Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rediscovering Bali

A few weekends ago, I made my second trip to Bali. Somehow, I managed to spend four days there without ever setting foot on a beach. That wasn’t really my goal, but it ended up being just fine. If the purpose of a beach is to relax, then my trip certainly did that anyway.

We were aiming for more of a cultural tour of Bali—temples, markets, and just plain good food. We spent the first two nights in Ubud in a hotel that reminded me of something like a Hindu Secret Garden, with a temple and garden behind a high wall.

One of the coolest parts of the trip was meeting up with my penpal Karen.

Apparently, towards the beginning of my grant, what had been my most recent blog post was picked up by Google as a news story about Indonesia, and it was emailed to anyone who signed up for regular news alerts from the archipelago. It was awesome, even if I really had no idea it was happening then. I received a lot of borderline scary emails from conservative Muslims we’ll say encouraging me to convert. But I also got emails from a bunch of really cool Americans who used to visit or live in Indonesia. And that’s how I e-met Karen.

An American psychiatrist living in California but raised in Ohio (whoop!), Karen was going to be in Bali visiting her boyfriend, so I tried to schedule my trip to coincide with hers. It was so fun to finally meet her. I’m hoping we can meet again when she visits her family for holidays in Ohio.

I also visited Bali with the goal of getting a bunch of souvenirs at the markets here. I used to love bargaining for my purchases, and I still get a little rush from it. But here in Indonesia, it really gets exhausting to bargain for everything you want to buy, from food to clothes to gifts to transportation.

For example, I wanted to buy a silk batik scarf. Aaron and Vidhi had both bought one earlier for between $4-$5. It helps to head into battle knowing what a reasonable price is, because sometimes you really have no idea. Here’s how the exchange (a typical one) went: (except I changed Indonesian to English and rupiah to dollars to help you make sense of it all [PUN!])

I walk by one of a billion booths of scarves set up and touch one. Almost immediately, a large Balinese woman is touching me and telling me I absolutely must have it, as though I could not have possible chosen a more perfect scarf in the world.

Saleswoman: “You are so beautiful! So beautiful! Yes, you like this. For you, I give a special price. Only $22.

[$22?! That’s almost five times what it’s worth. Now we start speaking in Indonesian.]

Me: My friend paid $4 for this scarf earlier today.

Saleswoman: Ooh, you speak Indonesian? Ok, for you, smart, pretty girl, I give you an even more special price. Just $12.

Me: No, my friend just paid $4 for this scarf.

Saleswoman: $8 is my final offer! I can sell it to you for no less!

Me: That’s ok, I understand. Thanks anyway!

She now blocks my way with a gigantic floor-length mirror and throws the scarf around my neck to show me “how beautiful it will make me.”

Me: Oh, you’re right! This IS a beautiful scarf! I wish you would sell it for $4.

Saleswoman: Ok ok ok. From you, I will just ask $6.

Me: I am not paying more than $4.

Saleswoman: I must feed my children! If I sell you the scarf for $4, I will make no profit! I have to eat! Please take pity on me!

Me: Ok, I don’t want to hurt your business. I will shop somewhere else.

I walk away.

Saleswoman: Ok, ok. $4.

Me: Thank you! I’ll take it.

Saleswoman: $4.50

Me: Uh, what? No.

Saleswoman: Ok, ok. $4. And I will not be able to eat tonight.

Me: I’m sorry about that.

Saleswoman: You want two for $4 each?

Me: Sure.

And immediately, there are no hard feelings. She wraps the scarves up carefully, smiling at me, and she throws her arm around my shoulder and tells her friend about the great sale she just made. Is it possible I still got swindled? Almost definitely.

I made a stop back at Wayan’s house, too. She’s the fortune-telling medicine woman from my first trip. I didn’t get my fortune read, but I got some of her “magical oil,” and we took a picture for Mom.

The next day we rented a car and driver and toured some Balinese temples.

We started with the Pura Besakih, the largest and most important temple in Bali. Lonely Planet got another one right: “Perched nearly 1000m up the ide of Gunung Agung is Bali’s most important temple… in fact, it is an extensive complex… Unfortunately, many people find it a deeply disappointing experience due to the avarice of numerous local characters.”

The temples themselves were beautiful, but it was nearly impossible to enjoy them with all the local “guides” constantly demanding that you pay them.

More Lonely Planet wisdom:

“Besakih’s hassles and irritations go back years and mean that many visitors now skip this important sight.

