John Hardy used to be one of my favorite dudes on this particular planet. If you’re not familiar with the name, he is a jewelry designer par excellence. I was a fan of his because Jessica was a fan of his and, when it came to gift-giving time (birthdays, anniversaries, marathon-finishings, Saturdays, etc.), all I had to do is to drop by Sak’s Fifth Avenue, pick out a piece of John Hardy jewelry and, voila, happiness all around. One of the first pieces I bought for her was a hinged silver cuff of intricate design. When the hinge sprung, we took it to a store that sold Hardy’s stuff to have it fixed.
“I’m sorry,” the clerk said, “but the John Hardy jewelry has to go back to the factory to be repaired.”
“Isn’t that in Bali?” Jessica asked. The clerk confirmed that it was and the bracelet was duly packaged up and shipped off to the Indonesian island that we knew mostly from having read Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspiring Eat, Pray, Love. Until recently, Jessica would jokingly complain that her cuff had been to Bali but she had not. As the intrepid Inspector Jacques Clousseau famously said, “Not anymore.”
Though the tropical paradise had long been on our list of places to visit despite the expressions of some that the island was “overdone”, the decision to actually go was typically spontaneous. “Let’s go somewhere,” Jessica suggested one day as we were sitting in our luxurious Kuala Lumpur apartment.
“Okay,” I said. “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. How about Bali?”
“Okay.” Two days later we were on an Air Asia flight to the island paradise, though not without the kind of incident that characterizes “travel with Scott.” The travel problems almost began the day before our departure when I left my man-bag containing my passport on an Uber car that had just dropped us off to collect the Malaysian driving licenses that never should have been given to us inasmuch as we have never driven on the left hand side of the road. Fortunately, I was able to call the very kind Uber driver who came back and delivered my bag. AirAsia had kindly informed me the night before our departure that the flight would be leaving Kuala Lumpur an hour later than scheduled but we nonetheless decided to leave for the airport at the original time just in case things changed again. When we got to the airport, I checked the flight information display, saw a flight to Bali and informed Jessica of the gate. For some inexplicable reason and despite the fact that she more than anyone should know my propensity to pay less attention to things than I should, just accepted my pronouncement of the gate number and we proceeded to it. Since we were quite early, we decided to have coffee, catch up on the news on our iPads and to otherwise just kill time. Eventually the flight was called to board and we dutifully presented our documents to the gate agent.
“Oh, wait,” she said when she looked at my boarding pass, “this is not your flight.”
“What?” I said, the possibility of my having screwed up our travel plans again beginning to gurgle up in my GI tract.
“Your flight is leaving from gate G11,” she said with no evidence of the panic I felt. “Now.”
Jessica is in much better condition than I am and has two marathons under her belt so, when we realized that getting to a different terminal while carrying our relatively heavy bags and going through security again was going to make catching our flight a remote possibility, I yelled to her to drop her bag and run to the gate to hold the flight until I got there. I can only guess what other folks in the concourse thought when this young woman dropped her bag and sprinted away from it followed twenty meters behind by an old guy who picked up that bag and huffed and puffed under the burden. Jessica got to the gate just before the doors closed and I arrived some time later, both of us drenched in sweat and my lungs trying to figure out what they had done wrong.
We (that is to say, Jessica) did some research on Ubud prior to our departure and discovered Yoga Barn. Since moving to Southeast Asia, Jessica has really gotten into yoga, kind of like a hungry lion really gets into a Thompson’s gazelle with a broken leg, so the first thing she does when we book a trip is to figure out where she can do yoga. It so happens that Yoga Barn is to yoga what Washington, DC is to crooks. It’s THE place to go if you want to do it right. The Yoga Barn website mentions that there is a nearby hotel that makes it easy to attend the many classes offered so we booked in at the Hotel Plataran – Ubud.
First, about the hotel: never have we stayed at a place where the hotel personnel, most of whom were young and full of energy, were more ready to extend themselves in an effort to make our stay the best it could be. Warm greetings were heaped on us each time we walked through the lobby and, when we had a request, the attitude was “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got this.” And they did.
When we asked the front desk person if she could recommend a driver who could take us around the area, show us some of the more important temples, the volcano of Mt. Batur and other sites and give us some of the background necessary to understand what we were seeing, she suggested Wira. We booked him for a six- to eight-hour day and he did not disappoint. His English was more than adequate and his familiarity with both the area and the history of the places we visited gave us a deep sense of the spirituality that is such an important part of Balinese life. He advised us to begin our day early so that we could get the most out of our temple visits by avoiding crowds and the intense heat of the Bali day so, seeing the wisdom in this, we began our tour at 7:00 a.m. With his guidance, we explored temple features that, left to our own devices, we never would have seen or fully appreciated. He even introduced us to the process of making the thatch used to make roofs for the temple buildings, a painstaking manual process that is never-ending in the large temple complexes
Fortunately for us, though unfortunately for him, a member of the royal family of Bali had recently died and we were going to be witness to a royal cremation. The amazing staff of Hotel Plataran continued to go above and beyond by providing us with traditional Balinese garb required of attendees to the ceremony and accompanying us to the Puri Agung palace shortly after noon to ensure that we had the best possible experience.
