More Random Observations About Bali

Because you asked for it . . .

There are a lot of honeybees and bats here, which is nice to see, as those species are in decline at home. The bees mean that good, fresh honey is widely available (and that the flowering plants bloom). The bats mean that there are fewer flying insects than there would be otherwise.

The watermelon here is really, really good! So is the pineapple.

Melissa had never seen a pineapple growing before

It’s funny how life starts early in Balinese towns, but only for the Balinese. If you go out between 6 and 7 a.m., you see pickup trucks and pop-up markets selling flowers and palm leaves for offerings and Balinese breakfast foods (dumpling soup, noodle dishes, sweets made from rice flour or bananas). But you don’t see any Westerners. In Ubud, for instance, the bakeries and restaurants for tourists rarely open before 9 a.m. Maybe tourists stay up later than Balinese people tend to, or maybe most of the visitors are on vacation, and who wants to get up early on vacation? But since this isn’t a vacation for us, it’s life—and since the heat gets worse later in the day—we’ve gotten to be early birds who enjoy taking a walk just after dawn.

When you’re in the lush, hillier parts of Bali, there are foodstuffs on trees all around you—not just in orchards or on farms but in people’s yards or on the side of the road. Looking around from where I’m sitting now (in Munduk), for instance, I can see trees with papayas, coconuts, bananas, cacao (for chocolate), cloves, and coffee. At home, I’m never that surrounded by food unless I’m in a market.

Cloves drying on a patio

Like many other countries, Bali charges fees for elementary and secondary school. Those fees can be high: 1 million rupiah (about $83) a year, which can be a lot for a poor family. We had a long conversation with a boy of about 10 on the beach at Jemeluk. He was a bright, friendly, inquisitive kid who has worked hard to learn English (as well as Balinese and Indonesian and whatever French phrases he could pick up from tourists). We were the first Americans he’d met, so he peppered us with questions about our country—the size, the climate, etc. He’s the second of three children, all of whom go to school. He loves football and swimming in the ocean. His father is a fisherman, and his older brother pays for school with his father’s fish. To help make money for his and his sister’s school fees, his mother buys beads at the nearest big market town and makes bracelets and necklaces to sell to tourists on the beach. We so enjoyed talking to him that we ended up buying one (yellow wooden beads with a Chinese-style coin in the middle etched with a dragon). It’s nice to think that the 100,000 rupiah we paid for it—the cost of a typical lunch or dinner for two of us—will send him to school for a month.

A billboard encouraging visitors to dress modestly (and wear motorbike helmets)

When European missionaries came to Bali about a century ago, they encouraged Balinese women to wear tops instead of going topless, as had been their custom. A hundred years later, it’s the Balinese who dress modestly and the European women who like to swim and sunbathe topless. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair.

Virtually everyone in Bali over than age of about 9 knows how to drive a motorbike—in part because they’ve been riding on them, balanced behind or in front of their parents, since they were little. If our nieces and nephews lived in Bali and came from anything but the poorest families, they’d probably be driving a motorbike to school. It’s hard for Balinese people to understand how we could have reached our advanced ages without acquiring such a basic skill.

Unlike other places we’ve visited, Balinese towns don’t usually have parks or plazas that provide resting places for visitors. If you want to hang out, you have to do it in a restaurant or on the two hard wooden chairs located just outside the door of every tourist’s room (often in the full sun). Each neighborhood has a bale banjar, or community center, that includes a large pavilion where people hold meetings and events or just sit and chat, nap, play chess, or look at their phone. Unfortunately for us, those aren’t really open to visitors. The regular bale that you often see on the side of a road or in a field are generally either dusty, rickety-looking structures or are full of men taking a break, neither of which made them feel like a comfortable place for us to settle down.

A neighborhood bale

There’s a lot of construction going on around Bali, partly as tourism puts more money into the economy. Surprisingly (to Western eyes), there are almost as many women working on construction sites as men. Women seem to specialize in carrying heavy loads of dirt and stones in buckets on their heads from a big pile dumped in the street to wherever on the site they’re needed.

Trying to get around Bali by public transit proved much harder than expected. Tourist shuttles (minivans) run on regular schedules between about a dozen places. And bemos (ratty old vans with bench seating and a permanently open side door) travel between neighboring towns early in the morning to get people to and from markets. But other than that, transit options are much scarcer than our guidebook suggested. Our theory is that Balinese people have less need for public transport now than they did even a few years ago because so many of them have motorbikes. In the end, we found that hiring a driver (in an air-conditioned car!) to visit a bunch of sites on our way from one destination to another made life much easier and was worth the money.

Although Bali, like other parts of Indonesia, has some of the best coffee on the planet, if you don’t specifically ask for kopi bali, you’re apt to get freeze-dried Nescafe—because, apparently, that’s what tourists like.

