Breathe in Bali
An island where your inner
pace slows down and peace trickles in
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam
From the moment I found out that I would be travelling to Indonesia for a journalism fellowship, I knew that work and pleasure had to be combined. Anticipation of a visit to Bali Dwipa Jaya (‘Glorious Bali Island’ in Kawi language) started to build up. I googled it. I asked friends who had been to Bali. I saw images of spectacular beaches and intricate art — things that define Bali.
But nothing had prepared me for the experience Bali was.
Pleasure is quite an insipid word to describe Bali, really.
The flight from Jakarta to Bali, close to two hours in duration, reminded me of the flight from Islamabad to Skardu because of the breathtaking scenic views one could see from the window. But here, it was not glaciers. It was volcanoes. Beautiful, high, majestic. Gaping craters with very obvious molten matter inside. Mostly quiet but not inactive. A silent, mysterious, potential danger, yet beautiful.
At Denpasar International Airport, the first whiff of Bali touches you as you see a sparkling ocean on both sides of the runway as you touch down. You step out of the flight without a fancy airconditioned jet bridge. This is not the Jakarta Airport — big, high-tech, contemporary and modern. Bali’s airport is a bit rustic. A bit run-down in a charming way. More character and less material investment. It sets the pace for Bali.
Everyone you will bump into has left behind a lot of baggage — the fast-pace of the city, some troubles and woes, the pressures of society and peers, the stress of staying on top of the game, some unfinished business, a rattled relationship. You and everyone else has left behind all of that and is in Bali for some rejuvenation, some detox, some refreshment, a little escape that gives you enough energy to go back and say to life: “In your face, because I’ve just been to Bali”.
One of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, Bali is one of the country’s 6000 inhabited islands. Yet, none of the archipelago’s 17500 (estimated) islands has gained the romantic popularity Bali has. One of the world’s top-most tourist destinations, it attracts not hundreds or thousands but millions of foreign tourists each year. Many things make it worthy of this.
Scenic, green, full of beaches and volcanoes and rice-terracing areas and temples. And people with very distinct unique faces. A photography buff, Bali had me clicking non-stop.
Amiable, friendly locals are a huge reason, who are very used to tourists and therefore they are social, not camera-shy and willing to become your guides. It is besides the point that they have also learnt to charge for their friendliness. Caretakers in a temple I visited next to Ubud charmed us without either party understanding each other’s language. They garlanded us, smiled their ways into our hearts, but also at the end made it clear that in life, everything has a price! You will find a certain street-smart third-world sensibility in Bali. But somehow, unless you get conned, it is not very offensive due to the general feel-good nature of the island.
Perhaps the biggest magnet Bali has is its heavenly beaches and wicked surf. You know that when you see the conveyor belts where you claim your baggage full of surfboards avid surfers have carried back from home. Seeing those waves in action is believing! Reports of ten foot plus swells attract surfers. Combine that with pristine beaches, coral reefs and every water sport in the world. Bali is unomissible. While most wave hunters go to the Kuta beach area to witness the surfs and indulge in water sports, Kuta’s crowded popularity may be a slight put off. Thus, me and my daughter ended up in a pristine, quiet part of Bali called Serangan to have some water fun. It was not just the parasailing, jet skiing and other sports that we enjoyed in Serangan.
Also known as the Turtle Area, Serangan has a pretty beach. But to me, the moments I sat there on the beach staring quietly at Mount Agung in the distance was one of the most powerful moments. Mount Agung, the stratovolcano, is the highest point on the island. It last erupted in 1963 and is still active.
The Balinese market Bali well, and so an unexplainable thrill accompanies the lunches or dinners you can have close to volcanoes.
Talking of rush versus serenity, crowd versus relative solitude and a slower pace versus a faster one, I preferred the latter of all of the above three, and chose a quieter area on the recommendation of some of my Indonesian friends. Sanur was my pick, which I never regretted. A mature beach town, it is a slightly upscale resort area, lined with darling little villas besides hotels and resorts. Besides a great beach, spas, cycling and motor biking rentals, it was the nightlife of Sanur that was a pleasant surprise. Not discotheques but in European essence a lot of Continental eateries and cafes, with live music in almost all of them. Shops line Sanur, full of local handicrafts like batik, woodwork, sculptures, metalwork and souvenirs that are must-haves like my daughter’s straw hat or my own “I Love Bali” tee and flip-flops.
But for me, the pièce de résistance was Ubud. My friend from Cambodia had coaxed me into promising to myself that I would travel to Ubud. “You will thank me, Farahnaz,” she had said. As she reads this, I want her to know I cannot thank her enough. While it was already on my list thanks to the book “Eat, Pray, Love” (don’t care much for the movie) as the “Love” part of the book is based in Ubud, it surpassed expectations. Situated at the north of Denpasar, this is the island’s cultural centre where you can see the strongest artistic influence of the 92.9 per cent Balinese Hindu population of Bali.
The drive to Ubud should be relished bit by bit, because on way you will find real Bali!
Silver and gold jewellery smiths and factories, small and big batik making concerns, art galleries by the hundreds, all on way. But it is the handmade stone-carvings on houses and temples that take your breath away. Labours of painstaking love, it seems that for hours you walk or drive through an art museum, with every local Balinese a curator who knows not just the art but the history behind each piece.
Once you reach Ubud, the abundance of European-style cafes remind you of those on the pebbled streets of Paris, for rarely will you find so many of them in one place. Shops of the most attractive rustic and indigenous pieces of art and craft lure you. It is in Ubud that I understood why they call Bali the “Island of Love”. With romance in the air, sit somewhere and sip the world’s most expensive “Kopi Luwak” or Civet Coffee (the beans of which are processed, yes, in the digestive tract of the civet!) and breathe in Bali.