Indonesia, a country with 13,466 islands, 922 of which are inhabited, and a population the size of the United States is an incredibly diverse country. One of the most beloved islands Bali, was where we chose to spend our two months. The inhabitants of this small island were indeed a warm, generous, humble, reverent, authentic group of people. ‘How are you? Where are you from? How long will you be staying in Bali? Where will you go after here?’ ‘We hope you come back to Bali again’. These were conversations we had daily in the communities where we stayed as we were greeted with smiles from everyone we met. This island ,also referred to as the island of the Gods, is a culturally rich place of carved stone temples, green rice fields ,flower petal offerings, processions of colorfully garbed locals burying their dead , incense burning, flowing water, traditional dance and music. Everything from the volcanoes in the middle of Bali, to the springs of fresh water flowing from the mountains has a spiritual meaning. Hinduism has morphed into ancestor worship and animism combined. With Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity all actively practiced in Indonesia, every – other week is a national holiday making education and productivity difficult.
Although Bali has been known for its agricultural land of lush green terraced rice fields and flowing streams, development is changing the face of Bali. Tourism is quickly becoming the main source of income for people. Subsistence farmers are selling out to developers, mainly Chinese, who build private villas with swimming pools in the middle of rice fields interrupting complex irrigation systems that flow from the mountains to the fields all across the island. Bali is facing many of the same issues we have seen everywhere else we have visited- water shortages, development of agricultural land, changing values because of an increase in tourism, foreigners buying up land, plastic pollution.
Flip flops were the shoe of choice for all of Bali. We learned to take our shoes off when entering public places such as shops or restaurants. Beautifully smooth white tiled floors covered all of the public and private spaces. Flip flops were lined up at the entrance to many of these public spaces creating a relaxed, comfortable environment with a reverence for cleanliness and order.
Our journey began on the north end of Bali in a sleepy little fishing village called Pemuteran. Public transport was very poor on the island so many people were employed as private drivers to efficiently move tourists around the island. We wove in and out of traffic on the narrow highway that wound through villages along the coastline. Scooters and large hauling trucks travel bumper to bumper for most of each day. Horns are used to communicate and although it looks like chaos, everyone seems to understand the unwritten rules of the road. No one seems to get angry or impatient. We did, however see four major traffic accidents in the two months we were on the island. Locals say that several tourists die each month driving scooters. It is all part of life on the island that has grown exponentially in the last few years with thousands of tourists flocking to it each year.
An occasional ceremony can be seen marching down the middle of the street, such as a funeral cremation ceremony, with a long line of pedestrians and scooters behind. A large part of the Balinese income is spent on ceremonies with births, weddings, and funerals taking days to prepare for and many mouths to feed before and after. They are a culture that gathers to celebrate or to support with neighbors, family and friends.
We stayed in a family compound or home stay with Buggy, Ilou and their children.If they have the money and space in their family compound, an Indonesian family will build a few rooms with en suites to rent out to travellers. There is usually a shared kitchen and a common area or pool to hang out by which is a great place to meet fellow travellers. Buggy’s retired father, a fisherman, and his wife lived behind our place and tended the family chickens and pigs as well as the gardens. Buggy’s brother had died leaving an 18 year old niece behind, so she lived in the family compound and helped in the home-stay. Their compound had the family temple in front where incense was burned and offerings of rice and flowers were placed regularly throughout each day. It opened up into a beautiful courtyard garden with simple fountains, pools of fish and lily pads, flowering bushes and chickens with baby chicks free to roam around. Every morning the roosters woke up the village, crowing from the highest point in the family temples. Buggy’s wife also supplemented their income with sewing fashionable ceremonial blouses for the neighbour ladies.
Luke, Jacob, and Naomi were able to take their advanced diving certification in Pemuteran. It included a night dive and a drift dive at Menjangan Island, one of the most pristine diving sites in the world, or it used to be….. The island still has a coral wall intact with some large species of fan and vase coral. Much of the coral was damaged when fishermen used cyanide and dynamite to catch fish. This is a practise that has been banned, but a huge shipload of explosives coming from Malaysia was confiscated by officials when we were there, so it appears fishermen may still be fishing this way. Two years ago the damaging warm water of El Nino (two degrees warmer) bleached a lot of the corals in the Indian Ocean. Since then a coral reef restoration project has been established. It is called the Bio-Rock which uses a gentle electrical charge to enhance coral growth and improve survival rates for small fish and baby coral. Fifty underwater metal sculptures were at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Pemuteran growing baby coral, attracting families of small fish. You can even get your name welded on if you make a donation to the cause. We spent many hours snorkelling through the bio-rock a few meters from shore which was a five minute walk from our place.
