Tangled Up in Bali Blue (Apologies to Bob)

These months are, of course, summer in the States. For me, despite the 25 years that I’ve been living in Asia, June, July and August are still summer for me. Could be all those years spent teaching with the traditional American summer vacations regardless of geographic location; could be the weather or something like that. And what do I do on these summer vacations? Get the house ready for another rainy season (winter).

balconyAs I written many times, life living on the edge of the sea might seem idyllic, but it’s hell on buildings – all that salt, water and wind. So, everyone here does repairs during these beautiful months when the weather turns hot, sunny and arid. I don’t know why, but blue is filling my life these days. Walking around the city anything blue startles me, dreams are blue tinted, the sea outside my window turns from crystal blue to deep ocean blue. Maybe it’s a sign, maybe some twist of unconscious desire, maybe a repressed memory. Sometimes you just have to act on these feelings drifting by on the languid afternoons when the only sounds are a baby’s cry or a child’s laugh.

Blue. Houses here are white or gray, sometimes a little green thrown on a wall, or worse, that mournful mauve that reminds me of a grandmother’s cupboard off in some distant homeland. This house has gone through white, green, pink and mauve stages. We’re going retro with a blue bend; back to the original white house with a few blue walls and ceilings and floors thrown in for some… Some what? Maybe color relief, maybe an acknowledgment to those blue visions, maybe getting ready for another sign.

side houseAnd plants and vines hanging from here and there. Their job is not an easy one – to protect the walls from the ravages of our winter weather and to survive those windy, wet and salty months. I started playing with this plant and that way back in February when the winds were dying down and the sun was thinking about coming back for another season. Now as August is just about here, vines hang down from all the balconies covering these walls; red and yellow flowers blossom on the roof; bees zoom about; birds come by for a snack; bats soar by at night leaving fruit seeds to mix with my garden; another illusion of life in this concrete urban landscape. Yesterday I discovered a papaya tree growing in one of the planters on the third floor. The jungle is playing its cards close to the vest, just waiting for its time to come back and reclaim what was taken from it.

In Search of the “Real” Bali: Another Road Trip to Denpasar

The “real” Bali. What is it? Where can it be hiding? It must be hidden away somewhere on this island because so many foreigners seem to be looking for it. According to some foreign residents, Ubud is the real Bali. According to others, the real Bali can be found over on the east side of the island where tourism hasn’t had such a significant impact as it has in other places around the island. According to other, newer, foreign residents the real Bali is found inside their villa walls alongside their swimming pools or on their teak decks. The real Bali may exist in those rice paddies that are so popular with foreigners as a symbol of Bali’s “naturalness.” But, it’s those rice paddies that their villas are rapidly rendering extinct.

This search for the real Bali appears to be bound to a craving for authenticity; the authenticity that foreigners can’t seem to find in their homelands. And so, waves of foreigners arrive here daily, most only to visit for a relatively brief period of time, but others have plans to stay because, as we all know, Bali is paradise, even if paradise means living behind three meter high walls topped with nails or broken glass and supported by CCTV, security guards, and vicious canines. The authenticity often comes via tales told by maids, drivers, and gardeners (colloquially called staff to make the culturally sensitive foreigners feel less like wealthy neo-colonialists and more like generous culturally aware benefactors). When push comes to shove, foreign residents tend to be more interested in how long it takes to have pizza delivered to their villas or finding the best place to do yoga than they do in learning the language and culture of the island and country that they claim is their new home.

Life, that messy, complicated, multi-layered reality that Balinese and other Indonesian residents of the island live daily is just that – a little too messy and complicated for the foreign residents who would rather spend their time navel-gazing and being served (where can I get fresh, organic veggies delivered to my villa) than getting out on the streets meeting the people that they allegedly adore and supporting local businesses or the ladies that sell produce in the local markets.

