Return to Bali, 2017

Bali is a regular place of escape from southern Australia’s winter.

In Bali, I try to avoid the beach ghettos catering for foreign tourists, which at their worst, are venues for booze swilling excess by those seeking the title of cultural barbarian/worst ambassador; and equally avoid the cloistered resorts that insulate guests from the real Bali in a more costly ghetto.

In spite of more than half a century of mass tourism, my impression is that Bali, away from the artificially constructed tourist enclaves, remains culturally and historically strong.

Bali visits always remind me of the humility, respect, friendliness, humour and warmth of the people. Only the Balinese could name their band for an Irish theme night The Paddy Fields Band.

Ceremonies remain a fundamental part of Balinese Hindu culture. Here are some images from a Sanur beach purification ceremony, the final stage of the cremation process.

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In rural Bali, age-old sights and communities flourish; here are typical rice paddies near Pupuan.

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I often enjoy snorkelling when visiting Indonesia to coral reefs and islands in Lombok, Nusa Lembongan, and Flores, as well as Bali. On the latest trip, I returned to Pemuteran, in  north-west of Bali, and nearby Menjangan (Deer) Island.

The visit raised concerns about the significant amount of coral bleaching, more than I recall from two years ago. Locals attribute it to rising water temperatures – global warming – a fate endangering coral reefs throughout the world. It will be a monstrous tragedy if current generations fail to move quickly enough from our destructive fossil fuel stage of energy generation to deny our descendants the chance to glimpse this remarkable undersea world.

DSCN0643Snorkelling off Menjangan Island. In the background are several of East Java’s volcanoes, and the boat that brought us to the reef.

Underwater, the view is a visual feast: swarming schools of fish, lone barracuda, clams, delicate and colorful fronds waving in the currents, and shallow coral gardens dropping off into inky depths where larger fish cruise.

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Kanawa Island: oh to be shipwrecked

The journey to Kanawa Island, located between Indonesia’s islands of Komodo and Flores, is memorable. Most visitors to Kanawa arrive by boat from Labuan Bajo, on the west coast of Flores, around 90 minutes flying time west from Bali.

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The jetty at Kanawa Island. The light coloured water is a metre or two deep, while the darker water shows the drop off to deeper water.

We hired a local fishing boat for the day trip, at a cost of about AU$100 (Indonesian Rupiah 1,000,000). The journey began a little late when our enquiry about the location of the life jackets, specifically ordered, revealed their absence.  Our skipper and his mate, somewhat reluctantly, eventually borrowed them from an adjoining boat, and the trip began.

We cruised past the bare dry hills of Rinca Island, reputably the home of more dragons than Komodo itself, pockets of dense forest, water of deepest azure, then turquoise, depending on its depth and after about 90 minutes we arrived at Kanawa Island.

The island has just one small resort consisting of modest bungalows and a restaurant. The main attraction is underwater, with extraordinary coral and colourful fish just a few metres off the beach.

We spent the day variously lolling about in the deep shade of the beach-side trees, reading, snorkelling, watching the progress of a few visiting boats and thinking about being shipwrecked.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter K.

Jakarta Jottings

When visiting a foreign city, it’s customary to focus on the notable sights and experiences, the ones recommended by guidebooks, tourist brochures and tours. Yet to confine a visit to just those features can create a distorted impression that ignores the realities of life for many of the city’s residents.

Jakarta has extremes of wealth and poverty. Liveried doormen greet luxury cars that disgorge their owners and passengers at marble shopping malls where the world’s luxury brands are displayed in air conditioned comfort while a few kilometres away, scavenging for discarded plastic bottles can provide an income of sorts.

 

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The photo was taken in Angke an old suburb near the sea. A walk in the neighbourhood is a reminder of the city’s Chinese community, with a stroll past Confucian temples, through the Muslim community by the mosque where the labryrinthine lanes are just wide enough to allow two people to walk abreast. An open door reveals a lounge-room, an open window is a tiny shop, a few steps away someone is washing their hair in the lane. The locals don’t seem to mind strangers wandering about. In fact, there are many smiles. Western concepts of space and privacy are distant.

In this poor part of Jakarta, there are no parks or open public spaces, just the train lines. The people in the picture who were sitting on or straddling the lines removed themselves in time from danger from being run over by the train emerging through the smoke.

Like many developing nations, Indonesia has a serious rubbish problem. Countless generations used natural wrapping and packaging in the form of banana leaves and bamboo that can be discarded anywhere to turn into compost to enrich the soil. Plastics have become a pervasive problem in a society that has no rubbish disposal system. Indonesia is grappling with introducing a fee for plastic bags, hopefully a positive move to eradicate this environmental scourge.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter J.

