Bali is seen by an awful lot of people as the perfect island paradise. Beaches of all sorts—party beaches, surf beaches, resort beaches, scuba/snorkel beaches. Endless green rice paddies dotted with luxurious villas where visitors lounge next to swimming pools and platters of tropical fruits. The “arts capital” of Ubud, full of expats running stylish cafes and yoga studios; Balinese craftsmen selling beautiful carvings, jewelry, and textiles (and offering classes to visitors); and Balinese dancers performing shortened versions of classic temple dances.
The southern beaches (which we are skipping) are Australia’s and New Zealand’s version of Cancun. They are the main destination for most visitors, some of whom take day trips on tour buses to the other main sites on the island. Americans and Canadians have flocked to Ubud ever since the book and movie “Eat, Pray, Love” portrayed the once-small village as the destination of choice for those seeking spirituality and beauty. Europeans mostly settle in around the edges, seeking small resorts along quieter parts of the coast or the mountains.
We, by contrast, made the rather odd choice to head first for the capital city of Denpasar, described by the guidebooks as not particularly interesting or worth visiting. Our main reasons were that it is fairly close to the airport (we arrived after dark) and that it has a national museum where we could learn a little about the island before moving on. Beyond that, we didn’t have any expectations for the city.
Yet, as it turned out, spending our first three days in Denpasar was the best choice we could have made. Here we got one view of “the real Bali”—the urban version. Our neighborhood is full of ordinary Balinese going about their lives: buying or selling at market stalls, running shops of every description (for each other rather than for visitors), going to fancy bakeries or grabbing lunch on the street corner, zipping around on motorbikes, sweeping away yesterday’s trash, or making offerings each morning at the local shrine.
Everywhere we’ve found people to be kind and welcoming—offering us seats at their community coming-of-age ceremony, submitting cheerfully to my photo taking (and sometimes clamoring to have their pictures taken), encouraging our few words of Indonesian, pointing us toward good places to eat or to buy whatever we’re searching for, throwing a few extra pieces of fruit into our bag, or letting us cling to their sides as we cross the crazy streets together.
On the downside, the sidewalks here are crumbling obstacle courses, the traffic is a nightmare, the midday heat is intense, and communicating can be a struggle. But already we feel much more connected to the rhythms of Balinese life. And surely everywhere else we visit on the island will be quieter and easier than this!