I’d be hard-pressed to find an expat who would call Denpasar the real Bali, but the banjars are there, ceremonies take place daily, Balinese carry out their daily tasks of making a living and completing their ritual duties, Indonesians from other islands arrive looking for work and daylaborbuilding relationships with the Balinese either as employees or neighbors. The shops of Denpasar (and Singaraja and Klungkung and Gianyar) are filled with all these people: the grubby little hole-in-the-wall building supplies shop; the glittering, ultra-tech handphone store; the old-fashioned warung with two benches in front filled with local folks having a quick meal, a cup of coffee and some conversation; the Padang restaurant packed every lunch time with hungry customers. No terraced-rice fields, no rushing rivers, no breath-taking gorges, but surely one section or Balinese life even if it is the urban part that’s less photogenic and far from the image that the purveyors of “Bali as Paradise” want to put on their glossy brochures and fancy websites.

Out on the road with my favorite brother-in-law: we were traveling down to Denpasar, the capital and largest city on the island, so that I could buy some trailing vines to plant on the balcony in a possibly futile attempt to protect the walls of our house from the ravages of the seaside climate here in Singaraja. I look forward to our little trips because it gives me a chance to hear some decidedly local views on life on the island, plus gossip a little bit about what dramas are currently going on in our large, extended and dispersed family. Up over the mountains that separate the regency of Buleleng from the rest of Bali, we chat about the upcoming elections – yes, I met him when I was working in Papua and I don’t like him; he’s running again?; he might be good, at least he’s not a general – the change in the weather, my Indonesian granddaughter’s latest developmental wonder, the state of the economy, life for the salt of the earth.

We reach the little plant nursery down in the Renon area of Denpasar and buy plants and earth and concrete planters. We discuss the needs of the vines that I’m buying and why the business next door is not the place to buy the planters. We engage in some small chit-chat and smoke a cigarette. We buy 72 plants, 20 sacks of earth and four concrete planters and head off to home.

On our way down to Denpasar, we pass fruit stands selling durian, a fruit common to Southeast Asia and known for its pungent scent. This is durian season so there are plenty of stands to choose from. We stop at one not too far outside of Denpasar; we get out of the car and my brother-in-law starts bargaining. The lady is maybe thirty although she might be as old as forty. She offers us a price just barely below what we would pay back in Singaraja. My brother-in-law starts to bargain. I ask, in my limited Balinese, if the durian are tasty. She looks amazed, laughs, and punches me in the arm. “The tourist speaks Balinese,” she shouts to my brother-in-law. “He’s my brother-in-law,” he says with a laugh. “How much are they?” I ask in Balinese again. More laughing, more the tourist speaks Balinese. We get a good deal on the durian. The lady is smiling and we’re smiling as we get in the car.

Small interactions, but ones that reinforce my belief that Bali isn’t a location or a house or villa or , it’s a collection of people and their ways of life: something we anthropologists call culture. And that, in fact, the farther away you get from the “real” Bali, the more likely you are to find what you’re looking for.

Surprised on Bali II

A common form of initial interaction between Indonesians is to exchange places of residence, birth and family ties. It gives them a basis for communication and an idea of who they are in relationship to each other. Symon did just this when I first met him. Where am I from, what am I doing here, where do I live. I responded pretty much the same way. I discovered that he’s originally from Michigan and has been in Bali for 35 years and up in Air Sanih for the past 15 years. So, we had our lineages in line.

The Art Zoo is 28 are, that’s about 2800 square meters with a cluster of buildings and a large empty pool. The Zoo is filled with hundreds or thousands of paintings and statues (why did I not ask if I could take a few photos of the place). Symon is a gregarious guy, talking quickly (and sometimes elliptically); he covered such a broad range of topics – work, art, Ubud, Air Sanih, politics, land use, Singaraja, books and more – that it was sometimes hard to keep up just having driven three hours across the island.

