Nearly every vehicle, car, bus, truck, motorbike and bicycle were dressed up for protection during the past weekend.
Sanur is gearing up for its annual “Bali Kite Festival” or “Sanur Kite Festival” held in mid-July. Unfortunately we will miss it but we are already getting a taste of the passion Balinese have for kites and kiting.
(see slideshow below)
Each day we watch from our balcony as dozens of kites are flown around us. From the simple kite of our childhood to complex forms such as owls and dragons they get larger, more numerous and complex each day as kiters practice for the big event.
While we were out on a motorbike yesterday approaching Sanur from the south Stephen caught sight of some large kites being flown down by a beach. We took the motorbike down the nearest lane to discover the place swarming with crews flying enormous kites and throngs of onlookers.
We got up close as one crew prepared to launch a 4 meter dragon kite with a tail of about 60 meters. A dozen or more men and boys huddled around completing various tasks of assembly. The framework, entirely of bamboo is cleverly fitted together to give a strong yet lightweight frame that can be assembled and disassembled for storage and transport. Many kites being flown were of similar dragon designs. Once the body was assembled the crew attached the head assembly, an intricate and highly decorative dragon complete with filigreed headdress, feathers and fur and breathing carved fire from its fanged mouth.
The designing, making and flying of these monsters is a team effort by whole villages and as you might guess has religious significance as well. One of the last steps in assembling the dragon was to attach a 2 meter strap across the width of the kite; it was tensioned by a long strand of flexible bamboo and fastened into place by an ingenious collection of bamboo, string and masking tape. The strap is a noise-maker, one above and another below the frame. Once the kite is airborne the straps vibrate giving an eery drumming noise meant to frighten evil spirits.
Several crews were flying these nearly identical dragons with varying degrees of success. Getting them off the ground is the difficult part but once aloft they are magnificent and the strong winds tend to keep them there. We don’t think we have seen everything yet, we expect them to get even larger and more varied in design. It was fun nevertheless to see the enthusiasm as these cooperative activities took place.
Lombok is an island about the size of Bali lying just east of it. It is described as being what Bali was 20 years ago and that seemed like something worth seeing. Interestingly, the two islands are separated by 20 Km of water that form a deep strait that kept Lombok apart from Bali and Java to the west. This separation called the Wallace Line reflects the different biomes caused by the separation.
Because the seas are often rough here and because we didn’t really want to commit the time to a sea voyage anyway, we flew from Denpasar to Praya. As we flew over the flat southern plains we could see small towns with their mosques among the flooded rice fields. What normally comes to the tourist’s mind when thinking of Lombok is beaches, surf, Rinjani volcano or diving but the island is less devoted to the tourist than Bali. We had hoped to find uncrowded roads and rural life.
(see a slideshow at the end)
We got around the island pretty well in our rented Diahatsu Xenia, a severely under-powered small van. Refer to the map to see where we went. Leaving the airport at Praya (south center of the island), we drove down some very rural back roads in search if an ikat weaving village that we never did find but we did get a good view of the villages on market day where throngs of folks came on motorbikes and donkey carts to buy and sell. After recovering from being lost, we drove along the west coast from above Mataram through the tourist area of Senggigi and on up to near Tanjung. A lovely villa on the water awaited us and we settled into our bamboo cabin and enjoyed some delicious Indonesian food, a swimming pool and an ocean sunset.
The following day we drove along the north coast to Bayan and from there to Senaru, a launching pad for hikes up Mount Rinjani, Indonesia’s second highest volcano. We had not planned one of the several day treks but just wanted to be on the shoulder of that big thing. Um, the problem was that it was completely obscured by clouds. With jungle beside us, a view of a 30 meter waterfall to one side and rice terraces and the sea to the north we enjoyed beautiful gardens and a group of monkeys at our resort. In the morning the clouds had cleared and there was the volcano above us. We drove around it taking the day to get to its southern flank at Tetebatu, another trekking point. The road inland between the two places is delightful passing through forest then open farmland and small villages. The road is a twisted and steep passage and well worth the effort although the Xenia was never sure. Why we did it of course is because we were advised not to, we were told it was impassable, that we would need a 4WD; some maps do not even show a road between Sembalun and Sapit. The road was good despite recent heavy rains and advice to the contrary you shouldn’t miss this side of the island. This is the Bali of 20 years ago.
The road leveled out around Aik Mel, a bustling trade center. Still showing its rural roots, I stood on the sidewalk and watched as the donkey carts mixed it up with trucks, motorbikes, bemos and pick-ups.
