Bali Part 1: Ubud
WonderMom's Story of Ubud
There are certain places, people, and events experienced in a lifetime that will forever hold a place in your heart. Bali stole a piece of my heart. It's the one place we visited during our travels this summer that I will want to revisit in the years to come. A week was not enough time in this beautiful place! The Balinese are very spiritual people and part of that spirituality includes a very close connection to and respect for nature. The varied landscapes including the mountains, rice paddies, villages, family compounds, temples, and beaches are breathtaking.
The fun all started when we arrived at the Denpasar airport on Thursday evening. As we passed through immigration, the Officer took a look at my passport and made the connection that my birthday was on Friday. He unabashedly sang Happy Birthday to me in his broken English. It was awesome and an omen of the fun to come!
We met our driver Niojmman as we exited the airport for our transport to Ubud. Along the way, the traffic was pretty bad through the south beach area, so we had a lot of time to talk. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. We talked about everything - food, tourism, religion, spirituality, and traditions of Balinese people, and our families. Niojmman taught us how to say Thank You - Terimah Kasih - in Balinese. One story in particular really cracked me up. One day, while Niojmman was coming home from working in the rice paddies, he found a baby monkey near the river. He decided to adopt the monkey. He then preceded to tell us about the monkey's "naughty" behavior. Naughty monkey this and naughty monkey that. After biting his neighbor three times and having his kitchen destroyed by said monkey - he finally gave it away…to a monk. Of course!! We were hungry, so before taking us to our villa, Niojmman took us to one of his favorite restaurants in Ubud. We feasted on wonderful Indonesian food and fresh fruit drinks. Have I mentioned that I'll be purchasing a juicer when I get home?
I was not sure what to expect of our villa at the Alam Indah. When I booked the accommodations, the cost was just $55/night. This seemed dirt-bag-hotel cheap to me, but the pictures and reviews were positive, so we decided to take a chance. It was dark when we arrived, so it was difficult to see the property. We were quickly escorted to our villa. Wow! The rooms were large and beautiful - hand carved wood framed doors and beds, dreamy mosquito netting, a fabulous terrace with a great view of the mountains and an outdoor day bed to relax, and a fantastic marbled outdoor bathroom. I was even more pleasantly surprised in the morning. When we went down for breakfast - which was fabulous, homemade, and included in our room cost - we sat in an open air dining room overlooking breathtaking gardens and the shrine. I will never forget the mingling smells of incense and flowers!
Since it was my birthday, my family wanted me to choose how we would spend our day. I love exploring villages, galleries, and temples for the art, architecture, and history. I wanted at least one day in Ubud where we would just wonder around and go in whatever direction we seemed to be pulled. The Alam Indah was located in a small village behind Monkey Forest. To wander around Ubud proper, we used Monkey Forest as our passageway.
As we approached the entrance, we bought our tickets and began our tentative trek through a wild monkey habitat! This is the way I like to observe animals - this was nothing like the fiasco in Thailand. There were hundreds of monkeys wondering around doing what monkeys do. We got to see the Mom monkeys taking care of their young, the mischievous adolescent monkeys causing trouble, and the dominant males keeping order. There were designated caretakers in the forest who were there to keep the monkeys safe from the people and vice versa. At one point, one of the caretakers sounded a call to the monkeys. They came running - stampede style - hundreds of them!!I just stood in the middle of the path and let them run through and around my legs. I was amazed and trying to snap photos. We traveled through monkey forest several times during our stay in Ubud. On one trip through the forest, Hubby's straw hat was stolen by one of the monkeys! There was also an option to buy bananas to feed to the monkeys. At first, we decided to hold off until we knew a little more about what the monkeys would do to us if we had bananas in our pockets!! I had a great deal of respect for the fact that we were observing wild animals and they were strong, had sharp teeth, and could be aggressive. My maternal red flag was flying high. But, VagaBabe was begging us to buy the bananas. During our last trip through the forest, we relented. The first round of bananas went quickly. VagaBabe threw her bananas, so the monkeys had to chase them. I loved watching them peel the bananas! I tried putting bananas in my pocket. The monkeys would stick their little paws right into my pocket to retrieve their treat. Hubby was a little braver. He held bananas above his head and had monkeys climbing up his body and settling in on his shoulder for a snack. It all seemed to be harmless and great fun. As we traveled up the path, Hubby decided to go get us some more bananas. I sat down on a ledge along the pathway. A monkey was about 10 feet away from me on the same ledge. He hopped over and jumped up on my shoulder and started checking my hair for fleas. It was an odd sensation, but I sat still and avoided any sudden noises or movements - as we had been advised. I was feeling a little uncomfortable, but no one was around me to help. All of a sudden, the monkey made a weird sound and bit me in the stomach. It's been over a week and I still have the bite marks on my tummy. We hurried back to the hotel and cleaned the wound. The staff was very attentive. I wasn't bleeding badly, but the bite broke the skin and I had awful hives. I am so glad I had all of my shots before I left for this trip!!
