A Travellerspoint blog


Bali Hi – Almost Heaven

sunny 30 °C

High in the hills of northern Bali the tympanic rhythms of gamelan echo across the paddy terraces from dawn to dusk and are accompanied by a natural choir of contralto cockerels, tenor crickets and baritone dogs. And then, following the evening’s raucous frog concerto, the nocturnal stillness is broken by the haunting wails of the recently bereaved. The superstitious Balinese are devoutly religious and the celebrants of sacred and spiritual ceremonies vie for our attention day and night. Hindu temples are ten a penny, so canned music and hollow words from their tinny speakers compete with each other, and with nature’s chorus, for the airwaves and turn this seemingly serene nirvana into a noisome battleground. If only this photo had sound it would paint an entirely different picture...
A plethora of religious ceremonies and feast days gobbles up some thirty-five percent of the average income and turns the making and selling of offerings into a lucrative career. But the temples and shrines are often scruffy affairs, and the twice daily hand-outs of food are viewed as easy meat by dogs, rats, monkeys and ants. This is just one of the dozens of ‘offering’ shops in Singaraja…
Here are some typical garden shrines…
And this is Juny the maid making ceremonial offerings on behalf of us disbelieving heathens...
It is Pagerwesi - the 16th of January.
Pagerwesi is celebrated every six months – but don’t get attached to the date. There are precisely 35 days in each month of the Balinese calendar so the next Pagerwesi will be on July 14th. Confused? So are the Balinese, because they also use two other calendars and all three have differing dates. However, the moon is constant and the most significant annual event of Nyepi is celebrated on the new moon of the ninth month. Nyepi begins with purification and sacrificial rites designed to drive all evil spirits out to sea. Once the spirits have been shown the door the following day is a day of enforced silence, (though how they gag the dogs, frogs and cocks is beyond us). Anyone leaving their home or hotel; anyone singing, whistling or even whispering aloud; anyone driving, riding, fishing or working, is summarily punished. The airport is closed for twenty four hours and no lights or fires lit, or sounds of any kind made, in the hope that the spirits will believe that the island is deserted and never return.
This is our Bali home at sunset...
It is common for writers to enthuse lyrically about this picturesque landscape and the seemingly simplistic lifestyle of the Balinese, but maybe we have stayed too long and delved too deep. We’ve seen the garbage filled streams and littered beaches, and driven the crumbling roads clogged with thousands of fume-spewing motorbikes; we have heard sinister tales of revenge resulting from envy, greed or perceived injury; and we are fully aware that there is bribery and corruption at all levels. However, far from the southern tourist Meccas of Kuta and Sanur, there is still a land where naked natives bathe in mountain streams and peasant farmers work their photogenic paddies with oxen. But this ‘travel brochure’ paradise is fast disappearing. A new airport is to be built in northern Bali and the remaining National Geographic landscape is being usurped and destroyed by the very people who profess to value its beauty. Foreign investors are building mega-villas in the paddies and permanently driving land prices beyond the reach of the locals. Many hereditary farmers have already squandered the family’s silver on a motorbike, a BlackBerry and a satellite television, and the next generation is facing a life of servitude when once they might have been masters of their own destiny. How long will this pastoral beauty survive against an onslaught of westernization?
The beaches and tourist towns of southern Bali have already sunk under the ugly weight of rampant tourism and there is a real danger that northern Bali will follow suit. We would encourage you to visit this beautiful land and glimpse paradise with your own eyes – But wait! Won’t that make you part of the problem too? Maybe you should just sit back and dream of heaven while we do the heavy lifting!

Posted by Hawkson 04:31 Archived in Indonesia Comments (8)

The Genteel Art of Balinese Fly Killing.

