Bali – Where Everyone Knows Your Name
It was difficult to farewell the Pacific Ocean. But if you have to say goodbye to something wonderful and start a new phase of adventures, Bali, Indonesia is a good place to start. After a smooth 1,100 mile sail passage from Darwin, Glen and I arrived in Denpasar, the capital and tourist mecca of Bali. Wanting some creature comforts like endless hot showers and lovely Asian food, we headed straight for the Royal Bali Yacht Club.
Royal Bali Yacht Club
The Royal Bali Yacht Club is an impressive name. It sounded a bit too elegant for our simple sailors’ lifestyle. Perhaps a combination of making landfall after a week at sea and the term ‘Royal’ combined to make me a bit anxious – I worried the Yacht Club would have a dress code. What if we looked disrespectful in our sailor shorts and faded shirts? I had thrown out some moldy clothes in Darwin – as luck would have it those had been the nicest clothes I owned. Perhaps I could have gotten a few more wearings out of them …. But those worries evaporated as Glen eased C’est Assez into the dock. My reality check reassured me we would have no problems in the protocol department.
At one time the marina may have been the pride of royalty, but that must have been in the distant past. Presently, there was much about the infrastructure of the marina to give a person pause. Electricity hookup at each berth was a foot high Hindu shrine with a jumble of wires. Glen has an engineering background and normally does all the electricity related work on our boat. But here it was safer to let ‘local knowledge’ connect us to the power grid. While Glen went ashore to check us into the country, my job was to wash the accumulated salt and grime off the boat after our 7 day passage from Darwin. The smiling dock hands offered to wash the boat, but needed something to do until Glen returned with our passports stamped. When a local turned on the hose to the local fresh water I jumped back as green slime poured from the hose, followed by a lighter green colored water. This was the first time we had encountered fresh water too dirty to clean our boat. I wasn’t even sure it was safe for a shower. A walk along the docks involved avoiding rebar spikes and gaping holes where water lapped up. You might say that the marina had seen better days. We later discovered that Bali was having deep economic woes from a recent terrorist related downturn in tourism. It looked like this slump affected the marina maintenance as well. But we wanted off the boat anyway, so we decided to find a peaceful area of Bali as our base for exploring the island.
Bali is unique among the 1,000 inhabited islands in Indonesia – it is exclusively Hindu while the rest of Indonesia is Muslim. After seven months in a very western style Australia, Bali was our entrance to the exotic world of Asia. “What sounds most interesting for tonight?,” I asked Glen. The bulletin board at the Yacht Club listed fire dances, mask dances, trance dances, monster dances and puppet shows – all within a short taxi ride from the marina. The odds were that no matter what we picked, we would have the venue pretty much to ourselves. Just a year before, Bali’s tourism was shattered by three car bombs that leveled two nightclubs and killed 202 people, mostly Australian tourists. The effects of the attack was still apparent on Bali. Now, over a year later, tourism was way down and the local economy was suffering.
The five star beach resorts close to the marina were deserted of tourists. Yet somehow, the close and crowded capital of Denpasar was mayhem. Local drivers, motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians darted through clouds of grey exhaust smoke. The largest knock-off goods market we had ever seen occupied blocks of shops, and spilled onto the streets. Market vendors offered everything from cheap massages and tattoos to $5 Louis Vuitton handbags and $20 Rolex watches. The place appeared busy at first glance, but the empty shops and pleading voices of the hawkers told a different story. I thought Glen and I were immune to the lure of knock-off goods, but I stood speechless while Glen bargained for two knock-off Rolex watches. “What are those for?’ I asked. His answer silenced me. “We are going to keep them in plain sight on the boat in case we are boarded by pirates. Indonesia is the start of pirate country. If they find these ‘expensive’ watches maybe they will be so excited they will not search too hard for things we really need like our night-vision scope, radios and GPS.”
We knew that we did not have the temperament or desire to remain long in the teeming city of Denpasar. British expats at the Yacht Club recommended we leave the boat in the marina and head for the mountain town of Ubud. They described Ubud as a green, mountain town filled with artists, dance events and weavers. Yes, Ubud had been discovered and was growing fast, but they promised we would love it. So we locked up the sailboat and took an hour long taxi ride to Ubud where we found ourselves the rare visitors amid a sea of expats and locals. We walked around town and checked into a comfortable looking guesthouse. The owner was happy for guests and talked herself down in price. She took us to a lovely room with a balcony and bath for $15 a night. Breakfast and gecko included.