And back now in the homeland of the pure and victorius, I keep wondering what the lessons are from these travels other than to pass every vehicle on the road, one more skeleton machine escaped. Could be don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, always wear long pants on a motorbike, don’t assume that the attractive new-ager is completely without sense or worth or merit, look at crossroads for sly cats and crippled dogs, take the time to smell the cloves, a rolling stone gathers no moss, a bike key is not the same as a room key, still waters don’t always run deep, that doe-eyed girl is just a doe-eyed girl, never race a kid on a bike less powerful than yours, death is as unreal for the young as for the old, the Jester is a universal trope, the blind lady that calls you into the sun isn’t always real, that narrow alley may lead to the ganganswer.

We wonder what fate will bring. Each religion or philosophy has their own window onto this existential question. I wander through this symbolic landscape, brushing traditions great and small, skirting religions compact and diffuse, negotiating with the sighted and sightless, crying with the legless man, laughing with the infant, peeking over the sunrise hoping that the light will change the day. And what more can we expect than that?

Surprises in Bali

Sometimes things that aren’t planned turn out the best. Bali, despite the many years that I’ve been here, always seems to have something ready for me just when I need it, and I was in an existential need of a surprise or two.

The tourist season is upon us once again. I usually date the start of the tourist season when I see the first small clusters of tourists wandering through our kampung. Usually, it’s rare to see tourists show up here as we’re somewhat off the beaten track. Back before the local temple closed off access to our kampung from the harbor, tourists would often just wander in here from a visit to the harbor. These days it takes a bit of work for outsiders to show up here. So, the tourists are back wandering through the kampung and with that I traditionally stop taking my motorcycle trips around the island. But this past weekend the weather was just right for a road trip – blue skies with a few clouds drifting by to give a bit of shade along the road, warm but with a slight breeze. And after a week of watching my granddaughter and 8 weekends of working on the house, I was ready to get out on the motorcycle for a day or two.

I’ve lost my desire to visit Ubud after my last trip where the streets were so packed with hordes of tourists that even walking in the street dodging traffic was almost impossible because the groups of Korean and Chinese tourists spilled over the sidewalks and out into the streets where they would stand taking photos oblivious to the motorcycles and cars speeding by. So, I was set on visiting Padang Bai and the Zen Inn once again. It turned out Zen Inn was full for I went with Plan B, which was working on finishing the paint job to the ceiling of the second floor. Getting done with half the work, I wandered upstairs for a break and found a message from Liam, the proprietor of the Zen Inn along with his wife Wayan, that they did indeed have a room if I wanted one. I quickly threw some clothes in my traveling backpack and headed out onto the road down the east coast. Surprisingly there was minimal traffic and much of the resurfacing of the road that slowed me down last trip was finished, so it was easy to speed along under clear skies with the smell of drying cloves awakening my senses and reminding me that there’s more to Bali than just Kampung Bugis and my life as a housegrandpa and handyman.

tirta ganggaEnsconced in the Zen Inn, I spent the late afternoon and evening eating a fine steak and having a few Bintangs and JW’s with Liam. Guests came in and out and the conversation moved from tourist talk to politics to culture to the inevitable topics of the recent “crime wave” and the “what is happening to Bali.” Wayan and the staff moved in and out of the bar and kitchen keeping food and drinks coming. It was another fine visit to the inn.

Late the next morning, I set off for Singaraja hoping that the traffic backup in Manggis (due to road work) would not be as bad as it was the day before. The work had stopped for the day, and I was able to glide on through. Heading back home, I came across ceremonies in a number of villages with the enticing sound of gamelan music floating through the air. I was in no hurry to get home and with minimal road traffic, I slipped into one of my thought games about what it might be like to live in any one of the bucolic villages that I drove through. The east coast villages are about as far from life in the southern tourist area as it’s possible to get. Early afternoon sun filtered thorough trees overhanging and shading the road, and as I entered the small tourist area of Air Sanih I thought about stopping at this strange place that I have passed dozens of times called the Art Zoo. As I heard later from Symon, the founder and owner of the Art Zoo, he’s heard that story about meaning to stop in but putting it off until later many times. Well, I finally did make the stop.