Delicious kopi bali

During our travels, we ran into five or six Balinese men who had worked on cruise ships. Apparently, the big cruise lines (such as Princess, Carnival, and Holland America) consider Bali a good place to recruit housekeeping staff, waiters, and other workers for their ships. In northern Bali, there’s a cruise ship academy to help train people for those jobs. Although it’s hard to be far away from your family and friends for a year at a time—don’t we know it!—working on a cruise ship is a way for Balinese people to earn a lot of money. One or two years can net enough money to get married, buy a motorbike, start a small business, or pay for a big ceremony. Working on ships also lets people see more of the world, especially North America, Europe, and the Caribbean. It felt odd to run into Balinese people who had seen parts of our country that we haven’t, such as Alaska. (Two of them said that they loved the cold weather in Alaska.) One of the main disadvantages, though, is that the leftover restaurant food fed to the staff is awful, by Balinese standards—nowhere near as fresh or flavorful as people are used to here.

Many centuries of cultural preference, bolstered by current media, have created a strong desire for light skin. As a result, most of the lotions available in stores include “whitening creams,” and young women and girls go to great lengths to keep their arms covered from the sun. For instance, although standard attire for boys is a tee shirt, the girls selling trinkets on the beaches of Jemeluk in the blazing sun wore hooded sweatshirts or fleeces. Sweltering in a tank top, I asked one if she wasn’t hot. She said, “Yes, of course, very hot. But it will make me beautiful and white.”

One afternoon while we were sitting in a beachside cafe in Jemeluk, some of the child peddlers going by on the beach stopped to watch Melissa sketching in her journal. She offered them some of her art supplies to play with, and for the next hour we had an art class in progress. They had so much fun drawing and coloring pictures, and giving them to us as gifts at the end, that we resolved to get some extra colored pencils that we can give to kids in similar situations in the future.

Beauty and creativity are everywhere in Bali, but the language has no distinct word for “art” or ”culture” or even “dance.” People simply view it as a duty to honor the gods by making things as lovely as possible with whatever skills they have.

In the morning, carts appear selling a popular Balinese breakfast food, bakso ayam (chicken soup with dumplings)

Outside of the capitol and major towns, there isn’t a ton of street food in Bali. Villages might have a satay seller or two. But the one ubiquitous street food vendor is the man with a pushcart who wanders the streets, often ringing a little bell, selling a kind of spicy meatball and dumpling soup called bakso. It’s incredibly popular for breakfast or an afternoon snack. One town we visited had 10 bakso carts, apparently selling the identical thing, all lined up in a row! We never saw a tourist eating any—and we didn’t either, because who wants to eat soup when it’s 90 degrees F? (The Balinese, it seems.)

Motorbikes often pass by (too quickly for a photo, alas) carrying seemingly impossible loads: families, animals, giant bags of recycling, furniture, TVs, metal scaffolding, or dozens of bamboo poles. It’s astonishing how they can navigate Bali’s crazy traffic with a load piled higher than the diver and as wide as a truck.

There is a particular obsession with cleanliness here. People sweep their compounds free of leaves and litter several times a day. It is a point of pride to wash motorbikes and cars often. Yet, strangely to our eyes, the passion for cleanliness extends only to a very defined space; frequently, the sweepings go into a trash pile in a vacant lot that no one seems to care about. Roadsides are a mess, but dirt playing fields at schools are carefully swept clean with a broom.

The vast majority of visitors to Bali never make it north of the party towns and resort enclaves in the far south of the island (other than perhaps for one daylong bus tour at breakneck pace “to see the real Bali”). They never witness the ceremonies, temples, people, and landscapes that make Bali so unique and that have made our time here so special. We can’t really blame tourists if they come for a beach getaway rather than to learn about Bali (after all, few people go to Cancun to learn about Mexico). But they leave with a very different view of the island than we’ve gotten.

Many tourists are horrified at what, to them, appear to be “feral” dogs roaming the streets in packs. Most of the dogs do actually have a place they call home, a house or community building where they sleep and where people may give them some food (or at least let them eat the rice and crackers and fruit set out in offerings). But according to what we’ve read, the Balinese don’t think of dogs or cats as pets that can be owned. Instead, they’re animals that coexist peacefully with humans—in the kind of harmonious coexistence of disparate elements that is central to Balinese Hinduism. Humans go about their business, while cats and dogs go about theirs: catching snakes, rats, and mice and protecting homes, temples, rice fields, and other important places from evil spirits. In the law of unintended consequences, when animal-welfare groups run by expatriates started rounding up “stray” Balinese dogs to find them homes elsewhere, local rat populations exploded. And so, we assume, did the evil spirits.

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