BALI -- Denpasar Airport bustles again with tourists toting surfboards, along the river Ayung rafters again squeal with pleasure, and to the crater lip of the great volcano Gunung Batur trekkers have returned to rejoice in sunrise. On the sweeping curve of sand at Kuta, hawkers will massage away the knots from your long flight, braid your hair, and ink a temporary tattoo onto your flesh -- all at the same time, if you like, and for just a few dollars apiece.
In most ways, Bali has returned to normal since terrorists exploded a bomb last October, killing more than 200 people. By other measures, the island never skipped a beat. The elaborate Balinese Hindu beliefs remain tightly interwoven into daily activities. During my late-September visit, I could barely walk 100 feet without encountering ''banten" -- an offering to the Hindu gods -- laid with devotion on the street or walkway. The hand-made offerings are bundled into a coconut leaf each morning with a prayer, and include a flower, a little fruit for the gods to eat, and incense.
Roughly half the size of Jamaica, Bali is perhaps the most distinct of Indonesia's archipelago of 17,500 islands that sprawl across an area wider than the continental United States. Although Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, 93 percent of the Balinese are Hindu. While travel outside the troubled capital, Jakarta, is often difficult, Bali has a refined tourism infrastructure, with more than 1,000 hotels ranging from simple guesthouses to luxury resorts.
Nonetheless, the bombing that roiled Kuta last year was a pivotal moment, and Bali's reputation as a welcoming, graceful paradise was badly shaken. The incident occurred at two bars along busy Legian Street, starting with a bomb that detonated at Paddy's Club. As partyers at the neighboring, foreigners-only Sari Club flooded into the streets, a massive car bomb exploded, causing the greater destruction. The toll: 202 dead, 324 seriously injured. The accused perpetrators -- 33 have been or are on trial -- are linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, an organization with ties to Al Qaeda and whose aim is to create a pan-Islamic Asian state.
Bali's tourism industry virtually evaporated. Kuta area hotels averaged 74 percent occupancy on the day of the bombing but were barely 10 percent full by the end of the month. The island's airport went from an average of 5,000 daily arrivals to barely 1,000 per day the next month.
A year later, Kuta appeared for the most part back to its former self, if less busy. Name brands like Versace and Polo compete for attention with Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's. Paddy's Club reopened last month, a few doors down from its original location.
Meanwhile, the Balinese are still trying to reconcile the event that ravaged their island.
''The way people live is changing," said Agus, a local guide. ''In Kuta, next to holy temples there are discotheques and nightclubs with drugs and striptease. It ruins the spiritual place . . . The bombs are a wake-up call to come back to the gods," he said.
Although Kuta may have taken a breather after the disaster, the business of catering to visitors was definitely back in place. Stricter airport controls are visible, and police are omnipresent. The Balinese governor's office states that all people arriving at Denpasar Airport and all of Bali's seaports must present their identity cards. Hotel managers say an extensive undercover force is present, and most of the resorts search cars entering their property.
At the island's two Four Seasons Resorts, security personnel were doubled, according to Putu Indrawati, director of public relations for the Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay. ''Security staff training was increased by an intense program conducted by a senior American security specialist from our sister hotel in Las Vegas," she said.
I stopped by the new Paddy's; only a few people were in the pub just before noon, watching sports on a large-screen TV. One of them was Elly Winther, a young solo traveler from Melbourne. The trip was her seventh to the island, and she counted the shopping, the sun, and the spirit of the Balinese as the main motivators for her return. Despite a travel warning from the Australian government, she said she had no hesitations.
''A lot of people were concerned about me coming, but I'm not going to stop living because of the bombing," she said. ''It could have happened in Melbourne." (Many of the victims of the Bali bombings were Australians.)
Seven Americans were killed in the blasts, and the US government posts a similar warning about travel to Indonesia (www.travel.state.gov). Although the number of US visitors to Bali ranks well behind those from Japan and Australia, more than 82,000 Americans visited the island for the year ending August 2001. After 9/11, US arrivals fell by 38 percent for the following year. Through this August, the numbers are down an additional 32 percent.
Bali's two Four Seasons resorts have always been popular among Americans. Indrawati said the numbers of American guests were ''reduced tremendously" following the Iraq War and the SARS scare, but they have risen to ''about 18 percent [of total guests] these past few months."
Perhaps one reason Americans have not returned to Bali is that what we do not understand, we tend not to trust. Bali's exotic culture of multiple gods, daily offerings, and seemingly random rituals provides a wealth of intrigue -- or uncertainty.
''Everything the Balinese do is to appease the spirits," said Paul van Frank, general manager of the upmarket hotel Begawan Giri Estate. ''That's why I have someone working full time putting offerings in front of all the doors."
Like all of Bali's resorts, Begawan Giri is considered part of a village, and the inner workings of that village -- birth, death, ceremonies, and more -- are to be respected, even at an economic cost to the hotel. Van Frank says the bulk of his role is working with the village chief and its religious chief, plus those of five more neighboring villages.
''There are so many unwritten rules here, although sometimes the way they work things out is not so bad," said van Frank. And the island's mysticism is a big part of its appeal. ''Have you ever seen a cremation ceremony? You want to -- it's spectacular," he urged.
As it turns out, there had been a cremation in the village a few weeks earlier, which I missed, but I still encountered plenty of unexpected episodes, especially in and around Ubud, the town that lies on the lower flanks of the volcano Gunug Batur. While I was shopping one afternoon, the street suddenly filled with a procession of several hundred colorfully attired residents from a neighboring village. Traffic came to a respectful halt for the 10 or 12 minutes it took for the parade to pass on its way to the temple.
Early the next morning, I took a peaceful walk through unpopulated rice paddies outside Begawan. Passing through a village, I encountered a group of men cooking. They explained that, for a wedding feast, men do all the preparations. I was welcomed and offered a skewer of satay. It was hot, spicy, and delicious, and the men smiled at my thumb's-up signal.
These unplanned encounters feel magical, and they happen throughout Bali every day.
David Swanson is the author of Frommer's San Diego guidebook.