeveloped, I feared that the “white people” crowds might take away from the authenticity of Bali. Thanks to my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.

A JEWEL in the middle of INDONESIA

I was interrogated upon arrival at passport control in the airport. It took me a moment to realize what was going on and then I had to think really fast and smile big as I laid out my travel plans, feigning confidence and trying to show how eager I was to leave Indonesia in a month so I could either gallivant through Timor-Leste or explore Singapore–despite not really having much of a plan at that point. Apparently entering Bali on a one-way ticket and claiming to be a writer raises some yellow flags; women with Elizabeth Gilbert Syndrome must have become an increasing threat to Balinese immigration in the past decade (since the release of her book, Eat, Pray, Love and the movie that followed starring Julia Roberts). For a second, I thought the guy wasn’t going to let me in, but I got clearance and, like all United States citizens, a free 30-day tourist visa. I didn’t realize what the big deal was until I got settled in and walked to the beach. Then I understood why people come here and never want to leave.

Seminyak

For a first stop, Seminyak, in the south/west of Bali came highly recommended by Allan, who has traveled to Bali in the past. He suggested that I avoid Kuta, the town two beaches south from Seminyak (yes, I measured by beaches); he said that Kuta is packed with young, obnoxious Aussies who are just having a non-stop party while Seminyak is a more easygoing, civilized place, although still busy. He also suggested that I book ahead this time; because I was flying in, I couldn’t just walk down the street and go guesthouse-hopping–I needed to arrange for a ride out of the airport this time so it was smart to have a pre-planned destination. Also, for the first time, I actually booked a hotel–a real hotel–for my stay with breakfast included for $21/night.

Seminyak reminded me of Southern California in many ways. It almost felt like home! (Except that I’m a NorCal girl, not from SoCal.) The people walking around Seminyak with their hard bodies, deep reddish-brown tans, and “pretty people” vibes were the first indications that brought Southern California to mind. When I got to the beach, I was further convinced of my parallel comparison by the same grayish-golden sand, the dark green ocean, and the constant pounding of big waves similar to those in California. There were surfers, joggers, and tanners on the beach, neon-colored swimwear and lots of activity. The town itself is filled with little boutique shops lining the streets and is well-known for being the place to do lots of shopping–also similar to some parts of the SoCal scene. Just before sunset, bars and restaurants come alive with strings of lights and multi-colored umbrellas and bean bag chairs for people to get comfy and listen to live music while they watch the sun sink below the horizon as it paints the sky in shades of red, orange, and purple; it’s kind of like an adults-only version of Disneyland, with drinks replacing the rides but all the same colors and energy. (Ok, maybe that one is a bit of a stretch as nothing can really compare to Disneyland.) To top off the SoCal feel, of course Seminyak had its share of bodacious [unnaturally] blonde babes with their blown-up boobies and lips. I found myself thoroughly entertained by the scene of it all.

The beaches in Seminyak are splashed with color and made for a perfect spot for lounging around, sunset-viewing, and even getting some work done.

The beaches in Seminyak are splashed with color and made for a perfect spot for lounging around, sunset-viewing, and even getting some work done.

I actually really liked Seminyak, both for its chicness as well as for how busy it was. Despite being alone, I found that I could blend in better in this bustling place than I can in quieter areas, which helped me get “in the zone” and be productive–even though I spent the majority of my time with my toes in the sand. The weather was fantastic with temperatures in the mid-80s with significantly lower humidity than the Southeast Asia mainland. It was nice to not be dripping sweat after taking 10 steps outside as I had been on the mainland! I tucked away my elephant pants in exchange for my bathing suit, sarongs, and sundresses, and while I could have gone without all the traffic and stupid horn-honking, an easy remedy for that was a 15-minute walk to the beach. There were plenty of people but not an overwhelming amount because it was September (“low” season, although there never really seems to be a shortage of visitors in Bali), and it was such a relief to have access to certain amenities that had been lacking in recent parts of my journey (i.e. paved roads and flushing toilets).

During my first full day there, I strolled southward along the beach to investigate the next two towns down, Legian and Kuta. The trend along the beach towns goes like this: Kuta is the farthest south with kind of dirty beaches smattered with rocks and coral pieces. The crowd is young, the waves are constant, food and surf board rentals are very cheap, and with the hordes of people come the inevitable “hawkers,” or vendors walking around selling goods such as bracelets, sarongs, toys/kites, and food. People have rights to sell stuff everywhere, but it can get annoying when they follow you around, trying to either guilt you into making a purchase or convince you that you NEED whatever it is that they are offering. You say, “No, thank you,” and they counter with, “Why not?” It’s a clever tactic that must work often on tourists because so many of the hawkers are now conditioned to using that phrase as soon as someone even thinks about saying no. As a rule of thumb, it is best to just not engage at all or avoid eye contact with people selling stuff as then they probably won’t bother with you much; once you show the slightest bit of interest, you’re in for it. But if you DO want to buy something, have at it–and don’t forget to use your bargaining skills! I did a little bit of bargaining with a lady selling fruit for a gigantic fresh mango to snack on; I had never seen a mango so big and it was juicy and delicious.

Balinese woman peeling a large mango on the beach in Bali.

Balinese woman peeling a large mango on the beach in Bali.

