Bali Hai might be calling you – but that doesn’t mean you need to answer

Bali – warm, sunny and plants everywhere. Half the traffic is people on motorbikes, like a swarm of bees (small roadside stands sell gas in glass liter bottles). I never saw any accidents or aggressive driving behavior. Very quiet, placid. And life is lived ‘on the floor’ – very few chairs, people squat to visit or work. Lots of little huts with the floor about 2 feet off the ground and a shaggy roof (sort of like thatch).

Was met at airport by ‘Coco’ – my tour guide who was decidedly handsome. He was a little startled that I did not want to engage in a long “where are you from – are you married – how to you like Bali…” conversation and even more startled (later in the trip) that I was not interested in having his hand on my knee. I think he meets a lot of Western women in Bali to ‘have a good time.’ Well, we all know what ‘having a good time’ means: shopping. And my knees have nothing to do with it.

Two hard-core security checks (mirrors under the car and opening the hood, back-seat doors and trunk), one check before going into the area with the hotel (like a big planned community – about eight 5-star hotels lined up next to each other), the other check to get into the hotel itself.

At hotel, you get out of the car, then walk across a little arched bridge, while one of the uniformed bellhops bangs a gong. HUGE open-air lobby – seating for 120, standing room for another 200 hundred. Three story, high double-hip roof, roll down bamboo mats but no walls. Exactly as we like to live – no walls.

My room had a double bed in a loft up a LADDER. We do not do ladders in hotel rooms so I changed to a regular, small room with teak floors and furniture and a little patio. Walked around – enormous grounds, several acres, grass near the paths but the rest was a riot of jungle plants, palm trees, bananas, tropical ferns, frangi-pani, bougainvillea, lots of ponds with cat tails and lotus blossoms, flame trees, fountains, lovely.

Beach was very narrow with brown sand, overshadowed by big sea-grape trees. It’s supposed to be ‘one of the ten best beaches in Asia.’ Maybe, but it could not hold a candle to beaches in Caribbean or Seychelles. And Bali is similar to, but different from, India and Thailand so that I am starting to see how the architectural and material cultural elements merge and re-from like the difference between Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Most fabulous part was the hotel’s ‘library’ – straight out of female romance fiction. A large square area surrounded by a moat, we so approve of moats!, with fish and transversed by three little bridges. The library had a high ceiling with a thatch roof and teak floors, no walls (our very favorite architectural feature), sheer white curtains billowing, teak sofas with white canvas duck cushions, teak coffee tables and glass front bookcases. Not one book in English – which tells you something about the world economy. And no one in it so I could lounge on the sofas for hours thinking literary thoughts.

This made up for le horror of the breakfast. Stewed tea! Quelle infra dig! And several cultural representations of icky food. Bowls of whole peeled garlic cloves, various frightening rice dishes, soy chicken, wretched croissants, worse bread, terrifying scramble eggs, and not a speck of hollandaise in sight. Sigh. I kept choosing something that looked good only to discover it was tofu. No Europeans, Asian men looking dissolute and disaffected (what IS IT with those horrible pompadours!? Stop this trend immediately!), Asian women looking and dressing like they were 12, old Russian men looking like the dissipated general in Burnt by the Sun, young Russian women almost, but not quite, wearing clothes. Saw a few Americans on motorbikes modified to carry a surfboard, but they looked unwashed and flea bitten.

Next day I was supposed to have “½ day tour” – I was envisioning something awful in a big tour bus, but no, just Coco, a driver and me. I had looked at a map so I knew where I wanted to go – small villages in the mountains, Ubud (famous for its terraced rice fields) and the volcano.

BUT FIRST – a batik store! Huge beautiful old house set off with grounds, you drive around the back and there is a little hut with a raised floor and straw roof for the tour guides to hang out in, a covered walk-way with women painting batik and saleswomen to explain the process. Then you walk down into the former basement of the house (you never get to see the real inside or formal rooms) and there is every possible object made from batik fabric.

The first was full of florescent lights and squabbling Russians so I asked Coco to go to a quieter one, which had the same set up but smaller and nicer. Like India in that every store had lots of people to stand around and ‘help’ – always more clerks than customers. I happened to get a few tablecloths. If you stand still in Bali for ten minutes, a vine would come cozy up to you and start climbing your leg. If you stand still in my house for ten minutes, I throw a tablecloth over you.