Here’s where our misadventure began. You see, we rely on GPS to get us around since nothing is ever signposted and we are unable to ask directions, not that that really proves helpful since most folks are not familiar with places beyond their own little area. How did we find the road to Tetebatu, maybe there was a sign but it didn’t agree with the GPS. Hmmm. Then it began to rain one of those tropical downpours. We struggled uphill barely able to see and wondering why we might want to spend our time in clouds and rain when we passed an overhead arch marked Tetebatu; continuing on up we saw nothing more than local village life and folks trying to stay dry. This locality was in strong disagreement with our GPS, but maybe Tetebatu is a district as well as a village; we chose to backtrack and believe the GPS whereupon we arrived in another village far from Tetebatu. The GPS was wrong and the rain persisted so we decided to bag it and instead head down to Kuta on the south coast.
Now, Kuta is the name of a hustle beach zone on Bali, famous for drunken Austrailian surfer types and hawkers on the beach selling everything from sunglasses to drugs including viagra. Viagra? I thought this was a post pubescent scene. And drugs? Indonesia just executed 8 people for drug trade activity. But we were going to Kuta, Lombok, rather the opposite of Kuta, Bali much as our Las Vegas, NM compares to Las Vegas, NV.
It’s a seedy little ramshackle place, mostly an access point for some good surfing. What it had to recommend it for us was a pretty good wood oven fired pizza. The inclination to serve the tourist in this town was represented well at this establishment where the floor hadn’t been swept in a week and a member of the wait staff lay sleeping on a couch near our table and wouldn’t be aroused by our presence. Don’t tourists present an opportunity to sell a meal? Don’t they all need a cold Bintang?
The following morning we took a little look around heading over to Seru Lilit, another desirable surf spot. Pretty beaches, a few fishing boats and some surfers.
We had some time to visit a traditional Sasak village at Rambitan. The Sasak are the original inhabitants of Lombok and in this village they hold on to traditional animistic religious beliefs and a closed traditional life. Our guide told us of their traditions and took us through the settlement and into a typical home. The homes are of bamboo with thick roofs thatched with a special type of grass and woven bamboo sidewalls. The living space is in three levels the highest of them is the cooking area, where a meal was being prepared over and open fire with smoke leaving through an opening in the high roof, and a sleeping space for the wife and children. The middle area is the sleeping space for the husband and the lowest area is an open area for hanging out; we might call that the living room. All areas were poorly lit and chickens passed around freely. Roosters were plentiful being prepared for the cock fighting ceremonies. Many of the older women are still engaged in traditional weaving and one old woman was sitting on the ground spinning locally grown cotton into thread, her teeth red from chewing betel nut. The main type of weaving done here is ikat but we saw batik as well being done by young women working in very low light next to a hot plate used to heat the wax they applied to the fabric.
Interspersed among the closely spaced homes are lumbung, rice storage barns that are elevated from ground level and have a unique roof shape.
While we didn’t surf or hang around beaches much we got a close glimpse of life on the island and saw 370 Km of tropical beauty.
After being in Bali for 30 days we needed to renew our tourist visas and to do so we had to leave and reenter the country. The closest place to do this is Singapore, a two and one half hour flight away, so the school arranged for us to fly there. Their plan was for us to take an early morning flight, get our visas processed and return on a late evening flight that same day. We elected instead to leave at a reasonable hour and spend enough time in Singapore to have a look around and return two days later, again at a reasonable time.
We visited Hong Kong for several days some years ago, staying with friends who were living there. In addition we have visited several other Asian mega-cities like Seoul, Taipei, Bangkok, and Beijing, so why not add another to the list if only for a day or two.
Stephen searched around the internet for a place to stay that would get around the vertical character of so many of these places. She found a well situated, two-story, boutique hotel in a quiet neighborhood aptly named Lloyd’s Inn. We dropped our passports at the broker and walked the quarter mile to Lloyd’s.
Needless to say Singapore is vastly different from Bali. Structured, orderly, clean, wealthy.
Soon after our arrival we learned that the city nation was in mourning for the passing of it’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. As we came to learn, this wasn’t simply the death of another politician but of a man whose vision lead to what is a remarkable place. It became apparent as we spent time in the city that he left a lasting legacy from the time of its creation until the present. Coming in from the airport the free-flowing freeways were lined with lush tropical plantings, streets were clean, buildings in fine condition. Leafing through the many sections of English-language newspapers eulogizing Mr. Lee, I learned that it had not always been that way but rather had been a muddy poverty stricken place. He worked to establish a corruption-free government and to attract foreign investment, he established funds for housing for all of Singapore both rich and poor. His love of plants has left its mark all over the city.
