Thursday, April 11, 2013



Most Americans would consider Bali the epitome of exotic.  This image was cultivated by anthropologists like Margaret Mead who described Bali as "an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature."  Mead acquired her credibility when she wrote the famous book Coming of Age in Samoa which, 50 years ago,  was required  reading of most college students including me.  Years later, Samoan natives admitted conning the naive Mead with exaggerated and fanciful stories about their sex lives.

Bali is a province of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country (after China, India and the U.S.).  Getting into Bali was an adventure in itself.  You need a visa to enter.  The cruise line takes care of that and charges your account the $30 cost.  We toured the island for two full days.

Our cruise ship, the Celebrity Solstice, anchored about 5 kilometers offshore, and we had to tender into port.  We boarded the first tender and, instead of proceeding directly to the port, we began cruising around and around the ship for almost an hour.  Apparently the cruise line hadn't cleared with the port authorities, or bribed the right person.  The net effect was that we got delayed for 2 hours.  Many of the tourists from our ship had their tours impacted or even cancelled.  Indonesia is a Third World country, and logic doesn't always prevail.  Here they had 2000 tourists ready to spend money, and the authorities were playing games!  Tourism comprises 80% of Bali's economy.

 I like to sit on the top deck of the tender in the fresh air to avoid getting seasick.  Dianne and our friends took seats in the hold, below deck where every seat was taken.  I sat with about 20 Indonesian crew members who were going home to see their families for the day.  Dark threatening clouds loomed in the sky.  It began to rain.  The crew members went below into steerage where it was hot and stifling and standing room only.  Fortunately, I was carrying an umbrella and kept mostly dry in the open air.  When it started raining cats and dogs, even I had to go down into the hold. 

Our tour guide, Bawa was a saint, as he patiently waited for us in the port for 3 hours in the rain.  February is rainy season in Bali, and the natives are used to it.  In fact, they get about 3 inches of rain a day in some parts of the island.  The weather forecast is always H & H--hot and humid.

The port is the city of Benoa, a resort town near the Southern tip of the island.  Just to the North is the Bali capital, Denpasar, a city of 500,000, and other nearby villages like Batuan and Ubud.  This is no different that in the U.S. where you drive from one suburb to another with no open space in between.  The signs are in Indonesian, so I couldn't tell when one town ended and the other began.

Our guide Bawa explained that his full name is Bawa Wayan.  Wayan means "first born son".  The second born son is Made, and the third born is Nyoman.  The Balinese do not have family names.  Although Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country, most of the people in Bali are Hindu.

On our sightseeing tour of Bali, I observed several interesting things:

First, virtually every house and every business establishment has a Hindu temple out in front.  Every day, at each house and shop, the residents place offerings of leaves and flowers on the ground in front of their temple.  Like anywhere else, some of the temples are exquisite while others are in various stages of disrepair. 

Second, the Balinese love to erect statues on the medians, and many of these are quire elaborate.  For example, the Patung Satria Gatotkaga is a beautiful white sculpture of horses and chariots. The word patung means "statue" in Indonesian.  Another colossus of the median honors General Ngurah Rai who fought against the Dutch colonists.   Many signs and billboards promote the popular local beer,

Bintang Pilsner, which is owned by Heineken.


In addition to the individual temples gracing people's homes, we passed by and visited some very large public temples which are tourist attractions.  For example, the Pura Desa Batuan is a huge complex devoted to the Hindu trinity of gods.  The Hindu Truiturti (the Great Trinity) is the concept in which the cosmic functions are personified in the forms of Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Maintainer; and Shiva, the Destroyer.  Hindu theology is not my forte, so I'll accept it as described to me.

In any event, this temple is a holy place, and they won't let you in unless you cover your legs with a sarong.  In the local culture, knees and ankles are considered sexy.  So they wrapped us up with sarongs, ala  Dorothy Lamour in old Bob Hope movies.     As far as I could tell, going in topless would be no problem.  But nobody did while I was there.


Bali is definitely a Third World country where ramshackle houses with corrugated tin roofs and walls sit next to exclusive resorts.  On the Southernmost tip of Bali, we were privileged to visit the award winning Bulgari Resort in Uluwatu for lunch.  Our friends Mike and Dorothy made reservations to get massages and spend the night there.   This resort is over the top.  It is rated a 5-star hotel with only 59 rooms and suites.  This leafy resort with numerous reflecting pools is perched on a hillside about 500 feet above the ocean, and you have to ride on golf carts to get around.   You call the office the staff picks you up.   Among other awards, the Bulgari was voted the Number One International Hotel by Vanity Fair Magazine in 2009.

Driving back to the ship, we spent much time in rush hour traffic in the light rain.  Motor scooters carrying entire families scurried in and out of traffic between cars and trucks.  Signs reading hati hati (be careful) are on every block.    We love to see how people live in other cultures.  Did I mention it rains a lot in Bali?   At least in this equatorial climate, they never see snow, but everyone carries a large golf umbrella.   Gas is cheap in Indonesia which is an oil exporting country.  Petrol sells for about 50 cents per liter, which converts to less than $2 per gallon.  Everyone is a millionaire--a 100,000 rupiah note is worth about $10 American.

