Flying with Garuda Airlines can be an adventure in many ways. Knowing its issues with reliability, the day Marjorie and I were scheduled to fly to Bali for a weekend R&R, I asked Barun, our driver, to wait until he saw us leaving the gate at Yogyakarta before heading back to Solo. He waited until the plane was taxiing down the runway, and then turned the jeep into the road to head back to his home. Too bad he didn’t wait a few more minutes. As we were just getting close to reaching takeoff speed, we heard a huge crash coming from the cockpit. In those days, pilots kept the cockpit doors open, so we could see the cracked windshield from our seats, as the pilot frantically stepped on the brakes and reversed engine, bringing us to a screeching halt at the very end of the runway. It turned out that we hit a flight of large birds, and one of them had struck the cockpit’s glass, shattering it (not to mention the bird.) We taxied back to the gate, and had to unload the plane. Neither of us wanted to stay at the airport until the next day, as this was the only flight to Bali. I managed to get us on to a flight that was leaving in a few minutes to Jakarta, where we were told we could make a connection to Bali, and still arrive the same day.
Congratulating ourselves on our good luck, we boarded the new plane, and took off. We had only been in the air for a short time when the pilot announced for us to fasten our seatbelts, as we were about to land in a city whose name we didn’t recognize, but was definitely not Jakarta. Thinking we may have gotten on the wrong plane, I stopped the flight attendant to inquire as to what was happening. She cheerfully informed me not to worry; this indeed was the plane to Jakarta. However, a large tour group needed to go to our current stop, and as there were more of them than were of us heading to Jakarta, the flight was making an unscheduled stop, and thank you for flying Garuda.
We eventually made it to Jakarta only 45 minutes behind schedule. Thankfully, our connecting flight to Bali had also been delayed, so we made it on board. We luckily had not checked any baggage, as the climate and our brief stay did not require a lot of luggage. We finally arrived in Denpasar, the capital of Bali. Often referred to as the Jewel of Asia, the 3500 square mile piece of land is only one of more than 13,000 Indonesian islands, of which over 6,000 are inhabited. The city is a busy market town and port. Based on the advice of our Indonesian colleagues in Solo, we decided not to linger there, but head directly to Kuta Beach on the west coast, where we had booked a couple of bungalows run by a French expat. Waiting for a taxi, we ran into a couple of young French women also headed to our destination, so we decided to share the van. They both worked for the United Nations, and were also on holiday from their assignment in Colombo. One turned out to be one of those special people that you rarely expect to meet, but when you do, their memory lingers with you completely out of proportion to the brief time you shared. The four of us ended up touring together for the duration of our visit, experiencing this magical and vibrant land alive with mystical tales, troops of sacred monkeys, 18,000 ceremonial temples, and atonal music limned by reed flutes.
Bali’s warm people are born with built-in smiles. From spiritual involvement in dance, which to them is a form of worship, to conversation in a village square, their pleasures are simple. The anthropologist, Margaret Meade, claimed that the Balinese have an insatiable appetite for elaborate patterning of their world. This is revealed in their art, costumes, wood carvings, religion, and strong family ties. They believe that their traditions nourish the deities, and their devotion restores harmony to the universe.
Volcanoes peek out from the clouds, and the air is soft, fragrant with the scent of numerous flowers. Ornate walls with stone carved animals, and scrolls depicting good and evil spirits stand as sentinels along the roadsides. Straight-backed Balinese women walk by, gracefully balancing on their heads a temple offering of sculptured fruit. Young boys bathe in a pond adjoining the road. At every corner, temples rise from the landscape, while terraced rice paddies shine vivid green in the morning sun. We are on the road to Ubud, noted for its resident painters, kind of like a Montmartre of Southeast Asia. During our journey, our driver skillfully winds his way through mazes of bicycles, pushcarts, mopeds, a few cars, and scraggly dogs, past roadside stands and flatbed trucks jammed with people – the Balinese version of a bus. In addition to the mini-temple found in each home, there are several public temples in each village. Hindu mysticism, steep worn stairs, and pyramid like structures transport you into a world totally outside the boundaries of your Western mind.
Some of the temples present dance performances, complete with an elaborate rhythm band of purple clad musicians playing drums, bells, chimes, gongs and flutes. The performances feature dragons, monkeys, and masked characters singing, chanting, dancing, and growling at each other. I was told that there are 45 different dances tied to temples and rituals, with detailed costumes, each a work of art. We witness one of the most popular, the Barong and Kris dance. The Barong represents good, and the Rangda, a mythological monster, represents evil. The story is about a mother, Devi Kunti, who for some reason has promised to sacrifice Sadewa, one of her sons, to the Rangda. The seven act play concludes, as all morality plays, with the triumph of good over evil, though as the play shows, evil cannot be completely destroyed, guaranteeing that the cycle will continue.
Arriving in Ubud, I, along with my fellow travelers, am impressed by both the quantity as well as the quality of the art we see. I bought an original painting of the Barong dance we recently witnessed, in a handsome, hand carved wood frame, at an embarrassingly low price. I still have it as a keepsake of my Balinese holiday. Other places I would recommend are Bedugul, with the beautiful scenery of Bratan Lake, Besakih, to visit the largest and most ancient temple (considered the Mother Temple of Bali), and Luhur, near the airport, to see the turtles. To fully savor the magic Bali, visitors need to get away from the wonderful beaches (beware of the strong undertow at Kuta Beach) and trek inland to experience the villages with their people and marvelous culture.