I’m writing to you from underneath a sacred banyan tree in remote west Bali. It’s cool up here, and quiet – the way that the world so often is when in the presence of great trees.
Up here, on the volcanic hills that climb back from the island’s coastline, a gentle mist fades the branches into cloud; at times it swirls and lifts, revealing a tree that seems to go on for ever, and then the cloud drops, closing in on the magnificence of this place.
The stillness up here isn’t constant. Far from it, in fact. You see, there’s a road that cuts right through the banyan tree and it seems customary for drivers to give a quick hoot-hoot before they steer their scooter or truck through the arboreal tunnel. On one side of the tree there are two warungs – simple cafes – that serve coffee, pisang goreng (fried bananas) or mie goreng (fried noodles) to those who break their journey here. And it’s from one of these warungs, the one that has strips of instant coffee hanging from the roof trusses and, outside, three roosters caged in bamboo baskets, that I now write.
I come often to this place called Bunut Bulong. Surrounded by clove plantations, jungle and cool air that’s tangled with sweet burning incense, I sit cross-legged on a bale (pronounced ba-leh, it’s a raised platform with a roof) and work for a few hours, escaping the heat and humidity of sea level. Eleven kilometres down the hill, where our rented bamboo bungalow rises from a patchwork of rice paddies, the temperature will be several degrees hotter than this cool roadside retreat.
You asked recently if I’m happy in Bali, and I wanted to write and tell you that yes, absolutely, I am happy. Every day is an adventure; every day offers something new.
At 5780 square kilometres, Bali is less than a third of the size of Kruger National Park, yet there’s enough diversity to keep me fascinated for years. There’s the densely jungled, little-known West Bali National Park (the only place in the world you have the chance to see critically-endangered Bali starlings, and Balinese black monkeys, in the wild), and long, lazy ribbons of beaches that wrap around Kuta, Seminyak and Legian. There are volcanoes and crater lakes in the centre of the island, where strawberries are farmed and hotels boast cosy evenings next to log fires. There are consistent surf spots along the south coast; black-sand beaches in the north-east and south-west; and fascinating coral reefs along the north of the island. In central Bali, rice paddies – often tilled by pink buffaloes – whorl contours around the landscape. Holding it all together is a fascinating culture and an intricate, carefully crafted style of architecture that characterises all of Bali’s villages. Life here is simple, cherished and celebrated; it’s hard not to be happy on the Island of the Gods.
Just a few moments ago, when I ordered my third coffee (at less than R2 a cup, I can afford to indulge at this warung), an old man wearing a sarong and T-shirt sat near me and smiled an almost-toothless grin. “Selamat pagi,” he greeted. He wanted to know my name but I didn’t ask his, because it’s likely he’ll go by Bapak, Father. You see, in Bali old folk are never referred to by name – because doing so might alert the spirits to their whereabouts, and the spirits could decide it’s time to take them from this earth.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “Afrika Selatan,” I replied, pronouncing the “f” in Afrika with a “p”, as is commonly done here, and what followed was a stilted conversation marred by my fledgling Indonesian. The old man farms cocoa and cloves nearby. He had to hurry back to cover up the cloves he’s drying outside his house because it looks like it might rain soon, he told me. At least, I think that’s what he said.
Indonesian is a relatively easy language to learn. More than 17500 islands comprise this country and there are more tribal languages than anybody has bothered to count (there are said to be 700 in Indonesian New Guinea alone). While Indonesian is the country’s official language, it’s rarely spoken within families and is invariably learnt when children go to school. I find it interesting that, because of the Dutch trade history here, some words are very similar to Afrikaans. Kamar, for example, is room; rok is dress; kantor is office; pisang is banana.
While there are fleeting moments that remind me of South Africa – asking for the rekening when I leave a café, falling asleep to thunder in the rainy season, driving along potholed roads – I am reminded every day that Bali is so far from home. Of course I do miss South Africa, but it’s fascinating to be surrounded by a culture so different from my own.
I find it humbling to witness the gentle dedication with which the Balinese honour their religion. Although part of the world’s largest Muslim country, Bali is predominantly Hindu and the customs and rituals have morphed into a way of life that is unique to this island. The traditions are so ingrained in Balinese life that wherever you are, whatever time of day, you can’t help but notice it – and yet Balinese people seem not to, because attending ceremonies and making offerings is, quite simply, normal.
The sweet incense that flavours the air in this bale is from an offering placed at the entrance to the warung. In almost every home, shop, rice paddy, hotel, banyan tree and warung throughout the island, offerings of flowers, food, drink and incense are made three times a day. Within the past five minutes, four scooters have zipped past carrying people dressed in ceremonial outfits, on their way to temple. If I look up from this letter, right ahead of me there is an elaborate stone shrine alongside the banyan tree. Its base is wrapped in white and black checked cloth, symbolising the human qualities of good and evil, and offerings have been placed on every horizontal surface.
I’ve just ordered another kopi and the woman who works in this roadside warung – Ketut, her name is – has offered me a plate of fried bananas. She greets me like an old friend every time I come here, and I’m always taken aback by the kindness and generosity of the Balinese people. I noticed it from our second evening on the island, when we ran out of fuel on the Bukit peninsula. Within minutes, a young woman had stopped to help us out.
Although the Bukit still has relatively wild areas, it is where you’ll find the chic hotel suburb of Nusa Dua, a favourite base for many tourists. The extravagant resorts usually contain everything you could ever wish for on a beach getaway and it’s easy to see how people can be tempted to spend their entire stay there. But I wish they wouldn’t, because they miss out on experiencing the true soul of this island. So often people complain that Bali is too crowded, too touristy or too overdeveloped – but they can’t have ventured far from their hotel, because beyond the grand Nusa Dua resort entrances, and the tourist hotspots of Legian, Kuta, Seminyak and Ubud, there is a fascinating island to be discovered.
Of course, Bali has its problems (litter is a big one), but the time I’ve spent on this island has contained moments that will stay with me forever. In Lovina dolphins swam alongside our boat at sunrise; and that evening I watched the setting sun cast the volcanoes of Java onto the horizon. I’ve listened at dawn, from our camp on a west Bali beach, to hypnotic gamelan music playing from outrigger fishing boats. Near Medewi, six little girls taught me how to make a kite. I’ve drunk cool water from coconuts just cut from their trees, and feasted on chicken and noodles and sauces and fresh fruit at local food markets. Near Negara I breathed in the dust at buffalo chariot races. At Git-Git Falls, I swam in clear pools and let icy water plummet onto my head. I counted 14 Bali starlings in West Bali National Park – according to rangers, there are only 18 left in the wild – and watched elusive Balinese black monkeys flitter through the trees.
It’s almost time to move on, and by the time you read this or board your flight, I might be in Cuba. I’m sorry I’ll miss you. When you come to Bali, please explore this island with a voracious desire to discover something new every day. And if you make it here, please pay my respects to the sacred banyan tree at Bunut Bulong.
Enjoy the journey!
This feature was written for and
published in the October 2013
issue of Getaway magazine.