The air lingers permanently with the smell of burning incense.
Small, handwoven baskets filled with colorful flora can be found on every door step, every work space and every shrine — an offering that is made daily to the Hindu gods to both ask for blessings as well as to appease evil spirits.
Every shade of green that you could possibly think of is at your finger tips, and everyone is smiling.
Renee and I arrived in Denpsar right after our five day stay in Hong Kong, and we started to sweat in the unfamiliar heat and humidity almost immediately. We jumped in a cab and headed to our first hotel, Hidden Oasis Bed and Breakfast, in Kuta. We zipped through the narrow roads passing motorbikes, road stands and markets selling the predictable “I love Bali” T-shirts and Ali Baba pants. Our driver pulled up to the entrance of a market and pointed to a white sign that said “Hidden Oasis B&B” with an arrow. Confused, we gathered our luggage and were immediately surrounded by men trying to sell us their souvenirs.
“Hello, lady! Just looking here!”
“How about a nice sunglass for you?”
“Hey, I know you! Yes, you like this dress?”
Shaking our heads and pushing forward, we found some stairs at the back of the market and were greeted by a young guy who grabbed our bags and led us to our room. From the pictures the room looked clean and comfortable, promising air conditioning that would help us stop our continuous sweating; however, once we got there we came face to face with our reality: we were in a hostel above a noisy market in a dimly lit room with an air conditioner that barely sputtered to working order. Renee and I didn’t dare look too much behind the tub where there were piles of dirt topped with a packet of air freshener. We also tried to avoid looking at the cracks in the walls that were filled with a black mold. Renee became my hero one night by squashing a giant cockroach that scurried across the floor while I was taking a shower, and I then became hers by keeping a lookout for geckos that are everywhere.
We left the room behind and walked excitedly down to the beach, where we were greeted with THE MOST amazing sunset. We walked on the beach for a bit and then went out to find a place to eat. As we walked along the road parallel to the beach we realized that the only thing they had to offer in that area was chain after chain of Western food: Wendy’s, Burger King, the Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks. The streets were crowded with people, young women handing out flyers for their massage parlor, men trying to lure you into their shops, people trying to get you to come to their tourist information booths. The words “Taxi? Taxi? You want taxi? How about tomorrow? How about magic mushroom?” filled our ears every few steps. We ventured off the main road and found a nice open air restaurant that offered fresh juices and smoothies, along with options of both Western and Balinese food. We sat down and laughed a little, both acknowledging that we had a bit of culture shock and that it would take a minute to get used to Southeast Asia again.
We spent three days in Kuta, and to be honest it was two too many. It’s a crowded city with a lot of generic chain restaurants and surf shops, and I was looking for a more cultural, quiet experience. Kuta specializes in more of a nightlife, party and surfing scene, and if you go there I suggest spending more money on a nicer hotel. We went out one evening to the Kuta Theater and saw an interesting performance that incorporated storytelling through traditional Balinese dance and magic tricks. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it definitely ended up being worth the $10 USD for an hour long show.
Soon we were off to Ubud, the city I was most excited about visiting. I was ready for the amazing Hindu culture to be everywhere, to see temples and performances, to see the stacked rice terraces and endless fields of green. It took a little over an hour to drive there, and my eyes were glued to the car window the entire ride as we wound around the small streets and cities that flowed endlessly into one another. There was art everywhere: large slabs of stone in front yards, massive chunks of wood piled high, and large, vibrantly colored canvases. Next to the raw materials were their masterpieces of carved Buddhas, warped wood benches, and paintings of women picking rice in the fields. I marveled at the fact that art is obviously highly valued here, which is rare to see in most parts of the world.
