Ernie goes to Bali (May 2016)

Bali is one of those places I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about, though it surely deserves a spot on anyone’s bucket list. Famous for its golden beaches and terraced jungle valleys, it’s also the subject of one of the most famous anthropological essays of all time – Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”. Required reading for most anthropology students, as I was back in the 2000s, it pioneered the use of “thick description” in ethnography and forever cemented Bali’s place in the anthropological canon. Despite its abundance of natural and cultural riches, however, it’s just never the first place I think of whenever I’m deciding on my next holiday. I have similar feelings about Cambodia and the Philippines, like I’m positive that I would end up loving those places, but that initial push to go there just isn’t very strong.

At the beginning of April, though, about a month before our trip to Kyoto and Osaka, we were sitting at home on our couch after work, discussing the possibility of a quick weekend trip at the end of May. We bandied about a few different ideas, all of them uninspiring, until we started talking about Bali. Neither of us had been yet, so we looked up flights for the heck of it, expecting the prices to dissuade us from the very thought. In fact, the prices were very reasonable, and after some meandering discussion, we went ahead and booked it. Over the next month-and-a-half, our itinerary slowly came together – we’d arrive late the first night and stay near Kuta Beach, at the Citadines Kuta Beach Bali, go surfing the next morning, and then spend the next two days and nights in Ubud, at a private villa resort called Villa Santun.

You can’t go to Bali without surfing. Home to some of the world’s most famous waves, like the popular Uluwatu on Bukit Peninsula, the island offers a wide range of surf spots for beginners and experts alike. Ashley was especially keen on it, though neither of us had much experience to speak of, and our years of snowboarding was unlikely to be a factor. Before we left Hong Kong, we did some research on surf schools in the area, and we ended up booking a semi-private lesson with UP2U Surf School on Kuta Beach for our first morning in Bali. As we walked down the length of the quiet beach, the muted dawn colours stretched across the post-storm sky, the sea reflecting the last remnants of the rainclouds that had wracked the seaside town the night before. Yawning men in board shorts called out to us, offering surf lessons and cheap boat tours, while white-shirted workers set up deck chairs and tables for the daily congregation of sun worshippers.

We met up with our instructors and the rest of the surf school students at the UP2U beach-side space, where they sorted out our wetsuits and surfboards. After about 30 minutes of stretching and instruction as a group, we went into the water and immediately began catching waves. Ashley took to it immediately, standing up on only her second try, and she was actually surfing for the rest of the morning. I never quite got a feel for it, though, even after Paul, the owner and founder of the school, took us further down the beach for more focused instruction. For maybe half a second, once, I may have achieved bipedalism on the board, but, as a whole, my experience was more about falling into the water at all possible angles than anything I’d call surfing. I was glad that Ashley was having fun, though, and I can think of worse ways to spend a morning than swimming in the Indian Ocean.

After showering and checking out of our hotel, we walked around Kuta, looking for a bite to eat. Long a mainstay of the backpacker circuit across Asia, the popular seaside district increasingly displays the cracks and pitfalls of a place overloaded with tourism traffic. There are some interesting bits, like small alleys and streets that give the illusion of something more authentic (a problematic word, to be sure), but, for the most part, the infrastructure and architecture are plagued by poor planning and uninspiring design. We ended up at a restaurant called Kori, a quiet outdoor space serving up hearty portions of regional cuisine. As the dust of scooters and sandals choked the air in the nearby streets and arteries, we dug into our curries and enjoyed a small reprieve from the congested neighbourhoods of Kuta.

With the conclusion of our meal came the end of our brief time in Kuta, and, after heading back to the hotel to grab our bags, we hired a driver to take us inland, to the tranquil terraced valleys and verdant jungles of Ubud. It was just our luck, then, that everyone else on the island seemed to be making the same journey at the same time. For two hours, we moved forward at a glacial pace, slipping in and out of groggy afternoon naps, as the scenery outside remained largely unchanged – an endless series of roadside stalls and cement structures covered in an ever-present cloud of dust. When we finally arrived at the designated drop-off spot, thanking our tireless driver for his patient navigation, Villa Santun sent a small cart out to pick us up. The young man in the green uniform drove us down a narrow roadway by an irrigation canal, passing by several other small resorts crowding the artificial waterway. A Balinese landscape of rice paddies and wooden huts dominated the landscape on the other side of the slow-moving water. Villa Santun’s entrance was near the end of the road, before it turned into jungle again, and the check-in process was an absolute breeze. After showing us around, the exceedingly friendly staff left us alone for the rest of the afternoon, and that’s just the way we wanted it.