Poor Coco tried to get me interested in all the arts – silver store, gold store, jewel store, stone store (endless stores with huge stone garden decorations), dance demonstrations etc. but I said, “batik and the mountains.” Darling, when you travel, especially if it to someplace far away – don’t let people sway you to “do this.” Do as you please, don’t listen to tour guides, guide books, or people who have been there before. DO AS YOU PLEASE. Don’t waste even a moment on ‘you must see this.’

All the roads are one lane each direction, simple paving, then a sidewalk, then the shops, separated from each other by high side walls, only the largest had plate glass windows, most were simply open front (with metal ‘garage doors’ which came down to lock), at first I thought it was simply a ridiculous profusion of tourist shops, but they are actually for the locals: painted masks, wooden frames, cracked tile mosaic tables, glass bowls, rattan chairs/ baskets/ plant stands, etc. I mentioned to Coco that everyone in Bali was an artist working with their hands and he agreed.

I also happened to mention casually in passing, teak. So we stopped at a large open-air warehouse (metal roof, cement floor, no walls). And, well darling, you know that too too too fabulous sofa in my second-best winter living room, yes, that one. From Bali and please notice how I never mentioned this before, because it simply isn’t nice to talk around a room and say “I got this in Bali, I got that in Zaire, I got that over there in Poland…” unless you are talking to someone who has traveled more than you. Diva edict.

And this is also the perfect time to remind you about craftspeople. Use craftspeople. Trust craftspeople. I did not point to a sofa and say, “this one.” I was in a teak WORKSHOP. Make them work, I say. I mentioned that I liked that style, but not with the X, more of a Y, with a little Z.

This is how people should go shopping:  buy from someone who knows what they are doing and are qualified/ good at their work. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. The shipping was twice as much as the sofa and was going to take 2 or 3 months, I paid not knowing if it would ever arrive but a handmade teak sofa built to my specifications, that chance was not going to come again and sometimes you just have to trust fate. Heavens, three pieces of excellent advice in a mere three paragraphs, your aunt is such a paragon of wise virtue and yet I am not done!

For you see, as the craftsman was sketching the perfect sofa, he sketched in my name across the back of the sofa. No, my pet, no, never never never. Not even one of those gold pendants with your name spelled out in a foreign language. If you want a gold pendant with something in a foreign language, do a good motto such as: “Champagne” or “Be nice until it’s time not to be nice and then whack them in the solar plexus with your high heels.”

To return to the narrative, driving up into the mountains, it gets misty and starts to rain, which is lovely but it means when I had lunch on cliff overlooking the volcano – I never actually SAW the volcano, just mist. Oh well, it was a nice drive though plain jungle (no shops) in the rain.

Lots of moments when the culture divide shows up – we went to one area of rice fields that had recently been harvested so they were dull grey wet squares. He said, “Oh we are lucky, we can see the water!” I don’t know if he was trying to make the best of a bad situation or if, given the amount of GREEN stuff in Bali, it is culturally more restful to see expanses of calm water then more green plants.

On the way down the mountain, Coco asked if I wanted to go to a ‘spicy garden’ – well sure. Turns out he meant an ‘eco-tourist-trap’ – a small plot of land with a coffee tree, cocoa tree, clove tree, vanilla tree, cinnamon tree, ginger, starfruit etc. Truly fascinating and exactly the reason you should never sniff at tourist traps. Have you ever seen a cinnamon tree? No, of course not and they are worth seeing, however pineapple plants – let me tell you – a MOST unattractive plant, like a spiky fern. We do not approve.

The next morning, he picked me up and we drove to the north side of the island, driving for hours, up the mountains, then down – vista after vista of green valleys with wisps of mist. A man walking barefoot with a sarong around his waist carrying a small scythe, a woman holding a large banana leaf over her head to protect her from the rain, people in offices playing with high tech computers who get on their motorbike and drive home to villages full of  people who live in unchanging folkways. Enormous cultural shifts to navigate in the day to day life of people. It always comes down to, how far are you disconnected from the natural world? In cities, you don’t have the chance – but in places like Bali, you can get back to a very basic kind of life.

And like Malta, you can see, at the same time, how beautiful it used to be and how awful it is now. Same problem – small island with too many people, not just too many tourists, just too many people. Fabulous indigenous architecture and horrible modern construction lining roads for miles.

Lunch was awful. Coco insisted the hotel where we stopped was the only one and sometimes one needs to bow to fate. Coco and I were not well-matched but you can’t pick a tour guide like you pick a cantaloupe. The benefit of a tour guide is that if you say, “I’d like a few more postcards,” he doesn’t say “WHAT? MORE postcards? You just GOT some postcards! You have enough! We aren’t stopping again!”

