Old Married Love, Steadfast But Unsurprised

In the past three weeks I’ve seen Bali through new eyes. After eight years some things become business-as-usual. I forget how green, how lush, how unlike Midwestern U.S. this tropical island is. Even though I told myself when I moved here that I would always remain amazed and enchanted, things eventually become familiar. Love becomes the old married kind, steadfast but unsurprised.

Enter Susan and Michele.

They arrived like little tornadoes full of frenetic Western energy, totally upsetting my Bali Zen. With insatiable appetites they seized upon every idea I threw out, not realizing in my mind it was either this, or that, or maybe just a massage.

Our days were packed from dawn until dusk, and when I left them of an evening, dragging myself off to bed, they scurried back out to sample the hopping Ubud nightlife.

Their curiosity and willingness to go anywhere, do anything, intoxicated me to the point I couldn’t stand to send them off alone and miss an ‘Ah ha!’ or a ‘Whoa! Look at that!’ So I accompanied them and gained new insights to this place I call home.

As we scoured the length and breadth of the island, I found that some of the iconic Bali landmarks have stood the test of time. Their beauty and integrity remain unscathed. Others that I hadn’t visited since I arrived eight years ago, shocked me to my toenails.

I tried to mask my dismay when Ketut pulled into the coffee plantation near Tegallalang Rice Terraces. What used to be a simple grove of bean trees with a hut for demonstrating the roasting process and a single table for tasting, has morphed into a full-blown Disneyesque amusement park. Giant swings and Instagram heart photo-ops along with slick sales people in a glitzy shop bore no resemblance to what I remembered. And the high-wire bicycle ride…? My stomach lurched as Michele pedaled off into thin air on a piece of cable about the thickness of my thumb. Then Susan took a turn. I cowered and watched from the safety of solid ground.

Michele braved the swing alone. Once she landed, unharmed, Susan and Ketut went in tandem.

The Botanical Gardens in Bedugul were on the ‘must see’ list. I wondered what shocks lay in store for me there. I needn’t have worried. The grounds were unspoiled, except – like all of Bali as the heat intensifies and the long dry season continues – they needed rain. The cacti were the one exception. They seemed happy enough with the current climate.

Towering stands of bamboo appeared to be weathering the parched conditions although dry yellow leaves littered the ground beneath.

We left the gardens and Ketut drove his car full of chattering females along the ridge outlining the crater lakes Bratan, Buyan, and Tamblingan.

I had to look, then look again. Yes. It was what it appeared to be: a truckload of blue hydrangeas with no driver in sight. Where were they headed? A wedding? The market? A grand hotel lobby? There was no one to ask and we moved on, the mystery unsolved.

The more my friends saw of Bali, the more they wanted to see, so when Ketut invited them to meet his family in AbangSongan village it was as though yesterday wasn’t soon enough.

The little girls clustered around while Susan and Michele taught them, “See you later, alligator!” These children won’t learn English until high school. And that will only happen if their parents have the money to pay for it. Elementary school is free.

Nengah and Komang Kecil (little Komang) cuddle with their daddy.

Before we piled into the car for the hour plus drive back to Ubud, Ketut’s brothers bestowed gifts. They’re woodcarvers and specialize in ocean creatures: sharks, turtles, and stingrays. But Ketut’s older brother confided that when he gets bored with fish, he carves a mask just to shake things up a bit. My friends were so taken with his bizarre creations that they each bought one insisting on payment over his, “No pay. You can have.”

The next day we were on the road again.

Perhaps my happiest of happy places in Bali is Jatiluwih. The UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces stretch for miles in all directions and a walk along the trails takes you deep into a softer time uncluttered by tourism and giant swings.

When I first visited the island in 2010, it was a scene similar to this that made me vow I would return. I’ve visited the Grand Canyon, Versailles, fiords, cathedrals and the ruins of Pompeii, but nothing has ever whispered to my heart like Jatiluwih.

Days flew by and when her two weeks were up, Michele wasn’t ready to leave. She loved everything she saw and made at least three trips to Bali Teaky for more teak bowls, spoons, and cutting boards. With singleness of purpose she devoted herself to improving the economy of the island. Susan and I had to wrestle her out of a furniture-maker’s warehouse or she would have been the proud owner of a ten-foot teak-slab dining table! Then she was off in a cloud of exhaust to catch the red-eye back to the U.S.

But Susan had another seven days and she wanted to explore more of the countryside.

We’d run out of time to go to the Mother Temple, Besakih, with Michele, but Susan was keen to visit this most holy Hindu site on Bali’s tallest mountain. We packed the appropriate clothing, a sarong and sash for each of us, and decided motorbikes would be quicker and a lot more fun than navigating the mountain roads in Ketut’s car.

We strolled the grounds, climbing ever higher. Ketut told us that each Balinese clan has its own temple in the Besakih complex. He posed for his photo in front of the one dedicated to his, the Pande, who historically were metalworkers and were the only ones allowed to make the revered keris swords.

After riding motorbikes to Besakih, Susan was hooked. No more car trips for her!

We took roads less traveled, Susan rode with Ketut while I shot photos from the back of Wayan’s bike.