Diving was our main reason for coming to this part of the island. The fish were spectacular with vibrant colors, patterns and many varieties that we had never seen before. Most Balinese do not learn to swim. It is sad to think that so many live their whole lives next to the sea never having the opportunity to experience the beauty underwater.
Ilu, our dive master was a great ambassador for the Bali Dive Academy. He was doing his part to promote garbage clean up and education regarding plastics and recycling in the local school his children attend. Unfortunately we saw diapers and candy wrappers at 30 meters under the ocean. Snorkelling over the bio-rock you could look up and see pools of garbage floating just off shore. Jacob, Naomi and Mark got up early one morning to go out fishing with a local fisherman and everywhere they looked there was garbage floating in the water. We were sad to see the extent of the plastic problem in Bali. Indonesia is next to China in being one of the biggest consumers of plastic and all of it ends up in the ocean as they do not have a proper garbage disposal system. This is a very big problem as many fish, turtles and mammals are feeling the effects of the plastic and micro plastics as the plastic break apart.
A youth movement called Bye Bye Plastic was started by two teenage girls who attend a local Green School near Ubud. These girls are challenging their villages and government to ban single use plastic bags on the island by 2018. They were featured on a TED talk and have now got the promise from their government to ban plastic bags in Bali.
We were invited to several ceremonies while we stayed at Van Karning Bungalows. The 50 year old neighbor, a local restaurant and spa owner, passed away because of alcoholism and his cremation ceremony was going on across the alley from us. Chairs from the restaurant were piled in a corner to make room for guests that flowed through their compound day and night to mourn. Anywhere between 20 and 50 people hung out in their compound visiting or sleeping on mats for over ten days while they prepared for his cremation ceremony. He was placed on a special bed of ice waiting for a good day for cremation according to the Balinese calendar. In every family compound there is an outdoor bed surrounded by curtains that will be used for family members during the grieving period. If someone is wealthy enough they are cremated alone, but the majority are cremated in a mass cremation which only happens a few times a year. Bodies are buried and then dug up for the mass cremation on days decided by the priests. Many locals discussed how important this cremation ceremony was in their culture.
One evening we ventured across the alley where over 100 people were gathered around as a knife ceremony was performed to the beat of drums and gamelan playing along with singing, chanting and dancing. The daughters and wife of the deceased worked themselves into a frenzy welding a Kris knife, appearing to go into a trance to help their father transition to the spirit world. They then paraded through the house and said they were talking to their father and that he was happy and ok in the spirit world.
Another ceremony we attended was the full moon ceremony at the large village temple in Pemuteran. The majority of the village turned up driving scooters with women and children piled on the back, carrying offerings in colorful baskets on their heads. The offerings contained fruit, cakes, money, rice and other small gifts to be blessed. People visited, local dancers performed, gamelan bands played and stand up comedians kept the crowd entertained. Local teenagers texted on their phones and young men gambled in the courtyard. It was a colorful event with women wearing lace fitted tops, brightly colored yellow and pink, patterned sarongs and scarves belting their outfits. The men wore white shirts, white head scarves and dark or white sarongs often decorated with gold thread. The smell of incense permeated the entire area.
We found a great little cafe in Pemuteran that sat about ten people comfortably, situated on the main strip of town. We nicknamed it the “micro-cheepy”. It was one of the best cafes in town and had awesome young gals working there. We discovered that it was owned by a teacher and his wife who were not able to have children so they decided to invest their time and money into teaching young girls how to cook, waitress, and speak English with tourists. Their teacher shared that many girls in the smaller communities were not finishing school because they were getting pregnant at age14 to 16 and ending up married at a very young age. In the Bali culture girls join their husband’s families and so many parents are not interested in investing money into educating their daughters. The teacher asked me to join him later that week to see the local school. I did a small English exercise with a lovely group of sixteen year olds who were all very excited to share their stories of what life was like for them on Bali. Learning English is the key to getting good paying jobs for both girls and boys.
Women work hard on Bali cooking, cleaning, looking after children, and often holding down a full time job. Grandparents who live in the family compound help with child care while the mothers work. The youngest boy inherits everything from his parents, and he has the responsibility of looking after and living with his parents as they age.
