Through My Eyes

Timing was everything.


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Having arrived in Bali, on the first day, I was greeted by Bagus (pronounced Ba-goos), a local driver hired by one of my relatives in Surabaya. Bagus was to help me out for the week and drive with me to different locations on the island (this is the sole result of having an overprotective family in a foreign country). Of course, I’m not used to having someone drive me in the States as I’ve had my own license since the age of 16 and a service like this is not something I could afford (nor would opt for) back home, so I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of viewing Bagus as a personal “chauffeur.” During the five days I stayed on Bali, I have Bagus to thank for introducing me to a plethora of new Indonesian and international music (having been oblivious to what’s playing on radio stations and TV for the last two months). Surprisingly, he and his parents are huge fans of country music (think Billy Ray Cyrus, Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton) and on multiple occasions started belting out “Achy Breaky Heart” at the top of his lungs while we were riding in the car. I’m not a particular fan of the genre, but seeing his enthusiasm made me join him every single time. He called me nothing but Winnie-san the first few days since he speaks Japanese fluently and told me he thought I was Japanese when we first met. He even told me how much it usually costs to get out of a speeding ticket (1000 rupiah). I’d like to think we had fun getting to know each other that week.

I stayed in an area called Legian the first night at a place called 14 Roses on the main drag. Legian is situated in between Kuta (the international party scene – think raucous beefcake Aussies with their shirts off) and Seminyak (a quiet, more sophisticated, and ultimately mature area featuring swanky restaurants, luxurious lounges, and intimate nooks and crannies). In many ways, it falls within the two in terms of characteristics. (If you’re traveling alone, like I was, Legian is likely your best bet as you’ll have the opportunity to meet people just down the street towards Kuta, but not feel overwhelmed being in the heart of it all.) 14 Roses is considered a midrange, affordable option for accomodation – a night there runs about $60 (in the high season) for a large single room with a pool and garden view.

I actually wasn’t a big fan of Kuta. Walking on the beach, I had to step over a number of dead fish that had washed up to shore. When I asked Bagus about this, he said this was an effect of the pollution coming over from Java. I also wasn’t fond of the notion that you have to pay at least 30,000 Indonesian rupiah (approx. $3 USD) to use a lounge chair on beachfront property for an hour. If you like the Cancun scene, and you don’t mind partying with Arnolds (in his early days) and bleach-bottle blondes, Kuta is for you. For me, it was basically a shit show. The only night I spent out in Kuta that I would write home about was when I went to Apache, a reggae club that had great live music, a resident DJ, and a very mixed crowd. I actually accompanied a friendly waiter I had met at the place I had dinner at that night close to my hotel. Since Apache was right down the street, and I asked if we could walk as opposed to getting on his bike, I felt fairly safe. It turned out to be really fun, so if you’re planning to go to Bali anytime soon, make Apache your first stop on a weekend night. (Just try to stay away from consuming too many “jam jars,” which are the equivalent to “buckets” in Koh Tao. Many Balinese are fond of Arak, a rice spirit usually mixed with a fruit drink. You’ll see an “Arak Attack on almost every menu.)

It’s funny – when you go to a local store and buy something, you may notice that the shop owner will take your cash and touch it to against other nearby products to ensure that he receives more business that day. I don’t know why, but I really liked that. Just something to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

For the second and third nights, I stayed at Hendrick’s (Annie’s husband) best friend’s home in Kuta, which was in a more residential part of the city. Here, you actually see the daily activities that don’t entail catering to the tourist community. In the mornings, you can witness men and women at the nearby temple making basket offerings that include cash, flowers, rice, and other foods, countless warung getting ready to serve their regular customers for the day, and young children in burgundy and white uniforms riding in the front of their mother or father’s motorbikes headed for school. In the Kuta or even Legian stretch of southwest Bali, tourists are just getting up struggling with hangovers from the night before, looking to ease their headaches by consuming yet more cocktails and beer on the terraces of bars on the main road. In San Francisco, we call that brunch.

For the remaining two nights, I stayed in Jimbaran at Hotel Puri Bambu. I only knew to stay there because my grand uncle, aunt, mom, and grandma stayed there a few weeks before me and they recommended it for its price, service, and proximity to the ocean and variety of fresh seafood. I checked in and immediately knew it was a good decision. A traditional hour-long Balinese oil massage only put me behind $5, not including the tip. The midrange room rate includes a daily breakfast of Indonesian dishes and fruit buffet, access to the shuttle that goes to and from Kuta beach, and the tranquility of being tucked away in a little alley only a few minutes walk from the beach. After having spent the majority of my trip in places where I checked under the sheets each night for bed bugs, this was a treat.

You can get ikan bakar (grilled fish) anywhere along the beach here, whether it be at the fancier restaurants where you pick the size and type or the catch of the day slung at the seafood market a little north of the hotel. I chose Blue Ocean to try their grilled red snapper, fried calamari, and a cold Bintang.

