We Ate, We Prayed, We Loved...Bali.
After 20 hours, I stepped off the plane and into the warm but pleasantly fragrant air. Blue sky met a horizon of tropical vegetation boasting the largest birds of paradise I’d ever seen. My partner and I left the Ngurah Rai International Airport headed north for Ubud, a metropolis famous for arts & crafts and theatrical dance. I was giddy with excitement and anticipation—eager for the adventure Bali promised to be. Because it was our first time in Indonesia, I asked everyone I knew that’s ever been there for recommendations. I did my own extensive research about the culture, and brought along my trusty guidebook to point us in the right direction. But no word-of-mouth—no picture in any travel book could have prepared me for the stunning beauty that unfolded before my eyes as we sped up the narrow roads over the mountains past the white majestic beaches.
Drawing closer to Ubud, we notice large cane-shaped bamboo decorations in front of every thatched-roof house. These beautiful stalks were easily 15 to 20 feet tall and seemed to line every street creating a canopy above the roads. We asked our driver (whom by default became our cheerful tour guide) what these things were and he said they were decorations for the Chinese Lunar New Year. As luck would have it, our visit coincided with this annual celebration; increasing the amount of festivities we’d be able to take part in. Nearly 80% of Balinese people practice Hinduism, so every home has an altar or designated place for worship. During the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration: exotic foods and decorative flowers prepared especially for the occasion are offered to the Hindu gods and demigods. Nightly performances of traditional dances honoring folklore heroes take place in the elaborate temples that seem to be in abundance across the region.
At the center of the Balinese way of life is a quest to increase one’s conscious contact with the spiritual world through meditation and prayer. By committing to this practice they learn to appreciate the harmony that exists between the yin and the yang. They recognize that one cannot have the good without the bad; one can only strive for balance. Perhaps this Balinese principle explains why so many Westerners travel there in search of peace and spiritual enlightenment. I experienced this first hand while visiting ancient temples and participating in silent meditations. In those settings I was surprised at my ability to quiet my noisy Western-mind—my only focus being to remain still and embrace the present moment. The peaceful frequency of Bali and its effect on my central nervous system was exactly the reboot I needed before returning to the rat race of Los Angeles.
Activities & Entertainment
By enlarge the tourist industry drives the Balinese economy. A popular surfing destination, people flock to the beaches of Kuta and Jimbaran, for the huge waves, white sand, and pristine vistas. They truly are everything that the travel books say they are, and shouldn’t be missed, even if just for a day.
If you like a good pampering, take advantage of the inexpensive massages you will find on every corner. For as little as $15 to $35 dollars you can get rejuvenating body wraps, body scrubs, facials and massages that rival any treatment you’d receive at Exhale or Bliss spas. We got 1 and 1/2 hour or 2 hour massages daily and when we really wanted to be disgustingly indulgent we would get two—one in the afternoon and one before bed. During one notable treatment I soaked for 20 minutes in a warm bath of rose pedals and essential oils, before receiving an hour long salt scrub and massage combo. No exaggerations, this was the best massage I have ever had in my life. What this man’s magical thumb released in my Achilles tendon I will never know, and his skillful technique has never been duplicated. I still think about it to this day. That gives you an idea about the level of service quality I found in every city we visited.
As pigeons are to urban cities, like seagulls are to beaches, so goes monkeys to Bali—on the roads, in the trees, in the cafes, on the rooftops—everywhere. But nothing gets you closer to encountering a monkey like being in the Monkey Forest Sanctuary of Ubud. This sanctuary located in the middle of the city protects three types of long-tailed monkeys. At times walking through the area was a little intimidating—thirty to forty human-desensitized monkeys getting very close to your person looking for you to feed them. But we kept our cool and read the signs about how to interact with them (don’t feed the monkeys because they can become aggressive) enjoying the rare opportunity to be that close to an animal in the “wild.”
There are plenty of fabulous places to lay your head in Bali. For the balling-bourgeoisie, you have your choice of the Bulgari Resort Bali, Viceroy Bali, or Mandapa Ritz Carlton Reserve, just to name a few. We had a lovely experience at the Ayana Resort and Spa in Jimbaran. A peaceful serene environment with sweeping ocean views, traditional Balinese décor, and all the amenities our Los Angeles pampered-asses could ever want.
That being said, nothing compared to the three-bedroom villa we rented off of HomeAway.com in Pemuteran, a small coastal fishing village in North Bali. This walled-in compound with lush, flower-filled grounds, had a private beach, infinity pool, Bocce-ball court, three master bedrooms, and three master bathrooms furnished with indoor and outdoor showers. There was a full kitchen, dining area, Koi pond, and beachside breakfast cabana. We loved using the kayaks, water sporting gear, as well as the private sailboat that also came with the rental. The grounds had hammocks, gazebos, and cozy benches scattered throughout, and nearby was Banjar the natural hot springs, as well as a turtle sanctuary.
As if the property weren’t impressive enough, we were treated like kings by the 8-member staff that also came with the rental. A Concierge/ Butler arranged massages, horseback riding, or any type of excursion we could dream up. A private chef fed us three excellent meals per day comprised of fresh seafood and authentic Balinese delicacies. She doubled as a superlative mixologist, creating cocktails with ripe passion fruit, pineapple or watermelon any time we requested, while we played cards by the beach. A few wonderful, kind maids, grounds keepers, and of course a captain to take us out on the boat whenever we desired. Between ordering daily massages, taking the kayaks or boat out, and eating and drinking myself silly, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. All of this mind you cost a fraction of a U.S. dollar, so much so that when we received our final bill for the week, we were slightly embarrassed at how inexpensive it was. "Surely there must be some kind of mistake," we exclaimed. "Did they really charge us for everything?" We decided to leave a well-deserved 40% on top of everything (which was still a bargain) and thank God for third world travel!