To the north of Kuta lies the town (and beach) of Legian. Here, the beaches are slightly cleaner and less crowded than they are in Kuta, and there is a slightly older mix of people in comparison to the Kuta partygoers. This trend continues as the beaches stretch north to Seminyak and then to Kerobokan: the crowds are more mature, the beaches are cleaner, things are overall nicer and more expensive. Also, as the beach stretches to the north, it is lined with fancy resorts and Vegas-style beach clubs. Everyone is welcome, however, the prices of food and drinks are cranked up two to three times the price of what you could eat and drink for down in Kuta. Perhaps they do this to weed out the crowd who is just looking to get drunk on cheap beer… People definitely pay for quality of experience!

Another sunset viewing in Bali, but this time for the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak.

Another sunset viewing in Bali, but this time for the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak.

While I saw all kinds of people from big groups of young adults to families vacationing, expats and retirees to honeymooners, the dominant theme was short-term vacationers. This strip of beaches is a popular area on Bali specifically because it is close to the airport so people have easy access and not much fuss getting around. Also, this area on Bali is known for being an ideal place to surf because the waves are constant and have long, steady breaks, making it a great spot for beginners to learn and practice. In fact, the entire strip of the beach is lined with surf schools and surf board rental stands. Surfers and honeymooners come here and just stick around the same spot for their vacation because they have access to everything they want in one spot–waves, sun, sand, and in the case of the honeymooners, each other. Every time I went out to eat, I felt like there were honeymooners at every other table, especially at the fancy beach club restaurants.

The beach clubs along the beach in Seminyak are a popular hangout spot for honeymooners in Bali.

The beach clubs along the beach in Seminyak are a popular hangout spot for honeymooners in Bali.

Toes in the water, bum in the sand, not a worry in the world… That is pretty much how I spent my time in Seminyak. (As you can probably tell from now, there wasn’t much else to do there!) I did a lot of walking on the beach and hardly ever looked at the time. I went south on Day 1, then explored to the north on Day 2; on Day 3, I stayed close to “home” in Seminyak…on the beach again, of course. I also did my fair share of shopping as I probably walked past nearly a hundred shops per day. Options included clothing shops, surf shops, stores selling sandals, t-shirts, sunglasses, hats, souvenirs, artwork, furniture, sculptures–you name it. It was hard not to take notice so I ended up with a new dress, new sunglasses, and another tank top–none of which I actually needed but I have used/worn everything so far so it’s all good. Plus, I got a thrill out of bargaining down to a suitable price: I worked on the dress for three days and ended up paying just under 60% of the original price quoted to me. (Please note that vendors expect to bargain and they will never go under the actual price of the item so it’s not like you are ripping them off by paying less than the quoted price; if you are trying to pay less than what the item is worth, they just won’t sell it to you, but it’s up to you to work the price down!)

On my last full beach day, I finally rented a surf board and took to the waves. How could I not being that I was in the prime surf spot? While the last time I surfed was slightly disastrous (the board whacked me in face, busting my lower lip open), I figured I’d give it another shot and this time it wasn’t so bad. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work going against the ocean current and positioning the board in the right spot to catch the waves and ride them in to shore. Once I got up a couple times, I started getting greedy, wanting to go farther out and catch the bigger waves. The salt water was refreshing and the experience was stimulating. Toward the end of the session, when I was starting to get tired, I was pulled under two times in a row by big back-to-back waves with water forcing itself up my nose and into my ears–NOT fun!!! I thought, “Hmm. Maybe I should stop now.” So I caught a couple more easy rides to end on a positive note, then called it a day, returning my board and replenishing my energy with a fresh coconut.

I was totally excited to take out a surf board for the day and ride some waves on Seminyak beach in Bali.

I was totally excited to take out a surf board for the day and ride some waves on Seminyak beach in Bali.

What else should you do after a day of surfing besides sip on a fresh coconut on the beach?

What else should you do after a day of surfing besides sip on a fresh coconut on the beach?

That stretch of beaches is very safe to the point that I was even comfortable walking along it at night. With all the restaurants, resorts, and shops lining it, there are security guards out there all the time and a good handful of other nighttime beach-walkers. I came across some local fisherman one night with their nets out catching small mackerel fish; they don’t come out every night, just when the waves are big like they were that night. A security guard translated for me and explained that the fisherman make the catch primarily for their families, but if they have more than they need, they will sell the extra fish in the market. It was nice to actually see some locals enjoying the beach, although it was more for practical purposes.

A local Balinese fisherman gathering his catch of mackerel on the beach at night when the tide was high on Seminyak beach.

A local Balinese fisherman gathering his catch of mackerel on the beach at night when the tide was high on Seminyak beach.

Another interesting beach experience I had was when I was south along the beaches of Kuta and Legian. In addition to westerners vacationing, there were also flocks of people on vacation from Java and Jakarta–places and islands in Indonesia to the west of Bali. (Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia.) In all of Indonesia, Bali is the most open-minded place and has maintained a consistent cultural belief in Hinduism, while much of the rest of Indonesia follows Islamic values; while their religious system is not as extreme as it is in the Middle East, it is still much more conservative than Bali’s. So to all the young people vacationing from Java and Jakarta, seeing white people in bathing suits was a tourist attraction in and of itself. They kept approaching me, asking, “Hello, Missus. Can I take a photo…with you?” The first group that came up to me were guys in military uniforms and it freaked me out! I grabbed my sarong and covered up really fast, but I soon realized that their requests were innocent and harmless. I tried to avoid this as much as possible but they were up and down the entire stretch of southern beaches! I acquiesced a couple times, realizing that most of these boys were just teenagers on vacation–I was a teenager once, and I can recall a time or two (or a lot!) when my friends (or sisters) and I found entertainment by trying to spot “cute boys” and even asking to take photos with them. Also, whenever a girl from Java/Jakarta asked for a picture with me, I said, “Of course,” as I will always be an advocate for opening women’s minds and showing them that there are endless lifestyle options all over the world for women.