We drove up Monkey Forest Road, one of the main areas of Ubud, and pulled up to Ibunda Bungalows. We had planned to stay there for a week, and we were all smiles as we walked further into the property to our bungalow near the pool, but as we climbed up the stairs we were greeted by hundreds of large red ants running around our balcony. The guy showing us to our room didn’t react at all to the infestation, and when we stepped into the room we were happy to see that there were no bugs inside. I wasn’t expecting a four star quality place, but everything inside seemed to be dirty and old. Renee and I shrugged it off and realized that this is pretty much the standard everywhere here. As we waited for the air conditioner to cool the room, I went to wash my face and found that the water was shut off. We also couldn’t get any internet access that was supposed to be available, so I went down to the front and found out that WiFi was only, in fact, available once you were standing right at the desk. They sent someone to turn the water on in the bungalow, and then again to help me when I discovered that the toilet wouldn’t flush anything down. The guy came to the room, emptied out a garbage can, filled it with water from the tub and then tossed the water down the toilet, pushing everything down. He then handed me the trash bin, smiled and walked away.
We got some bug spray and got rid of the ants, and we walked up and down Monkey Forest Road looking into all the different shops selling handicrafts such as silver and beaded jewelry, wood carvings, prayer beads, ukuleles, woven purses and loose fitting cotton pants. We ducked into a coffee shop when it started raining and made our way to the back garden where we sat in a covered area on cushion lined benches, and we watched as two monkeys ran around in the grass and around the tables. To be clear, monkeys don’t just roam the entire country freely, but we were a block away from the sacred monkey forest. The monkeys there were generally non-aggressive and playful, but they will steal your food so we watched the waitstaff try to chase them away for about ten minutes.
That evening we went to see a Kecak Fire and Trance Dance. As soon as we got there I was mesmerized. We sat outside in an open theater and watched as the hundred or so men sat swaying in a circle, using nothing but their voices to create the music. Men and women in costume perform a story through dance, and in the end a pile of coconuts are lit on fire in the middle of the floor and a man repeatedly runs through the flames and tramps on the embers. I remember studying this performance back in University, so it was thrilling to experience it firsthand.
On our first Saturday there Renee and I signed up for a cycling trip through Bali Eco Cycling. We were picked up in the morning and were driven to see the jaw-dropping-no-picture-does-it-justice stacked rice terraces, and then to a breakfast spot overlooking Mt. Batur and it’s crater lake.
They then drove us to a nearby plantation that grows everything from vanilla to pepper to cacao to turmeric to coffee, and even produces one of the world’s rarest and most expensive coffee: Kopi Luwak. What makes Kopi Luwak so special? A cat-like animal called a Civet eats the fruit around the coffee bean, but it can not digest the bean so it poops it out whole. People then take the coffee bean and roast it, brew it and drink it. (Seriously though, who thought to pick through this animal’s poop and then actually ingest what came out of it?) This all sounds very gross, but this coffee goes for like $600 USD per pound! For coffee! For those of you who know me and my obsession with all things cafe, this was honestly one of the major highlights of this entire trip. We sat down for a tasting, and they brought us a tray full of thirteen different drinks: black coffee, coconut coffee, hot chocolate, saffron tea, lemon tea, ginger tea, and the list goes on. We ordered a cup of kopi luwak ($6 USD a glass) and watched the fascinating brewing process.
After a mandatory stop in the gift shop (couldn’t resist that Kopi Luwak and Saffron tea) we hopped on bicycles and started our 25k ride that was 99% downhill in the country. My fingers got more of a workout from squeezing the breaks than my legs ever did from peddling. A while into the ride we pulled over and looked around a family compound, a plot of land that’s enclosed by a brick wall with different huts as different rooms in the large outdoor house. The entire family lives together, and if a son gets married the wife moves into her husband’s family compound. Can you imagine living with fifty different family members or in laws, by the way? We saw two of the little girls who live there doing their homework and watching TV on a mat on the floor of one of the huts, and we ran into a woman in the back chopping up the bamboo from her yard to sell.
We left the compound and then rode through rice fields and met some of the women working in the patties, and then stopped to rest at a massive Banyon tree.
Towards the end of the ride we stopped at our guide’s family compound and met his family of wood carvers. We finished the ride and ate a delicious Indonesian lunch buffet at the company’s restaurant, cooling off after a very sweaty afternoon.
After an active few days in Ubud we decided to check out early. Our bungalow became infested once again, only this time the ants were inside the room. We loaded up our backpacks, hailed a cab and headed to the east coast town of Amed.