As I hesitated at the entrance where I found a sign announcing a 50,000 rupiah entrance fee, a young man came hurrying up from across the road. As I discovered later, Tompong is Symon’s personal assistant and an artist as well (he showed me some of his interesting silkscreen works that were reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s work in the 60s). Tompong led me up the entrance stairs and introduced me to Symon who was laying comfortably in a hammock reading one of Toer’s novels; I believe it was House of Glass.

History of Kampung Bugis Singaraja, Part III: The Fall of Buleleng

So picking up where I left off last time, the Dutch had treaties with the kingdoms of Bali. But, apparently they took the treaties more seriously than the Balinese did. One of the main points of these treaties was to get the Balinese kings to give up their reef rights, or rights of coral capture. This right gave local people the right to seize all goods, passengers and crew on any vessel that shipwrecked on surrounding coral. The booty from these wrecks was considered to be a gift from the gods.

(The maneuverings between the various Balinese kingdoms and the Dutch make fascinating history and have been written about extensively in books and on the internet. One of my favorite sources is Bali in the 19th Century by Ide Anak Agung Gde Agung. )

Despite the treaties, the raja of Buleleng and his prime minister I Gusti Ketut Jelantik, gave their blessings to the people of the village of Sangsit to seize the cargo from a boat stranded on the coral there. The Dutch used this action as an excuse to send a large expedition to Buleleng from Besuki, Java, in 1846. Before the expedition arrived, Jelantik assembled a people’s army for the defense of Buleleng. Five areas were fortified: the harbor, the castle, and three villages along the coast. The Dutch clearly outmanned and outgunned the Balinese who were supported by the Bugis from Kampung Bugis who were already skilled in warfare. Dutch troops landed in Kampung Bugis and burned it to the gournd. The Dutch won the first battle easily with few loses. They imposed a series of sanctions on the Balinese who failed to honor them.

The Dutch launched another attack in 1848 to punish the Balinese for their failure to pay reparations for the first battle. The Balinese fought fiercely from their headquarters in Jagaraga, a village in the hills to the east of Singaraja. The Balinese forced the Dutch to retreat because of the heavy losses they suffered. The expeditionary forces fled back to Java with the remnants of their men. In the meantime, the Balinese used this opportunity to prepare for a counterattack.

The Dutch returned on March 28, 1849, and prepared for the attack on the Jagaraga fortress. Jagaraga was captured on April 16, 1849 with the death of I Gusti Ketut Jelantik. The Dutch now had control of Buleleng. However, resistance continued in areas outside of Singaraja, especially in Banjar to the west of the city. The Dutch eventually put an end to organized resistance, and Singaraja became their center of operations for almost the next 100 years.

The History of the Bugis in Kampung Bugis Part II

Last post on the Bugis, I wrote that I would add some information about the culture of the Bugis who arrived in Bali. This post summarizes the information in from the first section of Chapter 2 of the Migration and the Role of the Bugis in Kampung Bugis Buleleng 1815-1946 by I Nyoman Mardika.

According to Raden Sasrawidjaja who wrote about the Bugis in Kampung Bugis in 1871 when he visited there, the houses of the Bugis who came to Bali had three parts: an upper house under the roof called the Rakkaang where grain, other food supplies and family heirlooms were stored, unmarried girls from the nobility also lived in this section of the house; the second part of the house, the Alebola, consisted of rooms that were used for living, such as bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and a receiving room; the third part, the Awasai, was used for livestock, farming gear or fishing gear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe original geographic boundaries of Kampung Bugis were unclear because there were no firm agreements on borders at this time, but after Indonesia won independence the boundaries of Kampung Bugis were the Java Sea to the north, Tukad Buleleng to the east, Kampung Anyar to the west and Banjar Bali to the south. The population of Kampung Bugis in 1823 was estimated to be around 2,000 residents. The current population is around 3,300.

