Markus and I are not your average tourists. We don't like resorts. We don't like crowds. We avoid the beaten path. We both enjoy learning about local customs and traditions, and Bali was fantastic for that! The Balinese people we met are absolutely lovely. They are genuinely warm, open and interested, particularly in families. Having children is all you need in place of introduction. Straight off, you will be asked where you come from and where you stay; these questions help them identify you and what you like. If you are alone, they will ask if you have children (never say you don't want any, which they cannot comprehend). They will tell you about their own children. Those who speak English are eager to share Balinese culture and traditions, and they will share as much as you want to know or as much as their English allows.
In attempt to avoid my usual droning on and on (no short version, especially when I'm excited by the topic), I will try to share some highlights as pictures with explanations.
Our hotel, Alam Sari Keliki. Most rooms were individual little buildings around the pool. They gave us the family suite up in the villa. It's further up the hillside and separate from everything else, so it was very peaceful and private. You can reserve the entire villa and gain use of the kitchen and the library/TV room, but we didn't miss TV and the food was so fantastic and cheap in the restaurant that we didn't miss the kitchen either. Alam Sari has a large organic vegetable garden, and most of the food served is harvested from their own garden. While we heard of tourists getting gastro issues in Bali, we had no trouble whatsoever. Our food was amazingly fresh, fabulously tasty, and carefully prepared. The hotel is environmentally sensitive. Wastewater is recycled so it doesn't end up in the river or the rice fields. We had most of the hotel to ourselves (between large groups), so Ellie had free reign of the pool and Stephanie could dine in the buff. They were both thrilled! The restaurant is open from 7am to 10pm, which made it so easy for us with our kids' strange eating times (ready for dinner by 4-4:30). It was super clean, well-appointed though simple, and very comfortable. The people could not have been kinder to us. One woman, Warsi, was our server at breakfast so often that Stephanie thought her name was "Morning!", since we always greeted her with a happy "good morning". When Warsi was off, Stephanie would ask, "Where Morning?"
The hotel is a 20-30 minute drive into Ubud. There is a free shuttle 3 times per day, but there was almost always someone available to take us in for a minimal fee (maybe $6) whenever we wanted to go. They also were happy to take us to local attractions as requested, including the elephant safari, Bali Bird Park, the ancient temple site of Gunung Kawi and the holy springs at Tirta Empul.
The rice harvest was underway. In the village of Keliki, this is still done primarily by hand. They do not use machines, because although machines increase speed, they reduce workers. By keeping manual labor, more people in the village benefit from work. They earn wages or rice, both of which are helpful to their families. You can see lots of ducks in the foreground. One of our hosts, Dewa, called them "Balinese vacuum cleaners." They eat snails, weeds and other pests in the rice field and leave behind fertilizer, which allows the rice fields to remain organic. Pretty brilliant, actually.
The penjor. I became somewhat obsessed with these Galungan decorations. They are huge bamboo poles, wrapped and intricately decorated. Wood carvers decorate theirs with tiny carvings, decreasing in size as they near the top. Many people work rice and fruit into the wrapping, in thanks for the harvest and in hope that the birds will eat it and scatter the seeds. Everything about Galungan was so joyful! Being an atypical tourist, I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of people that day, worshipping, praying, doing all the things they do in their traditional clothing. I would be most uncomfortable if a busload of tourists showed up, entered the church and started snapping away while I was praying...so I just don't feel comfortable doing the same to others, even if they are used to it. Thus, my obsession with the penjor.
The holy baths at Tirta Empul, near Tampaksiring. At this site are the springs that are the primary source for a major river in the area. We watched the water bubble up out of the volcanic sand. They feed first into these baths, which are used for religious cleansing. Dewa told us that you pray for "right thinking, right speaking, right doing" as the water moves from the top of your head over your face and down your body. The water will wash away what makes you unclean or unhappy, any illness or not good thinking. Water is bottled and taken home to those who are too young, too old or otherwise unable to travel. In this, one of the larger baths, there is old Balinese writing over three of the spouts. These tell of specific uses for those particular baths, but most people cannot read that language anymore so all are used equally.
Bali was our first introduction to Asia, and I couldn't get enough. It is wonderful! It is so delightful to know that in less than four hours, we can be in a place that is so different! There was a pervasive sense of harmony there. One of the beliefs Dewa explained to us is a strong belief in cycles of life. Black and white fabric adorns temples, and it symbolizes the co-existence of good and not good. Westerners might say "good and evil", but Balinese people say "good and not good" because it implies less judgment and more acceptance that not good things are to be expected as a natural part of life. They no longer practice religious meditation in addition to prayer, but rather believe in meditating as part of work, focusing on whatever task is before them and being thankful for the good it provides: physically, mentally, spiritually. They believe not everything in life must be explained or understood. Dewa told us that many Balinese people do not know about the Bali bombings that killed 200 people. He did not tell his own grandfather, because he knew it would make him sad to know so many people had died for no reason. He did not tell his grandfather that the terrorists were Muslim, because his grandfather might start to think all Muslims are bad, though most Muslims are good. He did not tell him because his grandfather might feel despair and helpless because there would be no solution. Instead, he asked his grandfather about it in a "what if" scenario. This allowed his grandfather to think about it, offer solutions, and share wisdom. It allowed the discussion to be positive rather than negative. There is so much wisdom in this thinking.