semi-overcast 30 °C

It’s a Balinese New Year and it’s mid-summer here in the sunny southern hemisphere. Ahead of us the placid Sea of Bali stretches to the horizon where it melds seamlessly into an azure sky, while, at our feet, the paddies are turning green with newly planted rice. Here’s the neighbor and his son doing some last minute ploughing…
But Bali has a darker side and the clouds shrouding the mountains at our back ominously presage yet another nocturnal firework display. This equatorial Nirvana, wrought by volcanoes and molded by earthquakes and tsunamis, is a land of extremes. When it’s hot - it bakes. And when it rains, the roads turn to rivers and the paddies overflow in torrents. But the nightly downpours nurture the young rice and the tropical vegetation grows so fast in the moist heat it could outpace a triffid…
If we had the stomach for heights we could pick our own coconuts, papayas and cloves, and from the surrounding trees we could harvest cocoa, rambutan, durian, jackfruit and breadfruit. But Bali has such a varied topography and climate that almost anything grows here. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and a myriad of other spices thrive in the steamy jungles of the coastal plain, while coffee, tea, and all manner of fruits and vegetables flourish in the cool damp mountain airs. But along with such abundance comes wildlife…
Perhaps the greatest disappointment on our trans-Siberian journey was the absence of wildlife. Apart from a lone Bactrian camel in the Gobi desert and a woolly squirrel in Listvyanka our only brush with raw nature was a couple of teenaged boys fighting in the snow outside a college in Irkutsk. However, down on the farm in Bali, we live in a veritable menagerie. Exotic birds, butterflies and dragonflies fill the air, while less adorable snakes, frogs and gourmet-sized snails slither across the paths and swim in the paddies. Mice, rats and ants of every size are a daily irritant, but lizards, like gekoes and their larger cousins, tokays, are welcome house guests. These acrobatic little suckers can eat their weight in flies and spiders every night, so here in the tropics a man’s best friend is a lizard – except when they are noisily mating on the ceiling at three in the morning.
And then there are the flies. Balinese flies are akin to dandelions and unwanted facial hairs – pluck one and it’s a fair bet that two will appear in its place. But we don’t give in to such threats easily and have been determined to stamp out the little pests since our arrival. We started with a dollar-store plastic swatter, (only 10 cents here), and left a bloody trail of splattered bodies on the chopping board and table cloth. The continual “shlap” of the swatter hitting the table so unnerved the dog, (who may have worried that she was next on the hit list), that we gave up in favour of the more genteel, and time-honoured, flypaper.
Flypaper was a Victorian invention, using glue laced with honey and arsenic, at a time when many people still believed that flies hatched directly from men’s perspiration. (Victorian women, of course, never perspired – they merely glowed). But, while flypaper might be effective against the odd well-mannered English fly, a thin strip of sticky paper is little use against a squadron of the Balinese blighters. So we went for the full monty of fly traps - a tabloid-sized sheet of flypaper ankle deep in glue strong enough to disable an Indonesian elephant. And it worked – on the flies, not the elephant. But a page coated with a hundred dead flies is not a pretty sight, so here’s a picture of Tony's farmers planting the rice in our front yard...
But back to the flies – if we must. A page full of tasty morsels looked like dinner to a mouse one night and he metaphorically came unstuck when he dived in. He had barely started on the appetizer when his feet refused to budge and he fell over. Bingo – we now had a hundred and one pests all firmly glued to a single sheet of paper, an even less attractive sight. So here’s another view of our lush surroundings..
We can only imagine the struggles that the mouse went through as he tried to unglue himself that night, but by the morning he was more firmly attached to the page than a bibliophile with a classic novel. He was a pitiful sight with his paws firmly stuck and his fur matted, and he had fallen and couldn’t get up. It would have been so easy just to drop him, flies and all, into a bucket. So why did we spend ten minutes gently prying the poor little creature, one paw and one hair at a time, from the page? Why were we so careful not to damage his little tail as we disentangled it from the glue? Why did we clean him up as best we could and find him a sheltered little spot in the garden? Why did we let him go?
We guess we’re just suckers for a hard luck story and a cute face! And here’s some more cute Balinese faces…
These are some delightful kids we were introduced to when we were invited to participate in a festival to celebrate the full moon by our friend Juny.
Happy New Year dear blog reader, (and Catherine), from us and Juny. Now it’s time for our Polar Bear swim – at least it would be if only we could cool the pool to below 25 degrees. That’s very unlikely in this heat so we have come up with a plan. Henceforth we shall celebrate New Year with a Koala Bear swim where we will search for the hottest pool available and suffer the intolerable warmth with a smile...
Happy New Year to all from downunder in sweltering Bali.

Posted by Hawkson 03:44 Archived in Indonesia Comments (8)

Paradise in Bali

semi-overcast 30 °C

Two worlds live side by side on the tropical island of Bali and each is a considered a paradise by some. On the southern coast, high-octane nightclubs and all-inclusive resorts annually lure millions of tourists to a Disney version of South Pacific where the booze, the food and the women are inexpensive. And then there is our Bali – just eighty kilometres, and several centuries, north of the tourist Meccas of Kuta and Sanur.

Ours is a National Geographic world of coconut trees and banana palms, where the Balinese live in thatched huts, and oxen still plough the waterlogged rice paddies as they have done for millennia…
We are ‘farm-sitting’ for a couple of months for our friend Tony. His exotic hilltop perch, with its infinity pool, is surrounded by the sculpted hillside of his rice paddies. Here, the swimming pool and paddy meld seamlessly and make a verdant watercolour…
The gongs and cymbals of the gamelan orchestra, so discordant to Western ears, strike a distinctly Balinese tempo, but the metronome of life here beats to the rhythm of water. It is the rainy season. The heat of the day brings forth nightly cloudbursts and our aqueous world dances to the music of raindrops on giant lily pads,while rivulets of rainwater trickle melodiously from paddy to paddy on their way back to the sea. Water makes music all around us: from the gushing waterfalls to the steady ‘splosh’ of the oxen’s hoofs as they plough the paddies.
This fruitful Eden has more colours than a rainbow, more fragrances than Chanel, and more shades of green than an Irishman’s blarney. Freed from the shackles of winter, the lotus, hibiscus and bougainvillea blossom at will, while sweet frangipane and jasmine nightly scent the evening air…


Warm equatorial nights bring out the lovers and as the sun sets a raucous chorus of amorous frogs rend the air, while mating crickets add to the cacophony and fireflies flash silently at their suitors. Finally, the nightly storms put on a light show that brings thunderous applause and then this world sleeps. By cock’s crow the clouds have let in the stars and by dawn the sun makes a welcome return – Paradise found.