Kampung Bugis was ideally located for the Bugis people because it is located along the beach close to the center of the town of Singaraja. It is also adjacent to to the customs port of Buleleng. Because this customs port was busy and visited regularly by ships, it was an ideal location for the Bugis who were skilled in trading activities. Also, due to Kampung Bugis’ relatively small, narrow boundaries and sandy soil, farming was not an option as an economic activity. So, the Bugis traded as their main means of livelihood with fishing as a secondary source of income or food. The writer notes that the Bugis are known for their trading ability because of their tradition of sailing and dominating inter-island trade prior to the Dutch intrusion into the islands.

In order to be able to understand the history of the Bugis people in Kampung Bugis, it is necessary to view the kampung and the people in the context of north Bali, or Buleleng. The city of Singaraja was founded in 1604 by I Gusti Panji Sakti who came to the north from the kingdom of Gelgel in the south. Sakti, according to the Babad Buleleng, traced his descent back to the fabled Majapahit Empire in Java. Sakti’s descendents ruled Buleleng until the late 18th century when the kingdom was taken over by Karangasem. By 1840 Buleleng was ruled by Anak Agung Ngurah Made Karangasem along with the powerful prime minister I Gusti Ketut Jelantik. Under his charismatic leadership, Buleleng became one of the most powerful kingdoms on the island. But, the Dutch, who had paid little substantial attention to Bali up until the 18th century because of its lack of spices, became interested in securing treaties with the Balinese kings in order to establish themselves on the island so that any British ambitions for Bali would be abandoned. By 1845 the Dutch had successfully established treaties with most of the Balinese kingdoms.

Next post: The Dutch Capture of Buleleng

The History of the Bugis in Kampung Bugis

Many years ago, a neighbor gave me a photocopy of a university thesis on the history of the Bugis people in Kampung Bugis here in Singaraja where I live. My original plan was to translate the document in order to discover something of my neighborhood’s past. The manuscript was misplaced over the years, and I only found it a few days ago. So I set off translating it a few days ago; I’m about one-fourth of the way through it and while it is a bit repetitive in places, I’ve discovered some fascinating information about Kampung Bugis in Buleleng. As I get through more of the document, I’ll write more about the history. As for now, what I’ve discovered is:

Some of the Bugis left their homeland in Sulawesi because of local political turmoil as well as problems with the Dutch after they arrived in, and conquered Makasar. They solidified their hold over the area with the construction of Fort Rotterdam and the Treaty of Bongaya in 1667. The Bugis who were skilled sailors and shipbuilders were also known for their maritime trade activities. With the Dutch monopoly over trade in the area, the Bugis turned to piracy. Their actions against the Dutch lead some of them to flee to Blambangan in Java where, after a time, they were forced to flee again. This time Bali was one of the places where they decided to settle. On the north coast they first settled at Pantai Linga, but the local residents considered them to still be pirates so they move a short distance to the customs harbor of Buleleng where they formed the village called Kampung Bugis. It’s not exactly clear when the Bugis first settle here, however, due to gaps in the historical record, although it is clear that as early as 1697, Bugis were helping the Raja of Buleleng in his struggle against the kingdom of Blambangan.

The Bugis got on quite well in their new home and had an excellent relationship with the King of Buleleng because of their expertise in trade and military matters. The Bugis brought their religion Islam with them and the Raja helped with the construction of several mosques in the area. As the author of this study notes, Islam spread through the north of Bali through trade contacts and intermarriage with the Balinese, Javanese, Madurese and Chinese populations.

While the use of the Buginese language began to languish as the Bugis developed their trade and social relations with other ethnic groups, they did keep many of their other customs and cultural traits such as architecture (the stilt houses), dress, food, education and marriage. My wife noted that when she was a young girl, Kampung Bugis still had rumah panggung (houses built on stilts).

