Bali Indonesia 2000

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We stepped out the door, and in a flash 33 hours later, we were in Bali, about as far away as you can physically get from New York, unless you're Neil Armstrong. It is a lush, lovely island of extraordinarily pleasant, proud people, who smile at the slightest provocation, who look you straight in the eye because they know no other way and have nothing to fear, and who are polite to a fault. Again, about as far away from New York as you could conceivably get.

It turns out to be a very good time to visit Bali, because the rupiah is a disaster. While we were there it fell from 7400 to the dollar to 8700 to the dollar, making everything super cheap. Why rent a car at US $21 (for four hours) from the hotel, when you can have a car and driver for the day for the equivalent of $35? Restaurant bills are showing up on my credit card statements as seven or eight dollars for the two of us.

It is also a good time because of two political situations. First, people are canceling their Bali trips because of unrest in Aceh province. This about 600 miles from Bali, at the far tip of the next island, Java. It's like canceling a trip to New York City because of a riot in Cleveland, but people don't take that into consideration. The other event is the US bombing of Iraq (for which we had to keep apologizing), which has tourists spooked over possible retaliation by terrorists. So the tourist throngs are reduced, and you can have whatever you want without waiting, and in relative calm and quiet. On the other hand, the hawkers are doing badly, and you can't walk down a street without ten cars honking and stopping for you. "Transport? Very good price... How about tomorrow?" (As I said, about as far from New York as you can get.) The tchotchke hawkers are the worst, constantly hassling you to buy junk they can't unload. They surround you outside temples, hassle you on the beaches, and are generally not having a very good year. Prices drop accordingly if you show no interest. At one temple (the Mother temple on the mountaintop), high quality T-shirts dropped to six cents US as we walked away. We kept walking.

Entry to temple Typical backyard altar
Temple entry Backyard in Samur

The amazing thing is the artistic talent. Everyone seems to be a sculptor, or a carver, or a painter of high skill. Buildings and properties are festooned with sculptures and fancy stonework and woodwork. And the wood is gorgeous. So much character is added to almost every building, they are a pleasure all their own. Whole villages are dedicated to single specialties: one is filled with hundreds of silversmiths, another is clogged with woodworkers, while a third is purely stone carvers and batik is everywhere in another....

Fabulous furniture at low prices is very tempting, but I was soon put off by thought of all that ebony, mahogany, and teak being turned into acres of useless souvenirs. Five foot giraffes (which aren't exactly rampant in the monkey forests of Bali), six foot life size golfers in full swing, endless dolphins, demons and gods are all available at every turn - in beautifully worked and stained teak or ebony! Indonesia is home to the greatest variety of flora and fauna on earth, and little or nothing is being done to stop their eradication. We saw a full size, working bicycle, for 2.5 million rupiah ($300). The only metal part was the chain. The rest was teak, right down to the kick stand. Briefcases of teak, complete with combination locks, were only $40 US. Factories of Balinese carving and sanding warehouses of useless dustables out of fabulous rare woods were everywhere.

Door in Ubud Flowers for demons in Kuta
Ubud - Artistic Capital Kuta shopping strip

Balinese music is a lovely, chiming, clanging beat of unusual percussion instruments. Unfortunately, hotels, restaurants and stores think tourists prefer American Oldies played on guitars no one knows how to play. (Unfortunately, they're probably correct.) We were serenaded by such a group our first night. Each of the three guitars was out of tune in its own way, and the singers had no concept of Western harmony. You would think La Bamba could not be worse than it was originally written. Think again.

Far better than the big restaurants were the little roadside stands and hole-in-the-wall warungs, where we had nasi goreng, sambals, and the best lobster ever in our lives. Four lobster at US $1.50 each. So delicate you could crack the shell with your teeth. We watched and ate while sitting under a blue tarp on a long bench, within sight of the fancy tourist restaurants with the piped in Oldies. We were of course, the only non natives there.

Guard demon Nancy at Mother Temple
Mold Mother Temple, North Coast

The terraced rice paddies are as pretty as their pictures. Incredibly, the earth is so black and dense, nobody shores up the terrace walls. They just cut the earth vertically, and leave it. And it stays. Most of the time. The day we arrived, it rained so hard 36 people were killed trying to manage their rice paddies in Gianyour. They were caught in massive mudlsides.

The sun only appeared on our last day, but it is so fierce at the equator, you get burned anyway. Russian tourists who greased up and lay out by the pool and along the beach where no shadows were cast, got tanned nonetheless. Temperatures were in the 30s (80s F) and humidity was in the 80s, without the Caribbean trade winds to keep you dry. Lee Kuan Yew says the invention of the millennium is the humble air conditioner. In southeast Asia, he is correct.

The other thing to see is the political activity. Bali is alive with interest in dumping the government. Red flags and banners of the (newly allowed) opposition are everywhere. Megawati's picture and posters are carried in motorbike processions daily. She is the daughter of General Sukarno, who was deposed in 1965 by the recently "retired" (make that disgraced) Suharto, and everyone is so fed up with the corruption, they're having great difficulty waiting for elections in June. My souvenir of Bali is a red Megawati T shirt with the battle cry "Reformasi!" across the top. The hawkers don't stock that one.

There are starting to be a few KFCs and McDonald's and Pizza Huts, but the Balinese seem to be sticking with their warungs for now. It is such a delightful island, many visitors never leave, but it is becoming so commercial, I'm sure visitors of just ten years ago would be nauseated at what it's like today. The town of Kuta, for example, is a total embarrassment. The lovely beach is overwhelmed by a town so intensely commercial/tourist, it makes Times Square look like a pasture. If you've been there, you know I am not exaggerating. It is fierce.

Japanese style temple Monkeys
Temple on North Coast Sheltering from the fleas

The Balinese are easy going, ever gracious, and deeply religious. There are 100,000 temples on the island, most of which are private, in people's yards and outside their businesses. Small floral offerings to appease the bad demons (good demons are already onside) appear every morning on altars, car dashboards, at the foot of driveways, outside businesses - everywhere you can think. Bridges have statues of good demons on both sides of the road, and at both ends of the bridge. Stone statues are commonly dressed in real sarongs, and every public temple has a huge portal that resembles a volcano split down the middle. The volcano at the north end of the island has obviously dominated over the millennia, and is still steaming. Temple processions and ceremonies are glorious, colorful affairs, and take place daily. No one is allowed on the grounds if their legs are uncovered, and hawkers renting sarongs appear instantly if a tourist tries to enter. Women are not allowed in at all if they are menstruating. Very serious indeed.

Our driver, a 29 year old, had never been off the island, and had no such intention. He was more than satisfied - he was delighted to be Balinese and living in Bali. They are an exceptionally clean people, and keep their homes and businesses neat and tidy. They put welcome mats in front of their stores, and the Balinese at least, wipe their feet before entering. May their gods protect them... from us.