Our home in Bali

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.

American and Un-American

Sometimes I’m thrilled to find the footprint of American culture far from home. Sometimes I love when it isn’t where I’d expect it. We’ve already experienced both in Bali.

Ride-sharing is the American export I love more than words can express. Uber doesn’t exist here, but one of its Indonesian offspring, Gojek, has been serving us daily. It liberates us, a mind-blowing improvement over the ways we got around last century. As long as we know where we want to go or can pick a landmark in the general area, we just type that into the Gojek app,and a driver in a clean, air-conditioned vehicle materializes, usually within five minutes. We never have to worry about finding a taxi, a constant source of stress in the bad old days. The rides typically cost $2-$3 for a 15-minute trip; maybe $10 for one that lasts an hour or more.

Alas, even though Bali looks tiny on the map of Indonesia, we’ve learned that far too many rides anywhere take at least an hour. I started writing this paragraph on a 40-mile journey from our home-exchange berth to the Banyu Wana Amertha waterfall in northern Bali. In Southern California it might be a 60-minute jaunt. The Gojek app predicted it would take two hours here, and it wound up being two and a half. Neither Steve nor I can think of any place we’ve ever visited that matches this level of vehicular constipation — the result of unloosing hordes of motorcycles and scooters and cars and trucks on narrow, two-lane roads (almost all there is on the island). Slogging through that in a Gojek car isn’t a lot of fun, but my mind reels at the alternative: being tempted to rent a motorbike. That would almost certainly lead to our death or permanent incapacitation.

We took Gojek cars Tuesday to and from the spiffy beach community of Seminyak, where we prowled the shops, popped into a super-fancy hotel, and spent two blissful hours hanging out on heavily padded chaise lounges under a big red umbrella on the wide sand beach.

Wednesday we took a Gojek to the Garuda Wisna Kencana “cultural park” in Bukit, the pendant of land that hangs off the southern end of Bali’s most populated region. We’d heard a bit about the center and hoped it would introduce us to some of Bali’s history and artistic traditions. After suffering through 80 minutes of ghastly traffic, the driver took us deep into a beautiful wooded area and deposited us at the entry complex of what appeared to be a theme park.

This map posted near the ticket booths provided as much information as we would find anywhere. It’s not much. We paid about $8.50 each for all-day tickets, then spent the next four hours exploring what turned out to be more weirdly, wackily different from the Anaheim and Orlando institutions than even Walt could have imagined. What we figured out by the end of our stay is that you go to GWK for two main reasons.

One is to see the giant statues of Hindu gods. These are colossal bronze creations. The biggest, Vishnu riding his eagle Garuda, stands taller than the Statue of Liberty or Christ the Redeemer in Rio.

The park contains a couple of other representations of Hindu superheroes. This Garuda looms over “Garuda Plaza.”

You also come to watch the 30-minute performances that take place every hour in a shaded amphitheater. These were delightful, including samples of both a sinuous, flashing-eyed duo…

…and the comic lion-dog barong dance, accompanied by gamelan players who appeared to be having great fun.

Besides gaping at the foot of the statues and watching the dancers perform, Steve and I also checked out the gift shop… …and ate a basic lunch on a pleasant terrace overlooking the city. We were very excited about catching a 35-minute film that screened every hour in a little movie theater; surely it would fill in some of the blanks in our understanding of Bali and its history, I thought. But the film instead was an animated drama that depicted how Arjuna came to be Vishnu’s airborne chauffeur. The drama centered around young Garuda’s having to free his mom who was tricked into being enslaved by the evil witch, Kadru. It was cute and fun but about as educational as a Saturday morning cartoon.

We also spent a lot of time searching for information about the megalithic stones that to me made the whole complex feel a bit like a modern art installation. Why were THEY here? What were they? Our 2021 edition of Lonely Planet Indonesia, incredibly, didn’t even mention the GWK cultural park. In the first-floor lobby that underlies the gigantic statue of Vishnu riding on Arjuna, we found some historical photos that hinted at why. The center apparently was only inaugurated in the fall of 2018, and we imagine the guidebook went to press before that. After our visit, we found a bit more information on Wikipedia, which explained that the park began as a government project, then construction shut down when the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 90s. A Balinese real-estate developer finally stepped in to take over the project and finish it. But nowhere in the park or online could we find an explanation for those monoliths. (Our theory is that the land originally was a rock quarry, and the monoliths were remnants of the original stone. But we don’t know if that’s right.)