At first the Bugis continued to make a living fishing, but economic activity was eventually relagated to a part-time activity as their economic activities diversified into local trade, working as laborers and civil service positions. Kampung Bugis was destroyed twice in the early to mid 19th century. First in 1815 by an earthquake and resulting flooding, and the second time in 1846 when the Dutch burnt the kampung to the ground in retaliation for the Bugis helping the Balinese Raja against the Dutch.

Okay, quite interesting so far. Next post will be on some of the cultural characteristics of the Bugis as they settled in Kampung Bugis.

Safety in Bali

Note: Just as I completed this post, news spread across the internet about a British woman murdered in her villa in Ubud. The level of fear and anger has increased, but local community members, expats, and Balinese authorities are working on dealing with this tragic murder as quickly and effectively as possible.

Safety has become a key issue for many tourists and expat residents of Bali. Often referred to in online forums and social media as a crime wave, concern about purse snatchings, sexual assaults and home burglaries has seemingly reached a critical mass with the death of a young Korean woman several nights ago during a purse snatching. The usual method of attack for purse snatchings is to ride up alongside a female motorbike driver or passenger and tug at their purse or bag until the criminal has it in his possession. All to frequently, the criminal will pull on the bag until the victim falls off her motorbike. The recent death of the young woman happened in just such a manner, except that she was thrown into oncoming traffic and run over by a motorcycle. Her friend on the same bike survived, but suffered severe injuries when she also fell off the motorbike.

10301946_681500771911687_5520128521634767940_nOnline reactions were quick and expressed the fear, anger and helplessness that many expats have begun to feel over the increasing number of muggings, burglaries and sexual attacks. As might be expected, the responses ranged from useful to useless. A few examples are: comparing crime statistics here to other places around the world in order to show that Bali is relatively safe; suggestions for meetings between expats and local authorities in order to come up with a plan to address the issue of crime in Bali; blustering banter about expats organizing vigilante groups; suggestions on how to be safe in Bali (not going out alone at night, sticking purses and bags under the seat of a motorbike; carrying personal alarms that make a high-pitched noise); plans for a demonstration by expats, tourists and any interested locals; and the creation of a number of websites (ubudwatch.org is one) and Facebook pages where crime statistics can be gathered, safety strategies shared and information exchanged.

Several memorials have been organized for the young lady who lost her life in this attack. A meeting was quickly organized that included expats and tourists as well as representatives from the Balinese community, the police and the military. Plans were discussed on how to deal with the increasing number of violent crimes happening in the main tourist areas of Bali. The chief of the Bali police responded to expat-initiated organizing by saying that the police would be stepping up operations to improve security on the island.

norosesLost within the anger and fear is an historical look at crime on Bali. Unfortunately, Bali has never really been the paradise that foreigners like to pretend that it is. While open-style houses located overlooking rice paddies are a popular (and expensive) choice for many expats, you rarely find any Balinese/Indonesians living that way. Locals lock their doors, close their windows, and spend the nights with family secure in a closed house and compound.

Crime has always existed in Bali just as it has everywhere else in the world. I would guess that most expats that have been around for more than a few years have had at least one instance of being the victim of a crime. However, back in the pre-social media days, these weren’t widely publicized, and visitors and residents would be blissfully unaware of the darker side of life on the island. For example, back in the late 90s there was a rash of thefts on people who would leave their cars at the airport while they did a visa run. The criminals would push a metal tube into the car tire. As the driver made his way home, the air in the tire was slowly released and the criminals followed until the tire was almost flat, then they would drive up alongside and notify the driver that he had a flat tire. Once he got out to replace the tire, they would come up on the opposite side and grab whatever was available in the car. In my case it was a camera case and a carry-on bag. I was fortunate in that some local Balinese noticed the crime and gave chase. They were able to recover the carry-on, but the criminals got away with the camera case. When I went to the airport police station to report the crime, I noticed that the police already had half a dozen other reports of the same thing in just that week. Purse snatchings have been going on as long as I’ve been here, although the perpetrators are getting bolder and more aggressive these days.

