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HIGH ON BALI - ISLAND OF A THOUSAND TEMPLES
 
(2012 - Fall Issue)

Writer: JOANNA EBBUTT



Salivating over a freshly-caught and grilled fish on the beach at Kedonganan . . . dining under the stars on the banks of the sacred Ayung River . . . digging into a tasty bowl of rice at a roadside wayung(local restaurant) . . . each, albeit different, act of eating was a glimpse into the island’s soul.

Tradition runs deep in Bali. Cooking is seen as an act of love and caring, not as a necessity; and before meals, the food is first offered to the gods. The island is renowned for capturing people’s hearts and minds, and on a recent stay, my husband and I joined those numbers. Thanks to Narsa, our intrepid local guide, we gleaned a little about the beliefs and culture of the gentle people living in this overwhelmingly beautiful land.

A Way of Life

Under the form of Hinduism practised here, worshipping the gods and spirits is intrinsic to everyday life. Bali is called “the island of a thousand temples” and for good reason. From vast, centuries-old temples to smaller structures within homes, luxury hotel compounds, to the corner of fields, they are everywhere. Baskets of rice and flowers are offered regularly to both gods and evil spirits (“so they don’t come and disturb our activities” said Narsa), placed even at busy traffic intersections. Black-and-white-checkered cloths wrapped around the ubiquitous statues of gods reflect this harmonic balance between good and evil.

Food, Glorious Food

Eager to learn some of Bali’s culinary secrets, we signed up for a morning at the cooking school operated by Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay. As we followed Chef Iwayan Ariana (“but everyone calls me ‘Blacky’”) around Kedonganan Market, we were bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells while he provided a running commentary.

It’s Bali’s biggest fish market, and the stalls were heaped with prawns, lobster, tuna, octopus and so much more. You can even have your fish filleted, then take it to a nearby stand to be grilled over coconut husks—and presto, a yummy breakfast!

Squeezing through the crowds, we explored the vegetable, fruit, spice and rice sections. The variety was mind-boggling, from the spices so integral to Balinese cooking to exotic fruits with names such as dragon or snake fruit.

Back at the cooking school, the rest of the session combined cooking demonstration and participation. (We struggled to grind root spices with a mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock—a Balinese food processor, said Blacky.) It ended with a delicious lunch of chicken satay (threaded, with great difficulty, onto lemongrass sticks), grilled red snapper wrapped in banana leaf, and kue labu, a Balinese version of pumpkin cake based upon a recipe from Blacky’s mother.

Living Art

A collection of hillside villages bordering river gorges and lush rice paddies, Ubud is Bali’s arts capital. Far from the hustle of the southern coastal resorts, many consider it “the real Bali.”

Originally, the artists worked on the land, regarding their creative endeavours—which were donated to the temples—as a form of devotion. In the 1920s, two European artists—Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet—moved here to study Balinese art. Over time, they introduced local artists to Western techniques around perspective, lighting and other subtleties. As the Balinese’ art forms evolved, their work began to sell commercially. In the 1950s, the Museum Puri Lukisan opened its doors, a jewel of a museum that continues to present and explain modern-traditional Balinese art from 1930 to the present.

Musically, too, Bali is a going concern. Every village has its own musicians and dancers who perform at temple festivals, weddings and other rites of passage, as well as for tourists. There’s a nightly performance of traditional dance at Ubud Palace, a complex of lovely old Balinese buildings that can also be visited during the day.

On Bali’s southernmost tip, the Kecak fire-and-trance dance is performed at sunset, at the cliff-top Ulu Watu Temple. We watched, enthralled, as a mass of bare-chested, sarong-clad men and boys surged into the circle, evocatively chanting their way through a tale from Ramayana, a classical Sanskrit epic. Following the story mattered not one iota!

Arts, Crafts and Other Diversions

The John Hardy workshop and design centre is a cluster of bamboo and adobe buildings in the rice-farming community of Mambal. Launched by a Canadian art student who came to Bali in 1975 to study jewellery-making techniques, the centre’s philosophy is as compelling as its exquisitely handcrafted silver jewellery produced by local designers and artisans. Being “green” is ingrained in every component of the operation. Part of the proceeds from the “bamboo” line of jewellery, for example, goes toward planting bamboo seedlings in villages around Bali. Hundreds of thousands have been planted, helping both the environment and the local economy. Visits must be booked ahead, and include a marvellous al fresco lunch.

Many villages specialize in crafts, such as batik in Tohpati, stone carvings in Batubulan, and woodcarvings in Mas (we fell for the carvings of Wayang Pageh in the Sedana Gallery). Arriving in Tenganan, the smell of wood-burning fires marked the end of one long day. However, there were still a few vendors eager to show their work. This village is known for its engraved palm-leaf manuscripts (lontar), batik and finely-woven baskets.

The Balinese love children, so those with kids can count on a very warm welcome. One family-friendly attraction is the Elephant Safari Park, outside Taro, which is home to around 30 elephants rescued from logging operations on Sumatra. While conservation and preservation is the underlying message, there are elephant rides and plenty of opportunities to observe, interact with and feed these playful mammals.

No matter your interests, everyone falls in love with Bali . . . a captivating land where every moment provides food for thought and long-lasting memories.

 
 
 
 
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