S: Art is Life in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Sep 25, 2004
Airborne to Indonesia
After walking from one side of Singapore to the other without ever leaving an air conditioned shopping mall (or at least it seemed that way), we decided to leave this hermetically sealed environment in favor of something with a little more local flavor. We flew from Singapore to Jakarta, Indonesia, and then immediately bought another ticket on Garuda Airlines, the national airline of Indonesia, to Denpasar, Bali.
The Garuda ticket sales counter didn't know whether or not there was space on the flight to Denpasar so we had to clear security to ask the flight check-in counter if we could buy a ticket for the flight. With their permission, the ticket counter would then sell us a ticket. I guess somewhere behind the check-in counter was a napkin with a tally of how many seats had been sold. No, I take that back, napkins are hard to come by here. Must have been tallied on a banana leaf. Napkins here are reserved for drying one's hands in the bathroom.
While waiting for our flight, we had an interesting conversation with a Reuters photographer who travels all over SE Asia on assignment. As with all "glamorous" jobs, he'd been doing it long enough that the glamour had lost its luster. "Just the same group of journalists bouncing from country to country, staying in the same hotels, following the same stories..." We'd just bought a honkin' large lens in Singapore, so I was tempted to talk gear with him ("That's quite an F-stop you got there buddy...") but I refrained. He told us that he's shot exclusively in digital since the late 90s.
We ended a long day of travel by taking a cab to the delightful town of Ubud in the center of the island of Bali.
Life is Art in Ubud, Bali
The majority of Balinese are Hindu and there are elaborate outdoor temples throughout Bali. The temples are adorned with intricate stone carved shapes, faces, detailed wood doorways and gazebos. I'm sure partially because of this religious tradition, arts and crafts permeate all aspects of Balinese life. The level of artisanship and craftsmanship is incredibly high, especially in wood and stone carving, mask making, painting, batik, silversmithing and furniture making. Ubud is a charming town where these arts have been commercialized for the tourist trade with one breathtaking gallery and shop after another. Despite its focus on tourism, it retains a slow paced, local village charm.
While the majority of tourists come to Bali for coastal sun and surfing, many also head to Ubud for art shopping and for the variety of luxurious spa boutique hotels. This is heaven for spa junkies. We looked in on several spa facilities that were simply stunning with lush green gardens filled with trickling ponds and stone sculptures. Everything smells like you're in a fancy soap store in the mall, only the smells are real and there's no "Hot Dog on a Stick" eatery for thousands of miles.
Believe it or not, we actually slowed down our pace a bit in Ubud and stayed in the same bungalow for an entire week! It sure was nice to experience what we now call "pack explosion" across the room and not have to worry about cramming it all back into our packs the very next day. On the recommendation of our Seattle neighbors Alfred and Emily, we stayed in a 2-story private bungalow at Bali Gen Bungalows located in Penestanan, just outside Ubud. Due to low tourist season, we were the only guests there and rates were super low.
The bungalow was a beautiful two-story brick and stone house overlooking a flower-rimmed pool. It was so relaxing, I'm amazed we ever left our balcony. I would have been content watching our laundry dry for hours on end from that balcony. Thanks Alfred and Emily for letting us know this place exists. The only minor wrinkle to our lodging paradise was our two nighttime guests that could get a bit rowdy afterhours. We had "Marie", a cute lil' rat which I named after the brand of tea biscuits in our room she apparently liked, and a gecko living somewhere in our eves. The gecko in particular got chatty around 10:30 each night. Turns out the big variety of gecko has a call that sounds like parrot. The little 2-3" geckos ran all over our walls as they did throughout our various accommodations in Indonesia but those little guys are silent and harmless. They just form the "moving wallpaper" which you get used to really quickly.
Since Bali Gen was a 20 minute walk from town, we rented bikes to ride back and forth. We'd pass a few rice paddy fields, several cafes and art galleries en route to the center of town. Cock fighting is a popular pastime in Bali so we occasionally passed groups of men sitting, each with a rooster in hand, waiting for the big event. We actually never saw a cockfight but we did see a little cock "sparring" later on Lombongan Island.
Chickens are pervasive in Bali. This became immediately clear the first morning at Bali Gen when we were awakened by the dawn symphony of roosters and howling dogs. We saw chickens near homes, stores, or the road held captive beneath bamboo dome cages, which make a nice one bedroom apartment for a chicken. Whereas Laos was filled with pigs wandering around residential areas and leased beneath houses, the Balinese apparently much prefer chicken. That said, our final morning in Bali Gen, our breakfast was accompanied by the soundtrack of a pig being slaughtered nearby. And I thought roosters were loud!
Lush Green Rice Paddies
Throughout Bali, rice is the predominant crop. The rice is grown on terraced rice paddies which are heavily irrigated. The terraced green hillsides being tended by local farmers in cone sunshade hats make for a beautiful and peaceful landscape. Even Ubud, which was a fairly developed village, was surrounded by rice paddies and had several fields within the village limits.
Play that funky music
One afternoon in Ubud, we enjoyed a rehearsal of the local boys xylophone choir at the temple. The orchestra included maybe 15 boys with individual metal xylophones of varying sizes, one group of four boys playing a single limousine length xylophone, and a smiling boy banging the big gongs. Just like junior high band, the boy with the vacant stare always plays the gong. I can't say I recognized the tune, nor could I hum it to save my life, but it was fun to see all the boys concentrating so hard on banging those xylophones. If I'd had a lighter, I would have raised it high, swayed it to the trancelike rhythm, and yelled out "Freebird!"
The Public Library, Ubud
Ubud had a nice little community center with various crafts classes that also served as a public library with a good selection of English language books. No doubt this library serves the expat community of artists and folks who run the various upscale restaurants, hotels and spas. I donated Hilary Clinton's "Living History" which Dana and I both read, and bought Dan Brown's "Deception Point" which I devoured like any other Dan Brown page-turner.
My next entry covers our day trips around Bali.