Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Romance For Ever

Bali. The paradise on Earth. The most fantastic travel destination anyone can imagine. Impossible green rice terraces, misty volcanoes, surf beaches, thousand-year old temples, magical sunsets, fabulous food, friendly locals, unique cultural experiences. Romance for ever. I get a question on Facebook: "Is it really beautiful over there?"

My answer: "it's OK."


It is OK. It does make me think of travel as a general experience, it does make me wonder if there is such thing as a "romantic destination".

As we ride toward Uluwatu, I read an advertisement board by the road "come to our five star hotel, have your wedding here, romance is for ever". I want to take a picture, but it takes a moment to start the camera and this is what I get:

We could argue in our family over who wanted to come to Bali, why did we come here and what are we doing here. We could blame Maria, because she read "Eat, Pray, Love" and she said "let's go there." On the other hand we could argue over who deserves praise for choosing this place and we could give Maria all the credit. Or not. We all wanted to come here and we are happy that we did. If tourism and travel would have the slightest connection with what we see in the advertisements on TV or in glossy magazines, there wouldn't be any tourism or travel. Let me explain.

Bali is a small island in the middle of Indonesia. It was blessed with great weather, rich soil and industrious people. More than a thousand years ago they cultivated rice in terraces with an ingenious irrigation system and a cooperative work agreement. This allowed them to obtain more rice production than they needed, freeing some time for other activities. They went to the temples, built some more, sculpted every surface that they could find and devised a complicated system of celebrations and festivals that translated in the 20th century as "rich traditions", "culture", etc. Some lost over europeans stopped by, sent some pictures home and the legend started. The main draw was the form and shape of the breasts of Bali. Men and women did not wear any clothes on the upper part of their body. The clothes were only for some temple ceremonies. Outside of that only prostitutes would cover their bodies, to maintain some  mystery and entice clients, so clothes were seen as a bad thing. Because of the habit of women to carry heavy loads on their heads, sustained by holding the arms up, the women here developed large shoulders and strong pectoral muscles. A German doctor spent a year in 1909, saw 10000 patients, took 4000 photographs and published a book in 1912 with a few hundred pictures about the women of Bali. This triggered an enormous interest in post war Europe and scores of artists and scientists started to flock on the island. The only positive thing that the occupying Dutch did - was not to allow any missionaries to land here. They might have recognized the value of the local culture or might have been just as mesmerized by the Bali breasts as the  scores of artists, cineasts, musicians, anthropologists, biologists, and even entomologists. Combined with more or less fictional stories about how charming and amiable the locals are, they augmented the legend of Bali. There is some truth to it. It is a world in itself, 2 million Hindus among the other 280 Muslims that make up Indonesia, they seem to be just the strongest, tough enough people that could take the onslaught of occidental tourists without changing their ways and losing everything in the process. I reread the introduction to our guides. Could it be that the print has changed? I remember that it said something about magic, exotic, fantastic, unique. No, it doesn't say that - it just says that is a great place to be. We watched again a 10 minute documentary about Bali and we told each other: we saw all of these fine images here but they should put a fine print, "it's not quite like that."
Planes land on small boats

Five stars resort. Horrible.
There are some beaches, we saw some of them. They are not white sandy beaches. It's complicated. 
Local people crowd the beach in Kuta every evening
There are rice terraces. We went out of our way for a couple of hours to see the ones in Jatiluwih, next month they will be declared another World Heritage site. People had farmed the rice like that for a thousand years, now they blocked the road and sell tickets for tourists to drive by and admire the landscape.

The rice terraces at Jatiluwih

After walking through the valley the parents are reunited with their children
We didn't go to the volcanoes. Ileana did her cooking class that involved a trip to the market and a nice conversation with a beautiful Finnish girl and a couple of Germans who have been traveling without a plan for the last year. Ileana learned to cook a couple of dishes and I learned that there's nothing special about the Balinese cuisine. It could be argued that it is an invention just for the satisfaction of the tourists, but it is rich, varied food, it is tasty, easy to make and cheap. It would be nice if the local children could get some more than the white rice. (For a great summary of Balinese cuisine, read this post:
Satisfied students pose with their teacher
There are temples everywhere. You need a special uniform to get in, but they are closed all the time, either because they are performing a service or because there's nothing going on.

The entrance to the port looks like an entrance to a temple
Guardian of an unnamed temple

The sunsets might be amazing, but the sun didn't get it right for one week of consecutive tries. It just dropped out of the sky behind some blueish curtain, before reaching the horizon. No change in colors, just darker, we took some pictures...


Having said all that, you could be hard-pressed to devise a trip around the world without stopping in Bali. Close to Australia, South East Asia, with simple connections to Japan, Europe, and North America, it is easy to get here. More importantly, it is easy to be here. Everyone speaks English, and Indonesian is simple and uses a latin alphabet. The transport is well developed and reliable, even when overcharging, they believe in karma. They will be rewarded or punished in their next incarnation for whatever they do now, so they are nice and careful. There is a unending list of hotels of all prices and amenities and they even negotiate the rate a little. Every place has a warung, a little restaurant and every staff member can become a cook when needed, plus in busy places like Kuta they have all the chain restaurants in the world. There is cheap massage, cheesy attractions like a water park, submarine (where they feed the fish in the ocean so tourists can take pictures), a butterfly park, a zoo, a reptile park, an elephant safari, and so on. There is quality traditional entertainment, expensive touristic imitations, cheap video stores of illegal Hollywood copies. We don't use that, but the stores have baskets like in a grocery store and other tourists buy stacks of pirated DVDs. There is a tolerance and light attitude on the part of the locals that makes life easy for a traveler. So, there is everything. It is not romantic, not magical, just a nice, cheap, safe place to recharge some exhausted batteries.

We were lucky to make friends with a family of traveling Australians and besides our trip to Gili Meno, we met with them several times in Ubud. We left most of our luggage with them for ten days while we went to Java and some other places around here. In Ubud  we visited the Monkey Forest and the temple around it, where I was viciously attacked by a monstrous monkey. (Maria described all here). 

The green valleys of Ubud

One of the hundreds of monkeys who own the Monkey forest
Sometimes the monkeys get set in stone
One day in Ubud, Ileana took a cooking class. I tagged along to take some pictures. Next day she took a batik class. We took a trip to the botanical garden and TreeTop adventure park. (Maria wrote about it)

Can you see who is hiding in the trees?

TreeTop fun

Fear of heights
Completing the red circuit the team reunites on the ground
Group picture at the end
Yes, you guessed right, it is Maria!
In Kuta, we stayed several days and Ioan and Ileana learned some surfing. 

One morning we decided to change hotels, in a couple of minutes we were in a taxi and found something closer to the beach. In the evening we left money for the children and went on the beach for a stroll. The children went by themselves to Pizza Hut and we regaled in an expensive shrimp extravaganza at a luxurious American restaurant. Next day, the Internet stopped working and we decided to leave. I called The Gong - they had rooms, I told the front desk good bye, got in the street and took the first cab to Uluwatu, an hour away. We saw another temple there, a great kecak (kechak) dance, missed the sunset, we decided to stay another day. We spent all day by the hotel, walked a little to see the ocean and miss another sunset. Next day we got in a car, stopped in Denpasar to visit Bali museum and returned to Ubud for another three days close to our friends. The hotel gave us the same room, the same discount and welcomed us like they knew us for ever. 


The entrance to the Uluwatu beach

Walking back from Uluwatu beach

It is easy to be here. It's not magical, it's not romantic. It is OK.

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