Between laying in the sun and eating fresh food, Bagus and I did get a lot done in the matter of a few days. We went to Uluwatu, the southern tip of Bali where an ancient temple sits atop a cliff above rocky shores. Here, monkeys are especially notorious for their aggressive antics and interaction with people, so we put away our sunglasses, made sure we didn’t have food in our bags, and kept my camera under wraps. We continued up north to visit Tanah Lot, another temple that lies on the western coast of the island. (Indonesians sure know how to kick back even when they’re paying respect to the spirit gods…)

We finally made our way to Ubud, which I’d anticipated visiting since reading a memoir called Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you’re female, you’ve most likely read this book and vowed to go on a journey of self exploration, such did the author, through Italy, India, and Indonesia. (Julia Roberts, to portray Elizabeth in the onscreen adaptation, was actually in town shooting while we were there. Didn’t see Ms. Roberts, unfortunately.) In the book, Elizabeth befriends a Balinese healer (what Westerners would recognize as an herbal doctor) who becomes a primary character in the last third of the book. I told Bagus I wanted to meet Wayan Nuriasih so I could talk to her about creating some jamu to bring back to my mom, so I showed him the address listed in the Bali Rough Guide Nate so kindly lent me before leaving SE Asia last month, and we went on a mission to find her shop. After almost an hour of driving around and stopping to ask for directions, we came to the front of her home and asked a teenage boy sitting on the steps whether she lived or worked here or both. He pointed us in the direction of the street where her shop was, and we set off again. When I got out of the car, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t packed with tourists, as I expected most of Elizabeth’s audience would come to pay homage to Wayan. The walls of her shop were covered with exotic herbs, roots, and powders in clear glass jars. Apparently, since the book was published in 2006, business has boomed and many of the locals, as well as foreign visitors, flock to her shop for special massages, treatments, and natural remedies. I wanted to talk to her before making a purchase, but was informed that she was booked for the day. Her assistant gave me his mobile number so I could reach him to schedule an appointment later in the week, but I really didn’t have much time so I bought a packet of tablets for my grandpa’s arthritis and left. Should have known her services would be popular.

Ubud’s claim to fame isn’t just due to Wayan’s popularity. It’s been long considered an artist’s haven and looking around, you will understand why (it may even remind you of Berkeley with it’s hippie atmostphere and laid back vibe). It’s lush setting among forested hills and wet rice fields provide shelter for craftsmen, carvers, and artists alike. It’s a rewarding getaway from the chaos that is south Bali. Ubud is also famous for the various babi guling joints found all over town. Babi guling is a dish that consists of slices of roasted pork, pork skin, and Balinese spices served with shrimp chips over rice. If you ask me, Chinese-style roasted pork tastes much more flavorful, but when in Ubud, right?

One of my favorite activities was mountain biking with a group of Australians and a local guide from Bali Bintang. We were picked up from our hotels early in the morning and shuttled to a coffee and tea plantation near Kintamani for product tasting and breakfast. We then spent 3 hours biking downhill on backroads towards the direction of a village called Pejeng, in central Bali. Riding through several alleys where angry stray dogs barked and growled at your feet, I regretted not getting a rabies shot at the travel health clinic in SF. The ride allowed for some breathtaking views and we were able to stop and meet people along the way, stopping even at Wayan’s (our guide) own village to say hello to his friends and pass by the home where he grew up. I should forewarn you about the downhill nature of the ride. You’ll be using your brakes constantly and your forearms will be sore from intensely gripping the handlebars for 3 hours, so it can be tiring.

My last night on Bali called for a very unique experience. I rode on the back of a friend’s motorbike, in the rain, to a multi-level dance club and karaoke venue called Asakasa in Denpasar. Walking in, I didn’t know what to expect. The club only saw local patrons, so I was the only non-Indonesian inside. Once in, I was asked to pay a cover and leave my camera inside a locker to be picked up upon leaving. (I know, I know. I had stuffed my D40 into my purse that night knowing I was going to a club. Call me crazy, but I didn’t want to miss anything in case something good happened.) The house music thumped so loudly I thought my heart was going to explode. There were creepy looking older men who were dancing up front where there was a large stage, watching several go-go girls who wore nothing but a lacy bra and underwear. I have nothing against voyeurismn, but I wasn’t sure this was my style. We stayed for a little while longer, but I decided to call it a night once 1:30 rolled around.

Overall, I feel that I was able to experience multiple sides of Bali. While it is a tourist destination on the southeast Asian route, you can still find places where the people aren’t going to try to sell you something and meet individuals who are genuinely interested in talking to you and exchanging perspectives. It’s definitely a place I’d like to explore more of in the future.


Written by winniewongsf

January 10, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Posted in food, travel

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