Saturday, February 9, 2008

Back to Bali (1)

((Lately at times I've been transcribing sections from my 1986 around-the-world travel journal. Today some impressions and experiences from Bali, Indonesia's beautiful Hindu island, sadly the site of terrorist bombings, the last few years, in places I visited safely and happily back then.))

May 15

Clusters of swaying palmtrees, bush-covered volcanic hills, step-terrace rice paddies rising up and up, as many as 30 levels. Hindu temples by the thousands, in every village and field, one of them standing beside a power pole in a shimmering paddy. Surfers at Kuta Beach vainly flailing at low waves. Beach bungalows ranged around lush tropical gardens. Balinese vendors swarming like sandflies, clinging tenaciously to the near-naked sun-worshippers; thus my first Balinese words: Tarima kasih--approximately, "Buzz off, I don't need anything!"

Woke to the cheering sound of roosters and dawn birds, tea and toast on the porch of the small bungalow Rick ((Swiss traveler I had met on the long busride from Jakarta)) and I are sharing for about $3.50 each per night. His German guide to Indonesia recommended this place among the hundreds along this southern wedge of the island; and the room is adequate, with ceiling fan and flush toilet, on a nice garden near the white-sand beach.

Which is where I am now, fighting off the vendors, watching the surfers, trying not to stare at the bare-breasted non-natives. At least I feel clean and relaxed again. Nothing like the ocean to rinse away your cares and woes...

May 16

Sunshine flickering among the hibiscus flowers, booming surf and rhythmic gamelan music pulsing in the distance. It was beach bum-around time, though I did wander the Kuta-Legian commercial strip, miles long, boutiques and bars, cafes and cassette shops, where I suppressed my gadget-dislike long enough to spend $35 on a paperback-sized deck and a stack of tapes, pirated duplicates of Springsteen, Dire Straits, Tina Turner, and others selling for about a dollar.

More impressions: tiny shrines can be found outside each home or store; these are filled each day with floral bouquets and little leaf-boxes of food bits--gifts to the gods. And the little boxes show up on sidewalks and tidelands too, wherever the Balinese congregate. Also, a silly example of hedonism at the beach: most women, and some men as well, pay to lie on their towels or mats and be massaged, fed food or drink, even have their hair braided and beaded. This looks like a scene from some Roman Empire decadence flick like Caligula or Fellini's Satyricon. Harmless diversion, or insult to Balinese pride? Anything to make a few rupiahs, i guess.

Tomorrow I take a grand tour up to Bali's most holy temple, Besakih...

May 18

The journey proved too tiring to transcribe any notes last night, but here's the jist of the day:

Heading out on the small bus-van, we could immediately see the contrast between Kuta's crap-consumer congestion (it's Australia's equivalent of Hawaii, after all) and the palm-drenched plush spaciousness of expensive hotels and their park-like surroundings, in the area called Samur. There we picked up so many wealthier tourists that the van skipped a promised barong dance exhibition in order to fritter away two hours in craft-specialty villages, where we could learn about, and buy samples of: silver-smithing in Celuk, waist-sash weaving (for temple wear) in Batuan, and cloth weaving in Gianyar. The pressure to buy irritated me, but the Gianyar factory with its hundred-some women spinning wheels and old wooden looms was quite a sight.

Next came Klungkung where a no-longer-used royal enclosure and hall of justice offered fantastical ceiling paintings depicting both marital bliss and evildoers scourged by demons! (The souvenir sellers tugging at us so tenaciously seemed the demons secular cousins.) And the horror motif continued at the next stop, a reeking, truly disgusting, sacred cave of bats, with a filth-encrusted temple in the foreyard. Mondo Cane stuff.

After a tourist-ripoff lunch that cost me a whole day's meal money, we drove on into hills and then up a winding mountain road to reach Besakih, Bali's "Mother Temple," used only once a year, in April, for a full day of processions and ceremonies. Although only Hindus were allowed inside into the separate areas for Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma worship, we pagans could circle the walls, climbing higher and higher, viewing gold decorations, stone stupas (sort of free-standing steeples), wooden platforms awaiting cremations, and Besakih's extraordinary setting. Halfway up the island's most imposing volcano, Mt. Agung--which last erupted in 1963 on the actual ceremony day, killing thousands but doing no damage to the temple!--Besakih looks straight up to to the top of the mountain, to the full moon lingering above it today. One turns back to discover a vista of most of south Bali--hills, paddies, and fields stretching all the way to the beaches and the sea.

I was haunted by the experience all the way back to Kuta and during the night. It's clearly what triggered the poem I'm working on today...

((More from exotic Bali, and the completed poem, next chapter.))

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