Beyond the beaches of Bali

From where I’m staying, at Nusa Dua, Ubud is a long way off. But if a bestselling author could eat and pray her way all the way from America to Ubud, I can do this two-hour drive. And so I am off to Ubud, the heart of Bali, throbbing with art and culture, sometimes staggering under their weight as well.

My first impression of Ubud — the rice terraces at Tegalalang — is green and striking. But these are nowhere close to the ones just outside town, which grace every other picture postcard sent out from Bali. I make do with this watered down (pun totally intended) version, given my limited time. In a complex system of agriculture, much of the hillsides in Bali have been cut into elegant terraces to allow the control of water flow to the paddy fields through various canals and tunnels. And now, some of these terraces are UNESCO-listed and tourist attractions in their own right.

Ubud market, our next destination, is a riot of colours with the main street lined with posh boutiques, snooty art galleries and kitschy souvenir shops. Most of the shop-owners ignore me, recognising me for what I am — a browser, a window shopper, a sneerer. Not so at the crowded main market where I go with the intention of buying gifts for people back home. This market is a warren of bargain basement shops. There are shopkeepers falling over themselves to offer you the best prices, even if not always the best quality.

I bargain with one of them for flamboyant batik shirts for the unsuspecting husband back home. ‘How many you want?’ he asks. One husband, one shirt, I say. He laughs and gives me a hefty discount; he then invites other shopkeepers into the joke. This ready smile, easy demeanour is what I come to love about Bali. And it is everywhere on the island, and not just along the beaches where the sun, sand and surf provide millions of visitors every year a multitude of reasons to smile.

Bali is the only Hindu region in Indonesia, a fact underlined by the profusion of statues on every street intersection, beginning right by the airport. Mostly from Hindu legends and epics, every character I remember from childhood stories seems to have been immortalised in stone — Garuda with Vishnu, Ghatotkacha battling Karna, Bhima and Arjuna, and even one of Vali (for that is where the island’s name comes from), all imposing, white, and shining in the bright tropical sunshine.

Then there are the temples in this Island of the Gods — from small family temples in front of homes to fancy village temples meant for the entire community, and the more popular touristy ones like the one at Uluwatu. Everything is still at Pura Luhur Uluwatu temple when we reach; there is an evening ceremony going on, with locals in white silently circumambulating a central sanctum. Its location is dramatic; it’s perched on a cliff top, and so I wait patiently for photo-ops of the temple silhouetted against the molten gold of the sunset.

I miss the Kecak dance at Uluwatu, but the next morning, at the Barong dance performance, I see an explosion of colourful masks and elaborate costumes. Tigers dance, monkeys prance and mythical monsters exude meanness on stage, even as Kunti and Sahadeva battle against evil in their own way (this is the first time I have heard of this particular Pandava playing a leading role in a story).

Having adroitly avoided the beaches in Bali, I am determined to do the same later in Lombok.

In Lombok, the general trend has been for the Mount Rinjani volcano to erupt once every 12 years, the latest as recent as this October. No such eruptions have ever happened between the predominant Muslim community and the minority Balinese Hindus here. Lombok’s holy Pura Lingsar temple, in fact, attracts followers of not just Hinduism but also of Wektu Telu, Lombok’s unique take on Islam.

Lombok certainly marches to a different music all of its own. Here, there are no complaints about traffic and pollution, swimwear and sarongs don’t pass for acceptable daywear, as in Bali. Also, there are no karaoke bars lining the streets, belting out loud music, or massage parlours offering “relaxing” Balinese massages.

I enjoy the spectacular sunrises and sunsets on Kuta beach here, that’s a contrast to Bali’s overcrowded and tourist Kuta. This difference defines Lombok, at the cusp of overdevelopment, but determined not to become another Bali.

In those few days, I try Indonesian food: gado-gado salad, along with apologetic vegetarian versions of their curries and soups. But I shy away from what my guide slyly calls “Cat-Poo-Chino” — the most expensive coffee in the world, kopi luwak. Although I’ve heard paeans to its taste, I cannot bring myself to try something that has been through the digestive tract of a civet. Yet, it is considered a delicacy, a luxury. There is no accounting for tastes, I suppose.

Talking of tastes, Bali and Lombok are definitely for those who like the idea of time as a flexible concept. I find that on these islands, an hour can easily stretch to a few, a drink to a bottle, a smile to a conversation. And what better way to live?

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 11:39:17 PM |

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