To my surprise, we drove by a baseball stadium, the home of the Bali Red Sox.  Seriously, they do play baseball in Bali although not to the extent they do in, say, Korea or Japan.   The Red Sox do wear red uniforms.

Metalworking is a major industry in Bali, and they produce a lot of silver.  There are many silversmith shops, mostly catering to tourists.  We visited one huge establishment decorated with many large stone statues of dancing nymphs both inside and out.  The silver jewelry was exorbitantly priced.  I took photos of the outside, but they wouldn't allow photos inside.  That was unfortunate, because the layout of the store was very interesting.  A large curving staircase to the second floor showroom was adorned with these magnificent statues.  I suppose the prices had to be high to cover the capital costs and overhead.   Our guide later took us to a different silver shop with fewer bells and whistles where the prices were more reasonable, and we purchased some items.

We were invited to visit the house of a supposedly average Balinese family, and it is quite different from what we would expect.  In this tropical climate, they have no air conditioning, so the rooms are stand alone around a courtyard.  They are not enclosed--no doors or even walls.  Certainly that makes them look spacious.  For privacy, they can pull down bamboo curtains.  The rooms do, however, roofs and overhangs which came in handy as we stood under our umbrellas in the downpour.  I'm sure I mentioned it rains a lot in Bali!   Everything is green and the flowers are beautiful!


The house we visited has a business making coffee.  It's called Cafe Luwak, or kopi luwak, in the local language.  This is an interesting story.  If you've seen the movie Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, you may remember this.   These folks raise civets (specifically the Asian Palm Civet) which are animals resembling small cats.  The civet is fed the coffee beans.  The operators wait a while until the beans come out the other side.   You probably don't want to hear too much detail, but the result is brewed into an expensive delicacy.  Drinking Cafe Luwak was on Jack Nicholson's bucket list in the movie.  The exchange in the movie went like this:  "You're shittin' me!"  "No, the cats beat me to it!"  This reminded me of another famous quote about laws and sausages--don't inquire too closely.

It wasn't on MY bucket list, and I didn't taste it.  I didn't want to offend the host, but my excuse was I don't even like Maxwell House or Folgers.  This coffee is considered the most expensive coffee in the world with a retail price as much as $700 per kilo.  Coffee experts claim it doesn't taste any better than, say, Folgers, but it is sold for the novelty of the story. 

It has raised much controversy among animal welfare activists because of the way the animals are treated.  The Balinese keep the animals in small cages and force feed them the coffee beans. 
By, in effect, running an animal factory, the price is kept down.   Traditionally, when the stuff was obtained from civets in the wild, the coffee was very expensive because it was labor intensive--the farmers would have to roam the fields seeking out the animal poop and combing through it to retrieve the coffee beans.  Talk about a crappy job!

In Denpasar, we visited a batik cloth factory.  Batik is the traditional Javanese cloth made manually using a wax resist dyeing technique.  There are quite a few of these small factories connected to retail outlets.  We watched as the ladies weaved intricate designs with bright colors--dragons and landscapes in the cloth.  The cloth starts out white, but goes through dyeing processes for the different colors using wax to keep the colors separate.  The traditional colors are blue (or indigo), brown and light yellow which represent the three major Hindu deities--Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.   Certain patterns can be worn only by royalty.

Most tourists coming to Bali want to see monkeys and elephants, and the Balinese have built parks to accommodate them.   We drove many miles through the jungle to a park where we did get to ride for an hour on a Sumatran elephant named Momon who was missing one tusk.  His name means "young boy" in
Indonesian.  Elephants are not native to Bali, but they are imported from Sumatra, not more than a couple hundred miles away.  Our driver, Raka, sat on the elephant's head, while Dianne and I were perched precariously on a wooden loveseat tied to the animal's back.    Momon plodded uphill and downhill through the town and countryside, past rice paddies and banana plantations and families on motorbikes.  Dogs and chickens roam the neighborhood freely, sharing the road with us.  Sitting ten feet off the ground on an elephant can be a bumpy and scary ride, especially when he stomps through a pond.   I held on tight.

Back at the port, as we returned to the tender, we were greeted by a chorus of young girls in traditional dress performing the ancestral dances and music.  It was a nice touch.

In conclusion, "exotic" is a relative term.  It connotes an environment different and more desirable than what we're familiar with.  Compared to Chicago, there is no question that Bali is exotic.  When you stay at the Bulgari or other high end resort, it is certainly desirable.  But you could stay in a high end resort in Cleveland or Buffalo for a week, and it would be exotic  When you leave the confines of the resort area you would no longer think so.  So it is with Bali.  It is different than back home, but as a Third World country with its steamy climate, its teeming streets and traffic jams, it is not necessarily a desirable place.

NEXT:  Australia's Top End and the Great Barrier Reef


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