Americans don’t do theme parks or other tourist attractions this way. We give visitors lots of explanation and information. The absence of that at GWK didn’t bother me. I liked the reminder that I was immersed in a place very different from the one back home.

Love letter

Dear Man in Seat 61,

I don’t remember when I learned about you, but it didn’t take long for me to love you. I assume you must have started your eponymous website by reporting on train travel in the UK and Europe — time tables for the major routes, how the system worked in each country, how to buy tickets, and so on. Pretty soon you had expanded to cover the whole world (as far as I can tell). Thanks to you, I’ve been able to plan train trips that took Steve and me from Singapore up the Malay peninsula (2016); from Tibet across China to Beijing; from Kars to Cappadocia in Turkey; and many others. Your wise words guided me in 2018 when I was figuring out how to get us around India, a country whose railway system contains countless traps for the innocent. Thanks to your passionate recommendation, we rode the World Heritage Bernina Express from Switzerland to Italy in the fall of 2021. (That was the ride on which Steve actually GOT Seat 61! Talk about channeling your spirit!)

And thanks yet again to you, on this trip I figured out how we could travel from Yogyakarta to Bali by train and ferry.

Whenever I follow your guidance I’m astonished by how detailed and accurate the information is. All the photos (and often videos) help manage my expectations. For example, I knew that the Argo Willis, which would carry us from Yogyakarta to Surabaya (Indonesia’s second-largest city, on the eastern coast of Central Java), was a premium (“Eksekutif-class”) train.Its comfortable reclining seats, clean toilets, and functioning power made that ride a pleasure. I knew that to continue on from Surabaya to Ketapang on Java’s eastern tip our only option was an “Ekonomi-class” line but those trains were “perfectly safe and comfortable,” you assured us readers.The bench seats on the one we took were plain, and it was all but impossible to avoid playing kneesies with the plump young woman who faced me for the first four and a half hours of the ride. But any train that posts a photo of its conductor has to make you feel you’re in competent hands.We left Surabaya just three seconds after 5:30 a.m. and pulled into Ketapang six hours and 59 minutes later — a minute ahead of schedule.

I had printed out your instructions for what to do when we got off the train and they enabled us to roll our suitcases to the Bali ferry (a few blocks away) as nonchalantly as if we were regular commuters.

More recently I’ve noticed that in addition to all the train info, you sometimes have interesting opinions about hotels. I don’t always follow your advice, but I was thrilled with the result of doing so in Surabaya. The cleanest city in Indonesia and an important commercial and industrial center, it alas offers little in the way of tourist attractions. We only spent two nights there to break up the long overland (and sea) journey to Bali. You had written that the Majapahit Hotel was THE place and stay and added,, “Don’t argue, trust me on this.”

Built in 1911 by the son of the man who co-founded Singapore’s legendary Raffles Hotel, the Majapahit today remains an oasis of glorious gardens, murmuring fountains, and gleaming hard wood.In 1945 it also was the setting for a key event in the birth of Indonesia as an independent country. So when you declared, “Even if you’re on a budget, splurge here,” I complied. What a bargain splurge it turned out to be: $89 a day for a lovely suite in a setting that enticed us to abandon our normal hyper-driven sightseeing and spend a whole day chilling out.

We took dips in the pool and lounged next to it, napping and writing. We marveled at the enormous variety of choices at the breakfast buffet. In that elegant room, we ate all our other meals, and I enjoyed a superb massage in the hotel’s spa. We went to bed early and awoke feeling refreshed and ready to face Monday’s long journey.

From the ferry dock in Bali, sadly, we had to take a Gojek car, All our Indonesian train rides are now behind us. As long as I can ride the rails, I can only hope you will carry on, continuing to serve those of us who still love this transportation niche; who still think it’s one of the most interesting ways to move through the world.

Sincerely yours,