To be continued.

Riding into the Sun, Part Two

Luck was with me; Zen Inn had an available room. It was clean and bright with a large comfortable bed, air-conditioning, an outdoor patio, and a bathroom with hot water. I checked in, chatted with the lovely ladies behind the bar and had a few Bintangs to wash the dust and oil fumes out of my system. Feeling relaxed and looking forward to a few easy days at the Inn, I had the ladies open a bottle of Grants. The last time that I enjoyed a Grants was back in my Chicago days. Grants was my favorite scotch when I stopped by the Boul Mich, one of Chicago’s classic bars on Michigan Avenue just in front of the old Chicago Tribune building. It was one of those slightly hazy, hot and lazy Balinese afternoons, and I alternated trading quips with the bartender and slipping back into memory’s haze of those Chicago days of work at the Trib and drinks at the Boul Mich and Billy Goat’s.

But, I was in Padang Bai to wander around the village more than I had on my first trip almost 18 months ago. I headed down the main street and dropped in to a few shops to look for night time snacks and a few outfits for Zoey. Business was slow so there was time to chat with the shopkeepers about life in Padang Bai. A friendly old gent, just about my age, told me backpackers were the main foreigners that showed up in his shop and they always wanted to carry on extensive bargaining even if it was just for a few thousand rupiahs. Things were better in the old days, he said. I agreed and mentioned that that might just be because we were getting older. We had a laugh, and I step out into the late afternoon sun.

A young Balinese guy with a starburst tattoo asked if I wanted to rent a motorbike. I told him I had my own and we started up one of the classic Indonesian conversations about where we were from, families, friends, jobs. I bought a bottle of cold water from the shop behind us and we carried on an amiable discussion until a group of backpackers wandered in from the ferry that had just arrived from Lombok. They were looking for a cheap place to stay and Made made a pitch for a place that he knew. I let him get on with his work and walked around taking photos for a while until I was ready for a short afternoon nap. I feel asleep wondering how much different life might be for some of the discontented expats on the island if they just took the trouble to learn even basic conversational Indonesian.

After finishing off a delicious hamburger (no, I rarely eat local food when I’m in restaurants, I can get that at home in Singaraja or at my favorite homestay in Ubud), I started on scotches and beers. It wasn’t long before Liam, one of the owners of the Zen Inn along with his wife, Wayan, appeared. Liam is one of those classic innkeepers: gregarious and always ready to share a story. We spent the evening talking and drinking; as new guests would arrive, he would seamlessly include them into the conversation.

DSCF0026After a pancake and coffee for breakfast, I headed out to stroll around Padang Bai. I crossed the main road in front of the harbor entrance and wandered up the street. Passing a few homestays and small hotels, I spotted a sign that announced the beach that I had been hoping to find. An old timer was sitting underneath the sign, so I inquired if the white sand beach was up the rock-filled path. He told me that his wife had a warung on the beach – second warung on the beach just under a tree like this, he said – and I could get something to eat and drink there. I headed up the steep incline trying to remember the directions that I had read on a guy’s blog once because he wrote that he had gotten lost trying to find the beach. Huffing and puffing up the hill (and regretting that I don’t spend enough time on my stationary bike back home), I reached a crossroads – two small paths, one going left and the other right. I took the right (wrong) path and ended up at the large abandoned hotel that I had read so much about on the internet. The story goes that it was a Korean project, but lacked the proper papers and was left partially completed. Another Bali story of half-built hotels and villas. I backtracked and took the left (right) path. Despite thinking that I must be on the wrong path, I trekked on. Finally, I came out of the brush to see an azure sea glistening in the morning sun. Heading down the last stretch of dirt and gravel, I came out just at the second warung. I parked myself on a bench, bought a cold water from the owner, had the usual introductory chat with her and watched the waves break on the shore. I was transported back to the Bali that I first came across 25 years ago: a beautiful beach with white sand, inviting waters and solitude. Maybe there still is something to the whole Bali Paradise myth.