We woke up the next day to the warm tones of the tropical sun, illuminating the contours of our private morning. On days like these, breakfast and a good book by the pool are often enough. The hours ticked by as we lay on our deck chairs, lost in the words of strangers – her, Katherine Boo’s phenomenal The Beautiful Forevers; me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s haunting One Hundred Years of Solitude – until it was nearly noon. With the morning nearly over, we put Boo and Marquez away for the time being, bookmarks neatly in place, as we got ready to catch the shuttle into town. Ubud is one of the major tourist centres in Bali, and somewhat of a mild counterpoint to the island’s wilder beach scenes. The town was once the domain of the royal families of Ubud, and their legacy of sponsoring local artisans and craftsmen in their realm persists to this day in Ubud’s thriving arts and culture scene. Another legacy of the now defunct royals is the collection of palaces and temples that seem to dominate every major street corner, elaborate constructions of weathered brick and statuary in the green shade of the encroaching jungle.

The shuttle dropped us off on Jalan Suweta, across the street from Puri Saren Agung, the official palace residence of the old royal family. Impressive as the complex was, however, it did not deter us from our first priority – lunch. Though Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, just under 2% of the population are Hindu, and most of them live on Bali. As a result, the Islamic dietary restrictions found elsewhere in Indonesia are noticeably lacking on the island, and one of the more famous Balinese dishes is actually suckling pig, or babi gulingWarung Babi Guling Ibu Oka is an Ubud institution, serving up its famous pork-based dishes at several locations around town. Fortunately for us, the closest branch was just a short walk down Jalan Suweta, and we picked our way over broken pavement and gnarled tree roots to satiate the gnawing hunger in our bellies. The menu is relatively simple, and we each ordered the Spesial – a basket of pork prepared five different ways. It was sort of hit and miss, to be honest, though more hit than miss – the meaty bits were quite juicy and the flavours were varied and unique, but some of the other pieces left me somewhat underwhelmed.

Walking around Ubud’s clogged arteries after lunch, the dust and smoke rising from the sun-baked pavement, it was clear that the infrastructure was not built to sustain current levels of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Boxy shuttle vans from the dozens of hotels and resorts in the area filled the streets, as tourists and souvenir vendors jostled one another on the narrow sidewalks. That being said, we were not oblivious to our own complicity in jamming up Ubud’s urban spaces, and Ubud is much more than old palaces and faded awnings over made-in-China figurines. Outside of town, the countryside of rice terraces and paddies, ravines and gorges, distant mountains, and remote villages still persists, and tourists, like us, come by the droves to get a taste of Balinese relaxation and tranquility.

As we walked along Jalan Raya Ubud, we espied the beautiful Pura Taman Saraswati temple peeking out from behind Cafe Lotus. Dedicated to the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and learning, the complex is set apart from the dusty streets out front, seeming to float on the pond with the water lilies. We slowly walked around the temple, peering into stone-lined trenches and doors and posing with the stone statuettes. This was our last stop in town, however, as, soon afterwards, we called Villa Santun to get a ride back to our villa – the crowds and the heat were too much in the afternoon sun, and we hid away in the comfort of our pool for the rest of the day.

On our last morning, we arranged a walk through the rice fields and farmland around Villa Santun with the resort’s owner. We’d wanted to go see more of Ubud’s iconic landscapes, like the famous rice terraces at Tegalalang, but we just couldn’t fit it into our schedule of lazing about, so this was our next best option. The owner of the villas actually grew up on a farm on this property, before he developed it into a resort, and he knew the raised dirt paths like the back of his hand. He was also familiar and friendly with the older farmers on the surrounding properties, stopping to chat and catch up on the weather and the harvest, and giving us a glimpse into the human geography behind the remarkable landscape.

The walk was beautiful in the early morning hours. It wasn’t the carefully carved terraces of Tegalalang, but the wide flat fields demarcating the shallow ponds and pools had their own quiet appeal. Green shoots poked up from out of the still waters, while, in the distance, the shadowed silhouette of Mt. Agung, the tallest peak on the island, loomed as a reminder of Bali’s volcanic past. As the owner picked his way alongside rice paddies, through forest trails, and on top of concrete embankments, he talked about Balinese culture, food, and his own experiences growing up in a farming family.

After the walk, we reluctantly checked out of our villa, our fantasy home for the all-too-brief weekend, before hiring a car to drive us to get lunch. When we called to get a ride back to the resort, the car arrived with our bags already packed in the back, and we were able to go straight to Denpasar to catch our flight back to Hong Kong that night. It really exemplified the friendliness and the level of service we received during our time in Bali. From at least a customer service point of view, we couldn’t have asked for anything more during our stay, and the price for our private villa was quite reasonable as well – certainly cheaper than any other similar accommodation in Southeast Asia. I came away with a more positive impression of Bali than I thought I would, and honestly, that doesn’t always happen.

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