Not wanting to be overwhelmed by the size of the city we decided to take a citywide hop-on hop-off tour bus. However after waiting for nearly one hour after a scheduled arrival we gave up and headed for the nearest metro station where we bought a two day pass. The sleek, spotless subway of course had full wi-fi for the device addicted, that is to say, everyone. Although we didn’t see as much traveling underground, it was rapid and we visited first Chinatown and then Little India. We went again this time to the central city and the waterfront. On our list of tourist attractions was the Helix Bridge, a curved footbridge over waterways and highways supported by a double helical structure designed to represent DNA. A museum in the shape of a lotus blossom, a multi-tower skyscraper connected by a ship-like structure at the top, and the Singapore Flyer are some of the architectural marvels down in that area.
After emerging from the subway we had to navigate past countless glitzy shops before getting to the waterfront and the Helix bridge. What a stunning creation. A very wide footbridge, it had many tourists like ourselves and an even larger number of locals out for their jog. A sequence of nucleotides is represented along its length and the walkway itself passes through the center of the curving DNA. A number of viewing platforms puncture the strand to allow for a look at the skyline; I hope these don’t represent mutations in the DNA.
We wandered over to the Singapore Flyer, a 540 foot diameter, 42 story, Ferris wheel described as an observation wheel by its owners whose cheesy by line is “a moving experience at every turn”. Although it can accommodate nearly 800 passengers in 28 “capsules”, traffic was light and we shared our car with a Philippine couple. It takes about 30 minutes for a full revolution giving you plenty of time to look around. Among other things, we could see the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest dome at the Gardens by the Bay and a large number of ships waiting to dock out in the water.
It turned out well not riding the hop-on bus deal since we returned well past their hours of operation after a long stroll through the gardens. A high tech and somewhat gaudy LED light show in the Supertree Grove in the gardens drew plenty of evening visitors.
With an afternoon flight the next day we had all morning to visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens which were a bus ride away in the opposite direction from downtown. This enormous arboretum and garden covers 183 acres and was established in 1822. There are collections of various plant types such as the ginger family or bromiliads. In addition it was used as a sort of agricultural experiment station supporting the cultivation of crops such as rubber. Paths lead through tropical forests and flowering plants, a very special urban retreat. The highlight of the gardens for us was the Orchid Garden, an area of 7.5 acres dedicated solely to orchids. Lucky for us most were blooming. There is a
misting house for those that need moist conditions and a cool house for orchids needing cool conditions. One area is dedicated to hybridized orchids and a VIP orchid garden, giving names of famous people to original cultivars much like roses are named; a new hybrid was that day named after the late Mr. Lee.
Our passports stamped with a new visa were delivered to Lloyd’s Inn. We returned there to check out and were able to go to the airport using the metro system. Singapore is a pleasant place and worthy of an even longer visit than we were able to give it.
Bali is overwhelmingly Hindu while the rest of Indonesia contains the largest Muslim population of any country. This was put into focus during our trip to Lombok, the island to the east and similar in size to Bali. It is strongly Muslim. We had all but forgotten the frequent calls to prayer and were surprised by the sheer number of mosques and in fact a bit shocked to see how many enormous mosques were under construction there. Through loudspeakers we heard entire services, not simply an initial call to prayer as we heard in Turkey.
The Hindu beliefs are mostly quiet and seemingly personal invoking one’s own collection of spirits centered around a balance between good and evil. I have tried to get a handle on the faith but it seems rather loosely defined and in Bali has been influenced by earlier animistic beliefs and centuries of its own development making it different from Hinduism elsewhere.
There are temples and shrines everywhere and these are constantly attended to by placing offerings. Such offerings, placed throughout the day, consist of a palm or banana leaf tray that is filled with flowers, rice or other food and set along with lighted incense at the place of worship then sprinkled with water. They are made to pacify good spirits and discourage evil spirits; a tray is placed on the shrine, often in a niche to satisfy good spirits while another is placed on the ground to ward off evil. A particularly vulnerable place for evil to enter is at a junction or crossroad so the offerings are frequently placed on pavement at intersections or driveway entrances. There needs to be a balance between good and evil and this is clearly represented by the black and white cloth normally used to wrap shrines.