Whispers  of me sitting in a spa all the next day are ugly rumors spread by reactionary, reductivist detractors. It was a CULTURAL experience. Spas are part of the essential deep-structure of Balinese life. I was merely getting closer to the deep structure of Balinese folkways although they did not have (as advertised) lavender body scrub (yum), coffee body scrub (yum yum) or sangria body scrub (yum yum yum), they only had ‘Javanese lulur’ (ho-hum). The ‘flower bath’ was a few wilted frangipanis, some bougainvillea (which has no scent) and a few twigs in tepid water. The “hair cure” made my hair so frizzy and dry, I didn’t wash it for 4 days. And the music – plonk, plonk, plonk in irregular rhythms – aural Chinese water torture. Darling, this is all for your benefit – for the horrible days when you wish you were in a spa in Bali, know that even a spa in Bali can be difficult, although the ‘spa lunch’ was roast beef and Swiss cheese on rye bread. What kind of spa has roast beef on the ‘spa menu’? A spa with Russian clients!

In any case, after my harrowing day at the spa, I ordered sangria – I took one sip. And called the waiter over, “This has ginger ale!”

“Yes!” he affirmed with a smile. It was all I could do not to fling it on the ground.

“And what else?” I demanded, steeling myself for the worst.

“Miranda (orange soda),” he answered.

Bali Hai might be calling you – but that doesn’t mean you need to answer that away,” I asked nicely. Adding in French, “and don’t fire the bartender, just take him out to an empty stretch of lawn and, without benefit of blindfold or cigarette, shoot the motherless fool.” The waiter smiled at me; I smiled back.

Sigh. You see what I go through? A bartender at a vacation resort makes sangria with ginger ale. If you are sitting down I will tell you that one night when I asked for a brandy alexander, it arrived having been concocted with sweetened condensed milk. The thought of it, even now, makes me want to lie on the sofa with a cold compress over my eyes. No need to thank me, no need to send vouchers for 5-star hotels – I do this sheerly for the love of you.

The next day a private yoga lesson. How can it all go wrong with a private yoga lesson? The teacher takes one look at me and starts to list all the problems he is sure I have. “Your back hurts, yes? Your legs? Yes? You feel tired? Not feeling good? Yes?” Well, no. Thank you, I’m fine. He assumes I am shy or there is some kind of linguistic barrier. OF COURSE I am a physical wreck. “Your back!” he repeats, mimicking a broken back. “Your feet! They hurt you!” No, actually I am ok. So far. He gets desperate, “your colon! Your liver! Your stomach!”

Having convinced him that I would never tell him the list of my, oh so obvious problems, he starts the lesson with the clear understanding that I could not possibly do any yoga. Can you touch your toes? I sigh then put my hands flat on the ground. Could I possibly manage ‘mountain’? Yes, and lotus, butterfly, downward dog, cobra, cat, cow, pigeon, and any other bloody animal you can think, not to mention table, tree, dancer, and the warriors. My sun salutes are a thing of beauty.

He finally shut up and it went well until the end when I am lying down in the resting position and he starts to do the whole ‘mental imagine’ thing – I am merging into the consciousness of the universe; I am blending into the essential essence of all things… No I am not, I am feeling silly. He wants me to visualize my chakras, concentrating on the one at the middle of my forehead so I start imagining a tiny iced coffee balancing on the tip of my nose. Then he starts chanting, which was beautiful but it made me sad, I thought of all the people who would love to have a real yoga master chant over them and they would feel all uplifted, centered and fused with the universe while I was merely dreaming of iced coffee.

After the lesson, in much need of spiritual renewal, I headed to the near-by open-air mall. Oh what bliss. Perfect Nirvana. Plants and little fountains everywhere. I got some postcards, and then, and then, dear people, just there, on the horizon, is that a mirage? A cruel taunt? No, no, it is! It is! The mother ship! Is that a tear in my eye? A coffee shop. I slid into it like a wandering, naked hermit crab who had finally found a shell. Oh divine happiness. A latte and a good book (7 Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. If you live in the Middle East, you must read it.) Then I hiked over to another 5-star hotel with another huge open-air lobby looking down over carefully terraced acres of plants, down to the beach. Had a proper afternoon tea and regained my belief in the essential goodness of all humankind.