So What's Bali Like?

07/17/2016 03:10 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2016
<strong><i>One of the ubiquitous temples of Bali, this one at Maya Sanur Resort</i></strong>
Paul La Rosa
One of the ubiquitous temples of Bali, this one at Maya Sanur Resort

I’ve been asked that question a lot since I returned from a two-week vacation in Bali so let me try and put my thoughts in order. For openers, Bali is exotic, beautiful and exciting with a fascinating culture and very friendly people. Not bad...

I confess to knowing so little about Bali before I went I actually thought it was a city but....no. It’s an island―part of Indonesia―and when one decides to go, one has to pick which cities one will visit. Since I outsource all my travel decisions to my wife, it was her trip. I didn’t focus on the individual cities until we got there.

We first went to Ubud which is where the last part of the memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” takes place. Sad to say that the book and the film have done the town in. The rice terraces have been sold off to make room for hotels and restaurants; the whole place feels a bit from the Indonesian version of Lake George. There are still charming parts and it’s still a yoga mecca but overall, the town is very crowded with bad traffic and way too many motorbikes. I’d skip it. But I did love our hotel― the Komaneka Bisma where we had our own private infinity pool facing the jungle. In Ubud―reportedly at the top spa―we paid $12 for one-hour high quality massages and a local told us we were paying the Western price, that locals paid about $4. No matter, it was still a great deal.

Lest I make too little of Ubud, it does feature traditional dancing a few times a week, has interesting public temples and nearby towns filled with silver and woods smiths so there is culture to be had. It’s just crowded!

Next we made our way to Amed, a tiny fishing village where we had a cottage on the beach. The hotel―Life in Amed―was cute and small; the opposite of our first hotel but it was one-quarter of the price. The beach was packed with local fishing boats and the fishermen families who lived there. We chatted with them constantly whether we wanted to or not. The Balinese are very friendly and will try to sell you pretty much anything to bring in a few rupiah.

Speaking of the Indonesian Rupiah, I should mention how jarring it is to routinely be talking in terms of 100,000 rupiah which is all of $7.50. I once withdrew two million rupiah from an ATM. That’s $150 to you Uncle Sam. It’s so weird to hand someone 20,000 rupiah for a tip. I thought it was a handsome sum until I realized I was tipping someone $1.50 for a six hour guided tour!

Our last stop was Sanur which, for me, was the best stop. We stayed in the Maya Sanur, only a year old and it was a beautifully designed modern hotel that I embraced. For the first time in our stay, I felt I could actually see things in our hotel room (the others had very poor lighting). The hotel also featured―as part of the cost of the room―a breakfast buffet and there are few things in life I like more than a breakfast buffet. The hotel was also right on the beach which featured a stone boardwalk dotted with dozens of small restaurants where you could sit at the best table right on the beach and get the freshest fish, no problem.

Our trip was a mix of sightseeing and relaxing by the pool. We visited ancient holy temples, took a Balinese cooking class, did a lot of yoga at outdoor studios, went snorkeling and swimming but the highlight for me was eating at the home of one of our drivers. (If you’re interested, his name is Gede Mardika)

His family was very poor but seemingly quite happy. As the only son, it was his obligation to care for his parents and bring in money. The vast majority of Balinese―no matter how poor―live in family compounds, literally walled spaces that feature a cooking area, a living area, a sleeping area and a temple. Even our very poor driver lived in a compound and had a mini-temple in the northeast corner.

Generally, the youngest male cares for the parents and lives with them his entire life. His wife will move into the family compound and she’d better get along with his mother because she’ll be living with her until one of them dies.

The Balinese―who don’t often emigrate for reasons stated above―don’t have a concept of meals the way Westerners do. There is no breakfast, lunch and dinner. A pot of food―generally rice and vegetables―is prepared early and it’s enough for the day. When you’re hungry, you grab a plate and that’s that.

Our driver’s parents were rice farmers and had never learned to drive a motorized vehicle. They walked each day, every day to the rice fields where they worked about 15 minutes away. They were able to keep 40% of the rice they harvested but received no money. The boss kept 60%. The boss got 60% of everything from the pigs on the compound to the money our driver earned. It was his van after all although the whole thing struck me as very medieval.

There was no electricity at this family compound. Food was cooked on two fires, one of which was fed by bamboo and the other fed by coconut husks. EVERYTHING was recyclable. Our plates were the broad leaves of the banana plant and we ate with our hands. The meal was fish satay (mackerel), long beans with coconut, rice of course and watermelon for dessert. It was all delicious and, the entire time, I was just marveling at our driver’s four year old son and nine year old sister. New York City parents would have had multiple heart attacks had they been there and watched as the kids danced around the open fires. At one point, our driver handed a very sharp machete to his nine year old sister who skipped away, holding it gingerly.

There is a malady suffered by westerners called Bali belly but, as we winged home (25 hours in the air), we congratulated each other on not getting sick. Well, turns out I got terribly sick the day after I returned. It was a bacterial infection―the most common type of bacteria associated with food poisoning―and for three days it knocked me flat.

But at least I didn’t get sick while there or on the plane and for that, I am thankful. It was a eye-opening experience and I would go again. I hope you enjoy these photos.

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