When I pushed up the airplane window shade in preparation for landing in Bali, the green-blue water below was so clear that I could see the bottom.
Tropical paradise, check.
About an hour before landing, the flight attendant sing-song apologized over the intercom that they had run out of landing cards on the previous flight so we would need to fill out a form on arrival. More accurately, visitors to Bali fill out three parts of two forms, each collecting pretty much the same information. The Immigration Hall has lots of blank forms but no tables or chairs so when you don’t fill out the form on the plane, you do it on the floor, with 99 other passengers, sharing seven pens.
I easily found a cab to take me to Ubud, a mid-sized town about an hour into the mountains. The too-narrow road to Ubud is lined with shops, almost all of them selling construction materials or home décor. Each store seems to focus on just one type of material or furnishing – decorative antique wood doors, outdoor vases, sculptures, teak deck furniture, paintings – but after about a kilometre you would have everything you need to build your retirement place and furnish it. Beauty is big business here, which makes Bali my kind of place.
My taxi pulled up in front of a what looked like a small temple, with red brick walls and a flower-wrapped statue visible through the front gate. It turned out to be the entrance to my guesthouse, tucked away at the back of a traditional Balinese family compound. My little temporary home is one of 10 rooms in a long, low bamboo and wood structure and there’s a small open air dining room where the hosts feed me coconut pancakes for breakfast. The rest of the compound is small sleeping rooms for several branches of an extended family, an art studio/gallery, and several small shrines and statues.
I spent the balance of day one in Bali getting oriented (translation: wandering in circles, lost). At happy hour I settled into an open air bar, ordered a fresh ginger mojito and deciding that when I had said I was staying here for two days I really meant two weeks.
After breakfast the next morning I headed out of town to see the rice paddies. They are as green and orderly and tranquil as they look in pictures. I walked slowly, absorbing the scenery, taking a picture every few steps, and generally not watching where I was going until I stepped off the path into a paddy. Turns out “paddy” is another word for a square the size of a small swimming pool, full of knee-deep mud. I rescued my leg from the muck and squished onward until I found a stream I could wade in to remove the evidence of my clumsiness.
At a fork in the road (so the fairy tale says), a local man drinking coffee in the shade offered me a cup. The Balinese are extremely hospitable so making friends here is that easy. I declined the coffee but crouched down beside him so he could draw directions into the dirt. He put me on the right path but not before extracting my answers to the trinity of Balinese icebreaker questions – “Where you from?” Where you stay? Where you go?”
I covered pretty much the same topics with an elderly woman I met five minutes up the trail. She tacked on, “you want coconut?” and made a beach ball shape with her hands. When I smiled and said no she gave me two thumbs up and a mostly toothless grin before turning back to dragging large fallen palm leaves off the path.
The path looped back toward town, passing an elementary school. Do Canadian kids do call and response in primary school? I don’t remember doing it but I hear it everywhere I travel – young voices enthusiastically repeating whatever the teacher says, almost in unison.
Back in Ubud proper there are more people and more tourists so there’s no time for three whole questions. Instead, I got “Teksi? Motorbike?” from pretty much every Balinese male I passed.
On the way home I stopped at Clear Café, a large juice bar-organic-raw-food-vegan-gluten-sugar-free-patchouli-dreadlock-etc-etc. restaurant a couple blocks down from my guest house. Indoor Bali is shoes off, even in restaurants, so Clear Café had a coat check for my flip flops.
I make it back to the couch on my covered porch just as the afternoon rains started. It’s proper monsoon-type rain – lots of noise and a bit of thunder – but it smells good and it’s still 28 degrees so I love it.
The culture section of The Lonely Planet for Bali says, “The Balinese are content. Ask a Balinese what heaven is like and the answer will be “Just like Bali”. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m inclined to agree.