The airport in Dempasar, Bali, is like any other small airport (and I've been to many on this trip). Airplanes land here, unloading their cargo of brightly-clad vacationers and the occasional business traveller onto this small Indonesian island. Like any airport, taxicab drivers compete for your business, with smiling offers of "Taxicab, Madame?" A driver like like any other loaded my bags into his taxi and said, in heavily accented English, "Welcome to Bali". As I slid into the cab and got a look at his face close up, I noticed something very unusual: plastered on his forehead were several grains of rice. As I mumbled a thank you, I felt like Dorothy when she landed in Oz and said "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." And clearly we weren't. As the taxi driver moved through the city I looked out the window to see gigantic statues of figures from the Hindu religion at crossroads and traffic circles, festooned with ribbons and flowers where in the United States there might be a billboard or a statue of George Washington. It was...larger than life. After chit-chatting with the driver for a few minutes, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him about the rice grains. "Ceremony at the temple," he answered with a smile. Obviously I had a lot to learn about Bali. I found that the spiritual practices of Bali are quite elaborate, and as a beginner, I can only describe to you the basics; I suspect I could spend an entire lifetime (or two) learning about religion in Bali. Most Balinese people are Hindu, and they believe that it is important to lead a balanced life. Much of daily life is devoted to praying and showing respect to the spirits and deities by making daily offerings of fruit, flowers and incense. Every community has a temple, and the faithful go there to pray and perform special rituals on festival days. One festival I attended was an overwhelming mix of chanting, offering making, gamelan music playing on large xylophone-like instruments hit with wooden hammers, incense burning, holy-water sprinkling...all happening at once! Hindu stories and myths are an important part of Balinese culture too, and everywhere there are statues, paintings and carvings depicting the story of the Ramayana, a classic tale of the struggle of the forces of good against those of evil. Price Rama, Princess Sita, Hanuman the Monkey General and Lanka and his army of bad-guy demons are the stars of the show, along with the fierce looking Barongs and Garudas, mythical creatures with magical powers of protection.
Art is Everywhere
In addition to the beautiful statues and stone carvings that are visible in every location, Bali sings with music, dance, and puppetry. It's no exaggeration to say that everyone here is some kind of an artist creating beauty to please the spirits, either through music, art or dance. I certainly was pleased. While in Bali, I was able to see shadow puppet shows, traditional Indonesian gamelan music, fire dances, and artists at work creating carvings, jewelry, and paintings. These art forms depict the Hindu pantheon with the elephant-headed god of good luck, Ganesha, being especially popular. Another common subject of Balinese art is the island's incredible natural beauty. I saw many beautiful paintings of emerald-green rice paddies, bright tropical birds and pretty flowers, and I wanted to take them all home with me! Finally, I settled on a beautifully carved wooden mask.
Bali's tropical climate supports a wide variety of animals and plants. Sweet smelling flowers grow everywhere and are often picked to put in the daily offering basket. Enormous banyan trees, astonishingly green rice fields, lush palm trees and ponds with pretty lotus flowers are all over the island too. Huge Geckos climb on the thatched ceilings saying their names GECK-o! GECK-o! and lying in wait for bugs (although I saw a man lure one to him with a piece of chicken satay!). Birdwatching by day gives way to batwatching by night; I always love to watch those cute flying mammals swooping around at sunset. And of course, there are the monkeys. Living in the temple at the end of Monkey Forest Road in the city of Ubud, there is a large community of short-tailed macaques who love to steal food from unsuspecting tourists (I even heard a story about a monkey stealing a cellphone, but I'm not sure I believe that.) I know that I am still a beginner, and there is so much to see and do here in Bali, that I'm certain I will be returning someday to learn more.