I made a deal with the military boys from Jakarta who approached me on the beach in Kuta that if they got a photo with me, I would get a photo with them as well!

I made a deal with the military boys from Jakarta who approached me on the beach in Kuta that if they got a photo with me, I would get a photo with them as well!

I wrapped up my time in Seminyak with my bum in the sand at the edge of the water listening to live music until late. Then I headed back to my hotel and chatted it up with Arinie, the lady who pretty much ran the hotel, with whom I had become friends during my stay there. I was asking her a lot about the local customs and she was intrigued by my travel stories being that in her 30-something years of life, she had never once left the island of Bali. She thought I was the funniest person ever as I animated sleeper bus and border crossing stories to her. I felt like she really looked out for me while I was there; it’s an awesome feeling to know that you have friends in a place away from home and are welcome anytime. I also have a place to refer any of my friends who might be traveling to this area someday…

Live music at susnset on the beach in Seminyak on Bali.

Live music at susnset on the beach in Seminyak on Bali.

Ubud

Ubud is a lovely town located inland on Bali, as opposed to being on the coast like many of the other well known tourist towns are. The Balinese way of life is very present despite the fact that there has been an influx of western foreigners to the area over the past several decades. Ubud is the town in Bali that served as the setting for the “Love” section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love journey, and I can see why. Ubud is a place of great healing and transformation for any person who spends a little time there, and I will attribute that to the Balinese people for being so open, warm, friendly, and spiritual. They set the tone in that town and the trends have continued as the place has become a center for achieving balance and healing in one’s life. People have access to yoga and meditation, de-tox programs, cleansing, palm readings, tarot cards, crystals, energy healing, and fresh organic food; many restaurants offer an array of vegetarian and vegan dishes in line with the “healthy” theme of the community. I would consider Ubud to be borderline hippie-ish, but not weird like Berkeley which is what makes it so cool. There is just a constant flow of positivity, optimism, peace, and love in the air. Not romantic love like the honeymooner vibe in Seminyak, but self-love–people all over who are so happy with themselves that they emanate joy and support toward anyone and everyone with whom they come into contact.

Ubud has capitalized on the fame it has received from the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Eat, Pray, Love.

Ubud has capitalized on the fame it has received from the success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love.

My original idea was that I’d spend three or four days in Ubud to do some yoga, check out the traditional Balinese dancing that Ubud is known for, and maybe climb a volcano, then move on. But Ubud sucks people in and tends to have this effect repeatedly on people. I ended up extending my stay to eight days the first time around–and it wasn’t the only time that happened.

The first factor was the guesthouse I found. I take that back: it found me. There aren’t any hostels in Ubud and there really aren’t very many hotels in town either; if there are hotels, they are farther out. Balinese families live in big housing compounds with many separate rooms that are not always occupied. Many families started renting out these extra rooms to visitors which goes hand-in-hand with allowing visitors to be a part of their homes; if a family has the resources, they may even build separate structures within their housing compound specifically for guests.

Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse was set up in this way. I was recruited off the street–by Nyoman, a middle-aged Balinese man with very little English–during my usual “guesthouse investigation” walk and led down a side alley and through an ornate entrance to this Balinese home. To Nyoman, I was a hard sell. I had already seen a couple places and knew I could get a place for cheaper than what he was asking so I requested to see multiple rooms. (Little did he know that for me, it was less about the price and almost entirely dependent on whether I felt like I would be able to get in my writing zone or not–space and ambience dictate.) The third room that Nyoman showed me sealed the deal: it was down in a garden away from the main area so it was quiet and peaceful, and the room itself was spacious and had a lot of natural light. I felt like I was in a small hotel the way everything was so clean and smartly decorated, and for only $17/night, this was a steal–especially because there was a beautiful pool AND a hearty breakfast included every morning which consisted of usually a banana pancake with chocolate (or an option to have eggs), a plate of fruit, and coffee or tea.

My fabulous room by the garden at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud. The frangipani flowers decorating the bed, desk, and bathroon added the perfect touch for a tropical welcome.

My fabulous room by the garden at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud. The frangipani flowers decorating the bed, desk, and bathroon added the perfect touch for a tropical welcome.

The guesthouse was a short walk, less than five minutes, from the famed Yoga Barn so that was convenient. Yoga Barn runs daily yoga and meditation classes from 7 in the morning until 6 at night that are led by some well-known instructors; in addition, they offer and host full day workshops, community health talks, dance lessons, and yoga instructor courses and have a health food cafe/restaurant on the premises. People who come to Bali just for yoga are known to spend full day after full day at this place. People can pay per class or get a 3-class, 5-class, 10-class, or one-month pass; the price per class goes down as the number of classes purchased goes up. I started with a 5-class pass, but when I extended my stay, I bought another 3-class pass. Attending Yoga Barn classes was probably the best investment I made while I was in Ubud and it was right in line with my “barefoot” theme only now it was in a yoga studio, not on the beach.

When I started traveling, I told myself I would do yoga or stretch daily. Who was I kidding? Moving around and changing settings so often is not conducive for any kind of routine. But when I finally participated in guided yoga and meditation sessions, my body responded, “Oh!! Thank you! It’s about time I got some attention and balance again!” And that’s exactly how it felt. From Iyengar to a Tibetan Bowl Meditation, Yin Yoga Healing, Vinyasa Flow, and Women’s Balance Yoga, I exposed my body and mind to all sorts of stimulation it had been craving. Yoga is not just about stretching and crazy positions; in many cases, it is actually about the mind, letting go of control, and leaning into what feels new and uncomfortable as opposed to resisting it. Our bodies know exactly how to heal themselves and achieve equilibrium, however, in our fast-paced lifestyles, we often get accustomed to relying on our bodies to be “on” all the time without giving them much of a break. It is amazing what can happen when we pause for a few moments to let our bodies recuperate–they definitely reward us for showing them some love!

