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Stories from our Travelers

Discovering Bali


Schoolgirls in the village of Gomang

Fields of heaven (rice fields) near Mt. Agung

Bringing the boat ashore at White Sand Beach
by Melissa Cicci
[From Fall 2009]

Ibu is the Indonesian word for mother. On Bali, surely one of the most fertile places on earth, women are respected and regarded as equals. You can see it on their faces, and on the faces of their deeply loved children. So after a few days on Bali, when men and women alike began calling me ibu, I felt welcome. So did my sister. Our two families met up this summer for several weeks of rest, discovery and reunion. My sister had located online and leased a beautiful villa – large enough for eight of us – in quiet East Bali, far from the popular tourist locales of south Bali and under the shadow of Mt. Agung, the island’s highest and most sacred volcanic mountain.

Unlike most of Islamic Indonesia, Bali retains its Hindu culture. This informs much of life on the island. Smiles are open, welcoming and genuine. Confrontation is discouraged and peaceful daily offerings to God and his manifestations on earth are common. Simple banana leaf baskets adorned with flowers, edibles and incense are laid out on sidewalks, driveways and doorsteps. Everywhere, trees drip with bananas, coconuts and papaya. Fields are lush with rice, corn, watermelon, and kachang (peanuts or long beans). Sacred cows loll about in the shade. Refrigeration is scarce: daily markets in the tiniest villages to the larger cities begin about 5am. Vendors sell produce, fish, chicken, nuts, rice, ginger, galanal – Chinese ginger – chiles, and flowers for offering baskets. Farm to table may seem like an of-the-moment concept in the western world (have so many of us forgotten our childhoods?), but here it is born of necessity.

Our family’s delayed flight from Sydney arrived at the international airport in Denpasar in a torrential rainstorm. Although July and August are considered the dry months, heavy rains are not uncommon even at this time of year. By the time we filled out our visa forms, had our patience tested in an interminable Customs line and dozed through the 1 and 1/2 hour drive to Villa Asada (close to the seaside village of Candidasa), it was almost 2am. The next morning was dense with fog and humidity, and I explored the gardens around the villa and snapped countless shots of vivid frangipani, bird of paradise and other exotic flowers whose names I couldn’t begin to guess. As the sky cleared that day we swam, met the gracious Balinese people who worked in and around the villa, and had our first taste of incredibly sweet and petite Balinese bananas.

The days drifted by – alternating between days of idle and days of active pursuit including an 8-mile trek through small villages and rice paddies, whitewater rafting on the Telaga Waja river, an Indonesian cooking class, and body surfing in high waves at the White Sand Beach.

The trek from the Bali Aga (original Balinese) village of Tenganan began with a steep uphill climb under a canopy of mahogany and banana trees. About midway through the trek, we passed through the sleepy village of Gomang. As we approached the local school, the teacher came out to greet us and ushered our group into the one-room building. He enlisted his students to sing to us in French, "Frere Jacques." He then invited us to sing a uniquely American song. There were six of us (two adults and four teens), and the best we could come up with was "Old McDonald." The students giggled - politely - as we moo'ed and clucked our way through the song.

In the shadow of Mt. Agung, the Telaga Waja river cuts a deep path through dense foliage. Rafting guides are local and have lived in the river valley all of their lives. The small men know the river intimately and expertly power the rafts through class 3+ rapids. Ostensibly, we were participating in the rafting. Each of us was given a paddle and rapid-fire instructions to paddle forward, paddle back, duck and “boom-boom” (watch out!). But it was fairly obvious that the guides could do it without us, and without us would not have had to pull stranded rafts off the tops of rocks or retrieve lost paddles. We loved it.

The cooking class at the nearby Hotel Alila began with an excursion to the daily market in Klungkung, a market town happily absent of tourists and tourist draws. Our guide, Hatmawan, must also pull double duty as a comedian. When I remarked on the very small and very sweet bananas I’d tried, he laughed and answered, “just like the Balinese people.” Hatmawan led us into the busy market, explaining the use of chiles in Indonesian cooking and pointing out the medicinal properties of galanal, ginger and turmeric. Galanal is said to minimize allergic reactions to some foods (my son, highly allergic to nuts, made a rapid mental note) and ginger placed on the forehead or temples may ease migraines. Men and women both benefit from a morning power drink made with egg yolk, turmeric, rice and Bali wine, among other unexpected ingredients. Fortunately for us, that drink was not on the day’s menu. Instead, back at the Alilia we prepared bumbu bali (a paste of chiles, nutmeg, lemongrass and so much more), nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), and cumi cumi (squid with chopped prawns).

We reached the White Sand Beach via a small outrigger boat - from a distance, the boats look like spiders on the water's surface. The protected cove is a popular destination for both visitors and locals. During our Saturday visit, a small crowd of mostly European tourists occupied one end of the beach. This end is dotted with open-air warungs (beachside stalls offering freshly-caught fish, coconut drinks and Bintang - the ubiquitous and tasty Balinese beer). For around $5 each, we had lunch, a beach chair and a Bintang. At the more secluded end of the beach, cheerful Balinese teenagers played a lively game of soccer on the sand, while another group of very young boys splashed buff in the surf.

Ultimately, Bali is about its people. Those whose faces and stories I won't forget: Gede, the young villa manager whose wife had departed for the city and left him a single father of a three-year-old daughter; Putu, whose delicious home-cooked food beat anything we ate at upscale restaurants; Koman, who had never ventured beyond east Bali and talked of one day visiting a cousin on a nearby island; and Kadek, the young man who drove us around the island in his gleaming Toyota Innova.

I have to offer an aside on the concept of a car and driver – not something I’m used to at home. Most visitors are discouraged from driving on Bali. Although everyone is polite, the roads are crowded with motorbikes and slow-moving delivery trucks. A friendly toot of the horn and drivers attempt daring passes. Driving is on the left, as in the U.K. and many of its former colonies. Although Indonesia was never a British colony (in fact, it was long occupied by the Dutch), the country adopted the driving practices of its neighbors Malaysia and Singapore. (Another aside: my 14-year-old daughter says that if we will not allow her to drive a motorcycle in the States, then she is moving to Bali).

As we explored the countryside, I often sat in the front seat with Kadek. We made the most of our conversations, despite an extreme language barrier. I learned how to say good morning, thank you, and other simple phrases - but the language lesson ended there. Kadek’s English was more extensive, but a bit limited for the history lessons he tried to impart each day. He’d frequently pause and ask himself or me “what’s means?” I tried to teach him the more direct phrase, “how do you say,” but never quite succeeded. Regardless, from Kadek I learned the following: most of what I now know about the Hindu faith, that Michael Jackson was popular on Bali, that Barack Obama is well regarded (largely due to the fact that his half-sister is part Indonesian and lives in Jakarta), and that a Balinese smile will melt hearts.

If You Go:
There are many options for flying to Bali. We chose Delta's new service from Los Angeles to Sydney (about 14 hours). After a few days in Sydney, we flew on Jetstar Airlines (a subsidiary of Qantas) directly to Denpasar, Bali (a 5-6 hour flight, depending on winds).

We stayed at the Villa Asada in east Bali, near the village of Manggis and the seaside town of Candidasa. For information, visit Villa Asada.
Learn Indonesian cooking at the Hotel Alilia Cooking School, Alila Cooking School.
We booked our raft trip with Sobek Bali Utama, the first adventure tour company established on Bali. Safety and responsibility are priorities. See Bali Sobek.

Photographs by Melissa and Larry Cicci

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