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Bali

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I admit I didn’t approach my trip to Bali in the best way.  Having relocated to Moscow from the United States at the beginning of the year, I was eager to get to the warm, friendly island for some rest and relaxation. Not only did I fail to heed good advice before I made the trip, I also showed up without a hotel reservation during the holiday season. That being said, I ended up having a wonderful time owing to the welcoming people of the island and the good-natured tourists I encountered there.

Bali is an Indonesian island that lies between Java to the West and Lombok to the East.  It covers more than two thousand square miles of the Indian Ocean and is teaming with unique flora, fauna, and beachside massages.  Founded in the mid-fourteenth century, the island boasts 4 million inhabitants. I personally feel that the smiling, warm-hearted Hindu population that call this place is home enough of a reason to return.

When I landed in Bali on a connecting flight out of Jakarta, I caught one of the numerous and well-priced “blue bird” cabs into Kuta, an area known for it’s surfing and cheap accommodation. Since this former village sits directly north of the airport, I figured this was the most expedient location to find shelter from the approaching rainstorm. It was, after all, Indonesia’s wet season, something that would flavor my trip in the coming days.

As traffic crept northward out of the airport and into the hotel and restaurant packed streets of Kuta, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people walking the streets and enjoying the cafes late at night. I booked into a non-descript hotel with a large pool in the center courtyard and proceeded to swim off the effects of the airplane ride as I listened to the approaching thunder. Two Australian construction workers were doing the same and informed me that many of their fellow Aussies spend the winter holidays on Bali. Another fact that would flavor the trip.

I awoke the next morning to the sound of rain pounding into what was supposed to be my sun soaked vacation, ruining any dreams I had entertained of spending the day at the beach. As it turned out, that the best way to cure this problem is to meet an above mentioned friendly Australian at the hotel breakfast buffet and share a van to the famous Bali Safari and Marine Park. Which I did.  

My new friend Bill and I, along with his teenaged daughters, and a guide/driver named Wayan, hit the road for what was supposed to be a 40 minute drive to the Bali Safari and Marine Park. (note: they’re all named Wayan. Eat, Pray, Love was right) The 45 minute drive turned into an hour and a half of stop and go traffic – a consequence of hitting Bali in the middle of heavy Christmas tourism. But was it worth it? You bet. Not only does the park have the expected array of animals that any well-funded and well-staffed facility should have, but it was also pleasantly laid out and designed in South East Asian style. At around fifty U.S. dollars per adult and forty for children, the price is all right for an entire day’s excursion, not to mention an excellent educational experience. Plus, there are elephant rides. Feeding the baby elephant was my favorite part. He had a very picky palette and only the very yellow, sweet bananas would do. Anything bordering on green was promptly spit back at you the minute it was offered. His mother was perfectly happy to scoop up what he refused, munching on them peacefully while inspecting the small crowd of humans cuddling and laughing at her baby who explored faces and hands with his little trunk. I fell in love. If you want to learn about the animals that call South East Asia home, from bears to large cats to elephants and understand what aspects of human behavior threaten their species this is a wonderful place to go, even in the warm rain of the wet season. (http://www.balisafarimarinepark.com/)

I am sad to say that all has not been well in Bali. The October 2002 terrorist bombings of the Sari and Paddy’s nightclubs killed more than two-hundred people and injured hundreds more. Both are rebuilt and in the face of the tragedy, a monument was erected site of the original Paddy’s Pub with the victim’s names and nationalities of the victims listed. Many were siblings under the age of 25.  When I returned to my non-descript little hotel after the Safari park I was confronted with the need to change hotels due to overcrowding. I look another blue bird cab farther into Kuta and located a jolly little place called Taman Sari Cottages 2 located on one of the maze-like little roads leading to the beach on  Jalan Poppies 2. After unpacking my things, I ventured two blocks down the narrow road to see where all the noise was coming from. Would you know it: I had booked into a place two blocks from the bomb monument, which put me squarely in the vicinity of the college kids sporting Bin Tang beer singlets and swigging cheap beer. This brings me to a warning. If you are over the age of 25, can’t stand the sound of parties that you are not attending and want some relaxation do not stay in Kuta. It must be said that the areas away from the beach Legian Street Do feature a plethora of small, extremely well priced hotels with excellent service, but if you pre-book and aren’t happy with your choice, the constant din of partying from vacationers just out of their teens can kill the your holiday. That being said, my hotel was about thirty U-S dollars per night, the food was excellent and I sincerely missed the staff when I left. For that I easily put up with the noise. God bless ear plugs.

Surfing at the time was to be avoided. A particularly aggressive swell had come in and one man had drowned so being an utter coward I opted out and went for the beach towel and a suntan. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Kuta beach was decidedly not the place for me to be if I wanted to relax with gentler surf and quieter conversations surrounding me. I found this far up the beach at Seminyak, one of the most popular and decidedly well-heeled areas of Bali.