Riding into the Sun, Part One

Working backwards. I set off early Sunday morning back to Singaraja after a few days of rest, exploring and conversation in Padang Bai. An early morning start I thought would give me a clear road on which I could collect my thoughts about the past few days. However, this is Bali and you never know what you’re going to get. Because of the extensive road work from Manggis past Candidasa, traffic was heavy and slow. As I entered Manggis, I came across a string of Balinese dressed in ceremonial white heading north walking alongside the road. And then more and more and it went on for kilometers. Obviously a large ceremony, but as Tumpek Landep, the Balinese holiday to pay homage to things made from metal, was the day before, I wasn’t expecting a gathering of this size. So, I slowly moved forward, letting all the impatient drivers squeeze past me. I was finishing a holiday and was on my way home so no worries. I had all the time in the world. But, I had also forgotten to take into account that I would be driving into the rising sun. That in itself was enlightening even without doing any breathwork or sound healing.

It had been five months since I was last on the road. With the rainy season seemingly coming to an early end, I’d been looking forward to taking the bike out for another tour of the island. With the Bali Spirit Festival in progress in Ubud, I’d heard that the village was overflowing with the new age spiritualist crowd. So, I decided to take one of my favorite drives down the east coast road to Padang Bai.

Padang Bai is the harbor for the ferry that connects Bali and Lombok, the island to the east of Bali. The area just in front of the harbor is the actual village of Padang Bai and it hosts a variety of accommodations running from basic backpacker places to a few more upscale hotels aimed at the diving crowd.

DSCF0023The road down the east coast has several attractions for me: the scenery runs from lush tropical to dry moon-like and back to lush tropical; most of the road is newly paved and easy to ride on; and traffic is minimal in comparison to the other main roads around the island. Traffic has increased over the years, but it’s still possible to get the bike safely up to 100 on some stretches. Zooming along a clear stretch of the road just north of the village of Kubu, I get to thinking about the relativity of speed. 100 kph only converts out to 62 mph, not all that fast on a highway in the States, but on the roads in Bali, 100 seems like doing 80 along Highway 1 in California. Coming up on a small village, I eased down to 50 and coasted past a group of kids coming home from school, their blue and white uniforms shining in the afternoon sun.

Driving south into Tulamben, I slowly cruise through the village famous for its dive site. 25 years ago this was one of my favorite spots to spend a day sitting on the beach. No tourists with the exception of a dive group or two that would show up, disappear into the ocean, emerge a while later, climb into a van and disappear. There were only a few places to stay then, and I preferred the cheapest and most basic. Just a room with a fan, a small bed, an Indonesian toilet and a small restaurant with the usual Indonesian dishes and lukewarm beer. Now, Tulamben has homestays, fancy hotels, restaurants and tourists that actually spend a few days or more there.

Up into the hills and down through Tirtagangga and into the city of Karangasem, one of the cleanest cities on the island. Friday afternoon traffic in the city and I slow down, I have plenty of time with two free days. Up and down again, I enter the tourist area of Candidasa. I’ve stayed there a few times in the past, but never really felt comfortable there. Some places on the island just seem to attract me – I’m never really sure why – and I add them to my list of places to visit on my trips around the island. Not many tourists out on the main street. I think that I might want to stop for a beer, but by the time that I’ve decided to keep driving, I’m already out of the village.

It’s not too long before I hit the turn off the main road to Denpasar that takes me east to the harbor of Padang Bai. On my last visit, I stayed in a basic homestay, which I enjoyed for the night that I was there. For this visit, I thought that I would go a little more upscale and try staying at the Zen Inn. The Zen Inn is just at the head of the street that fronts the harbor. I notice the new blue awning and wonder if they’ll have a room available. It’s low season so the odds are somewhat in my favor.