Bali: Beyond Our Wildest Dreams
Bali: Beyond Our Wildest Dreams
After spending an eventful three weeks in Malaysian Borneo trekking through the jungle in hot pursuit of all the wildlife the island could offer us, we were very much looking forward to getting back to the ocean and relaxing in Bali. We had just hit our ‘six months of travel’ milestone and were feeling a little road weary. We could not have fathomed the incredible adventure that was in store for us.
Arriving at 4:30AM in Kota Kinabalu, after a fourteen hour night bus, then a nine hour wait at the airport, we were tired, smelly and a little cranky.
Sidenote: all of the staff on the buses we took in Borneo seemed to have a strange obsession with air freshener, dispersing something I’d liken to a mix of Granny’s perfume and Pinesol every half an hour to cover up the various smells coming from the leaking toilet on board and passengers sick from the undulating roads. As you can probably imagine the ‘solution’ to the problem is sometimes worse than the cause!
As we lined up at the AirAsia counter, a stocky middle-aged Scottish gentleman struck up a conversation with Ross (I was still half comatose at this point). Accompanying him was an elegant young Asian woman who couldn’t have been more than 25. They initiated a conversation with Ross because he was wearing a star of Vietnam t-shirt (for that day and the previous two!) and the young lady was from Vietnam. They were very interested to learn about what we had planned for Bali, which was in truth, nothing. He was quite passionate that impressions of Bali are often negatively tainted when first arriving in the tourist wasteland of Kuta, but that Bali had so much more to offer. And then the craziest thing happened, after consulting with his wife, he asked us if we would like to stay at their villa with the advance warning that it was under construction and in the middle of the jungle. I looked at Ross for a second to confirm he felt as strangely comfortable with these people as I did; we turned back to our new friends who we had now known for a grand total of ten minutes and said, “Sure, why not!”.
As children we’re taught not to speak to strangers and as we grow older we become wary of anything offered to us, anticipating that everything comes at a cost. While travelling you’re often put in situations where you have no choice but to put all of your faith in total strangers. Although horror stories abound throughout the travel community, we count ourselves exceptionally fortunate in that apart from a couple minor scams we have had nothing but incredible experiences on the road. Travel has done nothing but confirm to me how similar we all are, all just trying to satisfy the basic needs of our families.
On the airplane ride to Bali I wrote in my journal with nervous excitement and added a special note to be given to my mother in the event that we ended up meticulously chopped up and left in a Balinese industrial park. We arrived at the Bali airport and learned a little bit more about our new host. Turns out he was a former radio DJ in Scotland and BBC documentarian. While in line at immigration, we listened giddily as he recounted tales of the weird and wonderful interviews he had had with the likes of Shania Twain, Robbie Williams and Paul McCartney. His driver picked us up and we all piled into a minivan bound for the jungles of Bali.
We passed the sprawling hotel developments of Kuta, past the Starbucks and Burger Kings and meandered through the highly decorated streets of central Bali. After a good hour en route, we started to grow just a tiny bit anxious. I mean, we didn’t know this guy in the least, he seemed nice and all but we still had no idea who he really was or where we were going! As we become acquainted, Ross and I buzzed with nervous energy. Where are we going? What is in store for us? And we were taken aback by the camaraderie he had with his driver and his earnestness in his he described some of his accomplishments.
When he said we were getting close we noticed that we weren’t quite in the jungle he had described, but instead a quiet little street in the middle of Bali somewhere seemingly void of all western development. As we approached the driveway. Ross very appropriately likened the imposing gates that stood thirty metres down the road to those of Jurassic Park. We quietly hummed the movie theme to each other as we eagerly awaited what lay on the other side. And then the gates opened and we were welcomed to this…
Our jaws were on the floor, where the eff were we?!! The past six months had been spent in guesthouse rooms smaller than the size of the storage shed! While in our past lives we had frequented some very luxurious accommodations, we had quickly become accustomed to rock hard bunks, squat toilets, cold water showers and random black hairs gracing bed linens that had seen better days. Bob toured us through “the Villa” and we couldn’t believe our eyes. James Bond-esque architectural features abounded; our room for the night featured a roof that opened up with the push of a button revealing a crystal clear black sky with stars twinkling overhead. The lower level which included a movie theatre, a games room, bar, another pool and of course more bedrooms, could only be accessed by pressing a button which moved a platform on the ground to unveil a spiral staircase. In this villa, which sat in the middle of a beautiful rice terraced landscape, we had access to three pools, theatre room, fitness room, satellite T.V., our own cook, driver, masseuse and maid. We slept soundly on the most exquisite bed (and sumptuous linens) we had enjoyed in six months. What a dream…
In the morning we were treated to brunch followed by a glorious massage on the rooftop terrace. Just the ticket for my back which had been wrought with sciatic pain for the previous two weeks. Heaven. Below is the view from the massage area.
