Bali

In a distant past, perhaps the best thing about Bali was that it let you be. It was a laid-back, mystical place that barely asserted itself on a map and one could go there to sit peacefully, among its waves and temples.

Nowadays, Bali is an entirely different beast, as are we human beings. During our month on the island, we could still get the sense of what Bali once was but we also spent a lot of our time contemplating The Great Expat Takeover. The Balinese are living in the midst of a young, yuppie migration from all corners of the overworked and spiritually void First World. At a glance, this co-existence appears peaceful and profitable for all, but like most realities, it is a delicate balance.

I was a victim of a bag-snatcher by motorcycle the first night we arrived. It is something that the local communities dependent on tourism try not to advertise, but the Canggu and Kuta bag snatchers are notorious. I was lucky because I was on foot and I only lost some money and my cell phone. Many people are violently pushed off their scooters and suffer injuries that require a hospital visit. Physically, I was fine but the police made sure to snuff out what remained of my pride by arranging a thinly veiled bribe: “translation fees”. They blew their cigarette smoke in my face, wore fat ruby rings on their fingers, and showed little interest in my story. But I needed the police report in order to file my insurance claim so I was forced to play their game. The experience left me with an uneasy feeling that I was never quite able to shake.

Secondly, as a visitor, you will constantly be at war with the omnipotent tourist price. You can easily spend just as much money as you would at home, even though everything in Bali should be far cheaper. In the popular tourist areas, you can’t escape it and even when you make a conscious effort to frequent the local warung (restaurant/food stall), you should always be vigilant of what others are paying. If you insist on the local price, they will concede.

But for the most part, the Balinese are warm and welcoming, which explains why homestays are one of the most popular accommodation options on the island. We chose Canggu (pronounced: Chan-GOO) as our home base, a somewhat sleepy coastal village in North Kuta. Its beaches are not extremely popular nor particularly pretty, but its surf breaks are inviting for all levels and the water is mostly clean. Tourism and development is on their doorstep, but much of the surrounding countryside still offers scenes of peaceful rice paddies and children flying kites.

I found that I best understood the essence of Bali on an early morning walk to the beach, around 6AM. A stillness hangs in the air, punctuated by small acts of reverence. As the sun splashes the sky with a new palette for the day, women are carefully placing their offerings to the Hindu gods in the doorways to their houses and family shrines. It is done with the utmost care and attention, so as not to disturb the many dogs still engaged in a restful sleep in the most inconvenient of places. (Dogs live like kings in Bali).

The first sound to interrupt the morning almost always fit perfectly into my Balinese dream. It was the soft pitter-patter of a surfer hustling his way to the beach. The incense from the offerings would waft around him like a magical robe escorting him to the sea and I would catch my breath and squint my eyes, unsure if I was hallucinating. But next, inevitably, the incessant whine of a motorbike would begin, followed by the tick-tock of a hammer on a bamboo frame for a new hotel and I would be jerked back to the Bali of today. Not only are there waves to be caught, there is money to be made.

But it was still good. We spent one month of simple living in the Pondok Bambu homestay, under the wonderful care of Dian, Made, and their family. They run a surf hostel next door, but we stayed in a room that was connected to their family compound and our relationship with them quickly became very neighborly. We exchanged daily news, we practically adopted their two dogs, and we fawned over their small children.

They gave us a tour of their home and showed us the shrine where they pray, as practicing Hare Krishna Hindus. Every Hindu family home has a private shrine to express their daily devotion to the gods. Offerings (canang sari) of flower petals, candies, tobacco, and incense are left in a palm leaf each morning as a thank you for world peace. The philosophy behind canang sari is a show of daily self-sacrifice, given that these offerings take time to prepare. Many local businesses also have their own shrines to make offerings as well. It is a beautiful, constant manifestation of the faith of the Balinese Hindus.

It was almost too easy to set up a small and simple life in Canggu. We rented a scooter for one month for 800,000 rupiahs (50 euros) and Damián bought a surfboard for 1,600,000 rupiahs (approx. 100 euros). Because I was working as well as surfing, I stuck to renting a board for whenever I went to the beach, but it only cost about 30,000 rupiah (2 euros) for an hour. I also bought a five-class pass (550,000 rupiah or 34 euros) at the Canggu Fitness Studio, which was only a five minute walk from our homestay. We had a small gas stove to cook breakfast, a water cooler, and a nearby local warung where we could have a meal for less than euro. It was buffet style, with plenty of vegetarian options, so we rarely got tired of eating there.

