3 March – 1 April
The only reason I let myself leave India after only two short weeks there was because I was headed to Bali. I felt that at least there would be a some thread of continuation since the Balinese worship many of the same deities as India, and the culture is known for its daily displays of devotion. I had not planned my journey with this continuity in mind, but it was the only thing that was keeping me from being completely despondent about leaving India.
In Bali, everything was easy. I didn’t feel the need to protect or be protected. The island was the cleanest place I had seen since leaving Japan. It felt orderly, but in a laid-back, tropical way. There was a vegetarian dish on every menu (gado-gado, with tempeh, no less!). I just exhaled and exhaled. No more dry, stinking, sad, plastic-filled streets. And the spirits were everywhere, with ornate stone thrones festooned with colorful aprons catching my eye every few meters. Offerings of flowers and incense in bamboo containers littered doorways. Who was supposed to sit in the empty stone thrones, I wondered? When I looked up Balinese religion, I learned its Hinduism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, ancestor worship, agricultural deities, animism, and magic, to name a few. I recognized the names of Hanuman, Ganesh, and Shiva on some statues (although, to my linguistic delight, spelled enchantingly differently, like “Ciwa”), along with some unfamiliar deities, and even saw giant statues of Arjuna in traffic circles. I felt like whatever ride I had been on in India was far from over and instead had morphed into the lush jungle version of devotion, and this alleviated much of the pain of leaving India.
The reason that Balinese spirituality is said to pervade every aspect of daily life was obvious right away: statues of demons and gods were everywhere, and I noticed people of all ages making offerings at all hours of the day. This ubiquitous devotion would have irritated me to no end back in the States; but in Bali, looking in as an outsider, it felt beautiful and nonthreatening. In fact, I was enchanted.
After reuniting at the airport, we took a long van ride to Pemuteran, in the northwest part of the island. The very next day, we both found ourselves breathing underwater. Jacob had started a scuba certification course and Jessica went along for a quick refresher and fun dives. For five perfect days we swam in the ocean, explored the coral and walked along the beach at sunset. I can’t believe I never tried scuba diving before. The world down there is more alien and psychedelic than any other environment I’ve seen. Being in a place uninhabitable by humans, without any human reference points, floating, with no sound but the sound of my bubbling breathing, made me feel truly other, like a visitor to another planet. It was a blissful meditation.
We all know the world’s reefs are threatened. In Bali, fisherman previously used cyanide to catch fish for the aquarium trade, killing the coral in the process. There’s usually lots of trash on the beach and in the ocean. Still, in Permuteran, there is less trash than elsewhere, and the reefs have been somewhat protected. We loved our small, ecologically-minded dive joint, Reef Seen, which pioneered reef protection in that area and runs a sea turtle hatchery and nursery. They participate in a reef regeneration project (Biorock) that runs current from solar power into large flower and animal-shaped rebar structures placed underwater to grow new reefs. This “Reef Garden” made for the easiest and most rewarding snorkeling we’ve ever done.
Every Saturday, a troupe of Balinese dancers uses the impeccably manicured lawn for dance practice.
Spending five days on a beautiful and laid-back beach to orient to our new country and reconnect together had been a perfect idea. But sometimes a beach is a beach is a beach (and we’re totally spoiled after Hanalei, Kauai). Once we headed inland and 800 meters up to a town on the ridge of a caldera, the scenery was stunning in a way we had not seen before. The views across the lush, lava-formed, green valleys with terraced rice paddies continued unabated until land met ocean. “There isn’t much to do in Munduk,” one travel site said. Oh, except maybe sigh in wonder as you take in the panoramic view from a room or restaurant (everywhere seemed to have panoramic views since the ridge was so narrow). Walking through “town” and veering off the main street slightly put us on a dirt trail that doubled as a motorbike path and led through cacao farms and dense jungle to a huge waterfall. Friendly locals waved from their houses as we passed and made sure we knew where we were going. A woman insisted we buy cacao beans from her and poured palm syrup into a plastic bottle cap for dipping. I stifled a scream as I ran under a web holding a spider as big as my hand with thick long legs. You know, all in a typical day’s walk through a town where there is “nothing to do.”
I knew I was in a special place when even this tiny “town” of a few buildings hugging a ridge boasted a musical instrument shop, where an old man played a xylophone for me.
One night I got out of bed at 2:30 am to go hike up a volcano and catch the sunrise. Jessica stayed in bed. I did the trip with our neighbors at the guesthouse, another couple just beginning their own year of traveling. We struggled through the two-hour up-hill hike in the dark with dim flashlights. There was not a single step of even footing, given we were on the side of a volcano. With monkeys and hot tea waiting at the top, the sunrise really was worth it!
Walking into the terraced rice fields of Jatiluwih, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is like stepping into a lush green contour map of rice heaven. It’s not just the beauty that UNESCO is honoring, but the cultural landscape beneath it. A cooperative water management system of canals and weirs, known as subak, dates back to the 9th century (we would learn about subak on our medicinal herb walk near Ubud). The subak also includes the forests that protect the water and the temples that mark its sources and passages down to the fields where it is shared equally. This process is overseen by elected community leaders. Family reputation is important in Balinese culture, and reputation usually hinges on how well-kept your rice field is. This system of democratic and egalitarian farming practices has enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice growers in Indonesia despite the challenge of supporting a dense population. The subak grows from the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana (“three causes of well-being”), the harmonizing of the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. This philosophy, which inspires much of Balinese culture, came from the cultural exchange between Bali and India over the past 2,000 years. It is often credited for the island’s prosperity as a whole.