February 9, 2020

There are islands, and then there is this one, God’s own island they call it …

Bali is a Gaugin painting come to life. You step right in – lush, palette-knife rich streaks of colour and intensity. My love affair with Bali began a long, long time ago. A long time before I actually went there. My inspiration to visit the holiday destination was a mug. One that was given to me a good couple of decades ago by a friend who visited Bali. To this day, it sits among my mug collection. But now I can envision an imaginary red tick mark from my bucket list crowning the air above it. All things exotic, from fringed palm trees to women in batik sarongs with flowers in their hair were conjured up through the vivid visual printed on the mug. One day, I’d often say to myself …

Bali lived up to promise. It was exotic all the way.

You arrive at an airport that greets you with a pretty jungle setting selfie point in 3D, which really is emblematic of what to expect once you hit the road. My travel plan – and by this I mean ours – takes me right into the heart of the island, straight to Ubud. There really could be no better way to ‘arrive’. Ubud is a beautiful, dreamy slice of idyllic and verdant island paradise. You know, that kind of place where they say ‘I could stay here forever,’ – indeed, yes.

The narrow, barely two-lane road from Denpasar, which is the capital of the island, to Ubud, winds and curves gently up and down. The feeling is predominantly rustic, the flora is all luxuriant and tropical of course. Yellow frangipani, orange flame trees, pink and coral bougainvillea and palms grow uninhibited and organically, blending into each other. The effect is soothing to the eyes, if anything. There is a lot of traffic on the thin strip of a road, but the effect never gets to be jarring. You notice that most residential buildings have identical orange sloping high roofs. And once inside these structures, you realise the basic wisdom of such architecture keeping the interior cooler. Again, all over the island, temples follow a similar style of construction, built in orange and grey – terracotta brick and concrete. I am left wondering about the religious connotations or symbolism behind the design elements and choice of colour. Bali is the only province of Indonesia that has an overwhelming majority of Balinese Hinduism followers, at about 83 percent of the island population; it is heart-warming to see how faithfully they adhere to their rituals and practices wherever you go. Contrary to the statistics of Bali, 87 percent of the total population of Indonesia is Muslim. Indonesia may be the largest Islamic nation in the world, but it is a secular nation. There are many other fascinating facts – take that they are still not sure how many islands the nation is spread over – “over 17,000,” they say. Of these, 6,000 are inhabited. And this is the fourth most populous nation in the world. Glad they stopped at 6,000 islands …

Female artisans at work inside their shop.

And so we reached Ubud. Ubud’s main high street, where the Ubud Palace is located, shows you just how popular Bali is for tourism. At 10 am, it’s buzzing with bikers as well as pedestrians from all over the world. Come evening, this is where it’s happening at again; you can take in an authentic Indonesian theatrical performance, or, if that’s too rich for you, take a seat at one of the dozens of cafes lining the streets and watch the rest go by. Or you could browse through a medley of shops, from upscale little boutiques and haughty-looking art galleries to the lowbrow Ubud Market. What is not to be missed in any of this would be a stroll through the enchanting Lotus Temple, which is almost artfully hidden from view of the main street by a Starbucks. And that is like an allegory which sums up my Indonesian experience – lotus temple meets Starbucks.

Ubud, though, is also an example of the beaten path-versus off the beaten path kind of tourism choices that one makes. No matter how much research we believe we do before going anywhere, the reality is different. You can look up any number of webpages and blogs to put together an itinerary as perfect as it could be – I did too. But then unplanned plans, unexpected detours and other factors take over. Such as the weather, that constant shadow of heat lurking behind every plan, every minute of the day. It was a drippy as a melting ice-cream cone kind of feeling while soldiering on through the days. Our hotel was the perfect getaway to end the day though – very, very Zen. With small paddy fields incorporated into the garden spaces between blocks, and stunning gentle twilight evenings, it was a world I was loathe to leave.

There’s a Balinese term “rame”, which according to one definition is translated as “boisterous, crowded, lively, animated and busy.” That’s the memory you take away with you. With much colour, too much sunshine and good times.

