Bali

When I imagined Bali I thought of a far away tropical paradise, a lush and luxurious escape from the ordinary. What I found exceeded my imagination – a landscape dotted with flowers in every imaginable color, their sweet smell floating in the breeze, sparkling blue-green water, a fascinating dedication to tradition, and a place where the warm sun is matched by the warmth of its residents.

Our flight from San Francisco took us through Taipei where we made quite the culinary discovery – the China Airlines airport lounge. Simply put, my usual preflight snack of a Bloody Mary and pretzel mix in the Delta Crown Room pales in comparison to China Airlines’ sumptuous spread.

We arrived in Taipei just before 6am local time. I felt pretty well rested after sleeping a full night during our 12 hour flight, thanks in part to a 1:30am departure, comfy chairs in Business Class and the flight attendants who kept refilling my wine glass (it was a nice French Bordeaux, I couldn’t say no). When we landed I was still pretty full from the surprisingly good omelet they served for the Western breakfast; yet somehow when we entered the China Airlines lounge that meal was a distant memory.

It was if we had walked into a Dim Sum restaurant – there were bamboo steamers filled with chicken dumplings, pork dumplings, shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork buns and my favorite: red bean buns. There’s something about biting through that spongy bread and tasting the sweet filling that I can’t resist. In the refrigerators above there was a full assortment of drinks, from the standard sodas, to a variety of fruit juices, to milk featuring Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang (who’s from Taiwan).

There was cold green tea and oolong tea, soda water, tonic water, and Taiwan Beer. Of course, I had to try all the drinks I didn’t recognize. The first was a soda in a shiny blue can with bubbles on it. It tasted like a mix of cherry and grape soda with some bubble gum thrown in. I was not a fan. I did however like the hawthorn berry drink. I had never tried hawthorn berry before, and found out later it’s supposed to be good for heart health. It had the sweetness of apple juice and the tartness of cranberry juice with a slight spiciness on the finish.

The best feature of the lounge was a noodle bar. You select the type of noodles you want, then a woman prepares them in one minute flat by a quick dip in boiling hot water. I got the “noodles in a tasty meat sauce” and was not disappointed. Feeling quite sated we boarded our plane to Bali, and somehow found room to fit in another meal and champagne on board.

After another 5 hours in the air and a 20 minute ride from the airport we arrived at the resort. We were greeted by a group of men who presented us with fragrant leis made with frangipani flowers. One fruity drink and a credit card exchange later, we were whisked away to our private villa. The entrance was a double door made out of wood, ornately carved and painted by Balinese artists. Inside we found more local artwork in the form of a thatched bamboo roof, its grassy and natural smell we experienced every time we walked in the door.

Behind the villa was an amazing view of the Indian Ocean, along with a private plunge pool and what the Balinese call a “bale bengong,” a raised platform with a thatched roof. On that first day we discovered it was the perfect spot for watching the sunset, or relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book.

While exploring the resort we became acquainted with some of the flora and fauna of Bali. We found the frangipani tree all over. Its flowers have a splash of color in the center, from light pink to vibrant yellow. We could smell them every time the wind blew. It was an exotic yet familiar smell; I later found out frangipani is better known as plumeria.

Two types of birds kept us company at our villa. The first was a spotted dove. These birds often seemed to travel in pairs and would mostly walk around, not fly. They’d peck at the grass and take a bath in our pool. In the early morning we could hear their coos coming through the thatched roof. The second was a small bird with grey and white feathers, black around its eyes and a black beak. It had a touch of yellow just under its tail. After some research I found it’s called a yellow-vented bulbul. It would swoop in, land on a tree branch, chirp, wait for a chirp in response, then take off just as quickly as it arrived. On one occasion I spotted a Java sparrow, which has a striking bright orange beak and a black and white head.

We got a sense of Balinese life when we left the resort property. In the villages small homes were next to empty lots littered with broken up stone and concrete, empty bottles and discarded paper. A chicken or two, and sometimes several chicks, would peck at the piles. Dogs that looked like a mix of dingo and wolf roamed the streets, unfazed by the cars and motorbikes passing by. The larger towns had a mix of family run shops and more commercial stores, and every couple of blocks there would be a larger strip mall or multiple story building.

Driving around Bali seemed to be an adventure. Motorbikes greatly outnumbered cars and the roars of their engines drowned out all other sounds. We saw families riding together on one bike; a young girl with sunglasses held on to the handlebar her father was steering, a boy no older than seven clutched the back of an older brother who was speeding down the road. It sometimes bordered on unsafe; a father in front, his young son behind him, the mother riding sidesaddle in the back, none with helmets.

