To avoid the temptation of settling back at home first and allowing the sensations of Bali to slowly dull, I’m going to attempt to stay seated and get out a coherent recap of what the trip meant today, though it may result in just a list of highlights and musings of food. It’s going to take coffee, and lots of it, but let’s see how it goes, shall we?
The people of a new place usually leave me shaking my head, in a good way, and Bali was no exception. Maybe it’s the consistent sunshine, but even I’d get bored with that after a while. Bali was a completely different place twenty years ago, and especially before Eat Pray Love, so it’s been said, and the herds of tourists that flock to the island keep many weathered travelers away. Still, the warmth and hospitality of Bali locals don’t seem to be blunted by the millions of tourists who visit each year. And it’s still possible to break free of the main vein, with nary a drunken surfer or spiritual seeker in sight. All you need is a scooter to do it.
In Ubud, we loved watching Legong and Barong dance at Ubud Palace. Even more impressive than the dancers, though, were the musicians, all men, who played while sitting on the ground, some of them tapping the same beat over and over with a metal hammer for close to two hours. Some of them looked ready for a nap, and some looked entranced. This dancer stole the show:
We went to the Monkey Forest, a place about as far up on my list as a beachside techno trance club, but it turned out to be really fun. Horror stories abound of monkey thieves and monkey attacks, and I’ve read all of them. Once we were there, a park guard offered to feed one of them from my shoulder. Aaaand, I couldn’t resist.
Throughout Bali, offerings are made to the Gods twice a day. There is such artistic beauty in the construction of each offering, large or small, and it’s fascinating to watch a person as he or she places each offering in its respective home (inside and outside of houses and shops, on the ground, inside of cars, and tied to the front of cars and motorbikes). Curls of incense smoke snake through the air, and though that smell used to be attached to much younger days of hippie dabbling, I think it’s going to take me back to Ubud from now.
One of Bali’s most beloved and sought-after foods is Babi Guling. A pig is stuffed with lemongrass, galangal, dried salam leaves, shallots, and garlic, all spices used widely in Balinese cooking, then spit-roasted until its skin is well-tanned and crisp. The skin is cut away from the cooked carcass with shears and served in sheets atop a mound of tender, fat-laced pork meat, sliced blood sausage, fried intestines, rice, and usually lawar, the most delicious salad of chopped vegetables and herbs, coconut, and sometimes pigs blood or minced meat. If you search out a restaurant for authentic Babi Guling, you’re going to find Ibu Oka, a place made famous for tourists by Anthony Bourdain. But a better (and cheaper) Babi Guling is outside of Ubud in a village called Payangan, where vendors set up stalls to sell to locals from morning til night. Another great place for genuine Balinese street food is Gianyar Street Night Market, also out of Ubud but easily accessible by motorbike.
Not surprisingly, the most memorable foods were those we found by accident. Thick avocado juice swirled with palm sugar syrup. Sweet corn shucked, grilled over coals and swept with butter and chili sugar. Fresh lime juice in a bag tied to a straw with a rubber band. The best rujak of grapes, young papaya, pineapple, and apples mixed with peanuts, shrimp paste, and tamarind. Tender cubes of papaya in lemon basil-flecked yogurt. And my favorite, gado gado, a dish of boiled vegetables (most often potato, long beans, bean sprouts, carrot and cucumber), spicy peanut sauce and fried shallots.
Ubud Market is a good place to go for fresh local fruit, and best to visit in the early morning. Delta Dewang, a supermarket chain, is better for local spices and coffee. If you want to take home a Balinese mortar and pestle (called cobek and ulek-ulek), don’t do what I did and buy one at Ubud Market. They look nice, but they won’t last as long as those used in Balinese kitchens. Luckily, we ran into a friend we’d recently met just after I bought it, and he pointed us to a housewares shop for a real one at a third of the cost (about $3). This tool, besides fire, is the spine of Balinese cooking, and I can’t wait to put mine to work.
We spent a night in Payangan at a villa with no other guests, and when Rini, the cook, made our dinner, she let me help her. She showed me how to soften tamarind in water with her hands and fry peanuts and crush them while they crackle, still searing hot. When I burned our tempeh, she insisted we fry a fresh batch. The second batch came out perfectly, but we ate the first batch, too. We pressed tomatoes and garlic with chilies and palm sugar to make sambal, which we spooned over soft wedges of sweet eggplant. She salted and MSG’d every sauce, and you better believe that every sauce was delicious enough to lick clean from the bowl. The next morning for breakfast, she decorated a plate of gado gado with fish crackers outlined in neon pink and yellow, and fast-walked out of the kitchen to our table with the plate of forgotten sliced cucumber. When we left, I was a little sad to tell her goodbye.
After those few days in Bali, we headed to Gili Trawangan for the beach, a place where, besides bikes, boats, and feet, horse-drawn carts are the main mode of transport. For some reason, I have less than fifteen pictures from that part of the trip, and five of them are of fish curry (out of focus because of the Bintang, maybe?–Bintang being Indonesia’s most popular beer).
We snorkeled to a steep drop-off one afternoon and managed to share a few seconds with two sea turtles before they swam away, perhaps offended by us and our oversized sea masks. We went scuba diving along a reef near the shore, and the current carried us along past vivid, animated fish and rippling sea plants, including a very temperamental fish (whose name I’ve forgotten) known for chasing divers straight to the surface, biting their fins and legs along the way. I always get nervous before diving, since I only go every few years, even when I know it’s going to be fine. Which, come to think of it, is the same with travel in general, no matter how much I do it. When it’s over, though, I am always very happy to have gone.