Near the main parking area is a building labeled Tourist Information Office. Guides here may emphatically tell you that you need their services. You don’t. You may always walk among the temples. No ‘guide’ can get you into a closed temple.

Other ‘guides’ may foist their services on you throughout your visit. There have been reports of people agreeing to a guide’s services only to be hit with a huge fee at the end.

Once inside the complex, you may receive offers to ‘come pray with me.’ Visitors who seize on this unsanctioned chance to get into a forbidden temple can face demands of $5 or more.”

Here’s what Aaron said afterwards in his blog:

"Despite this Pura Besakih (aka the ‘mother temple’) was pretty interesting, once we finally got in past the ‘mandatory guides’ (they weren’t but we ended up paying a guy a little, mostly just to be left alone). At several of the temples, most of us were struck by how insincere some of the temples seemed. While it was demanded that tourists wear sarongs and sashes, there were other people throwing their cigarettes around and hawkers of all kinds in the temples. I have absolutely no qualms with wearing appropriate clothing, but when it seems like that is required mostly so that tourists have to rent a sarong, that isn’t right. This is supposed to be a holy location, but it turns into a gimmick. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say that there was not an authentic feel, it seemed the temples were there primarily for tourists to see; though to be fair we did go to the biggest temples that tourists commonly visit."

Author Chuck Thompson wrote, “It feels awkward to be a visitor in a place reserved for the intimate acts of strangers—like accidentally stepping into your friend’s parents’ bedroom when you were a kid.”

That’s exactly how I feel when I visit mosques or temples: I know I’m allowed to be there, but I just can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m going to get caught somewhere I shouldn’t be.

Per usual, there were signs warning against entering any of the temples if you were menstruating. I, uh, wasn’t, but I wondered if I really would have stayed out if I had been. I guess it’s part of respecting another culture, but it’s a difficult rule to observe when it go so much against what I’ve been taught and believe. I wasn’t entering any of the temples to pray, and it’s hard to imagine I would have somehow comprised the sanctity of the temples by going inside anyway.

We also visited a tea and coffee plantation, where we got to sample a series of different flavors: ginger tea and coffee, lemongrass tea, Balinese coffee, and hot chocolate. It was really neat, and it didn’t cost anything at all. My favorite was the lemongrass tea, although I spotted a lot of sugar at the bottom of the cup, so that may have been why.

Gunung Kawi was the last temple we visited,and by far our favorite. Huge shrines have been cut out of the rock, and they stand more than 8m high. The area surrounding the temple was amazing, too, with rice paddies and palm trees in alternating shades of bright green.

The last night we met up with my favorite ELF Maura in Legian, who had just arrived in Bali for a conference. She was nice enough to let us crash in her hotel room, and we continued our tour of most-delicious-foods-and-drinks of Indonesia.

I love Bali. Some people think it’s too touristy, and many Indonesians almost resent that it’s often the only thing foreigners know about the country. But I think it’s just another part of Indonesia, as “real” as any other part. And it has bagels. Yum.


  1. Lovely, lovely, lovely. The tone in your entry here IS relaxed and cool, just like you on your trip. Isn't it amazing how tones can be relayed in what your writing based upon your experiences? I love language.

    I so wish I was there to walk around Bali with you and take in this culture that seems so foreign to me. I get just a glimpse through you, but despite it all, I would love to check it out with the most beautiful bule tour guide ever!

    And, Aaron is a doll!!!

    The bargaining with the vendors - even though the woman is still making money, her taunts about not feeding her family or eating that night send a pang through my heart, even if she is lying. I don't think I could get into all of that. We've been conditioned to take prices as the only price, but in so many other cultures, it's all about dealing. I probably would have paid the $22 and been on my way. But you, a modern day Shylock, seem to have this down to an art, even staying firm when she tried to get that additional $0.50. LOL. I love you.


  2. Katie: My name is Jackie and I will be heading to Jakarta to take over where Maura left off. She game me this blog to read and get acquainted with life in Indonesia. She spoke very highly of you! I live in Akron, and I'd love to get together with your before I depart in August if you have time! Great blog. I'm addicted to it!

  3. hi Katie! I am poring over your blog this quiet Friday night in LA. Thank you for the mention! Your penpal, Karen L.

  4. I think it's so funny how dramatic salespeople in Asia get when you try to talk them down. I heard "but my family will starve!" more times than I can count, too. My personal favorite, though, was "you get special best friend price!" Um, I've never met you, how can I get special best friend price? Haha!