Lanes on the road seemed to be merely a suggestion. The two lanes we were driving in would become three if there was a stopped car in one lane, if the stoplight was too long, or if motorbikes were clogging up one of the lanes. The same applied for the line dividing opposite directions of traffic – pretty frightening when a large truck is barreling down on your taxi! And there was an entire language of horns; drivers honked as frequently as they shifted gears. I tried to decipher all the different types of honks. There was the “I’m passing you” honk, the “you can pass me honk,” the “you didn’t honk before you passed me” honk, the “move over” honk, the “stoplight ahead” honk, and many more.

While Indonesia is mostly Muslim, more than 90% of the people in Bali follow Balinese Hinduism. It combines aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism with local beliefs in animism and ancestor worship. Ever present is the principle that all elements in nature can be a home for spirits. The devotion to tradition is reflected in Bali’s beautiful temples and abundant shrines. The stone shrines are outside stores, restaurants, markets and homes. Some have human looking figures on them, others have animals, and many have designs that look like thrones. The shrines are often covered in cloth or shaded by a parasol, both signs of respect. The cloth isn’t just for the shrines; we saw an apparently sacred tree covered in black and white cloth at its base, and the statue of an important local figure had a similarly-colored sarong. The shrines were made even more colorful by the numerous offerings. People would place offerings of pink, purple, blue or yellow flower petals in a box made from weaving together palm fronds. Both these woven boxes and the flower petals were sold at local markets.

Our first trip outside the resort took us to the fish market at Jimbaran Bay. The beach was packed with hundreds of traditional Balinese fishing boats, back from a night on the water. We’d see the boats heading out every night around sunset.

Their hard work was evident inside the fish market. Walking up and down the narrow rows we saw all sorts of fish including tuna, red snapper, skate, octopus, crabs, lobster, clams and even a small shark. Shrimp and squid were sorted by size. The sheer number of fish caught was pretty amazing. It really makes you realize why the traditional fishing methods have lasted all this time.

We wandered through another market to check out local produce. We found fruits we had never heard of or had never tasted. One tasty find – salak. It’s called snake fruit because of the color and texture of its skin. Salak is similar to a lychee; you peel off the skin to reveal white flesh surrounding a round brown seed. Its taste is almost as sweet. The texture is more solid, and feels almost like biting into a roasted chestnut, one that isn’t so mushy.

Our next trip took us north, to the town of Ubud. Along the way we passed through neighborhoods that featured a different artistic specialty. First was the woodworking area, with tons of wooden indoor and outdoor chairs, tables, gazebos and ornately carved doors. Beside the stores were men making new items to sell. Next was stone, with shops featuring everything from larger than life statues of gods, to frogs and other creatures small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. After came jewelry, then paintings.

We finally arrived at our real reason for visiting Ubud – the sacred monkey forest sanctuary. More than 300 long-tailed macaques live in the forest; we saw our first one before paying for our entrance ticket. Once inside it was fun to watch the monkeys’ playfulness and boldness. They’d walk right next to you and let you come up to them.

A sign by the entrance told visitors not to feed or handle the monkeys though we saw that was pretty much ignored. People were giving the monkeys mini bananas and taking photos with them on their shoulders. We came across a guide feeding the monkeys papaya leaves, he let us try it. The monkeys seemed to have no fear – they’d casually walk up to us, then snatch the leaves out of our hand with almost a “that’s mine!” attitude. It was really neat to see them everywhere; no matter where you looked there was a monkey climbing a tree branch, two young monkeys playing around, even a mother and baby monkey.

The rest of the time we spent relaxing at the resort. We bounced around the restaurants, sampling a variety of dishes from satay and curries in an outdoor restaurant that appears to be floating on a koi pond, to tuna and peking duck in another restaurant with sweeping views of the Indian Ocean. We relaxed by the pool with a Bintang beer or lychee martini. Everywhere the service was impeccable. We’d sit down by the pool and there would be someone with a frangipani-scented hand towel, even if we had just gotten one 10 minutes earlier at a nearby bar.

After 5 relaxing days it was time to say goodbye to our tropical paradise. Once we were on the plane reality set in, that after stopovers in Taipei and San Francisco we were going back to Miami. But fortunately we’d still have time for another trip to the China Airlines noodle bar.