KUTA BEACH – Its 6:30am in the morning. I wake suddenly. I peer over at the adjacent bed to find Desirae sleeping soundly propped up on a mountain of pillows with a mouth open so wide you could fit an entire danish in it. Perhaps it is what she was dreaming about. I on the other hand had been sleep just under three hours. I was restless thinking about the prospects of parting ways to finally reach the destination that I had longed for. Ubud.
I didn’t want to hang around the room to wait for my ride that was supposed to arrive at some point in the early afternoon. I got up, brushed my teeth and headed straight out the door with my backpack in tow. I figured I’d get some of that delicious breakfast the hotel was offering and spend the morning exploring a bit on the motorbike I had rented. The mornings in Bali seem to always be sunny. This one was no different.
Kuta Beach’s streets seem to always be full with cars and motorbikes. I was lucky this morning as the traffic was light. I was able to pick up the speed a bit cruising down the streets. My aim was to get lost… and that I did. I hadn’t strayed too far outside of Kuta before and kind of expected most of the streets to be similar to the narrower crumbled streets I had grown accustomed to. I made one turn too many and that’s when I saw the first traffic light I had ever seen in Bali. I thought there were none up until this point. The street became wide filled with cars, but mostly motorbikes and it suddenly dawned on me, “I am in morning rush hour traffic.”
I hadn’t yet become fully adept to driving alongside the Balinese. In Bali, the lanes painted on the road seem to be there only as a suggestion of where to drive. People drive on the left here mostly but it is very customary for vehicles to cross over into oncoming traffic regularly to pass slower driving vehicles. Imagine a racetrack with cars going in both directions. I started to understand why so many tourists were getting into accidents. It takes some getting used to. My lone respite is that I am a good driver (on 4 wheels) and that I don’t hesitate. Hesitation will kill you.
The only problem I was having was being carried too far down stream in this raging river of motorist. I figured I would just keep going and hope that the path would lead me back around to the beach. A couple of twists and turns later and I was back in familiar territory… Kuta Square. I walked into my favorite spot, Gloria Jean’s Coffee, ordered a latte and took out my laptop and began to work on some projects. I am lucky that my profession affords me to travel the world as I see fit. All I need is an internet connection.
Its 11:30am now and I am about to head back to the hotel. My aim is to time it right so that all I have to do is shower and leave. As soon as I pull into the hotel Gusti is pulling in right behind me. Impeccable timing. I lend him my bike so that he may run a quick few errands. I rush up to the room, take a quick shower, gather my things and meet back with Gusti who is waiting happily in the lobby.
Gusti is your typical Balinese sized man standing about 5 feet 5 inches with long wavy black hair fashioned in a single braid pony tail speckled with chestnut brown highlights. The first thing you notice about Gusti is his bright endearing smile that almost always is followed by a clever joke that would lighten anyone’s mood. I was incredibly happy to see him. He wondered at first why I was coming alone, but that didn’t last long once I told him about my ordeal. He explained that the first night he was driving me and Desirae around looking for a hotel the way that she was treating the Balinese people had them all calling her “Gila!” That’s the Indonesian word for “crazy.”
We both had a good laugh about it. I told him about my situation with my lost debit card and that I had on my person roughly 700,000 rupiah ($67). The humble and gracious nature of the Balinese began to shine through as Gusti asked me if I wanted to stay with him at his village. I quickly rescinded his kind offer for I needed to take responsibility for myself. He told me of a hotel where I could stay for roughly 300,000 rupiah a night. I figured I could hold out until one of my clients wired me a payment.
Before you know it we were where I had hoped to be the entire time… Ubud. The first thing Gusti asked me once we had crossed over into Ubud was, “Are you Hungry?” I didn’t even answer with a word. I just looked at him with a look of, “Hell yeah!” Then he said a few words in his clear but thick Balinese accent, “Come, now I show you… the Real Bali.”
Not soon after it began to pour down raining. I guess the gods of Bali wanted to emphasize that today was the first day of rainy season. We pulled up to this restaurant that was on the side of desolate street. It was raining so hard that Gusti decided to get out on my side which was the shortest path to dash into the restaurant.
In Bali, many of the restaurants are open to the elements. This one was no different. It was no bigger than a two-car garage; and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually a converted garage. There were no front walls, only steps. We quickly sat down as it was a nice shelter from the rain. Gusti grabbed some rice chips. Rice chips are about half the size of tortilla chips with a Styrofoam type texture to them. They are quite tasty depending on your preference of chip. Immediately after popping one in my mouth I got my first taste of what is unavoidable in most of these open-air eateries… the flies. If you’re not used to flies buzzing here and about trying to grab a mouthful of your food it may at first be off putting. After awhile you get used to it and just accept that you are eating outside with nature.
The dish was mixed rice with chicken and Balinese style mixed vegetables. The food was spicy but really tasty. I was actually taken by the flavor of the food. It explodes in your mouth! Satisfied with a good lunch I reached for the money in my pocket to cover the bill, but Gusti had already paid for it. Gusti was quickly showing me what type of person he was. He knew I was in a bit of a jam and offered his hospitality as if it were he in the same situation.
The rain died down just enough for us to make a quick escape back into the truck outside. The next order of business was to find lodging. Gusti offered to bring me to Puri Manik that was right off of the main road in Ubud. We pulled in and I was half expecting to be staying in a rundown motel type of place where I’d have to just grin and bare it. I didn’t expect much for 300,000 rupiah (about $30). That notion was quickly erased as soon as we pulled up. Although the hotel was no Ritz Carlton it was nice and quaint with a nice decor about the grounds. Statues and carvings were all around adorned with flowers and the greenest of shrubbery in every direction. We got the keys from the hotel attendant Made and checked the room. The room had everything you need for Balinese life. The floors were tiled and the windows big in order to let in that beautiful Bali sunshine in the morning. The bathroom has a translucent glass roof where bits of the foliage from outside had grown through the cracks giving it an earthy feel. The only thing that seemed out of place was the 19inch television sitting on a stand against the far wall. Without a moments hesitation I exclaimed, “I’ll take it!”
