Glowing green rice patties. Petite piles of flowers gathered in front of nearly every business and home. Incense burning at every street corner. Temples large and small at every turn. And hawkers and tourists and tourists and hawkers. Bali really is all that. I haven’t seen “Eat Pray Love,” but I‘m assuming those visuals and more are in the movie.
We were there in the spring of 2005, for just a few days before flying off to the neighboring island of Lombok, which has many fewer tourists.
But unlike most of Muslim Indonesia, the majority of Bali residents are Hindu, hence the ornate Buddha statues, colorful clothing, flower and incense offerings.
I can’t recall how it came to be, but someone put me in contact with Caroline Miksch, who grew up in Lancaster County, Penn., and now designs and makes batik children’s wear in Ubud, Bali, under the name Pelangi Design. I wanted to write about her for someone — anyone. I ended up interviewing her and could not sell that dang story for the life of me. She graciously connected us with her driver, Nyoman, who we made arrangements with ahead of time. He was a doll and a great chauffeur.
We spent our first night at the hotel Kumula Pantai, in the beach resort town of Kuta, where the awful tourist bombings of 2002 took place, killing 202 people. The hotel was fairly fabulous; our room was around $40. Ridiculous. It was filled with beautiful people, mostly Aussies. The beach was not so attractive. Bland, boring, brownish.
Nyoman met us there the next day to drive us to Ubud, the “cultural capital.” Alas, it’s also the tourist capital, and the shopping district is lined with not only high-end galleries, but dozens of junkie souvenir shops. Nyoman took us on a fascinating drive around the island, where we passed tiny villages and witnessed rice harvesting. And we visited Caroline’s amazing home.
For three nights we stayed in the enchanting Ananda Ubud, in our own little thatched cottage, for $30 a night. We looked out over gardens and rice patties, and each day a freshly cut hibiscus blossom would be left in our room. In the morning, I’d eat dark brown rice cereal and fresh fruit.
I recall one steaming hot walk we took through rice paddies and villages, where we saw the ubiquitous women carrying baskets on their heads. At one point a man jumped on the path in front of us wielding a large scythe. He motioned to us to watch as he shimmied up a palm tree, grabbed a coconut and brought it to us, slicing out an opening for the milk with a flourish. Of course he does this for all the tourists, and we were delighted to pay him for our fresh snack.
In Ubud we also had some amazing meals, spicier than I’m usually comfortable with. But the flavors, oh the flavors, were so sharp and sweet and made you pay attention. My tongue screamed in pain and pleasure.
Near the end of our stay, Nyoman invited us to his home. Earlier, we’d visited his wife, whose family has a job making carved figurines to sell to tourists. We watched her as she painted long-necked cats with large eyes. We bought several. The couple and their daughter, then six, lived in a few rooms of a family compound. The floors and walls were concrete and we sat on a threadbare carpet in one of the rooms while Nyoman served us fruit on a small dish. He was so proud to have us there. We knew our vacation budget alone was probably more than he would make in several years.
And, then, we were off to Lombok. But that’s another story.