There is lots more to see, moving away from the centre of Ubud. Various tours can be taken, promising to show you anything from ‘Bali in day’, to the rather intriguingly named ‘Gates of Heaven’ (indeed, I wish), or ‘Mount Batur Sunrise Trekking’ (no, thanks, I’d like my holiday without torture). We settle for the Tegalalang Rice Terrace, a tour of coffee plantation, and a ‘swing’ thrown in, skipping the Monkey Forest temple complex in favour of exploring hundreds of crafts shops lining the main road for endless mile-upon-mile. Unfortunately, we fell for a more commercial tour deal than one would have wanted, and this was my way out. Beware the tourist trapper.

The same could sort of be said of our day trip to Nusa Penida Island as well, which was rather well recommended by the tour operator we consulted with about which of the trips offered to book. A 40-minute ferry ride away, Nusa Penida, with its contrasting terrain of dry bushland stretches and some stunningly other-worldly views from clifftops was starkly different from Bali. It was also sparsely populated, yet dotted with homestays and motels across its length and breadth, with an occasional warung (café) here and there. I saw no more than half a dozen shops – only provisions stores – across the entire island. What a strange place for a holiday. No entertainment, nothing to do.

Lotus Temple Ubud. — Photos by the author

And now for the aforementioned crafts shops. You stop the car in front of any endless stretch of these in Ubud, and if you are even remotely interested in art, the better part of the day will be gone before you know it. So here’s the thing – Bali is one big art museum. I haven’t seen anything even close to this in all my travels, east or west. Some very properly implemented government planning is evident here. Each retail outlet on the Ubud main road deals with specifically one craft. So, if one shop sells woven lampshades, the one next to it might have wooden mirror frames, the next one will have objects made out of beadwork, the next seashell bric-a-brac, the one next to it pretty thingumabobs in tin, and so on, down the road, mile after mile, market after market.

It is all literally endless, and exhausting. The variety is mind-boggling, to say the least. I cannot help but wonder at the planning and regulation behind all this, and the years invested in creating these markets with trained craftspeople. Most shops have a back door leading to a courtyard and a home; many of the shops are unattended and you will see a bell and sign next to it that says ‘ring bell’. When you do, someone will turn up from the back door – that’s where they live, and that’s where they are seen engaged in creative output as well if you take a sneak peek. There is clearly a high level of honesty among folks in general here, whether locals or not. Some of these shopkeepers-craftspersons, men and women both, are also seen at work in the shops. All of it is paying off handsomely, I see. On the random hot weekday afternoon that I am shop-hopping, I see foreigners in three different shops closing wholesale deals: clearly, they are regular buyers.

View from cliff top of Nusa Penida Island.

As the road winds its way towards the coastline area of Kuta, there is a lot more on offer. Mas Village Road has many an artist’s home, often accompanied by their own little shop/display space. Paintings in various mediums whizz by through the car window. The artist in me is all eyes. In this area, the scale of objects gets grander and more extravagant, taking on the form of sculpture and furniture, garden décor, stone carving, wood carving, metalwork, and so on. It’s almost a relief for the senses when the shops and galleries lining the road peter out as you get into the urban hub, where the coastal areas Sanur, Legian, Seminyak, Kuta, and Nusa Dua are chock-a-block with hotels of all kinds. There are high streets, malls, restaurants, spas open till all hours, bars, and a thriving nightlife scene – all that you’d expect. The locals are very used to partygoers and party seekers; late one weekend night, as my husband and I walk towards the Hard Rock Café, a shopkeeper we confirm the route with offers to direct us towards where there is a beach party going on instead.

We opt to drift between different areas to get more of a feel of the island. Nusa Dua, where we checked into a gorgeous boutique beach resort, unfortunately, had a rather pitiful beach. The rocky and algae-laden coastal strip was not something I was prepared to encounter. That the establishment itself was a luxurious delight kind of made up for it, still, you don’t go to a beach to find yourself wanting for a beach … and that too, as it happens you’ve ended up on the sunrise side of the island. Only discovered when I waited for the sunset. The ‘Bali sunset’, then, was seen across the island a couple of days later. The glassy-opaque calm lagoon across which the sun sank turned all shades of pink, turquoise and grey, this was nature showing off her best. It was hard to distinguish where sea and sky parted ways, as the surfers came home and the deejay spun discs on the beach.

There’s a Balinese term “rame”, which according to one definition is translated as “boisterous, crowded, lively, animated and busy.” That’s the memory you take away with you. With much colour, too much sunshine and good times. I get why the big signboard outside the departure terminal of Ngurah Rai Airport says ‘This is not goodbye, until next time’.

The writer is Islamabad based editor and journalist

God's own island, Bali