Whenever I travel abroad, I feel it’s important to taste the foods that are germane to the area I’m visiting. Before seeing a theatrical dance show at the local Temple, we fully chowed down on Balinese suckling pig! The pig was sweet and tangy with just the right amount of spice and vinegar—meat-falling off-the-bone-deliciousness.
Being in a third world country, we still had to be careful about food preparation. We followed the rules and only drank bottled water, washed fruits and vegetables in it, and even brushed our teeth with it. I don’t like to roll the dice when it comes to my stomach or any potential for sickness, so when in doubt, I steered clear. We were fortunate to find a delectable restaurant in Ubud called Kafe. Fresh organic juices and smoothies, light fluffy eggs, and these orange blossom pancakes topped with wild-berry compote that I had every morning for 4 days straight. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I knew that I’d be safe and satisfied.
Another wonderful eatery we found was Sari Organik. This place came highly recommended by locals and other travelers alike. Located in the middle of the rice fields, to get there you must ride your bike, and walk through this seemingly photo-shopped landscape. The sun blankets the rice fields making the morning dew glisten while chickens roam about and farm hands tend to the fruit and vegetable garden. The people are friendly, the setting is tranquil and the food is tasty.
A tall, nimble man with long limbs and kinky black hair slicked into a ponytail opened the door. He was dressed in a white tunic and his accent was a mix of European and Middle Eastern. His name was Julian and in my opinion, he had the most exquisite store in Ubud. At night these very elaborate lamps glowed in the windows illuminating carpets and furniture from what looked like Morocco, Iran and Turkey. I must have passed this store 10 times, peering into an empty shop with a sign on the door that said “by appointment only.” On our last day in Ubud, just after lunch and a day of buying paintings from the local art galleries, I spotted movement inside and made a b-line for the door. Once inside I discovered so many rugs, pillows, lamps and silk throws I wanted to bring home with me that I could have filled an entire shipping container. Everything was handmade from the finest materials and imported from the Middle East or Africa. After chatting with Julian for a good hour, listening to the story behind his store and the many colorful adventures he’d had traveling the world, we purchased two beautiful glass lamps covered in red and orange silk with blue decorative beads. I’d spotted them in the window at the beginning of the week and had developed an obsession.
In addition to the paintings, silver pieces, hand-woven tapestries, wood and bone-inlay carvings, and a cherished 4-faced brass Buddha I purchased, my partner and I acquired Balinese masks from Ida Bagus Anom, arguably the most famous mask maker in Indonesia. Amon is internationally known for his exceptional wood carving skills and mastery of traditional Balinese pantomime techniques that bring his masks to life. Through auspicious timing and connections, we found ourselves in his private studio discussing his experiences as a performer and mask maker. Three large walls were filled with hand-carved character masks painted to perfection with life-like intricate details. The 4th wall was one long mirror where we watched Amon put on a mask and strike a pose, moving his neck and body in such a precise way that the features and personality of the character activated. While trying on different masks and humbly attempting to recreate the movements he demonstrated for us, we listened to the stories behind each mask and eventually found the ones we connected with the most. It is no surprise that people travel from all over the world to study with Amon, see him perform and buy his masks. He truly is a dynamic force and I felt privileged to have met him.
One evening at the compound in Pemuteran, we grabbed a bottle of wine and headed out in the boat to a sandbar in the middle of the Bali Sea to watch the sunset. Surrounded by the shallow water we carefully walked through the coral reef and looked towards the mountains where it was possible to see the sun and the moon at the same time. In this perfect moment the sky was purple, pink and orange and all we could hear was the gentle sound of waves calmly crashing around us. Definitely a “pinch-myself” highlight of the trip.
All of my life I have loved elephants. It began with a book I read constantly as a child about an elephant named Fiona who was always forgetting things. Their intelligence, memories, capacity for love and adorable ears and trunks: captivate me like no other creature. My partner and friends often call me “the elephant” or “Memory Banks” because of my own talent for remembering things. I seriously fantasize about pulling a Michael Jackson (remember Bubbles the Chimp?) and raising a baby elephant in my two-bedroom apartment. So I’m sure you can imagine my utter delight in visiting the Elephant Safari Park Lodge located in Taro. In general I am against zoos and the captivity of any animal, but this particular park focuses on conservation and rescue with humane training techniques that don’t abuse the animals. Among the laundry list of these Sumatran elephants’ talents are painting, playing basketball, and jumping rope. Getting the opportunity to interact with these extraordinary beings was by far the most unforgettable experience of my vacation.
1.I can’t stress this enough: don’t drink the water! We were extra careful and over the course of two and 1/2 weeks, both of us ended up having minor stomach issues. My partner actually had a day were he had to stay in bed. Our western stomachs just aren’t built for the types of bacteria one’s system encounters in third world countries. Locals told us to drink “young coconut milk,” and we’d be fine. Riiiight. Good thing my doctor prescribed Ciproflaxin antibiotics for me to take along just in case. I’m all for the holistic eastern approach to medicine, but when you’re doubled over begging for the pain to stop, their ain’t enough young coconut milk in the world to help you like a good ole pharmaceutical. They were a lifesaver.
2. Bug spray all day long! Dengue Fever is real and judging from my Google search, nothing you ever want to deal with—ever!