While I didn’t feel much of a connection to either the Yoga Barn atmosphere or all the people hanging out there, I would still say that it was the best thing I did because the classes were so well-run and the instructors were constantly teaching us and explaining everything during the practice. I learned so much about the lines, meridians, and chakras of the body, how each one is in sync with particular emotions, issues, and stressors in our daily lives, and how to properly address any issues that arise or just give a little love to different, sometimes forgotten, parts of our impressive body-mind system. You don’t have to be a “yogi” to do yoga (“yogi” is a term usually used to describe fervent yoga practitioners, although technically anyone who is at a yoga practice is considered one), and I think this idea sometimes blocks people from showing up and trying it.

The majority of the classes I attended were maxed out at around 35 people, ranging from first-timers to advanced practitioners and even other instructors. The packed classes usually filled up about 15 minutes before they began which meant that I witnessed some very aggressive hard-core yogis run-walking past everyone else trying to get to the front of the line to ensure their spot in the class. Yogis tend to have a reputation for being mellow and peaceful people so I was highly entertained by this display of urgency; luckily once the classes began, people became calm again and usually everyone was very pleasant after a practice had ended.

The largest session I attended was in the upstairs open area of the barn that held about 80 people and it was packed to the brim for a Vinyasa Flow (the fast-paced, strength and balance-focused type of yoga that most people think of when the term yoga is brought up) session led by Les Levanthal, a world-renowned drug-addict-turned-yogi from San Francisco. He has a great story and an even greater personality. He kicked our butts to well beyond the point of dripping sweat and feeling a whole lot of burn and he managed to be hilarious throughout the entire 90-minute session–urging us to push, hurt, sweat, sing along to Billy Joel on the stereo, and stand on our heads all at the same time. He was just as funny as he was intense and appreciated and loved by all.

A snapshot of the class at Yoga Barn as they gathered for Les Levanthal's Vinyasa Flow session.

A snapshot of the class at Yoga Barn as they gathered for Les Levanthal’s Vinyasa Flow session.

In addition to yoga practice, I spent a couple of my sessions in the meditation realm. I have never in my life experienced what I did during the two guided meditation sessions that I attended, and I am kind of surprised that I wasn’t scared of returning after my first experience. Cross-legged and sitting in a large circle holding hands with closed eyes, participants are led through guided breathing rhythms while focusing on each of the seven main chakras, one at a time, starting from the sacrum and working up to the crown. I can’t explain it so I won’t even try, but each person has a unique response which will often manifest in some physical way such as crying, laughing, sweating, cramping, shouting, rocking, screaming, or even howling or fainting–I witnessed it all with my eyes closed. Or sometimes there is no response, it just depends. The meditation sequence serves as a catalyst for people to free their emotions. The two experiences I had were completely different from each other: while I will spare the details, the theme of my first experience was very clearly about release, and it was followed by a second meditation three days later that was dominated by a sense of overwhelming joy trailed by clear signs of healing, openness, and inner peace. Both were unforgettable and amazing experiences and while I likely won’t be doing this meditation on a regular basis, I respect the power and impact it can have on anyone who is open to the experience of it. Again–the body and mind reward those who show up and are present with them.

It took me until my second time back in Ubud to finally let curiosity get the best of me and show up to an Acro Yoga session at Yoga Barn, which is a combination of acrobatics and yoga together and is practiced in pairs, with a “base” and a “flyer.” I had been brushing this class off thinking I wasn’t strong enough, but that was half the battle as Acro Yoga is very much a mental game requiring the utmost trust and communication not only with one’s partner, but also with oneself. Falls, loss of balance, and a reluctance to try are rarely because of a lack of physical ability but instead occur when doubt is allowed to enter the mind causing to a loss of focus and trust in one’s own ability. While core strength is important, Acro Yoga involves “bone stacking” which takes the pressure off the muscles. I connected immediately to a handful of Acro Yoga people, participated in Acro “jams” (informal practice outside of a an organized class) out of curiosity to see what my body could do, and soaked up as much knowledge as possible from one of the instructors, Mark, a fascinating Dutch entrepreneur willing to share his many thoughts and ideas with me.

Acro Yoga with Jamie and Mark--both great partners! I loearned a lot from both of them.

Acro Yoga with Jamie and Mark–both great partners! I loearned a lot from both of them.

In Ubud, there are generally three types of foreigners: the short term “tourists” who are only there for a few days to go/see/do and leave, the long term ex-pats and young business people who have decided to make Ubud their home because they like the open, healthy vibe of the place, and the lost or confused wanderers who are seeking direction, cleansing, a new start, etc. While I could find things in common with all these groups–wanting to see the cool things in Ubud, being on a very focused mission to write, and undeniably passing through a transitional phase in my life (although I do not consider myself “lost” by any measure), I didn’t strongly identify with any of them while I was in Ubud, and I especially tried to avoid the people “trying to find themselves” as giving my time away would pose a threat to finishing my project. I was, in fact, trying to be anti-social after all and I had absolutely no problem lounging by the pool, dressing up and taking myself out to nice dinners, working at the Jazz Cafe and other local spots, and indulging in many scoops of gelato night after night all by myself. I loved every minute of it.