We quickly learned that Bob and Linh had a special relationship with their staff and there was a true sense of community between them. Up to this point I had observed foreigners and locals interact intently throughout our travels, seeing the good, the bad and the ugly. Bob has huge commitment to the local village and they generously reciprocate. More than anything there was a genuine respect for each other’s strengths. Bob would ask staff members for their opinion on architectural elements as they progressed in construction; for that and a variety of other reasons, the staff was genuinely vested in the success of this construction project. The community of people from all different corners of the earth and many backgrounds, was really something to be seen. From the moment we arrived at Bob’s Villa we were welcomed with warmth, sweet curiosity and love.
Several days after our arrival, two of Bob’s staff members graciously offered to take us to participate in the celebrations of Galungan, the most important holiday of the Hindu Balinese Calendar, a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. They brought over traditional robes for us to wear to the ceremony. We met their children and parents, they welcomed us into their homes. The phrase “it takes a village” beautifully describes the world sweet eight month old baby Kadek was being brought up in. Everyone was just crazy for this inquisitive little character. Below in traditional garments, Kadek being characteristically fascinated by the white guy with a beard!
As we drew nearer to the village temple or garong, traffic was nearly slowed to a stop; throngs of people dressed in holiday clothing approached the town centre. Women floated along the streets donning four foot tall towers of temple offerings upon their heads. We stopped and watched countless dancing processions led by elders dressed in white and followed by younger men carrying the barong, a lion-like mythical creature.
We soaked in the sights and sounds of the celebrations and then, as if in a dream, we heard a familiar melody from inside the garong. Ross and I peered intently over the brick wall separating the street from the courtyard of the temple. Shivers drew up my spine and tears came to my eyes when we identified the harmonic sounds of the gamelan ensemble as being the same as those we heard in the film “Baraka”; a film that motivated us to take a plunge into a new life. As we leaned against the wall listening the beautiful Balinese music, another village made its way towards the temple performing an ancient ceremony to ward off evil spirits. This really took my breath away…
The festivities continued as we were welcomed into the temple to receive blessings. Kneeling amongst hundreds chanting, we were approached by a holy woman who blessed us with water and rice to place on our foreheads and collarbones, symbolizing purification of the third eye and throat chakra. We felt particularly grateful to be able to participate in this sacred, private ceremony and to feel so welcome to discover their culture.
Later we took the bike out to do a little exploring of the village. As we whizzed by the rice paddies and little temples we were taken aback by how friendly the villagers were to us, not a person passed by without shouting “Selamat Paggi!” (good morning) and waving. We were floored, this warmth just came over us as we remarked “where are we??”. We stopped to take pictures of the intricate little individual stone shrines that proudly lined the homes along the narrow streets; several people came out of their homes to see what the strange foreigners were up to.
One fellow who popped out of his home took a particular interest and invited Ross and me into his home for coffee. We looked at each other and immediately obliged. As we came into his home we met his wife and four daughters who were busily helping their mother package small rice treats for sale at the local market. He made us sweet Balinese coffee and put together a basket of sweets and fruit. He was very interested in where we came from and what we were doing in their tiny little village. We enjoyed two more wonderful visits with Wayan, his wife and six beautiful children. The first joining their family for an intimate temple celebration of Kuningan at their local temple where Wayan is a holy man, followed by a humungous feast of burbur (rice porridge), meat and fruit. The family watched us intently as we sat on the floor and ate, eagerly encouraging us to take more and more food!
Before we left Bali, we joined Wayan’s family once again for dinner which turned out to be a particularly memorable experience. After another meal fit for royalty, Wayan invited us to join him in meditation at his family temple. He prepared mats, incense and orange coloured coconuts, picked specially for the ‘chakra-opening’ properties of the water contained within. We sat in the stillness of the night, ears filled with the jovial celebrations of men drinking Bintang next door and festive music from the village loudspeakers. Before we left, Wayan tied white, red & black bracelets around our wrists, traditional Balinese colours representing Brahma (birth/creation), Vishnu (life/preservation) & Shiva (death/destruction). If that wasn’t enough, his wife came out with two beautifully gilded Ganesha statues that had accompanied us during our meditation. We were overwhelmed with the generosity of gifts and hospitality from our beautiful friends. This incredible family had no running water and scarce electricity yet their hearts so full they were want for nothing.
Ross insightfully remarked that it took staying at a million dollar mansion for us to experience the real Bali, and he really couldn’t have said it better. We were absolutely blown away by the generosity and love shown to us by all different walks of life. Bali buzzes with a positive energy we haven’t experienced anywhere else, its people and its culture are both reasons why this beautiful land will remain engrained in our hearts forever. We are eagerly anticipating our return in February to visit with Bob, Linh and our new Balinese families.
Alyse & Ross
Make sure to check out our favourite photos of Bali HERE.
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