Some 20 years ago, I’d been through quite the year. I’d split up with my boyfriend of seven years, come out of the closet, started and broken up with first girlfriend, changed house 5 times (sometimes planned; sometimes – less so. It was a complicated year). Finally, it was 2001, and the world had decided this whole web thing wasn’t gonna work. Digital agencies suddenly started to look at their finances in a cold and sober manner – cue redundancies all round. Oyster Partners, where I was at the time, offered a pretty generous redundancy package – plus, I’d been saving for the last year with the precise plan of going travelling. Came out of the redundancy meeting and happily rang my friend Victoria, who worked in travel, and said the glorious phrase: Get me a one way ticket to Bali.
A couple of intense weeks later, I’d done all my farewells, packed, sold or given away everything to reduce myself to a single backpack, and flown with Garuda on what was probably the last long haul smoking flight in the world (pity the non smokers on that one: it’s a long flight). And it was only when I landed, and was being driven on scooter back past crazy Hindu statues in tropical air with the smell of clove cigarettes all round, that it finally hit me: I am travelling!
I’d loved Bali then – chaotic as hell, but hot and lovely and exotic. But now, twenty years on, Bali feels like it’s seen a lot more tourists. The beaches (around Kuta to Seminyak, at least) are minging – covered in plastic rubbish. The people are still smiling and friendly, but hellos are universally followed by ‘you wanna….’ – massage, shopping, food, drugs, whatever. The traffic is crazier than ever – ten scooters to every car, all weaving everywhere; pavements are fair game for scooters if the road is full; two way roads are often barely wide enough for one car. Anything a tourist might like is surrounded by touristy places – eg, the rice terraces which were pretty empty roadsides back around 2000, can barely be seen through cafes now. The surf is still decent – easy beginner level waves that even I could catch – but the rubbish wrapping itself around your legs is pretty offputting.
Still, though – it is beautiful. For every grim, ramshackle modern building, there’s a fabulous temple or statue – every hundred meters has something gorgeous. The green is still intensely lush; the Balinese smile is still one of the brightest in the world.
So, we travelled around a bit. Visited Ubud for a day. The monkey forest was surprisingly delightful. The modern entry portal felt like a fake touristy hell, but inside had moss covered ancient temples (two temples of death, no less, dating from 14th century), temporary cemeteries (cremation is the norm, but you often have to bury someone up to 5 years before the mass cremation); tree-and-creeper-covered bridges; and crazy mossy statues everywhere – cartooney dogs, monkeys, animals mating, monkeys, demons and more monkeys.
Also worth checking out if you’re in the region is Gunung Kawi Sebatu temple near Ubud – particularly lovely, with a small swimming pool for women and for men; plus a water garden of giant carp and hostile guardian geese who seemed determined that my toes were edible.
For lunch, we’d stopped in the rice terrace area – but the place we initially went into was one of those who specialized in lurwak coffee – or catshit coffee, to its friends. This is coffee beans that have been excreted by local civet cats, which are supposedly the best coffee in the world. At any rate, it’s the most expensive. I’d been curious to try it originally, but decided not to bother after reading up. Basically – it originally was discovered because the Dutch were harvesting all the coffee for themselves back in the 1800s, so the local Indonesians wound up using this instead. And in fairness, it was probably much better than normally harvested coffee back then – because the civet cats would only pick the ripest cherries, and the beans deposited out would have been cleaner and less likely to mould than normal harvested crops at the time. However, modern lurwak coffee is obviously farmed rather than natural, and the treatment of the cats is pretty unpleasant. Which is what we saw in that cafe – the cats are kept in small cages, looking mangy and unhappy. We turned around and left, without photos or coffee, and had a pleasant mei goreng next door instead.
Ulu Watu temple is also pretty fab: the temple is one of the oldest – likely over a thousand years old – and is one of the 9 directional temples protecting Bali from evil spirits. But what makes it special for an ignorant westerner is the location: perched on top of 70m sheer cliffs, over a roaring world famous surfspot (yes, that ulu watu), and a perfect view of sunset – makes it unbeatable. The temple monkeys here were particularly evil buggers, however – various hats and sunglasses were being chomped on, and we saw one perfect act of thievery in progress: a monkey snuck quietly behind a row of people, then quickly climbed one man’s back, grabbed his glasses and ran off before the guy could even turn, much distressed. I hope he didn’t need those glasses for driving home that evening. The ones in the monkey forest, by comparison, seemed a bit less aggressive – though even there we saw one guy jumped for his water bottle. The road there made Irish boreens look like motorways. Combining that with All The Tourists trying to get there for sunset, meant the 25k journey took best part of 2h. But – worth it.
Did I mention temples? One of the things I love in Bali, is that religion and spirituality are so close to the surface. Everywhere you walk are little woven grass baskets of offerings – maybe a single flower, a mint, a cigarette: with incense, the gods accept everything. It’s not a pushy, ‘you should do this, heathen’ approach – just fundamental part of everyday life. Which is why so many temples and statues everywhere – giant Krishnu at a roundabout, little demons embedded into door posts, the upper floor of a clothes shop might be a temple, sacred trees with checkered sarongs wrapped around them – more pervasive, and less repetitive, than catholicism in Ireland.
’Silent day’- Nyepi – was coming up, so we’d planned to be out before then. It’s a day where literally nothing happens – all lights are turned off, shops, roads and airports are closed; even internet access is shut down for the 24h. The intention is to fool the demons into thinking the island is empty so they depart – the day before, giant papier mache models of the demons (ogeh ogeh) are paraded through the streets and burned. We left a couple of days before all this fun – but our friend Fernanda, who was over with her brother Marcelo from Brazil, was leaving on the last day before Nyepi, and discovered a bit too late that all the roads were closed from 1pm the day before. So they wound up walking to the airport – a long couple of hours stroll with all the baggage, and a very crowded airport at the end since everyone else was escaping too so standing room only.
Random thing: discovered we loved West Timor art. Ubud – well, all of Bali – is full of art shops selling paintings and carvings; it’s more intensely artistic than pretty much any other place I’ve been. Apparently, this is down to history – in the 1400s, the Hindu elite from all over Indonesia, came to Bali as the last Hindu refuge when Islam took over on all the other islands. And as all the aristocracy were wealthy art patrons, and all got condensed into one small area – the island developed an intense tradition of art, so much so that there was no word for ‘artist’ – it’s just part of what everyone did. So – everywhere you go, wood carving, stone sculptures, paintings. Which we both quite like, but it all looks pretty samey after a while, TBH. But on the way to Ubud, one small Timor art shop caught Vanessa’s eye. We didn’t stop – and she regretted: couldn’t find it online and thought she’d never be able to find it again. Till on the way back, we stopped for petrol – one door up from the very place! We wanted to buy the whole shop, but – given luggage constraints – came away with just a couple of small pieces. And V is now best friends with the owner, having added the shop to Google Maps and chatting with her on WhatsApp non stop, suggesting to add stuff to ebay and etsy.