‘Excuse me miss. Please come.’ I guided our lovely, smiling guesthouse hostess back to our room. Pointing at a very large gecko somehow attached to the ceiling, I said, ‘Very noisy.’ We had only been in the room five minutes before Glen bolted from the bathroom that a gigantic gecko had claimed as his very own space. The gecko took off running – tiny hips sashaying, unblinking eyes now staring down at us from the ceiling.
‘Gecko good’, our Bali hostess told us. ‘Eat bugs. If no gecko, look for snake. Maybe cobra.’
Oh! Well then, that’s different. I guess that the constant ‘gecko’ croak they make is good. I thought I understood her limited English, or at least the gist. I translated her English for Glen and said, “I guess we only have to worry if we don’t hear the gecko. That means look around for a snake. Maybe even
Now that the gecko had switched in our mind from ‘pest’ to ‘pet’, we really liked having him around. I tried to feed him but Glen cautioned that Gordon Gekko needed to stay hungry and do his job eating bugs. Gordon must have done a good job because we never saw bugs in our room. That gecko seemed kind of tuned into us. He watched us a lot, and it was fascinating for us to watch him looking for bugs. One morning I woke up and saw Glen studying Gordon Gekko. ‘I don’t believe geckos have eyelids. That’s why they don’t blink. ‘ We talked about taking Gordon back to the boat as a low maintenance mascot, but knew he would be happier in his own environment. Thee was so much to see and do in Ubud we did not spend much time in the room with Gordon.
Ubud is all about art, artists, art studios, art schools and galleries showcasing art of all kinds. No artists ourselves, we were welcomed into studios and galleries of sculptors, painters, carvers, weavers…including some young Balinese men and women in apprentice roles.
An American expat couple we met while exploring, recommended we rent a car and driver to check out the beauty of the rest of the island and to see how most of the locals lived. When the guesthouse owner recommended his nephew, Wayan, as a driver and guide. Wayan became ‘our man in Bali.’ Hiring a driver seemed decadent, but even though Ubud was much smaller than Denpasar, traffic was thick and still managed to move at breakneck speed. Hiring Wayan as our driver was originally for self-preservation but he turned out to be a friendly source of information about all things Balinese.
The Names the Same
I commented that Wayan must be a popular name in Bali – we had met several others. Wayan explained that in Bali you always have a one in four chance of getting someone’s first name right. There are only four names to remember; Wayan, Made, Nouyman and Ketut. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female… every person is given one of those four names according to their order of birth. Wayan the oldest, Made the second, Nouyman the third, and Ketut the fourth. If it’s a man use the prefix ‘I’(ee), if a woman the prefix ‘Ni’(nee). If there are more than four children, start over again with Wayan. “Too easy”, I told Wayan, thinking of the ever expanding arsenal of kids names in the United States.
For the next couple of days, Wayan drove us all over the island. We visited artists’ studios tucked away in small villages and saw rice farmers working their deep green, terraced, crops by hand. Everywhere I looked I saw life as art or actual works of art being created. The thing that struck me most about Bali, was that religion and art were natural extensions of daily life. The Balinese even lived artfully and calmly. They always appeared relaxed and smiling – even in the crazy traffic situations. Balinese drivers seemed to have no objection to occasionally having to give money at police road blocks. Wayan shrugged and told us that in Bali policemen are not paid enough to support their families. It seems that it is not unusual for drivers to be asked to pay for the service provided by the police.
We never thought of our boat life as stressful – it was just how we lived. Yet it was surprisingly relaxing for Glen and me to take a break from what I realized was constant vigilance on the boat. Sailing across oceans a lot can go wrong and it can wear on even the most dedicated sailor. Now, we were in Wayan’s care. We sat back and let Wayan handle everything as well as make sense of our exotic surroundings.