The pool and a view of some of the rooms at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud.

The pool and a view of some of the rooms at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud.

The more time I spent there, I did inevitably build some relationships. There was a German lady named Ramona, or “Mona” for short, who was also staying at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse and spending a lot of time doing yoga. She had been in Bali for about five months, leaving only to renew her visa and then come right back. While initially we didn’t talk much, we found that we had quite a bit in common. She was on her own healing journey and also in transition. It was great to be able to share some of the experiences we were both having in yoga and meditation with each other because it can be a lot to process on one’s own. Mona had another friend named Tanya, also from Germany, who arrived while I was there and spent a good week or so doing exactly what we were both doing: yoga and relaxing. I came to adore both of these women and really appreciate their insights and companionship.

My German friends Tanya (on the left) and Mona (on the right) with me here at the Yoga Barn Cafe. We all stayed at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud and became very close during our time in Bali.

My German friends Tanya (on the left) and Mona (on the right) with me here at the Yoga Barn Cafe. We all stayed at Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud and became very close during our time in Bali.

In addition to those two ladies, I became close with Wayan, the woman who runs Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse, and her 4-year-old daughter, Naya. Wayan is an amazing woman. She is energetic, personable, and efficient. Her husband and his family have several business and Wayan has become a critical part in helping those businesses thrive. In addition to Mertayasa 2 Guesthouse, they have Mertayasa 1 (the original guesthouse), plus Wayan’s father-in-law runs a small corner store, Wayan’s mother has a little shop of her own, and Wayan also has a small shop where she sells silks, scarves, sarongs, and other fabrics. Wayan is the life blood of Mertayasa 2 as it is a part of her actual residence. With so many responsibilities, she is always very busy, but she manages to prioritize her guest’s needs in addition to happily fulfilling her familial, religious, and communal duties. Wayan is great with foreigners because she is so outgoing and talkative and she makes a serious effort to be welcoming and accommodating to her guests, inviting them to make her home theirs while they are there.

One day, Wayan invited me to go with her around town to run her daily errands. I said, “Absolutely!” and basically had “A Day in the Life of Wayan” as she woke me up at 5:45 in the morning and we hopped on her motorbike so we could make it to the market by 6 AM where she bought breakfast for all of her staff at both guesthouses, groceries for her parents, and other snacks and items that her father-in-law would sell at his shop. We made the rounds through town to drop off everything to everyone, and she had me taste some of the local sweets with coffee at her father-in-law’s shop as she prepared her own shop to be opened for the day. We returned around 8 AM, just in time for another breakfast! Wayan had a few other things to do that morning, but she wanted to take a break from work and “escape” on a trip to some of Ubud’s famous rice terraces with me in the afternoon. Many tourists to Ubud make a point to see the beautifully manicured neon green rice terraces so it was fun for Wayan to play tour guide with me and take me there. We had a great time hanging out like sisters, hiking up and down the terraces, enjoying lunch, and even bargaining for a freshly-woven coconut palm hat that Wayan knew I wanted. It was a great day and I was very happy to see the real life of the Balinese people in Ubud.

Wayan and I and our shenanigans at the rice terraces just outside of Ubud.

Wayan and I and our shenanigans at the rice terraces just outside of Ubud.

Here I am at the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali.

Here I am at the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali.

There is one Balinese custom that particularly stood out to me and that is the “cenang” (pronounced “tcha-NONG”). The cenang are small baskets woven from banana leaves and filled with fresh flowers and petals, an incense stick, and a small piece of cake/cookie/candy. They are prepared every single morning and then made as a daily offering to the gods, honoring them, giving thanks, and asking for good health and safety. The cenang are deliberately placed in special spots including on the sidewalks and in doorways to homes and businesses, on the dashboards to people’s vehicles, and by altars within every home. Tied to Hinduism, this daily ritual is practiced by all Balinese people. Wayan told me that she and her mom prepare about 150 cenang every single day for all the special places in her home, her parents’ home, and all the shops they have! I absolutely fell in love with this practice and looked forward to both Wayan’s mom and her grandfather-in-law passing by my room every day to deliver the cenang as well as other offerings to their indicated spots. Grandpa is in his 80s or close to 90, I think, and I absolutely adored him and waited to watch him make his rounds every morning. It was comforting to me, and he knew I was watching him–we didn’t ever speak, but he would glance my way, I would smile and nod, then he would look away go about his business. This ritual was awe-inspiring and a great reminder of how important it is to pause every day to acknowledge and give thanks to our Creator. I admire the Balinese people for holding this tradition.

The Balinese "cenang." Top left: A woman selling prepared cenang at the early morning market. Top middle: A cenang on the reception desk where Arinie worked (and where I stayed) in Seminyak. Top right: Wayan preparing cenang for the day at her father-in-law's shop. Bottom: Cenang close-up, filled with flower petals, grass, a piece of candy, a frangipani flower, and a lit incense stick.

The Balinese “cenang.” Top left: A woman selling prepared cenang at the early morning market. Top middle: A cenang on the reception desk where Arinie worked (and where I stayed) in Seminyak. Top right: Wayan preparing cenang for the day at her father-in-law’s shop. Bottom: Cenang close-up, filled with flower petals, grass, a piece of candy, a frangipani flower, and a lit incense stick.

Wayan's grandpa-in-law and her mother making their morning rounds of daily offerings to the gods and Bali spirits.

Wayan’s grandpa-in-law and her mother making their morning rounds of daily offerings to the gods and Bali spirits.