On the way to Seminyak I walked through Legian, which is basically Kuta Lite and much more on trend. The beachfront hotels are very attractive, and the nightclubs are abuzz with a sophisticated crowd. It was in Seminyak at the beach club Ku De Ta that I found what I’d come to Bali for: beachside manicures, pedicures, and pineapple on a stick. When entering from the drive, the open floor plan flows through several areas, leading you effortlessly to the terrace with sunbeds under crimson umbrellas and the beach. I simply rented one a regular fold out bed on the beach for twenty-thousand rupiah, which is about two U.S. dollars, kicked my feet up and enjoyed the pampering. (http://www.kudeta.net/)

If you continue through Seminyak you will be led  up a hill banked on both sides by some of the most sought after nightclubs on the island. The best of these is Potato Head Beach Club. Designed by Indonesian architect, Andra Matin, Potato Head features three different restaurants, luxurious sunbeds, an infinity pool leading to the beach and will soon house a boutique hotel. It’s a favorite among visitors to Bali and by far my favorite spot (http://www.ptthead.com/).

After soaking up sun for a full eight hours at Ku De Ta I decided that the next day needed to be spent doing something more industrious;  if I couldn’t ride the waves at the beach, I’d ride them at the river. For anyone wanting some healthy adventure, white water rafting is a great choice in Bali. Just walk up to any one of the kiosks lining the streets of Kuta, Legian or Seminyak and you will find an attendant ready to sign you up for a time slot the very next day. The company’s van will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the river, so no worrying about orchestrating cab rides and getting directions correct. It gets better: after loading into boats and enjoying an amazing ride through the countryside filled with terraced rice paddies where time seems to have stopped, the company provides you with a delicious buffet lunch on a beautiful hillside plus a lift home.  Caution: if you have health problems you might want to avoid this. It does take some physical exertion. There are rapids and you go over a mini waterfall. That being said, many older couples were braving the waves and having a jolly time.

After a day on the river, exhaustion set in so I decided to stay near my hotel. The crowning glory of Kuta, in my opinion, is Metis (http://www.metisbali.com/). The restaurant is also an art gallery. The veranda style dining is charming and the food is out of this world. I went with a large group who all agreed it was a sumptuous place with impeccable service. My recommendation is to try the Kopi Luwak, one of the world’s most expensive coffees and a specialty of Indonesia. Why so expensive you ask? Simple. It comes from cat poo. That’s right. The Asian Palm Civet loves coffee berries. It eats the fruit, excreting the beans, which are then collected, roasted and enjoyed by snobs everywhere. I admit I drank a bit, found it delicious, but couldn’t say it stood out.   However, the dinner conversation followed certainly did. Which is why I recommend the beverage.

In an earnest search for indigenous culture on this trip, I headed inland to the village of Ubud. This is the main Balinese setting for the “love” part of the book “Eat, Pray, Love”. Ubud was quiet and artistic but without a beach, a water feature that is very important to me when travelling through islands.  However, the community is filled with art and it was a pleasure to stroll through.

In addition to culture, I was also keen to find investigate a rumor I’d heard regarding the wildlife of the island. Locals had informed me of a gigantic sculpted “mother” Olive Ridley Sea Turtle stationed near the Hard Rock Café at Kuta Beach. She, along with the head of Kuta Beach Security, is responsible for saving thousands of Olive Ridley hatchlings that would otherwise have been lost to dogs, and encroaching tourists.  If you ask the attendants, you can climb the side of her shell, peek over, and spy the eggs that have been relocated there. If a nest is found on Kuta Beach, it is moved to this safe place. Hatchlings break free of the shells, they are then taken to the beach at night where they make the instinctual trek to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. http://www.kutaseaturtle.com/

A great spot to see these full grown turtles is the Gili Islands off the northwest end of neighboring Lombok. Only a thirty-minute boat ride away, no cars are allowed on “The  Gilis” so it’s horseback or bicycles to get around, a quaint attraction for many people.  Not making it there is my one regret. I contemplated this on the way to airport at the end of my trip. But it was overridden by the satisfaction I felt at having found a redeeming quality in the party-riddled neighborhood where I’d booked my cheap room; I used what I’d saved on hotels to stop on the way to airport for more leather handbags and a custom-made leather coat from the Kuta shops. And with usual Balinese kindness, the “Blue Bird” cab driver waited for me to get cash from the machine, load up on my purchases, and whisked me to the airport on time for my flight to freezing cold Moscow.  I will return, but this time I’ll reside in Seminyak, buy leather in Kuta, and swim with the turtles at The Gillis.

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