We spent our days surfing, sightseeing, and soaking up the sun and for that, Bali is one of our best memories. It is also why millions more tourists and expats continue to arrive each year.

When we ventured outside of our little haven in Canggu, our dream life was always thrown a little out of whack. But adventure is necessary.

For example, driving a motorcycle in Bali is chaotic and unpredictable. People drive on sidewalks, in the wrong direction, and generally have little sympathy for anyone trying to make a turn unless you shamelessly throw yourself into oncoming traffic. In the cities, the air is laden with pollution and dust and so it is impossible to arrive anywhere without feeling like you were dragged 600 meters behind a truck. Fortunately, a quick dip in the ocean usually serves to wash away your trauma.

We also contended with tourist crowds at most of the popular temples, but it was bearable because we were not there in the high season. Fortunately, Bali does not fit the stereotype “once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all.” We found each temple offered a story, a location, or a monument that was interesting and unique.

However, some cities were not. The interior, temperate city of Ubud has firmly established itself as an international yoga refuge and digital nomad hotspot. If this is your motive, you will feel at home in Ubud. We were fine with only spending a few hours there. There is a nice local market, the mischievous monkey forest (50,000 rupiahs), and plenty of trendy art shops and cafes. Just north of the city, the Tegallong rice fields also draw many tourists, but there is an entrance fee and these fields are not necessarily more spectacular than others you may stumble upon while wandering through the countryside for free.

The southwest peninsula of Uluwatu opens its arms to hoards of surfers every year. Specifically, Padang Padang beach is a world-renown surf spot and home to the Rip Curl Padang Cup. Another great beach is Uluwatu Beach, where you have to paddle out through a limestone cave to get to the surf spot. If you’re not quite brave enough, there are plenty of cafés and restaurants perched on the cliff side that offer the perfect lookout point to view the surf gods.

Damián and I tried to avoid the areas of Seminyak (luxury travellers) and Kuta (budget backpackers) because we felt certain it wasn’t our scene. In fact, Bali is a place that many people come back to precisely because the first visit is needed just to sort out the overly marketed tourist traps from the areas that are still hanging on to their authenticity, and to find your own niche.

“You can’t have it all” is a paradox that this tiny island is constantly butting up against. And we were both cautious observers and active participants in this dilemma. Because if Bali is trying to be all these things to its foreign friends, what will Bali become for the Balinese?

-Ashley


INFORMATION FOR DIABETICS

Given its reputation for health and rejuvenation, Bali is an easy place for a diabetic to go on vacation. There are lots of healthy food options. The local dish, Nasi Goreng, is essentially spicy fried rice with your choice of toppings. It is good to try, but not a good idea to repeat every day. When ordering Nasi Goreng, we asked them to hold the rice and pile on more vegetables. Many local restaurants are also buffet style so it is easy to be selective about what you eat.

We booked accommodation with our own fridge to ensure that we could always keep Damián’s insulin cold. Refrigerators are common in most accommodations given that people tend to stay for a longer periods of time. When we spent a week on another island, we left a portion of the insulin back at our homestay in case of an emergency as well.

Always bring double your insulin supply for the duration of your holiday. It is also a good idea to bring a back-up glucometer and pump if you use one. If you need to purchase insulin during your stay, there are a number of quality private hospitals close to the tourist areas that can assist you. (See our post on BIMC in Nusa Dua).

TEMPLES WE LOVE

*Remember to dress modestly. Wear clothing that covers your shoulders and midriff and bring a sarong to cover your legs. Expect to pay an entrance fee and (sometimes) a small parking fee.

Tanah Lot – Tabanan, West Bali

As one of Bali’s most popular temples, it is a bit difficult to find peace here, but they say that the sunset is unbeatable.

Goa Gajah – Ubud, Central Bali

It is called the elephant cave, but there are no elephants. Just a really cool cave with stone idols inside.

Pura Gunung Kawi – Tegallalang, Central Bali

A shrine that honors kings and queens from the 11th century.

Tirta Empul – Tampaksiring, Central Bali

A beautiful temple complex that provides holy water for priests and bathing water for the Balinese. A bath is thought to bring good fortune and health.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu – Uluwatu, South Bali

Home to the spectacular kecak performance that re-enacts Ramayana. It involves chanting, masked actors, and a brilliant fire dance.

Tirta Gangga – Karangasem, Eastern Bali

A beautiful royal water palace with the opportunity to “walk on water.”

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