All Journeys have secret destinations, of which the traveler is unaware
This quote by Martin Buber precisely summarizes my Indonesian vacation. What was supposed to be a lazing-on-the-beach-sipping-coconut-water trip soon turned to be a three-legged journey of cultural immersion and education.
Jakarta – Modern Indonesia:
We started on 14th August, 2014 from the marvelously renovated Mumbai airport. After 2 flights by Malaysia Airlines, we reached Jakarta safe and sound. Jakarta is the commercial hub of Indonesia, much like Mumbai – the same hustle-bustle, congested traffic, and humid air. After lunch, we visited the UKM Gallery – and thus began my love affair with Indonesian art. It was as if I had entered a completely different world that I didn’t know existed. To paraphrase The Matrix, once you see something, you can’t unsee it. All around were brilliant masterpieces of wood carvings, stone carvings, ceramic art, bamboo artifacts, even recycled paper – every conceivable type of art. Here are a few clicks:
I had a brilliant time with the girls at the gallery – just hanging out, learning and appreciating the local arts – in short, an evening well spent 🙂
We also visited Taman Mini – a culture-based recreational area. The park is a synopsis of Indonesian culture, with virtually all aspects of daily life in Indonesia’s 26 provinces encapsulated in separate pavilions with the collections of Indonesian architecture, clothing, dances and traditions are all depicted impeccably. Apart from that, there is a lake with a miniature of the archipelago in the middle of it, complete with cable cars and museums.
Puncak – up in the mountains:
The next day, we left for Puncak. On the way, we visited the beautiful Botanical Garden at Bogor. Then we proceeded to the Puncak Pass Resort – nestled in the mountains, surrounded by luscious tea plantations, and amazing weather to boot.
In the evening, we set out to roam around in the neighborhood and chanced upon a hiking trail. After an impromptu hike, we were rewarded with the beautiful sights of a cabin nestled in the woods and a gorgeous view. We ended this leg of the trip with a visit to the Flower Garden showcasing the eye-catching color and variety of the plant life from Puncak and beyond.
Bali – Land of Gods
We left for Bali the next day. The flight to Bali was an experience in itself: volcanic mountains jutting out of the clouds, the seas interspersed with tiny, beautiful islands, and the airplane descending amidst the waves lashing the shores.
After a 3 hour flight, we arrived at the Denpasar airport at around 6 in the evening. By then, it was already dark. We flagged down a taxi and started out for Ubud. We passed through Kuta – which seemed like Baga beach in Goa – then the crowds started to disperse and our anxiety started to increase. By the time we reached Ubud, we were sure we had made a mistake by booking a room there – it was in the interiors of Bali and was pretty isolated. The rice plantations seemed eerie and the guest house we had booked looked downright scary. With abated breaths, we opened the door to our room – and our emotions did a 180-degree flip – the room was gorgeous! Right above the bedpost was a big stone carving of Krishna – considering how scared I was, it was natural Krishna would show up as if to say “It’s okay, I am right here” 🙂
We calmed down a bit and decided to sleep. The moment we lied down to sleep, there was a noise – a never-heard-before call of some creature that came directly from our roof. Terrified, we fell in a disturbed slumber and woke up at the crack of dawn, and opened the door to reveal the view outside – and once again, we were completely floored. The view was brilliant – beautiful, green rice terraces with the backdrop of a distant mountain. The guest house itself was authentically Balinese, intricately decorated with wood carvings and stone sculptures that depicted stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. For breakfast, we were treated with the delicious fruits and green pancakes with banana filling. A peaceful, relaxed setting away from the touristy hustle-bustle.
Totally happy with our choice, we set out to drive through Ubud – the cultural center of Bali with Norman – our driver. We had a tea-tasting session at Balinese House, and visited Sari Amerta Batik collection and saw how handmade Batik garments are made. Then we visited Yan Yan Silver ornaments factory, where I bought a delicate silver anklet, an art gallery, and Karya Mas wood carving gallery, where we bought a beautiful Buddha statue. It was an excellent learning experience cum shopping trip 😀
We had lunch in the company of Mount Kintamani – an active volcano. And then, my favorite experience of the trip – a visit to the Gunung Kawi temple. In Balinese culture, Acintya is the Supreme God of Balinese Hinduism, equivalent to the concept of Brahman. Acintya is symbolized by an empty throne on top of the highest pillar. The Balinese offer small offering baskets called ‘canang sari ‘ to their Gods three times a day. It is basically a ritual of giving back what has been given to you by the Gods. It is a sharing that is not based upon fear, but on gratitude to the richness of life. Offering appeases the spirits and brings prosperity and good health to the family. It is a duty and an honor at the same time, and in Balinese perspective a very natural and almost logical thing to maintain a good relationship between people and spirits.
Another thing that intrigued me is how Animism is incorporated in Balinese Hinduism. Balinese depiction of Gods, like Ganesha, are quite demonic. The philosophy is that to maintain balance in the world, the godly and demonic energies need to be in harmony. Even in the Barong dance, the story was about the fight between the good and the evil, but in the end, no one wins. As a result, the artifacts that symbolize the animal spirits are not cute or polished as you would find in India, but have a raw and natural feel to them.
The Gunung Kawi temple was a beautiful spiritual experience – the serene settings, the light rain, the peace and quiet and calm just soothed my soul and I had my Eat Pray Love moment 🙂
We spent the following 2 days doing the touristy stuff – saw the Barong dance, spent some time at the Nusa Dua beach, and shopped to our heart’s content at Kuta. We witnessed the brilliant sunset at Uluwatu and ended the day with beautiful music that our hotel owner played on his Gamelan.
The thing that struck me the most about Bali, especially Ubud, is the steep immersion in culture and religion. The Balinese don’t seem to kowtow to tourists. Instead, they mostly just seem to live their lives in the ways of their ancestors, adapting and making money from tourism, but keeping most of their traditions alive.
Another significant thing about Bali is that the Balinese take delighting in the senses to a degree I had never experienced before. Especially in Ubud, the cultural capital in the middle of the country, every meal, restaurant or guest house, no matter how humble, takes pride in its visual appeal. The tropical vegetation of a volcanic island is on display in every street corner and in the way the world famous rice paddies are arranged and cultivated.
And I am officially in love with the people of Indonesia. I have never met such sweet, ever-smiling, ever-helpful people in my life. They don’t understand English, so communication is a problem, but they put in tremendous efforts to understand what you are saying and then go out of their way to help you. I feel enriched just to have known them for whatever short period of time I did. Meet my favorite people in Indonesia:
Apart from language, food also poses a major problem for us vegetarians. For Indonesians, food = non-vegetarian food. They are simply unaware of the concept of vegetarian food. You have to explicitly specify no meat, no beef, no chicken, no fish before ordering any dish – and then they give you an incredulous expression as if to say ‘really, you are gonna eat ONLY vegetables?’ And then you hope to God they understood what you told them 🙂 We survived on the Khakra packets we had taken with us and the delicious fruits we bought there. I also lost some weight, so that was an added bonus 🙂
Normally at the end of every trip, I feel a sense of completion and have no plans of returning to the same place. This is the first trip that left me craving for more. This was more of a reconnaissance trip, where I identified what I would love to do in Indonesia and now can’t wait to go back and actually do those things. Hope that day comes some time soon 🙂
P.S. – Some more clicks here