Our boys decided to stay longer in Pemuteran because they were invited to play soccer with the local men’s team who were practising for a weekend competition. They also got to play with the local volleyball team which apparently was quite good. The men were all very friendly and welcoming but the boys were surprised that they all lit up cigarettes when they subbed off the field for a ‘water break’. Someone told us that 80% of men smoke in Bali.
On our last night at Van Karning, Buggy and Ilou cooked us a beautiful meal with the fish that our crew caught during the morning fishing trip. We had grilled fish, coconut fish satay, fish soup, rice and veggies. Our meal was shared with a family from France who were travelling through Bali on their spring break.
It didn’t take long to catch onto the fact that everyone had similar names. We met many Ketuts, Ilous, Kadeks, Geddes. People are named according to the order of birth in their families so if you are a fourth born, you are a Ketut. At one point we felt like we were dating two Ketuts because there were two drivers phoning us and offering to take us to our next destination or program for the day. We had to name them Ketut No.1 and Ketut No. 2 to differentiate them.
Ketut No. 2 was a retired carver and grandfather with a diabetic wife and many grandchildren. My friend, Tanya, from Calgary had met Ketut when she was in Bali in November at a writer’s conference. He was her driver and had carved several wooden hair pins for us to take home for her. We ended up using Ketut No.2 for quite a few trips around Ubud to see painters, carvers, jewelry makers and fire dancers.
Our next stop was an organic farm called Side by Side run by a local farmer, Ketut No.1. He has groups of students from international schools in Singapore who come to help with weeding, planting of rice fields, building projects as well as to learn about sustainable agriculture. An American art teacher, Pamela, supports this project and helps to organize fundraising and communication with international groups. The money goes towards supporting local farm families who farm in a coop. Ketut and his sister Ilou grew up in a family of eight among the poorest in Bali as rice farmers near Tirtiganga. Ilou was the eldest and never finished school because her mother needed help at home with all of the children. Her husband died when her children were young making it a very difficult life for her. Now that her children are grown and working, she takes care of her 80 year old mother and cooks at Side by Side when needed. Ketut, her youngest brother, is a passionate organic farmer trying to educate children in the local schools about the environment, plastic recycling, and sustainable agriculture. Ketut explained how farmers are growing GMO rice which has poor nutritional value and is not very drought resistant. The land has been depleted due to chemicals and pesticides sprayed since the 70s on the crops. An NGO organization called Sawah Bali was running studies on heritage varieties of rice to promote a change back to non- GMO black and red seeds.
Ketut also had extensive knowledge about natural medicinal plants growing on the compound. His grandparents taught him about these plants when he was a child. We helped Ketut in his gardens pulling weeds and cleaned up fish ponds on the property. Our room was an open-air space over the fish pond with the sound of nature all around. Ilou cooked yummy organic meals with fresh juices- avocado, lime, and watermelon grown on the farm. Nasi Campur, a traditional local dish, made up of a buffet of foods including chicken satay, peanut sauce, rice, beans with sprouts, tempeh ( a fermented soya dish) was what we had for supper most evenings.
Ketut took us on several outings. We visited the water temple at Tirtiganga and walked through gardens surrounding a royal palace with two spring fed swimming pools where we swam. All of the local teenagers were swimming in the shallow pool because most Balinese never learn to swim. Ketut led us through rice fields and along flowing irrigation systems to get back home. We walked past farmers working in their rice fields and children flying homemade kites made out of plastic bags. There is a village on Bali where 6000 white herons come to roost each evening. This sacred place has a steady stream of tourists at 5:30pm to watch the birds settle in for the evening. Men take advantage of the tourist crowd and demonstrate cock fight training while the tourists wait. Our girls were not impressed!
Ketut also took us to the thousand step temple which was more like 1563(not that we were counting) steps up the side of a volcano. Water from a mountain spring at the top was collected as holy water and brought down in bottles to be used for home ceremonies. A troupe of monkeys was at the top trying to steal everyone’s snacks. Many locals made the trek up the mountain to pray, offer thanks with small offerings of rice and flowers, and receive a blessing from the priest. Women in flip flops and tight fitting sarongs carried baskets of offerings on their heads all the way up the mountain!