Everything in Bali is so colorful and the people are so welcoming and friendly. Everywhere I went, I saw artwork that was splashed in rainbow colors, tropical flowers decorating doorways, houses, and restaurants, and bright clothing and fabrics. People smile and talk to each other, and the energy of the community is so vibrant that visitors can’t help but love the place. The frangipani flowers are so commonly seen and used everywhere in various shades of white, yellow, pink, and red and emitting a lovely fragrance that they have become a symbol of Bali. The only drawback in Bali is the traffic and all the horn-honking from motorbikes can be irritating, but that’s about it. The Balinese pride themselves on making a good impression on visitors so they are open and respectful nearly 100% of the time.

There are a handful of people, however, who play under the guise of “Balinese are friendly people” and try to be a little too friendly with obvious other motives than just making a new friend. Luckily, I only had to interact with one man like this and it reminded me of the pros and cons of both traveling solo and being a single woman traveling alone. While I prefer to get off the beaten track and explore “backroads” in new areas, for safety and security reasons, I choose to stay in the busier, more touristy towns which unfortunately means more crowds and more harassment than I’d like, but it’s a breeze to deal with in comparison to Latin America, and I still manage to find peaceful places along the way.

But that night, I was totally missing my travel companion/bodyguard, Allan, and wished he could’ve been there to ward off the Balinese guy who was deliberately encroaching on my personal space while he and I were both waiting for our dinners to come at a popular “warung,” or hole-in-the-wall local restaurant, in town. (That night, my food didn’t arrive for an hour and fifteen minutes after I ordered it!) Even when I straight up told the guy, “Look, you seem really nice, but I’m not in the mood for making new friends tonight. I’m hungry, I’m tired, and I have work to do,” he still persisted. To his enquiries, my responses–half out loud and half in my head–were the following: “No, I’m not going to tell you where I’m staying. No, I’m not going to tell you my schedule for tomorrow or the next couple of days. No, I don’t want to go with you to your ‘jungle.’ No, I don’t want to ride on the back of your motorbike. And, no, I’m not sorry if I come off as rude because you ignored me when I was being polite.” His excuse was, “Oh, we Balinese people are just very friendly.” But, man–I’ve learned not to dismiss creepy vibes. No amount of pressure or persistence can override the heebie-jeebies…

In Ubud, there are a handful of really neat activities to do during a visit and one of the favorites is attending a traditional Balinese dance performance. The music, costumes, and dancing are just as unique as they are spell-binding. The dance performance I attended featured four of the most common basic musical dances including Kecak, which consists of a choir of men sitting in several large circles chanting “chak-a-chak-a-chak” over and over again (imitating a troupe of monkeys) and making other a cappella sounds that reverberate in all directions sending some of the men into a trance, a second dance I don’t know the name of that had costumed characters dancing with calculated movements in the center of the Kecak circle (as they men chanted)–the routine turned comical when shaggy monkey-lion characters made appearances, Legong, which is performed by two young girls with heavy makeup dancing gracefully in perfect symmetry with each other and flashing their bright eyes as they move to the rhythm of a choir of women sitting behind them, and, lastly, a Kekac Fire Dance, traditionally meant to drive out evil spirits from a village, which entails a barefoot boy or man “in a trance” tromping through a bonfire of coconut husks, leaving his feet blackened by the flames and charred husks. These performances leave their audiences intrigued and impressed. Here are some short video clips:

VIDEO — Traditional Balinese Dance Performane (1minute): https://youtu.be/rvBRT9hAhwk

VIDEO — Balinese Legong Dance Perfomance Clip (34 seconds): http://youtu.be/zeZJadmlVCs

Traditional Balinese dance performance in Ubud, Bali.

Traditional Balinese dance performance in Ubud, Bali.

Another thing I signed up for was a Sunrise Volcano Hike up Mt. Batur, an active volcano in the northeast region of Bali. The volcano is 1,717 meters high (~ 5,633 feet) and the last eruption was 15 years ago in the year 2000, but it still has many thermal vents. I hesitated for a long time before I finally decided to do it because it would mean that I had to be up at 2:30 in the morning and that didn’t sound appealing to me, but it was nagging at me and I didn’t want to regret not doing it when I had the chance. On just a few hours of sleep, I rose at 2:15 AM and was picked up shortly thereafter, joining several other sunrise hikers. Our group of seven, plus our tour guide, was driven to the base of the volcano where we had some coffee, tea, and fried bananas to snack on before the climb. We were surprised at how many people were there to do the same thing–the top of the volcano was crowded! The hike itself wasn’t too bad as it was a lot of flat ground followed by 25-30 minutes of ascending; we started walking at 4:45 and made it to the sunrise location just before 6:15, only a few minutes before the gleaming red sun made its appearance on the horizon. I’ve always been a big fan of sunsets, but–WOW–I didn’t realize how spectacular sunrises can be! Totally worth waking up in the 2 o’clock hour (although not something I would do every day). After sunrise, we hiked around the volcano more, exploring the various levels and spying on troupes of monkeys before descending and returning, utterly exhausted, back to Ubud.

Celebrating the sunrise from the volcano, Mt. Batur, in Bali.

Celebrating the sunrise from the volcano, Mt. Batur, in Bali.