Flourishing in Flores, Indonesia

Curiosity about Flores was the reason for our presence on the 500 kilometre flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo. The plane flew spectacularly over the crater of Lombok Island’s majestic Mount Rinjani, then the islands of Sumbawa and Komodo, and many smaller ones. Labuan Bajo is a small town in west Flores, with a population of around 10,000 that is rapidly growing, mainly in response to increasing western tourism. Many visitors come for diving and snorkelling and to see the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, as the town is near Komodo National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guidebooks aptly describe Labuan Bajo as having a ramshackle air. There’s much corrugated iron – some rusty, otherwise brightly painted – and the buildings are an interesting mixture of old and new. Many have open-sided pavilions to take advantage of cooling breezes, and to catch the views: the harbour and its boat traffic, the appealing setting of islands and colorful sea, and the town’s hypnotic sunsets. Curiously, it also has about five Italian restaurants with Italian ownership.

Flores illustrates Indonesia’s diversity; here you are not in Bali, Java or Sumatra. Although Flores is nominally Christian, with the inevitable Indonesian underlay of adat (customary tradition and rules), Labuan Bajo has a significant Muslim population.

This is noticeable as mosques in town have spent heavily on their sound systems. One of the town’s largest mosques is located next a shop specialising in public address sound systems. There must be serious competition for adherents, as the volume level was unmatched in my travelling experience. Although difficult to encapsulate in a few words, it was as if 3 or 4 heavy metal bands located a few hundred metres apart were competing to have your total attention, while playing different songs in different keys at a volume suitable for a major outdoor rock festival. Unfortunately in the case of the mosques, while some of the sound was pre-recorded and beautiful musically (I enjoy Arabic and Middle Eastern music), several competitors had live performers who apparently acquired their positions on the basis of their inability to maintain a key.

From our hotel  balcony 500 metres or more up the hill, the competing volumes from the mosques made it impossible to conduct a conversation. We quickly adjusted to the afternoon call to prayer – between 4 and 5pm – by designating it the Call to Drinks. Travel encourages adaptability. Early morning calls to prayer (at around 4am and 5am) were less open to such innovation. No doubt for locals these experiences are part of the aural fabric. If they travelled to Paris, would the chiming of the bells of Notre Dame be a strange intrusion?

Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo National Park
Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo Island and National Park, as the crimson sky fades into twilight.

After my companions rather haughtily declined my invitation to see Komodo dragons, we hired a traditional wooden fishing boat with two crew members (cost AU$100) and spent an idyllic day: a trip through sparkling tropical seas, past many islands, finally disembarking at Kanawa Island. The island is quite small, with an attractive sandy beach backed by hills, shady trees to loll under, and a small restaurant, and modest set of bungalows. The snorkelling at Kanawa is excellent and safe. The bottom shelves gently from the beach to the drop off and the coral is very colourful, the fish even more so. A young Balinese in her shop in Sanur later described her snorkelling experiences on the island beautifully: ‘It’s like swimming in an aquarium.’

It pays to be curious.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter F.

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Bali Dawn

Bali Sunrise
Bali Sunrise

The sun begins to light up the sky over south-east Bali.

In the distance the island’s holy mountain, Gunung Agung, emerges from the morning mist.

As the light increases, a  fisherman casts his net around the moored traditional fishing boats – Jungkung in Balinese and Prahu in Bahasa Indonesian – while a couple of boatmen already have their boats moving in readiness to brave the often turbulent tidal streams and waves offshore.

The boats look like aquatic praying mantises in the morning light. With their canoe-like hulls and bamboo outriggers, they have a reassuring seaworthiness for their fishermen skippers, as well as for visitors who travel in them for snorkelling and diving pursuits, or as transport to the beautiful Gili Islands off Lombok’s coast.

A family of five comes to the beach for their morning ritual, saluting the mountain and the rising sun. They wade chest deep into the water, releasing and watching their floral offerings drift out to sea.

Others, alone or in groups, are sometimes silent, or murmuring, or conversing. They imbibe the dawn while the sea at this coral reef protected beach quietly and soothingly adds sounds to the hypnotic scene.

On a clear morning, across the Lombok Straight, another volcanic shape can be seen, 3726 metre high Mount Rinjani, as well as the white cliffs of Nusa Penida, another island about 15 kilometres across the sea.

The dawn described above is a world away from the gross features of mass tourism that afflict a small part of Bali, yet it takes place at a major tourist destination. Here, traditional rituals, culture and ceremonies flourish at least as strongly as a generation ago.

Perhaps the wealth generated by tourism has had some positive effects. Historians often suggest that the European Renaissance, the flowering of the arts, literature and intellectual pursuits, required a degree of wealth, patronage and leisure to promote those cultural activities. As in Bali?

As a regular visitor to Bali and quite a few other islands in Indonesia’s 17,000 plus archipelago over many decades, Bali remains a beguiling place to visit for the warmth, humour, respect and culture of the people, the great food, and the extraordinary diversity and beauty of its landscapes, beaches and undersea. Traditional life and culture have survived better than some imagine.

This post forms part of Fiona’s  A-Z guidebook, a monthly travel journal.