Back to my birthday story!
After our first pass through Monkey Forest, we emerged on Monkey Forest road. We were wondering in and out of shops and galleries as we made our way into town. We began to see the evidence of Bali's rich art history. The art is directly tied into religion and the religion is directly connected to nature. Art making traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. We saw beautiful wood and stone carving, paintings, basket weaving, ikat, and batik. We stopped along the way for lunch at Café Wayan. As we feasted on another amazing Indonesian meal, we sat on cushions at a low table surrounded by lush gardens and fountains with Balinese music in the background.
We finally arrived in town and I really wanted to see one particular temple, Puri Seriswasti - dedicated to the goddess of water and learning. To reach the entrance of the temple, we walked through a lotus pond that stretched out on both sides of the pathway. The intricate carvings of the temple had a "feminine" feel. The temple is located along the busiest, most touristy part of Ubud. But, once, you stepped on the path toward the temple, the hustle and bustle fell away. It was gorgeous! We found a few fantastic art galleries to explore, but avoided the "market". I just didn't want to be haggled and hassled to buy useless souvenirs. We did, however, fall in love with a painting at one of the galleries. Unfortunately, this particular painting was part of the galleries permanent collection and we could not take it home. We didn't find any other paintings that dropped our jaws like that one!!
After our day of exploring Ubud, we headed back to the Alam Indah. We had afternoon tea and cake. As were enjoying our snack and talking with the staff, we heard monkeys making a ruckus in the forest. A group of staffers at the Alam Indah went running. Turns out they went to retrieve slingshots! I was worried that they were hitting the monkeys with stones, so I went down to investigate. They showed me that they use the stones to hit the trees near the monkeys. The sound of the stone hitting the tree makes a popping sound, which scatters the monkeys. I was okay with this. No one wanted the monkeys invading the property where they could certainly do some damage! They taught VagaBabe how to use the slingshot. I wonder at what point in her life that skill will come in handy!
To refresh before dinner, we took a dip in the pool. I loved it! It was an infinity pool and the edge looked like it spilled over into the jungle below. I laid on my back in the pool and was amazed by the jungle canopy above me and the sounds of my family giggling and having fun. For dinner, we went to Café Batan Waru for yet another Indonesian feast. The three of us loved this kind of food and couldn't seem to get enough of it. It is another example of"layering of spices" to achieve unique flavors - everything from the unique juice combinations to the 15 spices chicken I ate for my main course. Delicious! When I get back to the States, I am going to need access to lemongrass, ginger, lemons, limes, and green mangoes, or I will not be a happy chef!
The next day, we had booked a bike tour. The focus of the tour was to give us the chance to see the "real" Bali. We were picked up early and transported to the top of the three most recently active volcanoes in Bali. We ate breakfast overlooking the craters and beautiful lake below. At breakfast, I got my first look at Mt. Agung. I don't know what it is about this mountain, but I felt drawn to it. Throughout the rest of my stay in Bali, I kept looking to see if I could spot its smoky peak from different parts of the island. Later in the trip, one of our drivers offered to hike it with me next time we come to Bali. He said the trip up would take about 5 hours and that it was very steep with the last portion of the hike requiring some rock climbing. The mountain is sacred to the Balinese people. He explained that the mountain is thought to be a replica of Mount Meru, believed to be the central exis of the universe and the spiritual center of the island. The most important temple in Bali resides high on the slopes of Mt. Agung.