The spectacle was, well, spectacular. There is a reason that some considerable time separates the death of a royal from the cremation ceremony and that reason is found in the detailed and time-consuming preparations made for the send-off of an important personage. These preparations include the construction of a 65-foot tall cremation tower or bade the likes of which would have made the Tournament of Roses parade colorless by comparison and a 20-foot tall, black ceremonial bull complete with pubic hair representing the transportation of the spirit to the next life. We watched as the final elements were put into place for the procession that would take the body of the deceased, now two months so, to the cremation site at Pura Dalem Peliatan temple about a kilometer away. The two gigantic structures were carried by teams of men holding equally massive logs on which the bull and tower sat. The traditional Balinese costumes worn by participants in the ceremony were bright and colorful, a far cry from the Western approach to funereal fashion and the parade of musicians that exhorted the bearers of tower and bull made the occasion a joyous one.
“If you think this is impressive,” our hotel staffer said to us as we watched the assault on our senses, “just wait until the King dies. That will really be great.” While we wish the King of Bali no ill will and only good health, we thought, that will really be cool.
The town of Ubud, as spiritual and mystic as it is, has an active night life punctuated by lots of live music, some of it actually good. Laughing Buddha, a raucous (in a good way) venue features quality live bands and an edgy crowd. The food isn’t bad, the wine is okay, but the we found it to be our favorite place to spend evenings in Ubud. Before and after enjoying Laughing Buddha, Jessica and I wandered the streets of the town, poking our heads into shops and galleries and trying different restaurants, all of which Ubud has in abundance. There are also opportunities around town to take in a traditional Balinese dance performance and, while Balinese music has the tonality of an old pinball machine and the harmonics of a calliope playing three songs at the same time – backwards-, the dancing itself is flowing, elegant and graceful with hand movements that are as expressive as any dance motion I have ever seen.
And, if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Ubud, not that there is a whole lot of hustle and just a little bit of bustle, you can do the Campuhan Ridge walk and be among the rice paddies and native grasses with just a ten-minute walk behind you. After a kilometer or so of light trekking, you’ll be rewarded with the appearance of a couple of bars where you can quench the thirst you developed on the walk. Catch it right, and you can watch sunset from the top of the ridge but make sure you bring a flashlight because the path back down is unlit.
The local food of Bali is not much different from other southern Asian cuisines with its curries and rice base but one can eat very well and voluminously on very few Indonesian rupiah. For example, on our second day in Ubud, we stopped by a little place near our hotel called Biah Biah. Jessica had tempeh with chili and long beans with sprouts, garlic and coconut and a soda water to drink. I had mie goreng ayam (fried noodles with chicken) and a large bottle of local beer to wash it down. The check was the equivalent of US$6.38 for our delicious lunch, the beer being nearly half of the total.
A few notes for the would-be visitor to Ubud: first, a walk through the Monkey Forest is obligatory but the place gets its name legitimately. The monkeys are everywhere and they can be predictably unpredictable. Monkey bites (sounds provocatively sexual or perhaps like a snack with banana flavoring, but it’s not) are fairly common and many an unwary tourist has found him/herself gazing longingly up into a tree hoping that the long-tailed creature that ripped the $300 Maui Jim sunglasses off of his/her face and skittered into the branches will drop them. Just hang on to your possessions and keep your fingers out of the mouths of monkeys.
Also, be aware that the Balinese are very spiritual and religious people. On your wanderings around Ubud, you will notice small offerings scattered about the town on sidewalks, steps, walls, virtually any flat surface of more than a couple of inches in width. These offerings to the gods are made each day at one’s home, place of business, school, temple, and any other place where blessings are desired. Be mindful of this important aspect of the Balinese culture and you will be rewarded for the experience.
A word about Nusa Dua (which is what it deserves). If you travel to Bali and you are hoping for an experience similar to ones you can find in any beach resort town in any beach area in the world, then do go to Nusa Dua. There you can check into your hotel, hang out at the pool while being served a cocktail being protected from the rain by a little paper umbrella stuck into it and completely ignore the fact that you’re in one of the most incredibly spiritual places on the planet. Any questions?
There was a saving grace on our venture to Nusa Dua. We were alerted by another blogger to the existence of a place called Secret Café. The little non-descript, shopping center-like location was about a fifteen-minute cab ride from our resort. Only six tables fit inside the restaurant and the menu was written in chalk and hung on the wall. We soon learned why the items on the bill of fare were so fleeting. The very attentive proprietess told us that her husband went fishing each morning and whatever he caught that day was what was put on the menu. There was no doubt of the freshness of the fish we ate that afternoon and, if ever we return to this part of Bali, we will most certainly to back to Secret Café.
Oh, and yes, we did visit John Hardy’s factory and showroom. The short drive from Ubud into the countryside took us past rice paddies and fields of corn and wheat. A security guard at the front gate of the sprawling complex waved us on to a long driveway and we were greeted by a tall Balinese woman in a beautiful dress of local cut and design. She led us to the showroom, recently constructed, and built entirely of bamboo. In fact, the entire complex that included the factory where the jewelry is made and the support buildings are all made of sustainable materials and the flora that surrounds them is all naturally occurring.
“Where do they fix broken bracelet hinges?” I asked our tourguide. She pointed to a building across a marshy stretch of land. Full circle.
If you would like to see more incredible photos of Bali, go to Jessica’s photoblog at http://www.jessicacoup.com/Indonesia/Bali-Indonesia.
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