Bali Hi, Bali Why: days 1 – 3 of the Bali excursion

Bali surf
Bali surf

After spending a few days on this famed tourist hotspot, I have a few “whys” to ponder .

1.  For example, why, when people mention Bali, do they neglect to mention it’s part of Indonesia?  I don’t know how long I struggled with the misconception that Bali was actually a sovereign nation.  This misconception was based simply on the smugness of people dropping its name.  When they would subtly one-up others’ comments with the tropical and paradisiacal conjurings wrapped in the famed title, I could only assume it must be a place in itself.  Yes, I blame the name-droppers for my lack of geography.  From now on, they’d better all specify all nations affiliated with all places mentioned.  GPS coordinates or a Google map inserted smoothly into the conversation wouldn’t hurt either.  But in the end, I guess this is just part of the Bali effect—it sort of supersedes its nation in notoriety.

Following my own advice--that's where Bali's at.
Following my own advice–that’s where Bali’s at.

2.  But why is it suddenly so fashionable to claim the Bali is “overrated” and that Lombok is better?  You show me another island ringed with sparkling beaches diverse as the world offers—rocky wave-breakers to calm snorklers, blistering white powders to choppy black gravels, beer-reeking party-mongers to yacht club exclusives to surf-cult havens to native-only off-the-beaten-trackers—and I’ll have to ask whether any such jewel could be so overrated.  Sprinkle in forests of palms and fields of rich produce, food ready for every pallet, and I’ll ask how it can be overrated.  Not to rain on Lombok’s parade, but I see no reason the two neighbors can’t share the sun.

When you see a beach like this, it's hard to say it's overrated.
When you see a beach like this, it’s hard to say it’s overrated.

3.  Another one: why is the land so synonymous with rowdy spring break beach scenes also the one, out of all seventeen thousand Indonesian islands, renowned for spirituality?  Are the raucous crowds of Kuta somehow the rowdy balance to the long-bearded yogis and rampant yoga (mixed with plenty of fare-trade cappuccinos and designer spas, of course)?  The island smells of cigarettes and incense.  Yes, Bali certainly mixes its trappings for tourists—it’s lewd as Cancun in March, yet forever sprinkled by anonymous offerings to myriad deities.  Why the strange brew of earthly and spiritual, Bali?  Do you somehow embody the human potential for carnality and soul-searching?  Or are you really no different than any other place on earth in this regard?

Beach party at an international surfing competition.
Beach party at an international surfing competition.
And the quieter side: a typical offering for the gods.
And the quieter side: a typical offering for the gods.

4.  Speaking of spiritual healing, what on earth is so comforting about temples adorned with swastikas and statues of dagger-toothed primates wielding war clubs and skulls and decapitated virgins?  It’s Planet of the Apes aligned with the Third Reich in the ultimate axis of creepiness, and it’s supposed to calm and relax and lead the lost to their true centers?  Thanks, but I’ll just stick to the beaches.

Tell me it doesn't look like a primate invasion--I think this one is holding a heart.
Tell me it doesn’t look like a primate invasion–I think this one is holding a heart.
I don't advise offering any incense to this guy...
I don’t advise offering any incense to this guy…
And this one I'm leaving open to interpretation.
And this one I’m leaving open to interpretation.

OK, OK, I may be stepping into the “culturally insensitive” realm with that comment—I know I have a lot to learn about the beliefs around here (though I did read a tourist brochure on the Ramayana).  I know I signed my soul over long ago to a faith hinged on a mutilated God-man bleeding out in a horrific public spectacle, thorny crown jabbed into his innocent brow and spear slicing his side.  But regardless of my ignorance and my allegiance to spiritual beliefs sheathed in physical violence, there are definitely some creepy moments in visiting temples.  Am I the only one unsettled by so many celebrated carvings dedicated to “demons”?

I know it's not Nazi Germany, but it's hard for me to get over the use of this symbol.
I know it’s not Nazi Germany, but it’s hard for me to get over the use of this symbol.
I wonder what they're clientele is like.
I wonder what their clientele is like.

5.  Since I mentioned overly aggressive primates, why, back home, does any place with animals remotely nearby strictly forbid any sort of feeding or petting?  In Bali, every temple affiliated with a thriving monkey colony is quick to sell you bananas for feeding and to encourage inter-species interaction—such as allowing the critters to climb onto your shoulders, or walking the center of the primate hive in a bright yellow suit draped with bananas.  I probably need to explain that one—we happened to visit at the same time as a video shoot for an upcoming Australian TV show (as far as I can tell, it’ll be something like Jackass).  Aussies and jackasses aside, the monkeys are funny—looking philosophical and stoic one moment, and the next peeing all over a revered statue, grabbing a neighbor’s tail to sniff at his rear, and leaping into a bystander’s offering and ravaging what’s just been delivered to the gods.  I’m told we can learn much of ourselves by watching primates.  Judging by how well they sport a fashionable faux-hawk, I may be forced to agree.