The first stop on our bike tour was a visit to a coffee plantation. We were able to sample different coffees at the end. I am a coffee drinker, so I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the tour! I got my first taste of Luwak coffee. We were told that this was the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world. Why? Well, it turns out that the Luwak, an animal that looks like a cross between a ferret and a cat, roams through the jungle eating coffee berries. The animal eats the berries for the outer, fleshy pulp. The beans pass through the digestive tract and is then "pooped" out, collected, cleaned, and roasted. I will say the coffee was excellent. I like bold, earthy coffee and this fit the bill. It was smooth. I normally drink my coffee with milk, but found I didn't need or want milk with this coffee. But, I kept wondering who in the world figured out that it would be a good idea to chase after these animals and collect their poop to get the beans in the first place????I also tried another type of coffee drink that I had never tried before called Ginseng Coffee. Hubby loved this too and we will definitely be making this at home!!
Our bike tour ventured through small villages and beautiful rice paddies. We were able to stop along the way to visit a family compound, play ball with some adorable children, and explore the rice paddies. VagaBabe planted rice. Without hesitation, she took off her shoes and waded right into the thigh high mud. We learned that every family had its own paddy that provided rice for the family. While it was possible to venture out in life in your younger years, all family members would return in their old age to work in the paddies. The family compounds were fascinating. I was amazed to learn that every family compound has its own temple, Sanggeh Kamulan. Each compound is arranged in a specific way with the goal of pleasing the gods and keeping evil spirits away. As you enter the compound, a large wall blocks the entrance. The wall serves as a gate to keep the bad spirits away. Next we encountered the kitchen. The smoke and fire from the cooking is thought to be another defense for keeping evil spirits away. As we move to the left we enter a courtyard. Just in front of us is the Bale Dangin, a ceremonial pavilion where the women will give birth to their children, dead bodies are laid out, and teeth filing ceremonies are held when the children come of age. The elders of the family reside in the Bale Daja, but will relinquish their room on one special occasion so that a newly married couple can enjoy a night alone following their wedding ceremony. Our guide explained that when a child is born, the placenta is buried in front of the elders household, with "male" placentas on the left and "female" placentas on the right. Each day, an offering is placed over the placentas to show thanks to the gods.
For our last night in Ubud, we ventured out to see one of the traditional dance performances performed by the Taman Kaja Community. I am not sure how to describe what we saw! About 100 men sat in concentric circles surrounding a fire. The "music" consists of staccato voices chanting "Chee hee oh ee Chee hee oh ee" or the more trance-like "Chaka chaka chak chak, Chaka chaka chak chak". The mingling of voices wasn't quite a song, but it was definitely telling a story. A voice rises above the chatter, telling the tale of Ramayana, an Hindu story of Prince Rama and his wife Sita. (Interestingly, we had already heard about this story when we toured Angor Wat in Cambodia.) The men sway back and forth, hands on their knees, and bodies bobbing in concentration. The trance worked in two ways. First, in order for the men to perform, they had to go into a trance-like state. The sound of the men's voices, then had the effect of putting the audience into a trance. Vagababe fell asleep and Hubby and I felt like we were in some kind of altered state as well. Following the Kecak dance, the stage is cleared and a large pile of coconuts husks is constructed in the center of the stage. The pile is set on fire as a man riding a "horse" danced in and around the fire as the men chant in the background. He moved closer and closer to the fire. All of a sudden, he kicked the pile of burning husks. I was a little scared because some of the burning embers came awful close to us! Hubby and I were amazed by what we saw next. The fire started twirling upwards. This did not appear to be something fire does normally, but was being caused by the movement of the dancer. Later, we told one of our drivers about what we saw. He told us that the dancer allows himself to become "possessed" by a spirit and the spirit causes the fire to dance. My take on this is that mixing of spirit, mysticism, and heart is pretty powerful stuff!