Bali -Tropical & Timeless (2007)

Bali -Tropical & Timeless (2007)

For those of us who’ve glimpsed the cavernous, dust-filled and eerie crater of Mt.Vesuvius, Bali’s volcanoes come as a delightful surprise. They are as green as they come, their slopes, once overrun  by molten lava, are now robed in chequered  emerald rice paddies swaying  gently in the breeze. The green is leavened by blotches of magenta, purple and orange bougainvilla clusters.  A serene blue lake with nary a ripple hugs the volcano and goes around it. A plume of mist, not smoke, wafts languidly out of the crown of the volcano that belched  pyroclastic fury and swallowed entire villages not too long ago.  In fact, Bali’s legendary tropical fecundity is largely due to its volcanic soil.

I am standing on the rim of the crater atop Gunung Batur, an active volcano a mere two-hour drive from Bali’s capital Denpasar.  Gunung last erupted in 1963 and there are many survivors who still remember that fateful day.  Yet seeing how touristy it has become now, you realize that for Balinese and Javanese, volcanoes form very much a part of their home turf.  Flying from Singapore to Denpasar in Bali, you can spot at least three live volcanoes in an ocean studded with islands and hills. From my window seat I could see plumes of dense smoke emanating from the crater of a massive hill which seemed detached from the other islands surrounding it. Later I learnt that it was Krakatau, the celebrity volcano that exploded with a bang in 1883, unleashing giant tsunamis against the shores of Java and Sumatra.  The entire island had disappeared in the explosion, along with its inhabitants leaving only a flattened crater which now seems to be growing once again. I was mesmerized by the raw power of the volcano as it sent out a streak of lava smoke across the clear blue sky.

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Sunrise from atop Gunung is a truly terrific sight. But then, you need to wake up at 3 am and join the other members of the group. After an hour-long drive, the gentle climb begins in velvety darkness. It takes about two hours to reach the top. Huffing and puffing, and stumbling over rocks and pebbles you finally reach the peak for a glimpse of glowing sun emerging from behind a peak and sprinkling a shade of gold on the sapphire-hued lake. The agate pagodas rise gently skywards.   Time seems to stand still, letting you commune with nature.  After what seems eons, you reluctantly pick your way down and head for a cafeteria on the adjacent hill for a hefty breakfast.

Being in Bali is like being on a malfunctioning time-machine. You’re suspended in a timeless past, but one in which a gorgeously Balinese stone and thatch pagoda perched on a steep cliff indulgently gazes at speedboats and scuba-divers in Nusa Dua beach.  Bali seems to manage contradictions with consummate ease. All construction, whether it is a McDonalds outlet or a Sogo mall or the numerous hotels and resorts that dot its beaches,  make a concession to traditional Balinese architectural styles. Thus you have glass and chrome fronted stores sporting sloping red-tiled roofs which, surprisingly, don’t seem comical or discordant!  And in Bali, no one is allowed to build anything taller than a coconut tree – only God’s abodes have that privilege. What a relief to be in an island where a clutter of steel and chrome spires don’t mar the skyline!

After a visit to the Besakih temple which miraculously survived the destruction of 1963 volcanic eruption,  I head to delightful Ubud, the crafts village, an hour’s drive from  Denpasar.  Along the way, you see countless family shrines enclosed within the compound of most houses along the way. These are little shrines, mimicking the architecture of big temples, their crowns usually made of weathered thatch, a quintessentially Balinese feature. There is evidence of daily worship at these shrines.  Bali is 80 per cent Hindu, but their rituals seem to be a world away from the Hindu rituals we see in India.  Prayer is an integral part of Balinese life. All over Bali you can spot little leaf donas sporting offerings to the Gods. Arjun, my driver tells me the donas contain three Fs.  Flower, fire and food. While Frangipani is the ubiquitous floral offering, fire often takes the form of a lit cigarette, left there to propitiate the Gods!  And food almost invariably, is a biscuit offering!  And every Balinese, whether shopkeeper or hotelier makes these offerings everyday with such touching earnestness!

Ubud is a feast for the eyes.  Batubulan, the stone carving village has virtual parades of statues – hundreds of them lining the streets.  Row upon row of Buddhas, elephants, horses, dragons and assorted gods and goddesses make up the parade. Many statues are massive. I wonder who could be the customers for these since Bali is an isolated island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and it would cost a bomb to transport these anywhere!  Balinese just seem to like making statues which adorn shops, restaurants, houses, schools and virtually everywhere.  Yet, many more are being carved as if to line the streets of this beautiful island.

The next village has silver jewellery shops each of them looking like an art museum in a spacious compound. This is followed by traditional Balinese painting studios, wood carvers, basket weavers, sundry handicraft makers, ikat weavers, and of course, the famous batik printers.  Even the poshest looking shops don’t  bat an eyelid as you haggle the price down to a third of what they quote.

I wrap up my week-long trip to Bali with a most disappointing experience. At Nusa Dua beach, I pay a whopping fee to hire a glass-bottomed boat in the hope of spotting colourful corals and frisky turtles. After an hour of sailing, all I find are murky waters and some very dead corals. My boatman offers to take me to an island with a turtle farm for which he demanded a further extortionate fee. When I queried how many turtles were there in the farm, he replied non-chalantly, “eight”. (eom)

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