A reflection on how the monkey-feeding mayhem went.
A reflection on how the monkey-feeding mayhem went.
Snatching food and rocking the faux-hawk--the life of a temple monkey.
Snatching food and rocking the faux-hawk–the life of a temple monkey.
He looks calm and dignified--at least for the moment.
He looks calm and dignified–at least for the moment.

6.  Why have I not heard more about rice terraces?   In Bali I have witnessed jagged, inhospitable hills somehow stripped of wild, stubborn vegetation and tamed, over who knows how many generations, into pristinely cultivated layers of gravity-fed irrigation, surprisingly productive agricultural output, and perpetual font of tourist revenue.  I’d only seen a few snapshots of these before— mostly facebook forwards touting amazing locales worldwide—but I’d never taken such a venture seriously before this week.  And I am amazed.  Bravo, rice terraces, and many more years of food-production and erosion control and tourism bounty to you.

As always, seeing in person is more impressive than any photograph.
As always, seeing in person is more impressive than any photograph.

7. Why are volcanoes so darn magnetic?  Seriously, show us humans an enormous crater blown out of the earth by forces we can scarcely imagine, pepper it with hell-blackened lava sticking a sea of stone spikes defiantly heavenward, throw into the middle of it all another cone rumbling in orange, molten, angered earth, and do we run away?  No, we flock to it and build up resorts and restaurants.  Then we charge each other fees to crowd around for a peek.  We hike to the rim and peer in; we snap and share pictures and cause more to come.  Not even earthquake’s tremors can keep us away.  Throw in some fresh, flowing lava and lines of humanity will lengthen exponentially. You’d think we know better than to flirt with death; you’d think we’d stay away—but we don’t.  Is there any other explanation than magnetism.

I couldn't resist the volcanic pull of Mt. Batur.
I couldn’t resist the volcanic pull of Mt. Batur.

8.  Why does everybody on Bali know somebody with a speedboat?  We’re headed across the channel to Lombok tomorrow, and I each time I mention this to a Balinese, they ask me how I’m crossing and how much I’m paying—because they know someone who can get it cheaper, can book it better, can fix up my travel details in a jiffy for a fraction of the price.  Chalk it up to the traditional Bali friendliness if you like, write it off as a product of the island’s endless web of underground tourist connections, but I’m convinced that when I arrive at Padang Bai with my luggage in hand, I’ll find a fleet of speedboats hundreds strong all clamoring to zip me straight to my Lombok hotel for a pittance.  Either than or there’ll be one guy with a moderately fast boat and an astounding network of grassroots publicity.  Time will tell, but from what I’ve seen so far, everyone knows someone with a speedboat

Yeah, I guess there's a lot of fastboats.  Maybe the rest are all out with passengers.
Yeah, I guess there are a lot of fastboats. Maybe the rest are all out with passengers.

9.  Why doesn’t Bali’s motorist population plummet each day?  With roads narrower than many cities’ sidewalks, with tens of thousands of motorbikes piloted by wide-eyed teens and reckless alcoholics, with small cars looming large as semis barreling through it all, I calculate these conditions would decimate the populous quicker than a plague in medieval Europe.  Somehow, though, traffic flows.  Somehow drivers scoot and squeeze in and out of each other’s way and manage to make it to their destinations.  I don’t mean to make light of past accidents, as I’m sure there’ve been more than a few, but to see firsthand how our driver could tailgate a triple-loaded moped up a mountain hairpin before passing on a blind curve with no more than a beep of the horn and flash of the brights to the oncoming van he ran to the shoulder, I have to marvel that it works.  Yes, it somehow works, but I don’t think I’m anywhere near driving a motorbike yet.

You should see these guys drive three-wide on a road like this.
You should see these guys drive three-wide on a road like this.
If that's the parking lot, imagine the roads.
If that’s the parking lot, imagine the roads.

10.  Why do people say Bali is overrated?  I asked that before, but I can’t get over it—an island crawling with history, infested with smiling natives, and spilling over in cuisines and cultures and beachwaters turquoise enough to forever grace postcards and travel-mags’ covers is somehow overrated?  Its palms’ green and temples’ sheen are every photographer’s dream; its fresh fish steaming from grills and dripping rich salsas can tempt a few Rupiah from anyone’s wallet; its monkeys’ paws and gold-clad dancers and seaside chatter late into the equator’s stars should melt any skeptic’s long-dug trenches of anti-Bali pandering.  It’s steeped in art—from painting to pottery to woodcarving to surfing—and graced with a climate as pleasant as its landscapes (Umm, except the mountain temple at Bedugul—but more on that later).   No wonder so many flock here; plenty of wonder why anyone would say it’s overrated.

A taste of Bali, a taste of Indonesia.
A taste of Bali, a taste of Indonesia.
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