Mt. Agung presides over the landscape around Sidemen. As we tooled the zig-zagging switchbacks we stumbled upon Warung Uma Anyar. Imagine the thrill of sitting at the top of the world with paddies and palms unspooling below us. We had the place to ourselves while we munched roasted peanuts and krupuk, washing them down with steaming cups of Nescafe.

The morning before she was due to leave, Susan said, “I want one more motorbike adventure before I go back to real life.” Throughout the day I dropped little hints like: This IS real life. My life. You too could have this real life. I’m subtle like that.

But the best I could do for now was honor her wish for a last foray beyond the borders of Ubud.

There was a road going north that I’d never traveled. We set out early. Like Michele, Susan had the red-eye flight so there was plenty of time to squeeze in a final outing.

I’d Googled our route and discovered a landmark: Tukad Bangkung. It was touted as the longest and highest bridge in Bali. I have to admit to a bit of apprehension. I don’t like heights. But I love adventure and this was an area I hadn’t explored. I ignored the hint of nausea induced by the images and plunged ahead with our plans.

The weather was perfect. I marvelled at the exceptional condition of the roads and the tidiness of the towns we passed. Prosperity oozed from the surroundings and that isn’t often the case in rural areas.

As we neared our destination, images of the endless expanse of roadway perched on narrow concrete pillars that I’d pulled up from the internet swam through my head. Anxiety prickled. I hollered at Wayan’s helmet bobbing in front of me. “Let’s stop and take photos before we go across.”

A few minutes later, the bridge came into sight. She pulled off the highway and shot a you-don’t-fool-me look over her shoulder.

Ketut and Susan pulled in behind us. Lucky for me it was the perfect vantage point for photos. I could assess the situation before committing to it.

Ketut announced there were sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. “Maybe we walk across,” he said. I noted the neck-high iron fencing solid enough to stop a locomotive. My anxiety evaporated. This felt safe. Midway I took a shot straight down. It was, indeed, a very high bridge.

Ketut walked ahead, joking and laughing as only he can. Suddenly he was clinging to the side, leg up as if to climb over. “Too much stress!” he yelled.

He might have frightened us for a moment if he hadn’t been laughing so hard. No amount of telling him how NOT FUNNY that was could dampen his delight.

Once we’d made it to the middle, there seemed no need to continue to the opposite end. We’d reached the highest point and stared down, down, down, at the threadlike stream that was probably a roaring river when viewed from its banks.

I turned and caught Susan’s eye. “Let’s go home,” I said. “But first, one more photo.” Here they are. The road warriors, my travel buddies.

Later that evening Susan and I had a bite at Tutmak Restaurant while tapping our feet to the syncopated sounds of Siji Latin Band. “Bali has exceeded my expectations by 2000%,” she said, staring off into space, letting her words hang then drift away. I wondered what images were playing on the imaginary screen only she could see. What stories were running through her mind? Turning to me, she nodded and smiled, once again fully present. “But I think I’m ready to go home.”

Negotiating Bali Style!

We were on our way back to Ubud. Made Mangku had stopped to gift us with another incredible view of rice terraces. We took our photos, ooo’d and aaah’d and were returning to the car when, across the road, a sarong vendor spotted us. The last thing I need right now is another sarong so I asked her in my best pidgin Indonesian if I could take her photo. She immediately went into a sort of sarong ballet, whipping a bright pink one off the stack on her head and winding it around her ample middle.

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After the photogenic pose she sashayed toward our little group saying, “Nice photo…now you buy!” Terri, Barbara, and Sharon had that look of, “Oh no…here we go again.” Our trip to Besakih, the Mother Temple, had been well populated with many opportunities to purchase the handicrafts of Bali, and my friends are not overly fond of negotiating. But there was something in that impish face…and I decided there was nothing I needed MORE than a sarong from this engaging woman. So it began…

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She handed me the pink one and I quickly made her understand that pink was NOT my color. Then the stack of them came down off her head and we went at it.

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I found one that I liked and said, “Berapa?” (how much?)

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When she answered I, of course, looked horrified. “Sanghat mahal! Bagi saya sanghat mahal!” (Too expensive for me!)

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“Berapa?” I asked again, knowing what she would say. “Berapa?” she asked back. How much would I pay. In other words, “Okay, let’s get real, what’s it worth to you?” I named my price. Then it was her turn to look horrified.

After a bit more haggling she met my price. "Good for me, good for you," as the Balinese are fond of saying.

After a bit more haggling, she agreed to my offer. Then with that decidedly smug look she quipped, “Good for me, good for you.” When mama’s happy, everybody’s happy!

My Balinese friend should have won an Oscar for her performance. By the end our audience was laughing hilariously, except for Sharon. She was behind her camera capturing the whole show in living color.

My Balinese friend should have won an Oscar for her performance. By the end our audience was laughing hilariously, except for Sharon. She was behind her camera capturing the whole show in living color.

This is my 9th sarong. Two of them turned into beautiful pillow covers. One is now a pair of wild pants. The rest give me many choices when ceremonial dress is in order. But for sheer, dramatic delight, this one is my all time favorite!

Note:  The white stuff on my forehead is rice. We were allowed to participate in a Hindu prayer ritual at the Mother Temple. It is a complex process, but at one point sticky rice is affixed to the middle of the forehead. Mine really stuck!

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