I just got back from Bali, and thought I would pause for a little reflection. I feel like I need to share it, to make it real for someone else; hang on to it just a little longer.
So, yes, Bali (the locals call it ball-EE) is a tropical paradise. But it’s more than that. I’ve been to various beaches and tropical destinations, and there is a familiar, lovely sameness to them. All hibiscus and plumeria and sultry lushness. But Bali felt special. Culture, at once ancient and profoundly present, didn’t feel like a tourist export. Balinese Hinduism guides many aspects of their cultural fabric, and it makes Bali a very special place. I loved the food, the architecture, the art, and especially, the people.
Little Altars Everywhere
One lingering memory of Bali is the scent. There is humid jungle, sure, and fragrant tropical flowers, but there is always incense burning. There are delightful little offerings left everywhere: at temples great and small, entrances to market shops, even on the windshield of cars parked on a village street! Shaded with parasols, and wrapped in sarongs, the little temples could be ornate or simple, but always graced with the small gift of a woven coconut leaf basket filled with incense, areca nut, betel leaf, lime, flowers, rice and often a cracker or something for the gods to eat. I loved these little unexpected gifts of beauty, even when they were trampled by unseeing tourists or leftover from the previous day. It was a reminder to breathe; a reminder to wake up and be conscious.
OMG: the food was an unexpected bonus. Coconut! Lemongrass! Chilis! Special Balinese herbs and nuts, pummeled into submission by mortar and pestle! Chicken, pork and very fresh seafood was skewered or wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, accompanied by locally-produced rice and sambals that I became addicted to. It is all fresh, spicy, healthy, and absolutely delicious (I came home with recipes, if you’re interested).
Being sort of addicted to yoga anyway, of course I had to do yoga while in Bali. It seems like the whole island is breathing or meditating at any given time. While in Ubud, at a place called, perfectly, The Yoga Barn, we were all encouraged by the talented instructor Cat (10am each day) to get in touch with our pelvic floors (I think I pulled mine, actually). There is a cafe, The Garden Kafe, attached that serves pretty amazing smoothies and ayurvedic food. It’s a great place to refresh after the internal and external heat of the yoga.
Speaking of breathing and meditation, driving was quite an experience in Bali. Scooters are a major part of the driving experience. I didn’t ride one myself, but most of the 4 million residents get around that way: there are a lot of scooters. To drive in Bali, it seems that you need a healthy disrespect of the center line. Safely in the backseat, I watched the spectacle while leaving the heavy lifting to our talented drivers (guides, really). Consistent with the rest of the culture, the Balinese were purposeful yet very sanguine about getting around. No angry outbursts; just a straightforward need to give way occasionally.
Bali has rich traditions in art: many techniques and disciplines are centuries old. Wood and stone carving are everywhere, and with the patina of moss and oxidation from the jungle, it’s hard to tell what is new and what is ancient. The Balinese are very proud of their painting traditions, and you can see particularly amazing specimens in Ubud, a village that is a mecca for artists from around the world. There is a rich tradition of jewelry making, both in silver and gold. John Hardy, in the mid-1970′s, realized the unique aesthetic of the Balinese style, and incorporates traditional motifs and techniques in the jewelry they export all over the world (more on that in another post). Throughout every discipline, there is a particular Bali beauty that is identifiable.
The People of Bali
Mostly I credit the Balinese for making the experience unforgettable. Unfailingly gracious, I fell in love with their beauty and openness. They matter-of-factly went about their daily lives and traditions, not just tolerating those of us who are tourists (I’d like to think I’m a sensitive tourist, but a tourist nonetheless), but actually embracing us–sometimes literally! They seemed to WANT to share their beliefs, their culture. Sure, they would love it if you exchanged some rupiahs with them to take home some part of their heritage, but it feels like an authentic transaction.
One of our drivers, who wanted to practice his English, enthusiastically told us how to meditate for our health and careers. Another, Sudiartha–I think sincerely–invited us to his home in Denpasar (I’m hoping to take him up on it for a future visit). And Rai, our guide for a day through rice paddies, a temple and the jungle of Ubud, helped us understand that the Balinese connect to God through the natural beauty of their surroundings, and their rituals, which are centuries old.
In the end, I have a lingering love for the Balinese and their culture. I will go back.