An absolute “must-do” activity in Ubud is to visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary which is home to five different groups (or troupes) of macaques, or Balinese long-tailed monkeys. Each group consists of 100-150 monkeys that are free to roam as they please, however they are very aware of the territory boundaries of the other monkey groups. The place is fenced off for the purpose of placing a barrier there for humans not to come in and harm the monkeys, not so the monkeys can’t leave; the monkeys could care less about the fence as they often play on it, cross it, jump on it, etc. This area is sacred as it is the location of several revered Hindu temples, however, it is open for guests to visit and stroll through the grounds. While guests are asked to not approach the monkeys, if the monkeys choose to interact with visitors, it is fine. Monkeys can get aggressive if they feel threatened, but most of the time, they are pretty chill. Inside, there are Balinese “guides” ensuring that visitors do not harass the monkeys, the monkeys don’t harass the visitors, and any questions visitors have about the monkeys get answered. I spent about an hour and a half walking around inside observing monkey behavior and getting some personal monkey interaction, but I will elaborate more on that experience in my upcoming chapter, entitled “Monkey Business.”

Hanging out with some monkeys at Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali.

Hanging out with some monkeys at Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali.

On my eighth day in Ubud, which was my last (for the first round!), I was a little sad to leave my new home because I had grown so fond of the people there and the town in general and, at that point, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be coming back. I did my usual “last day” routine which included doing laundry, running some errands, getting a pedicure, having a nice meal, etc. I also thought I’d try a Balinese massage and that turned out to be a very interesting experience. I like to support small, local businesses so I said yes to a woman sitting in front of her home advertising massages. Not only did it hurt like crazy because traditional Balinese massage focuses on working pressure points in the body, but the privacy factor was practically nonexistent as her 3 1/2 year old son kept wandering in and out of the room (okay, it’s not like he was 16 so not a big deal). There were other factors, but I won’t put those here. While I can chock it up as quite a funny experience–and slightly awkward, I don’t think I’ll be signing up for massages from people on the street anymore. Organized spas seem to cover just a few extra little touches that really induce relaxation. I headed straight for the gelato stand afterward to finish up my night on a positive note.

Pemuteran Bay

My next destination was a place called Pemuteran Bay, way up in the northwestern corner of Bali. It is out of the way for the normal tourist track in Bali and the main reason people will go there is for SCUBA diving. While it is quiet and slow, some of the resorts are built up well and everything is a little more expensive compared to other parts of Bali. There are not many “budget options” for lodging so I was okay splurging a little bit while I was there for a lovely bungalow at a place with a pool and breakfast included. I planned to stay for three nights and it was the perfect place for a quiet getaway.

The peaceful Pemuteran Bay at dusk.

The peaceful Pemuteran Bay at dusk.

My elegant bungalow in Pemuteran Bay.

My elegant bungalow in Pemuteran Bay.

For all the time I had already spent in Bali, I had not ventured very much into Balinese cuisine so when I got to Pemuteran Bay, I figured I’d give it a shot. One typical Balinese dish is called Babi Guling. It consists of pork in many forms served with rice and some cooked vegetables. I’m not a huge fan of pork but tried the dish for the sake of it and I think there were six different types of pork on my plate including pork satay, pork chop, pork belly, deep fried pigskin, pork sausage, and pig innards mushed together (liver, tongue, and some other organ), seasoned, then steamed in a banana leaf. While I tasted all of them, I did NOT finish everything on my plate…and the banana leaf package was definitely my least favorite. It is common in Bali to cook meats and some other foods in banana leafs and it is also typical to consume a lot of fried rice or noodles–a traditional breakfast dish consists of fried rice mixed with vegetables and topped with a fried egg.

Babi Guling, a traditional Balinese dish based on various preparations of pork and other pig parts.

Babi Guling, a traditional Balinese dish based on various preparations of pork and other pig parts.

Seafood is also very prevalent in Bali–that’s a no-brainer obviously because Bali is an island. I hadn’t been ordering seafood much during my trip yet, but I figured that it doesn’t get much fresher than straight from the sea and on my last night in Pemuteran Bay, I went out for dinner and indulged in a plate of mahi mahi with three dipping sauces. It was heavenly! So fresh and light and yummy and–aww…I want to go back and have it again now! There is nothing like fresh seafood.

My scrumptious fresh mahi mahi dinner in Pemuteran Bay.

My scrumptious fresh mahi mahi dinner in Pemuteran Bay.

Something funny I noticed while I was in Pemuteran Bay was that I kept meeting people named “Putu.” I later learned that three of the four guys on staff at Mertayasa 2 back in Ubud were all named “Nyoman.” And I met multiple “Wayans” as well. Finally I was like, “Ok. What is up with this? Please explain.” As it turns out, many Balinese name their children based on birth order. “Putu” and “Wayan” are both names for firstborns while “Nyoman” is indicates that a child is the third born into a family. They have special names for each number, but I can’t remember them all. It could either be confusing or make it easier to remember people’s names thanks to this custom!

My second full day in Pemuteran was the day I set aside for a full day SCUBA diving trip out to tiny Menjangan Island, also known as “Deer Island.” We were near the most northwestern region of Bali, with the island of Java so close in the distance that it would not have been impossible to swim to it. The water was a clear bright blue and the weather sunny and beautiful. There were five divers on the boat and we were lined up for two dives plus lunch on the boat. I always meet interesting people while diving and this boat included a friendly Austrian couple on vacation, a retired American lady on a trip to reclaim her identity, and an Australian man whose hobby is underwater photography; he (Gary) was kind enough to share some of his photos with me (see below). This day was the first time I did any diving since coming to Asia and it had been over a year since my last dive so I knew I’d be a little bit rusty (translation: nervous) during the first dive. But diving is such a wonderful activity and a reminder to let go of control, relax, and just breathe–everything will be fine. At the day’s end, I was so grateful that I finally got to go into the ocean and explore the entirely “other” world that exists under the sea. The coral reefs and the fish were bright but the highlight for me that day was definitely hanging out around the giant sea anemone and it’s cute little clownfish partners. I was up close with Nemo’s and Marlin’s cousins!