We spent another day visiting a chocolate factory that was producing organic chocolate where they roast and process their own cacao and make it into very tasty chocolate. Unfortunately climate change was making it hard to grow cacao this year so they were short on beans. We also stopped at a family operated sea salt factory. A very poor man collected sea water, dried and concentrated it to produce sea salt for eating and bathing. It was a lot of work for a product that is relatively inexpensive for people to buy. We had a few concerns about what else was concentrated in the salt, as there was no process of purification except for the sun. Naomi and Mark had one more trip with Ketut trying to summit Mount Agung, the highest volcano on the island. They left at 3:00am but due to rain and fogs were not able to make it to the top.
We said goodbye to our new friends at Side by Side and re-joined the boys once again in Tulamben where an American Cargo Ship rests at the bottom of the ocean a few meters off shore. This was our first experience diving a wreck and what a thrill to see fish swimming through this old ship. Our most memorable dive was waking up at dawn to hit the water at sunrise. The rays of the morning sun penetrated the depths of the ocean as we watched schools of bumper fish, brightly colored coral attached to the wreck and many other beautiful fish swimming in and around the area. We did our last few family dives together and prepared for the boys departure to Singapore. Naomi aced her final math exam which we all celebrated, especially her teacher Luke!
The boys decided to use their newly honed travel skills and venture out on their own. Although we were sad this part of our trip was over, we realized they needed their independence to explore and discover on their own while we finished school work with the girls.
We headed south to Ubud, the cultural center of Bali. Ubud is known for its’ beautiful green terraced rice fields, spectacular yoga centers, awesome spas, and art. It became more famous following the filming of Eat, Pray, Love where Julia Roberts rides her bike through the rice fields and visits a wise old ‘Ketut’ for advise on love. We stayed at another home stay belonging to Kadeck, a vibrant little woman, born and raised just outside of Ubud. I booked a bike tour with one of the local companies biking from the volcano at Lake Batur down through the villages to Ubud; I didn’t realize that I had booked a company owned by a fellow who used to date Kadeck. He lost track of her and had not been in touch with her since high school. She broke his heart, marrying a young fellow from Ubud who was a painter. Who knew we would be involved in reuniting two people with a local love story.
Women have to get up early to shop at the fresh markets on Bali. Produce was delivered all over the island by scooter starting in the North at 3:00am. I joined Kadek on the back of her scooter for a trip to the local Ubud market at 7:00am and people were packing up by 8:00. Kadek used to have a table at the market, so she stopped to visit with all of her friends. They laughed at us because Kadek was a good two feet shorter than me and looked like my child. Kadek had a 21 year old son attending University in Denpasar who needed to go every two weeks to Singapore for cancer treatment. It was difficult for her, but she accepted that this was a part of their journey.
Ubud is surrounded by several villages all of which specialize in a particular art form. We visited villages that were separated according to the art form they practised and handed down to their children. There were villages of carvers, silversmiths, painters, kite makers, coconut carvers, weavers, batik painters, traditional dancers, bone carvers, furniture makers, glass blowers, stone carvers; so much talent in this area .A big problem for these artists is to keep up with the rapid pace of changing fashions. A lot of the local stores were filled with art, but there was no sign of shoppers.
Many people come to Ubud to attend writer’s conferences or to improve their painting, carving or cooking skills. There was also a huge yoga training center in Ubud called the Yoga Barn where the girls and I attended many classes with other travellers. We happened to be in Ubud during a food festival discussing topics on food sustainability, organic food, food trends as well as marketing Indonesian food globally.
A highlight for us was travelling from Ubud to Java for the night to climb an active volcano. Hundreds of tourists leave their beds at 1:00am to trek up Kiawah Ijen on East Java to view sulphur mines and beautiful blue flames at sunrise on the summit.
There are several active volcanoes on the island that have erupted and left rivers of molten rock over the years. A reverence for these sleeping giants is evident, especially for Mount Agung and Batur. A lot of fish died in the fresh waters of Lake Batur after the volcano erupted several years ago.
Our final destination on Bali was at the beaches of Canguu. We stayed at another home stay/surf school with a young family, Wayan and Epi and their two adorable little girls, Chandra and Daya and Wayan’s Mom. Naomi learned quickly with Wayan as a surf instructor and got up early every other day to hit the water. It was awesome to see her gaining confidence and improving daily.
Finally, a visit to Tanah Lot temple at sunset completed our time on Bali. We walked passed coffee shops with sleepy civets on their counters waiting to eat coffee beans to poop out for tourists to enjoy in their morning cups of Lewak coffee. Bali, what a place!!!!!