At first I did not know if it was “correct” to ask Wayan about the Hindu religion. But with the warmth of the Balinese, Wayan explained the purpose of certain shrines and temples. Throughout Bali, and even on the roadsides, there are countless spirit-appeasing statuary of Hindu gods skirted in black, white or grey checkered cloth. “Black for evil spirits,” said Wayan, “white for nice spirits.” And gray? “For in-between spirits.” Those skirted Hindu gods would grant favors in return for nice offerings. Wayan and the local Balinese people made offerings to the gods in the form of flowers, food and incense. They made the offerings every morning and sometimes during the day for really important things like bringing good luck or for more customers. Sometimes the tribute would be small like a fragrant frangipani flower or it could be an elaborate fruit arrangement or palm leaves plaited into an animal shape or flower. Balinese women walked along roads with elaborate temple offerings of fruit and flowers carried Carmen Miranda-style on top of their heads. I thought that we must be visiting Bali at a special time of year, because almost every day we saw processions of women dressed in fine clothing, carrying tall offerings of food and fruit on their heads, heading to a temple. The offerings were placed among dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other offerings in special pavilions. Wayan explained that the gods enjoy the smell of the offerings, then they are taken home and eaten.
Bali appeared to have a temple for each of its 2.5 million people. Small temple altars stood guard outside of the doorways of houses and, according to Wayan, there were even more inside the house. I was curious to see what went on in Hindu temples and asked Wayan if foreigners were allowed to visit them. He responded that we were allowed to visit the Hindu temples but were required to wear sarongs and sashes. Glen needed to rent a cap and skirt and I bought a Balinese skirt and sash for the occasion. After a quick change into the appropriate attire, the famous Monkey Temple was our first stop.
On the road leading to the Monkey Temple there were statues of monkeys carved from stone. The statues depicted monkeys with an air of gravitas and dignity that was lacking in their present behavior. The real monkeys screamed, hung from their tails, and swung among branches over the road. There is nothing like driving through a gauntlet of monkeys to remind you that this qualifies as an adventure. Finally, up the winding road at the end of the monkey gauntlet stood the ornate temple to all things monkey.
“It is better that you go to temple without Balinese people,” said Wayan, “Because if you do wrong, you just say, ‘Big sorry. I did not know.’”
“No, Wayan, you have to come too.” He’d warned us the day before about the roving monkeys, “They go in your hair. They jump on your shoulders. They scratch you. They take your glasses, take your money, take your camera. They want many fruits to give them back. If they take expensive thing, they want many more fruits.”
“Why build a temple to naughty monkeys?” I asked Wayan. “The monkey god is powerful in great Hindu stories” Wayan explained. He went on to tell the story of Hanuman, the flying white monkey god. Hanuman was toting a mountain across the sky when he dropped a chunk, covered with trees and teeming with monkeys, on the very spot that is now the Monkey Temple. The place is still crawling with monkeys. Clever, ambitious monkeys who would mug you for your camera and hold it as ransom for bananas.
As Wayan parked the car, I saw a sign posted:
‘ATTENTION: BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR BELONGINGS (ACCESSORIES) DURING VISIT TO THIS HOLLY MONKEY FOREST. TO AVOID UNDESIRABLE CASES CAUSED BY SOME AGGRESSIVE MONKEYS.’
The sign was a model of understatement, if not of spelling and punctuation. The sign maker didn’t mention that the human earlobe is an “accessory.” Of all the “cases” Wayan had witnessed in the Monkey Temple, perhaps the most “undesirable” occurred when “some aggressive monkeys” snatched the pierced earring — and accompanying piece of lobe – from the head of an unsuspecting visitor.
I was not up to monkey business, so Glen Wayan and I kept a big stick close by. Luckily, there were hundreds of Hindu worshipers at the Monkey temple for an important Hindu ceremony which diverted attention of the monkeys from us tourist bait. Keeping the stick high and visible, Wayan, Glen and I made our way out of the darting monkeys and safely back to the car without losing any “accessories”. Not knowing what other animal based temples lay ahead, I kept the stick. There were plenty more Hindu animal gods and I wanted to be prepared.
Our week in Ubud was a tonic. Glen and I both felt serene, relaxed and ready again for new adventures. I realized that I had become too complacent and first world during our last seven months in Australia. Bali reminded me why we were voyaging around the world in the first place. Now our adventure DNA was primed and we sail for Borneo.