I was stoked to strap on a tank and get back in the water for a couple great dives off of Menjangan Island in Bali.

I was stoked to strap on a tank and get back in the water for a couple great dives off of Menjangan Island in Bali.

The view of the ocean from Menjangan Island, our diving spot for the day. The volcano in the distance in on the neighboring island of Java.

The view of the ocean from Menjangan Island, our diving spot for the day. The volcano in the distance in on the neighboring island of Java.

SCUBA diving in Bali near Menjangan Island. (Photo courtesy of Gary Browne.)

SCUBA diving in Bali near Menjangan Island. (Photo courtesy of Gary Browne.)

The day I arrived in Pemuteran Bay, I headed straight for my first choice for lodging. The lady at reception, Tia, showed me around and while I absolutely fell in love with the place, the only room suitable for my budget (even on a splurge) was only available for two nights and I needed three so I passed it up and continued looking. But Tia and I had some great conversation in the 20 minutes we spent together and that was enough to start a special friendship. I picked a place just across the street from the first place, mainly so I could be near to her and pop over for a visit every now and then. When I stopped by later that evening, she told me she had the following day off and invited me to come over to her house for a little in the late morning and even scribbled some directions to her home on a small piece of paper. When I arrived to her house the following day, she introduced me to her husband, his parents, and her two sons, she took me on a stroll at the school next door where the kids went ballistic upon seeing a foreigner (me) so close and they were all waving and shouting and practicing some English phrases with me, then, when we returned to her place, we all shared conversation and lots of laughter over some fresh coconuts. I was amazed at how much warmth and joy I could feel within her humble household and honored that she would share that with me.

Spending the day with Tia, her hesband, Qutik, and her two boys, Kris and Radik, in Pemuteran Bay.

Spending the day with Tia, her hesband, Qutik, and her two boys, Kris and Radik, in Pemuteran Bay.

Later that afternoon, we planned to meet up again and go to the bay for some swimming. She and I talked on the beach while her 6-year-old son, Kris, played in the sand. During that conversation, Tia opened up to me about a lot of things in her past including the stories of being pulled out of school as a teenager to work and help support her family, a first marriage and a daughter that came from that, and how she and her now-husband, Qutik, fell in love as teenagers and then how he later waited for her to be out of an abusive marriage so he could marry her at which point he stepped up to be the father of her newborn baby girl. They have a beautiful and playful partnership to this day, and with everything that Tia has been through, she has become a strong and amazing woman. I don’t know why she opened up to me the way she did, but that day was very special for both of us. I saw her the following day as well and then she helped me catch a ride with a local bus, called a bemo, early on my last morning for a ride out of town. She was the reason my visit to Pemuteran Bay was so memorable.

Scoolchildren in Pemuteran Bay (on left); Kris and I on the water at sunset in Pemuteran Bay (on right).

Scoolchildren in Pemuteran Bay (on left); Kris and I on the water at sunset in Pemuteran Bay (on right).

There is so much to see and do in Bali and the culture is rich in its history and traditions. I did not spend all my time researching every little bit of Bali; instead, it the Balinese women I met who showed me the real Bali from their perspectives–Arinie in Seminyak, Wayan in Ubud, and Tia in Pemuteran Bay. These women were smart, energetic, outgoing, happy, and creative businesswomen–why wouldn’t I hang out with them? All of them are just a year or two older than me and were willing to share with me not only how things function in Bali and within their households, but also lots of love advice and words of wisdom for relationships, marriage, family, and business. I could go on and on about these women, how they have come to be where they are, and what is important to them–but that could turn into a book of its own. They really enhanced my visit to Bali and I will never forget their generosity, compassion, and strength.

—–

Instead of heading straight to my next destination, the Gili Islands, from Pemuteran Bay, I went back to Ubud because Wayan had a great transportation deal to get me to the Gilis from Ubud for a fraction of the cost. When I arrived back to Merthayasa 2 Guesthouse, it felt like I had just come home after a long trip as I was greeted with excited faces, hugs from Naya, and even a special snack prepared for me by Wayan. And because this felt so much like home for me, my idea to spend only one night there was tossed out the window as I extended my stay (again) to four nights this time around. In those couple of days, I went back to Yoga Barn for 3 more classes, caught up on some emails, ran errands, finished writing another chapter, and took in as much of the Bali Spirit that I could hold. Bali is such a special place that I didn’t really want to leave, but it was time to move on so I gave thanks to the Bali Spirits for allowing me the time I had on the island and for the great healing, peace, and new friendships that had come to me while I was there.

Wayan and Naya in traditional Balinese clothing.

Wayan and Naya in traditional Balinese clothing.

TRAVEL TIP: Don’t spend your money on transportation if you don’t have to. Even though a short trip in a taxi or on a motorbike here and there can seem cheap–a couple dollars per ride, it adds up quickly. As a backpacker on a budget, spending $5 to $10 per day on transportation is 10-20% of my daily budget which I would rather spend on good food, better lodging, cultural experiences, or an ice cream cone at the end of the day. Of course, there are times when it is necessary to use other forms of transportation besides my feet, however, some of the benefits of walking include getting exercise, getting to know a place up close, saving money, and stopping whenever the urge comes up. If you give yourself plenty of time and are not in a rush, walking everywhere may also mean that you get to see parts of a town that you would normally miss zooming past on a moto.

Rejuvenated and happily yours,

Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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