For our week in Bali, I used Guest Points we’ve acquired on HomeExchange.com to stay in a private villa. I thought this would have a couple of advantages beyond the obvious one (free lodging). The villa’s owners would be on the property, and I hoped they would share some insider knowledge. We’d also get a sustained peek into ex-pat life on this most famous and glamorous of Indonesia’s islands.
Of our two hosts, Steven was the real ex-pat. Born and raised in New Zealand, he was working as a commodities trader in Hong Kong about 10 years ago when he met Christina, an Indonesian who grew up in Malaysia. With Covid and its lockdowns, the pair decided to work out of a home base on Bali. They bought a piece of property surrounded by rice fields north of Bali’s capital, Denpasar. The morning after our long journey there from Surabaya, my Steve and I toured the beautiful compound they have built — four separate structures arranged around a series of ponds filled with plants and fish, more open to the elements than any other dwelling I’ve ever personally experienced.
The structure housing their living room, dining area, kitchen, and sitting room was open on three sides.
We traversed part of the property on stepping stones across the ponds.
This was one lovely sitting nook in the common space.
The bathroom attached to our bedroom also was open to the elements. That’s the shower next to the plants against the wall, with the sink inside the little gate. The toilet was behind me to my right.
Here’s the view from the living area of the building containing Steven and Christina’s bedroom.
Staying at Steven and Christina’s place had one significant drawback. I’ve learned over the years that house trades work best when we can use them as a base and range out to do a variety of activities. Judging from what I saw on Google Maps, it looked like it should be easy to get from our digs at Villa Zealandia to a myriad of temples and natural wonders, beaches, and shopping opportunities. But I hadn’t factored in the traffic, which makes even relatively short trips feel like long journeys.
When it sunk in that we couldn’t actually visit the town of Ubud, an important center for visitors, as a day trip, I booked us one night in a hotel there. We hired a local driver and hit the road Thursday morning, heading north.
The landscape soon changed dramatically, becoming mountainous and blessed with cool breezes, lakes and volcanoes, and a panoply of waterfalls. We hiked to a couple, and I wished we had more time to bathe in their pools and discover other spots.
The next day we took in several other important sites. Bali’s fantastically terraced rice fields, a World Heritage Site, are scattered throughout this region, and our driver dropped us off at one of the most commercialized viewing areas. No amount of kitschy trappings could detract from the beauty of the fields. And almost equally entertaining were all the photogenic perches and swings where young ladies can rent dresses with glorious trains to wear while soaring before the camera.
This was one of the free photo opp sites.
Not far from the rice fields, we wondered why more tourists weren’t visiting Gunung Kawi Sebatu, a Hindu temple complex dating back more than 1000 years.To get in, we had to don proper Balinese garb, i.e sarongs (which we borrowed for free from the temple.)
The gardens and pools and temple structures looked amazingly well-maintained, testimony to the continuing commitment of local devotees.
On our way back to the villa, I didn’t want to miss the infamous Ubud Monkey Forest, a heavily wooded park inhabited by hundreds of Balinese macaques. The property also contains a temple used daily by Hindu worshippers, and the monkeys are believed to have some religious or spiritual significance. At least I think so. As usual for Indonesia, educational and explanatory material was non-existent. Many signs warned visitors not to get close to the monkeys, who could be aggressive and malicious, according to the warnings, stealing glasses and cell phones and the like. So it cracked us up to see that for the equivalent of about $3.50, you could pay to have a park employee entice one of the monkeys onto your lap and photograph you.We resisted, but managed to capture a few images of the adorable baby macaques without making their moms mad (as the signs claimed could happen.)Despite being tethered to the villa, we packed in a lot throughout the rest of our stay. Most fun was the morning we spent with Chef Mudana, who offers popular classes in Indonesian and Balinese cooking. We met him and our only fellow student (a network security expert named Sanjay from Sydney) last Saturday morning at the Jimbaran fish market, a wonderfully chaotic, stinky warren of fishermen unloading their wares and vendors selling the staggering variety of protein from the sea.No doubt about the freshness of this stuff. We watched it coming off the boats.Some of it looked too beautiful to eat. Mudana purchased a beautiful piece of mahi-mahi, and we made a quick run through the adjoining produce market to pick up what we needed for the class.Then we drove to his base in the community of Sanur, a combination of family home, restaurant, and the classroom in which Mudana teaches foreigners how to cook like a Balinese. Here’s the street front:And the room where we had our class.
It felt like magic. In about three hours, we enjoyed a traditional Balinese breakfast, then learned to transform a host of raw ingredients……into a delicious seven-course meal. I plan to try to do this at home in San Diego.
I’ve thought about whether I made a mistake in basing us in the Bali villa. Certainly it would have been less stressful to spend 2-3 nights serially in communities like Ubud, Sanur, Ulu Watu, and Seminyak. On the other hand, had we done that, I doubt we ever would have noticed the objects far above Villa Zealandia. We saw them every night, and Steven explained they were kites, a Balinese passion. They fly super high and sometimes folks attach lights to them.
From the villa, we learned the way to a charming cafe where we ate breakfast almost daily and had good dinners twice. We walked to the tiny laundry where the sweet proprietress works every day of the week and charges a pittance to wash, dry, iron, and fold your grubbiest clothes. Christina told me about the spa where she gets great hour-long massages for less than $7. I wanted to try it out but we were so busy I never squeezed it in.
We also noted with some alarm the huge construction projects taking shape on two sides of Steven and Christina’s villa.One small patch of rice field still meets up with their property, but in just the last two years a stunning amount of development has gobbled up the rest of their bucolic surroundings. This has occurred despite the lack of such basic infrastructure as sidewalks and water services.
It was impossible not to wonder how it will all play out. Will folks fill in the things that are missing, as they have done in so many places over the last 100 years? Will the wild building spree continue and then implode when the rice fields have all disappeared and the fish all been hauled out from the sea and people face the choice (as they have throughout human history) to leave or starve?
I probably won’t return. But when I hear news about Bali — or Indonesia — in the years to come, I’ll be paying closer attention, thanks to our Balinese home away from home.