Once my bags were brought into the room I asked Gusti where could I rent a motorbike. Still being as gracious as he could be he told me I could borrow his bike as long as I needed it. I was elated to hear this news. I had no idea how key this gesture would become. He told me that he had a place he rented right around the corner from the hotel where he kept the bike. We were off.
The place was literally about a minute away on the same road. This was my first real Balinese style dwelling I had ever entered. The entrance is an arched cutout of stone bricks where a deity figure stands right before you as you walk in complete with daily offerings. The Balinese people put offerings at the entrances, nooks and crannies of every building and living space. The offerings all include an assortment of flowers, food (usually a small amount of rice) and burning incense. Bali is called the “Land of the Gods” and the offerings scattered literally everywhere prove the devout faith of the Balinese people.
Once inside I noticed how all of the people that lived in the dwelling communed with each other in a fashion that I felt that they were all related. We walked over to Gusti’s bike and I couldn’t wait to get on it. Not that it was anything special, I just love the freedom that it provides. We walked the bike outside and Gusti began to give me a few instructions on how to navigate around Ubud. Just outside there was a man on a food cart cycling up the road. Gusti asked again if I was hungry. I wasn’t but I was interested in what was on the cart. The carts are common in Bali. They sell bakso. Bakso is chicken meatball in a broth. The man has to wait until you’re finished eating because he does not carry disposable bowls. The soup is good but, as I can see I better come accustomed to, spicy.
Before I leave Gusti asks me if I want to attend a dance. I have no idea what its gonna be like but I need and want something to do. He tells me he will pick me up later in the night and then I motor off back to the hotel.
Later on after I rested a bit at the hotel Gusti showed up. I gathered my camera bag and we were off. This was my first taste of the country side of the Island. It was dark now. The seemingly infinite twisting roads make you uncomfortable at first because they are very narrow and there’s barely enough room to fit two cars side by side. Watching Gusti manage the roads as he does coming mere inches to the sides of roads and the mirrors of cars and bikes is something to behold.
We arrive at the temple where they are holding the dance. It is filled with vans and tourist buses. We get there just moments before the show begins and find our seats near the back of the outdoor theater. Normally the dance is held completely outdoors, but alas this is the rainy season. I pull out my camera and then they start the show.
The dance that we are to see performed is called Kecak. Kecak (pronounced [ˈketʃaʔ] is a form of Balinese dance and music drama. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece, performed by a circle of 50 or more performers wearing checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting “cak” and throwing up their arms, depicts a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. However, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance. Really the story plays as the Balinese version of Romeo and Juliet. A man fighting for the heart of a woman.
This was followed immediately after with an amazing “Fire Dance.” One of the performers dressed in a grass skirt the shape of a horse or dragon with a long tail sat patiently on the floor as a stage-hand prepared a fire in the middle of the stage. Once the, what looks like, hay bricks were set a blaze in a 5 foot high fire the dance began. The performer did a serious of gestures that seemed to psyche him up to jump into a blazing hot fire bare foot. He jumped right in seemingly ass first into this heap of burning material and put the fire out. Not that it was enough he had to do it about 8 more times as the stage-hand kept lighting the fire back up. The performance ended in a literal blaze of glory.
We raced out to the car afterwards because it started raining. I don’t mean your typical drip drop it will soon pass over rain. This rain was making an all out blitzkrieg to the ground. It was relentless. The strangest thing to me was how the Balinese people sucked it up and road through it in their motorbikes with only Pancho style raincoats for protection. The thing about Bali roads are they are extremely curvy, hilly and narrow. Couple that fact that it was pitch black dark and there are no street lights to illuminate the streets. It was starting to concern me that we might get stuck because it inevitably started flooding. We arrived at one intersection that was at the bottom of a hill where three roads met. The water which was nearly a foot high in spots became a raging river at this fated intersection. I literally saw an Indonesian girl get swept from her motorbike with several Balinese rushing to her rescue. There was a gas station on the corner of the road where several motorist who found it too harrowing to attempt to drive upstream settled in to wait it out.
I was looking at Gusti who seemed calm and confident that his newer vehicle could get through this onslaught of street river current. The key was not to stop for risk of stalling out. Somehow through it all we made it back to the hotel. Gusti drove past a couple of buildings down to drop me off at what would become my favorite restaurant while in Ubud. L’nuriani restaurant.
Once inside the restaurant I was greeted by the nicest and charmingest of people, Erix. Erix is tall for a Balinese man standing at approximately 6″ and is rail thin with a very endearing smile like no other. I was glad to be out from the rain and thrust into this amazingly charming restaurant that offered a fusion of traditional Balinese food with other Asian foods such as Thai. What I didn’t expect was how good the presentation of the food would be. It looked magnificent and taste even better. I was very impressed. I saw a white gentlemen who came over to greet me after my meal. His name was Jan. Jan is a tall slender middle aged Dutch fellow with spiky hair and rectangular shaped glasses. He speaks perfect Balinese as he has lived there for 6 years. He began to inquire about my stay and how long I’d be in Ubud. When I told him of how unfortunate my time was in Kuta and how impressed I was with Ubud he told me, “Your troubles are over my friend. Welcome to Ubud, this is the Heart of Bali!” He was right. For the first time I knew it in my own heart… I was in Bali.
NEXT UP: NEIM’s Bali Adventure: Culture Shock