The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.
Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.
Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience
On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.
Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity
Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.
We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!
Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?
Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.
The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.
In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!
For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea
From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!
This short trip to Bali presented a set of varied and interesting experiences. I had heard from friends and family about the quaint Balinese worship rituals and sure enough, the carved stone statues and beautifully decorated offerings to the Gods and demon spirits were everywhere. So was the tourist-oriented commerce with its plethora of souvenirs and knick-knacks, though the large number of designer clothing and accessory stores with high quality products and tasteful displays were the icing on the cake during our sojourns through Seminyak and Kuta. And, of course, there was the glorious sea!
We had done little advance planning for this trip, and I had the sense of floating from experience to experience over the three days we were in Bali. And because we had known each other so long, we were able to laugh at the imperfect decisions just as well as we savored the ones that turned out well. Which is just as travel ought to be, spontaneous and rich in detail, and stress free to boot! Presenting a set of small stories from our Bali sojourn….
The kindness of strangers
Bali offered us the perfect escape into anonymity, allowing us to have a reckless element to our capers on the beach. One evening, a couple of us were caught in strong currents and taken a tad further out to see than we had anticipated. Reaching the shore rather breathless (and a bit shaken) after a strenuous swim back, we were touched to find that the man from whom we were renting our deck chairs was already in the water, genuinely concerned for us and ready to get help!
Laughing at ourselves
One night, we ventured into Kuta to sample the nightlife and got lost trying to walk our way to Hard Rock Hotel. Now this is hard to do in Kuta, which is small and linear, but clearly we have talent! After resorting to an exorbitant cab ride to get to our destination, we caught the last one and a half songs of a talented rock band at Centrestage, in Hard Rock Hotel. After the band wound up and we downed the drinks we had hastily ordered, we moved to Hard Rock Café, only to find that the live band there, the one producing screechy noises in a language that was hard to identify, was also on its last song. And so, much amused by our pathetic attempts to enjoy Kuta’s nightlife, we spent a few silent and awestruck moments on the beach, watching the bright moon and sparkling stars reflected in the rhythmic waves, before heading back to the hotel.
For happy senses, go to the local Warungs
With two vegetarians in our midst, one of them prone to a number of allergies, we were slightly skeptical about food. We need not have been. We delighted in the local Warungs (equivalents of dhabas in India) as well as the streetside cafes and restaurants we found. The Warungs specialised in local Balinese and Indonesian food. Our first meal, in the tiny Warung opposite our hotel, was chosen from a limited menu but was deliciously prepared, happily customised and served with side dishes of conversation and friendliness! My favourite meal in Bali it was. Warung Ocha in Seminyak allowed you to pick what you wanted from a buffet and the most tasteful dishes were the salads and veggie stir fries.
There’s also a lot to be said for the highly developed sense of aesthetics in Bali and the sinple Warungs capture this well. In Ocha, the landscaping and interplay of indoor and oudoor spaces would put most high-end restaurants to shame! Warung Damar in Kuta was more upmarket and the beef redang and veggie gado gado were memorable. Dinner at La Sal, the Spanish eatery down the road, with its sense of space, stood out for its careful preparation and assembly.
Unexpected celebrity status
That Indian cinema is popular worldwide is not news. Two young girls who offered us a share of the their offerings at Tirta Empul giggled about Salman Khan and Shahrukh. But we were all rather surprised that soap operas from Indian television seemed to really capture the Balinese imagination.
Wayan, our taxi driver for the day trip we took to Mount Batur, had me down as his contact person. Even as we discussed how common his name was in Bali, he expressed how delighted he was to have met a person called Mukta in person! Now this was a bit strange, as mine isn’t a particularly common Indian name. He murmured something about Mukta being a character in a daily Hindi soap called Utaran that he watched (dubbed in Bahasa, of course). At the buffet lunch we ate that day, our server Putu (another common name in Bali), was ecstatic when I introduced myself. She beckoned to her friends in excitement, pointing to me and saying “Mukta Rathore, Mukta Rathore…” once again referring to the character in the soap. I sure did not expect to be a celebrity in Bali!
I’m still a bit disbelieving that we pulled off a vacation in Bali as a reunion of our gang at the School of Planning and Architecture and though it was disappointing that more of our inner circle of friends could not make the trip owing to family and work commitments, I’m glad this short break worked out. Traveling for two days and vacationing for three has certainly taken a toll on our sleep cycle and exhaustion levels, but we’ve all come back richer and wiser for making the effort. Reconnecting with friends who know you well, sometime even a tad better than you know yourself, has the peculiar ability of bringing the most challenging aspects of your life into sharp focus even as you revel in gratitude for everything that has worked out well.
For me, the intense discussions we had on an astonishing variety subjects—politics, gender, sexual freedom, family and social structures, tourism, food chauvinism—were not merely informative (on the last night entertaining too, as two among the four of us proceeded to have an enormous noisy contest over the popularity of food from two different regions in India while the other two alternated between collapsing in giggles and worrying about the neighbors waking up and yelling at us!). They helped me look inwards and overhaul some assumptions I’ve been making in life, re-evaluate some priorities, refocus. As I flew the last leg toward home, I realized that experiencing Bali like that, among friends who are well read and intelligent (and opinionated may I add, with the caveat that I wouldn’t have them any other way!) added a certain variety and sharpness to my own perspectives.
Moreover, it made me realize how much strength it’s possible to draw from people you know. To hear about how each friend faced a particular set of adversities is hugely educational. More than that, it is reassuring that I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are die hard optimists, rock solid in their ethics and belief systems (even if rather varied), non-judgemental as well as unconditionally supportive to each other.
In the end, this trip to Bali for which I risked a precious working week and some, was not just a vacation. It was so much more!