Now dear blog reader we know that you are busy preparing for the festive season so we will cease our literary ramblings for awhile. However, thanks to you we will be marking a milestone in the next day or so – our blog has been read 249,800 times and, with roughly 500 visitors per day, we will soon hit a quarter of a million page views - thank you for your interest. Come back in a couple of weeks for another look at Bali.

Posted by Hawkson 05:58 Archived in Indonesia Comments (9)

It's a Big McWorld

sunny 33 °C

They are all here in S.E.Asia: Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks, A&W, and of course, the granddaddy – McDonald’s. All the Western fat cats are here, praying on the locals’ desire for a fun-filled sophisticated life – just like ours. Have we learned nothing from history? Are we not still apologizing to the natives of North America and Australia for ruining their health and their teeth with sugar, starch and alcohol?
Until recently, the residents of this world trod lightly - subsisting largely on rice and bananas – but now, every warung, (meagre neighbourhood store), is laden with chocolate, crisps and coca-cola – the new necessities of life. Highly processed trans-fats and sugars are heavily tipping the scales in this carbohydrate addicted world. Motor scooters are groaning under the weight of a rapidly burgeoning populace while specially adapted motorcycles peddle the deadly poisons.
Rice has sustained the Indonesians and fellow Asians for millennia, and every sculpted hillside could be exhibited at the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim; every paddy is a painter’s palette of verdant green. Yet, today, the real money in tourists' meccas such as Bali is in off-loading these ancient wetlands to the western, and in some cases, Indonesian, developers at grossy inflated prices. But at what cost? Virtually all land is now well beyond the pockets of the natives whose ancestors toiled to carve these productive pastures. Today, monstrous developments are swallowing the landscape and turning the birthrights of generations into motorbikes. televisions and mountains of junk food - instant gratification in exchange for a stable homestead and a lifetime's income. How long before the rice paddies will be nothing more than carefully manicured pastures to enhance the esthetics of the westerners' villas?
This truly is fast becoming a McWorld, where youngsters are constantly bombarded with ads for junk food and every child's dream is to have a cellphone and a motorbike. Judging by the number of fast food outlets - including 24hr. McDonald's with home delivery service, and by the number of obese young teenagers on motorbikes, the battle is already lost.
Junk on the Go is the new motto - see what this guy has to offer!

Now we are back in the sunshine of Thailand; back amidst the Buddhists. We shall miss the contadictions of Indonesia, and we sincerely hope someone will preserve a few rice paddies for our next visit.

Posted by Hawkson 04:33 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


sunny 30 °C

Is this simply an elaborate dream or have we stumbled onto a movie set? We ask because, after four months in S.E.Asia, we are not certain about anything any more. Are these water buffaloes actually plowing the rice paddy, or is there a camera concealed around the corner?
Is this woman really doing the family’s laundry in the roadside ditch?
Does someone actually watch satellite TV in this flimsy thatched hovel?
Everything here is so improbably archaic or outrageously exotic that nothing seems real. Are the locals just actors waiting for us to leave before they rev up their tractors or fire up their washing machines and dishwashers? Maybe they have second homes in Florida or condos in Cancun?
Ever since our discovery of fake monks in Bangkok we have become increasingly skeptical. We have been touted by fake taxis everywhere. Every driver or motorcyclist outside a rail station claims to be a cab for a few bucks. But what is a genuine taxi? In Hanoi we were hijacked by a real taxi driver who took us to a fake hotel!
Virtually all DVDs and CDs are copies. We saw a bootlegged “Slumdog Millionaire” long before the premiere. The DVD came from a store where every movie was illicit – many of dubious quality. Fortunately, Tony, our man in Bali, speaks the local language and isn’t duped, unlike the tourists who stock up on their way home and discover too late that they’ve bought a complete dud - even the fakes are fake. But what do you expect for a dollar? Even BMWs and Harley Davidsons’ – the ultimate Asian status symbols – may be clones. Books, medicines, batteries, jewellery and paintings may all be imitations. Fake pearls are grown in clams and sold to the vendors by the kilo. Real copies of the Lonely Planet Guides probably don’t exist here at all, and Jim just bought a genuine fake Rolex Oyster for $3. Indonesia is home to a million batik shops, but it takes a good eye to differentiate between genuine handmade silk and polyester printed in China. Even the stores are fake - one short street in Bali has four Dolce & Gabbana shops stocked with ‘genuine’ $600 D&G bags on offer for less than thirty dollars!!!
We have discovered that we are never charged the true price. There is, we are assured, a pricing scale that starts at the top with first time western visitors; dropping a little for returning bule’s and even lower for resident bule’s, before crashing for the local Balinese.
But we do not begrudge the local entrepreneurs a few dollars. After all, the average wage here is thirty dollars, (fifteen pounds). Thirty dollars an hour? No – thirty dollars a month. Just one dollar a day. So - Do you blame them for copying our bags, movies and motorbikes and for trying to squeeze us for a few bucks? We don’t.

Posted by Hawkson 20:05 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

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