Many ceremonies take place according to one of the Balinese calendars and many involve the full moon. Processions with colorful trays and boxes of gifts and food are brought to the temple. We have seen several of these where an entire village will walk to the temple wearing traditional regalia which varies from place to place. It usually creates a bit of a traffic jam as the entire road is occupied by the procession but things soon clear up since the temple is never very far away. Other ceremonies may occur in rice fields for example in hope of a good harvest.
Nyepi, the Balinese new year is an event we witnessed in March. Literally “the day of silence”, it is a day of meditation and reflection. No activity of any kind is permitted, no cooking, no leaving the house, all business and traffic is forbidden, even the airport is closed for a 24 hour period. We were told to stay within the grounds of the hotel and were given an exception to the embargo on electricity so we had lights but everything around us was dark. And we even got to sneak down to the pool but we were told the hotel would get in trouble if any of us was seen out on the street.
In preparation for Nyepi elaborate paper-mache ogoh-ogoh or demon images are created over a period of weeks. On the evening before Nyepi these giant monsters are paraded through the streets and finally burned along with great commotion and noise meant to chase demons away. On the day of silence the demons and evil spirits will be tricked into believing everyone has left so they might just as well move along.
The belief in spirits can be seen in art, carvings and statues. In front of temples, businesses and homes bizarre creatures are featured and are usually carrying clubs or other weapons meant to threaten evil spirits. Bali is a great place to see carved objects whether from the wide variety of wood or easily carved stone of many kinds and colors.
So, Hindu Bali has presented me with yet another religious belief system to try to understand. I wonder, does this system make the people who they are or does who they are fashion their beliefs?
Climbing Mount Batur, the second highest peak in Bali, had been one of the many things we had planned while Amy and the rest of the Hemers visited. Getting there and getting set up to begin a hike that got us to the top before sunrise was the challenge. The closer the date got the more I lost my enthusiasm. Do I want to get up before 4 in the morning, hike with a flashlight and climb 700 meters (2300 feet) before breakfast? Can’t I just stay in bed or hang around the pool while the others do it? Can’t I legitimately use the excuse that I’m too old for this? I claimed I was indifferent; I’d climbed other volcanoes and they are all kind of the same: a steep rugged climb, a bit of time at the top then a difficult descent on tired legs.
That didn’t work. No one forced me to go but I chose to go and so our party of seven started out with three guides in the cool morning darkness. There is a union of sorts that requires hikers to use a guide, it helps the local economy and keeps climbers from getting lost or hurt. Fair enough. On a mostly level densely forested footpath we left the edge of Lake Batur and the village of Toya Bungkah. The roosters weren’t even awake. Of course we started climbing before long and after an hour or so we cleared the dense jungle into more open woods. The path was rough with tree roots, boulders and loose volcanic gravel. When things got steeper they really got steeper; the path goes straight up with nothing so much as a switchback. One of the guides stayed with me as the more agile climbers kept a more rapid pace. He would put out his hand and pull me up in places where the path rose well over a foot over a tree root or through boulders. With age starting to show and knees a bit creaky, I guess I have lost my high altitude lungs since we have been at sea level for a couple months now.
It was a very strenuous climb and among the fifty or so hikers I finished dead last. But we made it just as the sun rose and what a glorious sight it was. The valley below encompasses a large crater lake, the largest in Bali, and fertile agricultural land. There is evidence of recent volcanic activity all around including a several hundred acre patch of black lava near the lake. We were at the top of Gunung Batur, 1717 meters above the Indian Ocean looking down to the sea, looking across to Indonesia’s second highest volcano on the island of Lombok, nearly 100 Km away and at the tallest volcano on Bali, 2567m high Gunung Agung. Mount Batur sits inside a huge caldera the remnants of a much larger volcano long ago blown to bits by earlier eruptions. That volcano must have been very large because the caldera is roughly 15 Km in diameter and is ringed by what’s left of its jagged edges.
When the excitement of the sunrise was over we waited our turn for breakfast. No one had to carry gas up here to prepare our food, it was heated by steam from within the still active volcano. Our guide took us down a sharp bank to reveal the “cooker”, a pocket in the rock where egg and banana were placed and covered with rice straw. Steam rose readily from the earth. Soon we were served a soft-boiled egg and a steamed banana spread between two slices of bread. And a big mug of kopi Bali, the typical Balinese coffee prepared by steeping very finely ground coffee that leaves a heavy layer of sludge at the bottom. We needed that.
