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Finding moments to savor on an overcrowded Bali

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2005

BALI, Indonesia -- ''Do you swear this isn't Epcot?" a friend joked while looking at photos my husband had taken during a Balinese dance. ''It looks just like something from Epcot Center." Onstage was a row of swaying, long-haired women wearing colorful, ornate costumes and thick makeup, their arms extended while their fluttering fingers formed abstract shapes.

Not only wasn't the six-hour dance performed in Orlando, it, amazingly, was not even created for tourists. I say amazingly because Ubud -- the area of Bali where we stayed -- is so chock-full of foreigners and services geared toward them that it's often impossible to know if what you're seeing is authentic or concocted.

In this case, the answer was evident from the hundreds of locals jammed into the open-air pavilion -- and the fact that it was free. My husband was thrilled to be one of only a handful of Westerners present. Of course, he had no idea what the actors in this part dance-part drama were saying (except that it involved good versus evil), but he enjoyed the sights, the laughter from the crowd, and the nonstop music from the gamelan orchestra.

His escort that night was Nyoman, 30, a gentle Balinese man we had hired for a couple of days of driving and sightseeing at $25 a day. Nyoman (NEE-o-man) came recommended by Pennsylvania native Caroline Miksch, a children's clothing designer who has lived on Bali for 20 years. Miksch, 46, whose designs are part of the current batik show at the American Textile Museum in Lowell, is a friend of a friend. With her and Nyoman helping to guide our way, we veered a little off the beaten path, but not much.

Initially, our itinerary hadn't included Bali at all.

''I really think you're making a mistake," said one Boston-based traveler I had consulted beforehand, who was almost in tears at the thought of us skipping the island during our two-week stay in Indonesia. Others so strongly echoed her views that we did an about-face only a few weeks before we left home.

What I found over the course of an action-packed four days was that they were right. Bali shouldn't be missed, but parts of it are nearly overrun with tourists and vehicles of all sizes. We didn't do enough planning to know where to go to escape the masses, though I'm told it's possible, even on an island only 88 miles across and 50 miles long. Still, we found it fascinating.

What truly sets this lush land apart, aside from its seemingly endless shades of green, is its religion: Hinduism. Indonesia has the highest population of Muslims in the world (210 million), so Bali, with a population of about 3 million, is indeed quite different.

This is apparent the minute you step out of the airport in Denpasar (an hour by air from the capital, Jakarta) and see statues of Hindu gods wearing sarongs. Giant ones rise from traffic circles. Every house, no matter the size, has its own shrine, and many have ornately carved and lavishly adorned temples. Depending on the time of year, streets may be lined with ceremonial ''penjor," bamboo poles that curve and are decorated with coconut leaves.

The Balinese, forever trying to ward off evil spirits, give offerings to their gods daily. These come mostly in the form of small palm-leaf baskets filled with flowers, rice, spices, and incense. You'll see them everywhere: at construction sites, in front of shops, even on the beach. Nyoman kept a fresh one on his dashboard.

''For a safe travel," he told us in his heavily accented English.

''Their life is their religion," Miksch said of the people in her adopted homeland. ''All the money they make goes to keep their religion going -- for the ceremonies, clothing, offerings. If they have extra money it goes for tooth filing."

Filing is a common rite of passage for teens, who have their canine teeth flattened to protect them from evil spirits in adulthood.

It's hard to imagine Bali as a ghost town, but that's what it was after the 2002 bombings on the southern coast, where most tourists stay. The blasts killed 202 people, mostly Australians, who still make up the bulk of foreigners, though Japanese tourists are plentiful, too. Bali has such a mystique, though, that even with subsequent bombings in Jakarta, tourism is quickly rebounding.

Many revelers visit Bali for its eternal spring-break scene of cafes, clubs, and sun-worshiping on the south beaches of Kuta and Legion. Though there are surfing waves, the beach is not particularly enticing, but it is a bargain.

For convenience, we stayed in Legion one night at Hotel Kumala Pantai, a nice beachfront hotel with a spectacular pool, for $40. Our remaining three nights were in Ubud, known as the cultural and arts center. I was surprised -- naively, perhaps -- to find it much more bent on shopping opportunities than cultural ones.

Initially, I ignored the in-your-face vendors and the stores that line the main streets for miles. But on the last day shopping fever struck, and I surrendered, buying clothing, batik, and souvenirs. The choices range from cheap and cheaply produced to more expensive quality art and clothing. (Miksch's Pelangi Design shop is on the upscale side.) I even had to buy a ''Bali bag," a cloth carry-on, to hold my loot.

''Everybody gets one of those before they leave," said Miksch.

When Miksch arrived in Bali for a long bicycle tour, what is now the main thoroughfare of Monkey Forest Road was nothing but rice fields. Now, only a little greenery remains. She married an Indonesian, who has since died, and has two children. Her specialty is brightly colored patchwork children's clothing, which she designs.

''I just love fabric," she said, ''and when I came here, and I saw the batik, it just blew my mind. And it still does."

For three nights, my husband and I stayed at the Ananda Cottages, a three-star hotel a bit removed from crowded Ubud center. The rooms showed some age, but the setting was sublime. The lush grounds were covered with tropical flowers and plants, even rice paddies.

From a ''bale" (BAY-lay), or hut, in the back, we could watch the sun set over lime-colored rows of terraced rice paddies. Every day, fresh blossoms were placed around our room, as well as on garden statuary.

The constant question from the staff was, ''Where are you going? Do you need a ride? Do you need a guide?" Some would call that service; others might find it annoying.

On our own, we took a marvelous four-mile stroll along a path atop Campuhan Ridge, not far from the hotel. We passed farmers harvesting rice, and a number of men and women carrying produce and heavy bags of rice on their heads.

At one point a small, elderly man with dark teeth approached us.

''You want coconut?" he asked, pointing to the top of the tree.

As soon as we nodded yes, he was scaling the tree, barefoot, to lop off the fruit. Clearly a pro, he would stop every so often to mug for the camera. Once back on the ground, he sliced it open and we drank the juice. We paid our 10,000 rupiah (about $1) and left smiling.

Near Ubud center, we felt compelled to take a quick stroll through the Sacred Monkey Forest, to get up close and sometimes too personal with gray macaques.

Another day, with Nyoman, we took a road trip north, winding through tiny villages, stopping at a farm that grows coffee, vanilla, and other spices, and visiting several temples.

The most impressive temple was Gunung Kawi, the island's largest ancient monument and one of its oldest, built about 1100. Its 10 memorials are cut deep into the rock face and little is known about them. The walk there is steep, with many steps.

Even more tiring are the owners of the dozens of clothing stalls along the way, who persistently yelled out, ''Madam, you need sarong. Sarong cheap for you." True, one does need to wear one, but another option is borrowing one from the temple for a small donation.

On our last day, Nyoman invited us to his home. He, his wife, and daughter live in Ubud, where his wife's family has a wholesale business making and selling hand-painted wood carvings. We sat on the concrete floor of their tiny living room, bare except for a table and a thin, worn carpet. They served us coffee and fruit, and treated us like honored guests -- a lovely, and genuine, send-off.

Contact Diane Daniel at ddaniel@globe.com.

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