Too soon we began the trek down taking a different path. We rapidly dropped a couple hundred feet down a path of loose lava gravel that filled our shoes and about wrecked our knees and ankles. An overlook gave us a closer view of the immense lava flow below. Farther down we sat to rest a bit before we came upon an active group of monkeys, another steam vent and a bat cave. Down some more. Down still more. As we re-entered the forest we took a rest; we had more to go but were pretty happy we had made it. Eric and I posed for a picture congratulating ourselves for his having been the youngest at six and I at 12 times that being the oldest to climb the volcano that particular day.
Our hike ended. We were all tired but elated at the overall experience. All we needed now was some gasoline to get the Suzuki APV up the torturously steep road out of the caldera. There are no gas stations down in the bowl but gas is sold in small quantities, usually 2L soda bottles for the ubiquitous motorbikes, at most of the small shops in the area. Our hotel arranged delivery of 10 liters of “premium”; it arrived by motorbike in two much used plastic jugs along with a funnel. This kind of delivery is normal.
Up on the rim we had a delicious Balinese meal in a place overlooking the splendor we had just experienced. I’m glad I’m not too old for this.
We left Sanur again on a rented motorbike; this time our destination was the Bali Bird Park and the Setiadarma House of Masks and Puppets. Stephen found a villa between the two sites both of which are close to home.
Saturday morning met us with showers but we set out nevertheless and fortunately didn’t get very wet before things dried a bit and provided the cloudy shade we needed to keep the heat down. It took about 45 minutes to cover the 12 Km (7 miles) to the bird park. We got there before the crowds and when the birds were most active.
The ten acre grounds are lovely where over 1000 birds of 250 species are housed in a diverse tropical forest. Many of the birds, including brilliant Golden pheasants, exotic Australian pigeons and African crowned cranes roam the grounds and are calm among the cameras and visitors. Others are housed in cages, of course, and are well labeled with names and descriptions including origin, range, diet and nesting habits. There is an immense aviary where lories and other birds fly about. The collection is entirely tropical but includes specimens from South and Central America, Africa and Japan but for the most part the birds are from nearby places like Borneo, Papua, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi. There is a collection of birds of paradise including the 12-wired and the red bird of paradise. A girl, with a group of students all dressed in native attire, got to pose holding a pair of Wreathed Hornbills (the male has a yellow sack under his bill, the female’s is blue). The revered White Starling unique to Bali is well represented and the park has an active breeding program here; we were able to see mature birds as well as the young and eggs in incubators. It is easy to understand why so many of these tropical birds have been captured to near extinction for the exotic caged bird trade, they are simply gorgeous.
Birds are hard to photograph even when they are confined to cages; they are always moving, flying what’s more. Stephen got the little eye of her cell phone up close to the wire mesh so the camera could see what we could not, namely a clear unobstructed view. One parrot was so needy he wouldn’t let the camera stay at the edge of the cage without trying to eat it but plenty of other birds stayed hidden among the foliage.
There was a Komodo Dragon on the grounds and a much larger collection of reptiles in the adjacent reptilarium. Snakes from giant pythons to slender venomous green tree snakes disguised as hanging vines were there to spook you out. There was a Gila monster from the US southwest. There was a crocodile the size of a truck lying peacefully on the other side of a wall. Let’s go back to the bird park.
Before leaving we stopped in the Bali Starling Restaurant for something refreshing and in normal Balinese fashion they couldn’t deliver a fruit drink without some kind of decoration; this time it was a cucumber peel cut in the shape of a swan.
The GPS got us to Anulekha Resort and Villa with only a bit of backtracking. This villa like so many on Bali has taken over what was formerly a rice field. More and more the economy shifts from agriculture to tourism where foreign visitors can enjoy luxury resorts like this one at bargain prices. Gobbling up acreage, electricity and water for their swimming pools and luxurious baths they are taking their toll on the island. It’s easy to spend in a weekend what the average Balinese makes in a month or more. The tourist industry provides the major source of revenue as well as much of the employment.
Hotel and restaurant staff are well trained and always graceful, usually dressed in native costume. Meals are wonderfully prepared and always beautifully presented with blossoms or decoratively cut vegetables like carrots or cucumbers. Our room was set with the ubiquitous and fragrant blossom from the Frangipani tree, called Jepun in Bali, three on the bed, one on the TV remote, another on the AC remote, several in the bathroom, another on the complimentary bowl of fresh fruit. You wouldn’t think there would be any left to be placed in the hair or behind the ears of the staff. Fortunately they grow on large trees and are everywhere, falling onto sidewalks and into swimming pools and used in the continuous offerings made to the spirits both good and evil.
After relaxing in the pool and watching the sun set over the palm trees we got some rest and were ready for the mask and puppet museum the following day.